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Which Ultramarathon Requires the Most Mental Toughness?

The Barkley Marathons stand as a titan of mental fortitude, demanding unparalleled resilience. With a secretive application process, treacherous terrain, and a mere 1% finish rate, it's a psychological Everest. Each runner faces a solitary journey against the wilds of Tennessee. What does it take to conquer such a beast? Join us as we uncover the essence of endurance.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

With a length of 208 miles, the Tunnel Ultra isn't the world's longest ultramarathon, but it's hard to imagine a more psychologically demanding running event. The course design is deceptively simple: participants run the length of the Combe Down Tunnel, the UK's longest cycling tunnel, located just outside of Bath, England. When a runner reaches the end of the tunnel (slightly longer than a mile), they turn around. To finish the race, you must complete 200 lengths (out-and-back 100 times). For experienced ultramarathoners, that should be simple, right?

Not exactly. Though the format is straightforward, the race is designed to push participants to the limits of what they can handle, both physically and mentally. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about navigation, bad weather, or carrying many supplies. On the other hand, you’re doing a shuttle run in a dimly lit tunnel (with no lights between 11 pm and 5 am). You're not allowed to run alongside anyone else or use headphones.

The Tunnel Ultra requires participants to complete 200 lengths of a mile-long tunnel – in the dark.
The Tunnel Ultra requires participants to complete 200 lengths of a mile-long tunnel – in the dark.

There's also a strict time limit of 55 hours. Runners are allowed to sit down or even sleep in between laps, but many choose not to, worrying that they will lose their drive to finish or waste valuable time. A small table at the entrance to the tunnel serves as race HQ – and provides a tempting place to throw in the towel at the end of each lap for runners who have had enough. A speaker blaring classical music halfway along the tunnel provides another form of mental torture. Many participants have experienced vivid hallucinations that lasted long after the race finished – and at least one person temporarily went blind.

"A mind-bending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation":

  • The Tunnel Ultra was founded in 2019 by Mark Cockbain, a former ultra-runner famous for organizing insanely difficult endurance events. It is staged annually in March, with no more than 40 runners allowed to participate in a race. In its first year, only two of the 31 participants completed the race, and scarcely more than a dozen have completed it in total.

  • The Tunnel record was set by Guy Bettinson in 2020. He completed the race in 43 hours and 9 minutes – over six hours faster than the next swiftest finish.

  • In 2021, Mandy Foyster became the first female runner to successfully complete the race, finishing with just five minutes spare before the 55-hour cutoff.

  • Interested in taking part? You can enter the Tunnel Ultra on the Cockbain Events website, but only runners who have previously completed at least one 100-mile ultramarathon should apply.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • The Tunnel Ultra requires participants to complete 200 lengths of a mile-long tunnel – in the dark.
      By: TrudiDesign
      The Tunnel Ultra requires participants to complete 200 lengths of a mile-long tunnel – in the dark.