Day: April 11, 2007

Ultra Adventure

A growing number of runners are finding a new outlet for adventure—in the realm of the ultramarathon. For many runners looking for their next challenge, the mystique of the sport is inescapable.

Athletes find adventure in many different ways. Triathlons and other multisport races offer the appeal of adventure to some, especially considering the unknown of the body’s response to intense physical output. The high speed thrills of bicycle racing — both on-road and off — is plenty of adventure for others, with just a thin rubber tire and a little bit of metal separating a rider from the painful reality of the hard ground. And adventure racing, by definition, is where other athletes stake their claim to the thrills of backcountry wilderness.

But a growing number of runners are finding another outlet for adventure — in the realm of the ultramarathon. Defined as a footrace longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, an ultramarathon is commonly found in one of a handful of different formats: a 50-kilometer (31-mile) race; a 50-mile race; a 100-kilometer (62-mile) race; a 100-mile race; or a set time race (such as 12 or 24-hours).

One hundred miles? You ask. “I don’t like driving that far,” say some. Admittedly, the type of adventure found in ultra running isn’t for everyone. But for many runners looking for their next challenge, the mystique of the ultramarathon is inescapable.

In the not too distant past, many ultramarathons in the United States were contested on roads. But as the demographics of the running community changed, ultras morphed into all-trail affairs with generous time cutoffs. This trend better reflected the general slowing down and growth of the running population. Nowadays, ultras, like their shorter-distance cousins, have become more inclusive to slower runners who merely want to experience the joys (and sorrows) of ultra running instead of aiming for a podium finish.

These days, for just about anyone with enough motivation, the marathon is within the realm of possibility. People from all walks of life and age groups are completing the 26.2-mile test in record numbers. Although the raw numbers of finishers at ultramarathons aren’t anywhere close to those of the marathon, demand for races of 50K and longer is increasing. Fortunately, the laws of supply and demand apply even in running, and new ultras are popping up every year.

The Internet has become a valuable resource for those interested in pursuing and training for the sport, finding a race or locating like-minded folk in their hometown. Like the 10K of years gone by, most ultramarathons have a casual, extremely welcoming vibe where beginners and veterans alike feel right at home. Due to the small size of the starting fields, the races have become large social gatherings. If you run ultras frequently, you can’t help but see a familiar face at your next race.

Race results from ultramarathons can be deceiving. Rookie ultra runners are often stymied by the finishing times. On paper, it might appear that a winning pace of 10-minutes per mile for a 100-mile race is “slow.” But the cumulative miles can extract their toll, forcing even the best in the sport to slow down for self-preservation.

It’s this same gentle pace that appeals to many runners. No longer do you have to worry about maintaining a six-, seven-, eight- or nine-minute per mile pace on the streets at your local 5K. At an ultramarathon, you won’t have to worry about the old training adage that “speed kills.” Depending on the distance you’re running, it’s very likely that your pace might never hit single-minute digits. Instead, you’ll probably be more concerned with your nutrition strategy, foot-care issues (such as blisters) or making sure that you’re maintaining a pace sufficient enough to stay ahead of any time cutoffs imposed by race directors.

Sure, the front runners in a 50-kilometer race can set a blistering pace — seven-minutes per mile is not uncommon. But the bulk of the field is much farther back, taking in the sights and sounds.

Those sights and sounds can be remarkable, depending on the course location. As the sport has experienced a gradual shift from roads to trails, breathtaking scenery has become a hallmark of the ultramarathon. Mountainous views normally only experienced by a multi-day backpacker can now be enjoyed by runners in an ultra.

That’s not to say that more accessible races don’t exist. You don’t have to travel a long distance to get to many races. Twenty-four-hour races, while somewhat of a rare breed, do exist, and often utilize local running tracks or one-mile loops. In a race like this, the goal is simply to cover as much distance within the time allotted; and one of the benefits is that you’re never more than one lap away from your supplies of food or clothing.

But ask most ultra runners these days about their favorite types of races, and the majority will praise the variety that take them off the pavement and onto the trail. The appeal is understandable — no cars to contend with, no jarring surfaces to pound the legs into submission, and sometimes, only the trees, birds and other wildlife to keep you company. It’s a recipe that spells success for today’s trail ultramarathon.

Getting into the sport is as easy as finding a race, preparing a training plan and putting in the miles that will get you to the finish comfortably. Seek the advice of a veteran ultra runner or coach to increase your chances of success.

Getting out of the sport is another matter altogether…because once you get hooked on ultramarathons, you might never want to look elsewhere for adventure.

Greg Pressler