What exactly is an Ultra Marathon?

April 12, 2022

The Ultra Marathon is any run which takes place over a longer distance than the humble 26.2 mile marathon (although I have to say that there is nothing ‘humble’ about running an awesome 26.2 miles!!)

The distances

These races tend to start at 50k, then jump to 100k and 100 miles. There are 100-mile-plus events too, but these are generally what’s known as ‘stage races’ and take part over a number of days, with a prescribed distance to be covered per day and accommodation provided overnight.

Occasionally, the Ultra Marathon can be time-based rather than distance-based, taking place over 6, 12 or 24 hours. In either case, there will be checkpoints throughout the route at designated intervals (for example, every 10k) and these will offer food and hydration, as well as providing the chance to check-in with medical professionals on any concerning issues.

The features

It’s rare to see more than 100 runners at the start line of an Ultra Marathon and it’s also rare to find that start line on an immaculately tarmacked surface. These races take part very much in nature and will involve running over all kinds of surfaces, with numerous inclines, declines and potential obstacles to stumble upon.

Participants may speed off from the start to get ahead of the pack, but the entire race will be run at a much lower intensity than a standard marathon, involving very little in the way of sprinting.

Longer Ultra Marathons may allow, or even require, the runners to have a support crew. These can be team-mates, friends or family who can prepare food in advance at the check-points, refill water bottles or simply shout encouragement from the side-lines.

Pacers are allowed to keep runners on track, not to mention keep them motivated during their lower points. An individual runner may have a number of pacers throughout his or her race, but an entire pacing team is only common in elite athlete events. More commonly it’s company for a leg of the race where the moral support will be most welcomed.

The challenges

Aside from the daunting distance, Ultra runners can face a number of challenges during their event, ranging from blisters, cuts and bruises to stress fractures, thanks to the uneven and untamed terrain.

Stings and bites can be an issue, depending on location and environment. Even if serious injury from the local critters is unlikely, the irritation caused by an untreated bite (exacerbated by the heat and sweat) can cause incredible discomfort before too long.

Due to the distance and time, eating more than just energy gels and protein bars is a must, and that can present its own range of problems for the runners. With no time to stop, eating ‘on the go’ is the norm and this can lead to gastrointestinal issues. When conserving energy, the body prioritises other functions over digestion so the food consumed can build and become uncomfortable.

Even the eyes are not immune to the challenges of the Ultra Marathon. The extremes of windy or very dry conditions have the potential to cause damage to the cells which irrigate and protect the cornea, leading to blurred vision.

And, whilst actual vison may be limited, it’s not uncommon for Ultra runners to experience quite significant hallucinations as they dig deep to keep moving forward.

If the list of potential ailments above isn’t enough to dissuade the committed Ultra runner, there is still the rarer, more serious risk of medical conditions such as Hyponatremia (dilution of the body’s Sodium level due to drinking too much water) or Hypothermia in particularly poor weather conditions.

The conclusion

Ultra Marathons certainly aren’t for everyone – and if they were I’m sure the appeal would reduce quite dramatically for those who enjoy their elite nature.

Those who take part speak of the sense of community born from the extreme nature of the events and the resulting camaraderie between fellow racers. There’s also an almost unparalleled sense of achievement to be had and a true realisation of just how far you can push your body and mind.

My personal advice to clients who have heard about these events and see their appeal is to get a few regular marathons under their belts first, before starting to think about Ultra Marathon training preparation!

If you’d like to find out more or have a more in-depth chat about starting your fitness journey (at whatever level) then get in touch with me via this link.