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.
To help you keep motivated and give you something to look forward to for next year, we’re going to be spending the next few weeks previewing the ultramarathons that we are most excited for in 2021. We’ll showcase what we think the best ultras are in the UK, Asia, the US, Africa – and everywhere else!
To kick things off this week we’re honing in on the birthplace of Ultra X and home for us – the UK. So, which are the best ultra marathons and races in the UK?
Over the last ten years the sport has exploded in the UK and there are now enough races to spend every weekend of the year racing, and it seems that many practically do! As such, there are a host of incredible races under the ultramarathon category: single stage, multi stage, 100 mile races and many more. Here, we name some of the best ones out there to consider when planning your race calendar.
Ultra X 125 England
4-5 September 2021
125km (2 days)
Ultra X 125 England is our first UK race, set in the beautiful and challenging Peak District National Park. This two day event has 4,349m of elevation and follows the familiar Ultra X 125 format, being 125km over two stages. There is also the opportunity for runners to take on the “Sunday only” 50km (Ultra X 50 England) as a single-stage race – a more accessible option for first-time ultra runners.
However, do not make the mistake of underestimating this course. While the Peak District would not be described as mountainous, there is a lot elevation due to the constantly rolling terrain. The course takes runners through some of the most challenging parts of the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park and some of the well-known beauty spots, like the spa towns of Castleton, and famous peaks, such as Kinder Scout.
Ultra X 125 Scotland
8-9 May 2021
125km (2 days)
Our second UK race, Ultra X 125 Scotland takes place in the Scottish Highlands, a mountainous region in northwest Scotland known for its stunning scenery and trails, with the Great Glen and Loch Ness at its centre.
Following a geological fault line formed more than 400 million years ago, the Great Glen runs arrow-straight from Fort William to Moray Firth. The course take competitors on a circumnavigation around the mythical Loch Ness, beginning with a lap of the athletics track at Queens Park Stadium in Inverness and finishing on Loch Ness Beach in Dores.
With a managebale 3,363m of elevation and accessible terrain (a mixture of hard-packed trails and forest paths), this race is perfect for anyone taking on their first multi-stage ultra. As with all our 125 events, there is also the option to run the “Sunday only” 50km (Ultra X 50 Scotland) as a single-stage race.
Pilgrim Challenge – XNRG
6-7 February 2021
106km (2 days)
Like many races, XNRG have had to adapt to the ongoing Covid-19 situation in order to hold the Pilgrim Challenge in 2021. However, they are persevering to ensure the twelth edition can go ahead.
Set-up in part to offer training races for the growing contingent of MDS participants from the UK, XNRG offer a series of no-fuss, multi-stage trail races. The team take care of accommodation, food, and all the little bits so that contestants can focus on the running.
Many competitors come back to race the following year due to the unique community feel of the race and you can expect the 2021 edition to be no different. A great option for a first multi-stage event.
Run Jurassic Ultra
26 September 2021
With their 2020 edition cancelled due to Covid-19, White Star Running have put everything into the 2021 event and its looking like it should be a winner. White Star Running organise a series of events, but the Run Jurassic Trail Running Festival is our favourite.
“Run by runners for runners” is the phrase you will hear repeated by anyone who has run at their events, such is their lasting effect. These events are fun and social if not the most competitive you will have experienced. The weekend includes a 52km ultra right down to a 10km and a kid’s race. With free flowing cider to be had at the end of the even (and perhaps halfway through too), this is one of those races you will regret not doing.
North Downs Way 100 – Centurion Running
7th August 2021
There are many Centurion Running events to choose from, but the North Downs Way 100 was the original and perhaps the best. The route takes you from Farnham in Surrey all the way down to Ashford in Kent. This non-stop 100 miler has plenty of aid stations along the way, meaning that, whilst you can bring along a crew, you definitely do not need one.
Race Director James Elson started the Centurion Running series in 2011, having realised there were not enough ultra marathon races for the number of runners in the area, and looking to bring some of the aspects from the more established US trail running scene across the pond. The race attracts top runners with Mark Darbyshire holding the men’s record in an impressive 15:18:41 and Debbie Martin-Consani holding the women’s record in a speedy 18:34:54. Overall, NDW100 is a hugely popular race that will sell out in minutes, definitely a must-do experience for every UK based ultra runner.
Ultra Tour of Arran – Rat Race
Isle of Arran
10-11 April 2021
It is often said that the Isle of Arran is like a miniature Scotland. With dense forests and coastal scenery in the south and crumbling castles and dramatic mountains in the north, the Isle of Arran delights at every turn.
The Ultra Tour of Arran is our pick of the bunch of Rat Race events, a two day weekend race with competitors racking up 60 miles and some serious elevation.
It doesn’t come cheap for a two day race and cheekily does not include camping (or a 6% admin fee) in the price tag, so it can end up as a £400+ weekend but we still think it’s money well spent.
3 July 2021
5 miles… as many times as you wish!
Depends how many loops…
Many events now claim to be the “Glastonbury for Runners” but Endure24 was definitely the first to do so and probably the best. As the name suggests, Endure24 is a 24 hour solo or team relay race run over a looped 5 mile trail over private country estates, now with a south and a north version.
All kinds of runners take on this race, with no pressure to run any further than you want. There will be those who run 100 miles, and those who run 5. Solo runners can join the elite Endure24 100 Mile Club by completing 20 laps within the 24 hour time limit. While for those doing it for a fun day out, there is a huge community feel with group yoga and all the beer in the world to tempt you away from the course at base camp.
It’s undoubtedly a good first step for many a budding runner looking to take on their first ultra. One to put in the diary.
Montane Spine Challenger
10 January 2021
Montane Spine races are characterised by extremely challenging weather conditions, so we thought it would be best to recommend their most extreme UK race.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races, the Montane Spine Race is a truly epic challenge that will test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. Racing non-stop along the most iconic trail in the UK, you will experience the full intensity and ferocity of the British winter.
The trail crosses some of the most beautiful and at times difficult terrain found in England, including: the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland National Park, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots, finishing at the Scottish Borders. Expect to face extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, ground water, storm force winds and driving rain in this grueling, non-stop, seven day race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.
Grand Union Canal Race
Grand Union Canal
29 May 2021
The Grand Union Canal Race is one of the UK’s original ultras. The race takes you 233km down the Grand Union Canal towpath, from the heart of Birmingham to Little Venice in central London. This makes the race an easy to navigate and flat route.
Certainly not the most beautiful race in the UK but the GUCR deserves a mention having become an institution of British ultra running where participants can expect a bit of “old school”.
For such a long race, its £60 entry fee (which equals a mere 26p per km) makes it without doubt one of the best value-for-money ultra marathons out there. Just make sure you complete the course in under the 45 hour cut-off time.
Dragon’s Back Race
6-11 September 2021
380km (6 days)
The first edition of the Dragon’s Back Race was staged in 1992, but due to the lack of finishers it took 20 years for it to return, such is the magnitude of this savage event.
An already brutal 380km course with 17,400m of elevation up and over the mountainous spine of Wales from north to south, the organisers have added an extra stage for 2021 with the race now finishing at Cardiff Castle.
This biannual race is a must-have inclusion for every serious ultra runner’s 2021 race calendar.
Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race
18-19 September 2021
400m as many times as you can!
You set the bar
Popularly known as Tooting 24 and first held in 2000, the Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race attracts around 40 people each year. This race is not known for its beautiful scenery, you will not be running through one of Britain’s many areas of outstanding natural beauty but around a 400m running track in south London. This is not the reason we like it so much though.
The race was started by followers of the late Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy, who believed that running was integral to a spiritual life. This is a personal one, a battle against your self instead of others.
How far will you go? You have 24 hours to find out.
Special Mention: Cape Wrath Ultra
240km (8 days)
If you’re looking for a race where you will have genuine uncertainty of even finishing, this could be your next big thing. Eight days, 400km and 11,500m elevation, this ultra will take some serious preparation so it may be a blessing in disguise that you missed out on the 2021 race (entries are now full).
The Cape Wrath Ultra is right up there when it comes to its sheer difficulty. However, you will be well looked after, receiving breakfast, afternoon snacks, and evening meals at base camp to keep you going through a tough week racing in Scottish weather.
The route starts at Fort William and ends at Cape Wrath – the most north-westerly tip of Scotland. You will be taken through the full range of the Scottish landscape, including mountains, beaches and lochs, alongside more than a few bogs/river crossings.
Special Mention: Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley, and Charlie Ramsey Rounds
British ultra running is perhaps most famed internationally not for its races, but for its “Big Rounds” – the Bob Graham, the Paddy Buckley, and the Charlie Ramsay.
These are grand, circular tours of the Lake District, Snowdonia, and Lochaber, respectively, where those brave enough will attempt to “tag” all of the peaks as fast as possible. Each of the three rounds is presented as a 24 hour challenge, or a week-long backpacking circuit, with none for the faint-hearted.
The Bob Graham is the best known — a 42 peak loop starting and finishing in Keswick — and gained widespread attention in 2018 when world famous ultra runner Killian Jornet broke a 25 year old record to complete the challenge in a mind boggling 12 hours 52 minutes! Despite the rise in popularity of the challenges, we can’t see this one being broken for a very, very long time.
Special Mention: TRIBE Relay Across Scotland by Ultra X
John Muir Way
18-19 June 2021
This one is a bit different. During TRIBE Relay Across Scotland by Ultra X, relay teams of 4 or 8 will battle it out over 228km from the west to east coast of Scotland, along the John Muir Way. The event will require teams to be on the go for 24 hours but fortunately for you it’s held on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.
Team Ultra X headed up there last year and for anyone that can break their record, there are some serious prizes up for grabs! Check out the video above for a preview of what’s in store!
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