If you want to learn about ultramarathons and what it takes to complete a race of 50 or 100+ miles, you've come to the right place.
But first: Ultrarunning isn't for everyone. The training is hard as hell and can break you both mentally and physically. The race itself is often the easy part. If you're still interested, keep going.
An ultramarathon is, by definition, any race beyond the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Common ultramarathon distances are 50 kilometers (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (62 miles), 100 miles, 24 hours and 48 hours.
Ultrarunning has been around a long time, tracing its roots to the "pedestrians" of the 1800s. Early examples include the six-day races held in Madison Square Garden in the late 1800s and the transcontinental races during the 1920s (an excellent account of one such race is CC Pyle's Amazing Foot Race). Today, we equate ultrarunning with trail races held all over the country, such as the Western States 100-Mile Run in California, but the truth of the matter is that ultrarunning evolved into a trail sport from an endeavor mostly of the track and road. Perhaps the greatest ultrarunner to ever live is the "Great Greek," Yiannis Kouros, holder of many major records, such as those for 24 hours, 48 hours and the most Spartathlon victories.
Ultrarunning is by its very nature a noble sport. It requires extraordinary strength of character, a well-trained mind and body, and unending of determination. It's an up-before-dawn, day-in-and-day-out, blood-sweat-and-tears, rain-sleet-and-snow endeavor. Training for an ultra can break you. Most ultrarunners I know are very humble, salt-of-the-earth people who would give the shirt off their back to help another. In races, we support each other. If I pass a runner who is thirsty and out of water, I'll help them. If a runner needs an e-cap, I'll give them one. I've been helped by other ultrarunners, too. This is the code of our sport. I can't decide if ultrarunning brings out these qualities, or if ultrarunning attracts people with these qualifies. My guess is some of both.
Whereas the marathon is wildly popular, not everyone is cut out to be an ultrarunner--and that's OK. I know a lot of people who, on a whim, entered a 50K or 50-miler but ultimately realized that the necessary training--and the mental, physical and emotional toll lots of miles bring--just wasn't for them. You must believe in yourself when all the chips are down, and you must maintain a serious commitment to your training on a daily basis, or else you will never make it. There is simply no way to fake your way through a 50-miler or 100-miler. You have to pay your dues, and it isn't easy--for you or your family.
Here's an amazing video of Yiannis Kouros discussing the meaning of ultrarunning and what drives the unique few to run so far.
A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning
This is, to date, the bible of ultrarunning. Though a tad dated, this book provides the authoritative overview of the sport, its people and its history. Allison is the former publisher of Ultrarunning Magazine and has been around a long time. I would love to see A Step Beyond updated since the sport has evolved so much in the past few years.
Richard Benyo, The Death Valley 300: Near Death and Resurrection on the World's Toughest Endurance Course.
Along with Kirk Johnson's book (see below), The Death Valley 300 by ultrarunning pioneer Rich Benyo is one of my favorites. Benyo, who is also the editor of Marathon & Beyond magazine, chronicles his incredible double-crossing of Death Valley and, along the way, tells the story of Badwater. Edgy, raw and hardcore, this is a must-read. Be warned: The Death Valley 300 is not for the faint of heart.
Kirk Johnson, To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley and the Mystery of Endurance
In my opinion, this is the greatest book about ultrarunning ever written. Period. Kirk is a New York Times reporter who experienced a personal tragedy, with the loss of his brother, a runner, to suicide, and went on to complete the 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon--a miraculous finish given his scant long-distance running credentials. Kirk reveals his insecurities and fears in this absolutely incredible read written straight from the heart.
Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss
Like Karnazes' first book, Run! is a fun, thrilling, easy read full of profound reflections and stories of sophomoric antics, such as when Dean made an ass of himself (he admits this) in front of a US senator when jockeying for one last baby-back rib at a wedding reception. But this is Dean, for better or worse. And what hungry ultrarunner who'd just run 75 miles wouldn't throw elbows and shed blood for a juicy baby-back rib? This book is full of great stories and serious thoughts on ultrarunning and why it unites us.
Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner
This is without question the most famous book about ultrarunning ever written--though a book that has sparked quite a bit of controversy. On the whole, it's not a bad book. The author comes across as a bit immodest (he loves to talk about his low body fat and tell you that he's "ripped like a prizefighter"), but there are some great stories in this little book, such as the chapters chronicling his first foray with the Western States 100. The story about his first 50-miler (the American River 50), too, is quite entertaining, if not perhaps slightly over-exaggerated.
Tim Noakes, MD, Lore of Running
The bible of running with a fair amount of content dedicated to ultrarunning. No other book comes close to Noakes' in offering a comprehensive overview of the sport of running.
Marshall Ulrich, Running on Empty: Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America, by Marshall Ulrich
On the surface, Running on Empty is about Marshall Ulrichs greatest challenge yet--an attempt to set the speed record for running across the US. But it's about so much more. Over 320 pages, Marshall humbly bares his soul and shares the good, the bad and the ugly of his dramatic 3,063-mile, 52-day run across America in the fall of 2008 at the tender age of 57.
Bart Yasso, My Life on the Run: The Wit, Wisdom and Insights of a Road Racing Icon
A fun read full of accounts of Bart's many adventures, including a nude race, Badwater and a ride across the country. Bart, who has worked at Runner's World magazine for decades, is a beloved ambassador of the sport who is known as the "Mayor of Running." His bout with Lyme disease is quite sad, but he takes it in stride like a true champion.
Unbreakable: The Western States 100
"Unbreakable: The Western States 100" tells the story of the 2010 "Super Bowl of Ultrarunning," following four elite ultrarunners in their quest for the coveted cougar trophy. Produced and distributed by Journeyfilm and directed by JB Benna, whose previous work includes "The Runner" and "Ultramarathon Man," "Unbreakable" was released in December, with private showings nationwide, and has captured great interest in the ultrarunning community. Having watched "Unbreakable" three times, I believe this is a very good film--just as good, if not better, than "Running on the Sun." In fact, "Unbreakable" seems to get better with each viewing.
Yiannis Kouros: Forever Running
To really understand ultrarunning and what the sport is all about, check out "Yiannis Kouros: Forever Running," which is available through ZombieRunner.com (see link above). This Greek video, which has English subtitles, is very raw and, in some areas, unpolished, which are among the many reasons why I love it. Yiannis is the greatest of all time and this video shows his human side and really what makes him tick. I always watch this video before a big event. Click here for a YouTube excerpt.
Running on the Sun
Dancing the Bear
This video features two women who set out to completed the 2004 Bear 100-mile run, held in Idaho. It's a little too tame for my taste, but still worthwhile.
Running the Sahara
Andy Bowen - Andy lives in Australia and his blog posts often read a lot like inspirational and informative magazine articles, sprinkled with honest self reflection.
Andy Jones-Wilkins - Andy, who is about to make the move from Idaho to Virginia, is a very accomplished ultrarunner and is often quite honest (and sometimes controversial) in his thoughts. His blog always delivers something to think about.
Anton Krupicka - Anton is an other-worldly mountain and ultrarunning talent who lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado. This is a very well-written, high-traffic blog. Your eyes will pop when you see his weekly training recaps and your imagination will soar when he's reporting on one of his long training runs through the Colorado high country.
Dakota Jones - Dokota, who lives in Silverton, Colorado, is a young, elite ultrarunner with amazing abilities in the mountains and an infectious passion for the Rockies. He seems like a really good kid with a great heart (and awesome set of running legs).
Dave Mackey - Dave is from Colorado and has won a bunch of big races over his years in the sport. He's recently re-emerged after a short hiatus and is once again winning big races.
Duncan Callahan - Duncan is an elite who's won huge races like the Leadville 100. His blog posts are always full of passion and love for running.
Geoff Roes - Geoff is a big-time elite who lives in Nederland, Colorado and writes serious commentary about ultrarunning. Though I don't always agree with Geoff's blog posts, it's a safe bet he's put a lot of thought into what he writes and knows the facts. I greatly admire Geoff not only for his running, but also for the quality and honesty of his blog.
George Zack - George lives in Boulder, Colorado and posts daily on his training. There's something to be learned from George's serious approach to training and, like many of us, he struggles to balance his running with life's responsibilities. He's great at keeping his readers informed of the latest running-related news via links to articles, podcasts, etc. Awesome blog.
Hal Koerner - Hal, who lives in Ashland, Oregon, is a big-time elite who posts under a blog entitled Rogue Valley Runners. Hal's not the only contributor, but I always watch out for his posts because they're worth reading.
I Run Far - IRunFar.com is the go-to resource for the latest on ultrarunning, from race results and real-time coverage to fascinating pre- and post-race interviews and more. The site is maintained by Byron Powell, an accomplished ultrarunner whose passion is evident in all he does.
Karl Meltzer - Karl lives in Sandy, Utah and is probably the ultrarunner out there now who I most admire. He's won more 100-mile races than anyone and still holds the record for most 100-mile wins in a single year (6). Besides being an ultrarunning machine, Karl is a super-nice guy who is helping me prepare for the Leadville Trail 100 in 2011. Awesome blog and I always love it when he posts odds before big races.
Lucho - To many out here in Colorado, Lucho, a.k.a. Tim Waggoner, is kind of a Yoda of training who coaches a number of excellent athletes. I put a great deal of stock in what Lucho says on his blog. He's compelled me to rethink the importance of heart rate (I never gave it much thought). He's a former elite Ironman triathlete who decided to start ultrarunning and, oh by the way, finished top 10 at the Leadville 100 in 2010.
Mark Carroll - Mark lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and is probably the best race report writer you'll come across. He is a wonderful writer who pours his heart and soul not only into his running, but also his blog posts. His report for the Burning River 100 in 2009 (click here for the report) still stands as maybe the best I've ever read. Ever. Maybe this is because I used to live in Cleveland and love C'town.
Matt Carpenter - Matt, who lives in Manitou Springs, Colorado (home of Pikes Peak), doesn't really keep a blog (that I know of), but his SkyRunner website is awesome. Matt is the record holder for the Leadville 100, the Pikes Peak Marathon and other big national and international races and is generally considered the greatest American mountain runner to ever live. No one has done on Pikes Peak what Matt has done. Period.
Nick Clark - Nick is an elite guy who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado and has the unique distinction of being a great road and mountain runner. Nick is from England and I always follow his training closely.
Richard Stewart - Richard is from England and puts a lot of heart and soul into his running and blog.
Scott Jaime - An elite ultrarunner and road warrior alike, Scott, who goes by "Fast Ed," lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado and keeps an excellent blog. His weekly training recaps are always inspiring. I love Scott's passion and can relate to how hard he works to keep everything in life balanced.
Ted Friedman - Ted is one of my closest friends and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. His 100MilesforLife blog follows his training for the Burning River 100, which he used in 2010 and will again use in 2011 to raise money for The Gathering Place, a cancer-support community. Ted is an exceptional writer and his heart really shows through in his posts.