Are you a marathon veteran who has contemplated going longer but you keep talking yourself out of it? Let America’s best ultrarunner give you a push.
Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald
When Scott Jurek came out of nowhere to win the first of his seven Western States 100 titles in 1999, many other runners admired him, but relatively few were inspired by him. Twenty-six-point-two miles was far enough for the rest of us. But interest and participation in ultramarathon running have grown tremendously in the past decade. Nowadays, runners who previously never would have dreamed of going beyond the marathon are getting the itch to try it.
Jurek is not only the best American ultrarunner ever but also our greatest expert on the sport. The recent winner of a silver medal at the World 24-Hour Run Championships in Brive, France was kind enough to take a break from a training camp in Boulder (he lives in Seattle) to share his tips for prospective first-time ultramarathon runners.
Competitor.com: Why are you an ultrarunner?
Scott Jurek: To start off with it was just the sheer challenge of it. I ran my first marathon and then a month later ran my first 50-miler. It was the allure of trying something that tested my body, tested my mind, and just seemed a good way to delve into my spirit and see what I was made of. Over the years I’ve just come to appreciate the training—spending time in the mountains and exploring wild places. And over the years too it’s been a way to explore my human spirit. In those dark, deep moments when things are going wrong and I need to climb out of a deep valley, mentally and physically, how can I come back out of that?
So you didn’t choose ultrarunning by discovering that your body was better suited for ultras than for shorter races?
Well, I got a wake-up call when I ran Division III cross-country in college for a couple of seasons and some road races. I mean, I ran my first marathon in under three hours, but I didn’t have the talent for the shorter distances. I was able to withstand a good amount of pain for a long period of time. But that took a while to fully discover. In fact, after I did my first 50-miler I was like, “Never again.” I remember distinctly lying in the grass and thinking, “No way.” It was just way too hard.
But I finished second in that race and a few days later I realized, “Maybe I’m pretty good at this, and this is something I want to explore a little more.”
How would you pitch moving up to ultramarathons to an experienced marathon runner who has been tempted to go longer but hasn’t taken the plunge yet?
The key thing I want to stress is that I think anyone can run an ultramarathon. People are already realizing that anybody can run a marathon, and going from a marathon to an ultramarathon is not that big of a leap.
You have to be open to it mentally. You have to embrace the challenge. So what I usually tell people is you have to believe you can do it from the get-go. There’s definitely a lot of learning in terms of how to do it, but people should realize it is possible and anyone can do it.
In terms of training, is moving from the marathon to ultras as simple as running more?
You do have to do some longer training runs. There are two ways of going about it. You can do one long run every other weekend. For someone who’s training for a 50-miler that might be in the 25- to 30-mile range. Surprisingly not that long. It’s not like you’re going to go 75 or 80 percent of the distance as a lot of people do with marathons. If you’re planning on spending nine or 10 hours out on the course, you’ll want to do some four-hour, maybe five-hour max runs in training.
The other way of doing it is to do back-to-backs. In my training I do a lot of Saturday-Sunday doubles where I do two to three hours on Saturday and then turn around and do three, four, five on Sunday. If I’m in 100-mile training I’ll go out and do five to six and then another five to six, sometimes up to seven hours.
What you’re basically trying to do is simulate the muscle fatigue that you’re going to experience in an ultramarathon. It’s usually not muscle glycogen depletion or cardiovascular strain that’s the issue. The big issue is you’ve got to get used to that feeling of fatigue you’re going to feel at mile 30 and beyond in an ultramarathon.
You jumped straight from the marathon to 50 miles. Is that doable for most people, or should we mortals do a 50K first?
If the training is done properly, you can go straight from the marathon to 50 miles. I definitely don’t advise jumping from the marathon to 100 miles, although there have been some people who have done that. If you can run a marathon, you can run a 50-miler. It all comes down to preparation.
For people like me, who actually like to go to the track and run fast, do I need to cut that out and just deal with losing my speed if I want to train for an ultra?
There’s definitely a place for speed work. I always tell people that ultramarathon training is marathon training with a plus. It’s really just marathon training with a little bit longer long runs and some back-to-backs. But you shouldn’t drop the tempos and the speed work. I still get out there and do a lot of tempo runs and speed work, and I also do a lot of training on the roads in addition to running on the trails.
That said, you do have to simulate the conditions you race in. If you’re going to race a 50-miler that involves a lot of up and down, you’re going to need to get out there and simulate that. You also have to train for environmental factors like cold, heat, and altitude.
Injuries are a big problem even in marathon training. Are they an even bigger problem in ultramarathon training?
The key there is not to do those four- to six-hour runs every week. You might want to do them every three weeks. But as I mentioned, it’s really marathon training, so if you can get through marathon training, you can get through ultramarathon training.
I’ve been pretty injury free for 16 years of doing this. The big thing I’ve tried to do is balance out the training: incorporating strength training. I know flexibility training doesn’t get good marks in the research department as far as preventing injuries, but doing things to balance out strength and flexibility — maybe doing some cross-training.
The biggest mistake people make is doing the same training all the time — assuming they just need to get out and put a lot of miles in. Volume definitely helps in ultramarathon training, but more than anything else it’s balancing all the pieces of the pie.
For those who are interested in dabbling in ultras but don’t want to give up their 10K’s, can they have their cake and eat it too? Can they perform well at such a broad range of distances?
It all comes down to how much ultra training you’re doing. If you’re still getting on the track, still working on your speed during ultramarathon training, I think you can have both simultaneously. Really, if you can run faster in a 5K or 10K you should be able to run faster at an ultramarathon distance. You have to do the long runs, but that’s not going to slow you down unless you’re doing them more than you should be.
Are there different nutrition requirements in ultramarathon training versus marathon training?
Nutrition and hydration for ultramarathons are really essentially the same as for running marathons. Some people can get by in marathons without eating and drinking enough, but in ultras it’s paramount. You need to train your stomach, as crazy as that sounds. You need to do in training what you’re going to have to do in races. There are a lot of great runners who should perform well in ultramarathons but don’t because they don’t take care of the nutrition and hydration piece. It’s really critical.
So, what’s next for you?
I try to keep things interesting and do things I never thought I would do. Fifteen years ago I would have said “No way” to something like the 24-hour run I just did. I’m switching gears now, going from the roads to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc [to be held August 28], which is pretty much the premier 100-mile trail race in the world at this point. It has a phenomenally stacked field of athletes from around the world. It’s a killer of a course. It has almost 30,000 feet of vertical gain and descent. It’s like the Tour de France for ultramarathoning. People come out in droves. It’s like the classic European endurance festival. It’s a lot fun. So I’m training in Boulder, getting ready for the altitude there, and the big steeps.
I haven’t had my best race there. I’ve had three goes there and haven’t pulled off my best, so that’s my next project.
We’ll be rooting for you!
Check out Matt’s new book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.