You've probably heard vague tales about something wild called an ultra-marathon. I won't be so brash as to suggest you try such an event ... but at least it's something to think about.
By definition, an ultra-marathon is any run longer than 26 miles, 385 yards (or 42.195 kilometers). The term is inclusive, and ultra-marathons are contested over a spectrum of long distances. Nonetheless, some "standard" events have achieved a modest but continuing degree of popularity. Presently in the United States, these standard events comprise a mix of English and metric measurements: 50- and 100 miles, and 50 and 100 kilometers. The most common of these is the 50-miler. It provides a good basis for comparison of individual performances in different sections of the country. Also, since 1966 it has been a national championship distance, the longest footrace with a US title at stake.
Although there were splashes of activity in super-long runs from time to time in the past, the modern era of this sport in the US coincides roughly with the growth of road running in general since the early 1960s. The concept first took root in the New York City area, with Olympian Ted Corbitt the driving force behind the idea. Throughout the decade, Corbitt made pilgrimages to the traditional London-Brighton double marathon held in England each fall. The rest of the time, he urged the institution of such races in America. There was initial resistance to the idea from some quarters, but eventually a series of races---mostly ranging from 30-45 miles---was added to the New York schedule. They attracted only a handful of participants but were a necessary first step. A small but hardy corps of ultra-distance enthusiasts grew from this program and spread the word further.
The northern California area joined the movement in the late '60s, and the two coasts were linked in 1970 when the first ultra was held in the Midwest. The corner had been turned, and by the following year Americans were attempting 100 miles and more for the first time in almost a half-century. Today, ultra-distance running stands where marathoning was 10 years ago. That is, the interest is limited and the fields involved are small, yet the opportunities to try these runs are steadily increasing.
In 1977, there were more than 30 ultra-marathons held in 15 different states. The majority of these had between 20 and 50 runners, while several had fewer than 10 starters and only one race had more than a hundred. So it remains a relatively obscure branch of running. At the same time, however, it is now firmly established as more than a novelty item. It seems fairly certain the incredible boom enjoyed by shorter distances will eventually flood over into the longer ones as well.
THE NEW ODDITIES
All very fascinating and awesome, you say, but it is something you could never do yourself? Well, think again.
After a runner's first mile comes his second, and then another and another. To their great surprise, some very unlikely candidates one day wind up as marathoners. A simple extension of this lengthening process is at work in the phenomenon of ultra- marathoning.*
[* For purposes of this discussion, my references to ultra-marathoning will concern only runs of 50 miles or more. That's where the dilemma lies. Fifty kilometers (31.1 miles), while by definition an ultra, has more in common with the standard marathon than it does with these longer events. Unfortunately, there are currently no other intermediate steps on the way to 50 miles. Therefore, the aspiring ultra runner is typically confronted with a quantum leap from 26 to 50 miles.]
Once, it was the people who went 26.2 miles who were thought odd or exotic. Now, with marathon mania rampant, that activity has reached respectability. The appellation of crazies can thus be pinned on those individuals who go beyond that: Why else would someone do such a thing?
In any endurance activity like distance running, there will always be a fringe group interested in pushing the limits further. It is the nature of the beast to seek new tests when the proportions of the old ones have lost their capacity to inspire awe. More specifically, in the context of running, there is no logical reason beyond tradition for the 26-mile mystique. To question why anyone would want to venture beyond that barrier is merely to rehash the perplexing and ultimately personal question of why we run in the first place. Why not?
The marathon barrier---the point where the large majority of distance runners say, "No more!"---is strictly a mental and artificial one. The numerical significance of 26 is man-made. it is invested with magical qualities, and the biggest roadblock to going beyond it is in simply shedding the myth. To do so can be an experiment in curiosity, as the runner is drawn ever outward into unexplored realms. But while events longer than a marathon can constitute a challenge and an adventure, there is little intrinsic difference in them. A six-mile run is an endurance event, even if people who go that far daily may tend to forget it. So it is with a 100-mile run. The difference is only in degree. The quantity may increase dramatically, but the qualities demanded remain similar. To truly accept this fact is necessary to your success in super-long runs.
HOW MUCH HURTING?
How can it be done?
Because of marathon mania, we hear constantly about "the wall" at 20 miles. With this emphasis on hitting the wall repeated again and again, many people have the mistaken belief the human body can tolerate only 20 miles or a little more before reaching a state of sheer depletion. Thus, runners feel they may be able to hang on past that crucial point and gut it out to the marathon distance, but anything more than that becomes inconceivable and almost scary to contemplate.
This overlooks the fact that the wall at 20 is inherent only in the nature of a marathon. An untrained athlete will crash well before that point. For the trained runner, depletion sets in there in a hard effort only because he is approaching the finish and has apportioned his energy accordingly.
Running is a ridiculously simple sport in its basics. Training one's body to best approach its potential can be a complicated proposition, yet the ingredients are few. They boil down to two: the speed and duration involved in any particular run. Assuming the runner is adequately conditioned beforehand, he simply has to pace himself to meet the task at hand. He can lose control with dire results in a mile or a marathon. The same applies to the ultra-marathon. If properly geared to it, the well-trained runner can plow on longer than he might expect.
What he needs to do is exercise his discipline and intelligence along with his heart, legs and lungs. Problems arise from the vast difference in volume one is faced with. The room for misjudgment increases greatly when you are running literally for hours on end. If you overestimate your capacities in a 440, say, this error can lead to extreme agony within seconds. However, the worst is over quickly. Once you get into trouble in an ultra, though, you are stuck with it for a prolonged period of time. The finish line may be a couple dozen miles away, and the runner must choose either to quit or suffer severe discomfort.
It is misleading to say ultra-marathons are necessarily filled with agony. Nevertheless, your body is put under extreme stress during the course of them, so it is similarly misleading to pretend they are a breeze. Clearly, They're not. But while the unpleasant aspects must be acknowledged, they should not dominate the issue. Ideally, they can be kept to a minimum. Just as boxers accept bloody noses as an occupational hazard, so ultra-marathoners know their endeavors will bring some disagreeable feelings. That is part of it all, yet it is certainly not the point of it all.
The point is to confront a difficult challenge and triumph over the situation. To do this, the beginner must approach his initial ultra attempt with a realistic attitude. The distance needn't be frightening but must be respected. The experience of others demonstrates that runs like these can be handled without super-natural abilities. However, it can't be done without fatigue. Everyone tires to differing extents after an extended time of non-stop running. This is where the fascination and challenge of these long runs sets in---much more so than in a marathon.
Understandably, since the idea isn't to inflict negative sensations on the body, caution is advisable for the novice. The cardinal rule is this: SINCE FATIGUE CANNOT BE AVOIDED, IT IS IMPERATIVE FOR THE RUNNER TO POSTPONE THE INEVITABLE ONSET OF THAT FATIGUE FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. To do otherwise is to invite disaster. Uncharted territory hides many shoals. Thus, the first-timer had better be conservative and save any bolder experiments for the future when the distances may seem less alien. There is no need to risk turning one's debut into a gruesome ordeal through the mistake of being too ambitious.
So a low-key mental preparation is essential. Know you'll be in action for a long time and know you'll become tired, but be ready to resist the weariness and conquer it in the end. I advise the novice to forget about time from the very beginning. For individuals with a history of serious racing at shorter distances, it may be tough to ignore the clock altogether. Of course, before it starts you will be wondering just how long it will last. Any worrying about time in the run itself, however, will most likely be counter-productive. The initial goal is merely to finish. That's enough. For once, you should enjoy the luxury of not being obsessed with time.
TAKE A WALK
The safest system of all is to include some pre-planned walking along the way. For example, run 25 minutes and walk five. Don't be afraid to rest. Walking breaks like this will make it much easier on the body, instill calm in the mind and not really penalize you as much as you'd think. It is a fact of ultra-marathoning that most entrants will slow considerably anyway, and many will have to walk at some time in the event. Voluntary walks are not a blow to the morale like ones forced upon you by a rebelling body. They keep you fresh.
The run-walk system, effective as it is, nonetheless goes violently against the grain of a runner. Few have the willingness or discipline to hold themselves back that much. They want to see how far they can run without having to stop. For this average contestant, then, whose hope is to run the whole way, the most tenable plan is to approach the project as an endurance jog. In other words, start out at the slowest normal pace at which you feel comfortable. Don't go so slow as to tire yourself with an unnatural pace, yet always remember that you want to minimize the stress and stave off fatigue for as long as possible.
Begin it like an easy jog and appreciate the early miles as a fun-run. It is most helpful if you can find someone to stride along with. Due to the small fields and massive lengths of these runs, the contestants can get spread far apart. Sometimes, I've gone more than 30 miles in such "races" without seeing another competitor. If you are lucky enough to fall in with someone else, it's a big psychological plus. As the day progresses and enthusiasm wanes, you can bolster each other when thoughts of quitting arise. A pair will often keep moving when a solo athlete would stop.
Aside from attitude, the nature of an ultra calls for some additional adjustments. Measures to prevent blisters and chafing must be applied even more rigorously than usual. What would be a minor annoyance in a short run can be magnified intolerably during a long one.
On the subject of shoes, opt for comfort and cushioning. The major cause of complaint will stem from the sheer accumulated shock of the tens of thousands of times each foot hits the ground. Sore soles and aching joints are almost guaranteed at some point, so once again the idea is to delay the consequences.
HANDLE WITH CARE
If at all possible, a handler should be enlisted to help you. This person's responsibility is to look after your personal needs, something that is very difficult for race organizers to do adequately in such a long race. The handler can either ride along beside you with a bike or meet you periodically with a car. Such a friend is necessary because there is so much time for something to go wrong. He provides things like medical aid, fresh shoes, and warm or dry clothes, depending on the situation. Most importantly, he keeps you supplied with drinks. Fluid replacement is crucial to avoid dehydration in an event requiring sustained effort for six hours or longer. Plan on drinking as much as you can.
Your handler can also assist with the mental aspect, by giving you encouragement to keep going. Mostly though, this motivation has to come from within. Will-power alone won't insure satisfactory results. The muscles still do the work. But unless they are backed by a strong will, they'll drain rapidly when fatigue hits. Momentary sags in morale are part of ultra-marathoning. Everyone is susceptible to them. Regardless of your high hopes prior to the race, there will be grave moments of doubt and weakness during it as the strain mounts. The battle is not to succumb, to weather the storm. Even in races I've won handily, I've considered quitting. There is just so darn much time to consider everything!
Understandably, one's resolve can waver as he becomes progressively more weary and an apparently pervasive exhaustion sets in. Still, at the slower paces involved in an ultra, there is more choice. You may literally ache all over, in places you've never been sore before. Despite this, the woes associated with super-long runs are generally of the dull, nagging variety. These are more amenable to management than the sharp stitches and cramping sometimes induced by faster running.
Therefore, ultras present a paradox. The runner has more time to dwell on the tough distance remaining. He can easily psych himself into an early defeat if he panics at the arrival of fatigue symptoms. On the other hand, he can take a more active role in the decision to continue. What he has to do is maintain control and plow on through the beginning signs of depletion. The entire process is a balancing act: Will I make it or will I crack? The balance swings side to side moment by moment. It can go either way. That is where the fascination lies. A surprising number make it.
You'll notice I have yet to mention any special training advice. Heading into an ultra-marathon, a major apprehension will concern whether or not you've trained hard enough beforehand. However, training requirements vary so much between individuals that general prescriptions aren't worth much. Obviously, the more your training increases your stamina, the better chance you have of success in going long. Beyond this guideline, the runner must be his own coach.
Fear of being undertrained is itself a danger. An obsession with training miles can suck one into trying too much, and getting run down instead of getting stronger. The body will dictate how much you can tolerate, and it is important not to exceed its dictates. So, to be best prepared, train as much as you can feel both mentally and physically comfortable in doing. What this translates to in numbers depends on your own judgment.
Meanwhile, speedwork can be dispensed with, except for purposes of play and variety. What helps is mental conditioning. One's total mileage should be weighted toward long runs. While it has been proven they aren't a physical necessity, it gives one a big boost in confidence if he can get in at least one workout of four hours or more prior to race day. It doesn't matter how slow one goes in such a workout. The idea is just to gain practice in keeping "slogging." You thereby become attuned to the concept of long hours on the road and running while tired.
Because ultra-distance events are of somewhat mythic proportions, lots of crazy rumors and gross misconceptions crop up. Most of these concern training. People who know I compete regularly at 50 miles and above often form the mistaken notion I must therefore go that far in training as well. Not so at all. I know from experience I can race 50 miles and more, yet a 20-miler in training still counts as a long run. Occasionally, I'll go 25-35. That's what I can handle for now.
In my case, I log about 4400 miles in an average year. This ranges from about 50 miles a week in the "off" season and up to 110 weekly in heavy training. That does not come close to matching the legendary mileages achieved by a few ultra-marathoners, yet it is more than most of the breed does. The numbers aren't the important thing. You do what you can. If you presently train hard enough to enable you to survive marathons in good shape, probably the only change necessary in your program is an extension in your long workouts. Otherwise, with a modest start, a calm head and reasonable expectations, you're ready to go.
If this advice seems too glib, it can be that way because of the self-selecting phenomenon of ultra- marathoning. With the glamor and publicity surrounding marathons now, such events attract a lot of foolish joggers who have no business trying 26-milers on their limited backgrounds. But they see the fun and the masses involved, and jump into the fray unknowingly. Fifty-milers and 100-kilos are still obscure enough and awesome enough that this doesn't happen in ultras. They appeal to serious souls. People don't enter them on a lark. If one is assured enough to consider an ultra, this is a good sign he is at least somewhat ready for the test.
Conversely, if one dreads such a prospect, he should definitely stop before he starts. The first-timer should be respectful but eager in his attempt. After all, it's an adventure.
The curious people who embark on these journeys are generally men and women who already have wide experience at shorter distances. Novice ultra- marathoners are in no way novice runners. They tend to be veterans with extensive backgrounds involving years of running---dedicated individuals who are well-trained before they even consider an ultra, rather than the other way around. I've known many joggers who began training diligently in hopes of becoming a marathoner. I have yet to meet a runner who began with intentions of going into the ultra-distances. It is an afterthought which enters the mind only after the runner has already achieved a certain mastery of his art. These are the types who are in a long-term love affair with running. Ultras are a new place to go with their love. It is not a place for dilettantes!
SEX, AGE AND SPEED
The physical requirements are not restrictive. Stamina is the key, and stamina is available to anyone dedicated enough to work at developing it. Moreover, since stamina is less sex- and age-related than speed and more dependent on individual effort, the usual advantages held by young men in their prime are somewhat lessened. It's a wide-open field, and runners of both sexes and all ages can handle extremely long distances without ill-effects.
Although the average age of ultra-marathon starters is older than in other runs, youngsters can still do well if they have the patience of maturity. Ten-year-old Greg Hill finished fifth out of 28 runners in one 50-miler and Jose Cortez set the American road record for 100 miles at age 19 with a 12:54:31. Teenagers are a definite minority group, though. Due to the premium on experience, the ultra-distance scene is an area where the old coots can shine. Of the dozen fastest Americans at the breath-taking distance of 100 miles, four of them are Masters runners, and Ted Corbitt's national track record in the event was established when he was 49. Also included in this dauntless dozen is Natalie Cullimore, certainly a pioneer in dispelling the myth of female fragility.
Although the emphasis in ultra-marathons is on endurance rather than speed, it is a mistake to conclude that all ultra- marathoners are slow. In fact, the average field has a higher ability level than the normal shorter race, precisely because the beginning joggers are not in evidence. With fairly limited opportunities to try such events, runners will frequently have traveled a long way to take part in them, so even a small field of 20 may include entrants from four or five states. The racing in the front can be spirited competition.
Enough elite marathoners have stepped up to try ultras over the years that quality records have been established. The British are well ahead of their colonial counterparts on this score. Their fastest times are anything but slow. Cavin Woodward's 50-mile best of 4:58:53 is under 5:59 per mile pace, and Don Ritchie's 100-mile world mark of 11:30:51 is roughly equivalent to four three-hour marathons without a stop!
Thoughts about record performances can be put off until after you've sampled the waters for the first time. If your debut goes well and you complete it, you'll likely feel like a world-beater regardless of your time. It's something you never thought you could do.
But afterward, when you are flushed with pride over your achievement, can be a dangerous time. The only extended injury period of my career came on the heels of my first ultra. It had been a great experience as I finished second of seven men in a 100-kilo race. That was 30 miles farther than I'd ever gone before, and I was shocked when I didn't seem devastated by the after-effects. Within a week, I was back into heavy training and feeling invincible.
That lasted about two weeks, and then my legs went dead on me. I didn't run well again for over six months. It is a delayed reaction I've observed in other runners, too, when they take that first big leap upward. If no apparent problems surface at once, you may be fooled into underestimating the stress you've put your body through. Give it time to heal, so the latent effects won't be aggravated. Respect the distance.
Even though my first ultra helped lead me into a breakdown, I never had regrets about trying it, and eventually I roared back into the fray. Now, my running identity revolves closely around the challenge of the super-long runs. After becoming familiar with them, they lose some of their power to amaze. I've been amazed too often myself and by other runners. What the experience has brought home with convincing finality is that people are much stronger than they might ever dream or realize. Ultra-marathons reveal our strength by reducing us to a state of weakness and seeing what happens.
You'd be surprised.