As an ultra runner, I take joy at watching people’s responses when I tell them I run further than 50km, as a hobby.
The inevitable responses follow ‘I don’t even like to drive that far!’ ‘I can barely run 5k’ ‘isn’t that bad for your knees?’. Meanwhile, secretly I know full well that the reason I love to run ultramarathons is because I like to walk, and ultra running is essentially competitive hiking. When I tell them that running a flat out 5k or road marathon is significantly harder, they usually think I’m being modest, but it’s true.
And so begins my spiel about why they, too, could and should run an ultramarathon.
Ultramarathons take the pressure off times and paces
Ultramarathon training is a breath of fresh air compared to road training. While the best training plans still contain some speed work, much of training is about ‘time on feet’. Your long run, for example, might be 2.5h, rather than 20km at X pace. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go, so long as you are going. For people who get caught up clock-watching, having the freedom to walk when needed, take all the photos you like or stop for a wild-wee (or even a coffee & cake – don’t leave it to the cyclists!), is very refreshing.
Because of the inconsistencies and variation in every single ultramarathon around the world, it is also extremely difficult to predict times and paces for races, even the same race year to year. Races become about you vs you on that particular day, rather than you vs the clock. If you’re tired of stressing about your speed, ultramarathons are the perfect antidote.
Trying something new makes you a more well-rounded athlete
Most of us would like to see constant improvements in our running, but in reality it’s very difficult to keep getting better when we’re doing the same thing week in week out. Training for new events is a great way to switch things up. Whether you’ve raced 20 marathons or have just done your first 10k, an ultramarathon is likely to challenge you in new ways and kickstart improvements in other parts of your running too. Strength & conditioning is a key part to ultramarathon training, and having stronger muscles will not only make you run faster, it’ll also make you more injury-proof in the future.
It’s also the perfect way to reignite your love for running. Pounding the pavement is a good way to get fast times, but nothing beats heading out into the countryside to mix things up!
Views on views on views
If you enjoy hiking for the views, consider running the same, but on steroids. You travel further, find new routes and explore more. Trail running (in my humble opinion) will always be nicer than road running. It’s an opportunity to explore and an adventure like no other.
When you get round to racing your ultramarathon, it’s a great way to explore a new place. Even when I think I know a place, running an ultramarathon through it always shows me hidden gems and new perspectives. The views are a great way to take your mind off the fact that your legs feel like they want to fall off, and your toenails already have.
There is no expiry date on running ultramarathons
There is an increasing number of studies into training into later life and there’s now an overwhelming amount of evidence to refute the “it wrecks your knees” crowd. But not only can you continue to run into later life, you might even get better at it. Unlike power-based activities such as sprinting, long-distance running has a much longer shelf life. World record marathon performances are mostly achieved in the 25-35 age bracket, after which there is only roughly a 1% decline in performance per year. This can be balanced with the accumulation of extra training year on year, especially if you start running later in life.
An analysis of Strava data showed that the 40-49 age bracket consistently outperformed those in their 20s at the marathon distance, likely due to having greater race experience and ‘more miles under the belt’.
A 2012 study showed that in a group completing a 100km ultramarathon, there was no statistical difference in female race performance between 30 and 54 years old. Other studies have corroborated this idea, finding that peak ultramarathon times for most runners are achieved at 39-40 years of age.
So, if you’re putting off running an ultramarathon because you worry that you’re too old, fear not! On the contrary there’s almost no other sport where performances stay just as good or better in your 50s as in your 20s and 30s.
It’ll change your life
People do ultramarathons for all sorts of reasons, but what you can guarantee is that it’ll change your life for the better. Whether it’s through the extra ‘me time’ in training or through the physical hardship of racing an ultra, these things change us.
Running 50km, 100km or more teaches you who you are and what you are capable of. It requires you to consistently push outside of your comfort zone and reach for a goal most people would never even consider. Even failures are learning opportunities, and learning to see them as such requires a huge mindset shift. This mindset spreads into other areas of your life too! If you can run 100km, could you do those other things you’re scared of too?
Whether you end up completing the race or end up with a DNF, the result is the same. You will have learned a lot about yourself, and you will be hooked.
Invariably, race organisers need to do more to make ‘extreme’ races (including ultramarathons, sky running, expeditions & multi-day events) more accessible and appealing to women. By including imagery of women taking on the event, information about toilet provisions, safety & using female race ambassadors, more extreme races will become far more appealing to women.
I write this a week out from my longest ever ultramarathon, the Silva Lakes Traverse 100k. For the first time ever, I don’t expect to be able to finish, but that’s not necessarily why I’m doing it. For me, the idea of spending a full day (and inevitably some of the night) in the beautiful fells of the Lake District is my idea of heaven. Whether I finish in 15 hours or suffer my first DNF, I intend to go out, have fun, and show women why more of us should embrace the pain and give it a go.