I have never ran an ultramarathon. What’s an ultramarathon? It’s a race longer in distance than the standard 26.2-mile marathon. In this article, I’ll be investigating the many reasons why people run ultramarathons and hopefully convince you (and me) to enter one.
My first-hand experience with an ultramarathon runner
A couple of days ago, my older brother Jack ran his first ultramarathon and ran from London to Brighton in one continuous effort. 62 miles, in total. Sound crazy, painful or impressive to you? In my book, a feat of this magnitude ticks all three of these boxes!
Despite the fact he did nowhere near enough training and readily admits his weightlifting gym routine means he doesn’t have the most optimal physique for running, he finished the ultramarathon in 14.5 hours.
Having started in Richmond park in London at 6:45 AM in the morning, he – and 30 other runners starting at this time – spent the entire day heading down to Brighton through a mixture of roads and trail (some of which contained merciless hills).
Me and my Dad thought my brother was mad. Having only ran a marathon distance three times, we were both convinced he wasn’t ready for this challenge. After a quick phone call with my Dad at mile 26 (the first marathon distance), he explained how he was already ‘feeling dead’ but would finish the race no matter what. He was determined.
As my Dad and I waited for him at Brighton Racecourse, the course finish, we began to get nervous. Throughout the wait, three taxis appeared nearby which unloaded disappointed runners who had pulled the plug on their 62-mile run as they couldn’t take the pain or had unfortunately injured themselves.
With 10K to go, we hadn’t heard from Jack for about 2 hours and began to get nervous. Would he turn up in one of the taxis any moment now? What if he had pulled a muscle with 6 miles to go? Maybe he had succumbed to the pain and thrown in the towel. Given the fact he was probably the least trained runner on the entire field, this could be a possibility and thought we might see him emerge from a taxi. An outcome I knew he didn’t want.
Suddenly, we saw a bobbing green spec in the distance of the racecourse. Knowing Jack had started the day off in a dark green compression top, we immediately thought it was. As the figure ran closer, slowly and steadily, we were gobsmacked. It was my brother, Jack. He had almost done it. 14.5 hours after he started, 100 kilometres in one day from London to Brighton, being unprepared and without a ‘typical’ running physique.
He looked extremely worse for wear and it was clear the race had taken a massive toll on him. He could have easily fit in as an extra in a zombie movie (sorry Jack if you’re reading). When he was a few metres away, I could see his determined facial expression which was dead-set on the finish line and also told the hellish but life-changing experience he had gone through during the day.
It came as a surprise to me, but I felt extremely touched watching him complete the final 300 metres of the race. Against all odds, he had run 62 miles through extreme pain and discomfort to prove to himself that he could overcome the seemingly impossible challenge.
Though I’ve always got on well with my brother, I had a newfound deep respect and extreme admiration for him after he crossed that finish line. I could not believe what he had accomplished. I run an average of 5 miles every single day and find marathon distances challenging. Jack only runs every now and then but had somehow managed to smash the course and complete 62 miles in 14.5 hours. Fair play to him, I said.
Afterwards, I had never seen him in such a state. He was disorientated, limping, exhausted, and barely able to stand. Despite all of this, he had a huge look of satisfaction which I knew meant he was alright. He had seen the challenge through. He’d completed the 62-mile ultramarathon.
His display of perseverance and sheer will to see the race through despite some runners quitting around him, steep inclines, difficult trails and the hot sun inspired me greatly. I began to play with the idea of running an ultramarathon myself, which sparked me to write this article.
What is it about these events that are so attractive for runners? What could the benefits of these insane distances possibly be? Why do people sign up?
In this article, I’ll be exploring the many reasons people run ultramarathons and hopefully I’ll have convinced you (and myself) to sign up to one today.
1.Expand your comfort zone
‘Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.’ Dean Karnez, legendary American ultramarathoner
Like running a marathon or half-marathon for the first time, people run ultramarathons to expand their comfort zone. These events are designed to push you to your limits, providing a unique opportunity to see what you are truly capable of.
The challenge of overcoming a 60, 80 or even a 100-mile run (yes, these exist!) is the perfect setting for expanding your comfort zone.
So, what exactly is a ‘comfort zone’? Your comfort zone is a situation where you feel safe and at ease. It’s a settled method of working that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results. A good way to imagine it is a horizontal line on a graph which doesn’t move up or down; it just ticks along and doesn’t make any progress.
An example would be someone who only runs 5K races and puts off the idea of running any further because they are ‘comfortable’ running 5K, and don’t want the uncertainty of a longer distance to challenge their ability. They are quite content only running 5K because they know it’s a distance they can run easily and without over straining.
Why is staying in your comfort zone bad?
Some say that when you live in your comfort zone for too long and do not challenge your abilities then life quickly becomes stale. Without challenges to overcome, you stop growing and as a result you often lose drive and passion in life.
If you keep doing the same thing repeatedly as a runner, only running 5K distances for instance, you won’t push the boundaries of your comfort zone and you may become bored and disinterested with the sport.
Expand your comfort zone with ultramarathons
If you feel you’re becoming too comfortable, an ultramarathon might be for you.
Booking one in the calendar, say 4 or 5 months away, will give you plenty of time to reinvent your training to accommodate the strenuous demands of running an ultramarathon.
Throughout the months leading up to the event, you will constantly be challenging your body with long-distance conditioning and special workouts like interval & hill runs. All of this training will expand what you consider yourself comfortable with as you feel your body becoming stronger and fitter.
Come race day, you’ll be well prepared to step out of what you consider comfortable and enter the challenging ultramarathon environment. Each obstacle you overcome is an expansion for your comfort zone.
By the end of the ultramarathon, you should be a different person than you entered it with because your comfort zone has expanded so much.
2. Running off road
One of the benefits of ultramarathons is the opportunity to run off road. The soft terrain and exposure to nature are both huge benefits of running off road.
A lot of ultramarathons tend to take place mainly on the trail, with occasional flurries of road terrain dotted in between trail sections. Trail terrain might include forests, hills, mountains, fields, woods and even by the sea.
Trail terrain is softer than road surfaces
Naturally, trail terrain is softer than hard road surfaces, so it takes less of a toll on your legs and knees as you cover distance. This can make a huge different during an ultramarathon, given the fact you can be running anything from 30 to 100 miles in one go.
You don’t want to be experiencing runner’s knee 20 miles into a 60-mile event due to hard road surfaces. Luckily, the natural cushioning of most trail surfaces will drastically reduce the wear and tear on your legs and feet so the of injury much lower.
This means you don’t have to worry about injuring yourself early into your ultramarathon and can focus on the task at hand, which is to run a crazy distance!
For more information on trail running, check out the following blog posts:
Exposure to nature
There’s nothing quite like running through a beautiful natural landscape. Trail running can offer some incredible views which will leave you speechless during the race.
A picturesque countryside, a sea view, a peaceful congregation of trees and inspiring mountain views are all examples of what you could find during an ultramarathon. More than that, studies have shown that exposure to nature is excellent for mental health as it can provide calming and mood-boosting effects.
During the strenuous undertaking of completing an ultramarathon, a mood lift might be exactly what you need to keep spirits high as you work through the mileage.
3. Ultramarathons are extremely well supported with checkpoints
Due to the long-distance nature of ultramarathon events; most races feature well-supplied checkpoint. These checkpoints keep you on track, supply food and drink, whilst giving you the opportunity to go to the toilet.
These checkpoints re the equivalent of running past a corner shop every 5-10 miles and being able to help yourself to what’s on the shelf! The checkpoints tend to be loaded with sweets, high carbohydrate foods like pasta and sandwiches, energy gels & bars, and provide a selection of sports drinks or water.
These checkpoints make the distance 10 times more bearable as the food and drink keeps you going whilst providing an opportunity to interact with fellow runners to discuss the race.
Lots of ultramarathoners say some of the best race day memories can come from the checkpoints as emotions tend to be running high and there is a general sense of togetherness amongst the runners who are taking part.
A truly unique ultra-experience you just don’t get with standard marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks and other events.
4. Peace and quiet from everyday life
‘I like my peace and quiet whenever I can grab it.’ Wole Soyinka, Nobel prize winning playwright, poet and essayist.
Lots of ultramarathon events take place over the course of an entire day (sometimes weekend) and tend to incorporate lots of quiet trail sections, away from road traffic and the hustle & bustle of city life.
In the 21st Century our lives are packed with distractions like mobile phones, TV and the radio, and commitments like our job and relationships. Whilst these are all good in moderation, too much of them can stress you out and grind you down after time.
Participating in an ultramarathon is the perfect opportunity to get some quiet time to yourself, away from these daily stresses and hassles. The events tend to take all day and offer exposure to some breath-taking views. This gives you a proper ‘break’ from everything in some stunning environments.
Personally, I love long-distance running because it’s a great time to just think. Think about your life, what you’re working on, goals you have, relationships you’re working on, projects you want to start, and so on.
Sometimes, I think all we need to do to relax ourselves is to just take some time to think through everything going on. Running an ultramarathon is the perfect opportunity to do this thinking as there will be long periods of running between checkpoints where you are your only company.
If you’re in need of some peace and quiet, away from everyday life, booking yourself onto an ultramarathon might be just what you need.
5. Run at your own pace
In ultramarathons, you really can run at a pace you are comfortable with and take your time. In marathons, half-marathons, 5Ks and other races, there is often a temptation to dart ahead at a pace quicker than you know you can manage.
This happens for several reasons like getting caught up in the adrenaline of the race, being spurred on by supporters, trying to pace off others and so on. If you’ve ever done this in a race, you will know that it usually ends badly with you either dropping to a much slower pace or even a walk. Not good.
Instead, ultramarathons encourage you to run at a steady pace that you can manage. The key to covering the 30-100-mile ultradistances without exhausting yourself is to take your time. Clock-watching is often forgotten during ultras and people only have their Garmin on simply to track location, calories burnt, steps taken and other data metrics for personal use.
Of course, you’re going to get those at the front which are in it to race hard and win but you will quickly find upon starting that most simply have the goal to finish before the event deadline.
Taking your time and enjoying the race is a new concept to lots of runners as they are used to attempting to smash PBs (personal bests) on race day. Don’t feel guilty about running slower than normal; it’s an ultramarathon and you need to take it slow.
Relax, enjoy the views, socialise with other runners, enjoy food at the checkpoints, soak up the sun (or rain) and make an unforgettable memory.
6. Develop mental toughness
Speaking to people, like my brother, who have completed ultramarathons, I know these events are mainly mind games.
Having the sheer will, determination and drive to keep running even though your body is in pain and discomfort requires a lot of mental strength.
Mental toughness is one of the most important aspects of personality we all need in our lives. Running ultramarathons are the perfect opportunity to develop our mental toughness.
What is mental toughness?
Rocky describes it as ‘it ain’t about how hard you can hit… it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’ It’s about how much you can take before throwing in the towel. The pain you can go through before it’s too much. What you can withstand before melting down.
Why do we need mental toughness?
Contrary to what anybody told you growing up, the world can be a harsh place. Though we all have high hopes and good intentions, things sometimes go wrong.
Cars breakdown, family members get illnesses, partners break up with us, managers & customers get angry with us, bones break, mistakes happen, wives and husbands cheat and so on and so forth.
When things go wrong, we need good mental toughness to withstand challenges and overcome them so we can get on with our lives.
Facing the difficulties and hardships of an ultramarathon builds crucial mental toughness which you can apply to other areas of your life. After crossing the finish line, you have a powerful experience of pushing through pain and adversity to accomplish your goal.
Suddenly, you may be able to face other life problems head-on and with similar courage. Knowing that you were tough enough to run 62 miles in one go can help you take on a difficult project at work head on or keep your cool when arguing with a family member.
Mental toughness gained from completing an ultramarathon will cross over into other areas of your life and you’ll be able to face problems head on with courage, tenacity and strength.
For more information on running and mental toughness, check out the following post:
7. Have a life changing experience
Ultramarathoner often say the experience of running a race is often life changing.
Whilst ultramarathoners experience chafing, tummy trouble, disorientation, lost toenails, dehydration, hunger and pain (expected), they also tend to experience a barrage of different emotions through the event.
Runners often say they go through spells of extreme happiness, due to the endorphins, during certain periods of the race whilst other segments feel like a hellish drag. These strong experiences are long remembered, many years after the race and often for life.
Perhaps the most emotional experience for runners is crossing the finish line, which can set off tears in even the self-declared hardest runners on the field. The lack of sleep, number of calories burnt and feelings of euphoria after crossing the line is enough to set off tears.
The ultra-marathoners are usually overwhelmed at the ordeal they have just been through and cannot quite believe they have finished the race.
Crossing ultra finish lines is a powerful and emotional moment for runners, often giving new perspective on life. The experience at the end of the ultramarathon depends completely on the runner crossing the line; everyone is different after all.
There you have it, 7 reasons to run an ultramarathon. It was a fun article to research and writing it has made me feel inspired to take on an ultramarathon of my own.