You have been running marathons or training for a marathon, though want to take it up a notch. Possibly a ultramarathon is for you.

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Ultramarathon – An ultramarathon, also called ultra distance or ultra running, is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi).

Ultramarathon vs marathon


There is a difference between a marathon and an ultra marathon. An ultra marathon is an event that is longer than the regulatory length of 26.219 miles, or 42.195 kilometers. They are designed for the marathon runner who has already conquered the traditional marathon and are looking for a new and exciting challenge. If you have been doing marathons for a while, and are feeling a lack of accomplishment from them, the ultra marathon may set your goal for something more, higher, faster and longer. Like the ironman , which is a highly challenging race that incorporates swimming, running, and cycling, they are a new spin on an old tradition for runners.

Length of a traditional marathon

The reason why the traditional marathon is 26.219 miles is deeply routed in history and tradition. In the 1908 Olympic games that were held in London, the distance was charted to cover the distance from the Windsor Castle to White City Stadium. It was altered from its original length so that the marathon runners would finish in the view of the Royal family. The first marathon was run to commemorate the run of a solider by the name of Pheidippides. The story goes that he ran from a battlefield close to the town of Marathon, Greece all the way to Athens in the year 490 B.C.. He ran the distance of 25 miles on foot to announce that the Persians had been defeated by the Athenians. The very first marathon was held in 1896 at the Olympics in Athens. That led to the first Boston marathon run in April 19,1897.

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Ultra marathons – by distance or time

Ultra marathons can come in two different fashions. An ultra marathon can either cover a specific distance, or it can be an event that is specified by a specific amount of time, whereby the winner is the one who has gone the longest at the ending time. Most ultra marathons fall into three different lengths: 50 kilometers or 31.069 miles, 100 kilometers or 62.137 miles, or 100 miles or 160.9344 kilometers. They can, however, be any length and any specified time allotment. The world record, as assigned by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the body which governs track and field, is 100 kilometers.The longest recorded ultra marathon is 100 miles . Other categories for ultra marathons are double marathons, multi-day runs of 1,000 miles or more and 24 hour races. They can vary in course range, be strewn across regions, trails, or multiple loops. They also have different challenges attached to running such as extreme weather conditions, elevation variations, or very rugged terrain. Most of the extreme marathons are held on uncharted paths and trails.

Pushing your limits

The most famous ultra marathons have people coming from worlds away to show off their almost inhuman abilities to withstand conditions that are legendary. The Marathon des Sables is one of the most difficult ultra marathons in the world. It is a 154-mile track that runs for six days through the Sahara of Southern Morocco. Not only is the distance grueling, the sand makes it that much more temperamental. There are times when it feels more like quicksand under the runner’s feet. Temperatures in the Sahara can reach over 100 degrees at certain times of the year, giving new meaning to the feeling of “standing on the sun”. Nothing to joke about, this marathon has claimed three lives since its inception.

Training for an Ultramarathon


A successful first ultra is one where you:

1.    Finish.

2.    Don’t get hurt.

3.    Have fun.

1. Enter and pay for your ultra. Give yourself at least three months to prepare. If you’ve already signed up for the race, that’s a great motivator.

2. Lose weight. For every pound you lose, you can gain about two minutes in an ultra (if you are lean, skip to the next step). Imagine running 50K while carrying a 10 to 20 pound weight. You can train harder without those extra pounds.

3. Do back-to-back long runs once a week. Estimate your time for finishing the ultra and build up to running those total hours over two days. You want to run the full distance (combining back-to-back days) at least three or four times before the race.

For example, if you think you will finish in six hours, run three hours on Saturday and three hours on Sunday. Or four hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday. Or five hours and one hour. Mix it up.

Sunday will be painful at first, but after you get warmed up it will feel easier. A great free program to follow is the Santa Clarita Ultra Training program.

4. Practice your nutrition during training and find out what works best for you. Quick tip: Start drinking before you get thirsty.

5. Practice running efficiently, with as little wasted motion as possible. Try to keep your head as still as possible and raise your feet as little as necessary. However, if the trail is extremely technical, it may be necessary to raise your feet quite a bit to avoid stumbling and tripping. Try to always run quietly.

6. Find socks, clothes and shoes that you love for training and racing. You want to be comfortable. Buy multiple pairs, because you can be sure they will be discontinued.

7. Train on the terrain you’ll be racing. If it’s a hilly technical trail, train on hilly technical trails. If it’s a flat ultra on pavement, train on that at least some of the time. Do a 10K tempo run once a week at a faster pace. Run hills once a week to get strong.

8. If you need them, take recovery days. A typical week could be:

Monday – Off

Tuesday – 10K tempo

Wednesday – Off

Thursday – 1 hour hill workout

Friday – Off

Saturday – 3 hour long run

Sunday – 3 hour long run (or a four hour and two hour, or five hour and one hour)

Let’s say your ultra is at the end of June. You want to be able to run your distance, over two days, by the end of April. Give yourself time to work up to that.

In May, you can run the distance three times and take it easy on the last weekend. In June, you can run it the first two weekends, taper the third weekend and run your ultra the fourth weekend.

The Last Minute Details

1. Get lots of sleep two nights before your ultra. You will not likely sleep well the night before, and it won’t matter if you got lots the night before that. Get everything organized the night before. You will sleep better.

2. Carb load.

3. Get there early. You will need to use the bathroom once or twice.

4. Hydrate before the run.

5. Keep calm and relaxed at the starting line. You’re not going to win the race, you just want to finish. Enjoy the moment.

The Race

1. Start slowly; it’s a long run. Start even more slowly than a marathon.

2. Walk steep hills, especially in the first half. Instead of running, power walk. You won’t lose much time, and you will conserve valuable energy for later.

3. Breathe. You should be using long, relaxed, deep breaths. If you are huffing and puffing, you are going too fast. Slow down, relax and breathe deeply.

4. If somebody passes you, let them go. Don’t race them. Odds are you may see them later.

5. Remember to eat and drink like you did in training.

6. Have a mantra. You will need it.

7. Don’t think about the whole distance. Run aid station to aid station. Walk through the aid stations. Chat with the volunteers. It will pick you up.

8. At some point, it’s going to start to hurt. This is the time to suck it up. After all, is there anything you would rather be doing on a great day like this?

Finally, remember this quote from Lance Armstrong: “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

Toughest Ultramarathons in the world

From running across elevation changes the equivalent of the height of Mount Everest, to running through the hottest point in the United States during the peak of summer, these races are designed to push humans to the absolute (sometimes fatal) limit.

Badwater Ultramarathon

Billed as “the world’s toughest foot race,” the Badwater 135 race is most well-known for its 135 grueling miles that includes a jaunt through Death Valley … in July! The race starts in Death Valley and ends on Mount Whitney, covering “three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 feet of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 feet of cumulative descent.” To even qualify for the Badwater 135, you have to complete the Badwater Salton Sea race, which covers 81 non-stop miles from below sea level at the Salton Sea, through the desert to the top of Palomar Mountain.

The Jungle Ultra

It’s tough to run 142.6 miles. Now put that 142.6 miles in Peruvian rain forests and cloud forests, where the temperature is 90 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and an elevation change of 9,000 feet (all downhill but frankly that doesn’t make it any easier) plus about 70 river crossings. Add that you have to be self-sufficient, carrying the weight of your hammock, sleeping bag, food, water and other supplies for the entire race. And add that you’re in a rain forest with massive bugs and critters that bite and sting. To make things a slightly more pleasant, you do get to experience some of the most incredible scenery and spot wildlife, plus visit villages of several indigenous tribes, as you work your way through the the Jungle Ultra’s five stages. It is an experience of a lifetime, if you can hack it.

Marathon des Sables

Each ultramarathon claims to be the toughest. And each is, in its own different way. But this marathon is easily among the very toughest of the tough. Why? Because it is 156 miles through the Sahara desert. Not only that, but you have to be self-sufficient, carrying everything you need for the entire race. The only things the race hosts provide to you is water and a place in a tent at night. As the hosts note, when you finish, “You will have run the equivalent of five and a half marathons in five or six days” and that you will have done it in 100-degree heat. Despite this, the race has grown in popularity every year since it began in 1986.

Grand to Grand Ultra

From the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the summit of the Grand Staircase in Utah, the Grand to Grand Ultra certainly isn’t short on spectacular geological formations. The only thing is that runners have to go over, around and through them to get to the finish line. That finish line is 170 miles away from the starting line, and each runner has to carry his own supplies for the trip. You get water refills and a tent to sleep in but other than that, it’s all you and only you. While the website’s FAQ says that “the Course is not technical and a relatively fit person should be able to complete it in a safe manner,” let’s not kid ourselves. You’re running 170 miles in seven days (just short of a marathon a day), with an elevation change of 19,000 feet, while carrying a pack with supplies. It ain’t easy.

Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

By now you might be thinking that amazing landscapes are a given with ultramarathons. Think again. The Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race is more a test of mental stamina than physical stamina — hence the name. Held during two months in the summer, the race course is a single city block in Queens, New York. Yes, you’re looping the same city block 5,649 times until you hit 3,100 miles. You have 52 days to complete your miles, which is equivalent to 60.78 miles a day. Each day. Every day. For many, many days. Why? Because the founder of the race, Sri Chinmoy, “felt that running provided an excellent opportunity for people to challenge themselves and overcome their preconceived limitations – what he referred to as self-transcendence.” In his quest for peace in the world, he felt that challenging one’s self in this way would help us understand that we don’t need to compete with others, only ourselves. And you need to be extraordinarily competitive with yourself to finish this race. The best times on this race have been, for males, 41 days, 8:16:29 and for females, 49 days 14:30:54. Plan on taking some vacation leave from work for the race, and some sick leave for recovering after the race.

Hardrock 100

The Hardrock 100 is an apt name. It is, after all, filled with hard rocks that rock your knees hard. You have 48 hours to cover 100.5 miles, but those 100.5 miles are a loop that includes 33,992 feet of ascent and descent. Runners cross above 12,000 feet of elevation a total of 13 times, with the highest peak at 14,048 feet. Weather, cold temperatures, high altitudes and scree-covered trails that some racers need to navigate at night by headlight if they want to make the time limit, all mix to make sure this 100 miles feels anything but easy. Your goal is to kiss Hardrock, a big rock with a ram’s head painted on it. While it sounds like a cheesy way to end the race, you’ll probably be so happy to be done that you’d kiss just about anything. If you love amazing alpine scenery and you’re ready for tough terrain, inclement weather, the threat of elevation sickness, and of course exhaustion, then this is a race made for you.

6693 Ultra

The dull name of this marathon might make it seem slightly tame. But oh, it isn’t. Since the first race in 2007, only 11 people have completed the course. You can select a course length of either 120 miles or 350 miles, depending on how sane you are. The course pushes from the starting point at Canada’s Eagle Plains hotel on the Klondike Highway, across the Arctic Circle (yes, you read that right) to the Arctic Ocean, and runners do this all while dragging their supplies in a sled behind them. Temperatures are always below zero degrees (the race is in March), and the winds can be hurricane-strength. Checkpoints — where you can eat, sleep and recuperate — are anywhere from 26 miles to 70 miles apart. When the race hosts describe the 6693 Ultra the “Toughest, Coldest and Windiest Extreme Ultra Marathon on the Planet” they aren’t exaggerating.


Once upon a time (or, in 490 B.C.), there raged the battle of Marathon in which an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides ran 153 miles from Athens to Sparta — arriving in Sparta the day after he left Athens — to get help, and that deed played a huge role in Athens winning the battle. Setting a good deal of Grecian history aside, we focus on the distance that messenger covered within 36 hours. Is it even possible? John Foden wondered, and came up with the idea of retracing the route as an ultramarathon. Sure enough, it’s possible! That is, if you have the dedication and wherewithal. After it was discovered that it’s possible, the Spartanthalon was born. If you think a jog through Greece sounds like fun, just be aware that, “At most, only about a third of the runners who leave Athens end the course in Sparta.” The rest, we assume, drop like flies along the way. Which makes it even more amazing to look back at what Pheidippides managed to accomplish, changing history along the way.

Barkley Marathons

This is an ultramarathon that is designed to get people to fail. It’s not just the distance — you can pick a 60-mile or 100-mile course — but it’s the mind games along the way that do you in. The Barkley Marathons have a twist: You have to find hidden treasure along each 20-mile loop of the race. Think of it like geocaching while running an ultramarathon. There is no trail, so you’re running through brush and bramble, and within this frustrating terrain are hidden books. You have to navigate to the book, find it, tear out a page, and head back. Your loop is not considered complete unless you bring back a page. And there is a 60-hour cut-off. Oh, and you don’t get any aid along the race except water, so you carry your supplies with you the whole time. Still think it sounds easy? Consider the fact that only 14 runners out of about 1,000 have finished within the 60-hour cut-off in 20 years (20 years!). There is a reason this race is held on April Fool’s weekend.

Dragon’s Back Race

There be dragons here — in the form of blisters, cramps, cuts, bruises and the mental challenge of just maintaining forward movement. The Dragon’s Back Race is 188 miles through the Welsh mountains, with 56,000 total feet of ascents. The landscape is wild and rugged, the altitude a constant struggle, you carry your supplies on your back, and because there is no trail, you need to know how to navigate. In other words, you push your brain and body to the max. The ultramarathon was first run in 1992 and was so hard, it wasn’t attempted again for 20 years! If you’ve always wanted to see the peerless Welsh mountainscape, well, here’s one way to do it.

What your body may experience running an Ultramarathon

Hallucinations are part of ultra lore. When you run around the clock, extreme fatigue and strange shadows in the wee hours can sometimes play havoc with your mind. A nap usually fixes the problem.

Temporary blurred vision can happen in longer ultras, probably due to corneal swelling.

Insect stings and bites are more common in ultrarunning.

Cuts and bruises from falls are common because of the uneven terrain of ultras.

Heart problems are rare in long races; running usually makes the heart and circulatory system stronger. But some recent studies indicate that distance runners may be at slightly higher risk for atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. Other research has shown some temporary cardiac dysfunction after long races, particularly in the least-trained participants.

A high rate of respiratory ailments found among ultrarunners in a 2014 study may be largely attributable to dust and flora along trails.

All distance runners should be aware of the risk of exercise-associated hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition in which drinking too much water or sports drink dilutes the body’s sodium, causing cells to swell and burst.

Body temperature is more likely to drop too low (hypothermia) in an ultra, when energy stores are depleted and weather conditions vary. Heat illness is more common in marathons, in part because of the more intense effort.

Marathoners burn a higher percentage of carbs and can get by on sports drink and gels. Ultrarunners burn a higher percentage of fat and usually need real food, which can mean more gastrointestinal problems.

The longer the race, the more likely muscle cramps will strike, most often in runners’ quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. No one knows exactly why cramps occur, but most research points to fatigue in the mechanisms that govern muscle control and contraction.

Stress fractures and other musculoskeletal overuse injuries can plague long-distance runners. Feet are the most common site of stress fractures in ultrarunners, but fractures of the pelvis, femur, tibia and fibula also occur.

Blisters are more common in ultras, thanks to mud, water, rocks and dust that can get into shoes and socks. Also, moving on varied terrain, such as steep downhills, can cause friction spots.

Sources: Martin Hoffman, research director for the Western States Endurance Run; Mike Joyner, physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and “The Runner’s Body,” by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas.

Things you must know before trying an Ultramarathon


1) Embrace the Challenge

The first thing you need to know about running an ultra-distance race is that it’s nothing like running a marathon. Sure, a 50K is approximately 31 miles, just a mere five miles longer than 26.2 miles, but most ultras are run on trails and include challenging features such as hills, rocky terrain and long sections between aid stations.

Running very long distances can be rewarding and a lot of fun—especially if you are training and racing on trails. But with all of the variables that come up during ultra-distance runs—fatigue, hills or mountains, inclement weather, minor aches and pains and the need to continually refuel and rehydrate—you’ll certainly experience times when ultrarunning feels more like torture than fun. As long as you stick to it and embrace the challenge and the journey, the enjoyment will increase as your aerobic fitness grows and your body is hardened by the longer efforts.

“An athlete must possess a true passion for the distance,” says champion ultrarunner Ian Torrence, a coach with McMillan Running who lives and trains in Flagstaff, AZ. “That is personified by patience, tenacity and a talent for handling discomfort for prolonged periods of time.”

2) Train Right

The main (or perhaps only goal) you should have when entering your first ultra is simply to reach the finish line. While that might at first feel like setting the bar too low, chances are your first one will be tougher than you think for reasons you never suspected. Afterall, you’re headed off into the unknown!

For your first 50K, give yourself six months to prepare and follow a training plan that allows you to ramp up your mileage gradually. That might mean you eventually increase your volume to 50 or 75 miles per week (or, for a slim few, maybe more). But unlike road running, where specific mileage is important, many ultrarunners consider training time or “time on your feet” to be a more valuable measure of training. For example, instead of logging a pre-marathon 20-mile run, a weekend long run during the build-up for a 50K might be going out for 3 to 5 hours on your local trail system.

“The best way to improve is to have fun, stay motivated and keep running longer in your training,” says Bryon Powell, editor of the ultrarunning site “But you need to be patient and let the gains of your training come over months and years rather than trying to do too much too soon.”

Having an experienced coach guide you through your training will help you understand the rigors you’ll endure and make adjustments to your training along the way.

3) Get the Gear

Ultrarunning requires a lot more gear than a half marathon or marathon. It starts with your shoes, and if you’re training for an ultra-distance trail race, it means you should invest in at least a few good pairs of trail running shoes. There are a lot of different kinds of trail shoes, so it’s important to get a pair that has enough technical features—namely, traction, cushioning and protection—to match the type of terrain you’ll be training and racing on. (Check out our guide for finding the right trail running shoes.)

You’ll have to get used to carrying your hydration, snacks and often an extra layer of clothing in a running-specific backpack. While you might opt for carrying a pack with a 50-ounce hydration bladder, most ultrarunning packs have easily accessible 16- to 20-ounce bottles or soft flasks mounted on the front. A lightweight, water-repellent jacket, arm-warming sleeves, a lightweight, moisture-wicking cap, compression socks, sunblock and anti-friction lube are some of the other gear you’ll likely want to have with you. Running with lightweight trekking poles has been on the increase among trail runners in recent years—they can significantly ease the burden your legs will endure—but be aware that not all races allow runners to use poles.

4) Keep Re-Fueling

Studies show that a runner can burn 100 to 150 calories per mile during an ultra-distance race, which means you might burn between 3,000 and 4,500 calories during your first 50K. That suggests that you need to fuel smartly and regularly throughout the race. Start by having a hearty, well-balanced meal a few hours before, but also plan on consuming a few hundred calories at every aid station and continually consuming energy snacks along the way.

In a typical half marathon or marathon, runners take in calories through gels, chews and liquid sports drinks. But in an ultra, you’ll find aid stations stocked real food like potatoes, sandwiches, ramen noodles, chips, fruit, etc.

Begin by teaching yourself to eat real food and various energy snacks during your training runs. Get used to running with a hand-held bottle or a hydration pack (or both) to maintain your hydration. On race day, eat energy bars and gels you carry in your pack during the race, but also take a few minutes at aid stations to eat something hearty. “Eat from the start to the finish of your race, and eat what you like,” Powell says. “That will help you get calories into your system even when you don’t want to or feel you need to.”

5) Toughen Up

Ultimately, ultrarunning isn’t about racing to beat other people or to beat the clock. It’s about taking on an immense challenge and testing yourself against a wide range of variables including the course and its natural features, the weather, how your body reacts and your own limits. But be aware that things will go wrong. Learning to make adjustments and running through discomfort is part of the game. Sometimes those adjustments might mean refueling more frequently or with different foods. Or it could mean swapping out your shoes for a half size larger to adjust for swelling feet. Or, if you’re running a 100-mile race through the middle of the night, it might even mean taking a 10-minute power nap to reset your system.

While enduring an ultra-distance race is a huge physical endeavor, it’s also about become mentally stronger, developing mental tenacity and doing your best to keep your emotions at bay. During any given ultra, you’ll experience times when you feel on top of the world, and moments that you’ve never felt so physically miserable and mentally and emotionally frayed. Don’t let this discourage you, because, in an ultramarathon, you’re bound to recover if you make the right adjustments. The key is to maintain relentless forward motion and keep a positive attitude.

“Expect the unexpected and don’t panic,” Powell says. “If things start to go sideways, try to figure it out and make sure you’re fueling and hydrating correctly. Even if things do start to go south, give yourself time to make adjustments. If you were to go to the finish line of any ultra and ask every runner if their race went perfectly according to plan, almost no one would say they had a perfect day. Stuff happens out there, but overcoming those things is part of what makes finishing your race so rewarding.”

Where to signup for an Ultramarathon

American Trail Running Associate

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