An ultra is loosely defined as any race distance longer than the most common endurance events, which means 26.2 miles for runners and a 100-mile century ride in the cycling world. During ultras, competitors not only face challenging distances but often they traverse technical terrain and deal with significant changes in elevation. Factor in the constant state of sleep deprivation, bruised and bandaged feet, and multiple days of continuous exposure to the elements and you have a pretty clear picture of what it’s like to be an ultra athlete.
While the ultra world may sound brutal to the 5K crowd, it’s a growing niche. New and tougher races are popping up every year. Whether you’re a marathon runner looking to push your distance for the first time or a seasoned long-distance athlete seeking out new challenges, there are ultra events in every state and every season. Here are some of the top ultra races in the Southeast.
Salem Lakeshore Frosty Fifty, North Carolina
Kick off your ultra year in January with a 50K in the rolling hills around Winston-Salem, NC. The Frosty Fifty spectator-friendly course follows the wide, natural surface trail around Salem Lake with out-and-back add-ons for multiple 12.5K loops.
Iron Horse Endurance Runs, Florida
Head to Florida in February for the Iron Horse, where you run a combination of paved and dirt trails with three distance options. The 100K, 100-mile, and 50-mile courses start out on the Old Norfolk & Southern Rail Trail before entering Etoniah Creek State Forest near Florahome in north-central Florida.
Georgia Death Race
Runners cover 70 miles and endure 28,000 feet of elevation change on the Georgia Death Race, a rollercoaster course through the north Georgia mountains in March. You’ll hit the highest peak in the state at sunrise and finish at Amicalola Falls State Park.
Lake Martin 100, Alabama
The climbs aren’t big, but they just keep coming on the Lake Martin 100, which takes place in March in the Russell Forest Trail System an hour northeast of Montgomery, AL. This non-technical, 25-mile loop combines trails and carriage roads that skirt the shores of Lake Martin.
Umstead 100, North Carolina
The Umstead 100 loops through William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, NC, on a wide trail composed of crushed gravel. But, don’t let the moderate terrain fool you. This 12.5-mile loop includes a challenging 8,000 feet of elevation gain over eight laps.
Oak Mountain 50K, Alabama
Competitors in the Oak Mountain 50K are treated to a scenic forest run where there are no repeating loops, and wildflowers line the trail. The race, which takes place in April in northern Alabama, offers sublime scenery, but the course is grueling. Participants ascend a singletrack path on Double Oak Mountain, gaining 3,900 feet of elevation.
Assault on Mount Mitchell/Assault on Marion, South Carolina & North Carolina
More than 1,000 cyclists converge on Spartanburg, SC, in May for the 102.7-mile ride to the summit of North Carolina’s highest peak in the Assault on Mount Mitchell. The course climbs 10,000 feet on its approach to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the finish line in Mount Mitchell State Park. The 72.4-mile Assault on Marion gives cyclists a taste of the full course without the vertical challenge.
Wilson’s Revenge, North Carolina
Seems that even mountain bikers like an ultra challenge. In July, riders take to the gravel roads of Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina for Wilson’s Revenge. The 52-mile course gains more than 6,000 feet of elevation, while a 33-mile option climbs a mere 1,900 feet in the Wilson Creek Gorge.
OBX 200, North Carolina
The OBX 200 at the end of May is the perfect start to your summer ultra season. The course hugs the North Carolina coast from Corolla to Emerald Isle, and, except for a 22-mile ferry break to cross the Pamlico Sound, it’s beaches, lighthouses, and seaside towns all the way.
War Hammer 100, Kentucky
Run the hills of eastern Kentucky in June on the War Hammer 100. You’ll start in Red River Gorge and finish on Wildcat Mountain, following the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail across the Bluegrass State.
Kanawha Trace 50K, West Virginia
The Kanawha Trace 50K takes you through the mountains of West Virginia on a point-to-point singletrack course. Shade and water help you manage the August heat on a postcard-perfect course the visits bridges, tunnels, creeks, and a waterfall between Fraziers Bottom and Ona.
The Georgia Jewel in September starts and finishes in the north Georgia mountain town of Dalton. You’re in for 100 miles of almost continuous climbs and descents on the Pinhoti and Dry Creek trails, but you’ll smile when you see the beautiful views on Johns Mountain and enjoy the welcome cool-down in Keown Falls.
West Virginia Trilogy
Test your limits with three endurance races on three consecutive days in October. The West Virginia Trilogy is a 50K, 50-miler, and half-marathon along the Eastern Continental Divide in Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. Collectively, you’ll cover more than 90 miles on mountain singletrack in this punishing race.
Pinhoti 100, Alabama
The Pinhoti 100 follows a portion of the 335-mile Pinhoti National Recreation Trail in northeast Alabama. Start in the town of Heflin for this November point-to-point run through Talladega National Forest on 81 miles of singletrack, 17 miles of Jeep road, and a paved, four-mile approach to the finish in Sylacauga.
Charleston 100, South Carolina
Finish the year strong with the Charleston 100 through the South Carolina low country at the end of December. This relatively new race is an out-and-back run that follows the coast on Sullivan’s Island before heading to historic downtown Charleston and the banks of the Stono River.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.