People are naturally competitive beings. We might all try to deny it, but the reality is that all of us tends to get competitive if the right thing comes along. Maybe you consider yourself to be a peaceful and placid person, but when someone tries to beat you to a parking space when you go to the supermarket, you see red. Maybe you readily admit that you’re competitive, accepting that you’re going to put your all into winning anything and everything, from a football match to a quiz with the family when Christmas rolls around.
Once somebody does something, it won’t take long before a competitive element to that thing comes around. So, it is that the world is full of weird and wonderful competitive races, in which the participants try to outdo each other irrespective of what it is that they’re involved in. From taking on a marathon in extreme heat through to racing alongside donkeys, there are any number of whacky races that you can take part in if you’re so inclined. The races are all run for different reasons, but the key thing is to be the winner.
Krispy Kreme Challenge
When we say that the races are all run for different reasons, this is exactly the sort of thing that we’re talking about. The Krispy Kreme Challenge is, in essence, little more than a marketing stunt. It involves people running two and a half miles, eating 12 donuts and then doing the reverse journey back to the starting line, all in under one hour. Though it is all done in the name of charity, with money raised going towards the mission of the North Carolina Children’s Hospital, it certainly doesn’t hurt the donut company to have their name involved.
The tagline for the event is ‘2,400 calories, 12 donuts, 5 miles, 1 hour’. If that doesn’t tell you what the people taking part are getting involved in, nothing will. It started life as a challenge between student friends, growing to become a nationally-publicised event in the United States of America. For members of the North Carolina State University, it is seen as the number one thing to do before graduation. The race begins at the Memorial Belltower on the university’s campus, taking them 2.5 miles through Raleigh to the town’s Krispy Kreme shop.
Once they’ve arrived at the shop, runners have to consume 12 original glazed Krispy Kreme donuts before turning around and running the 2.5 miles back to where it all began. The main aim of the race is to make it to finishing line first, but for many of the competitors the hope will be that they make it back within vomiting all over themselves. It might seem odd to be doing something so unhealthy to raise money for a hospital, but that is the way of students, donut-eaters and, if we’re all honest with ourselves, Americans in general.
Wife Carrying World Championship
When it comes to races that seem to best represent the area in which they take place, you’re going to be hard-pushed to beat Finland’s Wife Carrying World Championship. You can probably work out what happens when you hear the name of this particular race, which has been taking place in the Finnish municipality of Sonkajärvi for decades. The Finns have boasted the World’s Strongest Man three times to date, with two runners-up and five people finishing third in the annual competition, so it makes sense they’d be the ones to create such a competition.
It isn’t totally clear why it started, though Eukonkanto began life in Finland. Some suggest it is based on the idea of a robber named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkaine, who lived in the 1800s and stole food and women from the local area. Though it’s considered to be something of a joke by many, the competitors take it as seriously as any sport. The Wife Carrying Competition Rules Committee have established the following as the main rules for the tournament:
- The most entertaining couple will be given a special award, as will the best costume and the strongest carrier
- The course is 253.5 metres in length
- There are two dry obstacles to be negotiated, as well as a water obstacle that should be about one metre deep
- The woman carried doesn’t need to be your actual wife, but she does need to be over 17 years of age
- There is a minimum weight for the ‘wife’ of 49 kilograms; If the ‘wife’ weighs less then this then she will need to carry a rucksack containing weights to make up the difference
- In terms of equipment, the carrier may wear a belt and the carried a helmet
- Participants are responsible for their own safety, as well as insurance if it’s deemed necessary
- The winners are the couple that complete the course in the shortest time
- Instructions given by the organisers must be followed
- All participants have to enjoy themselves
Though it started in Finland in 1992, wife carrying has since become a global phenomenon. Other events take place in the likes of the United States, Australia and Britain. Obviously each contest has its own quirks and rules, but the ones above are the international standard rules. Finland is one of the most popular locations, not only because it was the original but also because the winners win the weight of their ‘wife’ in beer. With this in mind, numerous different carrying methods are practised to find the best.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling
The Americans go for a five mile run eating donuts at the halfway point. In Finland they see who can carry their wife the fastest. What does England do in response? Roll cheese down a hill, obviously. The format of the race involves a round of Double Gloucester cheese weighing between seven and nine pounds down Cooper’s Hill, which is a length of about 200 yards. It is the job of the competitors to chase after the cheese, which can reach speeds of about 70 miles per hour, with the first person getting to the cheese winning.
There are numerous different contests held throughout the day, with races split up between men and women. The speeds that the cheese is able to reach mean that it can be a dangerous event for spectators to watch. In 2013, the contest saw a foam replica replace the actual cheese for safety reasons, though this proved to be unpopular. As with so many odd events, there is some debate around why it started in the first place. What we do know is that the first written evidence of the race dates back to 1826.
As you might imagine, there have been numerous injuries as a result of the race. The local St. John Ambulance provides first aid, with Young Farmers and rugby club members offering their services to ‘catch’ people that slip and carry down any people that are injured. In 2019, Florence Early set the record for wins in the ladies race, having won it for the fourth time. An event was established in Chester in 2002 to promote the city’s cheese and food festival, but rather than chasing some cheese down a steep hill, participants roll cheese through an obstacle course on the flat.
Have you ever got your wok out of the cupboard, ready to make a stir fry, and found yourself thinking that it would make an excellent sled? That might well be what happened when the German TV show Wetten, dass..? came up with the idea to host a wok race. The first official Wok World Championship took place in Winterberg in 2003 and was such as success that the second World Championship took place in Innsbruck just a few months later. Though it is generally b-list celebrities that take part, some former athletes have also joined in.
There are competitions that involve single people racing on a wok, as well as though that use four woks combined to make a sled for four people. It is a winter sport, with the equipment literally being made up of the round-bottomed pans used in Chinese cooking. There are slight modifications allowed, including a coating of polyurethane foam around the edge of the wok to avoid injuries and an epoxy filling on the bottom. Once the woks have been modified and the racers assembled, they then head down an Olympic bobsleigh track.
If it all sounds a bit mad, that’s probably because it is. To give you some sense of the speeds that can be reached, Georg Hackl got his wok going more than 105 kilometres per hour on the Winterberg course in 2009. The four-person wok hit speeds of over 114 kilometres per hour that year, so it’s fair to say that they’re not messing about. In 2009, a Berlin court ruled that the segment shown on German television amounted to an infomercial, rather than a strict sporting event, earning money for the broadcast network.
Man Versus Horse
You can read about this particular phenomenon in more detail elsewhere on the site, but it is worth mentioning here, too. After all, what could be madder than someone thinking that they can run faster than a horse? It began as a conversation between two people in a pub, but suddenly became more serious when the landlord overheard what they were talking about and decided to find out the truth. The conversation was about whether, all things being equal, a man could beat a horse in a race over a long distance.
Gordon Green, the landlord of the Neuadd Arms in Wales, organised the first event in 1980 and, as is so often the nature of such things, it grew in popularity with every passing year. Run over about 22 miles, it soon developed to see people also taking part on bikes. Indeed, it was a cyclist that first beat a horse, with Tim Gould achieving the feat in 1989. That, though, wasn’t the original point of the race and so the wait for a human victor went on. It wasn’t until 2004 that a runner actually managed to defeat a horse in a race.
That feat was achieved by Huw Lobb, who finished the race in two hours, five minutes and 19 seconds. A total of £1,000 had been added to the prize pool every time that the horse won, so Lobb not only managed to etch his name into the records books but he also took home £25,000 in prize money. Lobb won by three minutes, but two years later things went further when Florian Holzinger defeated Geoffrey Allen on the back of a horse named Lucy by nearly 11 minutes. Allen seemed to take that personally, winning the race four times in the next eight years.
Marathon du Medoc
If going for a five-mile run and eating 12 donuts halfway round doesn’t tick your boxes, perhaps the Marathon du Medoc will. The French race began in 1985 and has been held every year since, with a couple of exceptions. It attracts close to 9,000 competitors every year, which might seem like a lot until you realise what is involved. It takes place through the vineyards of the Médoc in the Gironde, starting in Pauillac before heading through Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Médoc and Haut-Médoc before ending back where it began.
23 wine tasting stops to be enjoyed during the race. That’s right, you run for a bit and then stop to taste some wine before running a bit further. There are as many as 50 orchestras spread throughout the course, whilst at the 38th kilometre there is the chance to taste some oysters. That is the perfect prelude to the 39th kilometre, where steaks are on offer.
An alcoholic and gastronomical feast, it is fair to suggest that participants stumble their way around the course rather than run it with any real sense of determination. The number of activities that participants are welcome to take part in during the length of the full marathon mean that it is often called the ‘world’s longest marathon’. The race seems to encourage things that are more typically discouraged for racers, so it’s hardly a surprise that many of the participants have a hangover before they’ve even started running the race.
The exact history of the Tar Barrel tradition is unknown, though it is widely accepted that it started sometime after the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes in 1605. Taking place in the West Country, where there is a long-held tradition of torchlight processions and the burning of barrels, this bonfire night race is a sight to behold. That is because up to seventeen barrels, with each one sponsored by one of Ottery’s pubs, are soaked with tar before being set alight and hoisted onto the back of a local person, whose job is to run through the streets to a finish.
Events begin early on November the fifth in Otterly, thanks to women and children having their own tar barrel races in the day. It is in the evening when things really come alive, however, on account of the fact that the barrels get bigger and heavier as the night wears on. Indeed, by midnight you can expect to see barrels weighing as much as 30 kilograms being carried. If you’re hoping to take part in the tradition then you’re out of luck, with only those born in the town of Otterly or having spent most of their lives there allowed to carry a lit barrel.
The barrels get passed between people, often with generations of the same family carrying the same barrel. They make their way to the River Otter, at which point they’re thrown onto the town bonfire. With around 10,000 people turning up each year to watch, the Tar Barrels Festival is an incredibly popular event. The ‘race’ aspect of this isn’t as well-marshalled as some of the others on the list, but when you consider the lack of interference from the fire brigade, it’s fair to say that this is as ‘pure’ an event as you’re likely to get.
The Dakar Rally
Previously known as the Paris-Dakar Rally on account of the fact that it started in Paris and raced to Dakar, this annual rally raid is organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation. It took place for the first time in 1978 and was moved to South America in 2009 after there were security threats in Mauritania the year before. In 2020, the event moved to Saudi Arabia and was also held there in 2022, though from 2023 onwards it took place in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Regardless of where it happens, it is an off-road test of endurance.
There are few rules for the race in terms of the vehicles that competitors can use. The only thing that they need to bear in mind is that the terrain is significantly more tricky to traverse than is found in normal rallying. It is common for competitors to use true off-road vehicles and motorcycles, as opposed to on-road vehicles that have been modified. Each stage of the race differs from short stints to sections of up to 560 miles, with stages taking place daily. The race came about after Thierry Sabine got lost in the desert doing the Cote-Cote rally.
There are five competitive groups that take part in the rally. These are motorcycles, quads, cars, utility task vehicles and trucks. One of the most famous incidents to happen in the event occurred in 1982 when Mark Thatcher, son of the then-Prime Minister and much-hated figure Margaret Thatcher, disappeared for six days. They were declared missing on the 12th of January and were eventually spotted 31 miles off-course by an Algerian military Lockheed L-100. The endurance nature of the race means that other similar incidents have happened over the years.
Pack Burro Racing
Indigenous to the State of Colorado in the United States of America, pack burro racing is linked to the local mining community. When the industry of mining was first starting up in Colorado, miners would take their donkeys through the mountains of the state when they were prospecting. As the donkeys were loaded up with supplies, the miners were unable to ride them and would instead walk with them on the trail. Burro races are held in towns across Colorado in memory of these miners and was recognised as they state’s summer heritage sport in 2012.
The format of the race sees a donkey travel a prescribed course along with their runner. The riding of the burro is not allowed, although the human participant may carry the donkey if they wish. They must be led on a rope of no more than 15 feet in length, with runners needing to have control of their donkey at all times. The burros need to carry a pack saddle that is filled with 15 kilograms of traditional mining equipment, amongst which must be a shovel, a gold pan and a pick. The burros may carry more equipment, such as waterproof gear, but this won’t count towards the 15 kilos.
As with horse racing, burro racing has a ‘Triple Crown’. This is made up of the 29 mile Fairplay race, the Leadville race, which is run over 22 miles, and the 12 mile Buena Vista race. Though other states in the US have burro racing events, it is Colorado that is most closely associated with the sport and where it began. Animal welfare is at the forefront of the concern of race organisers, so any animals that appear to have been mistreated will result in strict punishment of the person that has mistreated them.
There are some people that like to put themselves to the ultimate test, which is where the Badwater Ultramarathon comes in. Known as the ‘world’s toughest foot race’, it is based over a course of 135 miles and starts 282 feet below sea level. That’s where you’ll find the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. That it ends at an elevation of 8,360 feet tells you that the competitors need to go up as well as forwards. The race is run in July, when temperatures can get as high as 54 degrees centigrade.
The extreme heat means that few people finish the race each year, with even the most experienced of ultramarathon runners struggling. When the race was first conceived, the idea was that it would be run between the lowest point in the contiguous United States, Badwater, and the highest point, which is the summit of Mount Whitney. Though the two places are only eighty miles apart as the crow flies, they are 146 miles away from each other when you actually try to travel the journey. Nowadays, the race ends at Whitney Portal instead.
The race is invitation-only, with the demand to take part far outweighing the number of places available. Runners were originally given 60 hours to complete the course but that has been changed to 48 hours in recent years. Anyone taking part in the race has to organise their own support crew, whilst those that finish the race get a belt buckle rather than prize money or a medal. The record for the course is 21 hours, 33 minutes and one second, set by Yoshihiko Ishikawa. Remarkably, there has never been a fatality.