Sunday, May 1, 2011

What It Takes to be an Ultrarunner

This morning's long run in the hills (elevation 6,100-6,700 feet) was a disaster. I just wasn't feeling it and ultimately bonked. I haven't bonked in a while--a long while. I think the bonk was due to the fact that I didn't have enough calories before the run (just a 150-calorie English muffin) and didn't carry any calories with me on the run--just some water. I also think it was an off day--I'm still not 100% after last Saturday's Cheyenne Mountain 50K, which was actually 32 miles. I guess I simply ran out of gas. Ugh! More info in weekly recap coming soon.


Yesterday I got my Runner's World and Ultrarunning Magazine. If you pay close attention to Runner's World, it's easy to see that ultrarunning is really gaining traction in mainstream circles.

These days, it seems everyone is drawn to and fascinated by the ultramarathon. How else to explain the remarkable success of books by Dean Karnazes, Christopher McDougall and others? But few actually take the plunge into ultrarunning because of the sudden reality of what you're about to get yourself into. And still many others who do register for their first ultra get cold feet or injured, or maybe that once-blazing fire for going beyond 26.2 miles has died, and they never make it to the starting line. Those who make it to the finish of their first ultra often come back for more, for they are among the few who have witnessed the transformative power of going really long.

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), and 100 miles--run on dirt trails, roads and mountains, as well in the desert. There are timed races, such as 24-hour, 48-hour and 72-hour races. Ultras can go on for several days, such as the Sri Chimnoy races in New York City. These are called multi-day events. Every year, ultrarunners run across the US, or maybe their state. When you get down to it, because it's so damned hard, ultramarathoning is really a state of mind and a lifestyle requiring an all-in commitment. Anything less and you're not going to make it. It's just that simple.

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 New York City's 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). Many of the Greek messengers, such as Pheidippides, were ultrarunners. 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 mostly 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 requires extraordinary strength of character, a well-trained mind and body, and plenty of determination. It's an up-before-dawn, day-in-and-day-out, blood-sweat-and-tears, rain-sleet-and-snow endeavor. When I'm training for a 100-miler, it's not leisurely runs on sunny, mild days that get me in condition. It's the 10-mile runs before dawn, the grueling two-a-days, the lonely 30-milers, the 100-mile weeks, the hill repeats and, of course, the back-to-back 20-milers that get me ready. Training for an ultra is hardly glamorous. In fact, it's so hard that if you're doing it for any other reason than you truly desire to go the distance and embrace the sacrifices it requires, then you're probably not going to make it. You can't run 100 miles to impress someone else; it has to be an act of self-transcendence and a spiritual journey.

Marathoners and ultramarathons are often very different. I do both sports, but many ultramarathoners wouldn't step foot on a marathon course unless it's for a training run. Let me illustrates one of the differences between the two. Your average marathoner finishes a race, collects their medal and then basks in the attention they get from family, friends and co-workers. An ultramarathoner finishes a 50- or 100-mile race, gets their medal (a buckle if it's a 100) which will probably wind up in their basement or garage, and tells no one about it except those who were already in the know. While the marathoner is still celebrating their 26.2 finish, the ultrarunner has already registered for their next race...which is tomorrow. This is the way of the ultrarunner, and, truthfully, there are elements of the marathoner and ultrarunner in me. I do love a 26.2-mile road race, but nothing compares to racing 100-milers.

Whereas the marathon is wildly popular, not everyone is cut out to be an ultrarunner--and that's OK. 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. Let me put it another way. In a marathon, if perhaps you didn't train like you should and hit the wall at mile 18, you just have to jog and maybe power-walk the last 8 miles to get that medal and call yourself a finisher. What's an hour or so of suffering, right? Well, in a 100-miler, if you didn't train physically and mentally like you should and crash at mile 60, you still have 40 miles in front of you. You can finish if you dig deep, but 40 miles may take 10-12+ hours. Are you willing to suffer that long, even if if means you're going to learn more about yourself than probably ever before in your life?

Most wouldn't.


  1. I find different people's approches to training nutrition interesting. Marathon training was all about teaching your body to burn fat efficiently - Hence usually no calories during the run.

    I take a different approach to ultra training - I try to condition my body to learn to easily absorb more calories - So I fuel long training runs just like ultra-races.

    A typical person can absorb 350 calories per hour. With some conditioning its not hard to get up to 500 calories per hour.

    It is reported that Yiannis Kouros - the 24 hour world record holder could take 800 calories per hour.

    Can I ask the thought process behind just water on long runs (Runs 4 hours and more)?

    Michael Henze

  2. Michael: In Tom Noakes' Lore of Running, he devotes a page or two to Yiannis Kouros' freakish ability to process calories.

    Not taking any calories on Sunday's run was a momentary lapse of judgment (read: I made a dumb mistake). It wasn't planned to be a long run--just maybe 15 or 16 miles/~2 hours. However, for a run like that I usually always take some sports drink and maybe a gel or two. For some reason on Sunday, I was rushed for time and headed out with zero gels and only water. It was also just an off day for me and I paid for it. I've been doing this for a little over 7 years and should have known better!


  3. Ok - That makes sense

    Although I have noticed many of the top 100 mile runners take very few calories.

    For 24 hour racing - I target 500 per hour.

    I am doing my 1st 100 mile trail(ish) race @ Leadville this year. Although my goal is to just enjoy the day and not get too beat up for NorthCoast 24 - 4 weeks later.

    I am enjoying reading about your training.


  4. Michael: You ran in the 2009 North Coast 24, right? I was there, too. It was my first- 24-hour and I got to "only" 131 miles. 24-hour races are tough! One of the problems I had was that I stoppeed at the aid station on every loop and so I was peeing constantly. Finally, I mentally adjusted and stopped at it every few loops or as needed, and then I was able to get into a rythym. The last 6 hours were interesting....


  5. I was there for fun as I had already ran 147 @ FANS24. 24's tear me up and take me out for 2-3 months. I have had that issue before or worse its a delicate balance between too much liquid and not enough.

    Since I am a flat landing pavement pusher - 24 hour races seem to click - That along with my love of eating and iron stomache.

    Leadville training is taking me out of my comfort zone and putting me on hills and trails at least 2 times a week.

    Its about a 50 minute drive to a pretty good trail and about 30 minutes to the closest decent hill(s)

    131 is really close to the 3rd spot the last few years. 2009 = 139 and 2010 = 136. Ever consider giving it another shot?


  6. Returning to the North Coast 24 or maybe doing Across the Years in the next 2-3 years is a possibility. I think I could do 140+ if the conditions were right. Experience is huge, as you know.

    Regarding Leadville, I finished last year in 24:47 to get the big buckle. It was a humbling experience, as I'd won a 100-miler a year earlier and thought I'd break 20 hours. The thing about Leadville is that the altitude can get you with next to no warning signs. I was stuck in Mayqueen (86.5) with a vicious case of altitude sickness (I also missed a turn and added 2 miles to my race). We live at 6,100 feet in Colorado but it's a big adjustment going to 10,000 plus. Given your geographic limitations, I would recommend power-walking on a treadill set at 10-20% a few times a week. The backside of Hope Pass has a few sections where you're climbing at a 40% grade. The altitude makes it even harder.

    Leadville is a very runnable course, versus a course like Hardrock where you're hiking a lot. What makes Leadville so damned hard is the altitude, combined with the Hope Pass double crossing. But it's runnable.

    You may want to contact Jack Pilla, who is from Vermont and had a strong LT100 finish last year.


  7. Great posting!!

    "While the marathoner is still celebrating their 26.2 finish, the ultrarunner has already registered for their next race...which is tomorrow."

    Thank god I though it was just me... lol

  8. I've really enjoyed reading your blog, it never gets overlooked in my Google Reader. Thanks for sharing!

    I'm in the latter stages of training for my first marathon on June 4. I've been running for almost a year and have lost about 110lbs in the process. I'm 215lbs, and quite slow, hoping for about 4:30 on the marathon.

    I've been completely fascinated by the concept of running 50 miles and learning what I might be capable of in the process.. it probably would have been wise to enter a 50k, or even just finish my marathon first.. but I decided to enter a local ultra at the 50 mile distance instead. The route is going to be 8 loops of 10k, on a fairly pedestrian path with "not much elevation". The race is set for 10/29 and has an 11 hour cutoff. (You can see, I've got a lot stacked against me here)

    So, to the question.. I've read differing thoughts;

    Would you recommend I train toward specific mileage or hours on my feet with hills?

    I've been experimenting a little bit with food and fluid intake lately.. and this past weekend discovered what a huge difference heat and humidity makes for me (and what hitting a wall feels like). I suspect maybe I should be aiming for at least 350 calories an hour, that's a Gu every 15 minutes.. that seems like a lot of Gu. Do you have any thoughts on calorie intake?

    I blog at if you care to peek around..

  9. Revgum:

    First, congrats on such an amazing weight-loss success story. And congrats on training for your first marathon. The key to your first marathon--and even more so with your first ultra--is to never give up and always believe in yourself (and also stay healthy!).

    Which 50-miler are you planning to do?

    First of all, I'd continue to focus on your marathon training and keep the 50-miler way, way, way in the back of your head. The reason I say that is that the maarathon will be a huge challenge, as you know, but all the training you're doing and the experience of the race itself will also, to a great extent, help prepare you for the 50-miler.

    As far as ultra training, there are many different approaches. I tend to focus mostly on miles (i.e., my goal is to run 90-100 miles this week, not for 13 hours but, now living out West with huge mountains, I'm gradually adapting my thinking so that I'm also thinking about time on my feet as equally as valuable as mileage.

    For you, with this 50-miler with an 11-hour cut-off, you're looking at needing to cover the distance at about 13:00/mile. If you're able to do your marathon in 4:30, that should mean you can get in the 50 miles in 11 hours. However, the challenging of an ultra becomes exponentially more difficult with every mile. In your case, I'd do training that focuses on both running and walking--but more running than walking. I once saw a gal cover 136 miles in a 24-hour race doing a run/walk strategy.

    As far as nutrition, in ultras the key is to consume calories early and keep at it. Eat what works for you. I love soup, bananas, and gels and the occasional PB&J. I'm going to be experimenting with Perpetuem for the Leadville 100. But different runners like different things. The key is to stay fueled and well-hydrated and keep the electrolytes coming in (I use E-Caps). Also, never sit down in an ultra. Beware the chair!

    You should check out a blog a friend of mine who's lost lots of weight maintains. He might be able to provide you with some great advice on ultras as he's finished a few himself. His blog is: Please tell Mike I sent you to him!


  10. Thanks Wyatt! You've given me some great information, I appreciate that!

    I'll be attempting the Autumn Leaves 50 mile :

    I'll definitely be checking out the blog you suggested as well!