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Long-distance running is on the rise, big time. A survey by Strava in 2019 found that Japan was leading the way in the uptake of marathon or ultrarunning, with a 23.8% increase in runners completing a marathon or ultrarun that year. France saw a 10.4% increase, the US a 7.6% increase and the UK a 5.8% increase.
The holy grail for most long-distance runners is the Six Star Finishers Medal. Awarded only to those runners who have completed all six of the Abbott World Marathon Majors — the Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin Marathons — this award is highly coveted, yet due to very strict entry requirements, also rather elusive.
While there’s no denying the grandeur of these events, they are hardly the only long-distance races scattered around the globe that are worth lacing up your runners. In fact, while urban marathons can be a great (albeit exhausting) way to experience a new city, there are numerous off-road trails that will not only test your fitness levels, but will get you out into the wild. Here are just a few alternatives to the Big Six that are well worth adding to your racing bucket list.
While a traditional marathon measures a consistent 42.2km (or 26.2 miles), an ultra marathon is any running race that pushes competitors even further. For many extreme ultra runners, the absolute pinnacle is the UTMA — the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Beginning in the gorgeous mountain town of Chamonix in France, this 170km race weaves its way around western Europe’s highest mountain, crossing the border into Italy and Switzerland along the way. The atmosphere and scenery over the course of this race are exhilarating, but it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. In fact, even securing a spot in the race is an uphill battle, as you need to first earn qualifying points and then enter your name into a ballot. Don’t worry if it takes a while to get selected: the UTMR (Ultra Tour Monte Rosa) and the Eiger Ultra are both fantastic alternatives in the same region, with the former offering the Matterhorn as its backdrop, and the latter Jungfrau.
Over in the UK, one of the most picturesque ultra races you can compete in is the West Highland Way Race. Covering 153km, the trail begins in Milngavie and follows the wild West Highland Way to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. This is a truly special way to experience the Scottish Highlands, as the race passes by remote lochs, steep gorges, open moorland and high mountain passes. Be warned that the weather shifts in an instant in Scotland at any time of year, you need to be well equipped to deal with rain, sun, wind and snow. But a chance to experience the highlands in this way is something no runner should pass up.
For something with a bit more of an historical background, give Greece’s Spartathlon a go. This 246km ultra-marathon begins at the foot of the Acropolis and finishes in Sparta, and is inspired by the Greek legend of Pheidippides, who was said to have run this route in 490BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Keeping with this theme of urgency, however, the race does feature some very steep cut-off times at its 75 checkpoints, and has a total time limit of only 36 hours. Best start training for this one well in advance of race day.
While the Big Sur Marathon is technically a road race, it takes you well out of city limits as it traces California’s scenic coastline from Big Sur to Carmel along Highway 1. The race passes coastal mountains, pastures and roaring shorelines, with the midway marked by the iconic Bixby Bridge. It’s also an official Boston Marathon qualifier, so if the Big Six are your goal, then this is one beautiful hurdle along the way.
Despite its name, the Canadian Death Race is another exhilarating ultra run, measuring 125km through the Rocky Mountains. It boasts some insanely tough terrain, as it includes three mountain summits, a major river crossing at Hell's Gate canyon and a total elevation gain of 5,181m. In essence, runners have to “cheat death” in order to cross this one off their to-do list.
If this seems just a little too far out of your comfort zone, alternatives in the Great White North include the Sinister 7 in Alberta, the Fat Dog 120 in BC, the Squamish 50 and the Mount Robson Marathon.
If you’re looking for something truly out of the ordinary though, then the 100 mile Skydive Ultra might be for you. Located in Florida, this is the world’s only running race that begins by having you jump out of a plane. Crazy? Yes. Memorable? Absolutely.
Held in Masaka, the Uganda Marathon is not your typical marathon. The race is, in fact, part of a seven-day adventure in rural Uganda, where participants immerse themselves in an incredible community and get involved in a number of volunteer programs led by local organisations, before taking part in a 10km, half or full marathon, which pass through farms, villages and towns around Masaka. If you’re looking for a seriously feel-good race, this is it.
The world’s oldest ultramarathon is the Comrades Marathon in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Started by a WWI veteran to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war, the race has become a symbol for unity across the country — it even begins with a mass chorus of the traditional South African miners' song 'Shosholoza'. Interestingly, the direction of the race changes every year, with the “up” run measuring 87km and the “down” run measuring 90km. Regardless of direction, you only have 12 hours to complete the race, with five cut-off points scattered throughout the trail.
If you’re keen to truly test what your body is capable of, then consider the MdS (Marathon de Sable Morocco). This gruelling, multi-day race is the longest and hardest desert race in the world, but also one of the most life-changing. Over six days and 251km, you’ll journey through the depths of the Sahara desert, carrying all your supplies on your back. This one is extreme, but well worth it for such a unique experience.
The 4 Deserts Grand Slam
The stark landscape of the Namibian desert features in the world-renowned 4 Deserts Grand Slam. One of the most extreme annual running series, the 4 Deserts Grand Slam includes four 250 kilometre races within a year, including the Namib Race (Namibia), Gobi March (Mongolia), Atacama Crossing (Chile) and The Last Desert (Antarctica). One of Kathmandu's Adventure Sponsorship winners, ultramarathon athlete Jacqui Bell, became the youngest woman to complete all four races and is the youngest person to in the world to run a marathon on all seven continents. Watch her story below.
Seeing the Great Wall of China is one thing: running along it with some 2,500 other people is something else entirely. The Great Wall of China Marathon provides this very special experience, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a unique sight-seeing opportunity. The race is considered one of the world’s most challenging marathons, with some sections sure to make you question why anyone would have thought it was a good idea to build a wall that steep. Conditions can also be incredibly hot, but the organisers have done a great job in ensuring everyone stays hydrated.
Another race providing access to a national treasure is Japan’s Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. This 167km race makes its way around the iconic mountain, climbing a total of 8,000m in the process. However, the views make it all worthwhile, as do the very well kept aid stations that are stocked with bowls of hot udon soup for those much needed energy hits.
Don’t forget: we have countless amazing long-distance runs in our own neighbourhood. Just one of them is the Great Ocean Road Marathon in Australia, which features a 60km ultramarathon, a 44km marathon, and a variety of shorter races to suit every fitness level. Like the Big Sur race, this one does take place on a road, but as it’s one of the most beautiful roads in the world, it’s absolutely worth your time.
Across the Tasman, New Zealand is bursting at the seams with trail runs, but one of the most exciting is the Kepler Challenge. Occupying the same course as the Kepler Track, one of NZ’s Great Walks, this course is a 60km slog that provides a mix of ascents, descents and scenic flat sections. Alternatively, on the North Island, you could tackle the Tarawera Ultramarathon, which features a 100 Mile Endurance Run through places of immense cultural significance to the local Maori people. Based in Rotorua, you will pass lakes, forests, waterfalls and some impossibly stunning scenery, and the generous cutoff times and relatively flat terrain means you can really take the time to soak up the beautiful landscape.
One of New Zealand's most famous races, however, is a Kathmandu favourite so has to get a mention: the Coast to Coast is one of the world's longest running multi-sports events and is older than the Hawaiian Ironman, but it has only recently surged in popularity to even sell out within the first week of tickets being opened in 2020. You can opt for the Mountain Run, a 30.5 kilometre thigh burner across Goat Pass (taking the fastest runners about 3 hours) located in the picturesque Arthur's Pass National Park, or push yourself in either the one-day or two-day multi-sport events, kayaking 70 kilometres of the Waimakariri River and 85 kilometres of cycling. A true community-turned-global event, it continues to retain its friendly Kiwi vibe despite now attracting some of the world's best athletes.
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