What Is An Ultramarathon? The Basics And Notable Races

Last updated: February 24, 2022

Running Blog / What Is An Ultramarathon? The Basics And Notable Races

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An ultramarathon is a type of long-distance footrace. If you’re curious about everything there is to know about the ultramarathon, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a deep dive into the ultramarathon and the different types of events that runners participate in. 

What Is an Ultramarathon?

An ultramarathon, which is also called ultra running or ultra distance, is a foot race that is any distance longer than a standard marathon length. A standard marathon is 26.22 miles, whereas an ultramarathon will typically range in distance from 31 miles to 62 miles. Distance running is a whole new ballgame to your usual 5K.

Some ultramarathons can even go up to 100 miles, and more recently, the introduction of a 200 mile ultramarathon (the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run Ultra) has been gaining popularity in the ultra community. There is also the Moab 240 which is one of the longest Ultramarathons completed by many.

Two main events take place in an ultramarathon. The first is a race of a specific distance or route. The second is a race that lasts for a determined period, wherein the winner is whoever has gone the furthest distance during the time frame. 

Time-based ultramarathons usually last either 6, 12, or 24 hours. Some ultramarathons can even go for multiple days, with the usual lengths being 3, 6, and 10 days. These timed ultramarathons usually run on a short course of one mile or less that loop around, giving participants the option to stop and fuel up before continuing the marathon. 

While regular marathons are usually completed on a paved road, ultramarathons allow the participants to interact more with nature. Ultramarathons are far more likely to take place on trail-like terrain rather than on a paved road. 

Notable Ultramarathon Races

There are a lot of interesting different ultramarathon races all over the world. Here are some of the most notable ultramarathon races across the globe. 

Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon race that takes place in South Africa. It’s one of the world’s oldest ultramarathon events. While it takes place on a paved surface, the runners who travel from all over to participate travel 51 miles to complete this race. Each year, about 12,000 different runners participate in the Comrades Marathon.

JFK 50 Mile

This historic ultramarathon race has its roots all the way back to 1963. The JFK 50 Mile begins on trail running for the first 15 miles. After, the rest of the course takes place on gravel and dirt paths and some paved roads. 

Western States Endurance Run

This ultramarathon is not for beginners. The best of the best gather in June in California every year to participate in a 100-mile ultramarathon. The runners in this particular race go through 18,000 feet of uphill climbing and 23,000 feet of downhill terrain to cross that finish line. This ultramarathon is so popular that entrants are based on a lottery system. 

Anchor Down Ultra

Taking place in Rhode Island, the Anchor Down Ultra is a time-based ultramarathon race that takes place in the city of Bristol (not in the UK). This ultramarathon has a 6 hour, 12 hour, and 24 hour event that loops around a small two and a half-mile course. While challenging, the Anchor Down Ultra is particularly friendly to ultramarathon beginners. 

Kepler Challenge

This ultramarathon in New Zealand has been running since 1988, and it was the country’s first ultramarathon. It takes place in the Fiordland National Park, and it’s New Zealand’s most popular race. Runners travel over 37 miles of trail through the national park. While it’s one of the shorter ultramarathons, the terrain makes it worth the challenge. 

A Guide to Ultramarathon Training

Ultramarathons take a bit more training than your average everyday marathon. There are certain risks involved if you’re not prepared. Here’s a quick guide on how to get yourself prepared for one of these intense races. 

Know Your Terrain

Most ultramarathons run on trails, not on flat paved roads. Before beginning any ultramarathon training, the first thing you have to do is know what kind of terrain you’re training for. Make sure that you’re comfortable running in a trail-like environment where you’ll experience uneven ground and natural obstacles like rocks, sticks, and branches. 

Have a Good Running Base

You won’t be able to just jump right into an ultramarathon without any training. You need to have a good running base beforehand. Before you begin doing any training for ultramarathons, make sure that you feel comfortable and consistent with running. You should have at least a year of running under your belt before you begin training for an ultramarathon. 

Eat a Balanced Diet

Training for an ultramarathon includes more than just your physical movement. It’s important to also eat a balanced diet. Healthy carbohydrates like fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, protein, and fat will give you all the energy you need when you start training. During an ultramarathon, you also need to figure out what food you will eat while running – do this during your training runs to see what sits well with your stomach.

Get Your Pacing Down

Ultramarathons are the ultimate endurance challenge. You won’t do yourself any favors if you start out hard and fast only to lose all of your energy and momentum towards the middle, leaving you lagging behind the rest of the participants at the end. Pacing on a trail will also be much different from pacing on a flat road. 

You need to understand what your normal pace is on both road and trail surfaces so you know if you are meeting your targets. Get your pacing down so that you can keep a steady pace throughout the race. 

Stay Hydrated

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s essential to stay hydrated even when you’re not running. You want to always have enough water in your system. If you start your day of training dehydrated, you’re going to experience all kinds of issues regarding your running performance. So, always stay hydrated. 

Have a Schedule

Depending on where you’re starting, your age, and your experience, your running schedule will vary a bit. However, it’s generally a good idea to have a run schedule of about 4 to 6 runs per week. Running regularly will help your training, but it will also keep your body primed and ready to go for your ultramarathon.

Have The Right Gear

You don’t simply do an ultramarathon without any sort of essential gear and equipment. Most ultra-runners go through different variations of running shoes until they find the one suitable for their race. Being able to track your movement and coordinates are also essential with the likes of a GPS running watch.

Having the right level of hydration is also essential which will usually come in the form of wearing an ultra running vest or hydration pack or bladder which has room to store nutritions and other useful items.

How Safe Is the Ultramarathon?

Ultramarathons aren’t for the faint of heart. Many of these mega races take place under extreme conditions and challenging terrain. There’s even an ultramarathon that takes place in Antarctica! This sport is definitely not for beginners. But how safe or dangerous is the ultramarathon?

The distance alone can put immense stress on the human body. Participants need to be able to both keep up with the race while also keeping up with the caloric demand that this type of exercise puts on the body. If participants aren’t careful, their bodies may start turning to muscle and fat for fuel. 

The amount of sweat and water lost while running is also a concern. Participants need to stay hydrated throughout the entirety of their ultramarathon. Extreme dehydration can cause a whole host of issues, including digestion problems. 

In longer races, participants may experience sleep deprivation. Going too long without sleep can cause physical and mental performance issues. If participants aren’t used to this type of long-distance running, they may even experience damage to the tissue, joints, and muscles. 

Participants in ultramarathons don’t just undergo physical stress but also a unique type of psychological stress. Some research shows that long-distance events, like ultramarathons, can be one of the most stressful things humans can participate in. 

And finally, there are also environmental dangers that participants need to watch out for. Not knowing the terrain or not being ready for the unpredictable environment of the mountains, forests, and even deserts can be dangerous for the unprepared participant. 

Ultramarathons can put a lot of stress on the mind and the body. People who aren’t fully prepared to commit to the experience mustn’t try to participate. Ultramarathons require a lot of training and understanding of what you’re getting into. Check out the below video which shows a great insight into the life of an ultra runner:

Conclusion

An ultramarathon is any race longer than a regular marathon. These races can be incredibly intense, and participants need to know what they’re getting into. Despite how difficult some of these terrains can be, ultramarathons still persist in popularity worldwide. You can find ultramarathon races everywhere, from snow-capped mountains to sandy deserts. 

To train for an ultramarathon, it’s essential to have a solid running base under your belt. Participants who want to try their hand at an ultramarathon should have a year or more of experience running and a balanced diet. Staying hydrated is also one of the most important things for running an ultramarathon.

While ultramarathons don’t seem to be fading in popularity any time soon, it’s always important to know the dangers of these kinds of events. The length of time and the terrain can strain both the mind and the body. There’s also some risk when you consider the extreme environments that these events are often held in.

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