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What is the best first ultra for a novice runner?

Photo Courtesy of Steve Diederich

What is the best first ultra for a novice runner?


By Kate Allen

A question we get asked quite regularly at RunUltra is “what’s a good race to start with” and after our recent article Can you run an Ultra we were asked by several people to follow it up with advice on ultras to begin with.

This is an area we have always been reluctant to voice an opinion on. Ultra races, particularly those on the trail, are subjective and it’s very hard to suggest race A is easier than race B because it all depends on the runners’ experience.

Specificity is a word often used for training and it also applies to races. If you live in the Lake District, you are likely to feel more comfortable over similar terrain, not just because your legs are used to hills but because your body is conditioned to the types of trails that are in the Lake District.

By the same reasoning, you can’t say a runner used to running in the Lake District will find a flat 12 hour track race easy. They may struggle to pace themselves, or deal with the monotony of going round the track when they’re used to going up and down hills.

Thanks to Matthew Hearne, race director of the Stour Valley Path 100km and 50km races, we do now have some data which can shed some light on this question. An analyst by profession, Matthew decided to do some research and what he shared with us is fascinating.

All data has been compiled from the ITRA, DUV and RunRepeat. We then added to that our own data from RunUltra archives.


The ITRA categorises races by “effort points”. These are given per kilometre in distance and per +100 metres of ascent and any race that offers 2 ITRA points typically has 45-75 “effort points”. The UK currently holds 51 races that have 2 ITRA points – ranking 5th overall out of 27 European countries.

All races on RunUltra offer a rating system starting at beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert all the way up to brutal. However, this again is subjective to whomever labelled it as such (either the race organiser or one of the RunUltra team) and it is for this very reason we encourage as many runners as possible to leave their reviews. Reading about the experiences of others really helps runners to make an informed choice over a race.

Having taken the ITRA data regarding races and their effort points, there are other factors one can take into account when considering a race, such as cut off times and how many finishers normally manage to complete the race. The time of year is also important as winter events can be harder with the terrain being harder under foot and less light to complete the distance, as well as having to carry more equipment for weather conditions.

Condensing the data from the ITRA, DUV and RunUltra, we have put together a list of races that feature on at least two of these sites.


Apart from the interesting data collated regarding races, Matthew also gained an insight into the runners themselves.

The ITRA gives all runners registered on its website a “performance index”. This is judged by what position a runner finishes in on any particular race listed by the ITRA. This performance index is then used for comparing runners. The range is 0-1000, with elites scoring 700-825. If you have a score of less than 350 you are categorised as a Novice runner by the ITRA.

What we can extrapolate from this information is that the UK has a much larger percentage of novice runners than the rest of Europe.

What does this mean exactly? Are we slower than the rest of Europe? Does that mean ultra running is more inclusive in the UK? Does the UK have a larger number of races that could be considered suitable for first time ultra runners?

A really interesting point is that the motives for entering a race could have changed in the last 20 years from being achievement based to being more psychologically, health and socially based. Although the RunRepeat data only applies to marathons and shorter distances, there is no doubt that the appeal to ultras and the recent huge growth can be tied to these changing motivations.

Other factors to consider are that the UK possibly introduces children to running at a much younger age than Europe does – remember the dreaded cross country in school? Offices in the UK often provide shower facilities so that many people are able to incorporate running in their day to day commute to work. Running could well be a much more accepted part of life in the UK because of these factors.

More interesting data to emerge is the ratio of women to men. According to the DUV, the UK has the third highest proportion of female ultra runners with a ratio of 32:68. Given that the UK has more novice ultra runners generally, does this suggest we are more inclusive too? Novice runners encourage other novices to join in and many UK races can be finished by walking fast.


If you made it this far through this data – well done!! Here at RunUltra we love all data that helps us understand runners and we think the figures are particularly encouraging for new runners and female runners. Hopefully, this information will be of assistance to you when you choose your first race and if you ever need any help understanding a particular race’s characteristics on RunUltra, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

There’s no doubt the community of ultra runners is one of the best out there and it is this very community that supports and encourages inclusivity. The races offered here are only those that are listed on the resources stated. There will be many races not listed that will be suitable for novice runners; they just don’t happen to be on ITRA, DUV or RunUltra (but we are always striving to make our listings as comprehensive as possible!).

Please do let us know what you think and if you have done any of the races listed, do you agree that they would make a good first ultra? We believe leaving reviews for a race you have done, even if it’s long ago, is really helpful for anyone considering a race.

We are currently running a prize draw for a chance to win a free Camelbak Zephyr vest if you leave a review so please, if you have good (or bad!) memories of a particular race, do leave just a few words to help those new ultra runners out there.

RunUltra would also like to thank Matthew Hearne for all the effort he went to in compiling this data and sharing it with us. In addition to gathering data from race websites, the resources he used were:


Your Comments On What is the best first ultra for a novice runner?

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11:56 22-05-21

Hello - first comment here - I would strongly recommend the new Goring Gap ultra which ran for the first time earlier this month. 52K, my GPS said 282m elevation, 10 hour cutoff. Was a great first ultra and specifically aimed as such.