Ultramarathons: From low key to big ticket

Last updated: 03-Dec-20

By Sarah Cooke

The number of ultramarathons is ever increasing. RunUltra has close to 3,000 races listed and we are always adding new ones. You can race almost anywhere, cover any distance from 27 miles to hundreds or even 1000+. Running for a few hours or several weeks; completely self-supported, fully supported and everything in between – it’s all possible. You can spend a few pounds or £1000s.

Some races are huge and some have only a handful of runners. If you enter a big ticket, sponsored event you might get a World Major Marathon style goodie bag, tonnes of support and, if it’s a multi-stage event, accommodation, food, transport and more. You could be running with hundreds or even thousands of other entrants.


Low Key: The Imber Ultra Photo credit: Chris Randall

For example, an entry to Marathon des Sables is likely to set you back over £4,000. This covers flights, coach transfer, accommodation, food and more besides. You will be running with over 1000 others from all over the world. It is an experience as much as a race. Many will visit the online MdS shop to purchase the best gear for the desert and there is an Expo prior to the event.

In contrast, if low-key is more your style, you could rock up to run with a few dozen others, maybe top your water bottles up at one or two checkpoints and otherwise look after yourself. A volunteer might clap as you finish and manually record your time. The lack of medal, t-shirt and ceremony could save you a lot of cash.


Big ticket: Marathon des Sables Photo credit: Steve Diederich

For example, many runners in the UK join the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA). Their Challenge Events are also open to runners. You won’t get a medal or any fanfare. You will get a great route, a buffet at the checkpoints and, on some of the events, change from £20.

It’s not just about money. Different styles of races have a different feel to them. The first ultra I ever signed up for was big. Every checkpoint had an army of volunteers, there were crowds of supporters on the route, the course was taped and I didn’t have to think about anything other than the running part. As someone who had progressed to ultras from road marathons, it held familiarity. I lacked confidence in navigation and I was new to trails. This event gave me the confidence to dip my toe into ultra waters.


Low key: The Guernsey Ultra Photo credit: Peter Tiffin

Fast forward a year and I was rarely entering anything on tarmac and some of my favourite events were considerably smaller and cheaper than anything I’d done in previous years. The scenery was more important than the set-up. I liked the sense of community and the friendliness of low-key events and I didn’t want or need all the things that came with a big-ticket event.

For me, this is partially dependent on distance. If I’m going to be running through the night, then I want a little more support and probably to see a few more fellow runners than I would on a 50k. Not everyone will feel the same.

That said, it definitely isn’t all or nothing. You can’t put every race into a ‘big and commercial’ or ‘low-key and niche’ box. The Highland Fling has around 1,000 places and entry is by ballot. After completing it, my goodie bag included a bottle of Cava. However, I’d be reluctant to call it a big-ticket event. It is volunteer run on a not for profit basis. Only water is provided at checkpoints. Runners use their own drop bags of food. Anything they leave behind at the checkpoints is then put onto the table and is available to runners coming in after them.



Big Ticket: The Snowdonia Trail Marathon and Ultra Photo credit: Chris Randall

Ultra running has always had its iconic events but these have generally been outnumbered by smaller, low-key races set up by runners for love more than money. This is changing, not least because social media has raised the profile of the sport. More commercial events are becoming increasingly common and helping to widen participation, but they are not popular with everyone.

Ultra X offers a number of ultras from 125-250km with some shorter options available. For example, Ultra X Sri Lanka costs £1,200 including accommodation. There is a generous prize pot to compete for and Ultra X has official merchandise for sale on their website.

Co-Founder Sam Heward, comments: “Ultra X was set up because we know that anyone can take on an ultra marathon and want to make this possible. We offer a series of races all over the world at an accessible price point. We actively target first timers, attempt to educate those on what it takes to take on an ultra marathon and move the sport that we love (multi-stage racing) away from the fringes and into the mainstream.”


Big ticket: UltraX Sri Lanka Photo credit: UltraX and Benedict Tufnell

Is there a conflict of interest between increasing and diversifying participation and maintaining the ‘niche’ appeal that is important to some runners? Jeff Mitchell, race director of Ascend Events which offers a number of smaller scale events such as Lakeland Five Passes, states:

“When we started Ascend Events we were low-key by default as our venues meant we had to limit numbers, as time went by we have made a conscious decision to remain so. One of the main drivers for this is participant feedback, we attract great participants and many of these are like-minded. This creates an incredibly close and friendly atmosphere on our events which we would lose if we scaled up and, speaking to our entrants, they feel the same.

There do remain logistical reasons for remaining low-key. Ascend Events is not my full-time job, and a busy day job means I can’t commit all my time to growing this – it’s already busy enough! We still hold most of the events on the same routes, from the same venues so are reluctant to increase numbers too much.

Benefits of this approach are that we are reasonably low impact on the environment. We are working toward becoming carbon negative in 2021 and already have optional donations for Fix the Fells on our entries to try to offset the impact we generate. We are also reasonably agile – we have been able to go ahead with our postponed [due to COVID-19] event in September as we are able to change our plans quite quickly and organising our events is probably a lot easier and less stressful than a marquee event with big numbers of participants.

The main negative of this approach is we won’t make much money out of it (certainly no plan to be retiring early), but that’s OK. We never started it to make money, we do it because we love the Lake District, we love the outdoors, we love the routes… and want to share all of this with others.”


Low key: Ascent Events Five Passes Photo credit: Sarah Cooke

In contrast to Ultra X’s prize pot, Ascend Events races have no prize giving. All finishers get a medal and everyone is treated the same. I love their events. I have also enjoyed much bigger races and met great people at both.

I think there is a fear that the newer and bigger kids on the block might put the smaller races developed out of love and a shoestring at risk. But widening participation means more runners who need more races. Our sport has already grown. There’s no going back to the fringes. However, therein lies the solution – there is now such variety that there are events to suit all tastes. You can run the big stuff, the small stuff, the in-between stuff or a mix of them all. There is room for minimal, big ticket and everything in between.

"Ultra running has always had its iconic events but these have generally been outnumbered by smaller, low-key races set up by runners for love more than money. This is changing, not least because social media has raised the profile of the sport"

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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.