Friday, September 29, 2017

What defines an ultra marathon?

It’s confusing these days… Traditionally, anything over the 42.2km marathon distance has been considered an ultra, but that’s a bit misleading. Not to demean the achievement of running 50km, but I think anyone who runs ultras knows that it doesn’t really qualify (unless there’s a huge amount of elevation). But why? Probably – this is my personal perspective – because what defines an ultra is the experience rather than the distance per se, and that experience is linked to the time it takes to finish. In that regard, someone who struggled to finish a marathon in 7 hours most probably had an ultra experience.
But if reasonably fit and adequately trained (even if trained “just to finish”), you only usually hit one bad patch in a marathon, around 30-35km. Also, the duration of a marathon means that any problems that develop (blisters, bleeding nipples, stomach distress) do so at a later stage where, again, you are close enough to the finish to just soldier on.

The ultra experience entails several emotional ups & downs, and requires you to really find solutions to a number of issues that can occur if you want to finish: heat, cold, dehydration, over-hydration (lack of salt), blisters upon blisters, cramps, leg pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, sleep deprivation…
So here’s my view: the average person will start to have an “ultra experience” after 6-7 hours. So there’s my definition of an ultra, any race that the average person would finish in about that time, which means roughly 30-45 miles depending on an ultra… Of course, it’s so personal because depending on how fast, fit, well trained you are - or your experience – the goal posts shift…

In any case, pretty much the only reason this is of any consequence at all, is if, like me, you like to know how many ultras you have run! Another way around that is: “I have run X number of races of marathon distance or more”.And I do think, for someone starting out, it is really condescending and ultimately pointless to say that they haven’t run an ultra when they just slogged through a 50k race with 3000m of technical trails. Or even, for that matter, someone who battles their way to a 6h+ marathon finish. I say, welcome to the crowd – your life will have changed in some subtle way and you’ll probably be a different person for it.

1 comment:

  1. "So here’s my view: the average person will start to have an “ultra experience” after 6-7 hours."

    This is about right, IMHO. It's long enough for the errors of the opening half to add up but also long enough for you to recover and feel better at the finish. It's a very different experience to be facing a 5K walk at the end of a marathon because you bonked versus having to consider the last 4 hours of an ultra where you have made a similar early error.