The Best Ultra Marathons In The World 2020: 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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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

Spartathlon

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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