What’s Another 5 Miles? Ultramarathons Versus Marathons

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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What’s Another 5 Miles? Ultramarathons Versus Marathons

I got into running in my late teen years. Now a seven-time marathoner, there was a time when I couldn’t even fathom stringing 3.1 miles together for a 5K race — and definitely not 26.2. But it takes a special kind of person to decide they want to go for even longer than the marathon distance. If you’re unfamiliar with this often-unchartered territory: Ultramarathons are a thing, and are growing in popularity.

“An ultramarathon is any distance beyond 26.2 miles,” says Elise Mordos, a five-time ultramarathon runner who just finished her first 100-miler in Vermont. “Typically, the distance starts at 50K — or 31 miles — and goes up from there.”

Up, indeed. The longest single event Mordos knows of — the Moab 240 — consists of 240 miles in the Moab Desert. Typically, the races either cover a set distance or a set time (for example: 50km or 24 hours). While the Moab 240 has the willing conquering sandy, warm miles — ultra races often include trails.

Thinking of dabbling in this longer distance yourself? Here, experts offer six things all prospective ultramarathoners should know:

1

IT’S JUST LIKE TRAINING FOR A MARATHON … KIND OF

A 31-mile race isn’t all that much farther than a 26.2-mile race, says Adam Devine, ultramarathon run coach and captain of the Prospect Park Track Club in Brooklyn, New York. That’s why many coaches tell the ultramarathon curious they can prepare for a 50K race using a marathon training plan. “I truly believe that if you can run a marathon you can run 50 kilometers,” he says.

When the distances grow past 31 miles, that’s also when the weekly totals really skyrocket. “There are a number of online training plans and ultra training books, but the variety of styles can be overwhelming,” says Modros. “One 100-miler beginner training plan recommended a build up to a 90+ mile week. Another built up to 70 miles.”

2

EMPLOY AN EXPERIENCED COACH

You can probably get away with running a marathon on your own (but having a coach would be better.) In terms of the ultra distance? Running all these miles is best done under the guidance of a professional, which is why Modros suggests hiring an expert. “If you have enough disposable income, it’s a no-brainer,” she says. Look for someone who has conquered ultras themselves and is willing to flex with you should you need to make a change because of scheduling or other unforeseen conflicts.

3

ULTRAMARATHONERS WALK, TOO

Since many of these races are mountainous, it’s not uncommon to see runners hiking up steep elevation climbs. “It’s really draining to run every uphill during a trail ultra like marathoners and half-marathoners do, so we practice power hiking during training and utilize this skill during the race,” says Modros. “People would probably think that I am in bad shape if I started power walking during a marathon, but it is expected during trail ultras.”

4

ULTRAMARATHONS REQUIRE A LOT OF ORGANIZATION

The longer the ultra, the more prep is required. “Ultrarunners like their gear, and some of us can pack rather heavily,” says Devine. “I recommend making lists of everything that you need weeks ahead of time and to start putting it together 4–6 days before you leave for the race. That allows you to get everything in order so that you can get anything you may be missing.”

Plus, many runners lean into a crew of friends and fellow runners to help them get from point A to point B. These individuals can offer exactly what the runner needs when they get into one of the many aid stations along the course, from new socks or a change of shoes to nutrition or recovery necessities. For ultramarathoners, these helpers can be a total game-changer.

“Some ultrarunners like to be minimalist and go without crews and all this ‘extra’ stuff, but I feel lucky to have great friends and embrace the support they offer me,” says Modros.

5

BE PREPARED TO EAT … A LOT

Unlike marathons, where runners are met with energy gels, water and beverages, there are a ton of different food options along longer courses. “Hamburgers, bacon, grilled cheese, [pizza], cookies, gallons of Coke and Mountain Dew, gummy bears, the list goes on and on in terms of what you’ll see on the course,” says Devine. “When you are on your feet for 24 hours+, you have to eat, and so you have to train for that.”

Devine suggests people train for the eating component of the race just as much as they train for the actual physical activity. Try consuming different things you’d look for along the course while running, see how your body reacts and pivot from there.

6

TO FINISH IT, YOU’RE GOING TO NEED PASSION

This goal requires a lot of time, energy and dedication. That means in order to get to the finish line of an ultramarathon, you need to be excited about your big goal. “You have to want to run the 50-miler,” says Devine. “You have to truly believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor not just for someone else or because you’re turning 40 — or whatever else. It has to have meaning to you, or you are much more likely to hate it and not finish.”

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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