The Best Ultra Mara­thons In The World: Ulti­mate Ultra Buck­et List

Writ­ten By Jam­ie Sparks

Jam­ie is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. He enjoys ram­bling on about a vari­ety of top­ics; motor­bikes, cyc­ling, adven­ture, and, of course, ultra run­ning.

29 Feb­ru­ary 2020

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Read­ing Time: 9 minutes

In this art­icle we look at all events in the ultra mara­thon cat­egory: single stage, multi stage, 100 mile and more. These are, in our eyes, the best ultramara­thons on the plan­et in 2020!

The fol­low­ing races have been graded in dif­fi­culty: access­ible, inter­me­di­ate, hard and bru­tal.

Enjoy, ladies and gen­tle­men.

Ultra X Jordan

Now in it’s 5th year, Ultra X Jordan (pre­vi­ously the Wadi Rum Ultra) takes place in the epic “Val­ley of the Moon”. The mys­tic­al desert course takes com­pet­it­ors past his­tor­ic sites, into dra­mat­ic wadis and over mag­ni­fi­cent sand dunes in the land of Lawrence of Ara­bia. Loc­al Jord­ani­an run­ner Salameh Al Aqra has nev­er lost a stage of the race but with the event grow­ing each year this is a record which will undoubtedly be broken soon…

To mark the 5th anniversary of the race the organ­isers are plan­ning a few sur­prises, includ­ing the longest long stage in the race’s his­tory…

Check out the Ultra X Jordan 2019 doc­u­ment­ary.

Where: Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan
When: 3–10 Octo­ber 2020
Dis­tance: 250km (5 days)
Elev­a­tion Gain: 5,815m
Ter­rain: Desert
Dif­fi­culty Level: Inter­me­di­ate
Entry Price: £995

Eiger Ultra Trail

Start­ing in the Swiss alpine town of Grindel­wald, this course passes through the most breath­tak­ing view­points in the area before tra­vers­ing the base of the Eiger itself.

With a dis­tance of 101 km and an elev­a­tion gain of 6,700m, the E101 is a mighty chal­lenge to even the most weathered of trail run­ners. The E101 trail is a par­tially self-sup­por­ted race and you can expect to see a vari­ety of loc­al foods at each aid sta­tion. This event also offers two short­er races; 50km and 35km options. If this one appeals to you, be sure to throw your name in the hat the moment regis­tra­tions open as it sells out every year.

Where: Switzer­land
When: 18 July 2020
Dis­tance: 101km
Elev­a­tion Gain: 6,700m
Ter­rain: Trail  
Dif­fi­culty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £170

Best Ultra Marathons in Europe - eiger ultra trail

Ultra-Trail Aus­tralia (UTA)

Loc­ated in the Blue Moun­tains Nation­al Park in the state of New South Wales, this 100km course is an abso­lute belter. In a coun­try that boasts some of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar scenery and wild­life, the Blue Moun­tains Nation­al Park is one of the most beau­ti­ful regions of the lot. The area is steeped in rich abori­gin­al his­tory.

At this stage it is uncer­tain wheth­er the 2020 edi­tion will go ahead giv­en a sig­ni­fic­ant part of the 2020 Ultra Trail Aus­tralia 100km course has been dir­ectly affected by fires.

The thoughts of every­one at Ultra X are with those who have been impacted by bush­fires across the coun­try and we hope that Aus­tralia and Ultra Trail Aus­tralia are able to fully bounce back. If the event doesn’t hap­pen in 2020, it is still a true buck­et lister for any year.

Where: Aus­tralia
When: 14–17 May 2020
Dis­tance: 100km
Elev­a­tion Gain: 4,400m
Ter­rain: Trail
Dif­fi­culty Level: Inter­me­di­ate
Entry Price: £222

Com­rades Mara­thon: The Ulti­mate Human Race

Com­rades Mara­thon is to South Africa what the Super­bowl is to the United States. It is the world’s old­est and largest ultra mara­thon and awards the most prize money of any ultra in the world. Dif­fer­ent medals are awar­ded based on a runner’s time — gun, not chip — giv­ing vary­ing abil­it­ies of par­ti­cipant tar­gets to aim for, and there is a strict 12-hour cut-off instig­ated by a human wall at the fin­ish line, which is often a site of heart-break­ing drama (ser­i­ously, give it a You­Tube).

Since the first race in 1921, more than 300,000 run­ners have com­pleted this icon­ic race, which runs between Durb­an and Pietermar­itzburg with the dir­ec­tion altern­at­ing each year, between an 87km west to east net uphill (an ‘Up’ year) and a 90km east to west net down­hill (a ‘Down’ year).

Named to com­mem­or­ate the South Afric­an sol­diers killed dur­ing the war, the entire eth­os of the event is to ‘cel­eb­rate mankind’s spir­it over adversity’. On Com­rades week­end, the entire coun­try shuts down to fol­low the race, which is broad­cast live on nation­al tele­vi­sion. Par­ti­cipants can expect sup­port like the Lon­don Mara­thon — only, for 90km! Still, the race man­ages to be run in the spir­it of ‘Ubuntu’, which can be trans­lated as ‘human­ity towards oth­ers’ and its vibrant atmo­sphere, with loc­al school chil­dren and folk bands cheer­ing com­pet­it­ors along, is what makes Com­rades so spe­cial.

This ori­gin­al ultramara­thon should be on every runner’s buck­et list.

Where: South Africa
When: 14 June 2020
Dis­tance: 90km
Elev­a­tion Gain: 1,166m
Ter­rain: Road
Dif­fi­culty Level: Inter­me­di­ate
Entry Price: £200

Comrades Marathon South Africa ultra marathon

Mara­thon des Sables

In 1984, Patrick Bauer a French con­cert pro­moter crossed a part of the Saha­ra Desert from Morocco on foot, alone, and car­ry­ing everything he needed on his back. Bauer was so pro­foundly impacted by his jour­ney that he wanted to provide the same exper­i­ence for oth­ers and so, two years later, 186 com­pet­it­ors lined up on the Moroc­can sand for the first edi­tion of Mara­thon des Sables, or MDS (French for Mara­thon of the Sands).

Since then, more than 13,000 nut­ters have com­peted in the Saha­ra, one of the harshest envir­on­ments on the plan­et and the largest hot desert in the world. Mid­day tem­per­at­ures can reach 48°C and com­pet­it­ors must tackle a mix­ture of ter­rain, ran­ging from sandy trails and soft dunes, to dry lakebeds and stony tracks. Fur­ther, the MDS is a self-sup­por­ted race, requir­ing com­pet­it­ors to carry everything they need for the week (food and equip­ment) on their backs.

Billed as the ‘toughest foot race on earth’ by Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel (though many ultra run­ners would dis­pute that claim), the MDS undeni­ably put multi-stage ultra run­ning on the map. It is now the go-to event for first time ultramara­thon­ers — though only those that can afford it (the priv­ilege of tak­ing part in 2019 would have set you back more than £4,000, or four Ultra X Jord­ans!)

Where: Morocco
When: 6–11 April 2020
Dis­tance: 251km (6 days)
Ter­rain: Desert
Dif­fi­culty Level: Inter­me­di­ate
Entry Price: £4,195

Marathon Des Sables ultra marathon Sahara

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

UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc)

This one takes place every sum­mer in the French moun­tain resort of Chamonix and is widely regarded as one of the most dif­fi­cult ultramara­thons in the world. It’s also one of the largest, with more than 2,500 toe­ing the start line in August.

UTMB takes place over 7 days and hosts four oth­er events, ran­ging from a 50km ultra to a 350km team event. The races have strict entry and qual­i­fic­a­tion require­ments. Hope­ful par­ti­cipants must accu­mu­late enough race points to qual­i­fy, gained in oth­er trail races over the pre­vi­ous two years. As of 2020, you need a min­im­um of 10 UTMB points (which must come from only two races) to enter the bal­lot for the main event.

While the best run­ners com­plete the loop in just over 20 hours, most run­ners take 32 to 46 hours to reach the fin­ish line. Most run­ners will also have to run through two nights in order to com­plete the race.

Where: France, Italy and Switzer­land
When: 28 August 2020
Dis­tance: 171km
Elevation Gain: 10,300m
Ter­rain: Trail
Dif­fi­culty Level: Bru­tal
Entry Price: 262€

Best Ultra Marathons in Europe - ultra trail du mont blanc utmb


The Spart­ath­lon relives the story of Pheidip­pides, an ancient Atheni­an long dis­tance run­ner who, in 490 BC (before the battle of Mara­thon), was sent to Sparta from Athens to seek help in the war between the Greeks and the Per­sians. Accord­ing to the ancient Greek his­tor­i­an Hero­dotus, Pheidip­pides arrived in Sparta the day after his depar­ture from Athens (he clearly got his hands on a horse).

In 1984, the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­ation “Spart­ath­lon” was foun­ded, which, since then, has con­tinu­ously organ­ised the race each Septem­ber. The choice of this month is because that is the time repor­ted by Hero­dotus for Pheidip­pides’ run to Spartan.

The race’s aid sta­tions are placed every 3–5km apart and are pro­vi­sioned with food, water and oth­er refresh­ments as well as the run­ners’ per­son­al sup­plies. The race is very demand­ing, not only because of the dis­tance, but also for the cut-off require­ments and weath­er con­di­tions.

Each of the 75 race check points (yes, you read that cor­rectly) has its own cut-off. Should a run­ner arrive later than the offi­cial clos­ing time he or she will be elim­in­ated from the race.

Where: Greece
When: 25 Septem­ber 2020
Dis­tance: 246km
Elev­a­tion Gain: Unknown
Ter­rain: Road
Dif­fi­culty Level: Bru­tal
Entry Price: 600€

Best Ultra Marathons in Europe - spartathlon

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

Atacama Cross­ing

Estab­lished in 2004, this race takes com­pet­it­ors across the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on earth (it is 50 times more arid than California’s Death Val­ley!) The route com­bines rugged ter­rain with a harsh cli­mate — day­time tem­per­at­ures often reach 40°C and the aver­age alti­tude is 2,500m.

If that’s not enough chal­lenge for you, then you’ll be pleased to know the Atacama Cross­ing is also a self-sup­por­ted race, requir­ing com­pet­it­ors to carry everything they need for sev­en days on their backs. The good news is there’s plenty to keep tired minds occu­pied: run­ners travel through icy cold slot canyons and val­leys, along ancient Incan roads, past salt lakes and small Chilean vil­lages, and over sand dunes, salt flats and rivers, all in the foot­hills of the Andes moun­tains and always sur­roun­ded by a range of stun­ning vol­ca­noes.

As part of RacingThePlanet’s 4 Deserts Series it won’t come cheap, but it prom­ises to leave com­pet­it­ors feel­ing as though they have stepped off plan­et Earth. Who can put a price on that?!

Where: Chile
When: 27 Septem­ber - 3 Octo­ber 2020
Dis­tance: 250km (7 days)
Elev­a­tion Gain: 1,683m
Ter­rain: Desert
Dif­fi­culty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £2,900

south america ultra marathon atacama crossing

Ultra X 125 Azores

Ultra X 125 Azores is poten­tially the most spec­tac­u­lar island ultramara­thon on the plan­et. Situ­ated on one of nine islands in the Azores archipelago, based 1,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Por­tugal, this race offers incred­ible trails along vol­ca­noes, through amaz­ing green val­leys and past stun­ning lagoons.

Run­ners begin under Pon­ta Delgada’s main city gates at 5am on Sat­urday morn­ing and head out of the city and up into the hills. Sat­urday night is spent in a beau­ti­ful camp­site loc­ated at sea level over­look­ing the ocean. On Sunday, run­ners will take on the mara­thon stage before cross­ing the fin­ish line to much fan­fare and a fin­ish­ers BBQ. Prize giv­ing will take place in the city that even­ing.

This is the ulti­mate week­end ultra and a great oppor­tun­ity to see a part of the world you may nev­er travel to oth­er­wise, and what’s more, the value for money is second to none.

Where: São Miguel, Azores (Por­tugal)
When: 25–26 April 2020
Dis­tance: 125km (2 days)
Elev­a­tion Gain: 5,800m
Ter­rain: Trail
Dif­fi­culty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £295

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