Daily Dose Running

Ultra Marathons: What and Why

Over the past few weeks I’ve discussed running and, in particular, the sort of running I’m most interesting in: Ultra-marathons. Whether it was on the subway, a date, or the random menagerie of folks I’ve come to be in conversation with recently, it doesn’t matter, I’ve carried out a similar discussion with each of them when it comes to my running.

On the face of it, an ultra-marathon is simply another flavor of foot race which describes any race longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles or 42.2 km. The distances of these races vary widely[ref]Some of the more common lengths for ultra-marathons include 50k, 40m, 50m, 100k, and 100m.[/ref] and often the distance is only a best guess estimate since unlike marathons most ultras are unique and distinctive. Few people would try to compare the results of two different races side by side–there are simply too many variables. And variables gets me to the reason I love ultras.

When I tell people that I love running, most look questioningly and a bit pained as if they were reflecting on their own experiences of running. Most people think of the long, boring and painful minutes of running down a strip of pavement and are convinced that I must be masochistic to enjoy running distances of more than a marathon. “Sure, a marathon is one thing–the pinnacle of endurance–but more?” they think. Surprisingly, I’m right there with them, that sounds dreadful! See, the reason why I love running–and ultras in particular–is because I get to be out on the trails, in the mountains, or otherwise in the great outdoors. Virtually all of the ultras that I’ll ever consider running will be trail runs.

Running on trails has a lot going for it, including softer terrain and beautiful scenery. The sense of speed and freedom are surely unrivaled to any road running, but there are certainly other considerations. Running on trails can be dangerous and even deadly in some areas. The added elevation change nearly ubiquitous in trail running makes some races more like climbs than runs, but perhaps that is part of the appeal (or at least is made up for in the view). Consider the following elevation chart from one of my favorite races of all time, the Tammany 10 in NJ.

Tammany-Boston Elevations

Here I have plotted the elevation profile of the Boston Marathon (well known for it’s “Heartbreak Hill”) along with that of the Tammany race. The Tammany race was the toughest race I’ve done, but it was amazing. The backside of the mountain was all iced over in many spots and required spikes, the high winds made layering a necessity, and the elevation led to distinctly different temperatures and conditions along the route. Like I said, it was awesome.

So where does this leave us? Well, I suppose I just want to invite all of you to try a trail race or trail running in general. I absolutely fell in love with it and hope that I’ll be seeing you out on the trails (and maybe even at an ultra) someday.

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