“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” ~TS Elliot
Ultra marathon running is a rapidly growing sport all over the world. Individuals or teams push their boundaries and test their mental and physical limits, covering distances from 50km up to thousands of kilometres in expedition-style races on roads, across mountains and through deserts. An article earlier this year in the Guardian newspaper titled “When 26.2 miles isn’t enough”, quoted growth of 1,000% in the number of people who finish an ultra marathon each year, in the last 10 years. I ran The North Face 100km in Australia in 2009. There were 231 finishers. In this years’ event, now Ultra Trail Australia 100km, more than 960 people finished not to mention the further 1,800 who completed the 50km event on the same day.
Formally, an ultra marathon is any running race with a distance longer than a marathon, so more than 42.195km or 26 miles 385 yds. Common distances for single stage races are 50km, 50 miles (80km), 100km, 100 miles and more recently 200 mile events. These might be run as an individual, a team, a relay, with a crew or pacer or without depending on the race itself. They might be run on a road or off-road such as trail, mountains, deserts.
Multi-day or Stage Races
Another popular format is the multi-day or stage race. These are generally longer than the single stage races with participants racing from camp to camp where they rest over night and race to the next camp the following day. There are many of these races across the world now with the most famous being the Marathon De Sables in Morocco. Many follow the same race format of approximately 250km raced over five or six days although there are much longer races out there. These events can be supported, where most of the participant’s kit is moved from camp to camp for them and they carry just the daily essentials or unsupported where all kit is carried by the racers with the exception of a tent which would be moved to the new camp and pitched by the race crew.
Can anyone do it?
I often get asked this and I should say that I’m an ultra runner but not a coach or a health professional. That said, in my opinion, anyone with good levels of fitness and injury free can participate in an ultra marathon with the right training and mental grit.
My first official ultra was The North Face 100km in 2009 as mentioned above. I’d been running on and off all my life at that time and had completed a couple of multi stage off road events although no one single stage of those was longer than a marathon. I ran and walked the TNF100 in the Blue Mountains and learnt lots of lessons about kit choice, and preparation. Whilst I got through it, I’m not sure that I would say I enjoyed the experience at the time. In hindsight and with my experience now, I should have done a lot more research into what I was getting into and that would have made me prepare differently…more thoroughly.
Use the framework below to help you choose an event. Plan and prepare for the race by learning all you can about it and work on a good training schedule. Test out your nutrition during training and talk to as many experienced people as you can and you will have a fun and rewarding day out on the course. Everyone starts somewhere.
How do I choose an ultra marathon?
A quick search on the internet will highlight that there are a lot of ultra marathons to choose from around the world so here are some questions you could ask yourself to help narrow down what your possible list of events might look like.
How far do you want to run?
Do you want to run on-road or off-road?
Would you like to run a single stage event or a multi-day?
Are you looking for a domestic or an international event?
Do you prefer to run in the hot or the cold?
What kind of terrain do you want to run on?
When do you want to run it?
I’d like to run a 50km race.
I love nature and I live in a city so I’d like to run an off-road race.
I’d like to run a multi-day race but I think I should do a single stage event first.
I’m not sure about travel yet so will keep that open.
I don’t really like running when it’s very warm so maybe a colder race.
I like trails and forests and I don’t mind a bit of climbing.
I’m fit now and I want to finish. I’d like to be fit enough to enjoy the experience so in six months time.
With these answers in hand, you should be able to narrow down your options. Do bear in mind that lots of the more popular races have qualifying requirements or lotteries for entry. This might mean you need to plan how to get into those.
Here are a couple of resources that I use to find races that might help (in no particular order):
Here is a previous blog post that should help you with preparation for an ultra marathon:
Good luck in your search and please message me if you have any questions. I’d also love to hear of any approach you use to choose races.