For those who believe that a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles just isn’t enough of a challenge, there’s a whole world of extreme running waiting: ultra marathon distances. So, how far is an ultra marathon anyway? Technically, any race that goes beyond the standard marathon distance is considered an ultra marathon. But with events ranging from 50 kilometers to multi-day stage races covering hundreds of miles, the world of ultra running is as diverse as it is exhilarating.
How Far is an Ultra Marathon? Common Distances in Ultramarathon Races
While there is no fixed answer to the question of how far is an ultra marathon, there are a few common ultramarathon distances that are popular among ultra runners. These include:
Half Ultras: Occasionally, ultra races use a half-marathon (13.1 miles) as their base, with racers required to tackle double that distance (26.2 miles), effectively running a full marathon.
50 kilometers (31 miles): Often used as an entry point for ultra mountain runners looking to experience the challenge of ultra races, these events test the limits by going just beyond the traditional marathon distance.
50 miles (80 kilometers): Considered a true test for serious ultra runners, 50-mile ultra marathons are often held on rugged terrain with significant elevation gain, pushing marathon runners to their limits.
100 kilometers (62 miles): With ultra mountain runners facing twice the challenge of a traditional marathon, these races are known for their diverse and difficult terrain across mountain trails.
100 miles (160 kilometers): Reserved for the best ultra mountain runners, these demanding races can take up to 24 hours or more to complete.
Multi-day events: Ultra races can also span several days, such as the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 251-kilometer race across the Moroccan Sahara, and the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile event lasting for three days.
From Half Marathons to Multi-Day Events: The Wide World of Ultra Running
Other formats have emerged, ranging from fixed-time events where ultra runners aim to cover the most distance in a set amount of time (12, 24, or 48 hours), to those where marathon runners have to cover an annual ultramarathon distance within a calendar year.
The Ultra Marathon Phenomenon: How Ultra Running Has Grown Over the Years
Ultra racing initially gained popularity in the 1960s and 70s with the Boston Marathon hosting one of the first ultramarathon events. However, the popularity of ultra races really took off in the 2000s, with athletes competing to see who would become the fastest ultra-road runners and best ultra-mountain runners in the world.
Today, ultra marathons are held worldwide with the most prestigious events attracting ultramarathon runners from all corners of the globe. Two of the most famous ultra marathons are the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, which has a variable distance between 54 and 90 kilometers, and the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, California, which is known for its extreme heat and elevation change.
Race Day: Preparing for the Ultra
Ultra runners invest a lot of time and dedication into ultramarathon training and preparation before hitting the trail. From running race distances that increase incrementally to researching the course’s physical challenges and terrain, the ultra distance calls for extensive planning.
Regardless of race distances, a typical ultramarathon event day can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and aid stations are placed at regular intervals throughout the course. These pit stops offer everything from water and sports drinks to food, medic stations, and sometimes even toilets. Some multi day races also require runners to carry essential items, like shelter and food, while participating.
The Future of Ultra Running
With the ever-growing number of ultramarathon races being held every year on a variety of routes – from paved roads and trails to rugged mountainous terrain – ultra running continues to gain momentum across nations. For ultra road runners in particular, breaking the world record in their respective marathon distance category or competing in established ultramarathon races such as the Boston Marathon are primary goals.
New races and running formats continue to be added every year, catering to those whose appetite for physical endurance is undeterred. As the ultra distance calls for more and more of its participants, only time will tell what new challenges and terrain await the ever-growing community of ultra marathon runners.