The Slippery Slope of Ultra Running

By Jill Forsythe with Photos by Derek Schultz

“Twelve hours ago, the idea of running 31 miles didn’t seem as crazy as it felt at this moment. As I ran past the aid station it took me more than a few minutes to calculate how much further I had to go. So far I’d been running for 3 hours. That meant I’d already put in 17.3 miles. “Only 13.7 more miles to go,” I told myself. Little did I know it would take me 3 more hours until I would finish. “Yep, marathons are easy. I’d be done by now,” I said to myself as I looked at the time.”

When I first heard the term “ultra runner” I was a beginner runner and hanging out in an online running forum. There was a small group of runners who participated in discussions about their long runs, hydration strategies, footwear and outlandish race distances, the thought of which were jaw-dropping to me.

At the time, someone had recently finished a 24-hour race along the rim of Lake Tahoe. I spent days ruminating on the idea of running for twenty-four hours straight, the notion of which sounded absolutely insane in my mind. The longest I had run at that point was less than two hours and that was difficult enough. 24 hours? That thought never did vanish completely from my thoughts. After reading the race reports of these ultra runners I began to take on a new respect for their decisions to run without stopping for upwards of 100 miles or more.

Why? That was always the number one question in my mind. Why would you choose to run an entire day and night anyway? What exactly is so enticing about the sport of ultra running that more and more people are making the jump from conventional distances (half marathon and marathon) to these ultra distances each and every year?

I soon discovered that ultra runners are not just a handful of crazy runners who exist in my computer. They walk amongst us in our everyday life and most of the time we don’t even realize it. They are not crazy or missing some cerebral wiring. On the contrary, they are some of the most dedicated and intelligent people I have ever met.

Ultra RunningWhat is ultra running?
According to Wikipedia, an ultramarathon (also called ultra distance) is any sporting event involving running longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometers (26.2188 mi). Most ultra runners have completed several marathons and arrived at ultra running as the next logical step in their running careers. They seek new challenges and new milestones with even bigger rewards. On the other hand, there are also runners who skipped right past the half marathons and marathons and went directly to ultras.

Ultra running is often thought of as an outcrop of trail running because indeed, the majority of ultras do take place on the trails. But, there are also ultra events that take place on roads, such as Comrades Marathon, an 89 kilometer road race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa, or Badwater Ultramarathon, 135 miles of grueling heat and adventure through California’s Death Valley. Some ultras even consist of running a one mile or less loop of road; the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile race in New York consists of a .5488 (883 meter) loop and competitors seek to complete the course over 52 days.

How does one start ultra running?
Ask any ultra runner what distance you should start with when transitioning to ultra running and the resounding answer is 50 kilometers. Only five miles longer than a marathon, training for a 50k race is much like training for a marathon. Add at least two more hours to your marathon time to get an idea of how long you can expect a 50k race to last.

As with racing the shorter road distances, the more often you run a certain distance the more your body acclimates and you soon find new ways to challenge yourself, either with pacing or by working towards completing even more challenging distances. The next step may be a 50 mile, 100 kilometer, or even a 100 mile race.

Enduring the miles
Running longer distances means more time on your feet. When you first start ultra running, learning to slow down is a key lesson to learn if you plan on being successful. Here, success means finishing the distance, not necessarily being the first person across the finish line. You simply cannot keep the same kind of pace across the terrains and elevation changes that you can on the roads. Learning to ease up on your pace so that you can stay out on the trails longer is a major milestone for ultra runners.

Says Jen Van Allen, Former Senior Editor at Runner’s World and 2008 24-Hour National Champion, “I always start slow – it takes me a good two hours to warm up and feel like I’m in rhythm. I just really enjoy the act of running, so I never feel like I’ve been in any particular hurry.”

Slowly adding more time or miles to your longest run will help prepare you for your first ultra race. A great way to get through those miles is to join a group of friends or find a running club with ultra runners. Granted, listening to music will get you through but there is nothing like spending an entire morning out on the trails with friends. It’s one of the reasons why some runners get into running ultras in the first place.
ultra running
Some people might feel that the thought of running twice as far as a marathon is complete lunacy. Why would you want to hurt twice as much as you do after a marathon? Honestly, most people are not running the entirety of an ultra marathon. That honor is usually reserved for the front runners, the elites. The majority of runners will mix in walking with running, and they almost always walk the hills. Because they have not only slowed their pace, but thrown in some walking, too, they are able to bounce back after an ultra much quicker than a marathoner does. In fact, because they usually run on trails instead of roads, their legs are less beat up and they are feeling back to normal within hours or days versus a week or more for marathon runners.

A typical training week for a marathoner includes somewhere around 6-10 hours of running. It’s a safe assumption that ultra runners will most likely double those numbers in the midst of their training, with most of those running hours occurring over the course of the weekend.

There are a couple of key runs an ultra runner will focus on during their training. The first is the back-to-back long run which consists of running long one day and heading back outside for a long run the following day. This simulates running tired which is how you will inevitably feel during an ultra race at some point.

The other key run is the long run over 20 miles. Depending on the race this run will vary. Often, you will find runners entering shorter races in preparation for a longer goal race. For instance, a marathon may be used as a training run for a 50 miler, or a 100k may be used as a training run in preparation for a 100 miler.

For those runners with families at home, family support is a key ingredient to their success. Disappearing for hours on end over the course of a weekend can be really tough for parents; they therefore really depend on spousal support.

At races, spouses will crew for their mates by running alongside them for a few miles at a time to help get them through a wall, or to offer encouragement and companionship. Unlike road races where it is taboo to hand a racer food or drink (doing so could result in a disqualification), at an ultra race a runner’s crew will have food and drink ready and waiting for them.

An ultra runner’s gear box doesn’t differ too much: shoes, clothes, jacket, hat, gels, and water bottle. There are some slight differences, though. Ultra runners also own a hydration pack which could include, a makeshift first aid kit, camera, trail map, extra socks, solid foods, and bug spray. If a runner plans to head out for a five hour trail run they are going to need to stay hydrated and fuel their bodies well. As with other types of running, this includes a lot of trial and error before someone figures out the right formula for them, personally.

The Big Question: Why Do It?
“With less than 5 miles to go I seriously considered giving up. The final aid station was a perfect place to hop a ride back to the start. But could I live with myself? Back in the woods my friend offers me encouragement. I barely talk. I can only focus on one thing: putting one foot in front of the other. This simple task is taking every ounce of energy I can muster. When I finally break out of the woods, the cheers from the finish line are what beckon me. You can’t see it, but you can hear it, and those voices carry me along. “It’s not far now,” I tell myself. I reach the open field and follow the now worn path across the hay field, across the road and finally – FINALLY – up the hill to the finish line. The race director hands me my finisher’s hat and I have tears in my eyes. All I can say to him is, “I’m so tired!”

You’ve made it this far and now realize that ultra runners aren’t very different from any other type of runner. The main difference is that they run longer distances. They do it because they like it, not because someone is forcing a gun to their head. I don’t think anyone could last as an ultra runner if they didn’t like it first and foremost.

When asked what they love most about running ultras, a group of runners replied with the following answers:

“Challenge and adventure and accomplishment and satisfaction.” – Laurie Reinhart

ultra running“The amazing, beautiful places they are held and the runners themselves. I leave every Ultra with a whole new group of friends for life. The bond that is formed when you are pushing your limits with someone for that many hours is hard to describe to non-ultra runners.” – Bob Bodkin

“The people, the challenge, the meditative aspect of long distances.” – Meredith Murphy

“There’s only one thing that I truly love about ultras: I’m good at them. In other races, I’m just another skinny old guy that shows up and shuffles to the finish line. At an ultra, and I mean a good long ultra, then I’m a winner. It’s my game. I own it. In a word, it’s all about EGO. There. I’ve said it.” – Keith Straw

Head out to a nearby ultra race sometime and volunteer at an aid station. You will notice that most of the runners are not thin, fast and a whisper of a human. They come in all shapes and sizes. What really stands out about these athletes is that they are ordinary runners doing something extraordinary. Somewhere deep within their being they can withstand pain, fatigue, hunger and the elements all in the name of fun. For some, the handfuls of hours they spend out on the trails are connections to carefree days of their youth. For others, the self-discovery they experience helps propel them to do great things in other arenas of their life.

All I’m saying is give it a try, just once. But, be warned. Transitioning to the “Dark Side” is a slippery slope. Once you get a taste for it, you might just head back out for more.

Jill Jill ForsytheForsythe is a lifelong athlete having participated in both competitive and recreational sports. Health and fitness is a trait she has worked hard to instill in her children, as well as the community-at-large. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for a local non-profit, Lehigh Valley Road Runners, and has directed both trail and road races within the community.

The Krista Griesacker Memorial Adventure Race