Sure, you might not want to run across the Sahara or ride colossal waves – so here are ways of experiencing the thrills without the peril in Thailand, Morocco, Bali, Greenland, France and Sweden
The challenge dubbed ‘the last great race on Earth’ sees the most resilient dog-sledders mush their team of huskies across 1600km of extreme territory, heading from Anchorage to Nome on the Bering coast. Sledders traverse mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest and desolate tundra to reach the coast, battling sub-zero temperatures and howling winds.
Flying across fresh snow behind a team of overexcited huskies on your own sled is an unforgettable experience, and you can try it for yourself in various places in Alaska, Russia, Finland and Norway. Our pick is Arctic Sweden, where outfits around Jukkasjärvi (site of the original Icehotel) offer multi-day husky adventures, bedding down in rustic cabins and gazing up at the aurora borealis dancing across the clear skies above.
The ‘Florentine Kick Game’ is not entirely accurately named – competitors in the unbelievably violent football-rugby cross don’t just use their feet, they also jab elbows, butt heads and throttle throats in order to get a ball across the goal line. The game, an update of the Roman sport of harpastum and reputedly first played in this form in the 16th century, was resurrected in the 1930s and still takes place in a sandpit in Florence each June.
A more balletic (depending on your point of view) kind of contact sport is Muay Thai, a form of boxing that uses fists, elbows, knees and shins. There are dozens of places to learn the sport in its home nation, Thailand; the Lamai Muay Thai Camp on Koh Samui is a respected school. Of course, there are also plenty of spots where you can admire (or grimace at) the experts battling it out with Muay Thai or Mixed Martial Arts, particularly in Bangkok.
Just outside Half Moon Bay in northern California, on winters’ days when the weather's right, the world’s top big-wave surfers gather to compete in an invitation-only contest. For most of us, the last thing we want is an invitation – with waves looming to 18m high after strong storms, it’d be near suicidal for anyone but the most experienced and strong surfers to attempt (and indeed several have died). It's not held every year, only when conditions are right – but when it is, the action is a true spectacle.
For surfers of all levels, Bali is a dream destination. Come in the main dry season (April-October) for sunny days and mellow breaks, with great conditions on the south coast particularly. The busy area around Kuta, Legian and Seminyak offer mild conditions for beginners, with bigger breaks at spots such as Uluwatu, where you can ride waves with a backdrop of the picturesque Pura Luhur Uluwatu Temple.
Each year the world’s top ice-climbers don crampons and grab axes to compete in the UIAA Ice Climbing World Championships. The 2019–20 series saw the intrepid alpinists head to Russia, China, South Korea, Switzerland and the USA, where spectators enjoy a carnival atmosphere while the competitors test themselves to their vertical limits on the ice walls.
Try the sport yourself in a dramatic environment on the Mer de Glace (‘Sea of Ice’) glacier near Chamonix in the French Alps – options range from taster day sessions to multi-day courses available in summer. There’s plenty more to do here, too: take the rack-and-pinion railway from Chamonix up to Montenvers for fabulous views, or venture into the Grotte de glace ice Cave in the heart of the glacier.
Ultramarathons don’t come tougher than this: run 250km across the Sahara over six stages, with temperatures nudging 50 C and sand your constant companion – causing blisters on feet that are already tired and sore. You have to carry your kit, water is rationed and you sleep in communal goat’s-hair Berber tents each night. But if you can take the heat, it’s the sporting challenge of a lifetime.
You don’t have to lace up your running shoes to enjoy a desert experience in Morocco. Head east from Marrakech over the Atlas Mountains, via the film-famous, rust-red walled citadel of Aït Benhaddou – famous from movies such as Gladiator – and you’ll reach the Draa valley. Here palm trees sway in oasis towns such as Zagora, gateway to the Sahara (and location of the much-photographed sign indicating ‘Tombouctou 52 Jours’ (52 days to Timbuktu). You won’t want to go that far, but head to one of the camps near Mhamid on the edge of the desert and you can climb dunes and sleep in traditional Berber tents for a whiff of the romance of the Sahara.
As if running 26.2 miles isn’t hard enough at sensible temperatures, the Polar Circle Marathon sees intrepid entrants crunch across the Greenland Ice Cap in Kangerlussuaq (though much of the route is on gravel road) each October. In case you need something more to pump your adrenaline – besides the thrill of the race, the blue skies, glaciers and the vast tundra – you might see Arctic fox or even musk oxen en route (though hopefully not polar bears).
Slicing into the coast of less-populated (and touristed) east Greenland is Scoresby Sund (Kangertittivaq in Greenlandic) – the world’s largest fjord system, meandering over 300 km into the interior. Venture to the small, remote settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit and board an expedition cruise to explore the fjords, past soaring mountains and basalt cliffs, musk-oxen-browsed tundra, and rocky shores where walrus and harbour seals haul out.