The Rundown

The top 10 toughest sports events

Every sport places huge demands on its participants, and few sportsmen and women believe they could work any harder in their quest for success.

This week the Marathon des Sables takes place - one of the world's most gruelling events.

How does it stack up against the most famed challenges of endurance, danger and difficulty from around the sporting world?

1.
Marathon des Sables

Picking the
toughest marathon in the world is surprisingly tough to do. There's the Everest
marathon, for example, which takes place at 6,000m above sea level on the
slopes of the world's highest mountain; and the Jungfrau marathon in
Switzerland, which involves a climb of 6,000 feet.

But are
either tougher than running the London Marathon while wearing a giant
rhinoceros costume? Probably not.

Yet what is
even tougher than a normal 26.2 mile run in a comedy outfit is the Marathon des
Sables, an outrageously brutal six-day race in the Sahara desert in Morocco.

The course
covers 151 miles - or five and a half marathons - with the longest stage
covering a staggering 50 miles through the wilderness. As if that weren't tough
enough, competitors have to carry their own food and medical supplies, although
there are water tents along the way.

If that
sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, you'd be right: in 1994, Italian
policeman Mauro Prosperi got lost in a sandstorm, inadvertently ran into
Algeria, and survived by drinking his own urine and eating bats and snakes he
found in an abandoned mosque.

He tried to
kill himself but his blood had thickened so much from a lack of water that his
cut wrists healed too quickly to let him die. Luckily, he was found by Bedouins
and lived both to tell the tale and to run the race three more times -
completing it safely on each occasion.

2. The
Isle of Man TT race

The Dakar Rally is tough, Le Mans is gruelling and the driving tactics of the average NASCAR racer often verge on the suicidal - but there's nothing to touch the TT race for brutality.

Every spring,
the world's best - and most unhinged - motorcycle nuts gather on the island in
the Irish sea to take part in the Tourist Trophy, a week-long time-trial on a
37.73-mile course on unrestricted public roads that are closed off for the
occasion. 

With steep
bends at the end of long straights, corners flanked by solid stone walls and
unpredictable island weather, the course is notoriously dangerous. That
combination of conditions have led to 231 deaths since the race was first held
in 1907 - with 'Mad Sunday', when any member of the public is free to try their
hand at the course, particularly bloody.

3. The
Highland Games

The
summer-long calendar of events showcasing traditional Scottish sports takes
place throughout the world in a variety of locations, with more than 40 such
Games in Scotland each year.

The most
famous event - caber-tossing - is the most brutal, with competitors holding a
20ft larch trunk that weighs around 14 stone which they have to hurl. Points
are awarded for both distance and accuracy, with the idea being that in the
olden days lumberjacks could have thrown tree trunks across rivers and ravines
in order to get across. Unsurprisingly, the American Journal of Sports Medicine
have rated it as the event most likely to cause injury to athletes.

3. The
'Tough Guy' race

Imagine a
hybrid of cross-country, an army assault course and a bizarre Japanese game
show, and you have the annual Tough Guy race, held on a farm just outside Wolverhampton.

The course
varies each year, but generally covers seven or eight miles, the highlight of
which is the obstacle section known fondly as the "Killing Fields".
Competitors have to negotiate obstacles such as running through fire pits,
hauling themselves up to 40 feet through flooded tunnels (containing water that
is almost freezing - the race takes place in January), and crawling under a 70m
long barbed-wire area while Marine commandos fire machine guns at them.

Thankfully,
they're loaded with blanks - but that hasn't stopped two competitors dying
during the event (and its summer equivalent, "Nettle Warrior") over
the last few years.

4.
International Hot Dog Eating Championship

Every Fourth of July,
US independence is celebrated in uniquely American style in Coney Island,
Brooklyn as thousands gather for the Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating
Contest.

A jaw-dropping 40,000
people watched Joey Chestnut win last year. The whippet-thin American cruised
to victory thanks to the absence of his chief rival, Japan's Takeru Kobayashi
following a contractual dispute with the Major League Eating organising body.
That's if you can count eating 54 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes as a cruise.

5. World
Ice Golf Championships

Organised by the
World Ice Golf Committee, the Word Ice Golf Championships features golf, on
ice, in Uummannaq, Greenland.

Played over 36 holes
in two days, it is preceded by a Ryder Cup-style one-day tournament called the
Niemann Cup, named after Arne Niemann, the local hotelier who came up with the
idea and commissioned the ice course.

The weird thing about
this event - golf-on-ice aside - is that its host island, Uummannaq, has no
history of ice golf or indeed regular golf. The committee has since set up an
ice golf school to teach locals about the sport.

6. The
Atlantic Rowing race

Rowing
across a river is hard enough, but in 1997 Sir Chay Blyth took it several steps
further by organising a race across the Atlantic Ocean.

Heading
from the Canary Islands the competitors head to the West Indies, covering just
shy of 3,000 miles, and having to avoid the minor perils of things like
tankers, 30 foot waves and taking naps of only 20 minutes at a time for the best
part of two months.

A challenge
arduous enough if taken on in groups of two or four - but some rowers take the
race on alone, and with no support yachts that means just you, a boat and the Atlantic
Ocean.

7. The
St George Iron Man

Iron Man is tough enough - a 2.4 mile swim to begin, a 112 mile bike ride
to continue, and a full marathon to finish - back-to-back, without a break -
and all within a 15 hour time limit.

But studies have shown that the world's hardest Iron Man course is in Utah, where the staggering beauty of St George is the setting.

After a swim in the Sand Hollow Reservoir, the bike ride includes two brutal climbs from just under 3,000 feet above sea level to 4,700 feet, before a 26.2 mile run through the valley. No wonder there are a higher proportion of non-finishers there than at most other events.

8. The
Championship

Can English
football's second tier compete with some of the competitions in this list?
Well, it's certainly one of the toughest challenges in the beautiful game.

The football is uncompromising, the fans are demanding and fervent. The 46-game season demands a huge amount of endurance - still more if you find your way into the play-off final, where there is the small matter of around £80m at stake for your club if you can secure a berth in the top flight.

And the
irony of it all is that even if a team makes it through to the hallowed
corridors of the Premier League, they often find that they've reached the top
flight playing entirely the wrong type of football to survive in the division
the following season.

9. Grand
National

It's not just humans who push themselves to the limit in sport - the horses who go the distance, running four miles and negotiating 30 fences, including a nine and a half foot water jump, are amongst the most hardy creatures around.

The race is
hard enough just to finish - every year a significant number of the world's
finest horses fail to make it the whole way around, and in an infamous 1928
contest just two horses finished of the 42 that started.

At least
the horses don't know that these days more than half a billion people will be
watching the race unfold.

10.  Tour de France

The Tour de France is a relentless event, with the quest for the yellow
jersey demanding three weeks of daily road races against the best cyclists in
the world.

In total the riders cover more than 2,000 miles, ride four to five hours a day, and make their way round the country, including brutal climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees, in often stifling French summer weather.

Given the demands of the course and the arduous, often mountainous
routes, it's perhaps fortunate that Le Tour has claimed the lives of just four
cyclists in its 97-race history.