Ultrarunning is a unique and demanding sport that tests both the body and mind in ways that other sports can’t. It requires an incredible amount of endurance, strength, and mental toughness to complete even the shortest race. It’s less about running fast and more about simply enduring. Ultrarunners can manage the hot conditions along with the mental breakdown that inevitably occurs throughout a race.
That’s why ultrarunners are a special breed of athlete, and why for a small group of people, they demand the best of themselves and strive to test their resolve at the toughest of the ultra marathons. These bucket list races are coveted by runners all over the world. These carry the same respect as qualifying and racing the Boston Marathon does for marathon runners or qualifying for the Kona Ironman for triathletes.
If you’re looking to challenge yourself as an ultrarunner, these races should be targeted. Each one offers something unique and challenging that will test your limits as an ultrarunner (definitely no flat course races here).
A priority on overall wellness should be emphasized before entering any of these races. That means partaking in stretching, strength training, and maybe even a portable cold plunge in addition to your running regimen.
Training for these races is a year-round activity, so read about the best winter endurance sports to participate in to improve your fitness and Bodyweight Strength Training. And if you decide you want to race some shorter races, check out our bucket list of the best marathons in the United States.
As an ultrarunner, you stand apart from marathoners. After doing these races, you stand out from other ultrarunners as well. These unique running races prove that you are not human.
The Bucket List Races
These races are the most epic of all ultramarathons. Make sure you charge your best running watch, these might take a while.
The Badwater Ultramarathon – 135 Miles
Death Valley National Park, CA USA
The Badwater135 labels itself “The World’s Toughest Foot Race”, and is an ultramarathon that takes place in Death Valley National Park, California.
The race starts at Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (85 m) below sea level and finishes at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,508 feet (4,421 m).
The race is held in mid-July every year, which happens to be the hottest month of the year. During the race, the temperatures in Death Valley routinely exceed 130 °F (54 °C).
The Badwater Ultramarathon is considered one of the most difficult running races in the world. In addition to the extreme heat, runners must contend with elevation changes totaling more than 13,000 feet (4,000 m) throughout the race.
That first event had only nine entrants, all of whom were men. Since then, the race has grown in popularity, and as of 2022, it had a field of 94 starters, with 77 runners completing the course. The majority of entrants are from the United States, but runners from all over the world come to compete.
The Badwater 135 is not just a test of physical endurance, but also a test of mental fortitude. Running in such extreme conditions can be challenging both physically and mentally, and runners must be prepared for anything.
Those who complete the Badwater Ultramarathon are considered some of the toughest athletes in the world.
6633 Arctic Ultra – 120 Miles or 380 Miles
Eagle Plains, Yukon CANADA
“Experience one of the toughest and most beautiful environments on the planet”.
If Badwater 135 is one of the hottest races on earth, then the 6633 Arctic Ultra is the complete opposite. 380 Miles through the frozen Canadian Arctic with temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celcius.
The Classic 6633 Arctic Ultra isn’t just a race, it is an adventure and an expedition ending on the Arctic Ocean and experiencing some of the most extreme and most beautiful landscapes on the planet.
Regarded by many as the toughest, coldest, windiest footrace on the planet, the 6633 will take you through the frozen landscape of the Canadian Arctic, through First Nation Hamlets meeting some of the friendliest and most generous people you could ever wish to meet. You will make friends for life on the race and return with a much deeper and more powerful understanding of yourself and what makes you tick.
The non-stop self-sufficient foot race is over a distance of either 120 miles or 380 miles, with both races crossing the line of the Arctic Circle.
The 120-mile race finishes at the First Nations Hamlet of Fort McPherson, whilst the longer 380-mile race continues to the banks of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk.
If you enjoy running in full winter gear with very little sleep, this is the race for you.
The Barkley Marathons – 100+ Miles
Morgan Country, TN, USA
The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon trail race held in Tennessee, United States. The race was first held in 1986 and has been held annually since then. It is named after Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, who came up with the race’s concept and co-founded it.
Registering for the race is a challenge as there is no website or instructions on how to actually sign up. And it’s not broadcast anywhere. Only the most resourceful ultrarunners will even figure out the exact date and method to register for this race. If you’re “accepted” as a registered runner, the entry fee is rumored to be $1.60.
The event is described as a 100-mile race that starts and finishes at Frozen Head State Park. Runners must complete the loop within 60 hours. The course consists of five 20-mile (32 km) loops, with each loop getting progressively more difficult. In most years the distance exceeds 100 miles by a fair margin. Did we mention that the course isn’t marked? That’s because you’re not running on trails, but rather up and down mountains and overgrown wilderness areas. It’s pure lunacy.
There are a number of unique features of this event, including its use of books as checkpoints. Runners must tear out a particular page (unique to their number) in books along the route. This is the race director’s method of tracking who completes each lap. The race starts with the customary lighting of a cigarette by the race organizers, and that time (the start time) varies for every race. It’s not written down when the race will begin although a conch shell is blown an hour prior to the lighting of the cigarette.
The Barkley Marathons has been described as “the most difficult footrace in the world” and is considered one of the most prestigious ultramarathons. It has a very low start list count each year, and an extremely low finisher rate, with only 15 runners having completed the race in its 30-year history. Read that again.
A 2014 documentary titled The Barkley Marathons – The Race That Eats It’s Young pushed the race into the mainstream and gave it a cult status among ultrarunners. We highlight this documentary in our favorite running movies to watch.
The Spartathlon – approximately 245km
SPARTATHLON is a historic ultra-distance foot race that takes place in September of every year in Greece. It is one of the world’s most challenging and satisfying ultra-distance races because of its unique history and background.
The Spartathlon revives the footsteps of Pheidippides, an ancient Athenian long-distance runner, who in 490 BC, before the battle of Marathon, was sent to Sparta to seek help in the war between the Greeks and the Persians.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure from Athens.
In 1984 the International Association “Spartathlon” was founded, which since then has continuously organized the race each September. September was chosen because that is the time reported by Herodotus for Pheidippides’ run to Sparta.
Described as the world’s most grueling race, the Spartathlon runs over rough tracks and muddy paths (often it rains during the race), crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all takes the runners on the 1,200-meter ascent, and descent of Mount Parthenion in the dead of night.
This is the mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, on which it is said Pheidippides met the god, Pan.
Grand to Grand Ultra
Running from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the summit of the Grand Staircase you will discover new strengths and lifelong friends running in the remotest part of America.
The Grand to Grand Ultra course covers approx 171 miles (275 km) spread over 6 stages in 7 days.
Participants will encounter a mix of desert and other terrains including hard-packed sand, soft sand, sand dunes, forest trails, red rock climbs, rocky roads, and slot canyons. The starting line is situated at a remote location on the north rim of the Grand Canyon with breathtaking vistas at an altitude of 5344 feet (1629 meters). Campsite 1, which is your campsite on the evening before the start of the race, is close by.
The finish line is on the summit of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase and provides participants with a rewarding view back over the course that you will have just completed. From an altitude of 8698 feet (2651 meters), look back over the cliffs and enjoy the most amazing panoramic landscape of your journey framed by hoodoos and two billion-year-old rock formations
Throughout the course, you will trek by geological mesas, buttes, and cliffs and enter into a series of unique canyons, hollows, and valleys. Part of the long stage will have you cross the majestic coral-pink sand dunes. One special highlight is when the course takes you into an isolated slot canyon. Keep an eye out for wildlife and flora along the route including the endangered California Condors, big horn sheep, mule deer, and unique cacti.
Be prepared for a unique experience that few people on earth will ever see, never mind hike and run through.
Silverton, CO USA
Hardrock 100 is an ultramarathon race that takes place in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The race – approximately 102 miles long – has 33,197 feet of climb and 33,197 feet of descent for a total elevation change of over 66,300 feet. The average elevation is over 11,100 feet. It is not for the weak.
The race was first held in 1992 and has been held annually (except for a few years due to snow, fire, and Covid) since then. The race starts and ends in the town of Silverton, Colorado, and includes several major climbs, including Handies Peak (14,048 feet), Engineer Mountain (13,860 feet), and Mount Sneffels (14,150 feet). The race is known for its scenic beauty as well as its difficulty.
Runners follow a course that is a giant loop and either go clockwise or counter-clockwise each year, depending on the race director’s choice. It is considered to be one of the most challenging ultramarathon races in the world due to its high altitude and rugged terrain.
You’ll have to wade knee-deep in ice-cold streams, cross snowfields, climb rocky areas that require the use of your hands, and may be caught above the treeline in extreme thunderstorms. Oh, and due to the high altitude, you may battle altitude sickness and possibly edema.
Sound fun? The race is limited to only 146 runners each year and entry is determined by a lottery of over 2000 applicants. The cut-off time is 48 hours with about 25% of all starters being unable to complete the race.
If you are an ultrarunner looking for a challenge, then this is one race you must consider adding to your bucket list.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc – 171km
The UTMB is one of the most epic mountain races, with numerous passages at high altitudes (>2500m), in difficult weather conditions (night, wind, cold, rain, or snow), that needs very good training, adapted equipment, and a real capacity for personal autonomy. You have to qualify for this, and it’s on everyone’s bucket list.
It starts at 6:00 pm and we are more or less 2300 people sharing the same dream carefully prepared over many months. Despite the incredible difficulty, we feel serene thanks to the help and comfort offered by 2000 volunteers who in a spirit of sharing and friendship are ready to partake in the same adventure.
You will be rubbing shoulders with Aiguille de Bionnassay and crossing Col du Bonhomme by moonlight. At sunrise, you will cross Col de la Seigne into Italy and the magical Val Veni overlooked by Noire du Peuterey and the glaciers descending Mont Blanc. Later you will reach the Val Ferret, guarded by Dent du Géant and Grandes Jorasses before finally turning to Switzerland to relish the beautifully protected countryside.
You will have to put up with fatigue, to overcome your fears and anxieties. Some participants, having pushed their limits to the extreme, will choose to break off the race keeping intact their hopes to make it from beginning to end at some later date. They will be rewarded for their achievement and their names will be added to the list with everyone else at the end of the race.
The others will climb over Bovine and Les Tseppes. Then, with Aiguille Verte in front of them, under the vertical heights of the Drus and with the majestic presence of Mont Blanc before them, they will dive down towards the finishing line in the heart of Chamonix.
The Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon – 100 miles
Leadville, CO USA
The legendary “Race Across The Sky” 100-mile run is where it all started back in 1983. This is it. The race where legends are created and limits are tested. One hundred miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain – from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. You will give the mountain respect, and earn respect from all.
The 100-mile out-and-back course is in the midst of the Colorado Rockies. The low point is 9,200 feet; the high point is Hope Pass, 12,600 feet. The majority is on forest trails with some mountain roads. You can have pacers after the 62-mile point.
The most challenging part of this race is the elevation. You are almost always above the 10,000-foot level, so oxygen is scarce. There is a total of 15,744 feet of elevation gain.
Runners who complete the course within the cutoff times earn the coveted silver and gold of the Leadville Trail 100 belt buckle, you must finish the race in under 30 hours for the small buckle and under 25 hours for the big buckle.
The Western States Endurance Run
Olympic Valley, CA, USA
The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. The Run starts in Olympic Valley, California, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and ends 100.2 miles later in Auburn, California. In the decades since its inception in 1974, Western States has come to represent one of the ultimate endurance tests in the world.
The Western States Endurance Run follows the middle portion of the famous Western States Trail, a nationally dedicated recreational trail that stretches from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Sacramento, California. One of the most arduous organized running events in the U.S., the Western States 100 is truly the “Ultimate Challenge” for the long-distance runner. Entry into this event should not be taken lightly.
Beginning in Olympic Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, the trail ascends from the valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn, a small town in the heart of California’s historic gold country. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory.
Traversing the traditional lands of the Nisenan, Washoe, and other neighboring Indigenous Peoples, the Western States Trail climbs more than 18,000 feet and descends nearly 23,000 feet before runners reach the finish at Placer High School in Auburn. In the miles between Olympic Valley and Auburn, runners experience the majestic high country of Emigrant Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness, the crucible of the canyons of the California gold country, a memorable crossing of the ice-cold waters of the Middle Fork of the American River, and finally, the historic reddish brown trails that led many travelers, including gold prospectors, to Auburn.
For almost five decades, Western States has been home to some of the sport’s most stirring and legendary competitions. With more than 1,500 dedicated volunteers helping to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Run has stirred the spirit of runners from all walks of life, from all over the globe.
Offering the sport’s oldest and most prized possession – for those reaching the finish line in under 24-hours, a silver belt buckle. If you cross the finish line in under 30-hours, a bronze belt buckle awaits you. The Western States Endurance Run remains one of the undisputed crown jewels of human endurance.
If you understand how hard running downhill for 100 miles is combined with a lot of uphill as well, this race should be on your bucket list.
Ultrarunning is a challenging and rewarding sport, but it can be even more fun if you add in an epic race or two.
Whether you’re looking for a scenic route with plenty of elevation changes or an adventure race that will test your limits, any of these races will provide it.
Check out our article on trail running gear if you want to learn what many athletes choose for ultrarunning.
If you think there are other races that should be added to this list, please drop us a line and let us know!
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