The World's Toughest Events: A Critical Review of Outside Magazine's 1992 Article

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 5, November 1995

Ever wonder how Outside Magazine came to rank the Race Across AMerica (RAAM) as the "world's toughest sporting event?" Well, I was an invited member of the selection committee organized by the writer, Sue Levin. Sue interviewed me in person for several hours, by phone for several hours, and then faxed me a long questionaire to fill out. All of that, along with a lot of tweaking and nudging by the Outside staff, resulted in the very unscientific rankings of the events.

Interestingly, although I was the only member of the committe that had raced RAAM, I didn't rank RAAM toughest in any category. Additionally, if you go back and look at the categories in which the events were ranked in the actual published article, you'll note that they do NOT match the categories that we on the committee were given to use. And most blindingly, the Outside article added in the mysterious "O Factor" as a way in which to very specificaly bias the results in favor of what the editorial staff wanted the final outcome of the rankings to be.

All of this begs the question: What event did the committee really rank as the "world's toughest sporting event?"

For a little insight into how this committee member ranked the events, here reprinted verbatim are my original written comments on the different events (my actual words are in quote marks):


(Everthing below Part 1 here is verbatim, however this section I present in paraphrased form. In our original questionnaire, this Part 1 was a description of the events, not a questionnaire for us to fill out.)

The Events

  • Race Across AMerica: We all know this one, the non-stop transcontinental bicycle race.
  • Badwater 146*: A 146 mile running race from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney.
  • Ironman Triathlon: 2.4 mile swim/112 mile bike/26.2 mile run.
  • Vendee Globe Challenge: An around the world, solo sailing race.
  • Iditarod Sled Dog Race: 1,100 miles across Alaska with a sled dog team.
  • La Traversee du Lac Saint-Jean: A 25 mile open water swimming race.
  • Raid Gauloises: Expedition competition for teams of five who must stay together while covering some 300 miles of wilderness.
  • Le Grand Defi: A six day skiing race with No chairlifts. Racers must hike or climb up the mountains, then extreme ski back down, over and over and over.
  • US Army's Best Ranger Competition: Three day, two night "RamboMan" event with parachuting, canoeing, shooting, orienteering, etc.


Rank the events in order of the physical and psychological toll taken, considering both intensity and duration. For each event, indicate how long you think it would take before the individual could do the race again with a comparable time, assuming they suffered no injuries the first time.

  1. Iditarod Sled Dog Race. "Brutal weather, navigation, and dog tending make this the toughest of them all. Risk of frostbite, hypothermia, animal attack, and death adds to the paranoia factor."
  2. Recovery Time: "Three months."
  3. Race Across AMerica. "Can be a fun 'training ride' for later events (I built muscle mass doing it the first time), or the ride from hell (saddle sores, rashes, blown knee, pinched nerve in neck, semi-paralyzed left arm, all in 110 degree heat the second time)."
  4. Recovery Time: "Six months."
  5. Le Grand Defi. "Physically destructive, ultra dangerous, and demoralizing marches back up the mountain equals an event I'll skip."
  6. Recovery Time: "Two months."
  7. Vendee Globe Challenge. "There's only so much time that anyone can contemplate their own navel. Color me B-O-R-E-D if I was to do this! (And blue's even my favorite color!)"
  8. Recovery Time: "One month."
  9. Badwater 146*. "If injury-free, it's just a matter of healing the blisters and getting flexibility and posture back. But too many ultra runs is irreversibly destructive and leads to staleness in the speed department."
  10. Recovery Time: "Two months."
  11. Best Ranger Competition. "Lack of sleep and constant panic tension can get old, but it's pretty simple in the long run."
  12. Recovery Time: "One week."
  13. La Traversée. "Our origins are beneath the waves, so for those who have taken stock of the ineffable joy of interaction with water, this is as natural as walking."
  14. Recovery Time: "One month."
  15. Raid Gauloises. "A fun trip with little emphasis on real speed. Not much sense of urgency. Plus how fast can you go if you actually smoke? (I thought incorrectly at the time that the race was sponsored by the cigarette company, Gauloise. - CK) Just kick back, be outdoorsy, and crack a few phlegmy coughs with the event's organizers."
  16. Recovery Time: "One week."
  17. Ironman Triathlon. "'Hi! My name's Yuppie Wannabe Fitness Guy.' How do you spell 'overrated?' 'I-R-O-N-M-A-N!'"
  18. Recovery Time: "One month."


Rank the events in order of the complexity of skills involved. Consider the logistical and tactical demands, as well as physical skills.

  1. Best Ranger Competition. "This is 90% skill, prep, and practice. Must be robot-like to even qualify to enter, and be able to recount key phrases from Rambo movies."
  2. Vendee Globe Challenge. "Sailing is an art, plus considerable mechanical, technical, electrical, and analytical skills are a must. Also have to be well connected, in the right circles, and well-heeled. 90% of this event is pre-race: boat design and building, and fund-raising.
  3. Le Grand Defi. "Have to ski like a god and be built like one, too."
  4. Iditarod Sled Dog Race. "Handling the dogs well, reading the weather, navigation, and winter survival skills must be top-notch."
  5. Raid Gauloises. "It ain't easy to keep a canoe or a hangglider upright!"
  6. Race Across AMerica. "Major fund-raising and logistical challenge that requires six months and decent bucks to do it right, then determination, poise, perseverance, body tending, and single-mindedness once the race starts."
  7. Ironman Triathlon. "Takes three skills that essentially 99% of the populace can do and you have all day to cover mediocre distances! Please!"
  8. La Traversée. "Just learn how to oper water swim, lather up in lard, and freeze to death in a puke fest. Simple."
  9. Badwater 146*. "Everyone can walk, right? Don't like heat? Dress in white, drink non-stop, and have your crew hold an umbrella over your head. Plus Whitney's no 'climb.' It's a walk-up."


Rank the events, overall, from toughest to easiest.. What do you imagine the specific challenges to be? How would a competitor have to deal with some of those challenges? (It's a stretch, but assume that you know how to sail, or drive a dog team.) Have fun with this part.

  1. Iditarod Sled Dog Race. "Caring for, tending, mending, and feeding the dogs must be numbingly tiring, plus the extreme weather conditions make this race brutal for every single entrant. Plus, it's physical! You don't just stand on the sled's runners and yell 'mush.' There's a mountain range to push the sled over and innumerable obstacles to muscle on through."
  2. Race Across AMerica. "Every kind of weather, every kind of terrain, every kind of logistical hassle, and every kind of body pain, makes this the toughest of them all—except that all racers have support crews that do everything but turn the cranks. The pace is very intense for the leaders, plus the lack of sleep, the ticking clock, paranoia, and widely varying mood swings make this the ultimate cycling race. Still, I loved 90% of it, but twice was once too many!"
  3. Le Grand Defi. "Skiing a full day is brutal on the joints, muscles, ligaments, etc. A week on trecherous terrain with no ski lifts makes this event totally insane. Fear of death or injury must weigh as heavy as the numbing fatigue. Only the French could dream this up, for only the Frogs take alpinisme to the real extreme. I'll pass on doing this one!"
  4. Vendee Globe Challenge. "90% of the time you're kickin; back, tunes blastin', feet up, catchin' rays, and probably drinkin' a martini or margarita... But the 10% of the time in foul weather, treacherous waters, and often with "mechanical" proplems must be feverishly insane and scary! Feast or famine, it seems. The only major physical hurdles are sleep deprivation and avoiding skin cancer. Too long and lonely for me..."
  5. La Traversée. The rules against wetsuits turn this event from tough to stupid. Why be so masochistic and needlessly macho? Still, swimming is nearly as natural as walking/running, so the duration isn't such a big deal. If you really want to freeze your balls off, then this isn't too bad. I'd do it, with a wetsuit, otherwise forget it. Anybody can swim all day, because there's no impact, blisters, chafing, etc..."
  6. Best Ranger Competition. "The straight forward time versus distance components of this one are ultra easy. Not too tough for most anyone. But it's the skills necessary and incredible variety of activities that make it tough to stay focused, fast, and error-free. One wonders if this isn't really some jarhead macho libido fest, though..."
  7. Raid Gauloises. "This ain't tough. It's a little adventure trek for rich 'outdoorsmen,' Soldier of Fortune types, and would-be Indiana Jones clones. Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, etc.? Come on, that's what people do for vacation! Plus its varying locales in the Third World and its overzealousness just smacks of imperialism. We only thought France had closed up shop on its Empire!"
  8. Badwater 146*. "Most people basically walk this thing, so what's the big deal? Most any reasonably fit athlete of any background could do it. The only skill is knowing how to deal with blisters, plus being genetically gifted in terms of heat tolerance would come in handy. Great course, though, that typifies my belief that ultra races should go somewhere, not just go far! I'll definitely do this one."
  9. Ironman Triathlon. "75 year old nuns finish this race, as well as 95% of all entrants. It's a cake walk, for all practical purposes. Events like these nine are always easier than people imagine, especially Ironman. While without a doubt the most 'competitive' and intense of the these events, but still only for the top half dozen men and maybe two or three women, the winners still give smiling interviews without heavy breathing within moments of finishing! Besides, how tough can eight or even seventeen hours of anything be??? For the masses, difficulty = duration, but still, the Ironman is epic and carries mucho mystical weight.

*Editor's Note from 2003: We took over production of this event, now known as the Badwater Ultramarathon, in the Fall of 1999. The comments above, about all these events, not just Badwater, reflect more than a bit of braggadocio from my mid-20's. I respect this event, and all the others, much more now. Badwater may or may not not be the world's toughest sporting event, but it's certainly the world's toughest foot race.