Ultramarathon Distances – A Brief Guide on Long Races

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If you’ve got a few marathons under your belt already, you may be wondering what’s next. For some runners who want a greater challenge, they move on to ultra-marathon running…

The good news is that ultramarathons aren’t as scary as they may seem! Learn a bit about the various ultramarathon distances, and you’ll find that it’s not that far off from a marathon. Of course, you do get crazy ones, but for ultra beginners, there are some only slightly longer than a marathon.

Here’s all you need to know about the various ultramarathon distance events, race types, and what to expect if you enter one.

What Is Ultramarathon Running?

Any race longer than a traditional marathon distance—26.2 miles—counts as an ultramarathon. Typically, the next distance up from a marathon is a 50k, or 31.07 miles.

It doesn’t matter what kind of race it is—as long as it meets the distance requirements of being longer than a standard marathon, it can be a road race, a trail run, or a combination.

Ultra races are split into different events by distance or time. For example, you may have a 100-mile race or an event that goes by time, like a 24-hour race. There are even stage races that last multiple days.

Here are some of the most common ultra-running formats:

Stage Race

The full ultramarathon occurs over multiple days across many sections in a stage race. Each stage is separated by an overnight rest, where the runner will camp out for a few hours until they continue with the next stage.

Usually, ultra-runners will have a distance goal for each day or stage. If they fall behind on that stage, they know they have to run extra hard on the next stage! These races are often held in the desert or across wide-open spaces.

The Marathon Des Sables is a good example of ultramarathon running. It’s 250 miles—400 km—split over multiple days. Not every stage is ultra distance, but in the end, it adds up to one long race!

Distance

This type of race is straightforward. To finish the ultramarathon, you have a certain distance to run, usually done all in one go. In these cases, you won’t be able to rest in between stages.

Time-Based

These races are somewhat unique. You’ll be given a time frame, and your goal is to run as many miles as possible within that time frame. It can range anywhere from 6 hours to 72 hours.

These are typically run in much shorter loops—one to three miles. This means all your supplies are close at hand, so you can stop at the end of every other loop to sip a sports drink or an energy chew.

It’s a little less mentally draining than other types. But running the same short loop over and over can get boring pretty quickly!

Can Anyone Run an Ultramarathon?

You might think ultramarathons are only for long-distance runners and elite athletes. But the truth is, anyone can run an ultramarathon if they train properly and have an appropriate spirit of adventure!

Some notable differences to standard marathons make ultras more attractive to the everyday runner. For one, they tend to be less competitive—they’re often more about the personal challenge.

As the distance is longer than a marathon, the pace is slower, which makes it fairly friendly for runners of all levels—as long as you’ve got the stamina! Which is why training is essential.

But put in the effort to train towards an ultra, and anyone with the determination and physical fitness level can run an ultramarathon!

What Are The Ultramarathon Distances?

Ultramarathons can be any distance that’s longer than a regular marathon. That being said, there are some common distances that you’ll find across ultramarathon races.

50k

A 50k race is the shortest of the ultramarathon distances, at just over 31 miles. It may sound easy, but 5 extra miles on top of a marathon distance can be a lot more difficult than you realize!

These races are usually distance races—they’re not quite long enough for a stage or time-based race to be appropriate.

50-mile

50-mile races—80.47 kilometers—are the next one up. It’s quite a bit longer than a 50k, so you’ll need to train a good bit more to reach this milestone. You may be able to find ultras of varying distances between a 50k and a 50-mile, but they’re not as common.

This will be the first race day in which you’ll truly experience what ultras are all about. They’re usually done in a single day, with no stages, but you’ll have to push yourself hard and run through mental and physical pain to finish in time.

100k

A 100k—62-mile—ultramarathon is more than double a regular marathon’s distance. These may be done in stages, giving you time to rest so you don’t have to run the entire 62 miles in one go.

100-mile

A 100-mile race equals 160 km. Not for beginners, this distance is usually done over a few days to give you breathing room!

200-mile

200 miles—320 km—is becoming more and more popular. Like the Marathon Des Sables mentioned above, this distance is well suited to a stage race.

Ultramarathon Race Formats and Course Designs

As well as different distances, ultramarathons can come in multiple different formats and with varying course designs. Here are some of the race types you can expect:

Track Course

This is exactly how it sounds. You run an entire ultramarathon on a track. It can be handy to keep track of distance and there’s no need to worry about harsh terrain or anything unexpected.

But the downside is that it can get boring… If you’re running a 100-miler, you’ll be doing the same loop 100 times. Thanks to the smooth, flat surface, they can be great for timed races.

Point-To-Point

A point-to-point ultra race is one that starts at a certain place and ends somewhere else, a specific distance away. They follow a predetermined route from point A to point B, which can cover almost any terrain you can imagine.

Single-Loop

In the ultra races, the starting and finishing points are the same. Runners complete a course that takes them in a loop, along a specific route, until they eventually arrive back at the starting point, which becomes the finishing point.

Multiple Loop

Like a single-loop race, the multi-loop race’s starting and ending points are the same. However, rather than a single, large loop, runners must run multiple loops of a shorter distance to make up the full distance before returning to the starting/finishing point.

Out-and-Back

This race also uses the same starting and finishing point, but rather than a loop, you run out to a certain point, then turn around and run the exact same route in reverse back to the starting point.

Backyard Ultra

This is an exciting and unique type of race. A backyard ultra is also known as “last man standing”. It’s a timed race, with a predetermined loop of around 3 miles.

Runners have a certain time period to complete the loop; for example, one hour. The entire race spans up to 24 hours, and the idea is to run as many loops as possible in that time period.

You run until you can’t run anymore! Runners drop out throughout the day, and the winner is the last man standing who can complete a loop in the time period once everyone else has dropped out.

These can range from on the track to trail running, which can significantly change the difficulty level.

If this sounds fun, check out Big’s Backyard Ultra—it’s one of the most famous!

Course Support for Runners

One of the most interesting things about ultras—that you don’t find with regular marathons—is the superb on-course support.

Aid Stations

You’ll find supply stations throughout the course. These will be set up at strategic points throughout the distance.

At the fancy ones, you can grab hydration and food, sometimes elaborate set-ups that include hot food and drinks. Some lesser races might have just some water and a banana, but every little bit helps!

You can use the aid stations as checkpoints along the way, which can make the long run easier in a psychological sense.

Crewing

Longer races often allow you to bring your own crew along to support you. You can put your crew together, and they should have defined roles.

Some may be there for moral support, others to ensure you stay fueled along the way, and one might be your personal medic. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but having your own personal group of people to support you can be invaluable!

Pace Team

You can also use a pacer during an ultramarathon to stay on-pace throughout the event. It’s a long distance, so a pacer can help you maintain the correct pace effortlessly.

They’re usually there during the more taxing times of the ultras—for example, during a “night shit” when you know it will be more of a struggle.

Just be aware that not every race allows pacers. Check the race rules before you look for a pacer.

Drop Bag

Some races allow you to pack “drop bags” and have them placed at aid stations along the way. You can fill these with extra gear—like a change of socks, new shoes, a light jacket, or even nutrition items—so you can swap out when needed.

You can include extra lights, batteries, or music for your race. Things like beanies, neck gaiters, and waterproof items may be helpful in case the weather turns.

Do You Sleep During Ultramarathons?

Multi-stage races usually designate specific sleeping areas for runners. For longer races such as these, resting in between is necessary for your body to perform optimally.

For 200-mile races or more, you might need to get at least a few 90-minute naps, which you can do at a sleep station.

But anything up to 100-mile races can be done without sleep. Ultimately, the answer comes down to personal preference. If you’re new to ultra races, you may struggle to run for 24 to 36 hours without taking a nap here and there.

But if you’re used to it, you might be able to push through without even considering a nap.

It’s important to understand that you won’t have time to go through your proper sleep cycles in a race. It can take up to 40 minutes to reach REM sleep, and you can’t take that much time to nap during an ultra!

10-minute naps can be a great strategy. It’s just enough time to boost your mental capacity and give you a little burst of physical energy without leaving you feeling groggy.

Make sure someone is there to wake you up or you have a loud alarm set on your cell phone! The last thing you want is to oversleep… And wake up having lost hours of your valuable running time.

How Long Does It Take to Train for an Ultra?

If you’re planning on running an ultramarathon, you should dedicate at least 6 months. You can’t just run an ultra on a whim—you need to take the time to prepare properly for it!

Like anything, you should gradually work your way up. It’s advisable to start with the shortest distance ultramarathon that comes after whatever race you’ve already run—if a marathon is the longest race you’ve run, go for a 50k next. If you’ve done a 50k, a 50-miler is next on the list.

Don’t leap from a marathon to a 100-miler! You can expect at least 20, preferably 24 weeks of training if you’re running an appropriate race. This is enough time to train adequately without burning yourself out!

Planning on running your first ultra soon? Here’s our list of the best ultras in the United States. There’s something for every skill level on this list!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.