One Dirty Magazine

You Don’t Have to Run Ultras

Run whatever distances you want. The distance does not determine the value.

David Roche June 25th, 2019

You Don’t Have to Run Ultras

Ultras have exploded in popularity in recent years, at least based on social media and magazine covers. Often, it seems like ultras are to trail running what marathons are to road racing, expected to be the ultimate goal of the process when someone starts. People seem to love ultras like Sean Parker loves money in The Social Network. “10 miles isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? 100 miles.”

There are some consequences to the ultra boom. Behind the scenes, I have seen athletes question their own decisions and preferences based on what they perceive as the expectations of other trail runners. Some have even questioned their self worth due to the distances they run. A commenter on a recent article I wrote on an ultra-training plan put it bluntly: “Why does it always have to be about ultras?”

I get it, and I am guilty of it. I write about ultras all the time, I advertise ultra coaching, I have unironically drank Michelob Ultra. There is an ultra-industrial complex that I am a part of that plays a role in shoe sales, magazine articles and race entries. It’s enough to make people think that anything shorter is less worthwhile.

So let’s stop right there. The message of this article is simple: the distance run does not determine the value of the run. It doesn’t determine the value of the athlete. And it definitely doesn’t determine the value of the person.

The message of this article is simple: the distance run does not determine the value of the run. It doesn’t determine the value of the athlete. And it definitely doesn’t determine the value of the person.

If it’s meaningful to you, then you should embrace that meaning with both arms, a full bear hug of purpose. 5K races in a local park? Freaking awesome morsels of endurance. Half-marathons? Incredible journeys around some cool trails. 200 milers? Similarly amazing, if you think it is. I don’t have the resilient brain or body for it right now, but I am so impressed and inspired by the people that do, just like I’m impressed and inspired by the people who run 5Ks.

And that’s the point: any distance run is mind-blowingly impressive when you really think about it. No matter what Born to Run says, we are probably not born to run tons of miles every day, at least not in modern society. My dog Addie is 47 in human years (and genetically 12.5% pug), she runs all day every day, and she has never been injured. Meanwhile, I am 31 and my hips often make it feel like I need a Life Alert for whenever I get up off the couch. Four out of five lumbar spines agree that bipedalism is a design flaw.

Anyone who pushes against the inertia of being stationary is testing their brain and body in an uplifting, inspiring way. Heck, there are like 18 streaming services and 400 new shows that are getting rave reviews. Choosing trails over Big Little Lies Season 2 is a feat of massive strength. However far your running journey takes you is beside the point. The point is having the courage and conviction to start the journey at all.

Because I am lost without listicles, here are 4 things to think about in being OK with whatever distance you prefer.

1. Different Strokes for Different Folks

Different people have different background and psychological profiles. That’s the most important thing when it comes to thinking about other runners and how you fit into a community. Every person you meet has a background that you can’t fully 100-percent understand, with a perspective that you can only relate to by analogy, no matter how empathetic you are. This problem is most evident for political issues, where some ideologies essentially amount to failures in shared empathy. But on a much less important scale, it’s relevant for running.

Yes, ultras may be the most meaningful thing in the world to one person, sometimes even getting them to confront their addiction or reach similar monumental life moments. But change brain chemistry and psychology slightly, and ultras might launch another person to their own addictions. One person might find transcendence at mile 27 or 97 or 197, while another person only finds boredom and chafing. Both perspectives are equally valid, but if either person thinks that their perspective is universal, they may make comments that are hurtful, thinking they are just speaking the truth.

It’s great to experiment. Find what you love, and give yourself the grace for that love to change over time as you change over time. Just don’t think your values need to be shared by others to make them meaningful or true to you. 

2. Physiology Varies a Ton, Too

Even if two athletes could have the same exact psychological approach to running, and even if they did the same training, their underlying physiology could respond entirely differently. Take a muscle biopsy, and one may be brimming with Type I slow-twitch fibers, while the other is full of Type II fast-twitch fibers that are inefficient over long distances. One may have a sky-high VO2 max while the other languishes at the bottom of the bell curve. Bone-mineral density may be several standard deviations apart. Tons of physical metrics work that way—it’s not a meritocracy in athletics all the time. 

That physiology feeds into psychology. The slow-twitch athlete may find that they feel stronger at mile 40 than they do at mile 4, and for them, ultras are spiritual journeys into untapped reserves of strength. The fast-twitch athlete may fatigue no matter how slow they start, making ultras feel like obligatory slogs to an unsatisfying ending, the athletic equivalent of Game of Thrones Season 8

The high VO2 max athlete may love steep mountain races that sear their muscles like a fine steak. The lower bone-mineral density athlete may find that going over 10 miles results in stress fractures, leading to an association of ultras and injury-induced depressive episodes. None of that is necessarily a conscious choice, none of it reflects on character, none of it determines worth as an athlete. 

You’re an elite athlete if you dream big and go for it in a way that is meaningful to you.

You’re an elite athlete if you dream big and go for it in a way that is meaningful to you. The interesting thing is that internal meaning might not just be in your head, a decision about what you want to pursue. Your muscles, aerobic system, bones and countless other physiological factors could be influencing those choices too. 

3. Longer Isn’t Always Better

If you’re just interested in training, let’s get more real. Training specifically for ultras will make most athletes slower than they would be with a specific focus on shorter races. Shorter race distances encourage developing top-end running economy, which will make you faster. 

That’s not a particularly controversial statement. An ultrarunner who I think is one of the best athletes in the world independent of sport, Jim Walmsley, did the Houston Half-Marathon after a packed ultra season. He ran a blazing fast 1:04 flat, which made him 27th in the race and qualified him for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I am in the camp of huge fans that thinks Jim could possibly make the Olympic marathon team. But that type of speed is especially hard to access after training for the vert and slower speeds of ultra racing. I still think Jim could do it, that’s how amazing I think he is. You can bet that I have doodled Jim’s name all over my Trapper Keeper with big hearts around it. But reaching that level of road potential would probably require a big block of focused training before the 2020 Olympic trials (and a clarification of IAAF rules about qualification). There are few stories of people going down in distance and lighting the track or roads on fire, but many stories of people moving up and blowing the doors off longer races.

It all gets back to running economy, or how much energy it takes to sustain a given output. Developing running economy at short distances seems to be a prerequisite to fully exploring long-term speed potential, particularly because it gets harder and harder to explore that potential with each passing year as an athlete ages. Doing a few ultra races each year probably doesn’t detract from high-end running economy, but doing long-term, focused ultra training without speed development likely does for many athletes. In other words, take two identical beginner or intermediate athletes, have one fully develop their 10K speed and one fully develop their 100-mile performance, and I’d bet that the 10K athlete would have a higher long-term ceiling of performance.

That turned into some semi-spicy gumbo, so it’s OK if you don’t agree. The basic principle is just that long-term potential reveals itself in mysterious ways, and there is no set path that you have to follow to chase your dreams.

4. Behind the Scenes of Social Media

The most fantastic and honest portrayal of ultras I have ever seen is the Instagram account Ultra Memes (@Ultrarunningmemes). It’s all brilliant, and explaining humor is a surefire way to ruin the fun, so just click on it to see what I mean. The general theme is that ultras are amazing and absolutely the worst at the same time. 

A lot of things in life work that way. Most writers seem to resent writing as much as they love it. I know I have rolled my eyes at myself six times in the last 500 words. Doctors aren’t brimming with joy about night shifts, even if their job gives them meaning and purpose. Astronauts can love the view of Earth from space but hate eating dehydrated strawberries and peeing into a long vacuum tube.

As satirized by Ultra Memes, running can work the same way. The great stuff and the terrible stuff are intricately connected. For some athletes, it’s all boiled together into a delicious stew that gives their souls sustenance. For others, though, ultras might be closer to compulsion or obligation, your mom telling you to eat brussels sprouts when you ABSOLUTELY HATE BRUSSELS SPROUTS. I see it all the time behind the scenes, but rarely see it in social-media posts. What you see on social media is not always the complete picture.

So just know that whatever your feelings are, they are shared by tons of others. You may love training for and racing ultras, and that is freaking awesome. You may love the process of training and not the races, and that is great too, since races are just an excuse to structure the process we love. But here’s the big point of the article—you may not find love in the ultra process or in ultra races. If that describes you, there is nothing wrong with you. And you don’t have to be building to the point where one day you will want to run ultras.

Your journey is like a choose-your-own-adventure novel that is tailored just for you, where any decision you make can be the right one if you remember one thing: You (and the distances you run) are enough, unconditionally.

Whether you run 1 mile or 100 miles, the real journey all happens on the inside. Your journey is like a choose-your-own-adventure novel that is tailored just for you, where any decision you make can be the right one if you remember one thing: 

You (and the distances you run) are enough, unconditionally.

 

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.

 

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Diane WeissenbergerMike SuminskiStephen CousinsRui PereiraERIC ROSE Recent comment authors
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Lori Wojcik
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Lori Wojcik

I love this article! I began running about 8 years ago to train for a mud run. When from obstacle course racing to longer distances (half marathon), then onto triathlons (sprint and Olympic distances). I still see myself as a fake athlete, I refer to those going longer distances (marathons, Ultras and Ironman) as “real” athletes. I have been on the podium before and still just chaulked it up to the fact that with only a few people in my class, I am bound to wind up there. This mentality is to no one fault other than myself. Too much… Read more »

Ben Anady
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Ben Anady

Great article. I have found the growing connection between trail running and ultra running quite annoying. As far as the internet is concerned they seem completely intertwined and your not a trail runner if you don’t run ultras. This article is a breath of fresh air.

Stephen Cousins
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Stephen Cousins

Who says these things? Where do you hear these things? Trail running is trail running, whether it’s 5 miles or 100 miles! There are plenty of top level, elite trail running races that are not ultras. We have a thriving XC scene in the UK, we have multiple popular trail races that are less than marathon distance. I think people are making this stuff up!!

Angie
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Angie

THANK YOU! So very 100% true! My spouse is an ultra machine. (104 FINISHED) I get injured walking. I’ve completed 1 50k and it was torture. I enjoy trails and taking the slow scenic route. And the word “ONLY” run a … K Gets used too much. If you get off your butt and move, that can be a HUGE win for some people.

Nate
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Nate

Thanks for writing this. I’ve been running trails for more than 20 years, and just started running ultras last year, in search of a new sort of challenge. But I’m still interested in shorter distances; I’m running a local 10K road race this fall, for example. There are countless ways to test and challenge oneself over the years as a runner, like Walmsley venturing (even temporarily) off the trails and into road racing. 26 miles is an arbitrary distance, as are 50 miles, 50K, 100 miles, 10K, and the rest. My recommendation? Give yourself a challenge (a new event, a… Read more »

Pete Ylvisaker
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Pete Ylvisaker

Spot. On. It took me years to realize that longer didn’t make me badasser. I’ve learned that a 10k hill climb can be just as exhilarating – and exhausting – as a 50-miler. Mixing it up has left me far happier than the former me who obsessed over longer, longer, longer.

Trevor Fikkert
Guest

Thank-you for this article. Many in our running community are not only new to trail running but running in general. Some get quickly overwhelmed by pressure to run far, run steep and run trails that resemble the “Barkley” in a monsoon. Our goal is to see folks from the couch to their first 5-10K race. From there everyone seems to settle into their own place of happy/pain/reward.

Deserae
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Deserae

Great article. I happen to fall in the ultra group, but have been toying with the idea of doing a season of shorter races, which provide a whole different challenge. I’ve noticed a phenomenon at multi-distance events where during registration line chit-chat the person finds out that I’m doing the longer event and says “Oh, I’m ONLY doing the (insert sub-ultra distance)”. Drop the only people, anyone getting out their on the trails is equally awesome regardless of distance or pace.

Jordan Lynden Bute
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Jordan Lynden Bute

I agree. Mostly I find that ultra races are great for a massive identity exploration. First, Identifying your personal tolerance, then exposing your frailties to others that care. When I am not interested in that it is great to attempt to win my age group in a local 5k. There is often time not much more awesome than being recognized for a race that you put consideration and specific training into, and everyone knows human beings with responsibilities can’t win ultras with repetition, nor should they try. Not a bad read.

Sabina Havkins
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Sabina Havkins

Enjoyed reading

IRJ
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IRJ

True, many over-states ultra while not knowing how to run. Endurance is just one aspect but could be the only thing people who jog long miles at walking pace have. 100miler sounds impressive, but true hikers can do just as well. Conclusion:learn how to run, not just love running blindly.

Pamela Neimeth
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Pamela Neimeth

Loved everything about this!

John C
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John C

I’m 62 have run since I was 18. Used to run road races 5K, 10K Half marathon and marathon. A long time ago I decided I was in this thing for the long run (no pun intended). I still run 3 to 4 times a week many times on trails (the most enjoyable type of running for me) and usually no longer than an hour at a time. I’ve noticed that many times it’s about running ultra’s however, the truth is this: if you are out there running a few times a week you are doing more than the majority… Read more »

Diane M
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Diane M

Thank you so much for this!! I run on the trails for the joy of it. I am not fast and will never be an ultra runner. It is so easy to feel like I am not a real runner, even though I tell myself to run my own race.

Mike Heiliger
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Mike Heiliger

Great article, love reading your stories David. This trail looks incredible, where is it.

Kyle R
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Kyle R

Well said. For me personally the headline would be “You Don’t Have to Race 5Ks.” Since my running life began with high school cross country, for a period of time afterward I remained stuck in that mindset: The prime objective of all this is to run a fast 5K. I’ve been a much happier runner since I moved away from that into the world of ultras. Different strokes, like you said.

Gail Allen
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Gail Allen

Thank you for this article!

Chris Duke
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Chris Duke

So true. I’ve run everything from 1k to 200m and the longer distances get the attention and all the training effort. But I run daily with a friend who is fast and i fully agree with his philosophy that a fast 5k is a feat, knocking 5 seconds off your 5k PB is also a feat and something to strive for. Those short fast races are excellent speed training for the ultras and we often don’t give credit for speed, just endurance. Well, those who improve their ultra times will do it by improving their 5 and 10k times too.

Rene Pelletier
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Rene Pelletier

When you surround yourself with monsters it easy to just feel like a muppet. A bunch of my friends solo the Canadian Death Race each year. When I describe what I am doing I always have to qualify it with ONLY. I only ran leg 4 last year (38km with 2500m vert). This year I am only running the Near Death Marathon (42km with 2400m vert). It’s not anyone’s fault that I throw in only. No one looks down at me. But I do get that look that says “Ya, but you will be soloing it soon.” We need to… Read more »

CruJones
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CruJones

Essential reading. Ultras have contributed to running in countless ways, but they’ve also very much distorted what it means to be an able runner. I’ve always said (as an ultra enthusiast) that if I had a background in cross country or track, and could flirt with a sub-5 mile or a sub 2:30 marathon, I’d tell the ultra camp to really check itself. To a non-running public, that has a much greater appreciation for distance than speed, ultras have stolen the show in a way that’s pretty unfair.

Tony Konvalin
Guest

Nice article, I wrote on the same subject some time ago as saw many seeming to make it sound, often unintentionally, that running less than an ultra was somehow less of a run. Here is my article – https://bluegrass-runner.blogspot.com/2018/09/its-ok-to-want-to-only-run-5ks-or-any.html

Jill
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Jill

Where is the pic taken?

Rui Pereira
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Rui Pereira
Kathleen
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Kathleen

Spot on !!!!

William
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William

Thanx for this article & perspective. I started running almost 50 years ago in the 1st running boom. Dr. George Sheehan, the de-facto philosophical “guru” of running at that time, emphasized the value of “play” in one’s life. Whatever your chosen variety of play. His play obviously was running, as is mine. I’d like to see the importance/value of play return to today’s running conversations. IMHO, not only is the distance one runs important/of value only to her/him, but also the time it takes her/him to cover said distance. Whether one races or runs (and does not enter races) for… Read more »

Kendra
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Kendra

Thank you for the great article! This came (and I kid you not) as I had two browsers open with two different distance races in cart. I knew for a million reasons that an 18-miler was better for me in terms of training timeline and time I can devote to training, but there was that feeling of, “Just 18 miles? Should I do the 50K?” (which is SUCH a foolish thought). Thank you for making me realize it isn’t the distance, it is the opportunity to spend a day with like-minded folks and maybe get a free beer and banana!

American Man
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American Man

Thank you so much for this article—it brings some much needed dialogue to the distance debate. That having been said, you’re wrong. Our country is hurtling toward chaos specifically because of this type of lazy, relativistic thinking where every kid is told they’re special and gets a participation ribbon. There’s really no getting around the simple truth that there are two types of people in the world: people who see things in terms of right/wrong, good/evil, black/white, better/worse, etc. and people who are wrong. This is an American publication, read by Americans and I assume the writer is American too.… Read more »

Michael Langer
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Michael Langer

Great article, yet I am going to run 50K at the Palo Duro Canyon race in October, because I will get a jacket for finishing it. Running the 25K distance only gets you a cap.

James
Guest
James

Here’s an idea that could help. How about “Trail Runner” Magazine writes more articles about “trail running” and no so much about ultras. There are a lot of people who love running trails but don’t have a desire to run (walk) all night on a 100 mile slog. In fact that audience is probably greater than the 100 miler crowd. So who knows, you might even get more subscribers and become more profitable. More money for you, less guilt for us. Win-win! 🙂

Diego García
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Diego García

I keep telling other runners when they ask me how i hooked to ultras: It is a matter of taste, not for everybody. Many of my friends beat me in 5 and 10K and is OK, I envy their speed. I try not to give it importance, especially in a running club where I am the only ultra.

ERIC ROSE
Guest
ERIC ROSE

Previously I’ve often been irritated by your stories, “oh she started jogging, and within 6 months did a marathon, then next year a 100 mile”, etc. etc. Very happy to see some reality for those of us who like running trails but will never break 10 min miles on them nor care too…

Stephen Cousins
Guest
Stephen Cousins

I don’t think anyone ever said longer is better. I agree with the tenet of this article but I am not a fan of the softy, softy molly-coddling approach to runners who are somehow threatened by what other runners do. If you want to run 10k and that’s a good effort for you then great, but don’t feel belittled or inadequate if someone else goes and runs 100 miles. That’s YOUR problem. Get over it. Ignore what others are doing and enjoy your running. Also you are not “an elite athlete if you dream big and go for it in… Read more »

Mike Suminski
Guest
Mike Suminski

Our worth is from being…..that’s it!!

Diane Weissenberger
Guest
Diane Weissenberger

What a great article! I still think my most memorable run was a two mile run in the moonlight in Death Valley than any marathon I’ve run.

 

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