Ultra marathons are any running events that at the very minimum go further than the marathon distance of 42.2km. The problem is that there is no upper limit. As a result, there are now some insanely challenging events held across the globe. The distance isn’t the only problem either, as competitors are asked to wrestle with mountains, rain-forests, deserts, or extreme weather conditions.
Since they’re events that allow you to experience the world in a unique way, we’ve chosen the best ultra marathon from all 7 continents (yes, even Antarctica), and added a couple of runners up so you can explore your options.
Africa: Comrades Marathon
- Durban to Pietermaritzburg (or Pietermaritzburg to Durban, depending on the year)
- 87km/54 miles uphill or 90 km/56 miles downhill in a 12 hour time-limit
- Takes in ‘The Big Five’ hills with a highest elevation of 2,850ft/870m above sea level
Run it for:
This is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. It was first run in 1921, and has been completed by over 300,000 runners. The current field allows for 27,500 participants. It is famous for its vibrant atmosphere and support, with school children and local folk bands cheering you along the way. The race is run in the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’, which can be translated as ‘humanity towards others’.
- Marathon des Sables, Morocco: 251km in the Sahara Desert
- Namib Race, Namibia: 250km in the Skeleton Coast National Park
Antarctica: The Last Desert
- A variety of locations on the Antarctic Peninsula, potentially including King George Island, Deception Island, and Paradise Bay
- 250km multi-stage event
- Each night sleeping on the expedition ship
Run it for:
This is the only multi-stage footrace in Antarctica. The main challenges in the polar desert are the conditions of extreme cold, high winds and sheer landscapes. Varying snow, ice and weather conditions cause the course to change each year, often at late notice. The chance to tread in the footsteps of ancient explorers and to see a variety of wildlife including whales, penguins, and seals in the untouched wilderness makes this event a rare and life-changing experience.
- The Arctic Ice Marathon and 100k
Asia: La Ultra – The High
- In the Great Himalayan range of India, starting from the Nubra Valley towards the Indus River, and finishing in the Morey Plains of the Changtang plateau
- 333km/207 miles in 72 hour time limit. Including three 17,500ft+ mountain passes.
Run it for:
Most of the run is done with 50% less oxygen than at sea level. Add in to that fluctuating temperatures from -12 to 40 degrees celsius, and you’ll get a good idea of what sort of brutality your body will be put through. The three climbs to Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass at 5,359m, will push your physical and mental endurance beyond almost any other sports race. Under 59% of competitiors complete the race; can you be one of them?
- The Grand Raid Reunion/Diagonale des Fous (translated as ‘Diagonal of Mad Men’): 100 miles at La Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, with 9,643m elevation
- Gobi March, 250km in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia
Australasia/Oceania: Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA)
- In the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales
- 100km/62.1 miles (there is a 50km option as well)
Run it for:
In a country that boasts some of the world’s most spectacular scenery and wildlife, the Blue Mountains National Park is the most beautiful region of the lot. The World Heritage Area makes for a stunning ultra marathon, steeped in aboriginal history. Not for the faint hearted, the course involves an elevation gain of 4,400m, but the sense of achievement upon completing this challenge is immense. It is a hugely popular ultra, with many participants signing up to do it again.
- Tarawera Ultra: 100 miles exploring the lakes, forests and waterfalls of New Zealand
- Kepler Challenge: 60km through Fiordland National Park, NZ.
Europe: Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)
- Following the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Based in Chamonix, France.
- 171km/106 miles, single-stage race with a total elevation gain of 10,040m/32,940ft
Run it for:
This is one of the most challenging footraces in the world, especially in terms of elevation gained in such a short time, and is on many experienced ultra runners’ bucket lists. The winners of this race complete the course in around 20 hours, running through the night. Only about 60% of competitors complete the race in any given year, as the race includes mountainous climbs and demanding descents, but there are also stunning Alpine views throughout. Since it crosses between three countries, this could be one of the only ultras where you need your passport with you!
- Spartathlon, Greece: 153 miles/246km in under 36 hours from Athens to Sparta, in the footsteps of Pheidippides.
- Dragon’s Back Race, Wales: 315km in 6 days, with average daily climbing of 3,100m
North America: Western States Endurance Run
- Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. Starting in Squaw Valley and ending at Auburn’s Placer High School.
- 161km/100 miles single-stage event, with cumulative elevation gain of 18,090ft/5,500m
Run it for:
This is known as one of the world’s toughest single-stage endurance races, taking on the rugged ranges and canyons of California. The race is also famous for its mythology: it started in 1974, when a man’s horse went lame before a 24-hour race, so he ran it on foot instead (18 minutes inside the time limit!). Nowadays, runners compete for one of the legendary belt-buckles: bronze for finishing in under 30 hours, silver for finishing in under 24 hours.
- Badwater Ultra: 135 miles around Death Valley and the Inyo mountains, with temperatures up to 54 degrees celsius.
- Hardrock Endurance Run: 100 miles in 48 hours on Southern Colorado’s San Juan Range
South America: The Jungle Ultra
- In the Amazon Rainforest of Manu National Park, Peru from the Andes mountains to the Madre de Dios River
- 230kms in five stages with humidity above 77%
Run it for:
This is a chance to explore a relatively unspoilt area of the steaming jungle, taking in cloud forests, mountains, and valleys. There will be arduous undergrowth, deep mud and river crossings to navigate, heavy rain throughout the challenge, and you might even run under nightfall. This is a wild course, where you will have to be almost entirely self-sufficient, so it is a test of endurance in the most extreme conditions. Being surrounded by a variety of rare wildlife will make for an incredible experience though.
- Atacama Crossing, Chile: 250km in 7 days in the Atacama desert
- Half Marathon des Sables, Peru: 120km in 3 days through the Ica desert
The list of best ultra-marathons in the world:
- Comrades Marathon (Africa)
- The Last Desert (Antarctica)
- La Ultra – The High (Asia)
- Ultra-Trail Australia (Australasia/Oceania)
- Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (Europe)
- Western States Endurance Run (North America)
- The Jungle Ultra (South America)