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.
In this article, we look at the world’s best ultramarathons in 2021, including races in Europe, America, South America, and Africa.
Let’s hope that this year allows us a little more opportunity to travel and discover breathtaking ultramarathons around the world. And if not, then you can still get these races on the bucket list for 2022!
Ultra X 125 Scotland
Loch Ness, Scotland
8-9 May 2021
125km (2 days)
Beginning in the UK, Ultra X 125 Scotland is set to be a spectacular race set in the Scottish Highlands. Runners have the opportunity to circumnavigate Loch Ness and perhaps even spot the monster that supposedly lurks in the world’s most famous loch.
Beginning with a lap of the athletics track at Queens Park Stadium in Inverness and finishing on Loch Ness Beach in Dores, runners follow a geological fault line formed more than 400 million years ago along the Great Glen Way.
With a manageable 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 Ultra X 125 events, there is also the option to run the “Sunday only” 50km (Ultra X 50 Scotland) as a single-stage race. The 2021 race will be the first edition of Ultra X 125 Scotland and we are expecting big things! Not one to miss.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc
France, Italy and Switzerland
27 August 2021
This list would never be complete if Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) was not part of the mix. UTMB takes place every year in the French mountain resort of Chamonix. Over 2,500 competitors travel to the Alps with the dream to be crowned UTMB champion in what has become the premier ultra marathon in the world.
If you don’t feel ready for the full challenge, there are a myriad of races available from an entry level 50km to a mountain crushing 350km team event.
Unfortunately, this is an elite race with a tough entry criteria. You must collect at least 10 precious UTMB points by running well in other UTMB qualifying races to be able to enter the main event.
Fire & Ice Ultra
30 August – 4 September 2021
250km (6 days)
True to its name, this 250km six day event starts in central Iceland, passes frozen glaciers and active volcanoes, and finishes by the hot springs in the north of the country.
Accommodation is sorted for you, as is navigation with the entire route marked. However, the rest is up to you! This is a self-suppored race, with competitors carrying everything they need: food, water, clothing etc. It certainly lives up to its slogan – “Iceland’s toughest footrace” – and is more an adventure than anything else.
Ultra X World Champs
5-13 June 2021
250km (5 days)
The Ultra X World Championships is the pinnacle of multi-stage ultramarathon racing. In June 2021, the world’s greatest ultra runners will race over five days and 250km to become the undisputed multi-day ultra King or Queen and to compete for a share of the £50,000 prize pot.
Nestled between the towering Julian Alps to the north and the Adriatic coast to the south, Vipava Valley is located in western Slovenia, just a few miles from the border of northern Italy. The steep slopes and high plateaus of the hills surrounding Ajdovscina provide stunning views over the bucolic winelands for which the area is famous.
The course takes competitors from the vine-laden landscapes of Vipava Valley north, to Soca Valley, named after the emerald green River Soca, considered one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe. From Tolmin, the route explores the rocky mountain trails of Soca Valley and the summits of the southern Julian Alps, situated within Slovenia’s largest protected area, Triglav National Park.
With a huge prize purse on offer, King of the Mountain and Sprint Champion segments, and the best names in the sport competing, this one is for the spectators as much as the competitors.
Taupo Great Lake Relay
Lake Taupo, New Zealand
13 February 2021
$45 per person
The Taupo Great Lake relay might not be the most prestigious race around, but we think it is one of the most fun. Nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction when you cross the finish line surrounded by your teammates after a gruelling 100km loop which starts at 2am. This event possesses all of the values which we at Ultra X love.
New Zealand is certainly a detour for most, but this race provides the opportunity to explore one of the most remote areas of the globe. Runners take on a single loop of Lake Taupo in teams of up to 10. Runners can organise their teams to the strengths of their runners and the route has varied elevation and terrain with some speedy short legs mixed in with longer hilly sections so there is something for everybody.
The winning team will likely be the one with the best strategic plan.
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.
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.
Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
Sometime in April (ish)
The founder of the Barkley Marathons is shrouded in as much mystery as the race itself. Who is he? Why does he do it? Is he the devil reincarnate? Well, perhaps not the last one but this race is known to take runners to dark places.
Gary Cantrell (a.k.a. Lazarus Lake) is somewhat of a legend himself and the race is heavily influenced by his quirky personality. He named the event after his neighbour (for no apparent reason other than to annoy him).
The Barkley Marathons went under the radar for many years until the Netflix documentary “The Race That Eats Its Young” made it running folklore.
Supposedly a 100 mile race, competitors complete five 20 mile loops However, it is known competitors will do at least 130 miles to complete the race. The route changes each year and is kept a closely guarded secret until a few days before the race. Competitors are told last minute when exactly the race will start, with race start times ranging from midnight to noon.
Runners must self-navigate their way through the wilderness, picking up pages from books hidden in the wilderness. Competitors only finish if they have pages from every book and make it back within the 60 hour time limit. Not surprisingly, only 14 runners have ever completed the race.
Grand to Grand Ultra
Grand Canyon, Arizona
19-25 September 2021
275km (7 days)
Grand to Grand is one of the biggest races in the USA. The location for this race couldn’t get much better, competitors start on the stunning northern rim of the Grand Canyon providing the best backdrop on the start line of any race we have seen. The conditions underfoot are expectedly sandy and rocky. The race is split up into marathon distances each day with a 85km long stage in the middle.
For the runners that make it to the finish line, they are greeted by the site of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations and the rumoured burial site of Aztec gold.
While this may be the race of a lifetime, it has a price tag to match. However, considering the unbelievable panoramic views from the top of the canyons to the two-billion-year-old rock formations and isolated slot canyons in the valleys it’s easy to see why the $3,550 is worth it for many.
Western States 100
Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
21-22 August 2021
This is a big one. If there’s one ultra marathon you have heard of, it’s probably this. The Western States 100 claims to being the oldest 100 mile trail race. The race starts in the Olympic Valley, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and ending 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. Since its inception in 1974, Western States 100 has come to be synonymous with the toughest endurance tests in the world.
Following the same route since 1986, runners start from the valley floor up to ‘Emigrant Pass’, climbing over 2550ft in the first four and half miles. From the Olympic valley (site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games), runners go up again. Following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540ft and descending 22,970ft before reaching Auburn, a small town in the heart of California’s historic gold country. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory.
Runners have 30 hours to complete the route, which, despite the considerable elevation, is generally considered ‘runnable’ (by the elites, anyway). The range in elevation means some miles are run on snow and others on scorching hot trails.
Western States attracts some of the most elite competitors as well as being a Mecca for keen trail runners the world over, making competition for places fierce. First time entrants to the lottery entry have just a 1.3% chance of landing themselves a spot. Better get those entries in now…
Ultra X Mexico
Copper Canyons, Mexico
6-14 November 2021
250km (5 days)
Ultra X Mexico takes participants to the Sierra Madre mountains, in the southwest of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The spectacular mountain trails of the Copper Canyons found here are the home of the original ultra runners, an indigenous tribe called the Tarahumara Indians, famously featured in the book Born to Run.
This is a magical event, which weaves through a stunning landscape with a unique cultural setting. There are always several local Tarahumara runners competing and despite wearing traditional leather sandals you will be doing very well if you can keep up with them!
Ultra X Jordan
Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan
2-9 October 2021
250km (5 days)
Ultra X Jordan (previously Wadi Rum Ultra) takes place in the land of Lawrence of Arabia, the vast Wadi Rum desert of Jordan. The mystical desert course takes competitors past historic sites, into dramatic wadis and over magnificent sand dunes.
Wadi Rum’s nickname is “The Valley of the Moon” and participants will quickly see why. Its landscape, characterised by unique towering rock formations, is truly mind-blowing, as is the challenge. As locations go, this place is unrivalled in its beauty.
You may also like…
The ultimate list of the best ultramarathons in Canada, including races in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.
What do ultra marathon runners eat? We caught up with Ultra X athlete Jacqui Bell on how she fuels a 250km ultra.
An insight into the legendary Mexican running tribe, the Tarahumara or Raramuri .