|Back Creek Trail - Mount Diablo|
You see, I have no problem calling myself a marathon runner. I have completed 6 marathons and just signed up for my seventh. While they were mid-to-back-in-the-pack finishes, I can say that I trained for them focused on the goal and feel good about each and every one of them. I can even say that at completing my first, when the announcer proclaimed that I am one, at that moment I was one. Let's face it, the statement that 1% of all runners ever try or complete a marathon makes you feel proud of the achievement.
However, I can say that I have been struggling with the whole idea that I can call myself an ultra runner.
So what makes an Ultra Runner?
By definition, an ultra runner is anyone who completes a distance greater than 26.2 miles. OK, so by definition, that fits. Yet I feel I need to qualify what I have done by saying that I have run ultra distances instead of calling myself an ultra runner.
There may be a couple of reasons for this. First of all, I do listen to a lot of podcasts (Trail Runner Nation, Ultrarunnerpodcast, Endurance Planet, and Endurance Trail) which do focus more on the 50 miler to 100 mile distances. With such focus on these distances the measuring stick for what makes an ultra runner at these distances.
This was further reinforced when I volunteered at Western States this year. Many of the volunteers had completed at least a 50 mile if not a full 100 in their running career. And here I was talking about how proud I was to have finished my first 50K. How droll!
Secondly, there has been a lot of discussion, both on the podcasts as well as in print, that there are quite a few people joining the sport at the 50K distance. This takes the word ultra out of the word ultra if you know what I mean.
I would like to suggest however, that the definition is more general than it seems. I know quite a few trail runners that I would categorize as an ultra runner. These may be runners who may run races every weekend to those who just enjoy the challenge of running really tough terrain.
For example, there are quite a few in the Bay Area trail running community that I know ( and I would say this applies in general) that may run distances from half marathon to full ultra at least twice if not more during any given month. These are not flat races either. One example, one fellow runner will have run two of the toughest half marathon's in the Bay Area (Coastal Trail Run's Diablo and Brazen Racing's Rocky Ridge) with combined elevation of almost 8K feet within a month. This is not to mention all of the other races (you name the distance) he has completed year-to-date. Yes he has ultra distances under his belt and I would definitely consider him an ultra runner for those distances; however, it is even more amazing is how he is able to carry the combined mileage through the year. If he had never done an ultra distance race, would he be any less of an ultra runner?
Another example are those who are just running and mastering "their" though trails. An example of this can be when you pick that trail, not really associated with a race or training, that is challenging just to do it, like my recent run up to the top of Diablo and back down through some of the most awesome but narliest technical single track that I had run in awhile. While it was only 13.6 miles it had a combined elevation gain of over 5,100 feet. Am I any less of an ultra runner?
I use both of these examples to compare against someone who may train for a three or four half marathons or one or two marathons a year pretty much on a flat course. Yes, completing these events is a huge accomplishment and I do not want to take away from that. However, to use the basic definition of what an ultra runner is against this benchmark is pretty weak. The basis of a traditional half or full marathon is about speed in a somewhat controlled course with somewhat controlled conditions. Yes each course is different; however, your overall pace is not necessarily affected by a steep grade or rocks in the road.
So I will ask again, what makes an ultra runner? It really comes down to no set definition but really how you want to describe your achievements. Yes I am an ultra runner, not just because of the two ultra's that I have done. While I love that I have been acknowledged for these achievements in Ultrarunning Magazine, I do not need it as validation of that achievement. While I definitely see more 50K's and even a few 50 milers in the future, I have no desire to run 100 milers and that is just fine with me. But with the type of terrain I choose and the difficulty of the course (both in races and in just my average run of the mill outings) I just don't fit in the 99% either.
Yes, I am an ultra runner!