The Tour de France is difficult, and obvious statements are obvious. Over its 2,131 miles of road course in 21 stages of mixed terrain including large chunks of the Alps and Pyrenees, the Tour makes individual riders whittle themselves into nubs of human frailty despite consuming 9,000 calories a day just to keep up with their bodies' demands for fuel. It is the most difficult race of its size and popularity in the world, and no one can take that away from it.
It is not, however the most difficult and/or insane endurance race in the world. These are. Don't ever try to do any of these, ever, because they are all your worst bad idea multiplied by a thousand. This public service is sponsored by common sense, which is beaten to death every day by the sport of endurance racing.
THE RACE ACROSS AMERICA. Le Tour, like anything in France, is unionized. Riders negotiate the terms of engagement in the peloton collectively, and stop for wine, cheese, and sleep on richly layered beds of only the softest eiderdown in between massages and fresh horse blood transfusions. One part of that sentence is true, and it is not the part about the wine, cheese, and eiderdown. (It's the part about massages, and certainly not the part about blood transfusions.)
The Tour riders also wimp out by sleeping, something the riders in the Race Across America view as a sign of weakness. Christoph Strosser*, this year's "winner" of the Race's solo division, pedaled 3,000 miles across the notoriously bike-hostile United States on seven and a half hours of sleep, averaging over 400 miles a day while finishing the entire continental meal in a single bite of eight days. His feelings on that accomplishment?
"I could go on cycling, but I prefer not to."
Most would not. In addition to the hallucinations and crashes brought on by sleep deprivation, competitors have been known to collide with livestock, take painkillers to simply sit on their destroyed buttocks, and in some extreme cases braid tape into their ponytail and tape the whole thing to their back to hold their heads up on their bikes. But sure, Alberto Contador. You have it real tough with your fresh blood, baguettes, and "seven to eight hours of sleep a night."
*German for "Psychotic Beef Jerky Demon"
THE BADWATER ULTRAMARATHON. I have a personal stake in this being a horrible, difficult thing to do because I have covered it, and it is a horrible, difficult thing to cover, much less do. You don't sleep, the temperature never dips below 90 degrees at night, you have to carry jugs of water in your car lest you break down and become vulture food in long stretches of desert without cellphone service, and when the whole thing ends you're still in the middle of nowhere with miles to go before you sleep.
At this point, everyone knows the race goes through Death Valley, and that the 120 degree temperatures are enough to blast the paint off the top of your rental car and slowly madden anyone daft enough to try and endure them for long, much less run in them. What you don't know about the Badwater is that after you've run out of Death Valley you still have one more valley, one more mountain range, and then an interminable run across high desert plateau before a left turn at Lone Pine.
Then, after 120 miles, you have to run 15 miles up switchbacks to the 8,000 foot high base camp of Mount Whitney.
There are other endurance runs, and they each have their own diabolical twists. The Everest Marathon wins for sheer elevation, the Antarctic Ice Marathon wins for cold, and the Iowa Donut Run takes the title for most gastrointestinal challenge in a single event. Nothing rivals the distilled masochism of the Badwater, though. It was and is the gold standard for sporting pain, and I have never seen anything to equal its consistent agony mixed with insane scale and scenery. The Badwater is the Battletoads of endurance racing.
THE FOUR DESERTS TREK. Just walk across each of the world's four great deserts, and you've done it. So easy! It's just sand, and more sand, and then some ice, since technically one of the world's great deserts is Antarctica, so you know the guys planning this really are making this up as they go. Racers trek across the Gobi, Mojave, Sahara, and Atacama deserts before tackling the Antarctic, losing toenails, carrying their own water, and generally wondering why the hell they ever started this misbegotten process in the first place.
They also do Antarctica, but this seems like cheating. Pretty soon they'll say things like "Orlando, Florida is sort of a cultural desert, bros, so let's just make people walk the length of a hotel room at the Animal Kingdom Hotel until their toenails fall off and call it a day." Call that nonsensical, but it makes as much sense as some others. (For an example of this, see the next entry.)
THE SRI CHINMOY SELF-TRANSCENDENCE 3,100 MILE RACE. I don't know anything about religion and don't understand it, and that really applies to the concept of "self-transcendence." I'm pretty good to me, for the most part. I don't see a lot of people in the world engaged in fistfights with themselves, and the ones who are punching themselves are usually mentally ill people living on the street. They're happy in their own way, or else the insane man who lives beneath the Krog Street overpass just looks happy to me. (It's the parasol he holds. It's so jaunty!)
For instance, if you were running an endurance race, I'd give you a lot more credit if you just said "I find something sublime about running/biking/swimming a ridiculously long distance." That's fine. But at least make it something on an epic scale, and not just 3,100 miles around a .55 mile city block in the Bronx, the same city block you'll circle from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every single freaking day for 47 days.
The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Race occupies a spot at the intersection of "tedium" and "physical agony" that is only shared by torture and spin classes, a monotonous grind around a single city block in New York's most glamorous borough in the month of August where you, accompanied by only your thoughts and the promise of "self-transcendence." After you finish the race, which should take you the better part of two months, you will have successfully become someone else entirely, and that's good because blaming yourself for wasting damn near two months of your life on an endurance race where you saw the same bodega 6,200 times would be difficult to live with, wouldn't it? This race is stupid. Don't ever do it.
THE DECA IRONMAN. For those who finish a standard Ironman Triathlon and think "I'd like to do that nine more times," there is the Deca Ironman. Though there's a number of variations on the formula, the general rules are the same: complete 10 Ironman distances in 10 days in each discipline, tallying up the 47 miles of swimming, 524 miles of running, and 2,237 miles of cycling needed to complete the race. In case you don't like this half-measure, a Dodeca Ironman exists, and it is 20 Ironman Triathlons in 20 days. If this is not enough for you, please return to your homeworld. They miss you, and would understand your need to move without interruption until your brain is digested for food by your body.