Saturday, 17 March 2012

What's the Ultimate Distance for an Ultra?

With this month having a lot of high profile 50ks like Way Too Cool and Chuckanut (both with around 700 runners and high quality fields), I wondered what people think the true test of ultrarunning is, in terms of distance. Obviously it's harder to finish a 100 miler than to finish a 50k, but running a 50k really fast seems to get punished in the general consensus of what's the most 'impressive'. Leor Pantilat is a good example as he is almost unbeatable at 50k and showed last year he can run a 50 miler with a 6:00 CR at Quicksilver 50 with something like 7,000ft of climb (probably the most impressive ultra performance of the year but sadly overlooked in general).

So I've added a poll to my site - what's the true test of an ultrarunner? Running any ultra distance hard and fast is tough but I personally think the shorter distances deserve more respect. There's no time to walk or go easy for a few miles in races under 100 miles for the fastest guys and girls, but in a 100-miler you can slow down for a bit and recover with it barely affecting your result.

UPDATE: Here are the results of the poll:

What's the true test of an ultrarunner (not just finishing, but finishing well)?

131 votes

- Over 100 miles 9%
- 100 miles 38%
- 100k 17%
- 50 miles/double marathon 32%
- 50k 1%
(percentages don't add up to 100% due to rounding)

I expected 100 miles to win it by more. But I think it shows that any distance for ultras can be considered the ultimate test if you give it your all.


  1. I totally agree. For example, I think one of the greatest performances to watch this year in the U.S. might well be this July when Kilian Jornet comes to race the Speedgoat 50K at Snowbird, Utah. (11,600' of ascent in 31 miles.)

    Longer distances might get all the glory, but personally I think 50Ks are much more exciting to watch as a spectator. Neat to see the fast guys and girls go for broke from the word GO.

  2. I think it is important to say, that the true competitive test should be done in a standard distance, or at least a 'standard' race. If someone goes out impressing the common folk and earning big bucks by e.g. running the length of a continent in a year on his own with 20 people supporting and marketing him and then runs a sub-par hundred miler then that's not really ultrarunning as I see it.
    Peter S.

  3. 100 is the true test in ultra running 50k is little more than a marathon, to truly be an ultra runner you must have run the 100 thats not to take away from 50k 50 miles and 100k But the hundred is what comes to mine when you say ultra marathon

  4. I give full props to someone running a fast 50k. It IS impressive, just like a fast marathon or a fast 5k is impressive. However, I don't really consider a 50k to be an ultra and I think that is a common sentiment amongst the veteran ultrarunners, which is why 50k performances don't get ranked highly at the end of the year. For me, an ultra needs to combine running ability with race strategies/planning such as fueling, pace, electrolytes, AS/crew/drop bag use, clothing, etc. I definitely think a 100 miler (of the standard distances) is the hardest to pull all of these things together in one race.

  5. While 100M has more chances for things to go wrong, it also allows some slack to correct mistakes. I personally think 100K is the optimal racing distance. One can realistically train for the distance, ie can regularly do runs of 2/3rds the distance, whereas 100m you can't really train up to that percentage on a regular basis. Elites as well as normal trained ultra runners can push hard for a full 100K which makes any mistake usually fatal as far as standings! If you look at winning/finishing times for 100Ks, you'll see that that pace is not much slower than 50K/M for many runners while for 100M, there is a noticeable drop off.

  6. There was an interesting debate on one of the Comrades forums this week. The theory was that Comrades is the ultimate test as it requires a perfect combination of both endurance and speed. Marathons being at the speed end of the spectrum, and 100m+ being at the endurance end. That double marathon/100k distance is certainly where you can get a showdown between the really fast sub-2:15 Mara runners and the super long endurance guys.

  7. A good question and interesting poll but as we all know there is much more to a race than just the distance.
    Comparing a 50k on the road with the 50k Speedgoat is comparing tomatoes with copper.
    A 50k road race really does not bring much new with it apart from being a bit longer than a "normal" Marathon.
    Besides a 50k PB does not get you anywhere really even if it's super fast because only a few people can put that into perspective. That Marathon distance (although not everyone who did actually complete the distance knows how long the race actually is) is just too much of an icon. A symbol. A metaphor.
    On the other hand the 50k Speedgoat is more like a long distance technical hill race. And being an "ultra" is only one of the many attributes that race has.
    Back to the poll though. To give it a number I would suggest a true ultra "test" for a marathon runner needs
    to be at least 50 miles or 100k. Whilst on a hilly and technical course that distance can be even as "short" as 50k.


  8. For me, a 50K produces more psychological pressure with 50M less and 100M much less. Something about being able to ease into a 100 miler and find a rhythm without being so concerned about matching others stride for stride. In the end, the suffering is greater, but the build up makes it seem easier.

    I compare it to a climbing scenario: Image you awake from a deep sleep to find you are clinging to El Capitan 2000+ feet up in a climb or die situation. Terrifying and adrenalized! Now imagine that you wake early and approach El Cap in the dark. You begin climbing at first light and shake off some jitters only 100 feet up as the sun lights the way. Soon, you are in a rhythm and gaining ground, slowly adapting to the vertical world as you acclimate to the growing exposure/pressure. You know you are in it for the long haul, so you never cross a certain threshold, just take what the mountain gives. That's how I see 100's.

  9. I"m a little biased with the 100 mile's an entirely different race than even a 100k, it was noted above that the 100k times and pace is not much difference than a 50m, very true. 100s also go into that night in most cases, (unless you run 12:44) :-) It's a different variable and it's harder to adapt. 100's are the ultimate distance for sure, and once someone completes that distance, 50 miles is nothing.

  10. I think that running is running. However, if the "ultra" prefix has any meaning, I think it applies most directly to the 100 mile distance. The 100-miler, while not the longest distance that two or more runners could feasibly race, still holds a fairly mythic appeal. Also, as noted above, a 100 mile race throws out pretty much every rule that might apply to any of the shorter race distances. So, if "ultrarunning" is really a thing apart from, uh, regular running(?)...then the 100-miler is the race distance of choice. I think. This is coming from someone who knows exactly nothing about 100 mile races.

  11. I think simply because the 100 miler may be something that truly pits a runner against nature, elements and logistics, it doesn't make it a better race than a 50k, 50 miler or 100k. I see people say often something like " I just don't think that a 50k is an ultra" but then give no reasoning why. It is almost the Potter Stewart definition of pron being "I know it when I see it".

    considering even hundred miles have to come with a caveat (Is Hardrock in the same category as Old dominion or is the new Graveyard 100 in North Carolin "easy" because there is virtually no elevation change?) how can one possibly compare? It almost smacks of elitism when someone feels that a 50k or 50 miler is not an ultra. Almost as if, "OK, now the marathon is commonplace and I feel that all "those" runners are going to move up to the next distance so I sure as sh#t am not going to allow them to call a 50k an ultra"