I recently completed my first few mountain ultramarathons and my friends cannot believe I jumped straight to running 50km or even 100km without doing a traditional road marathon first. This has opened my eyes to a misunderstanding around our sport.
A marathon is not a stepping stone to an ultramarathon. The 42km road race is as challenging, in different ways, as any other distance. Though being faced with steep mountains and tricky descents might seem harder, it also provides a break not only from the physical pounding of the same muscle groups, but for the mind too.
During a road marathon, you have to concentrate the entire time. You have to focus on your split. If you have a target time in mind, you have to keep an even but fast pace for hours. Not only is this lung-busting work, but it is taxing on the mind. Every time I try to do a fast road run, I begin to day dream and then suddenly realise I’m way off pace. For all those who think ultramarathons are a mental battle, marathons are just as much of a mind game.
In fact, as in any race, if you go all out to your absolute capacity, you will collapse over the finish line, gasping for air. How many ultra runners are gasping for air at the end of a 100km?
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A run is as hard as you make it. If you empty yourself, all distances are as tough as each other, be it 5km or 200km.
The irony is that it was the road running that almost undid me on my first 100km. The Vibram Hong Kong 100 (HK100) starts with a 12km flat section, most of which is concrete. Having trained for months in the mountains, my legs were not used to the repetitive strides of the roads.
“But what about your knees?” I’m often asked when I say I ran 100km. Well, my knee was affected by the 12km of flat running and I suffered for the remaining 91km (the HK100 is 103km).
That is not to say road marathons are harder than ultramarathons. They are just different. Ultramarathons require a different kind of fortitude better defined as grit. The pain on road marathons is about having heavy legs, laden with lactic acid and sticking to your split anyway.
Even within ultra running, people think the farther the harder. Ruth Croft, two-time 56km OCC winner at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc week, said she felt pressure to increase her distance. People always ask her when she plans to run 100 miles (161km). The answer is “no time soon”. She is focused on running efficiently, at pace, over shorter (in relative terms) distances.
So next time someone assumes you once got bored of “easy” marathons and had to step up to the next level, tell them this: marathons are about how fast, ultramarathons are about how far (and even they can be about how fast, not far). But both are about pain, pushing yourself and breaking your own limits, no matter what goals you set yourself.
If you are a dedicated road runner, do not let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are a dedicated ultra runner, do not get too smug about your extra kilometres. The bottom line is, we are all runners and we are all crushing it.