Friday, 20 April 2012

Are ultrarunners slow?

So tell me if you've heard this one before?

"Pft. Ultra running? Ultra walking more like!"

Reading around various forums and blogs, it seems that some people have a negative view of ultrarunners. The main trope seems to be the opinion that ultrarunners are slow, and are basically speed-walking. Other more extreme views are that ultrarunners are failed marathon runners who weren't able to cut it. Rather than putting in the training to push their marathon PB to a new level, they just go a little bit further.

Of course, the obvious response to this is that, well, I'm sure 100m sprinters look at marathon runners and think exactly the same thing. My wife was a 200m sprinter when she was younger, and she couldn't understand why anybody would want to run any further than that. So if ultrarunners are slow and shambling in the eyes of some marathon runners, does that mean that marathon runners are viewed in the same way by sprinters? No. There is mutual respect - they're just two very different events; one focuses on pure explosive power, while the other focuses on endurance. When you get up to ultra distances, particularly those out on the trails, up mountains, or in other inhospitable parts of the world, additional factors come into play - gear selection, nutrition, hydration, pacers and crew are all important for marathon racing but are more complex for ultras, plus you also may have to deal with tougher terrain, navigation, etc. Is it any surprise that ultrarunners are slower than marathon runners when running up and down mountains?

But even despite this, is it really fair to claim that ultrarunners are slow? In many of these discussions, it seems to me that the comparisons being made are between top-class marathon runners and the average middle of the pack ultrarunner who typically is not out for a podium place, and is just there for the experience and the love of running. But there are ultrarunning guys and girls out there with blisteringly fast times. So when we compare apples with apples and look at the times for the top marathon runners vs. the top ultrarunners, does the accusation of being slow still stack up?

I decided to do a bit of digging; a bit of Google-ing and Wiki-ing and I had put together a list of the fastest times over a range of distances ranging from 100 meters to 100 miles (apologies if I've got any of these wrong, but if it's on Wikipedia it must be true...):

The top figure shows the fastest recorded time for a given distance, whilst the bottom figure gives the corresponding speed. Since the distance roughly doubles between each event, the x-axis is on a log scale, so the difference between 100 m and 200 m is the same size as the difference between 50 miles and 100 miles. This allows us to see all of the distances on the same scale.

There seem to be five groups of timings here:
  1. The 100m and 200m results are almost identical (both from Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet). At first I found this surprising as they are quite different events; 100m is run in a straight line, and is essentially entirely anaerobic, whilst 200m runners must breathe and deal with a bend in the track. However, as my wife points out, this would be offset by the fact that you are already up to speed for the second half of the race without having to come out of the blocks. It will be interesting to see what the actual maximum speed Usain can hit is. He seems to have so far gotten these records effortlessly!
  2. Speeds drop off quite quickly for the 400m and 800m runners, as endurance begins to come into play. Of course it makes perfect sense that the sorts of speeds reached by 100m sprinters are not sustainable over longer distances, so whilst racers are still going balls out, the maximum speed drops off very quickly.
  3. The change in speed is pretty constant for the middle distance and long distance races, but is not as steep as seen for the faster (much shorter) sprint events. This is perhaps not surprising since these races are all very similar in their execution (at least to my naive eyes).
  4. There is definitely a sudden drop off between marathon distance and the 50 km results, although I note that the rate of change between 50 km and 100 km is similar to that between the half and full marathon. I therefore wonder if perhaps the sudden drop is for some other reason than lack of ambition in ultrarunners. For one thing, these are older records taken from the IAAF and IAU websites (the men's 50 km result is from 1988). I haven't been able to find information on any faster times over these distances online, but that's not to say that they're not out there. Perhaps these days this is a less popular road distance? There are plenty of trail races at these distances, but these are by their nature slower. Given the improvement in marathon finishing times over the years, I find it hard to believe that ultra times wouldn't similarly improve.
  5. And finally, the 50 mile and 100 mile results are similar in that there is an initial drop off from the middle/long distance speeds, but between the two events the speeds are very comparable. In particular, for the female times, the speed of the 100 mile finish by Shona Stephenson is actually faster than that of the 50 mile finish by Tomoe Abe! Again, 50 mile and 100 mile races are typically run on trails, and most of these races are across tough terrain, so this likely explains the drop in speed between these and marathons.
So let's look at what this means. First of all, this tells us that as we run further we slow down. Well, no shit Sherlock. It also shows a split between short sprint events, long sprint events, middle and long distance events, and ultra events. So are ultramarathon runners slow? Well, yes, in comparison to marathon runners. As marathon runners are slower than half-marathon runners. And half-marathon runners are slower than 10km runners. And so on.

It's true that the drop in speed when you reach ultra distances is more pronounced, but there are several possible explanations for this (other than "they're just walking it"). Firstly, I'm not 100 % sure that the 50 km and 100 km results that I have are accurate. Secondly, ultra distance events are typically over tougher courses than marathons. Marathon running is much more mainstream, so it is much easier to shut down 26.2 miles of road for a day than it is to find 100 miles of road to shut down. So these races take to the trails, and to the mountains, where running marathon pace is a lot more taxing. It is also pretty difficult to compare two different courses, as the elevation profiles alone will likely result in a completely different experience. Also, as mentioned previously, there are more factors involved in running ultras than in running middle/long distance events. When we break down the classes above, the races in each are very similar in their execution. The fact that there are differences between the groups is largely unsurprising.

It is also interesting that the difference in speed between the genders is reduced as the distance increases. There are several theories for this, with the main ones relating to the fact that muscle strength and power become less important over longer distances, and the increased fat content in the female body (no offence gals!) is more conducive to long distances. And you only have to look at runners like Ann Trason, Jenn Shelton, Meghan Arbogast, Mimi Anderson, Bev Anderson-Abbs, et al who often take the top positions overall. There's no shame in being "chicked" in an ultramarathon!

Don't get me wrong, I have huge respect for anybody that can run a sub-2:15 marathon. But I also have huge respect for the person who drags themselves off the couch to run/walk/crawl the 26.2 miles in 6 hours to raise money for a charity in memory of a loved one. It kind of annoys me when people suggest that if you're not racing then you don't deserve to call yourself a runner. For instance, the recent Pearl Izuma "We Are Not Joggers" campaign caused a bit of a debate by suggesting that there is some kind of lower limit to what can be classified as real running. This article in the New York Times also raised the question of whether "hobby joggers" belong in marathons. My two cents? Yes they do. Is it a problem if:
more than half of the people at a marathon are just overweight and “trying to get a shirt and medal ... looking to one day tell a story about the saga and the suffering of their 11 minute pace ‘race.’ ”
What better way to lose weight than training for a marathon? Having said that, I do agree with one point here; these runners aren't "racing". But then I don't think that they ever claimed that they were. There are two things going on at any marathon which may be somewhat at odds with one-another; a marathon race, and a marathon event.

Ideally, the two should be kept separate so that the elite runners (and anybody else wanting to race the event) are not negatively affected by the presence of runners not looking for a PB. And in all fairness, this doesn't always happen. The number of people in the marathon event is typically much larger than the number of people in the marathon race, and so this is where the money is. It is a real shame that race organisers are not always able to cater for all runners, and I completely understand why people who want to race big city marathons are annoyed by the costs being pushed up due to the marathon event (one thing I love about ultras is the low cost per mile). I also understand why you would be annoyed that the people getting the attention are the celebrities, or people dressed as superheroes, or people going for new world records, rather than those "real runners" cranking out the real times. And if the Daily Mail is to be believed (which it isn't - ever), doing stupid running events like the Marathon des Sables is "the new rich", and is used to amaze and show off to your friends and coworkers.

But to be fair, there are lots of ultrarunners with excellent marathon times. Recently Max King (2:14:36), Mike Wardian (2:21:50, followed by 2:31:17 in Houston the day after!), Jenn Shelton (2:45:01), Megan Arbogast (2:58:38), Devon Crosby-Helms (2:38:55) all competed at the Team USA Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas. Recently, Andrew Jones-Wilkins wrote an interesting piece on iRunFar asking, "which is harder; qualifying for the US Olympic Trials, or completing the Barkley Marathons?". The resulting discussion is surprisingly civil, but it seems to be an almost impossible question to answer as they are simply two different events. I found the story of Scott Overall, who was unable to qualify for the British 5 km team so tried out for the marathon instead, and ended up qualifying for Team GB for the London Olympics, quite interesting. He is a fantastic 5 km runner, but it just turns out that he did even better when he stepped up to a different event. It seems to me that rather than just being disparaging about ultrarunning and how slow we are, these guys should have a go. And hey, if we're so slow why don't you show us how it's done? Who knows, they may even enjoy it?

And for me, that's the crux of the matter. I didn't get into ultrarunning to show off about my "superhuman" ability to run long distances. Hell, I have always said that, with the right training and mental attitude, anyone can run 100 miles. As Karl Meltzer says, "100 miles is not that far". There's nothing that makes the guys and girls at the start line special, other than they have the will and the fortitude to train their arses off to get there. But I got into ultrarunning because I love to run. And I love to run for hours at a time. I just wouldn't enjoy the training necessary to be a top marathon runner. I love to get out into interesting areas, run off the beaten track, explore my local area, run up a mountain, and generally get out into nature. Not in any spiritual sense, it's just a hell of a lot more interesting to me than running on a track or along the road. Give me mud, and rocks, and grass, and scree, and heather anyday.

For me, and for many other ultrarunners, this is a hobby. There is not much money in ultrarunning for the elites of the sport - they must do it for love of racing. Things seem to be changing, and ultrarunning is becoming more mainstream, but the sport is still in its infancy. Records are made to be broken, and there is no doubt that these records will fall. Some people think that fast marathon runners will instantly break these records, but I don't think that it's that simple. It may possibly be true for road ultras, but trail ultras are a whole different board game (as discussed recently be Geoff Roes at It will be interesting to see how things shape up when the West Africans, who absolutely dominate the marathon distance, make it onto the scene.

For now, ultras seem to be primarily attended by people that just love to get out there and run. And from my (albeit limited) experiences, this seems to be the case. There certainly seems to be an incredibly friendly atmosphere at ultrarunning events. There is respect in all camps for everybody. Back of the pack runners may not be the fastest, but they are out there slogging their hearts out for many many hours at a time. In an event when the top guys come through in only just 24 hours, think how long it takes everybody else.

So why can't we have that between all camps? Can't marathon runners and ultrarunners merely respect each other for what they do? Again, I understand why a 2:15 marathon runner would be annoyed that they do not get the same amount of attention as some idiot who runs an extra 90 miles afterwards. But you know what?
  1. It was a publicity stunt to raise money and awareness for an important charity that doesn't get enough coverage. It's difficult to promote something without mentioning it to anybody...
  2. It was horrible being in the public eye. I'm quite happy being a nobody, thank you very much.
  3. I had the "you just walked it" accusation thrown at me. Sure, if you divide the total distance by the total time you get a pretty slow speed. But that fails to account for the 2 hours it took me to meet my team after the marathon before heading home, the delays in getting out of London, the fact that (since this wasn't a race) I spent time chatting to my crew, getting lost, etc.
  4. It doesn't change the fact that there is still more money in running marathons. A story like this might make it into the papers, but it doesn't mean people are any less aware of marathon runners. 
Anyway, I've waffled on for long enough here. This was just an interesting little question that I thought I would take a look at. I confess that I am new to this whole running game, so there is a lot that I do not know nor understand about the sport (so please do comment if you have any opinions about what I have said here). But I try to learn, and I am incredibly impressed by anybody who trains to do something amazing. Be that a 2:15 marathon, or just finishing a marathon after being a couch potato for years; a sub 10-second 100 m or a sub 24-hour 100 miler; or finishing a marathon despite suffering 20 epileptic fits along the way like Simone Clarke, or being paralysed like the incredible Claire Lomas.

Call me an ultrawalker if you like. I really couldn't give a crap about labels. I love to run, and that's all that matters to me. And I hope that you do too. So can't we all just get along?

Edit: Replotted without rounding to the nearest second and slightly reformatted the table.

Below are the times that I used in this post (note that I have rounded the times to the nearest second). Apologies if any of these are incorrect - blame Wikipedia! Men's records are blue, women's are red. All distances have been converted to miles. If you spot any mistakes, feel free to comment below! 

Name Gender Time Runner Year Venue
100 m M 00:00:09.58 Usain Bolt 2009 Berlin
200 m M 00:00:19.19 Usain Bolt 2009 Berlin
400 m M 00:00:43.18 Michael Johnson 1999 Seville
800 m M 00:01:41.00 David Rudisha 2010 Rieti
1500 m M 00:03:26.00 Hicham El Guerrouj 1998 Rome
5 Km M 00:12:37.35 Kenenisa Bekele 2004 Hengelo
10 Km M 00:26:17.53 Kenenisa Bekele 2005 Brussels
Half Marathon M 00:58:23.00 Zersenay Tadesse 2010 Lisbon
Marathon M 02:03:38.00 Patrick Makau 2011 Berlin
50 Km M 02:43:38.00 Thompson Magawana 1988 Claremont
50 mile M 05:26:52.00 Zach Bitter 2011 Door County Fall
100 Km M 06:13:33.00 Takahairo Sunada 1998 Tokoro
100 mile M 11:46:37.00 Yiannis Kouros 1984 New York
100 m F 00:00:10.49 Florence Griffith-Joynet 1988 Indianapolis
200 m F 00:00:21.34 Florence Griffith-Joynet 1988 Seoul
400 m F 00:00:47.60 Marita Koch 1985 Canberra
800 m F 00:01:53.30 Jarmila Kratochvilova 1983 Munich
1500 m F 00:03:50.50 Yunxia Qu 1993 Beijing
5 Km F 00:14:11.15 Tirunesh Dibaba 2008 Oslo
10 Km F 00:29:31.80 Wang Junxia 1993 Beijing
Half Marathon F 01:05:50.00 Mary Keitany 2011 Ras Al Khaimah
Marathon F 02:15:25.00 Paula Radcliffe 2003 London
50 Km F 03:08:39.00 Frith Van Der Merwe 1989 Claremont
50 mile F 06:25:43.00 Ellie Greenwood 2011 American River
100 Km F 06:33:11.00 Tomoe Abe 2000 Yubetsu
100 mile F 12:48:00.00 Shona Stephenson 2011 Camperdown

1 comment:

  1. I think it's interesting to consider the metabolic bases for the differences between sprinting, mid to marathon distance running, and ultra distance running. Sprinting depends on burning the ATP and CTP that already exist in the muscles, and which are used up at around 200 m. Middle to marathon distance requires burning the glycogen in the muscles and liver, which is used up around 23 to 26 miles. Beyond the marathon, runners depend on catabolizing lipids and utilizing sugars ingested during the run. As we go down the metabolic ladder, each state provides slower access to energy, leading to slower running.
    What will be really interesting is to see if the running efficiency of elite marathoners allows them to dominate longer distances, or if the current best ultra runners dominate the sport precisely because of their faster than average ability to burn fat energy. The marathon exploits of many ultra runners are known, but very few elite marathoners (I'll arbitrarily define elite as sub 2:12 for men) have recorded times beyond marathon distance.
    As a side note, I think all the ultra records you cite are from road races, and therefore useable for direct comparison road marathons.


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