By Ed Stoddard
KATSE DAM, Lesotho (Reuters) - The gorgeous scenery is a welcome distraction from the aches in your legs as you run along a dirt road twisting through African villages and up hills so steep you can't see the tops.
Welcome to the Highlands Trout Mountain Challenge in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho. Sponsored by and taking its name from a company that exports trout to Japan, it is one of the newest entries in a small but growing global phenomenon of unusual or extreme marathon events.
Other such marathons take intrepid runners to North Korea or Antarctica. Perhaps one of the most challenging marathon of them all is the so-called Spartathlon that covers the 246 km (153 miles) between Athens and Sparta.
The Spartathlon's website makes much of the availability of medical services and hospitals all along the route.
Launched in 2012, the Lesotho run poses its own special challenges. It takes place at around 2,300 m (over 7,000 ft) above sea level which, combined with brutal climbs and a route that snakes mostly along rough dirt roads, means it is not for the fainthearted, or the short of breath.
It also is decidedly off the beaten path - part of the appeal of this kind of marathon tourism - and gives at least a fleeting glimpse of life in the hills of rugged, rural Lesotho.
Along the route, herdsmen on horseback or donkeys navigate treacherous paths as they follow their sure-footed sheep and cattle. Dogs of all sorts and sizes, used for hunting and herding, trail the grazing livestock.
To ward off the chill at these alpine altitudes, many of the horsemen are clad in Lesotho's trademark blankets, their bright colors a striking contrast with the deep green contours of the late summer mountain foliage.
At water stops, crowds of excited children gather to witness the spectacle of strangers running or - depending on the gradient and the individual, often walking - past modest homes, squat, oval stone structures topped with thatched roofing.
Fields of maize, the regional staple, dot the route, and between the rows of corn stalks sprout the plants of another regional favorite, marijuana. In a number of the villages the pungent smell of this harvest hangs in the still mountain air.
It is also an intimate affair, as fewer than two dozen runners took part in the 42.2 km (26.2 miles) - the standard marathon distance - race while about the same number ran the half marathon at this year's event on March 1.
For myself and some of the friends I made along the way, the attraction was in the novelty, the scenery, and also the difficulty, as it was a "training run" for the big race on the regional sports calendar - the Comrades Marathon on June 1.
Held in South Africa on a route between the hilly city of Pietermaritzburg and the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, the Comrades is an 89-km epic - more than twice as long as a normal marathon - which attracts 18,000 entrants a year.
I have done one Comrades and this year will be my second attempt, and the Lesotho run certainly lived up to its reputation as a "conditioning race" for the "Big One".
The altitude, terrain and hills added more than an hour to my normal and not particularly fast marathon time, clocking in at 5-1/2 hours - about half the time I plan to spend on my feet at the Comrades.
About four hours in, I did question what I was doing - but then you realize Comrades will be more than twice as long, so you had better suck it up and get on with it.
Staring up a hill whose top you cannot see can cause a sinking feeling, but that's when one of the golden rules of long-distance running kicks in - if you can't see the top, walk it!
EASTER ISLAND TO NORTH KOREA
The views are worth it for this and some of the other "extreme" marathons, which even include Easter Island, where a marathon and half marathon will be run on June 1.
The events also tap into the goal of some marathoners with deep pockets - or generous sponsors - to run a 42.2-km marathon on all seven continents, much like climbers who want to scale the summit of the highest peak on every continent.
The Pyongyang Marathon, to be held on April 13, enables you to "visit the city centre while running in one of the world's most hermetic countries", according to the website of tour organizers "Experience North Korea".
Various "safari marathons" in South Africa and Kenya enable you to run down paths trod by lions and elephants - usually under the watchful eyes of armed rangers.
The 15th Antarctica Marathon & Half Marathon took place on Sunday, with 191 runners from 18 countries taking part.
"I think people are challenging themselves a lot more. So marathoners are looking for something extra, beyond running a marathon in a city," Scott Guillemette, the general manager of Boston-based Marathon Tours & Travel, the Antarctica race's event organizer and tour operator, told Reuters.
The 2015 and 2016 Antarctica races are already sold out.
In Lesotho, I managed to keep some dignity intact by finishing second from last instead of last, meriting, like all the runners, a medal bearing a trout insignia. But the final place was not the point. I'll be back.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Sonya Hepinstall)