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Best Ultras In the United States

One of the most commonly cited reasons why people run is to find out what they are capable of. There is an interest, in many fitness pursuits, in finding what our limits are. And that means pushing boundaries. For some runners, that is seeing how fast they can run 100m, or 1600m, or 5,000m. For others, it is about running further and further distances.

It was once traditionally thought that the marathon was the longest test of human endurance. Many runners have heard the story: Phidippides, a Greek courier and the supposed original marathon runner, did promptly die after running the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce victory in battle. Such a story would seem to be a decent enough deterrent against others taking a shot at the distance.

But there’s another, less-known aspect to the story: he had already run about 75 miles each of the prior two days before his final ill-fated run set the gold standard for recreational fitness a couple millennia later. That’s right: Phidippides was not the original marathoner. He was actually an ultramarathoner!

How are Ultramarathons Different From Marathons?

If you aren’t sure exactly what an ultramarathon is, it’s the term used to describe any race longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. For practical purposes, the lower bound of ultras is 50km (31 miles). There really isn’t an upper limit.

Some ultras are road races, but the bulk are trail races. One cynical definition of “sports” is “voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles,” and a quick review of the most prestigious trail races shows that ultrarunners lean into this idea as a matter of pride. Eye-popping amounts of climbing, head-spinning elevations, and narrow trails on mountain ridges or bushwhacking through forests, overall brutal conditions, in addition to distances that strain the imagination, are par for the course.

If you’re looking for a challenge, why not sign up for one of these hardcore races? As long as you’re kitted up and train properly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to run a cracker of a 50-miler!

If you’ve had some experience running ultras before, why not choose one you haven’t done to add to your list?

Here are our choices for the best ultras in the United States.

Tough and Beautiful Course

1. Zane Grey Highline Trail 50-Mile Run, Arizona

Where: Pine, Arizona
When: Early April
Distance: 50 miles
Elevation Gain: 7,579 ft
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard

The Zane Grey is recommended by Karl Meltzer, the man who’s won more of these brutal races than anyone else ever. Don’t think that means it’s a fun, happy one, though – it’s on his list of “Savage 50s.”

In the ultrarunning world, savagery is part of the charm. With an elevation gain of 7,579 feet and rocky cobblestones underfoot, you can expect your lower body to take a beating. Meltzer himself has said that running the road is like running on baseballs, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking of attempting this one!

It’s one of the most technical ultras in the country, so not recommended for beginners. It has, however, been regarded as one of the most beautiful trail runs. So if you have the training and the willpower, it’s well worth crossing off your bucket list!

Requirements:

There are no specific requirements for the Zane Grey. However, the organizers strongly encourage runners to volunteer some of their time before the race to help maintain the trails.

This helps keep the trails as safe as possible, but also affords participants the opportunity to check out the trails before they run them and learn more about the area.

How To Qualify:

The savagery of this course, and many others in the ultra world, is not taken lightly. Because of both the difficulty and the distance, the organizers don’t just let anybody in. You’ll need to make mention of a comparable trail run you’ve completed that would give them an indication that you’d be able to care for yourself out on the trails, and be without aid for extended periods of time.

It’s likely your entry won’t be accepted if you haven’t run an ultra before. Considering the race officials have, on multiple occasions, had to send out a search and rescue team to retrieve runners, it’s understandable why they’d be picky!

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Classic 100-Mile Ultra

2. Western States, California

Where: Squaw Valley, California
When: Late June
Distance: 100 miles
Elevation Gain: 18044.62 feet
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard

This is the race of legend. This is the 100-miler.

It was 1974 when Gordy Ainsleigh showed up at the start of the Western States Endurance Ride without a horse. Yes, it was a horse race. He set off with the riders, finishing in just under 24 hours, and beating many of the horses. By 1978, it was officially a running event. Today, it is the most prestigious ultramarathon in the States, and arguably the world (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc might beg to differ)

As the original 100-miler, it’s a nice thing to have ticked off your list.

It begins at the base of the Squaw Valley ski resort, where the 1960 Winter Olympics took place. 100.2 miles later, you cross the finish line on the Pacer High School track in Auburn..

It’s a killer of a race, with more than 18,000 feet of climbing. If you think that’s rough, there’s also more than 23,000 feet of descent! The weather almost always includes temperatures cold enough for snow, as well as temperatures over 90F. It bears repeating: this race is the stuff of legend.

Requirements:

You can qualify for Western States based on placing in other high-level ultras. For the mere mortals, entry is on a lottery basis. You need to be 18 years or older and have completed a qualifying race in the prior two years.

How To Enter:

Entrants are selected on a lottery basis. Considering that the 2020 race was cancelled, ticket counts for 2021 will be calculated based on 2020 lottery tickets (for example, an applicant with 8 tickets in the 2020 lottery would have 16 tickets in 2021).

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Toughest 100-Mile Ultra

3. Hard Rock 100, Colorado

Where: Silverton, Colorado
When: Mid July
Distance: 100 miles
Elevation: Change: 66,050 feet
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard

Hard Rock is another piece in the triumvirate of elite U.S. ultramarathons (Western States and the Leadville 100, which did not make this list, are the other two). The 66,000-foot elevation change of this race dwarfs the amount in Western States. And at a lung-searing average elevation of 11,000, it is the highest ultra in the world. If you’re aiming high and want to complete one of the world’s most challenging endurance races, this is the one that should top your bucket list.

You’ll be traversing dirt roads, rocky hills, and country fields across the San Juan Mountain Range of Southern Colorado. All proceeds of this ultra go right into supporting the communities that you’ll be running past along this course. Earning a buckle from Hard Rock puts you in a very small club of the most accomplished ultra runners.

Requirements:

Run one of the accepted qualifying races to be entered into the lottery.

How To Enter:

Enter the lottery system and hope and pray! The field size is relatively small, so it may take a couple of years’ worth of trying.

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Best Family Ultra

4. Jay Peak Trail Running Festival, Vermont

Where: Jay Peak, Vermont
When: Labor Day Weekend
Distance: Varying
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Easy to moderate

Welcome to what is affectionately known as the Beast Coast. Sure, the big mountains may be out west, but the eastern part of the country also sports a rich and challenging assortment of ultramarathons. If you’re looking for a light event the whole family can get involved in, the Jay Peaks Trail Running Festival is the perfect place to find that.

There’s not just one race here! There are 7 different races, so there’ll be something for everyone – the newbie trail runners, kids who want to have fun without the competition, and also a 53-miler for those ultra-marathon runners who consider the weekend a waste if they haven’t been challenged!

It’s the perfect getaway for an active family. Between races, the kids will be kept busy with the ice rink, water park, movie theater, arcade, and climbing wall. Parents can join in the fun or relax at a luxury hotel.

This trail running festival has been given plenty of love, winning places in the Top 15 Best Trail races in the US, the Top 4 Trail Races for Kids by Trail Runner Mag, the Top 10 Family Trail Races by Runner’s World, and (for the hardcore ultra marathoners out there) the Masochist’s Ultra Running Bucket List (REI) .

Requirements:

There are no specific requirements. Kids who can walk are allowed to run the kids’ race, but the age limit is 11. Younger kids may have an older sibling run it with them, but the older child won’t be counted as a competitor.

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Best Hawaii Ultra

5. HURT 100, Hawaii

Where: O’ahu, Hawaii
When: Mid-January
Distance: 100 miles
Elevation Gain: 24501.31 feet
Terrain: Trail
Difficulty Level: Hard

No, the name isn’t describing how you’ll feel during or after this ultra, but it’s not far off either! HURT stands for Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, and this is their 100-mile offering to the world of endurance running.

It may be in a beautiful location—think green forest trails—but it’s an adventurous and tricky course designed for intermediate to advanced runners.

It’s set out in 3 different legs, each one challenging in its own way.

How to Qualify:

From 2021, in order to qualify for the HURT 100, you’ll need to have completed a qualifying run (50 miles minimum) within the two years prior to the race. When you apply, you’ll have to list this event on your application.

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Most Unique Ultra

6. Barkley Marathons, Tennessee

Where: Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee
When: First weekend in April
Distance: 100 miles, they say. But no one believes this
Elevation Gain: 120,000-ish feet
Terrain: Mountains
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: $1.60

The Barkley Marathons – a race so long and brutal it is referred to in the plural – was once a secretive event with a cult-like following of off-beat adventure race misfits. That all changed with the debut of The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young, a widely-acclaimed documentary exploring the lore of the notoriously impossible off-trail race, its eccentric founder, and a philosophical deep-dive into the role of pain and failure in the search for the lands beyond personal limits. Barkley is at the forefront of dream-big sufferfest chic.

The race is impossible by design. You enter it knowing that finishing is not a realistic measure of success. In 34 years, only 15 people have completed the course (whose true distance is unknown, most definitely more than 100 miles, and changes year-to-year) in the allotted 60 hours.

It’s an eccentric process, with weird application fee items (one year, it was a white dress shirt), and a very secretive way of going about the application process. There are other interesting quirks, such as the fact that race bib #1 is always given to the person considered to be the least likely to finish even one lap. The course is marked only by books hidden in the forest; you follow directions to the book, and remove the page that matches your bib number. You hand those pages in at the end of each lap to prove you completed the loop.

If you are interesting in having your soul ripped out by the mountains of eastern Tennessee, start with some of the other “easier” events Gary Cantrell/Lazarus Lake puts on. If you are not part of that world, you’ll have no access to the application process.

Registration:

The Barkly Marathons is strictly limited to 40 invited runners. Wait too long, even if you’re invited, and you won’t get in at all. Those 40 spots fill up quickly on opening day. Of course, they don’t make it easy. How to submit an application is a closely guarded secret, with no details advertised publicly. You’ll have to put in some work to figure this one out if you wish to compete.

How to Qualify:

Complete an essay entitled “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley,” and pay the monstrous $1.60 application fee. Depending on the day, there could be other, stranger requirements.

If accepted, the entrant will receive a “letter of condolence.” If you’re a first-timer (otherwise known as a Barkley virgin), you’d better bring a license plate from your home state or country, or risk not being allowed to compete.

Those who have raced previously but not finished are required to bring an additional fee. Not monetary – no, this fee can be anything from socks to shirts.

If you’ve made it through the race before and have come back for more, your fee includes a pack of Camel cigarettes. One will be lit to signify the start of the race.

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Best Stage Race

7. Grand to Grand, Grand Canyon

Where: Grand Canyon, Arizona
When: Late September
Distance: 170.877 miles (7 days)
Elevation Gain: 18041.34 feet
Terrain: Desert
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Entry Price: $3,550

Stage racing is a mainstay of the cycling world, but is still a relatively obscure format for running. In short, the total race distance is divided amongst multiple days – think Tour de France. The winner is the person who covers the full distance in the shortest amount of time, not the person who places best each day.

Think you can do 170 miles over 7 days? While that’s really only 20-something miles a day, you’ll need all the endurance you have (and then some) to get through Grand-to-Grand unscathed. The course traverses one of the most iconic landscapes in the world, stretching from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the top of Grand Staircase. It is one of the most remote races in the world, as well.

This self-supported footrace won’t be a luxurious experience. While there will be water checkpoints, overnight camps, and hot water at said camps, you’ll be out there on your own for each stage dealing with the September desert heat (we won’t even mention the spiders). The race spans six stages over seven days.

You’ll be required to carry your own pack, filled with whatever you think you may need for the week. Take too much and you’ll fatigue quickly. Take too little, and you’ll weaken from lack of nourishment.

This is endurance at its best and worst. You’ll run through some amazing scenery, and have times of being grateful for this experience. Other times, you’ll wonder why you were so crazy as to even think you could do this.

Worth it? Of course!

How to Qualify:

Participants must be 21 years or older, and have a medical certificate signed by a general practitioner stating they’re fit for this event.

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Longest Foot Race

8. Race across USA

Where: From Los Angeles to New York
Distance: 3080 miles (140 days)
Terrain: Various
Difficulty Level: Difficult

140 Days. 3080 Miles. One Cause.

Want to see the country? Got half a year to spare?

Yes, you read that right – 3080 miles! If you’ve got a few months to spare, this rough race could be the bucket list item of a lifetime.

Only 8 of these races have taken place since its inception in the 1920s. It doesn’t exactly have runners lining up to do it – only 4 runners took part in the trail version of the race in 2012.

If you do choose to brave this spectacular event, you’ll be expected to run around 26 miles every day. Each of these daily races is considered to be a mini race of its own, with a cutoff time of 8 hours and results published each evening.

You’ll be glad to know that there is a rest day between each state. When night falls, you can choose to stay at a hotel (at your own cost) or campgrounds. Camping is more affordable, but you’ll be required to carry your gear with you!

This is definitely not one for the faint-hearted, but you’ll never find anything else like it.

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Toughest in Alaska

9. Iditarod Trail Invitational, Alaska

Where: Anchorage, Alaska
When: Late February
Distance: 350 or 1000 miles
Terrain: Snow
Difficulty Level: Brutal
Entry Price: $1,750

“Iditarod” may be synonymous in the popular imagination with sled dogs. But that’s not the only race that happens on this famed trail in the Alaskan wilderness. If you embrace the cold, you may be keen on taking part in the longest-running winter ultra marathon in the world.

This isn’t just a foot race – you’ll need to traverse harsh winter conditions on foot, bicycle, or skis, depending on the terrain. That’s no mean feat – participants will be tested, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too.

There are two separate events: the ITI 350 or the ITI 1000. If you’re new to it, you’ll only be able to choose the 350. Only competitors who have survived the 350 can apply for the 1000.

The 350 is brutal in itself, though. You’ll find only six minimalistic checkpoints with water, food, and sleeping space on the entire trail. It is rare when a race passes through areas where the weather conditions in and of themselves could potentially be life-threatening. But this is one of them. This is not your entry point into winter adventure racing; the Iditarod is only for runners with deep experience in cold-weather back-country adventuring.

So racers, beware. While the Iditarod is no doubt a physical challenge, the real test lies in surviving this experience mentally and emotionally while traversing freezing, dangerous conditions with nothing but your own mind to keep you company!

How to Qualify:

Applicants must have finished two qualifying events from the accepted list, and/or have significant and provable winter athletic experience.

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The Wired Runner