If there is a mountain discipline that has grown like wildfire in recent years, even more noticeably than MTB, it is undoubtedly the ultra trail. Running enormous distances over impossible slopes has become very popular in a short period of time; the large number of participants in each race and the proliferation of events are good proof of this.
It would be interesting to analyze why this resurgence of ultra running is happening now (which we are not going to do here), but it must be said that this is by no means a new sport. We have to go back to 1974 to find the founding milestone of this discipline. In that year’s edition of the Western States, a very famous equestrian race that covered part of the Californian Sierra Nevada, a participant, Gordon Ainsleigh, showed up ready to finish the course without a saddle. The Western States (also known as the Tevis Cup), was not just any equestrian event, it was a 100-mile race in which every year several horses died of exhaustion and dehydration.
So the fact that Ainsleigh set out to finish it on foot and in less than 24 hours was surprising to say the least. But the fact is that he succeeded and the following year there were already two participants who took the start on foot. Today, the Western States Endurance Run is an ultra trail, and the rare thing would be to participate on horseback.
Forty-five years later, ultra trail races are proliferating around the world and the calendar of events is getting tighter and tighter. However, they are not all the same. Many different rankings could be made about which are the best ultra trails. As it is a discipline with rather narrow rules, the experience is very different from one event to another and each runner has his or her preferences. However, some events appear in almost any ranking you look at.
1. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
The massif that saw the birth of mountaineering back in 1786 is home to what is undoubtedly the queen of this discipline in Europe. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) has only been held for 17 years (the 2010 edition was cancelled), but in that time it has become the most prestigious event in the world. The request for race bibs became so overwhelming that the organization had to institute a system of training points that are earned by competing in other races. Today almost all other races apply to be “qualifying” for the UTMB and other highly sought after races have incorporated the same system.
The UTMB consists of several courses, but the main one covers 170 kilometers, with a cumulative elevation gain of more than 10,000 meters. It is held at the end of August and involves up to 2,500 participants.
2. Hardrock 100
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Rocky Mountains, the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run is probably the most important event of the year for ultra runners. The course of this race, held in Silverton, Colorado, has a slightly shorter distance than the UTMB, but twice the cumulative elevation gain (20,000 meters). In addition, the course includes technical climbs, glacier crossings and an unmarked route. Due to the mountainous orography, as in the UTMB, the Hardrock 100 is a race where the weather is not afraid of surprises. In fact, this year the race had to be suspended at the last minute due to the amount of snow that fell in the previous days.
It has been said of the Hardrock 100 that it is the “most European” race in the U.S. And the concept of ultra trail is quite different on both sides of the ocean. While there it is more important to run many miles in a row over relatively gentle terrain by European standards, here it is the slope that is most important. That’s why American races force you to “run a lot for a long time”, while European races force you to face ramps where you have no choice but to walk up from time to time; there you rarely step on a summit, here you rarely don’t step on one; there perseverance makes the difference, here the difference can be made by a good climber, or someone who is very skilled at traversing hills, for example. Well, the Hardrock 100 is the exception that proves the rule: here you run, climb really difficult terrain and make the summit. That is, if you are one of the 145 lucky ones who get a bib. The Hardrock 100 is not only tough, but also very exclusive.
3. Zegama Aizkorri
It has been said that the Zegama Aizkorri is a race unlike any other. Strictly speaking it is not an ultra trail, but a skymarathon, with a distance of 42 kilometers and 5,472 meters of accumulated elevation gain. It also has a vertical kilometer test (1,000 meters of vertical drop over 5,200 meters). But everyone agrees that what makes the Zegama Aizkorri really special is its atmosphere.
And the fact is that the weekend of the race is more like a popular fair than a sporting event. The atmosphere is a clear departure from the classic runner’s fair atmosphere. Participants, volunteers, residents and spectators crowd the small town during the race weekend, and the pinchos are much more plentiful than the pasta dishes. During the race, first-time runners are surprised that absolutely the entire course is lined with spectators cheering and applauding. The Jaleo near the top of Aizkorri and the finish line is so big that the runners no longer seem to be driven by their legs, but by the cheering. Definitely, the Zegama Aizkorri is special.
The Canary Islands are the scene of some of the most varied and prestigious ultra trails in our country and the world circuit. There the orography makes possible the most ruthless routes. Of all the races held on the islands – and there are many – the Transvulcania, on the island of La Palma, stands out above the rest. In fact, it stands out above any other Spanish ultra trail, as it has been awarded as the best race of these characteristics in the country for three consecutive years.
The Transvulcania has several races: vertical kilometer, half marathon, marathon and ultra marathon. The latter, which is the main event, has a distance of 74 kilometers and a cumulative elevation gain of 8,525 meters.
5. 6633 Arctic Ultra
We close the list with a race that perhaps should not be on it. We have titled this article “Five mountain races that every ultra runner dreams of running”, but probably the 6633 Arctic Ultra is not on the must do list of almost any runner. And this race transcends the sporting, even by the insane standards of ultra running. The 6633 is madness in capital letters.
For starters, 6633 refers to the latitude at which the race is held 66º33′, in the Canadian Arctic. Since the race is also held in early March, temperatures around -40 degrees are almost guaranteed. But that’s not all. Here the difficulty has also been taken to the extreme with the distance to be covered. There are two modalities, the 120-mile (193km) race and the 380-mile (680km) race. And of course, it is a self-sufficiency race, so the participants run (walk, actually), dragging a small sled with all the material they will need during the 8 days it usually takes them to complete the course. Of course, in 10 years, only 37 of them have managed it… So, the 6633 Arctic Ultra should perhaps be included in another article entitled “A race that every ultra runner dreams of being able to complete”.