Top Ten Desert Ultras

Last updated: 01-Sep-16

By Alice Morrison

The heat, the dust and the damned flies… we love them all. Desert races have a very special magic. The vast, empty stretches of sand, the coruscating sun, the dazzling skies and the delicious silence mean that once you have done one, you definitely want to do more. Of course, your blistered and bleeding feet may not agree but you know that once you are out there, facing the dunes, it’s going to be a life-affirming adventure. Here are my top ten desert ultras.

10. Desert R.A.T.S – USA

Desert RATS is a week-long, supported trail race that covers a distance of approximately 143 miles. Racers run from Grand Junction, Colorado to the world famous Moab, Utah along the 148-mile Kokopelli trail. Distances range from day to day between nine and 42 miles. Desert trail running at its best, you will get a lot of variety on this race, it is a real backwater trail experience. Each participant must carry his/her own pack containing snack food, water, safety equipment and other essential material. As the organisers say,“Don’t expect to set personal records for the distance you’ll cover, you will need to pace yourself for the heat and terrain. You must have patience and grit in order to not be fighting your own frustration.”

9. The Track – Australia

Starting off in Alice Springs (this one has GOT to be on your running tunes) it ends at the foot of Uluru, the spiritual heart of Australia. The sand there changes colour according to the time of day and heat of the sun. The Track race is 520 km in 9 stages / 10 days. Each competitor must carry a backpack containing the compulsory equipment and food. Good news for slowbies is that even if you don’t make the 10 hour daily cut off point, you can carry on and you will be classified according to kilometres.

8. Oman Desert Race – Oman

The Oman Desert race is relatively new on the circuit which makes it even more appealing. Oman is the hidden jewel of the Arabian Gulf. Vast deserts give way to an area which, because it is fed by the monsoon, is as green as Switzerland. Ancient tribal forts litter the countryside and there are mediaeval orchards of gnarled frankincense trees. It is 165km in six stages and is self sufficient.

7. Dead Sea Ultramarathon – Jordan

This is an incredible race through Jordan and in the very heart of the Middle East. However, fans (there were over 7000 runners last year across all categories with the big one at 50km) are going to have to wait till April 2017 for the next edition. Run Jordan have taken the decision not to run it this year as they want to significantly rehaul the route. Still, it’s one to put on that bucket list and deserves its place.
Keep your eye on this website to find out when registration reopens.

6. The Antarctic 100km – Antarctica

The Antarctic 100km claims it is the world’s coolest ultra – get it? And it probably is. As the race organisers say, “This ultramarathon challenge is reserved for only the toughest of endurance athletes. The 100k (62.1 miles) distance will seem endless, run under a sun that never sets against the backdrop of hills, mountains and large expanses of ice”. So if you are one of the toughest, and the richest because it is not cheap, this is the one for you.

5. Gobi March – China

We’ve reached the half way mark and in that spot is the perennial favourite, Gobi March. It is part of the Four Deserts Race and is seven days and 250km. It takes place in Hami region in the eastern part of Xinjiang Province in China and is an amazing way to see part of this extraordinary country. Highlights include sweet melons and high hills…

4. Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon – South Africa

This is the “Big Daddy” of South African trail running and I am reliably informed that when you have done the KAEM once, you will want to do it again. It usually attracts a smallish field of around 60 – 75 runners and the camaraderie is reputed to be fantastic. Running through Africa is something everyone should try to do in their lives and this is a great place to start. It is seven, self-sufficient days over 250km.

3. Atacama Crossing – Chile

Cycling across the Atacama, I fell in love with the crazy, volcanic landscape, the hot sulphur springs, the endless dried salt lakes and the flocks of flamingos. So the Atacama Crossing is definitely in at number three. Another 7-dayer of 250km, self-sufficient.

2. Badwater 135 – USA

Who doesn’t want to do an ultra trail race where you have to cool off in a fridge? Seriously, though, Badwater 135 is for the baddest and the best and is a goal that all serious ultra runners have in their sights. 217km through Death Valley in California with 2,615 metres of ascent and temperatures of well over 40 degrees. The field is 100 strong and you have to be invited.

1. Marathon des Sables – Morocco

Our winner is, and has to be, the magnificent, Marathon des Sables. 250km across the Sahara desert in six stages and self-sufficient, this is a race for the elites and the not-so-elites. It gives you all the classic things you need from a desert race: heat, dunes, climbs, dried lake beds, blisters, sweat, dehydration and adds in its own special Moroccan spice with Berbers, camels, sweet tea and an enormous welcome to everyone who undertakes it. If you are only ever going to do ONE desert race, this is it!

But we hope you do all ten. And as you do, don’t forget to write us a review…


"Who doesn’t want to do an ultra trail race where you have to cool off in a fridge?"

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.