Why ultramarathons are easier than you think
© Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool
A slow pace, mountains of food and beautiful surroundings make ultra-long races more accessible than many people realise.
There was a time when the marathon was seen as the pinnacle of human endurance. If you could run a marathon you were as fit as they came. But as more marathons were created – and more people completed them – 26.2 miles (although still a brutally tough distance) gradually began to lose its mystique.
Instead, runners sought to complete longer, tougher, less accessible 'ultramarathons'. Technically, any race longer than marathon distance is worthy of the ‘ultra’ prefix. In reality, though, most ultramarathons are at least 30 miles long – and many of the world’s premier events, like the Western States Endurance Run and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, test competitors over 100-mile courses.
The eye-popping distance of an ultra, however, belies one simple fact: most runners are capable of completing one. Here's five reasons why.
1. The scenery spurs you on
Although there are some less glamorous examples – like the impossibly long Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, and the unique world of 24-hour track racing – ultramarathons tend to take place over vast, rural areas: think mountains and National Trails. Before you tackle your first ultra-distance race, therefore, you’re going to want to get a bit of trail running experience under your belt. But the fact ultras are typically held on vast trails is also the key to their popularity.
“A factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is the power of Instagram and other forms of social media,” says HOKA ONE ONE athlete Magda Boulet (@RunBoulet). “That definitely inspired me to enter the world of trail running; there weren’t many avenues to show people just how awesome some of these trails and races are 15 years ago, and nowadays every ultrarunner fills their feed with pictures of mountain-topped vistas and beautiful trails. More and more people are able to see those pictures and say, ‘Hey, that looks amazing!’”
The stunning scenery is also one reason many people who tackle their first ultramarathon find they are capable of enduring far more than they thought possible. Unlike many road or track races, where visual distractions are hard to come by, discomfort during an ultra can be quickly forgotten at the sight of a sweeping vista or towering snowy peak.
2. The pace is much slower
A more obvious reason ultramarathons are more accessible than many runners realise is the fact you run them much slower than you would do a shorter-distance race. In fact, much of the time, you don’t have to run at all. “Walking is an important part of ultrarunning,” explains Red Bull athlete Dylan Bowman (@dylanbo). Despite being one of the best ultrarunners on the planet, the 32-year-old American admits he just ran a race in which he “probably walked 40 per cent of it.”
Where in shorter road races walking is avoided at all costs, during an ultra it is often actively encouraged. “On steep uphills, in particular,” continues Bowman, “it’s simply more efficient to hike than it is to run. By walking some of the early uphills, you'll probably find your legs have a lot left to give in the final 25 per cent of the race, which will lead to a significantly faster time. I'd encourage everyone to practise hiking in training.”
It’s a point reiterated by Boulet, who says, “When going up steep inclines, you can go just as fast power hiking (hands on knees) than you can running, and it burns less energy. Early on in my ultra career, I remember getting passed multiple times while running uphill by people who were way better at hiking than I was. I also used to be disappointed at myself for hiking a steep hill, but I strategically switched from running steep hills to hiking and find myself having much more life in my legs at the end of a race.”
If it’s a tactic good enough for the woman who won the prestigious Western States 100 (in her first ever 100-mile race!), there’s no reason it can’t be good enough for the rest of us.
I strategically switched from running steep hills to hiking and find myself having much more life in my legs at the end of a race
However, Boulet is quick to point out that slow does not mean easy. “Don’t let the slow pace fool you,” she says. “Just because the average pace is much slower than something like a road marathon, doesn’t mean it’s easy running. Not only are most ultras more challenging in terms of terrain and climbing/descending, maintaining any pace is difficult when you’ve been at it for eight hours, no matter what the surface.”
3. It's a mental game
That time-on-feet aspect of becoming an ultrarunner means ultras are as much, if not more, a test of your mental fortitude as your physical fitness. Good news, if you’re strong-willed but not especially quick or insanely fit; bad news, if you struggle to suppress the voice of self-doubt.
“Most ultrarunners will face rough patches in the middle of something really long, like 100 milers, and it can be tough to stick with it until you feel good again,” says Boulet. But getting through the rough patches in ultras is what makes the journey so fulfilling.”
For Bowman, the key is to approach an ultra with motivation in mind. “When motivation is there,” he says, “the mental challenge becomes much more manageable and you're more capable of working through hard moments in order to achieve a proud finish. The training is important, but being excited for the adventure is critical in my opinion.”
When motivation is there, the mental challenge becomes much more manageable and you're more capable of working through hard moments
That positive mindset is what Bowman credits with his entry into, and continued success in, the sport. “I'd never been a runner in my whole life before I started trail and ultrarunning,” he says. Although he admits he did play “team sports as a kid, so had some fitness and athleticism,” before Bowman attempted his first ultra, he had virtually no prior experience. “What I did have,” he says, “was a steadfast determination to get it done and a childlike enthusiasm for meeting the challenge. In my opinion, these things are much more important than running experience.”
But how do you maintain motivation and positivity when you’ve already run a marathon, and may have the same distance if not further yet to run? For sport psychologist Professor Andy Lane, “The key to overcoming an ultramarathon is to break the run into small, manageable chunks.
For example, break the run into three-mile chunks – most runners do parkruns, so seeing the run as a ‘parkrun at a time’ helps. The second key quality is patience: you need to be calm, accept you will be on the move for an entire day, and be happy with that decision.”
Most runners do parkruns, so seeing the run as a ‘parkrun at a time’ helps
4. You get to eat LOTS of food
Ultramarathons are unique in many ways, but perhaps chief among them is the importance of food. In his bestselling book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall references sports nutritionist Sunny Blende, who defines an ultra as ‘An eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.’ Such a definition may be oversimplifying things slightly, but the message rings true: ultramarathons not only allow for a lot of eating, they necessitate it.
“You can definitely eat more during an ultra than a road race,” says Boulet. However, she warns that “whatever people eat, it still has to be fast absorbing and easy on the stomach.”
And, as with anything, practise makes perfect: “It’s important to practise eating and drinking during training to avoid problems fuelling in races. You can actually train your gut to handle different types and amounts of food and fluids while running, but just showing up at an aid station and grabbing whatever looks good (not having practiced with it) can be a recipe for disaster.”
Bowman agrees nutritional choices during an ultra are very subjective. “I like drinking my calories during races, so I emphasise consuming high-calorie drink mixes while sometimes supplementing with soup at aid stations. Others like eating ‘real food’ like sandwiches, fruit or bars, so it's very important to find out what works best for you and test your strategy in training to avoid nutritional mistakes during the race.”
5. If you put the training in you will succeed
While the slower pace, stunning surroundings and plentiful snacks should serve to encourage all runners to consider trying an ultra, the mileage involved should never be taken lightly.
“I think that being a bit daunted [before attempting an ultra marathon] is a good thing,” says Boulet, “because it will probably force that person to stick to a proper training plan and allow them to get through an ultra more healthy than someone who isn’t intimidated.
“Even if your goal is just to get to the finish line,” she continues, “it’s still important to do the training to get your body there in one piece, and without jeopardising long-term health and recovery. With enough time and walking, yes, most runners could get there, but the bigger question is how enjoyable will it be, and they might hurt themselves so badly that they won’t want to ever run again. Being prepared allows for more fun and it sets us up for more longevity in the sport.”
But even if you’re not ready just yet, building up to an ultra is something all runners can achieve, as Boulet continues: “No matter what your long run is right now, just think about adding one to two miles to that number every two to three weeks. It won’t take too long until that long run is pretty close to an ultra by itself. And once you see how fun it can be to be out there that long, you only crave it more!”
3 beginner-friendly ultramarathons to try
A relatively flat and short (in ultramarathon terms) course that takes runners on a 31-mile loop around the Nottinghamshire countryside.
Brecon to Cardiff
Where: South Wales
A 42-mile race over varied terrain from the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park to the Welsh capital.
The hilliest of the three, with 3,100m of ascent, but a generous 24-hour cut-off time makes it completable for beginners.