February 08, 2022 4 min read
As runners, we each follow our own pathway. Many of us find parkrun ignites our ambitions to push for the 10K, half marathon and the marathon distance. But where do we go beyond that? For an increasing number of runners, the ultra becomes a challenge that can’t be ignored. Once a fringe pursuit, in recent years, the start lines at races from 50K to 100 miles and more have swelled with ordinary men and women pushing to discover just how far they can go.
In picking my top ten UK ultras, I’ve made my selection so there’s something for everyone. Some events are open to all. Others require entrants to have a certain level of experience in endurance running or even self-sufficiency skills in testing conditions. I also wanted to showcase events that invite runners to experience and appreciate the British landscape as they run from start to finish. The surging popularity of ultramarathons means most races sell out fast, so while you may not find a place this year there’s plenty of time to train and prepare for 2023.
(#1) Race to the Stones
This is great summer event for the first time ultra runner. Why? Because unlike most races there are no tight cut offs (which means competitors must reach checkpoints within set time limits to continue). The organisers positively encourage people to walk if they choose, in a race that takes competitors 100km adventure along one of the UK's oldest paths to the stone circle at Avebury. With impressive aid stations throughout, it can be tackled in one hit or split across two days with camping included.
(#2) Country to Capital
A unique forty-three mile ultra that bridges rural and inner city running, Country to Capital starts in leafy Wendover, Bucks, and finishes next to London’s Paddington Station. It’s a hugely popular event, staged early each year, with a train ride home to hand.
Photo © Pete Aylward
(#3) The West Highland Way Race
Established in 1985, this annual ninety-five mile ultramarathon follows an iconic hiking route from the northern suburbs of Glasgow to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Traditionally staged in June, competitors enjoy classic Scottish scenery from magnificent glens to glittering lochs on what is ultimately a very runnable trail path
(#4) Lakeland 100 & 50
The Lake District offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK. Many fantastic trail and fell events take place here throughout the year, with Lakeland 100 being arguably the grandest of them all. A circular route that embraces the fells and presents over 6,000 metres of elevation, runners have forty hours to reach the finish. It’s a deeply challenging, massively rewarding 100 miler, with a sister fifty mile race that takes in the second half of the route.
Photo © Pete Aylward
(#5) Thames Path 100
It might be one of the flattest 100 milers in the UK, and part of Centurion’s iconic series, but that doesn’t make the Thames Path 100 an easy option. With such little elevation to break up the route between Richmond in London to Oxford, it’s asking a lot from the legs. While the Thames Path 100 is deceptively challenging, there’s something very special about running through a slow-changing landscape, under the sun and then the moon, with the waterway as a constant companion.
(#6) The Downs Link Ultra
An ultra close to both my home and heart, this is a great way to bridge the gap on foot between the North and South Downs. Staged along a former railway line, it begins at the top of St Martha’s Hill in Surrey, often following a blessing for the race from the local vicar, and then barrels south for Shoreham on the West Sussex coast. Hosted by Sussex Trail Events, it’s a low-key race with a high turnout and good vibes all the way.
(#7) Arc of Attrition
No 100 mile races are easy, but this has to be one of the toughest in the UK. It takes place in January and follows the Cornish Coastal Path clockwise from Coverack on the south coast to Porthtowan in the north. Competitors are in the lap of the weather gods, and face an endless ribbon of headland and cove, scrambling, ascent and descent. The thirty-six hour cut off is a reflection of how challenging this race can be, with a hefty dropout rate but enormous sense of achievement for those who make it to the finish line. Whatever the outcome, it’s a unique experience for all and fast becoming a classic on the UK ultra calendar.
Photo © Montane Dragon’s Back Race® | No Limits Photography
(#8) Dragon’s Back Race
Following the knuckled spine of Wales, coast to coast from Conwy in the north to Cardiff in the south, this six-day, 380km mountain race presents a total elevation that’s twice the height of Everest. That’s a lot of scrambling, including the nerve-jangling Crib Gogh ridge, but offers competitors an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime. A sizeable number will DNF, but can continue to take part in the race as non-competitive runners. So, the early bath is optional.
You can sign up to the 2022 Dragon's Back Race here.
(#9) Hardmoors 55
This is a pick from a series of highly-popular trail races of varying lengths. Hardmoors 55 takes place each March and invites competitors to take on tracks and paths through the North York Moors and the Cleveland Hills. With over 2,000 metres of ascent, a time limit of sixteen hours and exposure to the elements if the weather turns, this is a true test for all trail runners and even a stepping stone to the ultimate 110 miler.
(#10) The Spine Race
Selling out in minutes, but taking up to a non-stop week to complete, this is an endurance race that deserves its reputation as one of the most formidable physical and mental challenges in the UK. The Spine Race follows the Pennine Way across England’s most demanding terrain, including the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Park, before crossing Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots and then finishing at the Scottish Borders. There, after 268 miles of bog, snow, tears and extreme winter weather, exhausted competitors traditionally flop into a flower pot near the finishing post looking like there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
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