Are Ultras For YOU?

Updated March 10, 2015

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.

Here's the brutal truth: Ultrarunning isn't for everyone. The training is hard as hell and, when not done correctly, can break you mentally and physically. The race itself is often the easy part. If you're still interested, keep reading.

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. There are also time-based events, such as 24-hour and 48-hour races.

"Organized" 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 Endurance Run, a 100-miler 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 requires strong devotion. It requires discipline, consistency, a well-trained mind and body, determination and, at least for me, faith. It's an up-before-dawn, day-in-and-day-out, blood-sweat-and-tears, rain-sleet-and-snow endeavor. 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 we pass a runner who is thirsty and out of water, we'll help. If a runner needs an S!Cap, we'll give them one. I've been helped by other ultrarunners. 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.

If you are still interested, here's an amazing video of Yiannis Kouros discussing the meaning of ultrarunning and what drives the unique few to run so far.

Recommended Books

Don Allison, Editor, 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.

Dean Karnazes, 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.

McDougall's book isn't far behind Karnazes' in being one of the most famous books about ultrarunning ever written. McDougall tells the remarkable story of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's deadly Copper Canyons, who have extraordinary long-distance running capabilities. The Leadville 100, ultrarunning greats Scott Jurek and Ann Trason and, of course, barefoot running are prominently featured. The book is full of hyerbole but is nonetheless a fun read.
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.

Recommended Viewing

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 (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
Unfortunately, this outstanding documentary about the 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon is now out of circulation, meaning you have to fork out big bucks for a copy via eBay, etc. But if you can get your hands on this video (click here for the video broken into sections on YouTube), go for it. Awesome and inspirational from start to finish.
Dave Horton is an ultrarunning legend. Not only has Dave won a number of big races, but he's achieved some incredible feats, such as setting the records for both the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. "The Runner" chronicles Dave's record-setting PCT attempt and really shows the human side of this very good and decent man. Highly recommended.
Running America
"Running America" chronicles Marshall Ulrich and Charlie Engle's 2008 transcontinental run from San Francisco to New York City. We see a compelling story, true struggle and grit from the heroes, and some cool cinematography. Unfortunately, the production company went WAY to far in incorporating the financial crisis, which was going down at the time, into the Ulrich/Engle run. Also, the documentary fails to address what happened with Charlie (he finished the "run" on his bike after pulling out due to serious injury) and doesn't even mention the conflict between Charlie and Ulrich (as told in Marshall's new book, Running on Empty). All in all, I like "Running America." It could have been an amazing documentary but unfortunately is just "pretty good" in my eyes.
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
This National Geographic documentary chronicles three ultrarunners who attempt to run across the entire length of Africa's Sahara Desert, tackling not only the elements, but also unimaginable physical and emotional obstacles. Their goal is to run across six African countries, anticipating two marathons per day, for eighty days without a day off. Not one of my favorites, but fairly entertaining.
Recommended Blogs

Check out my blog and website feed for some great reading!