Best 100 Mile Races And Ultra Marathons In The US 2020

Written By Chris Taylor

Chris is Operations Manager at Ultra X and takes the lead on planning new races and events. His interests include (and are limited to): ultra running, plant-based foods to eat whilst ultra running, and ultra running with dogs.

25 January 2020

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This month, we’re considering which ultra marathons are the best in the world in 2020, and this week we turn our attention to the birthplace of trail running: the United States.

Whilst we are considering all events under the ultramarathon category: single stage, multi stage, 100 mile races and more, the US is generally known for its epic 100 milers. Here we name the best of the best and review the ones that belong on every runner’s bucket list.

Western States Endurance Run

If you’ve only ever heard of one ultra marathon, there is a high chance its Western States. Officially the oldest ultramarathon in the world, this 100-mile trail race was originally competed on horseback, until Gordy Ainsleigh attempted to complete the course on foot in under 24 hours. Once he’d proved it possible, everyone else wanted a go and nowadays people travel from all over the world to master this famously hot course.

Runners have 30 hours to complete the route, which, despite having more than 5,500m of elevation is generally considered ‘runnable’ (by the elites, anyway). The range in elevation means some miles are ran on snow and others on scorching hot trails. Between Squaw Valley and Auburn, runners take in the high country beauty of Emigrant Pass, the canyons of the California gold country and cross the ice-cold waters of the American River.

Western States has hosted some legendary competitions throughout the years and acts an unofficial world champion competition (or at least American champion). The lottery is strict though. With more than 6,000 entering in 2020, first time entrants have just a 1.3% chance of landing themselves a spot. Better get those entries in now…

Where: Squaw Valley, California
When: 27-28 June 2020
Distance: 161km
Elevation Gain: 5,500m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: $410

Western States 100 Endurance Run

Leadville Trail 100

First organised in 1983, the Leadville Trail 100 was conceived as a way of bringing tourist money to the town after the local mine closed, taking more than 3,000 jobs with it. Now it is one of the most iconic races on the US ultramarathon circuit. The course follows the Colorado Trail and is a gruelling out-and-back route, combining technical terrain with long and steep climbs, the most famous of which is the 3,740m high Hope Pass.

Brutal climbs aside, the altitude is the real kicker. Aptly nicknamed the ‘Two-Mile-High-City’, Leadville is located 3,100m above sea level and is the lowest point on the course. The ‘Race Across The Sky’ only goes up from there and runners often battle symptoms of hypoxia, hyponatremia and hypothermia when up in the mountains. Just 45 participants lined up in year one but these days a lottery-selected 800 battle it out for the coveted silver belt buckle. In a typical year though, less than half finish…

Leadville Trail 100 was also the American debut for the legendary Tarahumara tribe of Mexico. The ‘original ultra runners’ won the event outright in both 1993 and 1994, setting a course record that stood for 8 years (if you fancy taking on the Tarahumara yourself, check out Ultra X Mexico).

Where: Leadville, Colorado
When: 22 August 2020
Distance: 161km
Elevation Gain: 4,800m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: $335

Leadville Trail 100 Hope Pass

Badwater 135

This race is not for the faint hearted. At 85m below sea level, the start line at Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the lowest elevation in the US. From here, runners travel through places with increasingly foreboding names, such as Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells and Lone Pine. Covering three mountain ranges, participants climb nearly 4,500m overall, all the way up to the finish line on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in continental America.

As if climbing from the lowest valley to the highest peak wasn’t enough, Badwater 135 also takes place in the hottest and driest location in North America… in July. The appropriately named Death Valley often reaches temperatures well in excess of 40ºC (and sometimes as high as 50ºC!). Runners have been known to transport ice baths and huge industrial fans to different checkpoints along the route help cool their boiling bodies.

Started in 1978, when ultra running was in its true infancy, Badwater 135 is now one of the best-known races in the world, with a cult-like following that often return again and again.

Where: Death Valley, California
When: 6-8 July 2020
Distance: 217km
Elevation Gain: 4,450m
Terrain: Mixed
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: $1,495

Badwater 135 Death Valley

HURT100

Not only do the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team have one of the best acronyms (HURT), they also organise one of the best races in America. HURT100 is a 5 lap race in a semi-tropical rainforest on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Thanks to the Nā Ala Hele program — which turned traces of pig trails through the rainforest into people-friendly paths — 99% of the course is on single-track trails. Although that makes getting lost quite difficult, the terrain is still extremely challenging, ranging from roots, to rocks and soil, the latter of which comes in the form of anything from sun-baked clay to slippery mud of varying depths.

Due to the abundance of sudden hairpin turns, long steep inclines of up to several miles and the 20 — yes, 20! — stream crossings, running with a consistent stride for more than a few hundred metres is challenging. Oh, and there’s also nearly 7,500m of climbing to do. The name says it all, really.

Where: O’ahu, Hawaii
When: 22 January 2020
Distance: 161km
Elevation Gain: 7,468m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: $300

Hurt100 Oahu Hawaii

Hardrock 100

This one is hard (pun intended). And rocky (there we go again). Hardrock 100 is a looped course of dirt trails and cross country running along the San Juan Range of the Rocky Mountains. The total elevation gain is more than 10,000m and runners travel above 3,700m of altitude an eye-watering 13 times, the highest point being the 4,285m summit of Handies Peak.

The course is perhaps most famous though for its extremely rugged terrain, which encompasses steep scree climbing and descending, snow, river crossings and boulder fields — enough to trip up even the most seasoned elites (Killian Jornet, who holds the course record, once fell and dislocated his shoulder around the 13-mile-mark… though that obviously didn’t stop him from finishing the race and finishing it victorious).

The average finish time is 40 hours and to complete the course, runners must kiss the infamous ‘Hardrock’ at the end — a picture of a ram’s head painted a large block of stone mining debris. Being a decent runner won’t be enough to complete this one: the course is designed to provide extreme challenges in altitude, steepness, and remoteness — mountaineering, wilderness survival and navigation skills are as important in this event as endurance.

Where: Silverton, Colorado
When: 17 July 2020
Distance: 161km
Elevation Gain: 10,074m
Terrain: Mountains
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: $325

Hardrock 100 Ultra

Barkley Marathons

There is perhaps no race as shrouded in mystery as the Barkley Marathons. Operating under the radar for many years, it was bought to mainstream attention a by the Netflix documentary, The Race That Eats Its Young, and has since become folklore in the ultra running community — revered and feared in equal measure.

The looped course is supposedly 20 miles (though past competitors have put it closer to a marathon, or even more). To complete 3 loops is considered a ‘Fun Run’ — an extremely impressive feat in itself. However, to be crowned a finisher, runners must complete five loops in under 60 hours. The elevation? A mind-blowing 36,600m (again, approximate), which equates to climbing — and descending — Mount Everest four times. Unsurprisingly, there have only been a handful of finishers since the first edition in 1986 and no one finished last year.

Race organiser Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. Lazarus Lake) is somewhat of a legend himself and the race is heavily influenced by his quirky personality. He named the event after his neighbour (for no apparent reason other than to annoy him), informs competitors of the race start one hour before by blowing a conch shell in the middle of the night (there’s no official start time), and requires competitors to collect pages from books hidden around the course to prove they’ve completed each loop. There’s also no race website and the application process is a secret. Less race and more masochistic life experience, if you’re meant to run the Barkley, you’ll find a way to enter.

Where: Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
When: Sometime in April (ish)
Distance: 160km (ish)
Elevation Gain: 36,600m (ish)
Terrain: Mountains
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: $1.60

Barkley Marathons Yellow Gate

Grand to Grand

The Grand to Grand is America’s best known multi stage race. Starting from the jaw-dropping north rim of the Grand Canyon, runners traverse a high desert landscape of sand dunes, red rock canyons, buttes, mesas and hoodoos. Each day is around marathon distance with a daunting 85km long-stage in the middle. Get through it though and a spectacular finish line awaits: the summit of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations and the rumoured burial site of Montezuma’s gold.

The experience doesn’t come cheap at $3,550 but the opportunity to race around one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World is more than worth it to many. Expect awe-inspiring panoramic views, majestic coral pink sand dunes, two-billion-year-old rock formations and isolated slot canyons that few people on Earth have ever seen.

Where: Grand Canyon, Arizona
When: 20-26 September 2020
Distance: 275km (7 days)
Elevation Gain: 5,499m
Terrain: Desert
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: $3,550

Grand to Grand Pink Cliffs Grand Staircase

Iditarod Trail Invitational

Adding some chill to our ultra marathon catalogue is the infamous Alaskan snow race. In this annual invitational, participants tackle the 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail, the same course as the legendary Sled Dog Race of the same name. Although competitors can also ski and fat bike the route, the boldest few attempt to complete the distance to Nome by foot.

Every year is different on the Iditarod Trail but competitors can generally look forward to temperatures ranging from -45ºC to 1ºC, gale force winds, blizzards, waist deep snow, glare ice and bright sunshine — all in one day. Surprisingly, only a few dozen have finished the race since the inaugural edition in 2000. If you fancy taking it on, you’ll have to complete the 350 mile version first to even be considered. One thing’s for sure: requiring self-sufficiency and considerable resilience to make it through up to 30 frozen days and nights, this event is not for beginners.

Where: Anchorage, Alaska
When: 22 February 2020
Distance: 1,609km
Terrain: Snow
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: $1,750

Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000

Special Mention: Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada (UTHC)

Though obviously not in the States, there are a number of great ultramarathon events just over the border in Canada, one of the best of which is the Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada (UTHC).

Founded in 2011, the UTHC takes place in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. The course makes use of the nearby ski slopes in Mont Grand-Fonds and the trails of Charlevoix, a unique and rich ecosystem registered as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The narrow trails wind through untamed wilderness and the many summits en route afford stunning views of the Saint Lawrence River and the boreal forest below.

There are four different distances on offer, but finishing the full 125km will grant you 5 precious Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) Running Stones, if the big dance in Chamonix is your ultimate goal…

Where: Charlevoix, Quebec
When: 11-13 September 2020
Distance: 125km
Elevation Gain: 4,220m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: $315

Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada (UTHC)

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