By Tobias Mews. All across the world encompassing every terrain known to man, I’ve been fortunate enough to compete in several hundred running races, many of which claim to be the ‘toughest on the planet’.
It started back in 2004 and my first-ever race, a surprisingly chilly Tough Guy Nettle Warrior. Little did I know then that this would mark the beginning of a journey that would fuel a career in adventure journalism, introduce me to a multitude of life-long friends, take me all around the world and most importantly, introduce me to my wife. If you’d told me any of this as I crawled through a quagmire of mud trying to avoid the barbed wire scraping my back, I’d have stopped in my tracks and eaten my sodden trainer in disbelief.
Eleven years later I’ve just finished writing my first book, 50 Races To Run Before You Die -a true labour of love if there ever was one. Listed below are five of the very best races. From the mountain ridges to the deep jungle via red-hot volcanic trails, remote islands and city streets, this is all terrain running at its best.
1 Dragon’s Back Race (Wales)
Of all the races I’ve done, the Dragon’s Back is the one I feared the most. As if nearly 200 miles of running across the mountainous spine of Wales is not tough enough, you do it all via self-navigation with a map and compass. With the odds of making it to the finish line being one in three, there was a good chance this could be the race to finally defeat me.
“The real enemy was my head, and more specifically the negative thoughts inside it”
However looking back on the race now, I realise that my fears were unfounded. The enemy was not the mountain, the almost un-runnable terrain, the back-to-back ultra marathons, the ridiculous amount of ascent (and descent), the risk of getting lost or the tight cut-off times. No, the real enemy was my head, and more specifically the negative thoughts inside it that sowed countless seeds of doubt.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. But it wasn’t nearly as difficult as what my head had tried to convince me pre-race. What it turned into was one of the greatest adventures I’ve been on. Fears of doubt turned into a newfound desire to explore more of Wales. It encouraged me to want to spend more time with a map and compass and to trust in my ability to navigate. Arriving at Carreg Cennen Castle in the Brecon Beacons as a Dragon’s Back finisher, after 60 hours of running, will forever remain one of my proudest achievements.
2 ÖTILLÖ (Sweden)
I’m often asked what my favourite race is, and if I was hard pressed to come up with just one answer (which is harder than you think when you’ve written about 50 of your favourite races), it would probably be ÖTILLÖ. Indeed, when I first heard about this 75km race that involved swimming in between and running across 26 islands in the Stockholm Archipelago, I never imagined I’d one day be towing the start line with my wife-to-be -a week before our wedding!
But as we stood on the shores of Sandhamn island in our cut-down wetsuits, laden with hand paddles, a floatation device, as well as a map and tracking equipment tucked into the small of our backs, little did we realise that we were about to go on one of the best one-day adventures of our lives.
“Hopping across the islands and swimming between them, made this more fun than many other races”
Choosing to do a swim-run race with your fiancee a week before your wedding might be seen as unwise, especially when you consider that the cut-off times are super-tight, there was a high chance of us not finishing and that we we’re going to be taken far outside of our comfort zone. But strangely enough, the combination of hopping across the islands and swimming between them, made this more fun than many other races I’ve done.
3 Jungle Ultra -Beyond the Ultimate (Peru)
“Fire-breathing ants, trees that bite, leaves as sharp as razor blades and pumas lurking in the shadows”
I’d endured the searing heat of the Sahara Desert and the high altitude of running in the Alps, but the jungle was a different type of beast. 100% humidity, fire-breathing ants, trees that bite, leaves as sharp as razor blades and pumas lurking in the shadows…. it’s an environment that feels as if it’s trying to kill you. And spend long enough in the jungle, it might well do. I guess in many ways though this was part of the allure of tackling the inaugural Jungle Ultra -Beyond the Ultimate.
There were only 16 of us on the start line, 12,000ft high up in the Cloud Forest of Manu National Park in Peru. About two-thirds of those on the start line had previously run the Jungle Marathon in Brazil. Not me. For me, this was a totally new experience. But then the prospect of running 230km along virgin jungle trails in the heart of the Amazon rainforest is the stuff of dreams for endurance junkies like me. It didn’t disappoint.
In every trail race, I look for an element of adventure and this had plenty -whether it was clinging to a tree root 20ft above a ravine, zip-lining above fast flowing rivers, wading along river beds, or simply enjoying the moment of being the first westerner to run along a virgin trail… I will remember this race for a long time.
4 New York Marathon (US)
With so many marathons to choose from, potentially it could have been difficult deciding which to enter into the list of races. However, there is always going to be one marathon that sticks out and in this case it’s the world’s largest, the New York City Marathon.
“The wind blew in my face for the entire 26.2 miles. The only way to stay warm was to run faster”
Looking back on this race, it’s not just the sheer scale of the event, where almost 50% of its participants hail from overseas, that blew me away, it was the fact that for a world marathon major it was neither easy or flat! Although the Big Apple may not be blessed with hills in the same way that San Francisco might, it is littered with bridges. And if you’re not already aware, they become a key feature in this race… and for many (myself included) an uphill struggle.
The other stand out features, besides the millions of people lining the road offering their support, were the freezing cold temperatures and the wind that blew in my face for the entire 26.2 miles, sending chills down my spine. The only way to stay warm was to run faster. Which means that by the time I’d arrived in Central Park, I really felt that I’d earned my medal.
5 Transvulcania (La Palma, Spain)
Having competed in ultra marathons through the Sahara Desert and the Amazon Jungle, it might be easy to presume these were the hottest places I’ve run. But they’re not. If there was ever a moment when I felt like I was on fire, it was on the volcano that dominates La Palma, one of the remotest islands in the Canary Islands and home to the popular skyrunning ultra, Transvulcania.
“The first of my sky races was a baptism by fire”
I never officially did an Ice Bucket Challenge during its peak of popularity, but I certainly made up for it during this 73km beast of a run from sea to summit. The route follows the GR131 and GR130, taking you up and around a spectacular 2,421m volcano. Considering this was my first sky race, it was a bit of a baptism by fire. And it was summed up by one of my fellow competitors, Jack Gammon, who said afterwards: ‘Take the biggest mountain you can find, cover it in black razor blades, set it on fire then run up it as hard as you can!’
50 Races To Run Before You Die is to be published on 3rd March 2016 by Aurum Press and is available to pre-order from Amazon.