15 of the Hardest Marathons in the US to Add to Your Bucket List

Much ado in the running community is dedicated to figuring out how to make running long distances easier and less miserable. And while many have a dream marathon list highlighting which races are the easiest, some of us fall on the other side of running culture: Scouting the hardest marathons in the US to run. 

Intrepid runners looking for a challenge (more than 26.2 already is) choose to run marathons in places like Mr. Everest and Antarctica just to prove that it can be done. But we have races with steep inclines, limited aid stations, or run well above sea level right here in America, too.There’s something about choosing to push yourself on the toughest courses available to make a grueling 26.2 miles feel even more satisfying when you reach the finish line.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of 15 of the most difficult marathons held each year in the USA.  While there are a couple of exceptions, this list isn’t focused on ultramarathons, so races like Badwater aren’t present.

Instead, we’ve highlighted the most arduous ways to run 26.2 miles in America.

Related: The Most Difficult Half Marathons in the US

Race day will not be easy. Your finish time might not be low. Your quads may burn for a week after you finish. But the medal you earn will carry a sense of accomplishment that a flat course without much elevation change just never could.

Hardest Marathons in the US 2024 Calendar

Here are the hardest American marathons run each year by date:

  • Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon in Duluth, MN | January 6, 2024
  • Red Rock Canyon Marathon in Las Vegas, NV | January 20, 2024
  • Death Valley Marathon in Death Valley, CA | February 3, 2024
  • Black Mountain Marathon in Black Mountain, NC | February 24, 2024 
  • Blue Ridge Marathon in Roanoke, VA | April 20, 2024
  • Pittsburgh Marathon in Pittsburgh, PA | May 5, 2024
  • Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Williamson, WV | June 8, 2024
  • Hotter Than Hell Marathon in Metairie, LA | July 2, 2024
  • San Francisco Marathon in San Francisco, CA | July 28, 2024
  • Grand-Further Mountain Run in Boone, NC | August 24, 2024
  • Equinox Trail Marathon in Fairbanks, AK | September 21, 2024
  • Pikes Peak Marathon in Pikes Peak, CO | September 22, 2024
  • Whiskey Row Marathon in Prescott, AZ | October 2024
  • New York City Marathon in New York, NY | November 3, 2024
  • Honorable Mention: Barkey Marathons in Morgan County, TN | April 2024

Our Picks for Hardest Marathons in the US

Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. One of the hardest marathons in the US.

Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon

  • Date: January 6, 2024
  • Location: Duluth, Minnesota
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Harsh winter weather

In general, race directors try to make sure snow isn’t involved in the races they organize — which is smart, considering a slick course can lead to all kinds of accidents. But not the organizers of the Northwoods Marathon: this trail race, hosted in the northern reaches of Minnesota in the dead of winter, is designed entirely for the snow. 

Runners will maneuver 26.2 miles worth of snow-biking trails, running on packed-down snow. In addition to potentially freezing temperatures and tricky terrain, the race also includes plenty of elevation gain, making it one of trail running’s most difficult marathons. too.

Red Rock Canyon Marathon in Las Vegas, Nevada one of the hardest marathons in the US.

Red Rock Canyon Marathon

  • Date: January 20, 2024
  • Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: 3,000 feet of elevation gain

Gluttons for punishment can head to Sin City for a whole different reason than usual: to run this trail marathon just outside of town. The 26.2 mile race runs through the Mojave Desert. While it is the middle of winter and therefore slightly cooler, there’s no hiding from the sun in this race. 

The out-and-back is pure punishment, as the course is basically just running up, then down a mountain, and then up and back down again. Runners will climb over 3,000 feet of elevation gain all in all, which is seriously tough in direct Nevada sun.

The Death Valley Marathon in Death Valley, California one of the hardest marathons in the US.

Death Valley Marathon

  • Date: February 3, 2024
  • Location: Death Valley, California
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Course on an active highway with desert climate

In addition to being one of the most ominously named marathons, Death Valley is also one of the most difficult. The one boon is that the course is flat and keeps runners away from any steep hills. 

But it goes straight through a desert. To make matters worse, it’s run on the shoulder of an operational highway, meaning that you have to pay attention to cars whizzing past you and aren’t allowed to wear headphones; you aren’t even allowed to run two-abreast. The race’s aid stations are also few and far between, meaning runners need to carry their own water. The race is tedious and, with a six hour cut-off time, slower runners won’t have much wiggle room if they need to take a break.

Black Mountain Marathon in Black Mountain, North Carolina home of one of the hardest marathons in the US.

Black Mountain Marathon

  • Date: February 24, 2024 
  • Location: Black Mountain, North Carolina
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Significant elevation change

The description on the Black Mountain Marathon website reads: “DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE DANGERS OR THE DIFFICULTIES INHERENT IN THIS EVENT!  This will be an extremely demanding course run over rugged mountain terrain under potentially life-threatening weather conditions.” 

Sounds peachy. 

The race starts in Black Mountain and is basically an ascent and descent of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern U.S. While marathoners will hit their halfway point before peak, if weather permits, the first 250 runners to the turnaround are eligible to keep going and complete the race’s ultramarathon version, which extends up to the summit. Literally everything about this race screams danger, so do not attempt it if you’re a novice trail runner.

The Blue Ridge Marathon in Roanoke, VA one of the hardest marathons in the US.

Blue Ridge Marathon

  • Date: April 20, 2024
  • Location: Roanoke, Virginia
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Nearly 7,500 feet of elevation change

The Blue Ridge Mountain bills itself as “America’s toughest road marathon” — and that’s likely true. While many of the more dangerous races on this list are trail marathons, Blue Ridge sticks to paved roads (not that it will help you much). 

The course boasts the highest elevation change of any road marathon in the US with 7,430 feet of ups and downs. The 26.2-miler is not for the faint of heart and, even with aid stations and musical acts lining the course, it can be a doozy for runners.

The Pittsburgh skyline home of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Pittsburgh Marathon

  • Date: May 5, 2024
  • Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Challenging hills on final thirteen miles

While the Pittsburgh Marathon may seem like a walk in the park compared to some of the mountain-ascending adventures on this list, as far as major city marathons go, it’s one of the most difficult.

Anyone who has spent any time in Pittsburgh knows it’s a city built on an endless supply of hills, and you’ll certainly be jogging up and down them in this course.

What makes this race even more difficult is that many of the hills are located on the back half of the course, when your body is already depleted. 

Pittsburgh is completely unique when it comes to cities in North America and its marathon is too. Just make sure you put some hill days in your training schedule.

Photo: Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Hatfield McCoy Marathon

  • Date: June 8, 2024
  • Location: Williamson, West Virginia
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Elevation change with summer Virginia heat

There is a reason most US marathons are run in the spring or fall, and that’s weather. A summer race, especially if it’s not in a northern state, is at risk of putting runners through brutal heat conditions. 

West Virginia, while certainly not the hottest state in the union, can be a downright scorcher by June. This feud-themed marathon divides its entrants into two warring clans to see who can finish faster. It not only puts runners through a brutal series of hills, but also makes them do it in June. 

Sure the course is shady, but 26.2 miles in 80-degree weather… with humidity? Make sure you’re carrying water.

Hotter Than Hell Marathon

  • Date: July 2, 2024
  • Location: Metairie, Louisiana
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Extreme Louisiana heat

In July, New Orleans has an average high temperature of 91 degrees, which most people would deem as firmly too hot for running. However, in order to raise money for muscular dystrophy, runners in the humid south sign up to run 13 laps of LaSalle Park. 

The race starts at midnight (so it will probably be slightly cooler than 91 degrees, but not much). It lets runners go at their own pace, provided they finish by 9am when the medals are handed out. 

You have to bring your own water. You have to bring your own energy supplements. However, the race provides jambalaya to the finishers, so you at least have that to look forward to.

San Francisco Marathon

  • Date: July 28, 2024
  • Location: San Francisco, California
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Out and back on the Golden Gate Bridge

Like Pittsburgh, San Francisco is a city of hills, so as you might expect, running a marathon there might not be the ideal way to get a PR (head to Chicago if that’s what you’re looking for). What might not be so obviously is that in addition to the regular geographic hills, you also have to run over the Golden Gate Bridge twice — and a bridge is nothing but a man-made hill. 

That means what many think will be a beautiful scenic part of the course is actually pretty grueling (especially for round two). Moreover, while the weather may be lovely some years, many runners have battled powerful winds as they cross the bay (and it’s even worse if it rains). 

Proceed with caution.

Grand-Further Mountain Run

  • Date: August 24, 2024
  • Location: Boone, North Carolina
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Ascent of a nearly 6,000 foot tall mountain

If you read articles online regarding the hardest marathons in the US, you’ll undoubtedly see the Grandfather Mountain Marathon listed. For years, the historic race sent runners up the side of the 5,945-foot-tall Grandfather mountain in gnarly, technical terrain in one of the most difficult summer races imaginable. However, days before the 2022 iteration, a tragic accident forced the organizers to cancel the event, which was also shelved for 2023 as well. 

It remains unclear if the event will be back in 2024 if ever, but if you want to run the mountain, you can still do so in the form of a half marathon. The Grand-Further Mountain Run is a roughly 14-miles long trail run that lets races traverse the mountain, even if the distance isn’t quite as long.

Equinox Trail Marathon

  • Date: September 21, 2024
  • Location: Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: 2,000 feet of elevation change through Alaska’s mountain trails

There’s nothing quite like 2,000 feet of elevation change in the Alaskan cold to set as a nice challenge for yourself! Set in Fairbanks, which is the northernmost major city in Alaska, the Equinox Trail Marathon course is centered around the Ester Dome and its mountainous trail system. 

Runners will basically spend the first half of the marathon running up to the top of the dome before turning around and heading back down. At least this race puts the easiest part at the end and allows runners 10 hours to complete the course, so if you need to do some walking, you have plenty of time.

Pikes Peak Marathon

  • Date: September 22, 2024
  • Location: Pikes Peak, Colorado
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: The steepest, nearly 8,000 foot, ascent

Yes. This race is exactly what you think it is: a marathon up and down Colorado’s iconic Pikes Peak, with 13 miles on the ascent and descent. That’s a 7,800 foot climb, one of the steepest possible on the marathon circuit. 

The race is so grueling that race organizers have implemented qualifying standards so running newbies don’t get stranded on the side of the cliff. Basically, you have to prove you’re a halfway-decent runner to even sign up (and, yes, they have a registrar who checks). This is THE mountain marathon in the US, though, so it’s a great addition to any bucket list.

Photo: Whiskey Row Marathon

Whisky Row Marathon

  • Date: October, 2024
  • Location: Prescott, Arizona
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: High altitude ascents

Ever run a marathon after drinking a gallon of whisky? Well now you can! The Whisky Row Marathon has nothing to do with whisky (unless of course you want to celebrate with a glass once you’ve completed the course). 

Rather, it’s difficult for a different reason: altitude. Starting at 5,000 feet above sea level and forcing runners to climb another 2,000 feet — twice — on the out-and-back course, this course is nearly impossible if you aren’t used to running at altitude. If you’re not acclimated, you’ll be doubled over and sucking wind in no time, so you might want to get one of those elevation training masks.

New York City Marathon

  • Date: November 3, 2024
  • Location: New York City, New York
  • Registration
  • Why It’s So Hard: Crowds and multiple bridges

The New York City Marathon isn’t the most taxing race on this list. After all, NYC’s big race doesn’t include any mountains, trails, or 90 degree weather. But it is certainly the most difficult of the Abbott World Majors, with plenty of bridges and rolling hills for runners to conquer. 

Not to mention it also has a late start time, a difficult commute to Staten Island, and crowded early miles, all of which can make the race more cumbersome than you’d expect. The final miles in Central Park also present runners with some steep uphills (even in that last little .2), so it’s a course that is to be taken seriously.

Honorable Mention: Barkley Marathons

  • Date: March/April 2024
  • Location: Morgan County, Tennessee
  • Register: N/A
  • Why It’s So Hard: Where to begin…

While not really a marathon at all, the Barkley Marathons is perhaps the most bizarre running race in the world, and so I had to include it here. With only 35 entrants each year, the race sends runners on five 20ish-mile loops off-trail in the backwoods of Tennessee. 

Each loop requires runners to find book-markers where they must rip out pages corresponding to their bib numbers. The difficult navigation, intense terrain, and 100-mile course make it near impossible to finish. In fact, only 17 runners have ever completed the course before its 60 hour cutoff. 

If you haven’t watched the documentary about it, it’s a must.

Why Trust Us?

The Half Marathon Guide has been writing about, studying, and publishing content and research on thousands of half half marathons and marathons for the last sixteen years. This article was written by Matthew Huff, writer of marathon race content for Runner’s World and author of the book Marathoner: What to Expect When Training for and Running a Marathon published in 2021.

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