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What is ultra running: a quick guide to the endurance sport

What is ultra running
The popularity of ultra running has skyrocketed in the last decade (Image credit: Getty)

Ultra running is booming, with the numbers of races and participants around the world increasing by roughly 1,000% in the last 10 years. But it is not a new sport. In fact, its heyday was probably way back in the 1870s when pedestrianism – as it was known – was the biggest sport in the world.

Back then, six-day races held in Madison Square Garden in New York or in the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London, attracted huge crowds and daily newspaper coverage, with hundreds of thousands of pounds (in today’s money) awarded to the victors.

We still have six-day races today, but most ultra races now are a fair bit shorter. Technically, an ultra marathon is any race, or run, longer than a 26.2-mile (42km) standard marathon, with the shortest races tending to start at 50km.

The vast majority of ultra races around the world are trail races, often run through beautiful and remote landscapes such as mountains or deserts. Many of the most iconic races on the international calendar – such as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in France, the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, and the Western States 100 in the US – are trail races.

For many competitors, the desire to try ultra running comes from a sense of wanting to get into the wild – to be immersed in nature.

In Britain, ultra running combines with the traditional sport of fell running (or hill running or mountain running depending on where you are) to produce epic challenges such as the Bob Graham Round. This is a 66-mile loop around the famously lumpy Lake District in England, which takes runners to the summit of 42 of the region’s highest peaks. To become an official member of the BGR club, the challenge is to complete the loop in under 24 hours.

The most famous ultra marathon on the roads is the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, which sees around 20,000 competitors each year attempt to traverse the 56 miles between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in under 12 hours. Started in 1921, it is today’s biggest and oldest ultra marathon.

What is ultra running

There are challenging ultra running routes all over the world (Image credit: Getty)

Some of these distances can seem bewildering to anyone who has always considered a standard 26.2-mile marathon as the ultimate running challenge. But, no matter how mad they seem, in the world of ultra running there is always someone doing something crazier.

Take the Barkley Marathons for example. It’s only 100 miles, but it takes place in remote mountains in Tennessee, through some of the most inhospitable terrain and conditions imaginable. In the 33 years that the race has been run, only 15 people have actually finished it.

The man behind the Barkley, Lazarus Lake, went on to dream up the Backyard Ultra concept. This format sees competitors run a loop of just over four miles every hour, starting on the hour. That doesn’t sound too difficult perhaps, but the race goes on until there is only one person left. If you get two or more tough competitors unwilling to give in, it can go on for days, and usually does.

But the longest race in the world is a 3,100-mile race around one single city block in New York. Called the Self-Transcendence 3100, it takes the idea of ultra long distance running to a whole another level. The course record is a mere 40 days.

Adharanand Finn is the author of The Rise of the Ultra Runners, a book about the history, culture, courses and characters that comprise the ultra world.