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.
Ultra marathons are any events longer in distance than a marathon (42.2km). However, as there is no upper limit, the range in event can vary significantly. Whilst there are now some insanely challenging races held across the globe, there are also many much more accessible events also classed as ultra marathons.
In this series, we’re looking at all events under the ultra marathon category: single-stage, multi-stage, 100 mile and more, to consider which are the best ultra marathons in the world in 2021 and which events need to be on every runner’s bucket list.
In this article, we highlight the best ultra marathon events in Africa, where the sport is still quite niche (despite it being home to some of the world’s greatest runners). However, there are some huge events out there, ranging from the well-known Marathon des Sables to some lesser known gems. Let’s have a look.
Marathon des Sables
2-12 April 2021
251km (6 days)
Arguably the most famous ultra marathon in the world and reportedly the hardest (although there are many that dispute this), the MDS has certainly garnered some serious attention over the years.
The race was started in 1986 by French concert promoter Patrick Bauer, after walking the route two years earlier had had a profound effect on him. Now in its 35th year the race is hugely oversubscribed and, coupled with a costly price tag of over £4,000, this is not an easy race to get into. We recommend going for one of the many charity places to secure your spot on this desert adventure.
This is a self-supported race so you will have to plan your equipment and food as much as your training to ensure you make it through the 30-degree heat. Not to worry though, you will have almost 1,000 fellow competitors to help get you over the finish line.
This is a bucket list race for most ultra runners and certainly has a wow factor when you explain what you did to your non-running friends down the pub.
22 September 2021
230km (5 days)
Another Beyond the Ultimate race, taking runners through the African savannah and under the shadow of Mount Kenya. For Rangers covers 230km across five wildlife conservancies, providing ample opportunity to spot some of East Africa’s unique wildlife.
Proceeds from the race go towards supporting the 2,500 rangers who maintain the area, preventing poachers and others who may harm the wildlife.
This is a self-supported race, requiring competitors to carry all of their kit and equipment. This could well be the ultimate alternative to a ‘regular’ safari, something to tell your friends and family about for years to come.
If you haven’t been persuaded yet, they’ve even had the fastest marathoner in the world, Eliud Kipchoge, at the finish line handing out medals in previous races…
Ultra-Trail Cape Town
27 November 2021
This iconic 100km ultra marathon is a front-loaded route with two major climbs up Table Mountain and the remote trails of Karbonkelberg within the first 50km. The second half is a bit more forgiving with the elevation spread out – if you make it that far!
UTCT takes runners around stunning natural world heritage sites and one of the new natural seven wonders of the world. Don’t let these fantastic sight-seeing opportunities slow you down too much though, as a tight 17-hour cut off will force you to keep going in even the toughest of sections.
As the final event on the Ultra-Trail World Tour calendar, this is a must-do event in a must-see city. Get it in your diary.
400km (5 days)
The Munga: 400km in five days at an altitude between 1,000 and 2,000m and with nearly 10,000m elevation gain. This one’s probably not for first timers.
This brutal race is non-stop and semi-supported with five race villages along the route to stock-up on some much needed food. You decide how far you go each day and when you rest. How you do it is up to you. This certainly changes the tactics for some runners, making this one a bit of a survival race.
This is another event claiming to be ‘the toughest in the world’, but to be fair there may well be some justification here.
Grand Raid de la Réunion
Grand Raid de la Réunion, also called La Diagonale des Fous (The Madmen Diagonal), is a mountain ultramarathon on Réunion Island, located between Madagascar and Mauritius.
The 162km circular tour takes runners around the circumference of the island and over its challenging 9,643m of elevation. The race was first held in 1989 with a 125km route, now turned into a tougher 162km race. Runners can expect incredible views of volcanoes, waterfalls, luscious green forests, and tropical beaches, as Réunion Island is like a small continent with highly diverse landscapes and weather conditions offering truly life-changing experiences.
You might have to be a madman to complete this race. However, you will get some serious bragging rights. Is it worth it? Only one way to find out!
Global Limits São Tomé
São Tomé and Príncipe
11-20 February 2021
200km (6 days)
Since 2012, Global Limits have been organising multi-stage races all around the world. Their latest venture takes place on the islands of São Tomé. This race was launched last year and was initially intended to be a one-off event. However, given how successful it was last year, Global Limits have confirmed the second edition of the race will be held on 11-20 February 2021.
The race starts in the largest plantation in São Tomé – Roca Agostinho Neto – and finishes as close to the equator as is humanly possible. São Tomé is the closest country on earth to the coordinates 0°N 0°E!
Continuing the Global Limits format, this is a six day race covering 200km. If your multi-stage calendar isn’t already packed with Ultra X events, then this one is worth checking out…
Salt Pans Ultra Marathon
100km (3 days)
The Salt Pans Ultra Trail Marathon was founded in 2019 and is a three day trail run on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans of Botswana.
On the face of it, this is probably the best value-for-money ultra out there, costing just £320. However, getting to the start line isn’t the easiest in the world. Race instructions tell of a 6.5 hour drive through the rural countryside with not much in the way of road markers. Following on from that, the race itself is unmarked, making a GPS watch a necessity. Be sure to prepare for the logistics of the event as well as the training.
Do not let that put you off though. You will have the privilege of exploring one of the largest salt flats in the world alongside Africa’s only breeding ground of the greater flamingo and the location of Wilbur Smith’s famous novel, The Sunbird.
24-28 February 2021
Another island race, this time the island of Gran Canaria. Runners set off from the north side and finish on the south side. This iconic race provides a whistle stop tour of the island’s most spectacular views – just make sure you make it from point A to B in under 30 hours.
The race started in 2003 with just 65 competitors and has grown substantially to welcome more than 3,000 racers from 70 counties, now forming part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour circuit. Expect some razzmatazz and excitement at this race, including starting on a beach at 11pm on a Friday night!
Comrades Marathon: The Ultimate Human Race
13 June 2021
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).
This original ultramarathon should be on every runner’s bucket list.
Kilimanjaro Ultra Marathon Stage Run
14-21 August 2021
240km (8 days)
Although 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 eight spent running… a rather civilised multi-stage ultra, if we may say so!
Want to see more incredible ultra marathons from every continent? Recently, we listed the:
You may also like…
The ultimate list of the best ultramarathons for beginners in the world, including races in the UK, New Zealand, Botswana and Kenya.
The ultimate list of the best 100 mile ultramarathons in the world, including races in the USA, England, Wales, Colombia and Nepal.
The ultimate list of the best ultramarathons in Canada, including races in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.