Whenever we try something new we always have some preconceived notion or misconception of what that new experience might entail. Those are myths, and plenty of them abound when you reach the point where you might want to try your first ultramarathon.
First off, the word ultramarathon makes it seem like an unreasonable task for anyone of regular human ability. Let me assure you that isn’t the case. An ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles, whether it’s on roads, the trails or up over a mountain. Last year, an estimated 100,000 people ran an ultra in the U.S. alone. That doesn’t include the 22,000 people that ran this year’s Comrades Marathon (90K) in South Africa or the thousands of other ultra-distance races around the world.
There are also some trail races that are shorter than 26.2 miles but nevertheless will take you what feels like an eternity to finish. These are called mountain races and should be grouped in the ultramarathon category due to the absurd amount of time that it can take to reach a high peak—at least that’s what it feels like. Treat mountain races like ultras. I’ve found that out the hard way.
Here are a few tips that will hopefully help quell that desire to run shrieking in the opposite direction the next time your running partner shoves an ultramarathon race registration in your face.
Myth 1: You’ll get slow.
I think this is the single biggest myth cited among young fast guys and gals for not venturing into anything longer than 26 miles. I think by now this has been properly disproven by numerous guys (including myself) who have jumped around from distance to distance. American David Laney, who just finished third at the 167K (or 104-mile) Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Europe, says he’d been worried about that for years. His credits his strong effort at the UTMB (his third 100-miler) to both his ability to expand his endurance but also maintain his speed. “Within a few months after an epic blow up at Western States in 2014, I was back running mile repeats on the track better than I could have in college,” says Laney, 27, who ran a 2:17:03 marathon PR last December at the California International Marathon.
Myth 2: Ultrarunners “run” the whole way.
If you can, more power to you, but even the best of the best are going to be walking some in an ultra. For many ultrarunners it’s going to involve a lot of walking. “I don’t think people know just how much walking is involved for us slower people and don’t add that into their training” says Joe Trupp, 40, an ultrarunner who manages the Gazelle Sports in Kalamazoo, Mich. When a race involves a significant amount of hiking, it’s important to practice that in training in order to become more efficient at it. Don’t assume you’ll have to “run” the whole distance. Those “walking” sections break up the running and make the distance more manageable.
Myth 3: Ultrarunners are all crazy and “there’s no way I could ever run that far.”
Well, yes. By your normal American standard we are a bit nuts, but the jump from a marathon—which saw over 500,000 people complete one last year—to the 50K distance is, in simple terms, only five more miles. The biggest hurdle for Jonathan Smolin, a 41-year-old ultrarunner from Hanover, N.H., with a Vermont 100 finish to his credit, was getting past that “mental barrier of moving from a marathon to an ultramarathon.” That might sound familiar to a lot of marathoners. “My first ultra was a 100K and, when I ran it, my longest run to that point had been a marathon,” Smolin says. “I remember convincing myself before the race that I could do it, to take it one aid station at a time, and to have fun. And it worked.”
Myth 4: You lose connection with your family and friends.
“I heard you have to give up your friends, your life, and all your free time and run 100+ mile weeks,” says Kari Strang, 42, a recently converted marathoner from Bend, Ore. Just as Smolin had only run up to the marathon distance before completing his first 100K race, completing an ultra doesn’t require you to ditch your whole life and run around in the woods 24 hours a day. A fairly modest training approach that you would use to train for a marathon can properly prepare you to run up to 100 miles. The trick is believing that you can do it and then taking care of yourself during the event through proper nutrition, blister and chafing prevention, etc., to maximize the time your legs and mind will keep you moving forward toward the finish.
Myth 5: Running that far cannot be good for your joints.
If we’re talking purely about how damaged your legs feel after a race and how long it takes for total recovery afterward, I like to compare a road marathon to a trail 50-miler (or even further distances). Proper training can further minimize muscle and joint damage for both the marathon and ultra distances. The reason an ultra is easier on your body is that most will be on a soft trail or dirt, easing the pounding on the legs. You’ll feel better after a 50K trail race than after a road marathon.
Of course, I would be remiss if we completely ignored running form in this argument, as there are plenty of runners that have experienced joint pain from years of running. Nothing is more important to running longevity than working to improve running form in order to reduce joint stress, and also doing the necessary strength work to stabilize your joints during running.
While there are many myths that persist despite the growth in ultra marathon popularity, making the jump from the marathon is as much a mental barrier than anything else. The best way to dispel those myths is to sign up for that next race your ultra buddy has been harassing you about. Once you believe that you can do it, and don’t mind a few black toenails along the way, the reward is a huge accomplishment and a fun-loving, supportive community of new friends.
About The Author:
Salomon Running athlete Max King jumps around from ultras to track races to obstacle races and everything in between. He has yet to lose his speed on the track or any toenails from an ultra. He has has won numerous USATF trail running national titles, as well as the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships and the 2014 IAU 100K World Championships. He can be found at @maxkingOR.