The Best Ultra Marathons In Africa For 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.

30 January 2020

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reading Time: 9 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 a continent which, despite being home to some of the world’s greatest long distance runners, is not famously known for ultra running — Africa.

Despite this, it has a host of incredible races under each ultramarathon category: single stage, multi stage, 100 mile races and many more. Here we name the best ones out there which should be on every runner’s bucket list.

Please note, for the purposes of this article we have defined Africa geographically and all countries located in continental Africa have been considered, regardless of political ownership.

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

Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT)

The final event in the Ultra-Trail World Tour calendar, UTCT takes place on and around the mountains of the epic Cape Peninsula. The route showcases the very best of Cape Town and includes traversing sections of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Orangekloof, Llandudno, Devils Peak… we could go on!

Having a route which takes place around an iconic natural world heritage site and one of the new Natural Seven Wonders of the World does mean that cut-offs are tight – 17 hours for the 100km event. However, in December every year 1,000 runners take on the challenge and with four race options ranging from half marathon to 100km there is something for everyone. A must for anyone wanting to tick off the sites in this ‘must visit’ city.

Where: South Africa
When: 28-29 November 2020
Distance: 100km
Elevation Gain: 4,300m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £225

Ultra-Trail Cape Town UTCT

The Munga

In the Mpumalanga Province in the northeast corner of South Africa, the Munga Trail waits to eat its prey. Okay, not exactly, but this route is no joke. Yet another race with the headline ‘the toughest race on earth’, participants have 5 days (120 hours) to navigate via GPS a 400km route through indigenous forests and plantations, deep valleys, and grassland. Competitors run from Belfast all the way to Blyde River Canyon, the third-largest canyon on earth, and along the way there are five race villages at which racers can stop to eat and sleep, if they wish.

The race was originally an MTB course and it seems the organiser thought, “I wonder what will happen if…” Oh, and did we mention it starts at an altitude of nearly 2,000m? Maybe not one for the first timers!

Where: South Africa
When: 15-20 April 2020
Distance: 402km (5 days)
Elevation Gain: 9,260m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: £950

The Munga Trail ultra marathon

Grand Raid de la Réunion

The Grand Raid de la Réunion, also called La Diagonale des Fous (The Madmen Diagonal) is a mountain ultramarathon on Réunion Island, situated between Madagascar and Mauritius. The 162km route with 9,643m of elevation gain is reputed to be highly challenging, brutally difficult and one of the hardest footraces in the world. It has earned legendary status by the way that the small island comes alive at race weekend.

The race was born in 1989 and was initially only 125km but, obviously not hard enough, has been increasing over time and now appears to have settled around 160km. Runners can expect incredible views of volcanoes, waterfalls, lush green forests and tropical beaches as Reunion Island is like a small continent with highly diverse landscapes and weather conditions offering an amazing, albeit challenging, experience.

Becoming a madman, or finisher, of this event is sure to earn any ultrarunner lifelong bragging rights as the challenge is now world renowned. Is it worth it?

Where: Reunion Island
When: 15-18 October 2020
Distance: 162km
Elevation Gain: 9,643m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £150

Table Mountain View Ultra Trail Cape Town

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

Transgrancanaria

‘Transgran’ crosses the island of Gran Canaria from North to South and from Coast to Coast, passing through emblematic points and is undoubtedly a great way to see the most spectacular parts of Gran Canaria on foot and in less than 30 hours.

The first edition of the event in 2003 featured just 65 participants, yet over the years it has grown to more than 3,000 athletes, walkers, joggers and nature lovers from more than 70 countries, and is now a stalwart of the Ultra-Trail World Tour Circuit. Runners can expect all the razzmatazz that comes with UTWT recognition and if you’re still not sold — how about the start line? A beach at 11pm on Friday night… epic!

Where: Gran Canaria
When: 4-9 March 2020
Distance: 128km
Elevation Gain: 7,500m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: £160

Transgrancanaria Ultra Trail World Tour Runner during Ultra marathon

Global Limits São Tomé

This stunning race starts at the largest plantation of São Tomé — ‘Roca Agostinho Neto’ — and finishes, of course, at the equator line (São Tomé is the closest country on earth to the coordinates 0°N 0°E). It’s a standard Global Limits template race — 6 stages of varying distances over 6 days.

This is a one-off event, so if you aren’t already registered and packed your bags, you unfortunately may never experience it. That is, unless, it is a huge success and the organisers decide that once is just not enough! In our view this could well happen as it looks set to be an absolute belter.

Where: Sao Tome (the Gulf of Guinea)
When: 15-21 February 2020
Distance: 200km (6 days)
Elevation Gain: 6,000m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard
Entry Price: £1,900

Sao Tome Island Image Global Limits Ultra Marathon Location

Salt Pans Ultra Marathon

Botswana’s first ultra marathon may just be the best value multi-stage race in the world. The Salt Pans Ultra Trail Marathon was founded in 2019 and is a 3-day trail run on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana, costing just £320. Do note however, that getting there is not easy — race instructions mention a 6.5 hour drive where waypoints for turnings are rhino sanctuaries, radio towers and fences. Do not expect signage. Consider this good prep for the actual event, as on the mandatory kit list is a watch with GPX capabilities — no, this course is not marked.

As well as traversing one of the largest salt flats in the world, runners will pass through Africa’s only breeding ground of the Greater Flamingo and the location of Wilbur Smith’s famous novel, The Sunbird.

The pans are incredibly striking in their beauty. However, the harsh environment of the pans will make conditions on race day anyone’s guess. Late rains may make the pans muddy and wet, yet hot winds could whip up sand making for slow progress. The glare of the pan’s snow white sand in the midday sun can also be a headache-inducing nightmare. October is known as ‘suicide month’ due to the sudden northwards run of the mercury on temperature gauges following the brief cool winter respite. Runners: be prepared for anything.

Where: Botswana
When: 3-6 October 2020
Distance: 100km (3 days)
Elevation Gain: 1,000m
Terrain: Salt Pans
Difficulty Level: Beginner/ Intermediate
Entry Price: £320

Salt flats in Botswana Desert

Namib Race

This race has quite the history behind it! Originally hosted in the Sahara Desert of Egypt, it then moved to the Western Desert around Al Fayuum, however, due to political unrest the 2014 edition of the race was moved to Jordan, where it crossed Wadi Rum before finishing in the ancient city of Petra. Finally, in 2016, the race relocated to the Namib Desert where it is expected to remain for some time.

Over the years, the format amazingly remained the same. The Namib Race is a 250km, 6 stage, 7 day, ultramarathon across the oldest desert in the world and is part of RacingThePlanet’s 4 Deserts Series. Similar in format to the MDS above, yet with a smaller field of around 150 competitors per year, this is a great option for those who like sand — the Namib desert being famous for having some of the world’s largest dunes.

Where: Namibia
When: 26 April2 May 2020
Distance: 250km (7 days)
Terrain: Desert
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: £2,900

Namib Race ultra marathon

For Rangers

For Rangers is an absolute gem of an event which supports the rangers that protect Africa’s remaining giants. As is the case with all Beyond the Ultimate events, this is a multi-stage race split over 5 stages. For Rangers takes competitors over 230km across five wildlife conservancies and the playground of East Africa’s iconic wildlife. All profits from the race, and the results of any fundraising (which competitors are encouraged to do), goes entirely towards supporting the 2,500 rangers in the area.

As a self-sufficient race, competitors are responsible for carrying their entire kit, including food, safety equipment and a minimum 2.5 litres of water. Is this worth it as an alternative way to do a safari drive? Absolutely. Oh, and they’ve even had the fastest marathoner in the world, Eliud Kipchoge, at the finish line handing out medals before.

Where: Kenya
When: 16-21 September 2020
Distance: 230km (6 days)
Elevation Gain: 2,000m
Terrain: Desert
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: £2,750

For Rangers Ultra Marathon Kenya Desert Safari

Kilimanjaro Ultra Marathon Stage Run

Admittedly not a race, the Kilimanjaro Stage Run combines authentic ‘off-the-beaten-path’ travel and exploration with organised supported running, and the goal of a complete circumnavigation of Mount Kilimanjaro in beautiful Tanzania, East Africa.

For those looking for a running holiday with a bit of adventure included, in a unique and incredible part of the world but without the competitive edge, then look no further. A total of eleven days, with 8 spent running… a rather civilised ultra, if we may say so!

Where: Tanzania
When: 15-25 August 2020
Distance: 240km (8 days)
Elevation Gain: 7,000m
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Entry Price: £1,800

Kilamanjaro Ultra Marathon

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like…

Ultra X