What is Ultramarathon?

When a marathon simply isn’t enough, athletes up the ante with ultramarathons. But what is ultramarathon running in practice? What is considered an ultra marathon? And what distance is an ultra marathon? On your marks, get set, read.

5 August 2022

The first ever marathon took place at the inaugural modern Olympic Games of 1896. It was a 40 kilometre run, so not quite 25 miles. And, while a standard marathon distance has since been increased to 26.2 miles, it seems that this too is not enough for some.

That’s where the ultramarathon comes in. Also known as ultra running or ultra distance , the ultramarathon is the answer for those who crave more. More distance, more time and more obstacles to overcome. And, while it was only in 1988 that the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) was officially recognised, the sport itself has a history dating back to at least the 19th century.

So, what is ultramarathon? What is considered an ultra marathon? And what is the longest ultra marathon ever run?

What is Ultramarathon?

Going the extra mile (Photo: Sutad Watthanakul / EyeEm via Getty Images)

It seems that what is considered an ultra marathon has evolved over time. Initially, any footrace longer than a marathon was deemed an ultra marathon. Under that definition, the answer to “what distance is an ultra marathon” is simple: anything over 26.2 miles. And yet this is not a complete description. For one thing, the minimum distance usually regarded as an ultramarathon today is over 30 miles. And for another, ultra marathon is not always defined purely on distance. There are actually two types of ultra marathon commonly run. One is based on distance and the other on time.

In terms of form, ultramarathons are ultra flexible, run on roads as well as trails. They will often include significant natural obstacles or extremes, with some run on mountains, in harsh weather conditions or on tough terrain.

What is Considered an Ultra Marathon?

Time and distance (Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc via Getty Images)

As previously mentioned, what is considered an ultra marathon can be judged on one of two metrics: Distance or time.

Distance Ultramarathons

When asked “what is ultramarathon”, most people think of the distance or route run. In other words, a run of a specific length or route. So, what distance is an ultra marathon of this type?

This is more of a range than a set amount, but most ultramarathons fall into one of four categories: 31 miles (50km), 62 miles (100km), 50 miles (80km) or 100 miles (160km). There are other possible ultramarathon distances, both within this range and above. Indeed, some exceed 200 miles. While most ultramarathons are run over one day, these longer ones may be split over two or more. More on this below in the “what is the longest ultra marathon?” section.

On a national and international competition level, ultramarathons upon which the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) base record distances are 50k and 100k races.

Time-Based Ultramarathons

Time-based ultramarathons turn the question of “what distance is an ultra marathon” on its head. These ultramarathons are run for a set period of time, with the winner running the longest distance in that time. These might be 6-, 12- or 24-hour events or even spread over several days. Time-based ultramarathons tend to be run as numerous laps of shorter routes, perhaps around a mile or so.

What is the Longest Ultra Marathon?

Crossing the finishing line (Photo: BraunS via Getty Images)

It’s time to answer the big question (drum roll)… What is the longest ultra marathon in the world? That honour officially goes to the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100. As the name suggests, this is a 3,100 mile run, which participants must complete within 52 days between the hours of 6am and midnight. Taking place in Queens in New York City in the height of summer, its loop of just over half a mile includes a playground and a school.

Well, we’ve gone the distance. We’ve answered “what is ultramarathon running” and “what is considered an ultra marathon”, stopping along the way to look at even discovering that the answer to “what distance is an ultra marathon” and reaching the finish line with the big one: the world’s longest ultra marathon. Take a break. You’ve earned it.


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