Blistered toes. Sore nips. Chafing in some interesting new areas. Marathons hurt. So it’s understandable that when runners reach 26.2 miles they feel they’ve also run as far as they possibly can.
It’s understandable, but wrong. If they stop there they’re missing out on something very special. And a lot of cake.
An ultramarathon is any running event that goes beyond the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. It can range from a 27-mile race, all the way to multi-day events such as the frankly loony, multi-day, Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race. A few ultras are on roads. But most are on trails, in hills, mountains, in national parks, on long-distance paths – some are even in deserts, jungles and snow.
In North America and Europe, ultramarathons are booming in popularity. This is partly because many runners complete a first marathon and want a fresh challenge (especially one cheaper than a triathlon). But also because – whisper it – ultramarathons are easier than they sound. And much more enjoyable. And better for you (well, sometimes).
Ultra runners have some dirty secrets:
Ultra runners go slowly. It’s a sport where the tortoise beats the hare. Go a little bit slower than your marathon pace, keep it comfortable, forget all about minute/miles, and it turns out you can go on… and on… and on… Almost indefinitely.
Ultra runners don’t care about PBs. Unlike marathons, no one in your office knows what a good time for a 40-miler is – they’ll just be well impressed you ran 40 miles (even if it took you 24 hours) – so there’s little time pressure or brutal pace-pushing. Ultra runners don’t have their eyes glued to their watches. Relax, socialize, enjoy the views, and eat cake.
Ultra runners eat a lot of cake. And pizza. And pancakes, pasta, flapjacks, sweets, crisps, fruit, rice puddings, pork pies and more. The aid stations are amazing. You name it. They usually have it. Some even have beer. And you’re often salivatingly hungry, so everything tastes SENSATIONAL. The body shapes of competitors at an ultramarathon start line may surprise you. They’re not all super-athletes. Many are, er, well rounded. (Possibly because of those well-stocked aid stations.)
Ultra runners walk. It’s perfectly acceptable to do a load of hiking during an ultramarathon. Most hike the uphills, to save legs for later on. And when it all gets a bit tiring, heck, why not walk a bit more. You’re away in the hills somewhere, so there’s no big crowd humiliating you into pushing on at an uncomfortable pace.
Ultra runners are giddily happy. Okay, not always at 4am on a 100-miler. But think of the endorphins you get on a long run. Then imagine running all day and how many waves of serotonin will wash over you. There’s a greater sense of achievement too, of course. Imagine that feeling at the finish line after running 40 miles for the first time… (and it almost definitely won’t be as painful as a marathon). Plus in a city road event you’ll maybe come 4,356th. In an ultra you might come top 50, even top 20. And that feels good.
Ultra runners are closer to nature: your views are of mountains rather than mountainous shopping malls. If you’re running through dusk and dawn there’s higher chance of seeing wildlife, too. Talking of dawn, imagine going right through the night, to see pink being sprayed across the skies at first light. All that helps makes ultra runners happier still.
Ultra runners have happier legs. Soft terrain and varied gradient are infinitely better for you than endless flat tarmac, which – ask any physiotherapist – is the worst surface you can run on. Plus the flatness means constant repetition of movement making injury and discomfort more likely. Running a 30-mile off-road ultra is less taxing than a road marathon. (That said, the longer you go, the bigger the likelihood of miscellaneous interesting new sensations).
Ultra runners are friendly. And there’s usually great camaraderie – because when you’re high on endorphins you’ll probably want to turn to the next guy and start yakking on about how amazing this all is. Ultra runners tend to look out for each other.
Ultra runners are cry babies. You will probably get to some new emotional places, at both ends of the scale – rawness is a word often associated with it. There are certainly some lows, but the highs may be like nothing you’ve experienced before. Does it sound like a drug? It pretty much is.
Ultra runners have strong minds. Ultras aren’t a sport for strong muscles. It’s a sport for strong minds. It’s the person with the biggest sense of determination that gets to the end. So much of it is a mental game, both in having the courage to sign up in the first place, and seeing it through.
Ultra runners love gear. For safety reasons, some races have mandatory kit lists – waterproofs, extra layers and suchlike. So you’ll need a pack, a water-carrying system and you’ll probably tell yourself you need shoes for every terrain and season. So there’s more kit to fantasize over. Gear junkies are in for a treat, too.
Words by Damian Hall