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    The rise and rise of ultra running - why running a marathon is no longer enough

    on January 16, 2023



    Running expert, author and coach, Mark Kleanthous (left) has seen ultra running explode in popularity during his 43 years of running and racing.

    A veteran marathoner, Mark has completed many ultra events, including London to Brighton 88 km (sub 7 hours), the Marathon des Sables (254km, six-day stage ultra across Morocco) and the European 100km Championships, to name a few.

    Here, he reveals why ‘going longer’ is now one of the fastest growing sports in Europe, America and Australasia.   


    Mark writes:

    Athletes are seeking extraordinary experiences around the world, pushing their boundaries and extending the endurance barriers of what is humanly possible.

    Almost everyone knows someone who has run a marathon, now running a marathon is no longer enough to get kudos from your mates.

    The attraction to ultra running is you have to love problem solving. You have to be in tune with your body, effort, nutrition, hydration and body temperature.

    You may be able to complete a marathon with a poor nutrition and hydration strategy, but an ultra runner must focus on staying hydrated and consuming the optimum number of calories, as not achieving this will result in a did not finish (DNF).

    Too many calories can cause digestive shut down and also potentially result in a DNF.



    What is an ultra marathon?

    An ultra-marathon is anything longer than 26.2 miles (42.195 km).

    In the last eight years, there has been a rise in popularity of athletes wanting to run further than a marathon.

    In 2010 there were fewer than 150 ultras, now there are more than 1,850 races worldwide.

    Most events are oversubscribed, however with the increasing demand many new ultra runs are appearing in the ultra-marathon distance calendar. 

    Ultra runs can be on trails, the road or a running track. Some ultras are staged over multiple days. Track ultras can last from 12 to 48 hours and even six continuous days, where runners keep going with short power naps of less than one hour.

    'A' races that test the limits of human endurance 

    One of the most prestigious ultra-running races is Spartathlon, a 306 mile (490 kilometre) run from Athens to Sparti (the modern town on the site of ancient Sparta) and back, for your medal and a laurel wreath. 

    The demand to compete in some of the most established ultras mean you have to gain points from designated qualifying ultra events.



    One such event is the Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc (UTMB, pictured, above), covering 171 kilometres with 10,000 meters of positive elevation around Mont-Blanc, passing through Italy, Switzerland and France.

    A new format increasing in popularity within the ultra-fraternity is The Big Backyard.

    Competitors have one hour to complete a tough short loop of about 6km. You have to arrive back to the starting point at every hour and repeat.

    You may need power naps, toilet stops, tending to blisters, change clothing and still be ready to start the next hour.

    This event has no obvious end to the race, it can last days. The winner is the last competitor still running, all other competitors are recorded as did not finish (DNF) The Big Back Yard record is 420 miles or 101 hours, more than four days!



    Ultras – the ultimate 'new leveller' for men and women

    The difference in performances between men and females in ultra-distance races is narrowing.

    The further the ultra-run, the shorter the gap between genders. In a marathon men can be 11% faster, whilst in an ultra, men are often only 1.5% faster than women.

    Ten years ago there were few elite professional ultra-runners now there are considerably more, including CurraNZ ambassador Ruth Croft, two-time winner of the UTMB and the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Race in California (pictured, below).



    Ultra run fast facts

    • Largest – Established in 1921, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa is actually 89km and the world's largest ultra-marathon with 25,000 runners.
    • The longest – At 3,100miles, the Sri-Chinmoy Self Transcendence requires competitors to cover 4,989 kilometres and 5,649 laps of 0.55 mile loop, which must be completed within 52 days, between 6am and midnight every day.
    • The hottest - Badwater 135 mile ultra in Death Valley one of the hottest places on Earth and highest race day heat of 134.1 degree F (56.7 degree Celsius)
    • Most Elevation - Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc (UTMB) covering 171 kilometres with 10,000 meters of positive elevation.
    • The most Claustrophobic - The 200-mile Tunnel Ultra is back and forth 100 times through the UK’s longest foot tunnel, situated under Bath in Somerset. Cut off time 55 hours.



    About Mark Kleanthous

    Mark (left) is a full time advanced performance coach and provides training plans, nutrition advice, mentoring and 1:2:1 coaching and for endurance athletes.

    Mark has been running for 43 consecutive years and has covered more than 100,000 kilometres in training, raced marathon, ultra-marathon and Ironman.

    Regarded as ‘Britain’s fittest 60-year-old’, he has raced over 100+ marathons, with a marathon personal best of 2:24:40.


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