7 Reasons You Think You Can’t Run an Ultra Marathon (When You Can)

Photo: Ice Spike

The thought of running an ultra marathon can be daunting. It’s a terribly long and intimidating distance. If you’re a newbie, you have no idea what to expect and ultra runners seem like super heroes. But many people have it in them to run an ultra. Once you desmystify a few key aspects, it’s a very achievable goal.

Here are a few key aspects of ultra running that are most commonly misunderstood, and may be preventing you from taking the plunge into the wonderful world of ultras.

1. Hills

The majority of trail ultras are hillier than your typical road marathon. They are always exceptions, but the one thing that can be intimidating is the elevation profile of some of these races. One common misconception is that ultra runners are actually running all of these hills. While some of them do, most of the runners do not.

One of the tricks to ultra running is to conserve energy as much as possible so you can endure to the end of the race. Running uphill tends to burn energy fast, so many runners find it’s more efficient to power walk uphill. The time you lose is minimal, but the energy you conserve is significant. And as far as exertion, it’s much easier than running uphill.

While a lot of ultra runners may appear to be mountain goats, hill training is hard for everyone. We all feel the same pain on a steep climb. Yet so many reach these breathtaking summits, and so can you.

2. Speed

Some runners believe that because they are not fast, they can’t compete in an ultra. But the ultra is more about endurance than speed. It’s also about troubleshooting problems and pushing yourself mentally. Yolanda Holder is a Guinness world record holder and has finished countless ultra marathons. Yet she has not run a single step.

Yolanda is a power walker, and even at her “slow” pace, she not only finishes these challenging events, but passes several runners. At an ultra, slow and steady finishes the race.

3. Distance

When you plot a 50K or any other ultra distance on a map, it seems “crazy”. But your perspective of distance changes at an ultra. Distances seem much shorter when you’re chatting with a friend (slow and steady means you’re not panting for breath). You can also break the mileage down by running from one aid station to the next. Aid stations are generally five to eight miles apart. It is a manageable distance that you can focus on, and you’ll be capable of more than you realize. Besides, if you’ve already run a marathon, a 50K is “only” five more miles.

4. Exertion

Unlike a 5K, 10K, or even a half marathon, you are not going all out as far as exertion when you run an ultra. As mentioned, the key is to preserve energy. Although it may feel like you’re going slow, this will pay off greatly in the later stages of the race and carry you to a strong finish. I actually find a 5K much harder on my body than a 50K. On a 5K, I am pushing hard. It’s a significant physical challenge. On an ultra, I am trying not to overexert myself. I am preserving energy. And it feels easier.

5. Terrain

If you’re used to road running, you may be familiar with a whole host of injuries that creep up over and over again. The pavement is unforgiving on a long distance runner. When I switched to trail ultra marathons, my recovery was significantly faster and the impact on my body was much less than a road marathon.

Some runner are hurting so badly after a road marathon that they can’t imagine running even longer. But the trail doesn’t hurt as much. I feel infinitely better after a trail 50K than after a road marathon. Not only is the ground less forceful, but you are also using a variety of muscles as your footfalls vary. Your pace also varies, and so does your gait. So when you’re finished, there is no one particular body part that is killing you. While I would spend days recovering after a road marathon, after a trail 50K I can run the next day.

6. Pain

The anticipation of pain can be scary. Again, if you’ve ever felt pain at a road marathon, you may imagine that going longer will hurt even worse. In the same way, if you’ve run a 50K, you may imagine that a 50 miler would hurt more, and a 100 miler would be infinitely painful. But the body doesn’t work that way.

Your body will hurt up to a point. After that it gets better and then bad again in waves, generally separated by several miles. Just as you hit a second wind during a marathon, during an ultra you will hit third, fourth, and even fifth wind, depending who far you’re going. Pain and exhaustion will be there, but not getting worse for the entire race.

7. Mind

While mental focus and willpower is important for all races, in order to finish an ultra, you have to want it. In many of my races, I have reached a point where I have enough excuses to drop out. I’m very sore, or my blisters are acting up, or I just threw up. Many runners experience these things, but those that finish are the ones that press on. An ultra is a race where you are likely to feel like quitting, and nobody would blame you for dropping out. So the only thing keeping you on the course is your own stubbornness and will to finish. Develop that irrational determination, and you will find success in ultra running.

Why Should You Even Try?

Ultra running may not be for everyone, but there is something life changing about finishing a goal that you didn’t think you could accomplish. Whether or not that is running an ultra, challenge yourself to take on that one thing you really want to do. Climb that mountain. Sign up for that race. And surprise yourself. You’re stronger than you think you are.


How to Train for Your First Ultra

7 Lies You Believe About Ultra Running

12 Things I Learned at My First 100K Race

Why You’re Not an Elite Runner (Yet)

17 responses

  1. Absolutely excellent post! I’m training for a full marathon and really enjoying the 20 mile runs, which has me contemplating Ultras. The big, bad looming question I have as a newbie is this: Where does the “wall” come in an Ultra if the run is slower? Is it still at mile 20? And how do you break through or “go around” it for another 10, 20, 30+ miles?

  2. The main reason I don’t think I can run an ultra: time. As someone with a family, I can barely find time to do a basic marathon training program. Does training for an ultra take a lot more time than marathon training, as I assume it would have to to avoid injuries?

    • In my experience, a 50K takes about the same amount of time as marathon training. Longer distances may require more of a time commitment. It’s definitely a challenge with work and family obligations. The ultra runners I know usually sacrifice sleep over family time.

  3. I never imagined that I could run ultra’s. Once I started hanging out with that crowd, I realized that there are a lot of people who don’t “look” like they could finish 100 miles. Of course, the vast majority of those people can school me any day, but it was encouraging to discover that I don’t need to be 4% body fat and run 100 miles per week to finish an ultra.

    My limited experience contradicts your point #6 on pain. While I do agree that you can only hurt so much, when I reached that point during my 100 miler, it didn’t get better until I sat down in a chair at the finish line. With the exception of the last 200 yards, full of adrenaline, the last 30 miles or so hurt equally bad. But I knew it would be painful, and was mentally prepared to deal with that.

  4. Your encouraging posts are one reason I’m considering a summer or fall 50K. I would love to see some posts on how you and others train for ultras (including any strength or cross training). Thanks.

  5. Another classic Vanessa! I always find your blogs a great source on mental aspects regarding ultrarunning and some of them I printed and brought to read before Swissalpine last summer, my first mountain marathon! I was exhausted but really happy to finish in a time more like an ultra than a marathon. Next goal: 50 trail miles in april! Your blogposts will help me get there!

  6. Thank you for an interesting Blog, and *inspiring post*! I thought it was interesting what you said about the anxiety of pain, and in what ways it may or may not differ from the more familiar terrain of marathon running.

    I am wondering, if you know, what are the statistics on how many Americans run marathons versus ultramarathons (I mean, 50 miles, or greater?) each year? It just seems to me that while I have heard of people running marathons, I have rarely ever heard of people running ultra-marathons. In fact, I have never met anyone I know in person!

    I tried to look this information up, and could not find statistics as readily as I can on 26.2 marathon running on sites such as MarathonGuide. Thanks in advance if you have a moment to respond!!

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