Years ago, my brother convinced me to run a marathon with him. “That would be stupid!” was my first response to his pressuring. I couldn’t fathom running 10 miles, let alone 26.2. I just assumed people who did that sort of thing had superhuman talent and endurance, and having a newborn baby in our house, I couldn’t see myself being one of those people anytime soon. Never!, I convinced myself.
However, my brother did a good job keeping up the pressure and pestering, and slowly my outlook changed. Turns out, it’s easy to get out of shape after having a child. Finding a new routine with a little one (or new job, new home, etc.) often involves letting your own fitness slip. “Next month”, was my new fitness mantra.
Also, as the stress and responsibility of life increased, I grew hungry for a new release and like many, a seemingly ridiculous endurance challenge seemed like just the right thing to get my mind and body back on track. So I eventually caved in, flubbed through a haphazard training “plan”, and ran my first marathon. I haven’t been the same since (in a good way!).
This story likely has something in common with many people’s reasoning for tackling the marathon: Jumpstarting life with a new fitness goal. Tackling something that seems impossible. Sharing in the camaraderie of it all…
But why the marathon? What is it about 26.2 miles that gets hundreds of thousands of people off the couch and out of their comfort zones each year?
The road marathon has earned its reputation as the pinnacle of endurance events because… it’s HARD! Whether you’re fast or slow, talented or not, you have to EARN the marathon through months of training. Running a marathon takes dedication, commitment, and perseverance long before the race even begins. One favorite running quote is by Susan Sidoriak and says: “I dare you to train for a marathon and not have it change your life”.
But what if there was a better way? We marathon runners do so because we want this type of challenge and change in our lives. No, we need the challenge and change! Well ladies and gentlemen, there is a new “marathon” in town and its here to stay… May I introduce: the trail ultramarathon!
For those of you who have never run a marathon, the thought of running an ultramarathon simply seems absurd. For those of you who have run marathons, the thought of taking one more step past 26.2 is enough to make your calves cramp just thinking about it. However, as a guy with experience on both sides of the coin, I’m going to make an argument for why trail ultras are easier, more fun, and require less recovery. Essentially, I’m gonna tell you why the trail ultra is the next “marathon”, and why that‘s a good thing!
[By definition, an ultramarathon is anything over 26.2, but you’ll find the most common entry-level ultra is the 50K (31-ish miles), followed by the 50-miler, the 100K (62-ish miles), and finally the 100-miler.]
Marathons are hard and grueling. Ultras are hard and grueling, but in a wonderful kind of way!
I can recall Mile 20 of the Marine Corps Marathon. You’ve just left the crowds and beauty of the National Mall in Washington D.C. and you get spit out onto the 14th Street Bridge, which is really just a huge concrete highway taking you over the Potomac River. You’re at mile 20, so you’re entering the really tough mental part of the race because your legs are starting to die, and here you are running on some barren, miserable concrete super structure. Ugh. To add insult to injury, just a few miles later you’ll be running through the Pentagon parking lot…
Now I’ll compare this to Mile 26 of the Promise Land 50K. At this point, your legs are dead, you’ve got 8 miles to go, and you start a grueling, steep, 3-mile climb up Apple Orchard Falls. “Running” is not really an option here, even the lead runners are “power-hiking” the steep falls. But as you wallow in your physical defeat, you are literally hiking up a majestic waterfall – climbing over boulders, getting sprayed by waterfall mist, and being treated to sweeping scenic views of the valley below.
In every ultra I have run, I have been extremely tired and wiped with miles to go, yet I have always found it in me to enjoy being out in the woods, on the trail, appreciating the beautiful nature around me… even though my legs are dying.
Marathons typically have thousands of runners. A big ultra has 400 runners.
Ok, this is clearly personal preference, but the smaller field in ultramarathons makes for a very intimate and friendly racing experience. One of my favorite things about ultramarathons is that they are like big parties with new and old friends. There is a lot of fun to be had before, during, and after the race. Even top competitors often gab and joke and encourage each other during races, which is really more a reflection of how tight the ultrarunning community is. If you run just one ultra in an area, you quickly become fast friends with a surprising number of people that you are likely to see again at any other ultra within your state. Now I’m not going to say that marathon runners are not friendly – the majority of runners I know are friendly, great people – road or trail. However, the vibe at these larger marathon events is decidedly less personal. Trying to strike up conversation with a random runner in the middle of a large marathon is often met with much resistance. But strike up conversation with someone in an ultra, and 2 hours later you know their life story, they know yours, and you’re planning a “run-cation” together.
Marathon training is often a grind, Ultra training rocks!
Marathon training involves grueling long runs on roads with routes designed mostly to get in the necessary mileage. It’s all about the mileage and the pace. And for some reason, walking and taking rest breaks are often culturally frowned upon. Also, running on roads is an extremely repetitive motion and the rate of repetitive stress injuries is very high in marathon training.
Ultra training long runs happen on the trail. These tend to be slower-paced efforts with friends, taking breaks for selfies and photos of the scenery. We pay no attention to pace, only effort. We wait for each other at trail intersections and often plan snack breaks at points of interest such as a summit or swimming hole. Also, you are immersed in nature, spending hours in the peace of the trail vs. out on the open road. Last, with long trail runs you are constantly changing up your foot strike and body position to adapt to the uneven terrain and elevation gain/loss. Because you are using so many different muscles, the repetitive stress is greatly reduced. Yes, you still have to train your legs to the rigors of the trail, but you will be stronger and less prone to repetitive stress injury.
Ultras have a “finish” mindset vs. a standardized time mindset that marathons have. Whether your marathon is in California or in Virginia, a 3:30 marathon is pretty much a 3:30 marathon. When we set ourselves up to run road marathons, we are quickly categorizing our efforts and comparing them to the nation of people who are faster or slower than us.
With ultras, your finishing time has nothing to do with the distance, but everything to do with the course, and the focus tends to be on just finishing. 50K races may take the same runner anywhere from 3 ½ hours to 6 hours, depending on the terrain of the course. The longer 50 and 100 milers will vary even greater depending on terrain, altitude, etc. Thus, specific time goals become unimportant for most ultrarunners, which then allows them to focus more on running by effort and “feel” throughout the day. Being freed from paying attention to a specific pace allows a better sense of listening to our bodies and adjusting naturally to the trail and the day’s demands.
Marathons are mostly on roads, in cities. Ultras are typically on trails, in the mountains/recreational areas. Roads have cars, asphalt, and buildings. Trails have forests, streams, and wildlife. Also at marathons, especially larger marathons, it is often difficult to hang out at the finish line. Many times you are whisked away to keep the area from getting congestion and you may find yourself eating a post-race snack sitting on a curb at a closed off intersection. Most ultras finish at a park or recreational area where there is ample space to grab a chair or a picnic table and hang out right at the finish line, watching old and new friends complete their day. Getting to watch the last finisher is a treat and it is always amazing to me how many people specifically stay to see the last finisher at an ultra cross the line.
Ultra training is not necessarily any more training than for marathon training – its just different. For the most part, you do not need to run any more mileage when training for an ultra than you do when training for a marathon. In fact, to be perfectly clear, you do not need to have ever run a marathon before tackling an ultra! You can do a 50k on 30 miles a week (though more would be better..), you just need to make sure you get in some race-specific training. Running a mountain trail ultra?…Better train on some mountain trails to get your legs adapted. Most ultrarunners get in at least half of their miles on the roads anyway, and many do track workouts and tempo runs to work on their speed.
Long runs on trails do require a bit more time however. Whereas a 20-mile marathon training run on the road may take someone 3 ½ hours, that same run in the mountains may take 4 ½ – 5 hours because of the terrain and elevation gain.
Last, you need to learn to eat for ultras. When you are out there for 5, 12, or 24 hours, you have to eat or your day will be a disaster. This is figured out on the long training runs. My training partners and I will typically bring PB&J sandwiches, snickers bars, and cookies on long runs, along with the typical gels, bars, and sports drink. Eating on the run is an important skill in ultrarunning but also part of the fun of training!
Most marathon runners I talk to generally underfuel, and limit themselves to gels, water, and maybe sports drink, which is typically what is offered at the races.
You never know what your ultrarunning friends are going to pull out of their packs on a training run or even in races, which tend to be stocked with all of the above plus sodas, candy, and more!
Marathons give you medals. Ultras give you sweet swag. Now some marathons do step it up and give out a nice finishers shirt or hat, but that medal (that you’re paying for) usually goes right into a box somewhere in your home. Ultras tend to give good swag like premier Patagonia/Mountain Hardwear finishers shirts, coffee mugs, running shorts, trucker hats, etc. The ultra culture essentially comes with ultra swag that you can wear proudly and use regularly after the race. Show up to work Monday morning with your marathon medal on and people will start talking. Show up with your Terrapin Mountain 50k coffee mug and your Patagonia finisher’s shirt on and people will start gawking!
So there you have it! I hope I have not offended anyone, as my intent is not to belittle marathons or marathon runners (…and I am one!). Rather, my intent is to show that trail ultramarathons, though on the surface seemingly a fringe sport for the insane, are actually just as reasonable, if not more so, than running marathons. And if our reasons for doing these things are similar – change, challenge, and community – then why not take the more fun and easier route? Or maybe just try something new?
Training for and running ultramarathons has taught me more about myself than any other endeavor I have participated in, and has given me a stronger passion and confidence in life. Ultramarathon running is growing at an exponential rate in the US for all of the above reasons. So if you’re interested, don’t be afraid or intimidated. Ask around, find a friend, and sign up for one! But I will give one warning: you many never run a road marathon again;)