What is an Ultra Marathon? Here's Everything You Need to Know

Many people view marathons as the highest goal a runner can achieve. This is especially true of large marathons like those hosted in Boston and New York City.

Distance runners, however, can take things one level further–with an ultramarathon.

Runners can choose from countless variations on the idea of ultramarathons. They all have a few core rules they must follow to earn the title, one of which is that they must be longer than 42.195 km (26.219 miles). Past that mark, however, ultramarathons can be wild and wonderful events that host runners of every experience level.

But why 42.195 km?

For the answer to that question, one must harken back to history. To ancient history, in fact. Here’s what happened: in 490 B.C.E, a Greek soldier named Pheiddipedes was commissioned to leave town in haste and make his way towards Athens. He was supposed to deliver news of victory over Persia. The town he departed was called Marathon, and Athens was approximately 25 miles away. Legend has it that he ran all the way there in one shot, delivered his message, and dropped dead right on the spot.

We’ll see to it that this doesn’t happen to you.

Ultramarathon Types

Ultramarathons have two major categories: timed and distance. The events under these two umbrellas are almost infinite in their variety, however.

Distance Ultramarathons

Some ultramarathons gain their titles through the distance runners must cover. The most common distances are 50 km (31.069 miles), 100 km (62.137 miles), or 160.9344 km (100 miles), but some ultramarathons might be even longer. The official world record event for distance ultramarathons is 100 km, as decided by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body for track and field events. Runners can “beat” the world record by covering 100 km in less time than the previous runner, which requires not only endurance but speed and pre-planning to avoid the dangers that accompany ultramarathons.

Timed Ultramarathons

Timed ultramarathons are similar to distance runs in that runners must cover a vast distance. Their focus is more on the length of the run, however. Many timed ultramarathons are 24-hours or longer. Some can take up to a week and require the runners to make camp, hike, or navigate their way through stretches of wilderness.

Some timed races are on fixed routes and are called “point to point races”. These may be on wooded trails, paved roads, or some combination of the two. Other timed races are stage races that require several days – sometimes up to a week – to complete. Many stages races are also Rogaines: races in which runner must keep maps and navigation gear on hand so they can find their own way to the finish line. Rogaines often require runners to face inclement weather, injuries, food or water shortages, and other survival-related hardships. Aid stations are spread along the route but are far enough apart that runners must often fend for themselves.

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Benefits of the Ultramarathon

Experts still argue back and forth about the benefits and drawbacks of typical marathons. There is less research on ultramarathons, likely due to its slow arrival on the mainstream radar. Some benefits, however, are well-supported

Ultramarathons are largely run on soft terrains such as dirt tracks or woodland trails. Softer terrain reduces the pressure on a runner’s joints. These settings also take the runner from the city and into nature which has a proven impact on a person’s mental health.

More people may find ultramarathons accessible as well, as opposed to the highly-trained nature of the average marathon runner. Many people who run ultramarathons do so without the training necessary for a traditional marathon. And while this is not recommended, they can and do finish the races by setting a slower pace and focusing more on the goal of finish the race than on their time.

Dangers of the Ultramarathon

General Issues

As with any sport, there are dangers that ultramarathon participants must face. Some of these are common problems for runners, such as sprained ankles. Other dangers, like stress fractures and dehydration, are more common in ultramarathon runners and require stronger protections to avoid. And still others are unique the ultramarathons.

Some dangers specific to ultramarathons are bug bites and scratches from underbrush that runners must navigate through. The unique combination of terrain and distance also exposes runners to inhospitable weather, elevation changes, and the risk that they will run out of food or water without access to an aid station.

Food and Drink

Running out of food and water is not the only roadblock that a runner may encounter. Runners must ration their water or sports drink consumption to avoid Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia. This occurs when runners deplete their body’s sodium levels until cells swell and burst. Eating salty foods combats this issue but this must also be done in moderation to avoid digestive distress. Most runners will experience digestive distress at least once during an ultramarathon. It’s an unfortunate part of the best methods to complete a race of such great lengths. Runners are encouraged to eat regularly and often but they must keep moving. This causes a wide range of digestive issues from cramps to diarrhea.

And though it’s obvious, it should be said: running an ultramarathon on an empty stomach is not advised.

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Emotional Highs and Lows

Whether or not they run, most people know about a Runner’s High. Exercise releases endorphins that, for most people, create a sense of joy or happiness. When someone pushes their body for an extended period of time their endorphin levels can lead to a feeling of euphoria. Ultramarathons take this experience to an entirely different level. Some people describe themselves as addicted to the rush they get from pushing their body into motion for so long.

Extreme highs come with extreme lows, unfortunately. These marathons put extreme strain on the body and, if the runner does not monitor themselves, can lead to low blood sugar and hormone imbalances. Such imbalances lead to tears, bouts of anger, and other extreme emotional reactions that may baffle first-time runners. Experienced runners know to expect them but they are almost impossible to avoid

Medical Impacts

Depleted sodium is only one serious issue that runners need to keep their eyes open for. Many runners report blurred vision, lost toenails, and an increased rate of stress fractures during ultramarathons. Some runners may also experience irregular heartbeats and breathing patterns due to strain on their cardiac system. Multi-day events can also lead to hallucinations, both visual and auditory.

Most of these issues resolve themselves in a day or two after the race ends. Resting will deal with any hallucinations, even if runners only rest for a few hours. Runners should still be vigilant, however. They should receive a physical prior to joining an ultramarathon and should see a doctor afterward if they feel unwell.

And they certainly should know when to stop–to at least avoid ending up like poor Pheiddipedes.

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Keys to Success

Everyone approaches ultramarathons differently, but there are a few key pieces of advice that many runners share. People who complete ultramarathons suggest that runners on fixed routes keep a pace slightly lower than that of a standard marathon. This will allow runners to keep going for longer. Experienced runners also insist that walking is perfectly acceptable, since completing the marathon is the real goal, rather than finishing first.

Distance runners suggest packing a lot of foods that can be eaten on the go. They also emphasize the need to deal with issues like blisters or rocks before they become a bigger problem. Distance runners may find themselves with a sprained ankle 20 miles from an aid station, so first aid knowledge is strongly recommended.

Ultramarathon is an endurance sport. They require determination, focus, and honesty. The runner has to be honest about their own skills, limitations, and the needs of the race. If runners keep these facts in mind, they can tackle the wild ride that is an ultramarathon.


  1. Wikipedia, Ultramarathon
  2. Telegraph, 10 Things No One Tells You 
  3. Washington Post, What Happens To Your Body During an Ultramarathon
  4. NPR, Athletes Kick Off Ultramarathon in Minnesota
  5. Outside Online, 9 Toughest Ultramarathons
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