Do ultra marathons hold any lessons for ‘normal’ runners? As someone who enjoys both 5Ks and 100Ks, I can confidently say yes. Ultra runners are, in some ways, the crash-test dummies of the running world. They log lots of miles under wildly varying, often extreme conditions, and from such stress-testing comes wisdom. While much of this insight can also be obtained via less arduous routes, it tends to be especially clear and memorable when distilled from the crucible of all-day endurance events. Here’s an informal list of ultra marathoning lessons that I find quite applicable to running in general.
On a flat course, ‘your best races will be done on as close to even splits as possible’, says Howard Nippert, who has claimed four top-10 finishes at the IAU 100K World Championships, as well as a 2:19 marathon PB. Every runner has heard this chestnut before. So why do so many of us ignore it? Perhaps for short races, the penalty (say, a slower-than-hoped-for 5K time) isn’t harsh enough to drive home the lesson. In an ultra race, though, an overly swift start can lead, hours later, to tens of miles of grim shuffling. Thus, I suspect that ultra marathoners police their initial pace better than other runners, even though the right opening tempo for a 50- or 100-mile race can feel ridiculously slow.
2. Race according to perceived effort
While even splits are great in theory, they can’t be expected in most ultras; the terrain is generally too varied and/or the mile markers too infrequent or imprecise. Ultra runners, therefore, aim mostly to maintain a steady, sustainable perceived effort. Paul DeWitt, a 14:44 5K runner with several 100-mile victories to his credit, believes that other runners should pay more attention to their perceived effort. Even in short races, he says, many factors – such as hills, changes in weather or lost GPS signals – can make splits difficult to collect or misleading. ‘Regardless of your goal pace, you should strive to run at a consistent effort and let the miles fall where they may,’ DeWitt says. ‘While you might not end up with an all-time PB for the distance, you will run your best possible time for that course on that day. And that is what every runner should always hope for – whether they are competing in a 5K road race or a mountainous 50-miler.’
3. Practise specificity of training
‘In ultra running, particularly on trails, courses vary greatly in terrain, weather, topography and distance,’ notes three-time Western States 100 champion Nikki Kimball. ‘If someone plans to run an extremely hilly race, they must train for both downhills and uphills. Ultra marathons are interesting because the scale, in terms of potential time lost due to a training error, is so huge.’ Nevertheless, other races also have many specific features – such as hills, footing, time of day, weather – that can be simulated in training, if possible.
4. Dropping out can sometimes be smart
The temptation to drop out of a race can be especially overwhelming for ultra marathoners. Imagine feeling terrible and still having 40 or more miles to go. The decision to call it quits shouldn’t be taken lightly, says ultra runner Brian Morrison, because ‘once you drop that first time, it gets easier and easier to throw in the towel.’
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for saving yourself for another day. I’m not proud of failing to complete the 2007 Western States 100, but by putting my shredded quads out of their misery at mile 62, I spared myself even more severe damage, thus expediting my return to training and my participation in the World Cup 100K that September, where I helped the US men place third as a team.
There are non-ultra situations in which dropping out may also make sense. For example,if your main objective for a season is to get a PB in the marathon, it may be appropriate to exit a race where that goal has become unattainable because of a niggle or illness in order to try again in a few weeks. The key is to have a clear understanding of what your goals are and why they’re important to you.
5. Enjoy the fellowship of other runners
In some ways, ultra marathons are particularly conducive to social interaction. They often are all-day or all-weekend events in remote locations where there’s little to do besides hang out with other participants. Also, the easy paces of the early miles permit extended conversation. In contrast, many of us treat short, local races as ‘drive-thru’ activities. We check in, warm up, race, cool down and leave. Why not slow down a bit and interact more with our comrades-in-legs? Kimball is as happy to chat during a 10K as she is during an ultra. ‘Intelligent, fun, interesting people seem to populate the sport,’ she says, making no distinction between ultra runners and others.
6. ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’
The physicist Niels Bohr could have been talking about ultra marathons when he said that. The longer the race, the more room there is for unexpected twists and turns to throw the outcome into doubt. Mike Spinnler, a past 50-mile race course record holder, observes, ‘The beauty of [running in general] that has continued to fascinate me for decades is how you can measure so accurately the physical components of an athlete – VO2 max, lactic acid tolerance, efficiency – but that the spiritual element of the athlete is impossible to measure. Witnessing ‘lesser’ athletic specimens defeat athletes who are physically superior to them because of some eternal drive or spirit is what keeps me in this sport.’ Which leads us to our next lesson…
7. Mental toughness is a great asset
In navigating long races, ‘attitude and mental toughness play a strong role in success or failure,’ says five-time US 100K team member Anne Lundblad. Her experience at the 2005 World Cup 100K illustrates the point vividly: ‘I went out too fast and didn’t drink enough for what turned out to be a hot day, and by 30K I was exhausted, experiencing gut problems and seriously contemplating a DNF [did not finish],’ she recalls. ‘I talked to the team doctor, who advised me to slow down, drink something and continue onward. Miraculously, things began to turn around. I regained my energy, picked up the pace, and began to pass people, ultimately ending up with the silver medal and a PB.’
This kind of mental toughness is important at sub-ultra distances too. Whether it’s an unplanned loo break or an overcrowded aid station, any loss of time can be hard to accept, but once it has happened, you have to move on as if nothing happened and focus on the rest of your race. You might even surprise yourself and still meet your time goal.
Ultra runners do races that 99 percent of people consider absurd. With a few exceptions, we don’t expect widespread recognition for completing or even winning an Ignore the rules and do what you love ultra; the races are their own reward. We run ultras mostly because we find fulfilment in them. But isn’t that how all runners should operate? To do the runs that enrich our lives, whether they are short or long, fast or slow, competitive or social? That’s what I think, anyway – and that’s what I’ll continue to do.