7 Lies You Believe About Ultra Marathons

An ultra can do a lot of things for a lot of people. But one thing it will always do is change your mind. It will focus your perspective and help you see things as they really are. Here are some lies that may be clouding your vision.

1. I can’t run an ultra yet—I’m not in my best shape.

I’ve seen some epic love handles and beer bellies cross the finish line at several ultras. And although not all runners are visibly out of shape, many do have a target area that is far from perfect—flabby bits or underdeveloped muscles. If you’re waiting to be in the best shape of your life, you will never run an ultra.

Running with extra weight is far from easy, whether it is bulky muscle weight or fat. But weight has almost no effect on your potential to cross the finish line. This finish line is about mental strength and raw determination. Don’t worry about achieving perfect fitness. The more you run ultras, the more your body will adapt to running ultras. Then before you know it, your body will be perfect for…running ultras.

2. My first ultra will be just like my training runs.

You haven’t the slightest clue what your first ultra will be like. Expect nothing. The veteran standing beside you doesn’t know what this race will be like either. Neither does the dude who has run this course ten times. He can tell you about his past experiences, but he can’t tell you what the run will be like today. That’s the beauty of ultra running: Anything can happen.

Simulate race day conditions during training, but never let it fool you into thinking that you now know exactly what’s coming. You have no idea. The weather could turn, your food could run out, or you could step on a rattlesnake. Who the hell knows.

Instead of stressing about it, take it as a relief. There’s no pressure to be completely prepared, because nobody is. The runners who thrive are the ones who can be flexible. Have a good base, don’t forget your nutrition, and know how to adapt. Be ready and willing to tweak your strategy at a moment’s notice, and never see a change as a failure.

3. I can’t run an ultra—I don’t have any support.

Support is a big deal among ultra runners (race crew, pacers, friends dragging your crap around), but it can’t be used as an excuse. Ultimately, only you are responsible for your failure or success. Yes, pacers and crews make things easier. They are convenient and invaluable. But you don’t need a small army to pull off a finish.

In fact, many newbies don’t have any support at all. It’s not until you start running several ultras and make friends in the ultra community that people become willing to hang out and support you.

Emotional and moral support are another issue. Never expect to go into your first ultra with the full support of all your non-running friend and family. Even your running friends may have a hard time believing in you. If you do have unlimited support, your friends are either great liars or you are a much better person than I.

Do you know when people start believing in you? When you prove yourself. When you finish. When you find success. So don’t sit around whining about how nobody supports you. Of course they don’t, and why should they? You haven’t done a damn thing. Your ultra is just crazy talk.

Know your potential and go after it with all your strength. When you believe in yourself and prove your ability to finish, others will start believing in you as well.

4. If I’m running in the back of the pack, I’m in the wrong training group.

Take it from this back of the packer—you’re in the perfect spot. When I first moved to San Diego, I was always in the back of the pack. As I slowly started becoming a mid-packer, I sought out stronger runners who would push me to the back again.

Many runners are embarrassed or ashamed to bring up the rear, to the point that they will switch training groups. But I’m not here to impress anyone—I’m here to get better, and I want to do it as fast as possible.

Struggling to keep up with a strong group is how I’ve grown. Fast. I’ve picked up tips and invaluable knowledge that might have taken me years to learn otherwise, and it also keeps me extremely humble.

Obviously there’s a limit—you don’t want people waiting forever for you to catch up. But your own common sense and/or pride will prevent you from hitting any extremes. I’m referring to runners who are only a few minutes behind the second-last person, assume the group is too fast for them, and leave.

I want people in front of me, driving me forward. I want to be friends with people who can kick my ass any day of the week, who are better trained, and have more experience. The rewards are far better in last place than in first. There is tremendous opportunity to advance. The day I’m the best runner is the day that I didn’t learn anything.

5. I’m too old to start running ultras.

At 29, I’m a newborn in this sport. I’m also one of the slowest, less experienced, and less accomplished. Ultra running is for an older crowd. The strongest runners tend to be in their 40s and 50s (women included), with a few in their 60s who can run circles around them. I’ve seen past-middle age men with abs more ripped than any teenager on the planet.

Age in ultra running means grace, wisdom, and respect. You are admired and consulted for advice. If you watch an older ultra runner, there is a calm and carefree aura around them. It’s like they know every step of every trails, what’s underneath every rock, and the location of every bug.

Their sense of direction is inhumanly sharp, and you get the feeling that if you were to ditch them in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, they would run back and ring your doorbell in about a week. Other sports cut you off after a certain age. In this sport, you become a legend.

6. After I finish an ultra, everyone will admire and praise me.

Ultra running is like a spiritual experience—you get the most out of it when you approach with a pure and humble heart. An ultra is something you can’t finish for anyone else. You have to do it for yourself.

The runners who give off a vibe of “Hey, look at me!” generally don’t stick with ultras. This is because if your goal is social acceptance and praise, there are much easier ways to get it.

When you run a marathon, all your non-running family and friends think you’re a superstar. They might meet you at the finish line, talk about you with pride, and tell you how awesome you are.

But when you run an ultra, you are out on those trails by yourself. You’re facing your demons alone on a terrain that is foreign. There are no motivational signs to lift your spirits. There are no cheering fans to scream your name. If you’re lucky, you may get some weak claps or cheers at the finish line.

But that finish is unlike anything else. It’s yours and yours alone. Nobody can know what it took for you to get there, and nobody can share in your glory. That finish line is where you first realize that you can do anything.

You’ll go into the world the next day to brag about your accomplishments, but instead of looking at you with admiration, people will look at you like you’re insane. Your non-running friends will not understand. Their first reaction will probably not be, “You’re awesome!”

If it’s a nod from society you’re looking for, run a marathon. But if it’s a life-changing experience of personal strength and perseverance that you want, finish an ultra.

7. It doesn’t appear that anyone else is struggling as much as I am. I must not belong.

There was a video I saw a few weeks back that completely changed my perspective on everything. I can’t remember where I saw it, much less the link. It was one of those things you watch casually, and don’t realize until weeks later that it was actually a turning point for you.

This video was an interview with a seasoned, elite ultra runner (don’t remember who) talking about a race. The distance was significant, I think it was 100 miles. He talked about finishing the first 26 miles, and feeling wiped. He casually mentioned being tired as if it was a normal thing, but I thought, “Wait a minute. He’s an ultra-elite. He gets tired after a marathon??”

When I get tired at 26 miles, I used to attribute it to the fact that I wasn’t conditioned. I was a newbie and probably out of shape. I was in over my head. But here was a veteran with solid races under his belt, still feeling tired at 26 miles. It forced me to change my perspective.

Around the same time, I read the book AWOL on the Appalachian Trail where David Miller recounts his experience hiking the entire Appalachian. He recalls a day when he was struggling up a hill, passed some other hikers, and was shocked to hear them admire his speed and agility. He felt like shit.

He writes:

Everyone sweats; everyone pants for breath. The person who is in better shape will usually push himself to hike more quickly and bump into the same limitations. But when a fit person is stressed, he is less likely to attribute the difficulty to his shortcomings… Obviously conditioning is advantageous, but the perception of disadvantage can be more debilitating than the actual disadvantage.

Ultras are hard for everyone. Ultras are just plain hard. Everyone struggles up that hill. Everyone has trouble breathing. Everyone feels the hot sun. Everyone is sweating. Everyone wants to sit down.

You—sitting at your computer and reading this—would not be any worse off than I am on a steep, rocky hill. Trails can’t tell whether you’re an elite or a newbie. They’ll kick your ass just the same. So you belong here just as much as I do. And I belong here just as much as the dude who wins first place.

The ultra distance is hard to get your mind around. That’s why people give ultra runners puzzled looks. But once you break down that wall, run your first ultra, run your second ultra, and then realize you’re hooked—all those lies you believed about yourself are exposed. And it’s easier to see yourself as you really are—strong, courageous, and able.


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57 responses

  1. Another great post! Your perspective is refreshing and balanced. I never really thought about an ultra until I started reading your blog. Now it is on the list and I’m building the base miles.

  2. Reblogged this on Running The Cape 2012 and commented:
    [Ultras] will focus your perspective and help you see things as they really are.

    If it’s a nod from society you’re looking for, run a marathon. But if it’s a life-changing experience of personal strength and perseverance that you want, finish an ultra.

    Trails can’t tell whether you’re an elite or a newbie. They’ll kick your ass just the same. So you belong here just as much as I do. And I belong here just as much as the dude who wins first place.

  3. What an inspiring read! There is no way I could experience what you went through unless I am on the journey myself and yet I believe with all my heart what you mentioned that the finish line is about mental strength and raw determination.

  4. Super post, and cross-posted on FB. I’ve run two 50s and this year I’m aiming for the first big 100. I love the ultrarunning community :)

  5. Thanks so much for this article, Vanessa! I shared it with a trail running buddy who has convinced me that we run one of these – next year!

  6. Thanks so much for this post. Just decided to start training for my first ultra and you have helped squash some of my fears/answered some of my questions. I have only told 2 people about my plans, as the reaction was “are you effin’ crazy?!” I guess I will just have to PROVE I can do it rather than talking about it :)

  7. Love this post; there is nothing like running on the trail, pushing to what you thought was your limit, and finding that you could do so much more. Trail running takes us back to our roots and back to nature; for me, the thrill of finding a new trail to train on makes me feel like a kid again, and the cameraderie and spirit at an ultra is second to none.

    I have to admit that I not-so-silently chuckled as I read #6 and pictured all the “13.1” and “26.2” magnets on the SUV’s and minivans around my neighborhood. To all of them – keep running out on the street – that way there is more room in the woods, hills, and mountains for the rest of us.

  8. I just found your blog, and I am SO inspired. Ultras have been in the back of my mind since I started running a few years ago and now I can’t wait! I’m slowly bouncing back from a stress fracture gotten in marathon training and only back up to about four miles right now…but in the next few years…I’ll get there! :D Love your blog!

  9. An ultra is my long-term aspiration (months, if not years out), and you are nothing short of inspirational. I appreciate this list of misconceptions. It makes my goal seem much more manageable.

  10. I really need to stop reading all of these ultra blogs. When I think marathon, I think blah. When I think ultra, I think wine and roses. Here’s my 5 month plan ( ok it maybe 5 days) find out if I have a stress fracture, come up with a recovery plan, starting running like it’s an ultra.

    Vanessa runs. Yes, she does

  11. I liked No 5 the one about never being too old to start running ultras. I was 63 when I ran my first. In the last five years I have now run 12 of 56km to 100km plus two or three marathons each year and a couple of Ironman Tri’s for good measure. In spite of ageing I am actually getting faster. It’s fantastic and now I have even greater ambitions.

  12. Vanessa: Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this 7 point myth buster! I found it just as I was making a full on mental commitment (that’s where it all starts) to running my first 50km ultra. I’ve read your piece at least ten times and have drawn a lot of inspiration from it to help make my goal a reality. Incredibly wise advice. Thanks again…. :)

  13. Me and my wife are thinking about doing our first 50K . I like what you said in number 6. Having run some really small Marathons here in Florida, I know the feeling of having only few spectators too.

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  15. So very, very true! It totally takes a different mindset and determination to do an ultra. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do a “traditional” marathon, but I’ve completed an ultra! And yes, sometimes I feel like a fake. Because it was “only” a 50k. And I walked it. But you know what? It still counts! And I’m already planning on that 50 miler…which, yes, I’ll walk as well.

  16. A lie I believed: Once I ran an ultra, I’d be a transcendent runner, able to conquer any distance with ease; I’d become super-human. Umm, not quite. I have weird days and bad days, and glorious ones just the same; I’m still me, with all my flaws, frailties and limitations. But I’m becoming okay with that now. :)

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  18. I was about to pull out of myu first trail 25k. Even though I am about to run my first marathon. I had the mileage in, but not “enough time” on the trails. This made me re-think a few things!! thanks for that. So yeh …. it isnt an ultra, but it is a step in the direction of putting it out there and gettin er done! xx

  19. I loved this so much! It rings so true. I ran my first 50 miler yesterday and this: “It doesn’t appear that anyone else is struggling as much as I am. I must not belong” kept going through my head. It wasn’t until I finished and sat down and got a chance to watch the other runners that I saw the same struggles written on their faces that I myself felt. I’m excited and still nervous but definitely going after my next one! Thank you for this beautiful post!

  20. Being a veteran of my fare share of Ultra finishes, I had to laugh at the description of us”old guys”. Calm and carefree aura comes from learning that no amount of worrying and stressing will help when you’re running 10,20,or 30 hours. The list of problems that can occur in an ultra is lengthy, and miles transform small problems into big ones, if not taken care of in a timely manner. So true about the ultra finish lines…finished my first 100 trail run at 3 AM in the wilderness, with i believe two people present to register finishing times. Yet the sense of accomplishment was and is amazing.

  21. Great article! I’m aiming for my first half marathon this year and I’m hoping to build to a full marathon next year, it’s great to see some ultra myths busted

  22. Excellent…..since i’m 62 I must have a LOT of Grace and Dignity in running but am working towards an ultra next summer which will be my first……..Your post gave me a lot of inspiration….

  23. Wow, I am so glad I am reading this a week before my 1st Ultra. Thanks for this awesome article, great advice, so inspiring!!!

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