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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Read­ing Time: 8 minutes

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


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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