How accessible are ultras?

Stats suggest UK ultra races are more open to all than those on the continent

Maverick Race Terrex Peaks

by Paul Halford |

Main pic: Maverick Race Adidas TERREX Peaks (credit: Jake Baggaley

You’re a runner, then?” acknowledges the non-runner, to which the obligatory follow-up question is, “How many marathons have you done?” Such is the iconic status granted to the distance.

During the 1970s, running a marathon became a coveted goal for keep-fit enthusiasts. Over the decades after that, the distance almost became the raison d’être for runners.

However, thanks in part to tens of thousands of people of all levels of fitness completing events like the Virgin Money London Marathon each year, 26 miles and 385 yards is now simply not far enough for some folk.

Ultras – in other words, races of more than marathon distance – have thus taken off. Indeed, according to statistics from runrepeat.com, the number of people globally taking part has risen 16-fold in the past 23 years, now standing at more than 600,000 annually.

But how accessible to all is ultra-running really? It has clearly not gone mainstream as the 5km distance has. So could more runners make the move up?

Matthew Hearne, a UK-based ultra organiser, decided to take a statistical look at how inclusive ultras are in the UK compared to Europe.

He believes his figures show ultras are more welcoming to all levels here, pointing out that the cut-off times are more generous, with a higher proportion of slower times and female runners.

He used extensive data from the website of the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), which lists nearly 40,000 ultra runners in the UK. In addition, given that not all races are linked to the ITRA, he looked at [DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics](https://statistik.d-u-v.orgStatisticshttps://statistik.d-u-v.org).

The ITRA assigns a performance index (PI) to every runner, with those falling below 350 points defined as ‘novice’ runners. Matt found that 28% of the UK ultra-runners were defined as novices, compared to 13% in the rest of Europe. The DUV Marathon website shows the UK had the third highest female participation ratio of all European countries – 32% compared to 22% for Germany, for example.

Matt, who organises the Stour Valley Path 100km and 50km.&text=A%2050k%20version%20of%20the,of%20the%20Stour%20Valley%20Path.) races, believes more lenient cut-off finishing times are partly responsible for more slower runners taking part. “It’s clear that we have the slower runners, as it were, in the UK because our races have such generous cut-off times. We just have to look at the London Marathon compared to the other big city marathons,” he says. “As a nation we’ve become more open and encouraging to people of all abilities. Clearly, there are race organisers out there like myself who want to encourage more runners out there to participate, wanting events to be welcoming and not something that is intimidating for runners. I don’t know whether there’s that kind of a culture in Europe.”

The parkrun ethos must surely have played a key part. Decades ago, running was primarily just a sport. Especially since the weekly series of 5km runs began in the UK in 2004, running has become more of an activity than a competition for the vast majority. The initiative is growing worldwide, but the UK dominates the global figures for venues still. Parkrun organisers pride themselves on the fact that the average time for participants has slowed over time, showing that running is becoming more open to all. Surely this translates at least to some extent to ultras.

Perhaps increasingly when it comes to ultras, virtually everyone apart from the fastest few want an ‘experience’ rather than a race. It’s many people’s idea of a weekend getaway.

Although the UK may be generally welcoming to all levels, that doesn’t mean all ultras are the same, of course.

Regular TR feature contributor Kirsty Reade told us: “One thing that I find off-putting is how some ultras market themselves as ‘the toughest’ or ‘the most brutal’, etc. While that might do it for some people, I tend to pick races based on nice routes, beautiful scenery, a great atmosphere, a rich history... I’d love to see races market themselves on that basis.”

It’s true that traditionally there often seems to be a competition among ultras to market themselves as the toughest. Not that that’s a bad thing as there are enough runners who crave that sort of event. However, clearly this country also has enough races with broad appeal.

The trail running community is especially open-armed, as Trail Running readers told when we raised the topic on social media. Fliss Tournant told us: “Ultras can feel a bit scary to sign up to, but I find the events themselves are more friendly and generally less competitive than road races (marathon and shorter), which feel a bit more ‘everyone for themselves’. In the races I’ve done, cut-offs have worked out to be walking pace, which seems sensible.”

Elliott Haynes added: “I started running four years ago, have run 20-plus events, and would say that ultras are far more accessible and the community more welcoming than traditional events.

“The community is incredibly friendly and supportive, there is almost no competitiveness outside of the elites (and even there it appears friendly). And the range and ability of participants is also more diverse.”

Matt Hearne, who has run 39 ultras, has worked hard to give his race a broader appeal. He started with a 100km then added a 50km because he’d heard some were concerned about whether they could make the cut-off time.

In addition to that, he added: “What I do with my races, and I think what quite a few other race organisers do as well, is make sure that when runners get to an aid station they find a wide range of things that they can pick from, so it’s like a buffet. Quite often when you get to aid stations in Europe they’re a little bit more sparse.”

Considering that only 32% of the entrants to ultras in the UK are women, though, perhaps ultra-running has further to go. That percentage, incidentally, is very similar to the one seen at the marathon distance, according to statistical website runrepeat.com.

So, if you’re an ultra virgin whose appetite has been whetted to go further than 26 miles, which ones are the easiest? Matt’s research has come up with two tables of the top 10 in the UK (see below). One relates to those affiliated to the ITRA and the other to the more broad range of events covered by the DUV website. The method involved several factors, including the ratio of average finisher time to cut-off time, plus ‘mountain points’, ‘finisher index’ and ‘effort points’, which are all defined measures on the ITRA website.

An ultra will never be easy but not all fall into the ‘hell on earth’ category. So, if you’ve not had a crack, don’t be scared – sign up and get the training in.

DUV ultra
itra ultras
Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us