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. For me, 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 6-7 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", on the other hand, 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…
In this sense, the average person will generally have an “ultra experience” within 5-7 hours, therefore my definition of an ultra is any race that the average person would finish in around that time, which means roughly 30-45 miles depending on the race… 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, this really highlights the individual nature of races, distances, pacing and experience – and is otherwise pointless. Also, moving beyond 16-17 hours into all day and all night runs takes the ultra journey to whole different level, and again when you move into the 40h+ range... 
I hope this helps anyone who is starting out on the "ultra" journey and why there is a compulsion to go longer - it's not just ego and "bigger/longer is better". What I do find condescending and ultimately pointless is to say that someone hasn’t run an ultra when they just slogged through a 40k race with 3000m of technical trails. Or even, for that matter, someone who battles their way to a 6h+ finish on their first marathon. 
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.