Completing a marathon is widely considered to be the golden accomplishment of running. The task requires high levels of fitness, endurance and mental fortitude. But what do you do when you’ve conquered the marathon? You can either try to run the same distance faster, and lots of people choose to do this, or you can try to find your next running challenge…enter the ultra-marathon.
What is an ultra marathon?
Officially an ultra marathon is a race longer than 26 miles, i.e. longer than a typical marathon. The actual distances are tending to be round figures, which base is in kilometres or miles, for example:
- 50 kilometres
- 100 kilometres
- 50 miles
- 100 miles
There are ‘time-based’ races, in which participants are given a set amount of time to cover as much distance as possible, for example, a 24-hour race.
Each of these race types is officially recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The Internation Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) is organising the ultra marathon world championships.
Where are they located?
Locations for ultra-marathons vary massively, from flat road surfaces through to deserts, fields, mountains, forests and pretty much every natural feature imaginable. They are available in a huge variety of countries and regions, each with its own unique environment and visuals.
- Japan’s Lake Saroma Ultramarathon is a 100km race
- China’s Gobi Desert hosts the ‘Gobi March,’ part of the ‘4 deserts race series.’
- South Africa’s ‘Comrades Marathon’ is the oldest and most popular ultra-marathon in the world. It includes around 20-25’000 runners competing each year.
- In Morocco, you’ll find the epic ‘Marathon des Sables,’ a 250 kilometre (160 miles) multi-day race across the Sahara desert!
- Perhaps the most famous European Ultra is the Spartathlon, a 246 kilometre
(153 miles) race from Athens to Sparta. The story of Athenian messenger Pheidippides is the base of the route when Athens send him to Sparta to request assistance against the Persian army. He was recorded as having arrived in Sparta the day after he left Athens.
In North America:
- There are literally hundreds of ultra-marathons across North America. Although perhaps the most popular it is the Western States Endurance Run. This is a 100-mile trail run amidst the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and includes around 5500 meters of ascent.
In South America:
- Ultras are growing in popularity across south America, with Brazil hosting the ‘135 ultra-marathon’ and Chile holding a variety of races including ‘The Atacama Crossing.’ the crossing involves 155 miles of the Atacama desert, noted as the driest place on earth, and forms part of the ‘4 deserts series.’
In Oceania, New Zealand and Australia:
- New Zealand runs the ‘Kepler Challenge,’ a 60-kilometer event in Fiordland National Park, whilst Australia offers the ‘Cliff Young 6 Day Race,’ in which participants race for 6 days around a single 400m track! If you can handle the extreme monotony the race record distance stands at 644 miles.
- Yes, you heard me right, there’s even a race in Antarctica. It is known affectionately as ‘The Last Desert,’ and forming the final part of the ‘4 desert race series.’ Participants get to experience 250 kilometres as well as gale-forcee blizzards and temperatures that can drop to a staggering -20 degrees centigrade (-4 degrees Fahrenheit)
Why take part in an ultra-marathon?
Realistically there’s only one reason to take part in an ultra-marathon, and that’s the CHALLENGE. The chance to push yourself like never before and to accomplish something that only a small handful of people in the world have ever accomplished.
How to take part?
As you might have guessed, taking part in an ultra-marathon requires extremely high levels of endurance. To even consider your first ultra you should already have run numerous marathons and have given your body time to become accustomed to the stresses of regular long distance running.
If you haven’t read my guide on ‘How to Run Further Without Getting Injured’ then I recommend opening up a second tab and having a quick read. Put simply, though, the trick is to make small improvements each week. Moreover to build up mileage whilst allowing enough time for your body to recover and adapt.
With that in mind, it would make sense to start with a smaller ultra of say 50k, before progressing to a 50 mile and then eventually on to a 100k and then a 100 mile. It’s probably a very good idea to complete your first few ultras in regular environmental conditions. The last thing that you would like to do is to make your first ever ultra a 100 mile run through a searing hot desert!
Tip from a Pro
I’ve been lucky enough to chat with a man who has completed no less than twenty ultra-marathon. He gave me a really interesting piece of advice.
“If you’re fit enough to run a regular marathon then you’re fit enough to run pretty much any ultra-marathon distance. The real battle is mental, you need to learn how to stay mentally strong as you tackle larger and larger distances. The desire to quit is huge, and its going to take time to learn to overcome that.”
I hope that we gave you a bit more knowledge about the incredible niche world of ultra-marathon running. It’s not a hugely popular sport. This is neither massively popular (probably due to how difficult and time consuming it is!). But If you’re an exquisite runner and you’re looking for your next awesome challenge then ultra-marathon running might just be the thing for you.
Just remember, build up slowly, learn the ropes and treat the sport with respect.