Wednesday 17 December 2014

What the Hell is an Ultramarathon Anyway?!

The phrase "ultramarathon" is gradually becoming a more ubiquitous term even amongst the non-initiated, as the sport gains more traction throughout the world. And yet, despite this, the term is still not particularly well understood, even by those seemingly in the know. So just what in the name of Satan's Hokas is an "ultramarathon" when it's at home?

You would think that it would be a pretty simple question to answer. Here's what has to say on the matter:

Ultra- [uhl-tra]
  1. a prefix occurring originally in loanwords from Latin, with the basic meaning “on the far side of, beyond.” In relation to the base to which it is prefixed, ultra-, has the senses “located beyond, on the far side of” ( ultramontane; ultraviolet), “carrying to the furthest degree possible, on the fringe of” ( ultraleft; ultramodern), “extremely” ( ultralight); nouns to which it is added denote, in general, objects, properties, phenomena, etc., that surpass customary norms, or instruments designed to produce or deal with such things ( ultramicroscope; ultrasound; ultrastructure).
Marathon [mar-uh-thun]
  1. a foot race over a course measuring 26 mi. 385 yards (42 km 195 meters).
  2. any long-distance race.
  3. any contest, event, or the like, of great, or greater than normal, length or duration or requiring exceptional endurance: e.g. a dance marathon; a sales marathon.
First of all, let's ignore the incredibly unhelpful second definition of "marathon" there. What a stupid definition - how long is "long-distance"?! My wife was a 200 meter runner, and was once asked to go up to 400 meters by her coach. Her reply was, "Who the hell would want to run that far?!" Instead, let's use the standard definition of a marathon being a foot race over the oddly precise distance of 26.21875 miles (decided at the 1908 London Olympics based on the distance from Windsor Castle to the White City Stadium in London - plus a little bit extra to finish at the Royal Box because they were too lazy to move).

So there we go. Pretty simple really - an "ultramarathon" is any footrace longer than 26.2 and a bit miles. How can anyone possibly have trouble with that?

But then come the questions:

"If I run back to my car after a marathon, does that make me an ultramarathon runner?"

"My Garmin says that I ran 26.3 miles. Am I an ultramarathon runner now?"

"I ran 30 miles in a training run at the weekend. Does that count as an ultramarathon?"

This whole concept of "counting" is quite odd. Who is doing the "counting"? Why does it matter if it "counts" as an ultramarathon? Is it purely so that you can say to your friends and family that you ran an ultramarathon at the weekend? Which is fine of course if that's your thing, but if you're looking to impress people you're probably better off just saying "I ran 30 miles", since Grandma probably has no clue what an ultramarathon actually is.

The idea that we can use a single word to describe any distance greater 26.2 miles means that when somebody says that they "ran an ultramarathon", they could be talking about anywhere between 26.3 miles and hundreds of miles. That's a pretty broad range. Especially if we allow multi-day events to "count".

Let's look at the Marathon Des Sables, widely regarded by many as the Toughest Footrace In The World (TM). In total, runners cover over 150 miles through the Sahara desert - but over 6 days. I'm not trying to be derisive here, just looking at the semantics. There is actually only one "ultramarathon" of 50 miles in there. So does this "count" as a 50 mile ultramarathon with no taper? Or is it a 150 mile ultramarathon? It's certainly sold as the latter, but would it "count" as an ultramarathon if I ran a 3-day race with just a marathon a day? For instance, the Jurassic Coast Challenge (whilst it doesn't actually describe itself as an ultra) is down as a 78.6 mile multi-day ultramarathon on several lists of "UK ultramarathons" despite it "only" being 3 marathons in a row (on some of the toughest terrain in the country granted...). If that makes the cut, what about if I organise a race where you run a mile a day for 100 days. Is that a "100 mile multi-day ultramarathon"?

The phrasing seems far too open to technicalities. I mean, we all know what we mean right? But there's this whole grey area where people seem to concentrate on the minutiae of possible fringe cases  on, say, the Facebook Ultrarunning Community page (although this is possibly only to bait James Adams and Gary Kiernan into a good moan - which is perfectly acceptable). Some people will say that "ultramarathon" shouldn't be used for anything less than 50K. So where do 30 milers fit in? And isn't that just as arbitrary as 26.2+ miles?

So here is the most important question: "Who cares?!"

Well, I mean obviously I do since I'm moaning about it here.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about the running that my friends get up to, and I bang on about it plenty myself (I'm even banging on about banging on about it now). But I don't really care about how far people are running. I'm as impressed and inspired by my friends getting started on their first 5K as I am by people smashing course records on 100 mile slog-fests. And I love competition and watching people battle it out at the front of the race, aiming to get to the finish before everybody else. I'm not one who thinks that the competitive side of the sport is somehow against some sort of creed and ethos of the sport.

Recently there have been a couple of cases of people winning the race hand-in-hand, and I'm not sure I really agree with this. I've done it myself further back in the field, and it is a fantastic feeling working together with somebody to push each other to the finish, and to show solidarity in your struggle. But if you're out to compete, bloody run through the line! Otherwise it is a bit of a cop out. I would love to see the South Downs Way 100 come down to a 100 meter sprint finish at Eastbourne Sports Centre. Competing isn't for everybody of course, and for many people it is being out there that "counts" (now this I can get behind). Enjoying the experience, and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zones - not necessarily in terms of speed and fitness, but mentally. And there is absolutely room for all of us in the sport - the slower guys and gals can be in awe of the elites tearing it up at the front of the pack, whilst the faster dudes and dudettes can be in awe of the grit and determination shown by the people out there for twice as long. That's what I love about this sport - the mutual respect from everybody involved.

So back to the original question - What "counts" as an ultramarathon? Here is my honest opinion - I think that the term ultramarathon is stupid. There, I said it. It is designed purely to act as a superlative; "Oh, you run marathons do you? I run marathons for breakfast!" This kind of dickishness may not be overt (most people I know are surprisingly humble about the amazing things that they accomplish), but it just kind of has an "I'm better than you" sort of feel to it doesn't it? 

What's wrong with the word "running"? We run 5Ks. We run 10Ks. We run half-marathons. We run marathons. And then we run ultramarathons? I dunno, it just sounds a bit too all-encompassing. It would be simpler if we could just use standardised distances. We could run 50Ks. We could run 50 milers. We could run 100Ks. We could run 100 milers. Do we have to attach some unnecessary term to these to make them sound awesome?

Of course, if most people's Garmins are to be believed (FYI they aren't), none of these specific distances are accurate anyway. But this isn't road racing. There are plenty of reasons other than the fact that the distances aren't exact to prevent these races from being comparable with one another. Realistically nobody is ever likely to compare the UTMB with the North Downs Way, even though they are ostensibly the same distance.

But what about the races that don't fall into these specific categories? Well there are plenty of sub-marathons that don't fit into one of these categories. We just call them races, right? People still run them, right?

Maybe one day an "ultramarathon" can become a thing. I suggest 57 miles, 372 yards. All we need is for the governing bodies to come to some kind of consensus. But there is no fucking way that this will ever happen. There's enough issues trying to work out where "skyrunning" stops, and "mountain running" starts. Skyrunning is "an extreme sport of mountain running above 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) where the incline exceeds 30% and the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade", in case you were wondering. Throw "ultra-running" and "fell-running" into the mix and you get a pretty interesting Venn diagram. It all seems far too complicated to me for what is supposed to be a pretty simple pastime.

Of course, we could just go with this slightly, erm, esoteric definition of ultramarathon running as "running on spermatogonia distance."

Ultimately, I wouldn't dream of telling people what they should or shouldn't say, and I can't see anything changing any time soon. But I am personally going to try to avoid this term when I can (of course it's so deeply ingrained now I'll probably fail tomorrow). Just call me a runner (or even a jogger, I'm not sensitive). Occasionally I might run a 10K. Other times I might run 100 miles. And at the weekend I'm just going to run.

Does that count?


  1. Nice points. Being an ultrarunner feels great, being a runner feels great. Its the act not the title. I enjoyed the post, keep them up.

  2. My thoughts exactly, put far more eloquently than I ever could. So are you going to change the sub-title of your blog? Looking forward to more great posts!


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