What is Ultrarunning? And Other FAQs
This spring, I ran my first 100k (62 miles) race and with that, I’ve been getting a bunch of questions from everyone I talk to. The questions made me start to realize that while I’ve become caught up in ultrarunning, the community, and the lingo, it’s actually a very small bubble and most people don’t have a lot of insight into what any of it means.
What is an Ultrarunner?
I’m an ultrarunner. That means that I run ultramarathons. An ultramarathon is any distance longer than a marathon. While technically any race slightly longer than a marathon (26.2 miles) would count, generally the shortest race distance that’s considered an ultra is a 50k (31 miles). For probably fairly obvious reasons, this is by far the most common and popular ultra distance. That said, a lot of the hardcore ultrarunners would say that nothing under 50 miles really counts. I don’t agree with them, but it is true that there is something different about how you approach a race of 50 miles or more than how you approach a 50k, just like you approach a marathon differently than how you would approach a 100-meter dash. While running a 60k, I overheard two other runners discussing the race. One of them lamented that they weren’t quite sure how to approach it — was it more like a 50k or a 50 mile? As they put it, ‘you can basically just red-line a 50k but you have to respect a 50 mile.’ I know this sounds crazy to any non-ultra people, but this sort of captures the essence of the difference.
Do you run the whole time?
No. For almost any distance of ultramarathon, even the best runners will both stop at aid stations and walk at various points. By stopping at aid stations, I mean at least 30 seconds of full stop, not like walking my way through marathon aid stations while attempting to drink water and not choke. Obviously, how much walking there is depends on how hilly the course is, how technical the terrain is, how hot the day is and how long the race is. For example, at my fastest 50k, I probably spent 30 seconds at one aid station and maybe walked a couple of hundred meters over the entire race. Meanwhile, at the first 50 mile I did, I spent at least 30 minutes at one of the aid stations and walked most of the second half of the race. There are some people who go into a race expecting to walk the whole thing, but even at the longest distances, that’s the exception, not the rule. Most people will do at least a slow jog for the flat and downhill sections if not more.
Wait, so you take breaks?
Yup! As it turns out, when a good time at a race is 5 hours, the spread between runners starts to get really high and it’s not uncommon for the next finisher to be a good 15 minutes after you. At that point, taking the extra minute at an aid station to make sure you don’t fall apart later is easily worth it. A minute earlier in the race can save you an hour or more later if it prevents you from hitting severe dehydration or other problems.
What happens at an aid station?
So just like aid stations in shorter runs, there will be water and some sort of electrolyte drink (Gu, Tailwind, Gatorade, etc — basically whatever company happened to sponsor the race). There will also be a large variety of snacks which can vary a lot. Some typical snacks include Gu gel packs, Oreos, boiled potatoes with salt to dip them in, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stroopwafels, fruit snacks, candy (Twix, Snickers, M&Ms, etc), pretzels, potato chips and more. I’ve seen everything from quesadillas to chicken broth to popsicles. There’s also usually salt pills available (electrolyte replacement) as well as some basic first aid. On hot days, they will have ice — both for putting in drinks and in/on people. They will often also have a sponge in a bucket of ice water somewhere to squeeze over runners. Even though people often spend a little time at the aid stations, the volunteers still try to help them spend absolutely no more time there than they need to. To that end, the volunteers will almost always offer to fill your bottles for you, find your drop bag, squeeze water over your head and anything else they could reasonably help you with.
What’s a drop bag?
At many of the longer ultras (50 miles or more), the race will have one or more drop bag locations. Basically, this is an option for you to have a bag waiting for you at specific aid stations. At the start line, you label your bag with your name, bib number, and which aid station and then stick it in a pile for that aid station. Volunteers going to the aid station will take it with them and have it spread out and available for you. You can put anything you want in a drop bag but typical things include specialized food, things like body glide, a headlamp or extra clothing. You can leave things in a drop bag at an aid station or get things out.
What is the course for these races like?
So just like shorter distances, there are both road and trail ultras. However, while road races are much more common for marathons and shorter distance races, trail races are much more common for anything longer. Where I am, in California, most of the courses are also really hilly. A ‘flat’ 50k will often have at least 2x the elevation gain of what is generally considered a ‘hilly’ marathon. For example, the SF Marathon (generally considered to be one of the hilliest major marathons) has around 1,200 feet of elevation gain while Woodside Ramble (one of the flattest 50ks in the SF area) has around 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Most ultra races have many fewer participants due to a combination of lower demand and a limit on how many people the trails/parks are willing to allow an event to have. 300 participants is generally considered to be a large ultra.
How long do these races take?
How long a race takes depends on the conditions, the course and obviously how good a runner you are. For some reference points, my fastest marathon took me three hours and ten minutes while my fastest 50k took me just over 5 hours. 50-mile races with a lot of climbing can easily take most people between eight and a half and thirteen hours and a hilly 100k will take most people upwards of 11 hours (the one I did had a course cutoff of 17 hours, so under that). For many 100 mile races, finishing in under 24 hours is considered really good and many course cutoffs are upwards of 33 hours.
Do people sleep?
Sleeping isn’t going to come into play until the 100+ mile races. For these, the jury is out — some people do, some people don’t. How much people sleep can vary a lot too. I’ve heard everything from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. Even some of the top ultrarunners will sleep during a 100-mile race, so it is still possible to do really well even if you sleep. That said, many people also don’t, so it’s kind of about knowing your body and yourself and knowing when a small amount of sleep will help you enough to offset the time it takes.
What does a Pacer do?
For many of the longer races (50 miles+), you can get a pacer to run with you starting around 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the way through. While for some faster people, especially in the shorter races, a pacer may help set the pace and keep the runner at a particular speed, more often the pacer is just there for general support. If they want a pacer, runners have to find their own (although sometimes for the big races, there are pacer matching forums). A pacer can do any number of things but typically has 4 main jobs:
- Make sure their runner is drinking
- Make sure their runner is eating
- Make sure their runner stays on the course
- Encourage their runner in whatever way needed to help the runner achieve their goals (be those a specific time or just to finish under the cutoff).
A pacer will usually run at least 10 miles with a runner and often 20 or more. However, since this is near the end of the race, despite the fact that I’ve said run here, it’s often actually a large amount of walking.
What is a crew?
A crew is basically anyone else who comes out to the race to support the runner. In some cases, the crew might provide nothing but some cheering at an aid station or two while in others, the crew will have very detailed instructions about food or other items to provide at specific aid stations. The crew might also perform specific tasks while their runner is at an aid station such as refill ice, douse them with water, help change clothing, etc. The crew may also be responsible for making sure pacers get to the aid stations where they need to be.
I hear acronyms like DNF or DNS, what do they mean?
DNF means that the runner Did Not Finish. This could be for any number of reasons — they didn’t make it to an aid station in time for a cutoff time, they chose to drop out of the race due to injury or dehydration or another issue or they were pulled from the race (usually for medical reasons). DNS means that the runner Did Not Start — i.e. they signed up for the race and then didn’t run it. Recently I’ve come across DNL which always comes up in the context of DNFs. Basically, the thought is to make sure that just because you DNF’d, you should make sure to learn from your experience and not turn it into a DNL (did not learn) as well.
What does training for one of these races look like? What’s your longest run?
With marathon training, most plans will not take you above a 20 mile run in the training because at some point you’re increasing the risk of injury while not really increasing how well you’ll do by much. For 50ks, it’s pretty common to go a bit further — maybe up to 28, but again, it’s fairly rare to do the full distance in training. It’s also possible to do considerably less — I recently ran a 50k (where I got a PR and second place) where the longest run I’d done in the several months beforehand was a half marathon. Granted, just before that I ran a 100k, so I had the base training in, but it had been a while. To train for a 50 mile or 100k, most training plans will take it up a bit higher but not too much. For those distances, a training run is almost never more than 32 miles. Instead, you’ll start doing back to back long runs, so perhaps something like 25 followed by 13 the next day or in some plans up to two marathons on two consecutive days. The idea here is to get you used to running while tired (the second day) while not destroying yourself in a single day and somewhat reducing injury risk. For a 100 mile race, typically not a whole lot changes from the 50 mile or 100k other than trying to add some night running practice. I’ve heard that for a 200-mile race, again not a whole lot changes except to just try to add a lot more time on feet (standing desk, more walks during the day, etc). So those are the long runs each week. In addition, I also have a series of shorter runs — some with intervals or short speed work. I typically run 5–6 days a week totaling between 40 and 70 miles (except in the weeks right before or after a major race when it will be less). To date, my week with the most mileage was 89.8 miles (including a race) while my purely training week with the most mileage was 82.5 miles.
What are some of the famous ultra races?
I’m sure I’m missing some that others would consider famous, but a few of the ones I would mention include Western States, Marathon des Sables, UTMB, the Barkley Marathons, Comrades, Leadville 100 and Badwater. I often describe Western States as the ‘Boston Marathon’ of 100-mile races. You have to both qualify and enter a lottery to get in and if it’s your first year entering the lottery, you have around a 2% chance of getting in. Marathon des Sables is a staged race meaning that you complete a particular section each day for 6 days, traversing 251km across the Sahara desert. UTMB also requires a complicated qualification process and travels around Mont Blanc, through France, Italy and Switzerland. The Barkley Marathons, in Tennessee, is considered by many to be one of the hardest ultras and was largely made popular/well known through the documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young.” If you haven’t seen this yet, go watch it now. Comrades is around 55 miles and is one of the largest ultras with upwards of 10,000 finishers nearly every year for the last 20 years (and has been happening since 1921). Leadville 100 is a 100-mile race in Colorado at 9,200 to 12,620 ft elevation. It was the venue for the Tarahumara debut at an American race and is largely featured in the book “Born to Run.” Badwater is a 135-mile race across death valley in mid-July. It’s common for temperatures to reach as high as 130F — the original course ended at the top of Mount Whitney but today it ends at the Mt Whitney trailhead. These are among the most well-known ultras, but there are many, many more.
Get out there and start running!