What Is An Ultra Marathon?

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

22 October 2020


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Being an ultra marathon race organiser means that a good chunk of any single day is spent explaining what exactly these unique and mysterious events are.

Whilst most people now know the term marathon as being a form of long-distance run, the preceding “ultra” can add confusion. This is not helped either by the multiple forms of different ultra marathons or “ultras” that all fit under one broad umbrella or (although the sport is seeing massive growth globally) by the still relatively niche nature of ultra running.

So, for those who have come across the term and are looking for an explanation, look no further.


Quite simply, an ultramarathon, also called ultra-distance race or ultra, is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi).

The most common distances are 50km (31 miles), 100km (62 miles), or 161km (100 miles), but some ultramarathons are even longer.

They can be single stage, in which the entire race is ran in one go, like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc or Western States 100. Or they can be multi-stage, like the global Ultra X series, in which competitors race over a series of stages in a similar way to the Tour de France in the world of endurance cycling.


Whereas shorter distance events tend to be based close to large populations and as such are usually on roads or tracks, ultras tend to take place over vast, rural areas: mountains (like Ultra X Mexico), national parks (like Ultra X 125 England), and deserts (like Ultra X Jordan).

When you are going to be racing for long periods of time it helps to have some decent views and people are generally more willing to travel.

Man Running at Ultra X 50 England


There has been a 1,000% increase in the number of ultra marathon races taking place in the last decade and overall participation has skyrocketed. However, numbers are still small in comparison to mass participation road races, where fields in excess of 10,000 competitors are common.

Aside from Comrades (the world’s oldest and largest ultra – an 89km race run between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa each year, except, ahem, 2020…), the majority of fields are small – between 100 and 500 – meaning that you can get to know other competitors and share the experience with like-minded individuals (particularly if the event is run over five days or more!)


To many, the concept of a marathon is huge (and rightly so!) and as such, the thought of doing something even longer can be terrifying. However, there is no need to be alarmed. Ultras are easier than most think, and the preparation need not differ significantly from marathon training.

Having been brought up on a diet of images from watching the London Marathon on TV or seeing a local Parkrun, the assumption is that competitors might be running for 5, 10 or even 24 hours. This is not so.

Due to the distance of ultramarathon races, participants generally move through them much slower than they would do in a shorter-distance race. In fact, much of the time, you do not have to run at all, and walking is an important part of ultrarunning. Ultra X races require you to cover only up to 4km an hour to avoid the cut-offs, and even the best athletes in the world will take the time to hike the hills.

Furthermore, as the goal with ultramarathons is typically simply to finish (rather than being time-based), many people find there is less pressure than in other shorter format events, where the inevitable question will be based on time. Even if someone does ask, chances are it will not mean anything – apart from sounding very impressive!

Who runs ultras?

Gone are the days that it was simply the elite of the elite taking on these challenges. Ultramarathons are truly for everyone.

We have had 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds finish our races, as well as all ages in between, and people from all walks of life. Being put in an environment where there is simply one shared goal – to finish – is an incredible leveler.


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