A road marathon can be a tough challenge and a novel way to experience a city. But if you want to take on something truly epic, something that takes you out into the wilds, far beyond your perceived limits of existence, then try an ultra running race instead, which is anything longer than a traditional 26.2 mile (42.2km) marathon. Here are 10 of the best ultra running races around the world.

Editor's note: the events listed here currently expect to go ahead in 2021 with various COVID-19 restrictions, but this is subject to change. Please check individual websites for more information.

An incredible mountain ridge lit by the morning sun is the backdrop to the lower half of a runner's leg striding through the grass in the foreground
With pomp, pageantry and endless mountain vistas, the legendary UTMB around Mont Blanc is at the top of most ultra runners' wish list © Jeff Pachoud / Getty Images

1. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), France

The UTMB is one of the most popular ultras in the world. So much so that even getting a place is not easy – you need to first earn qualifying points and then enter a ballot. Places are in high demand for good reason – the spirit and atmosphere all around the 106-mile (170km) course is the stuff of legend. The race begins with pomp and pageantry in the mountain town of Chamonix in France – where it seems the entire trail running world gathers each year for this week-long festival of running – and then follows a famous hiking trail around western Europe’s highest mountain, passing through Italy and Switzerland along the way. The climbs (some 10,000m worth) and descents are not for the faint-hearted, but you’ll run to the almost constant sound of "allez allez" and ringing cowbells.

2. Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, Japan

Japan's answer to the UTMB is a 104-mile (167km) race that snakes its way around one of the most iconic mountains in the world. Fuji-san, as it’s known in Japan, is a sight to behold as it sticks up majestic and alone from the surrounding country. The Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji has plenty of steep and difficult sections (you'll climb a cumulative 8000m) to test your will and your tiring legs, and you may need to keep glancing to Fuji-san for inspiration. The race is meticulously well organized, with the night sections particularly well lit making it impossible to get lost, while the aid stations along the way are stocked with bowls of hot udon noodles to help keep weary runners going. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the UTMF 2021 event is open only to trail runners living in Japan.

A group of competitors wearing numbered bibs run along a stretch of road in an ultra marathon
Comrades Marathon in South Africa has a real sense of occasion © lcswart / Getty Images

3. Comrades Marathon, South Africa

The biggest and oldest ultra running marathon in the world is a festival of goodwill and camaraderie in South Africa. The mass start of Comrades is the stuff of legend as 20,000 people together sing the traditional South African miners' song "Shosholoza", and then feel the emotions stirred even more as the strains of Chariots of Fire play out. Then everyone sets out on the iconic road between Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg, 56 miles (90km) inland and at an elevation of 600m. The race alternates its direction each year, from a "down" run to an "up" run, with each direction offering its own unique set of challenges. The "up" route is couple of miles shorter, at 54 miles (87km). Although the landscape is nothing spectacular, the sense of history and occasion is what makes this race special, with the route lined with thousands of South Africans having braais (barbecues), drinking beer and cheering every single runner as they pass.

4. West Highland Way Race, Scotland

This 95-mile (153km) ultra running race follows the wild and beautiful West Highland Way in Scotland, from Milngavie, a small town just north of Glasgow, to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. On the Western Highland Way Race you’ll pass along the shores of remote lochs, through narrow, steep-sided gorges, across open moorland and over high mountain passes. From Glencoe to Loch Lomond and the Devil’s Staircase, the route takes in some of Scotland’s best-loved wilderness. The race was first held in 1985 and is today one of the most popular ultra marathons in the UK.

5. Western States 100, California, USA

The most iconic trail race in the US, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run crosses from Squaw Valley, near the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, across the Sierra Nevada mountains to the city of Auburn. Since it was first run in 1974, the race has seen many of the greatest ultra runners of their day take on its daunting challenge. With a small field due to national park restrictions, gaining entry isn’t easy. Neither are the conditions. You can find yourself running through snow on the highest passes, but the toughest part is usually the heat down in the valley, which can reach close to 100°F (38°C). If you make it to the finish before the 30-hour cutoff to claim one of its famous finisher’s belt buckles, you’ll be in rare company.

A solo runner goes up a hill in the Greek countryside
The Spartathlon route winds through the Greek countryside © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

6. Spartathlon, Greece

The Spartathlon is inspired by the Greek legend of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger who, in 490 BCE, is said to have run the 152 miles (245km) between Athens and Sparta to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Starting at the foot of the Acropolis, the course passes through many of Greece’s ancient cities as it winds its way across the country, rising up over the high Sangas mountain pass on Mt Parthenion, before descending finally into Sparta. The race doesn’t allow for much dawdling, with tough cutoff times at 75 checkpoints along the route, and a time limit of just 36 hours to complete the entire thing. Finish it, though, and you'll join the pantheon of legends.

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7. Barkley Marathons, Tennessee, USA

"It may not be the toughest ultra running race in the world, but it’s on the edges of what is humanly possible." So said race director Lazarus Lake of what is possibly the most infamous race in the world. In 35 years, only 15 people have actually finished the Barkley Marathons. The 100-mile (161km) event was inspired by a 1977 jail break in which the fugitive found the terrain in the Tennessee mountains where the race takes place so tough he traveled only 8 miles in 55 hours. The list of things that make it hard are as long as this article, from the entry process (which is secret, and involves writing an essay), to the extreme weather conditions, the lack of a fixed start time – you get a one-hour warning that the race is about to start – and the lack of aid stations on the course. But the challenge of reaching the finish is so compelling that many ultra runners dream of one day taking it on. If only they could find out how to enter.

The image features the lower legs of an ultra runner from behind; the calf muscles both have large tattoos on them. Wind blows sand to the left that has been kicked up by the runner's foot
Morocco's MdS is one of the most famous multi-day races in the world © Josuef Photo

8. Marathon des Sables (MdS), Morocco

Taking place in one of the world’s most epic and desolate landscapes, the MdS is the most famous multi-day race in the world. After running through the Sahara desert in Morocco for seven days, across 155 miles (250km) of sand, and carrying all your supplies on your back, you’ll feel like you have been to another world and back. People often describe this race as life-changing, and bonds formed with the other competitors can become life-long friendships. The race is impeccably well organized, considering the logistical challenge of providing shelter and support for 1200 runners in the middle of the desert.

9. Zegama-Aizkorri, Spain

Not an ultra per se, but Zegama-Aizkorri has been called the Tour de France of mountain running for the way the spectators line the route at close quarters, boisterously cheering every runner as they struggle along, often in the midst and rain, on one of the toughest marathons in the world. The trails in these Basque mountains are technical and steep, with the course rising over 5000m during the 26-mile (42.2km) race. While amazing views are not guaranteed in this often wet and cloud-covered corner of Spain, the atmosphere and climate give it the feel of an almost mythical journey, which has made it one of the world’s most popular trail races.

10. Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Italy

The majestic Italian Dolomites form the backdrop to this 75-mile (120km) ultra running trail race that starts late at night in the main square of the mountain town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. All being well, by the time dawn arrives you’ll find yourself running immersed in some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, such as the imposing Tre Cime di Lavaredo rock formation, and looking down into mist-filled valleys far below. The sun can burn brightly as you make your way up steep valleys, stopping now and then to refresh yourself in mountain streams and to take it all in. It’s a challenge to get back to Cortina before a second nightfall, but if you do you’ll find the pizzerias and bars full of exhausted but happy runners celebrating their achievement.

Adharanand Finn is an award-winning running author who has written titles such as Running with the Kenyans, The Way of the Runner and The Rise of the Ultra Runners.

Article first published in September 2019, and last updated in January 2021.

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This article was first published September 2019 and updated January 2021

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