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May 18, 2019

Take deserts, jungles or mountains all in your stride with Ultra X

Sam Heward, co-founder of Ultra X which aims to be the first multi-day ultra-marathon series of its kind , talks to Mark Hayhurst about their vision and plans for the future

Can you tell me a little about your background?

Sure, my background is in the corporate world and definitely not running! Having enjoyed team sport throughout school and university I went into a finance job in the city where I found it increasingly more difficult to commit to team sport on a consistent basis. Always being one attracted by the idea of challenge I did the classic, watch the Cracknell documentary, sign down to the Marathon Des Sables, get in (to my surprise at the time- I now know I shouldn’t be) and discover ultra-running (in that order). I left Morocco (where the famous 260km footrace takes place) not, as was the case after my one previous attempt to do any form of running- London Marathon 2012- completely broken and vowing never to do such a thing again, but completely inspired. This started me off down a path where I grew to love the space, the people in it and eventually to meet, my now business partner, Jamie Sparks.

I always knew that accountancy was a means to an end and the end being my own business. I don’t think anyone could have predicted Race Director would be the next job title, however, as of November 2018, I left PwC and committed full time to Ultra X.

What is the history of Ultra X?

Before Ultra X, Jamie and I ran the Wadi Rum Ultra, which was a single race in Jordan. Jamie Sparks set this up back in 2015 and in its first year it was just five people (mostly friends of Jamie) running through the desert. However, without any marketing the race grew to around 50 people in 2018.

We met a couple of years back and united with a dream to make adventure more accessible and ultra-running more mainstream. Both of us hated this perception of ultra-running that it is something for those well off men going through a mid-life crisis- you either buy a jag or run the Marathon Des Sables! These events are for the brand builders, the adventurers, professionals, entrepreneurs, dreamers and anyone who wants to push themselves really.

As such we set about using the model of the Wadi Rum to create a rebrand world series which we felt answered some of the problems which existed in the industry. Ultra X is of the same format to Wadi Rum - all our races are 250 km in five days starting on a Monday and finishing on a Friday, supported (competitors don’t have to carry all their own food) and designed to be unforgettable adventures.

What are the differences between your six races?

The format will be the same across all (250 km, five days, supported and racing between campsites in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world) but the whole point of Ultra X is to create a series of races that each offer different and unique USPs so that people who love the format but also want different experiences will keep coming back.

We choose destinations to make Ultra X be accessible to different markets; our Sri Lanka race is for the Middle East and Asian market, Jordan for Europe and Mexico for the US and Central America. We wanted people to finish a race in Jordan and say that was incredible, but most would not want to go back to the desert, so having a race in the rainforest might be appealing as the next challenge.

Why should an ultra runner sign up for one of your events?

Ultra X is our attempt to offer a solution to what Jamie and I see as some of the problems of the multi-stage race scene, principally around accessibility of the events (whether it be due to price point, communication surrounding them- and how supposedly difficult they are, and to holiday time) and bringing it into the mainstream so that the best at their sport can be recognised. As such we have created the Ultra X World Championships which are to be held in the summer of 2021.

How easy do you make it for people to sign up and get to a race?

We know that anyone can complete one of our races as such we look to make registration as easy as possible. Competitors must complete a short medical questionnaire which is signed off by their doctor saying that there are no specific reasons to suggest that doing an ultra in an extreme environmental could be dangerous. We choose our locations so that competitors can easily get to themwe have chosen so far to target different geographical areas, but we also look to make the journey from the airport not too arduous- no more than a four-hour drive.

The format is consistent for all events in that competitors fly in Saturday, spend one night close to the airport/ host city, have race briefings and kit checks in their hotel and then travel to the start line and night one basecamp on Sunday to begin on Monday morning.

What’s next for ultra X?

We are flat out doing everything that we can to ensure we fulfil our vision of bringing multi-day stage racing into the mainstream. We are looking to launch two races per year for the next few years, are planning a half-distance event, and have numerous events all over the world for our community- telling the people who might not have considered doing something like this before the story of the finishers! I’ve been in the UK for less than 30 days since we launched in Nov so its fair to say we’ve got a lot on.

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