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Trail Tips

You Don’t Have to Run Ultras

Ultras have exploded in popularity in recent years, at least based on social media and magazine covers. Often, it seems like ultras are to trail running what marathons are to road racing, expected to be the ultimate goal of the process when someone starts. People seem to love ultras like Sean Parker loves money in The Social Network. “10 miles isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? 100 miles.”

There are some consequences to the ultra boom. Behind the scenes, I have seen athletes question their own decisions and preferences based on what they perceive as the expectations of other trail runners. Some have even questioned their self worth due to the distances they run. A commenter on a recent article I wrote on an ultra-training plan put it bluntly: “Why does it always have to be about ultras?”

I get it, and I am guilty of it. I write about ultras all the time, I advertise ultra coaching, I have unironically drank Michelob Ultra. There is an ultra-industrial complex that I am a part of that plays a role in shoe sales, magazine articles and race entries. It’s enough to make people think that anything shorter is less worthwhile.

So let’s stop right there. The message of this article is simple: the distance run does not determine the value of the run. It doesn’t determine the value of the athlete. And it definitely doesn’t determine the value of the person.

The message of this article is simple: the distance run does not determine the value of the run. It doesn’t determine the value of the athlete. And it definitely doesn’t determine the value of the person.

If it’s meaningful to you, then you should embrace that meaning with both arms, a full bear hug of purpose. 5K races in a local park? Freaking awesome morsels of endurance. Half-marathons? Incredible journeys around some cool trails. 200 milers? Similarly amazing, if you think it is. I don’t have the resilient brain or body for it right now, but I am so impressed and inspired by the people that do, just like I’m impressed and inspired by the people who run 5Ks.

And that’s the point: any distance run is mind-blowingly impressive when you really think about it. No matter what Born to Run says, we are probably not born to run tons of miles every day, at least not in modern society. My dog Addie is 47 in human years (and genetically 12.5% pug), she runs all day every day, and she has never been injured. Meanwhile, I am 31 and my hips often make it feel like I need a Life Alert for whenever I get up off the couch. Four out of five lumbar spines agree that bipedalism is a design flaw.

Anyone who pushes against the inertia of being stationary is testing their brain and body in an uplifting, inspiring way. Heck, there are like 18 streaming services and 400 new shows that are getting rave reviews. Choosing trails over Big Little Lies Season 2 is a feat of massive strength. However far your running journey takes you is beside the point. The point is having the courage and conviction to start the journey at all.

Because I am lost without listicles, here are 4 things to think about in being OK with whatever distance you prefer.

1. Different Strokes for Different Folks

Different people have different background and psychological profiles. That’s the most important thing when it comes to thinking about other runners and how you fit into a community. Every person you meet has a background that you can’t fully 100-percent understand, with a perspective that you can only relate to by analogy, no matter how empathetic you are. This problem is most evident for political issues, where some ideologies essentially amount to failures in shared empathy. But on a much less important scale, it’s relevant for running.

Yes, ultras may be the most meaningful thing in the world to one person, sometimes even getting them to confront their addiction or reach similar monumental life moments. But change brain chemistry and psychology slightly, and ultras might launch another person to their own addictions. One person might find transcendence at mile 27 or 97 or 197, while another person only finds boredom and chafing. Both perspectives are equally valid, but if either person thinks that their perspective is universal, they may make comments that are hurtful, thinking they are just speaking the truth.

It’s great to experiment. Find what you love, and give yourself the grace for that love to change over time as you change over time. Just don’t think your values need to be shared by others to make them meaningful or true to you. 

2. Physiology Varies a Ton, Too

Even if two athletes could have the same exact psychological approach to running, and even if they did the same training, their underlying physiology could respond entirely differently. Take a muscle biopsy, and one may be brimming with Type I slow-twitch fibers, while the other is full of Type II fast-twitch fibers that are inefficient over long distances. One may have a sky-high VO2 max while the other languishes at the bottom of the bell curve. Bone-mineral density may be several standard deviations apart. Tons of physical metrics work that way—it’s not a meritocracy in athletics all the time. 

That physiology feeds into psychology. The slow-twitch athlete may find that they feel stronger at mile 40 than they do at mile 4, and for them, ultras are spiritual journeys into untapped reserves of strength. The fast-twitch athlete may fatigue no matter how slow they start, making ultras feel like obligatory slogs to an unsatisfying ending, the athletic equivalent of Game of Thrones Season 8

The high VO2 max athlete may love steep mountain races that sear their muscles like a fine steak. The lower bone-mineral density athlete may find that going over 10 miles results in stress fractures, leading to an association of ultras and injury-induced depressive episodes. None of that is necessarily a conscious choice, none of it reflects on character, none of it determines worth as an athlete. 

You’re an elite athlete if you dream big and go for it in a way that is meaningful to you.

You’re an elite athlete if you dream big and go for it in a way that is meaningful to you. The interesting thing is that internal meaning might not just be in your head, a decision about what you want to pursue. Your muscles, aerobic system, bones and countless other physiological factors could be influencing those choices too. 

3. Longer Isn’t Always Better

If you’re just interested in training, let’s get more real. Training specifically for ultras will make most athletes slower than they would be with a specific focus on shorter races. Shorter race distances encourage developing top-end running economy, which will make you faster. 

That’s not a particularly controversial statement. An ultrarunner who I think is one of the best athletes in the world independent of sport, Jim Walmsley, did the Houston Half-Marathon after a packed ultra season. He ran a blazing fast 1:04 flat, which made him 27th in the race and qualified him for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I am in the camp of huge fans that thinks Jim could possibly make the Olympic marathon team. But that type of speed is especially hard to access after training for the vert and slower speeds of ultra racing. I still think Jim could do it, that’s how amazing I think he is. You can bet that I have doodled Jim’s name all over my Trapper Keeper with big hearts around it. But reaching that level of road potential would probably require a big block of focused training before the 2020 Olympic trials (and a clarification of IAAF rules about qualification). There are few stories of people going down in distance and lighting the track or roads on fire, but many stories of people moving up and blowing the doors off longer races.

It all gets back to running economy, or how much energy it takes to sustain a given output. Developing running economy at short distances seems to be a prerequisite to fully exploring long-term speed potential, particularly because it gets harder and harder to explore that potential with each passing year as an athlete ages. Doing a few ultra races each year probably doesn’t detract from high-end running economy, but doing long-term, focused ultra training without speed development likely does for many athletes. In other words, take two identical beginner or intermediate athletes, have one fully develop their 10K speed and one fully develop their 100-mile performance, and I’d bet that the 10K athlete would have a higher long-term ceiling of performance.

That turned into some semi-spicy gumbo, so it’s OK if you don’t agree. The basic principle is just that long-term potential reveals itself in mysterious ways, and there is no set path that you have to follow to chase your dreams.

4. Behind the Scenes of Social Media

The most fantastic and honest portrayal of ultras I have ever seen is the Instagram account Ultra Memes (@Ultrarunningmemes). It’s all brilliant, and explaining humor is a surefire way to ruin the fun, so just click on it to see what I mean. The general theme is that ultras are amazing and absolutely the worst at the same time. 

A lot of things in life work that way. Most writers seem to resent writing as much as they love it. I know I have rolled my eyes at myself six times in the last 500 words. Doctors aren’t brimming with joy about night shifts, even if their job gives them meaning and purpose. Astronauts can love the view of Earth from space but hate eating dehydrated strawberries and peeing into a long vacuum tube.

As satirized by Ultra Memes, running can work the same way. The great stuff and the terrible stuff are intricately connected. For some athletes, it’s all boiled together into a delicious stew that gives their souls sustenance. For others, though, ultras might be closer to compulsion or obligation, your mom telling you to eat brussels sprouts when you ABSOLUTELY HATE BRUSSELS SPROUTS. I see it all the time behind the scenes, but rarely see it in social-media posts. What you see on social media is not always the complete picture.

So just know that whatever your feelings are, they are shared by tons of others. You may love training for and racing ultras, and that is freaking awesome. You may love the process of training and not the races, and that is great too, since races are just an excuse to structure the process we love. But here’s the big point of the article—you may not find love in the ultra process or in ultra races. If that describes you, there is nothing wrong with you. And you don’t have to be building to the point where one day you will want to run ultras.

Your journey is like a choose-your-own-adventure novel that is tailored just for you, where any decision you make can be the right one if you remember one thing: You (and the distances you run) are enough, unconditionally.

Whether you run 1 mile or 100 miles, the real journey all happens on the inside. Your journey is like a choose-your-own-adventure novel that is tailored just for you, where any decision you make can be the right one if you remember one thing: 

You (and the distances you run) are enough, unconditionally.

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.