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

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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 April-2 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

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