An ultra-marathon is a little different from a normal marathon and is defined as any race that is longer than the normal marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
This means an ultra marathon can be as long as it wants to be, there are no rules when it comes to maximum distances in ultra marathons and the same goes for terrain and weather. An ultra-marathon is therefore going to be one of the biggest physical challenges of one’s life and a very unique experience to boot!
You could be running across a desert, up volcanoes, and in other landscapes where you simply couldn’t imagine any kind of marathon being run, as ultra marathons are designed to push you to your maximum limits.
Let’s take a look at the Best Ultra Marathons In The World so we can get a sense of just what you would be up against if you joined one of these once-in-a-lifetime races.
The Marathon Des Sables was created by Patrick Bauer after he completed a similar journey that changed his life forever. It was such a profound experience that he wanted to share it with the world and give everyone a chance to do it for themselves.
The Marathon des Sables is one of the toughest races on the planet that will challenge all ultra runners. The entire trail runs through the Sahara desert and is an insane distance of 156 miles, close to 6 normal marathons but without a lot of elevation gain plus extreme weather conditions.
Most ultra runners choose this running event as their pinnacle since it takes you through the most unforgiving environment, the Sahara where one has to run through dried-up rivers, villages, salt flats, and of course, a lot of sand dunes in temperatures reaching over 40 °C.
It is not cheap to enter either but if you can’t afford it, there are some charitable spots you can apply for.
Where: Sahara Desert, Morocco
Time Of Year: 25th March to 4th April
Distance: 156 miles
Entry Costs: $4000
The Western States 100 takes you through some of the most varied climates of any ultra marathon on the planet.
The race is an amazing 100.2 miles that take you through the beautiful trails of the Squaw Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains with the finishing line in Auburn. You will run over snow at the top of the mountains and have to deal with serious heat of up to 38 degrees Celsius in the valleys.
The elevation gain is no joke either as it requires a total gain of 5,500 meters over the course of the race. If that wasn’t hard enough, there is also an upper limit on time and it must be completed within 30 hours.
Time Of Year: 25th to 26th June
Distance: 100.2 miles
Entry Costs: $410
The Comrades Marathon is one of the oldest trail races around and has been going since 1921. Entrances are capped at 25,000 people and it is one of the most popular races around as there is a lot of prize money to be won.
It is a 55-mile race through KwaZulu-Natal and the trails follow gravel and tarmac roads more than anything. Runners have to complete the race within 12 hours and there are five timed cut-off points along the way you have to make to be able to stay in the race. This is an ultra-running race designed to push you.
The hardest section on the trail is known as the big five which describes a set of hills. The total elevation change is about 1166 meters, so it isn’t a walk in the park.
Where: Durban, South Africa
Time Of Year: 28th August
Distance: 55 miles
Entry Costs: 1000 – 2000 Rand
The Namib Race is another desert run that is a part of the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series. Set in the stunning Skeleton Coast National Park of Namibia, runners will race through incredible scenery and serious temperature changes as they make their way to the finish line some 155 miles away.
Following Namibia’s Atlantic Coast, runners will see old diamond mines, seal colonies, dunes, salt lakes, and salt pans.
It is a self-support race so runners who compete have to carry all the equipment needed to complete the race over the 7 days it takes. The only things provided are tents and water along the way.
Where: Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia
Time Of Year: April 21- May 1
Distance: 155.3 miles
Entry Costs: $3,800
The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc follows one of the most used hiking trails in Europe, the Tour du Mont Blanc which is a loop trail around Mont Blanc that has you running in 3 countries along the way, Italy, Switzerland, and France.
The race is 110 miles long and will have you running through the Alps, so the scenery is nothing short of spectacular and you will be running through magical forests, quaint mountain villages, and across crystal clear rivers.
The race should be completed in around 48 hours but considering that there is a 10,000-meter elevation change, about 40% of runners who enter don’t end up finishing.
Where: France, Italy & Switzerland
Time Of Year: 22nd to 28th August
Distance: 110 miles
Entry Costs: 150 Euro
The Grand to Grand Ultra takes you through the Grand Canyon and is detailed as a 7-day race that is composed of 6 stages. It is a community race where everyone camps together and pushes each other as they test their limits.
Runners start at the Grand Canyon rim after a hot buffet and camping out and then traverse 10,000 meters of elevation across numerous canyons and dunes.
You will have to carry all your food and gear along the way, with only tents and hot water provided for your meals and coffee.
Where: Utah and Arizona, North America
Time Of Year: September
Distance: 170 miles
Entry Costs: $3,350
The Barkley Marathon is a bit of a different ultramarathon and it combines wilderness skills and navigation with puzzles along the way.
It is a 100-mile race that is meant to be made up of five 20-mile loops around the state park but when you add in the extras, it can be upwards of 130 miles.
Runners are not told the route beforehand, it changes every year, and they don’t even know the start time, it can be anytime from in the middle of the night to midday.
To complete the race you have to finish within 60 hours, navigate through the wilderness, and find all the pages from books hidden along the way. Only 14 people have ever completed it!
Where: Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
Time Of Year: April
Distance: 99 miles
Entry Costs: $1.80
The Jungle Ultra takes place in 77% humidity as runners take around seven days to complete the five stages of this 155-mile race.
If you are a nature-loving ultra runner, this is the race for you as it takes you from the Andes mountains through the Amazon Rainforest of Manu National Park to the Madre de Dios River.
You will be running past stunning mountains, unspoiled jungles, and through unique environments like cloud forests. It is a challenge and a half as you will have to contend with nature along the way in the form of thick push, mud, and wild animals.
It is also a self-sufficient race so carrying all you need is an extra push against your limits.
Where: Manu National Park, Peru
Time Of Year: June
Distance: 155 miles
Entry Costs: $3,300
The Salt Pans ultra is the perfect starting point for beginner ultra runners as it is a shorter ultramarathon of just 62 miles but it will still test you to the max.
Set in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, the race takes three days to complete as you run around and camp out on one of the biggest salt flats on the planet.
Finding the start line requires a 6.5-hour safari through remote wilderness and the race is unmarked so you will need a GPS to ensure you are on course throughout. Add to this the coring temperatures and you have a serious challenge ahead of you.
Where: Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana
Time Of Year: End Of April
Distance: 62 miles
Entry Costs: $500
The Fire & Ice Ultra is a 6-day race that is run in numerous stages that will take you across some of the most amazing landscapes in Iceland. You will be running past everything from volcanoes to ash deserts and lava fields to boot!
The challenges don’t stop there though as you will have to contend with open moors, mud pools, and the uninhabited areas close to the Arctic Circle.
The race is self-reliant so you will have to carry all you need except hot water and tents which are provided along the way.
Where: Vatnajokull National Park
Time Of Year: August – September
Distance: 155 miles
Entry Costs: $3,500
The Ultra X is another good ultramarathon for beginners thanks to its shorter distance of 78 miles and the climate of Scotland is conducive to running.
The trail follows the 400 million-year-old fault line of the Great Glen Way and takes you from Fort William to Moray Firth. It is designed to take around 2 days to complete and circumnavigates Loch Ness over the course of the race.
Where: Loch Ness
Time Of Year: May
Distance: 75 miles
Entry Costs: $1300
Known as one of the toughest races in the world, the Spartathlon requires runners to complete the 152 miles in under 36 hours, which is a little harsh if you ask me.
The race starts in Athens and finishes in Sparta taking you through all kinds of rock terrain, around olive groves and vineyards, and it even forces you to run up and over Mount Parthenia in the middle of the night.
Only 390 runners can enter the event and you will need to have done some 100km+ races in order to apply. Only 30% of entrants actually complete this race!
Where: Athens, Greece
Time Of Year: September
Distance: 152 miles
Entry Costs: $600
The Dragon’s Back Race is one of the hardest races on the planet as runners have to manage to complete 236 miles in just 6 days which works out to 1.5 marathons per day.
Not only is the distance a challenge but the elevation change is around 57,078 ft along the way which is twice the height of Everest.
Runners not only have to contend with this but also traverse the Cambrian mountains, the summit of Drygarn Fawr, Crib Goch, and the Snowdon horseshoe. To make it easier, food, drinks, and tents are provided along the way.
Time Of Year: September
Distance: 236 miles
Entry Costs: £1400
The Ultra X Jordan takes runners through the stunning red sand of the Wadi Rum Desert. It is designed to be completed over 5 days.
There are checkpoints every 10 km with water and medical assistance, so you only need to carry what you need for each day and at camp, there are tents, kit bags, and physios to help you too.
It is an awesome experience as a whole considering it is a 9-day trip that includes some lovely sightseeing in the price too.
Where: Wadi Rum Desert
Time Of Year: October
Distance: 161 miles
Entry Costs: £995
The Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji is an awesome race that takes you around the iconic mountain of Mt Fuji. The race is very well organized and well lit for night running too and you will find aid stations along the way serving up udon noodles to keep you going.
The scenery is nothing short of amazing and with an elevation increase of over 8000 meters, this race is going to test your limits.
Where: Mt Fuji
Time Of Year: April
Distance: 104 miles
Entry Costs: 40,000 Yen
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!