What’s The Most Painful Sport?

While the Chicago Bears were melting down on national TV and Aaron Rodgers was decimating their defense on one leg, there was another mind-blowing competition taking place that you may have missed:

A couple hundred runners were in Lake Tahoe, California, participating in the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run.


Which is actually 205.5 miles long.

First Thing:

If you ran this race, wouldn’t you want to call it the Tahoe 205.5???

If we were going to run this far, we would want FULL CREDIT for ALL the distance covered, and would not allow there to be ANY rounding down.

Second Thing:

It’s extremely humbling to think that most of us normally go run for 3-6 mile — i.e., the distance that they rounded down and erased. So think of the Tahoe 200 as your normal route … plus 200 more miles.

The Facts:

So the Tahoe 200 is a 205.5-mile loop around Lake Tahoe that has over 40,000 ft of vertical gain and loss. The vast majority of it takes place at over 6,000 ft of elevation, with portions close to 10,000 ft.

And yesterday, two runners finished it in less than 50 hours.

For the mathematically challenged, that’s just 2 hours more than 2 days.

They ran over 200 miles. Through the day and night. With rest stops often only lasting a few minutes.

The winner, Kyle Curtin, finished the course in 49 hours, 27 minutes.

The second-place finisher (and our personal hero and patron saint of running here at Blister), Courtney Dauwalter, came across the line in 49 hours, 54 minutes.

For a race this long, that’s basically the equivalent of a photo-finish.

The third-place finisher, Taylor Spike, came in more than 10 hours behind Kyle and Courtney.

Most Painful Sports, Blister Topic of the Week
Luke Koppa on a very small section of the Tahoe Rim Trail, Lake Tahoe, CA.

The Question:

So while Jonathan Ellsworth and I were texting back and forth, struggling to process what that experience has to feel like, Jonathan posed the question:

What’s the most painful sport to be the best at?

We spent far longer discussing this than we should have (especially since we are trying to wrap up a monster 200-page Buyer’s Guide), but we came up with several contenders, and we wanted to pose the question to you. So please tell us in the comments section below what would be at the top of your list.

And just to be clear: we think that all of the following are extremely impressive.

We also think that some of these things are far weirder than others, but we are in no way downplaying the incredible feats that have taken place in these different arenas. They all seem unfathomably difficult — and seemingly miserable — to accomplish.

Our Contenders:

Ultrarunning (or long-distance biking, swimming, ski touring, etc.)

Everything “ultra” basically just seems to be a contest of who can suffer the most. Simple as that. You’re not trying to be the fastest, you’re trying to just see who can fend off all of the alarms and survival instincts and the pain coming from their bodies and their brains which are doing everything in their power to get them to stop. And whoever can say NO the longest, wins.


Free Soloing

In terms of sheer consequences, free soloing wins. Even the best free-solo climber in the world, Alex Honnold is one scorpion-crawling-out-of-a-hand-crack away from mortality. It doesn’t involve anything remotely close to the amount of physical suffering that Ultras do, but … the stakes don’t get any higher.


Ever tried to hold your breath until you passed out? Or had the bends? Yeah, not something that we’d call particularly fun. Freediving is sort of Ultras-meet-Free-Soloing, under water.

Competitive Eating

Sure, being able to shove 70 hot dogs down your gullet in front of a crowd of drunken and star-spangle-bannered attendees at Coney Island on July 4th might have its rewards, but it’s gotta get old. And it probably ruins hot dogs as a casual food forever. And because hot dogs are often the only warm thing left at the gas station on the way to the trailhead at 3 am, I wouldn’t want to have to cut them out of my diet.

High-Elevation Mountaineering

You’re trying to navigate crevasses, knifeblade ridges, sub-zero temperatures, and often poor rock — all while doing so using far less oxygen than your body is accustomed to. And a special shoutout / WTF goes to climbers who are pushing seriously technical alpine routes at 6000m+. I get winded trying to grovel up a 5.8 offwidth at regular elevations, so I can’t imagine what it feels like to do that while running on less than 50% of the oxygen I typically get in a single breath.

Ironman Triathlons

A single marathon, 112-mile bike race, or 2.4-mile swim probably all deserve to be on this list by themselves, but then there are those people that choose to do all three in a single go. Oh, and then there was that one time James Lawrence ran 50 Ironmans in 50 days in 50 different states. I guess the one upside is that you basically get to eat whatever the hell you want (Lawrence says he averaged around 8000 calories per day during his 50-Ironman streak).

MMA Fighting

Pretty much any professional fighting consists of you professionally getting the crap beat out of you. Or, ideally, beating the crap out of other people. But getting up to go to work every day knowing that people are definitely going to be punching, elbowing, and kneeing you in the face, and very much trying to knock you unconscious, well that’s a pretty painful thing to be good at.

The Opposite Question:

We also thought about the other side of the coin: What’s the least painful thing to be the best in the world at?

Probably sprinting. I mean there are a lot of natural physical gifts required to be in the world-class conversation, and then, once you’re there, you just have to be able to run fast for less than 10 seconds. Sprinters don’t stay on top for very long, but while they’re at the top, it sure seems like a good gig.

Our runner-up answer was field-goal kicking. It’s not easy to be good at it, but if you are good, well, then it’s only painful when you miss. (Just ask any Buffalo Bills fans.)

10 comments on “What’s The Most Painful Sport?”

  1. The 3 Peaks CX. From their website:38 miles, of which 34 is rideable (20 cross and 18 road) and 5000 feet of climbing (see course details for further information). All at a full sprint + carrying your bike the 4 miles not rideable.

  2. I would say that the grand tours in professional cycling should be somewhere on this list, not only because road cycling is so grueling (you can easily go hard enough that, if you weren’t sitting on a bike, you’d fall down) but because these events last three weeks, up and down, rain and shine, hours and hours. And just being a professional cyclist in general. All that training. All that racing. All that suffering. Painful.

    • Very. I still always think about the fact that (and I think I have this story right?) the Tour de France was originally designed to see if anybody could even finish it. I.e., *maybe* one or two people complete it. That seems far more reasonable (and would make PEDs less tempting?) than the expectations today that it’s a failure *not* to finish.

  3. The guys pushing it while bikepacking are on a pretty different level. It’s a really interesting combination of self-supported, super long distance, super rugged terrain, unpredictable weather, and not a lot of sleep. Look at Jay Petervary for reference, highlights include the recent Silk Road (1000+ miles in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in a little over 8 days) and crazy stuff like the Iditarod fat bike race. Different type of mountain experience for sure.

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