Thoughts on ultramarathons

I have no visions of trying ultramarathoning anytime in the foreseeable future. But I realize that at some point, once I’ve done enough marathons, I will at least consider running a 50K (31.07 miles), possibly up to 100K (62.14 miles).

I have running friends who have dabbled in ultra running. In fact, friend and former Fleet Feet Racing Team coach Kyle Larson is (as of this post date) the current reigning back to back champ of the Frozen Gnome 50K.

From what I have learned, ultra running is clearly different in that you really can’t “race” an ultra the way you can race any distance up to the marathon. In theory, any stretched out runner can run 26.2 miles with minimal trouble if they pace themselves slowly enough. It’s racing the distance that poses the ultimate challenge.

However, once you get into ultra distances, you’re really just running at your best easy to moderate pace. And it’s about survival, or finishing the distance within a time window like 12 hours.

Most runners who get into ultra running tend to be sturdier framed, more compact runners who aren’t as speedy in their running but can durably run long distances day after day. These races are often run on trails, so ultra runners tend to train a lot more on rugged terrain.

Ultra runners also tend to wear different footwear than conventional competitive runners, since they log such massive training volume. Shoes like Topo Athletic and Skora, known for their trail-friendly durability, are popular with ultra runners. The more conventional footwear often takes a backseat.

I often play around with Electric Blues‘ complex Daniels Tables to get an idea of goal and benchmark paces for training ahead of more conventional, much shorter races. I also use it to judge the intensity of various workouts as well as the intensity of my training.

I’ll probably go into more detail on how I use this data in a future post (as it’s 9:20pm CDT now, and to get into it now would keep me up until midnight on a work night, as it’s somewhat complex). But I have played around with this to get an idea of the intensity at which a runner can reasonably run an ultra.

A 50K (31.07 miles) is still within the realm of being race-able, though obviously you’re not going to give it the same effort as a marathon. You probably should run it more like a sustained moderate run. In fact (though he didn’t intend his written marathon programs for this), Jeff Galloway’s run/walk training methods are also a great approach to training for a 50K.

It’s once you get into the 50+ mile range that race pace is merely a function of how fast you can comfortably go while running at an easy intensity. A 100K would probably be run at the pace of a gentle recovery run, whereas the real challenge is maintaining that gentle run for 12-16 consecutive hours (while of course working in breaks to use the restroom and to eat, since at that length of time you will need to eat meals of some kind to continue functioning).

Once you’re in the 100 mile range (like the world famous Diagonale de Fous route of the Reunion Grand Raid), you are basically running for survival as much as competition, and you focus on doing what you have to do to stay upright through the finish.

The key aspect to the slower pacing in an ultra is not just the lengthier race in itself, but that you must conserve glycogen and rely much more on burning fat. You simply could not digest enough carbohydrates to fuel a normal race-pace effort at these distances even if you wanted to. Therefore you must master sustained running at a lower intensity.

Thus the fuel for these ultra races tends to be a lot more robust than your typical gels and Gatorade. Runners often swear by bars and other chewy snacks and other whole food. Some will prepare a special bottle as elite runners do for marathons, but these concoctions more resemble protein shakes than eletrolyte solutions in their consistency.

Also, you often have to pack your own food and carry it as you run. These courses are often in remote regions, and you won’t see the robust on-course support that you see at marathons. If there’s an aid station, it’s probably every several miles or so. On a loop course, there might only be one. And what nutrition they might be carrying is fairly limited, more of an emergency supply than something you can rely on. And ideally you want to dictate your fuel intake anyway, so you’re just better off bringing your own gear. Carrying this gear furthers the need to run at a slower pace.


Standard disclaimer: A lot of this can vary from race to race, and many experienced ultra runners have had differing experiences than what’s described above.

Because it’s largely uncharted territory, most experienced ultra runners follow their own approach to doing things that works for them. It remains a vast field of potential in terms of the possibilities for training and for race strategy, even as the popularity of ultra racing has improved in recent years.

I didn’t mean for this by any means to be a complete treatment on ultra racing. I’m hardly scratching the surface, and I’ll probably have more to say on it as I do more research. Plus, again, it’ll probably be a long while before I entertain doing one.

But it’ll be interesting to see if strategies and coaches emerge in the field of ultra running. The possibilities, while not endless, are vast.

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One thought on “Thoughts on ultramarathons

  1. Sam says:

    Love this. My experience has been Marathons are fun and exciting lots of people. I found ultra marathons a more quiet affair and for some reason the distance suited me better. But I dig 5k’s and ultra distances. Everything in between seemed to piss off my body. So I say do what your body tells you it likes. I unfortunately now will be living the running life through you. Doc says no more running due to arthritis. (I still sneak in a trail run with my pups on occasion)

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