The Top 12 Ultras on the Planet
By Alice Hunter Morrison
Moroccan-based journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, writer for RunUltra, author of “Dodging Elephants: 8000 Miles Across Africa by Bike” and Special Correspondent for IRUN4ULTRA.
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
from Christopher McDouglall’s “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”
Human beings are born to run. Whenever you watch a group of six year olds chasing each other around the yard for no other reason than they can, you clearly witness the instinct to run. As the years wear on and life gets more complex, we start training and goal setting. We find partners to run with and follow programs. We look for things to achieve and ways to keep our love of running fresh.
The wonderful thing about ultrarunning is that there are more races and events to choose from – deserts, mountains, jungles, and cities. Wherever you want to run, you can be sure that a race waiting there for you.
The following is a list of the top twelve ultras on the planet to celebrate the joy of running. We have included many of the lesser-known races as well as the large international favorites. Get out your passport and add these to your bucket list!
1. Ultra Fiord
Ultra Fiord takes place in the extreme southern end of the Chilean Patagonia, a magical world of fiords and glaciers with high, jagged peaks and stunning coastlines. There are five events to choose from, from a 50 kilometer to a 100 miler.
“It has the potential to be a big, classic world race. It seems to me like what Hardrock was in the beginning, like before they thought, ‘Oh, we should probably put a fixed rope on the snowfield coming off Virginius Pass’. I really think it has the original Hardrock spirit.” — Jeff Browning (United States), 100-Mile Winner
Patagonia is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in the world and a place of breathtaking natural beauty. You will have to be ready for unpredictable weather and lots of climbing. Mud, peat bogs, glacier-filled mountains, and big rocks, will push you to your limits.”
2. Fat Ass Runs
We love Fat Ass runs! Fat Ass is the name given to a series of low key runs that are frequented by experienced runners and walkers and characterized by the phrase, “No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps.” Passionate runners that participate in the events organize these runs, which are free to enter. Because the runs are not considered races in any
sense, there is no guarantee of anything other than a course on which to run. There are no course marshals markers, nor aid. They are an exercise in self-help. One thing you are guaranteed is a group of friendly runners who love the sport. Put Fat Ass Runs + your region into a Google search to find one near you. To get started, visit Philadelphia’s offering: https://www.rocky50k.com/
3. Big Red Run
The Australian outback offers numerous challenges for any runner. With 250 kilometers over six days, the Big Red Run course includes a mixture of sand dunes, open gibber plains, clay flats, salt lakes and a few station tracks. And, for those of you who don’t know what a “gibber plain” is, it comes from the Aboriginal word for stone and represents what is left when the sand and dust are blown away by the desert winds. Blowing sand polishes and smoothes the stones and gravel. In runners’ language that means – ouch! https://www.bigredrun.com.au/bigredrun/index
4. Cape Wrath Ultra
From the Australian outback to the rain-drenched beauty of the Highlands of Scotland, the Cape Wrath Ultra is an eight-day, 400 kilometer beast. Starting in Fort William, the race takes competitors on an historic journey linking ancient footpaths and remote tracks to the furthest northwesterly point of the British Isles, Cape Wrath. Surrounded by lochs and bens,
running through glens and crossing rivers and waterfalls, this is a real Highlands experience with all the romance and heartbreak (leg break) that word conjures.
The good news is that you do not have to carry your own backpack! As a supported ultra running expedition, competitors’ equipment is transported each day with tented accommodation and meals provided at overnight camps. https://www.capewrathultra.com/
5. The Western States 100
This race includes one of the most coveted pieces of “bling” there is – runners finishing before the 30-hour overall time limit for the race receive a commemorative bronze belt buckle. Runners finishing in less than 24 hours receive a silver belt buckle. If you have one of the silver buckles, you have made it as an ultra runner.
The Western States Endurance Run, known commonly as the Western States 100, is a 100-mile (161 kilometer) ultramarathon that takes place annually on trails in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains during the last weekend in June. The race starts at the base of the Squaw Valley ski resort and finishes at the Placer High School track in Auburn, California. The terrain is rugged, frequently with snow on the ground at the highest passes, and hot temperatures in the low valleys near the end of the course. Runners ascend a cumulative total of 18,090 feet (5500 meters) and descend a total of 22,970 feet (7000 meters) on mountain trails before reaching the finish line. Because of the length of the race, it begins at 5 AM and continues through the day and into the night. https://www.wser.org/
6. The Jungle Ultra (Peru)
This race is five stages, 230 kilometers, and includes 100 percent humidity, which takes a toll on most competitors. The race organizers proudly say, “Sweating is useless.” This jungle ultra takes you through virgin Peruvian rain forest where entrants run across tough jungle trails, mountain roads, and village tracks, making their way from the Cloud Forest and down 10,500 feet into the Amazon Jungle below. Runners experience the virgin forests, diverse wildlife, and numerous tribes of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. https://www.beyondtheultimate.co.uk/jungle-ultra.asp
7. Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race
You don’t need to leave home to do this one. The New York Times has called this ultra the
“Everest of ultra running”. And, it is easy to see why. The concept is that entrants must average 59.6 miles per day for 52 straight days in order to reach 3100 miles. The surface is concrete sidewalks around a playground, ball fields, and the confines of a vocational high
school – all within a city neighborhood setting. Participants must run these miles within an 18-hour daily format. Limited to invited athletes who have a resume of multi-day running experience and elite endurance ability; entry into this race is at the Race Director’s discretion. https://3100.srichinmoyraces.org/
8. The Iditarod Trail Invitational
Although this is not entirely a running race, it has an on-foot component (and as it is totally
awesome). The Iditarod Trail Invitational is the world’s longest winter ultramarathon by fat
bike, foot and ski, and follows the historic Iditarod Trail from Knik, Alaska over the Alaska Range to McGrath, and then to Nome in late February every year one week before the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The short race (350 miles) finishes in the interior village of McGrath on the Kuskokwim River and the 1000-mile race finishes in Nome. Racers have to finish the 350-mile race in a previous year before they can enter the 1000-mile race. https://iditarodtrailinvitational.com/
9. STYR Labs Badwater® 135
Covering 135 miles (217 kilometers) on road non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA, the Badwater 135 is the most demanding and extreme one-stage running race offered anywhere on the planet. The start line is at Badwater, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280 feet (85 meters) below sea level and boasts some of the hottest temperatures in the world. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet (2530 meters). The Badwater 135 course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 feet (4450 meters) of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet (1859 meters) of cumulative descent. You have to be a brave man or woman to attempt it! https://www.badwater.com/event/badwater-135/
10. Tor des Géants
The Tor des Géants takes place in the Aosta Valley, Italy. You have 150 hours to complete the race, which is more than 200 miles (336 kilometers) and has an altitude range of 24,000 meters. This race is different in that there are no set stages or cut off times (except for the final 150 hours). Runners have to make all of their own decisions. There are 43 feed stops and seven “life” stations. Because this race is so challenging, only about 60 percent of the competitors finish it. If you want to truly push yourself to the limit, this might be the race for you! https://www.tordesgeants.it/en
11. Marathon des Sables
It’s called the “toughest footrace on earth” and takes place
annually in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, North Africa. Equating to roughly six marathons in six days, it is self-sufficient and requires that runners carry their equipment and food. The race is around 250 kilometers (156 miles) long. Temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees centigrade. The intense heat, the glare of the burning sands, the struggle up the high
mountains, and the war of attrition on competitors’ feet have made this race the stuff of legends. https://marathondessables.co.uk/
First place for any race is going to be controversial, so why have we chosen UTMB? The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a single-stage mountain ultramarathon. It takes place annually in the Alps, and follows the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy, and Switzerland. It has a distance of approximately 166 kilometers (103 miles), and a total elevation gain of around 9,600 meters. It is also huge in terms of participation – 2000 runners start the UTMB and 10,000 take part in its combined events. You can only enter if you have gained enough points during the year to qualify. The best mountain runners in the world participate. Although you could argue that many of the races on this list should get top billing (and there are many others we haven’t included here) but for sheer size, splendor, and history, the UTMB is our current number one. https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/