Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Makes an Ultra Runner?

Back Creek Trail - Mount Diablo
It has finally happened, in the September and October issues of Ultrarunning Magazine my two ultra distances are listed:  The Dirty Dozen 12 hour which I completed just over 40 miles and the Mount Diablo Challenge 50K.  It is funny that it took having my name and times posted in this magazine has provided some validation that I completed these distances.  That, and now seeing my name on Ultrasignup.com, has kind of made me think of myself as an ultra runner.  But really though, at what point can you call yourself an ultra runner?

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!


  1. Well I'll go out on a limb and raise Allen's name. He most def was an ultra runner before he was "officially" and ultra runner. Both he and Mrs. are pounding dirt nearly every weekend, running back to back races on the weekends, mostly 13.1 and longer with an occasional 10k thrown in for fun.
    However I must bring up the fact that genetically, he's been proven to have 50% DNA of a Mt. Goat, so therefore he is dq'd from officially being labeled/listed as an "ultra runner".

  2. I think the dilemma you illustrate is the reason that "Mountain, Ultra, Trail" (MUT) running gets lumped together. Many MUT runners feel a bit awkward claiming the title "ultra-runner", at least I do. The thread that ties us all together is seeking challenges off the road-marathon courses. Challenges which involve more than just hammering a steady pace for several hours. Oh, and then there's beer...

    1. Thanks Cap'n Q for stopping by....and you have summed it up nicely - it is about the challenges and definitely about the beer! (Why I forgot to include the beer, boy that what was I thinking). BTW, I also enjoy your blog: http://wander-place.blogspot.com/

  3. This is an interesting post, although in my opinion there's very little difference between an ultra runner and a trail runner - they are both awesome and smarter than most to not spend so much time on pavement. (They are also unusually attractive!) I will say that I didn't consider myself an ultra runner until I completed a 50K. And I can see the day coming when, due to the sheer number of ultra races now, Ultrarunning magazine will have to limit itself to 50M and above for listing results.

    The only absurd thing I read in this was that you have no interest in the 100 mile distance. HA! I can totally see both of you doing one. I very much want to do one and hope that Diane will decide it would be fun too. It gives me hope seeing so many runners older than I doing great at that distance.


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