What is an ultra marathon?

What is an ultra marathon? What is the difference between a marathon and an ultra marathon? And, how far is an ultra marathon?

All these questions and more answered in my first ever post. Read on…..

North Downs Way 100 – before things got really hot.

What is an ultramarathon?

Technically speaking an ultramarathon is any distance further than a traditional marathon. So, anything longer than 26.2 miles or 42km. In reality though ultramarathon races tend to start at 50km (or 31 miles).

(I suspect that the nice round 50km threshold says more about the typical ultramarathon runner being a little OCD rather than anything else.)

Apart from the need to be greater than a normal marathon distance there are actually very few requirements to call a race a ultramarathon. Typically ultra marathons are run on trails but there are track and road ultras too – Comrades is a famous road ultra marathon in South Africa and the Tooting Track 24hr race in London is a great example of an ultra run around a 400m athletics track…. (I’m still working out if this is attractive of terrifying)

The format of an ultramarathon can vary enormously. Looped ultras around an athletic track are perhaps at the more extreme / sadomasochistic end of things. More standard is a larger loop(s). Point to point races are also very common and present a more adventurous and fulfilling race format, albeit with their own logistical challenges. Timed races are becoming increasingly popular and typically see runners compete over times of 6, 12, 24 or 48hrs to see how far they can run. At the more extreme end of the spectrum is a race like 6 Days in the Dome held in the US which sees runners race around an inside running track for 6 days straight.

How far is an ultramarathon?

An ultramarathon is any race beyond the marathon distance (26.2 miles / 42k). Traditional ultramarathon distances are:

  • 50k
  • 50 miles
  • 100k
  • 100 miles

There are many longer races too, some stretch to 1000’s of miles of multi-day events. At 270 miles the Spine Ultra Marathon is perhaps the most famous ultra marathon in the UK held over a distance longer than 100 miles.

What is the difference between a marathon and an ultramarathon?

There are many differences between a traditional marathon and an ultramarathon. Some of the main differences are:

  1. They are typically run at a much slower pace than a marathon. A ‘good’ time for a 100 mile ultra is seen as sub-24hrs and this ‘only’ requires a pace of 14 min / mile average but believe me that’s not easy to sustain for a whole day!
  2. They are as much about eating as running. Running an ultra marathon requires you to maintain the right nutrition level to avoid bonking or hitting the wall. If you hit the wall during a marathon you can usually push through for the last hour or so. With an ultra that’s not feasible so you’ll find that the vast majority of ultra marathons have well stocked aid stations with a serious amount of food on offer.
  3. There’s a lot of walking involved too. With the exception of the very best pro runners, everyone walks up almost all the hills to save energy and to break up the monotony.
  4. Most ultra marathons are off road on trails unlike a traditional marathon which will be on roads, often around a big city. Ultra marathons are usually hilly too!
  5. You need quite a bit more kit. Most runners will opt for a running vest capable of holding all the gear they need including water, food, spare clothes and whatever mandatory kit the race requires. Check out my site for some impartial, field tested and curated reviews of ultramarathon kit.

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