The name ultra marathon encompasses any organised footrace that covers a distance longer than the standard marathon (26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195km). So, if you’re asking what distance is an ultra marathon, the answer can be quite surprising.
In the world of professional long-distance racing, the 100km race is an officially recognised event by the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which means world records for this distance can be set. Ultra marathons of other lengths and times often have prizes for top placing participants, but all finishers are usually celebrated due to the arduous nature of the races.
It may be surprising to learn that ultra marathons are not always measured by a set distance. It’s not always about the mileage. Some ultra marathons are defined by a length of time, instead. For example, participants may be asked run as far as possible within a 24 hour period. Other events may be multi-day races, where participants are welcome to walk, run and rest when they like, with the final time being the only measure.
Ultra marathon courses also vary significantly. Some races require participants to loop a single 400m or 1-mile track repeatedly. Others offer long circular routes, while others are point-to -point. Some ultra marathons use geographical markers as their start and finish points, for example, two towns that bookend a mountain range, the length or breadth of a country, or the span of a desert.
Every continent offers long distance running events, including Antarctica. The variety of international races truly offers something for everyone, no matter what your preferences are. Multi-day races can be taken at a slower pace with plenty of determined walking and allowances for sleep. Shorter distance races often encourage faster speeds and shorter completion times.
Terrain can play a large part of the challenge of the ultra marathon. You can participate in a race 1000s of feet above sea level, trek through deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, even ice and snow. Some climates are dry, others humid or freezing cold. Each difference in conditions can require a completely different strategy for managing fatigue, rations and gear.
Ultra marathon competitors need to choose their race carefully not only based on distance, terrain and time requirements, but also the provided level of support. Some long-standing ultra marathons are known for their gruelling terrain and forced self-reliance, where competitors must carry all food and shelter required to cover the distances. Newer races often emphasise support as part of the attraction with first aid stations, sleeping arrangements, food and even internet connections provided during the race.