Written By Jasper Johnson
Jasper is a new member of the Ultra X team. A keen middle distance runner who is looking to up the distance to an ultra marathon, Jasper enjoys writing about all things running.
Ultra marathons are any events longer in distance than a marathon (42.2km). However, as there is no upper limit, the range in event can vary significantly. Whilst there are now some insanely challenging races held across the globe, there are also many much more accessible events also classed as ultra marathons.
In this series, we’re looking at all events under the ultra marathon category: single-stage, multi-stage, 100 mile and more, to consider which are the best ultra marathons in the world in 2021 and which events need to be on every runner’s bucket list.
In this article, we turn to the birthplace of trail ultra marathons, the USA. Whilst we are considering all events under the ultramarathon category, the USA is generally known for its epic 100 milers. Here we name the best of the best.
Western States 100
Squaw Valley, California
26-27 June 2021
This is a big one. If there’s one ultra marathon you have heard of, it’s probably this. The Western States 100 claims to being the oldest 100 mile trail race. The race starts in the Olympic Valley, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and ending 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. Since its inception in 1974, Western States 100 has come to be synonymous with the toughest endurance tests in the world.
Following the same route since 1986, runners start from the valley floor up to ‘Emigrant Pass’, climbing over 2550ft in the first four and half miles. From the Olympic valley (site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games), runners go up again. Following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540ft and descending 22,970ft before reaching Auburn, a small town in the heart of California’s historic gold country. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory.
Runners have 30 hours to complete the route, which, despite the considerable elevation, is generally considered ‘runnable’ (by the elites, anyway). The range in elevation means some miles are run on snow and others on scorching hot trails.
Western States attracts some of the most elite competitors as well as being a Mecca for keen trail runners the world over, making competition for places fierce. First time entrants to the lottery entry have just a 1.3% chance of landing themselves a spot. Better get those entries in now…
Leadville Trail 100
21-22 August 2021
The legendary “Race Across The Sky”, Leadville Trail 100 started back in 1983 and takes runners one hundred miles across the extreme Colorado Rockies from elevations of 9,200ft to 12,600ft.
The Leadville Trail 100 was conceived of as a way of bringing tourist money to the town after the local mine closed. 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.
Nicknamed the ‘Two-Mile-High-City’, Leadville is located 3,100m above sea level, making running this ultra marathon, ultra hard. Serious altitude training is recommended before this race.
Over 800 people line up at the start most years. However, less than half usually finish…
Death Valley, California
19-21 July 2021
Badwater 135 is the opposite of the Leadville 100. Runners start 85m below sea level, in Death Valley, one of the lowest places in the USA. Runners pass through some scary sounding places, such as Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells and Lone Pine as they cover three mountain ranges, climbing nearly 4,500m overall, all the way up to the finish line on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain on continental America.
To make this race even harder it takes place in July, not the nicest time of month to visit Death Valley! Temperatures reach well in excess of 40ºC (and sometimes as high as 50ºC!). Runners have been known to use ice baths and industrial sized fans to cool down at the checkpoints.
Running in the heat is something you will have to get used to, to take on this race. It make’s Ultra X Jordan seem like a walk in the park.
16 July 2021
Many of the best 100 mile ultras are in Colorado, the beautiful and varied terrain making for quality racing, and Hardrock 100 is no exception. This race is hard and rocky (yep), consisting of 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, a lung wrenching 13 times, the highest point being the 4,285m summit of Handies Peak.
The finish is a unique one, with most runners managing to cross the finish line in about 40 hours, competitors must kiss the infamous ‘Hardrock’ at the end — a picture of a ram’s head painted on a large block of stone mining debris.
We recommend trying this tough and unique race. However, it isn’t for everyone, so make sure you are well prepared to take this on.
Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
Sometime in April (ish)
The founder of the Barkley Marathons is shrouded in as much mystery as the race itself. Who is he? Why does he do it? Is he the devil reincarnate? Well, perhaps not the last one but this race is known to take runners to dark places.
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).
The Barkley Marathons went under the radar for many years until the Netflix documentary “The Race That Eats Its Young” made it running folklore.
Supposedly a 100 mile race, competitors complete five 20 mile loops However, it is known competitors will do at least 130 miles to complete the race. The route changes each year and is kept a closely guarded secret until a few days before the race. Competitors are told last minute when exactly the race will start, with race start times ranging from midnight to noon.
Runners must self-navigate their way through the wilderness, picking up pages from books hidden in the wilderness. Competitors only finish if they have pages from every book and make it back within the 60 hour time limit. Not surprisingly, only 14 runners have ever completed the race.
Grand to Grand Ultra
Grand Canyon, Arizona
19-25 September 2021
275km (7 days)
Grand to Grand is one of the biggest races in the USA. The location for this race couldn’t get much better, competitors start on the stunning northern rim of the Grand Canyon providing the best backdrop on the start line of any race we have seen. The conditions underfoot are expectedly sandy and rocky. The race is split up into marathon distances each day with a 85km long stage in the middle.
For the runners that make it to the finish line, they are greeted by the site of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations and the rumoured burial site of Aztec gold.
While this may be the race of a lifetime, it has a price tag to match. However, considering the unbelievable panoramic views from the top of the canyons to the two-billion-year-old rock formations and isolated slot canyons in the valleys it’s easy to see why the $3,550 is worth it for many.
Iditarod Trail Invitational
28 February 2021
This race is a bit chilly…
Taking place in the infamous Alaskan snow, racers trek 1,000 miles along the Iditarod Trail. Expect temperatures to dip as low as -45ºC and rise to a toasty 1ºC. You can ski, bike or run this race but only the truly bold attempt this one on foot.
Only a handful of adventurers have finished this race since its inception in 2000. Icy temperatures aren’t the only thing to prepare for: gale force winds, blizzards and waist deep snow make running this race a superhuman effort. You have 30 days to make it through the snow covered route, so self-sufficiency and resilience are a must to take this race on.
Special Mention: Ultra X Mexico
Copper Canyons, Mexico
6-14 November 2021
250km (5 days)
This wouldn’t be an article on the Ultra X resource page without a mention of one of our favourite events – which is just over the border from the States in Northern Mexico!
Ultra X Mexico takes competitors to the spectacular mountain trails of the Copper Canyons where the original ultra runners, an indigenous tribe called the Tarahumara Indians (famously featured in the book Born to Run) are based.
This is a proper bucket list event.
Special Mention: Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada (UTHC)
10-12 September 2021
Although this one isn’t in the USA, it is just over the border in Canada and is up there as one of the best ultras around.
Runners get to explore the remote Canadian countryside, starting on the ski slopes of Mont Grand-Fonds and the trails of Charlevoix, runners get to experience a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The route offers narrow trails through untamed wilderness coupled with many summits en route providing stunning views of the Saint Lawrence River and the boreal forest below.
There are four races on offer but completion of the 125km race gives you five precious Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) Running Stones, so if UTMB is on your race calendar…
Special Mention: Spartan Trail
Known for its obstacle course races, the Spartan organisation has recently taken to trail running, by partnering with some of the best known races on the planet, including Lavaredo Ultra Trail and Patagonia Run to create a Trail World Championships.
The inaugural event was cancelled in 2020 due to you-know-what but for all ultra-junkies the arrival of Spartan in the trail scene is definitely one to watch.
Expect things to go one of two ways…
Want to see more incredible ultra marathons from every continent? Recently, we listed the:
You may also like…
The ultimate list of the best ultramarathons in Canada, including races in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.
An insight into the legendary Mexican running tribe, the Tarahumara or Raramuri .
Advice on keeping motivated during Covid-19 isolation and some tips to ensure you come out the other side stronger than ever.