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Are Ultra Marathons Bad For You?

Written By George Callahan

Sep 27, 2018

“Ultra Marathons Must be Bad for You…”

I remember the first time someone asked if I ever wanted to run a marathon. My long runs to that point had probably been a lung-searing 5 miles. I set down the greasy pizza I was eating: “No way! Marathons are bad for you. Your knees and ankles take a pounding. You’d have to drink a lot of milk to keep your bones healthy!”

Running a marathon (and most long distance running) was bad.

The pounding on the joints and the stress on the heart, coupled with the time investment needed to run 26.2 miles was too much. Why would anyone want to do that?

There I was, munching on cheesy pizza and nursing my legs after a 5 mile jog; I had no idea what the future would hold for me. In 2018 I would run my first 100 mile ultra marathon, finishing in a mind-numbingly slow 29 hours and 50 minutes (with this kind of training that can be expected).

When I eventually ran a whole 10 miles in 2014, I had reached the threshold of ‘necessary.’ It wasn’t reasonable or worthwhile to go over 10 miles. You’ve read those articles before:

This is How Much You Need to Run Per Week
Health benefits stop after this many miles.
Looking to Lose Weight? Don’t Run More Than You Need!
Why Too Much Running Is Bad For Your Health

I was drinking the Kool Aid. My bones, joints, tendons, heart, and all the other important components of my body wouldn’t be able to handle distance over 10 miles.

Maybe 10 miles is even too much

Fitness Culture Told Me Ultra Marathons Were Bad

The culture of mediocrity, comparison, and visual had grabbed me. It would take a few years to break free.

I was running for aesthetic: looks and comparison. Wanting to look a certain way, I’d ask: “How much should I run to look like that?” The answer was always “No more than 10 miles.”

Our culture of complacency and mediocrity preaches comparison and alignment. Look at others and devolve to fit their molds. Your peers run this amount for this reason and do this many workouts while eating this much food because they want to look like this.

This is where I lived. “What does it take to look like that?”

I fear many people fall into this category.

This mindset, this mental infestation of comparison, is toxic. It pollutes the air with a superficial belief that the value of fitness is found in the visual, missing the most important part of physical training.

Just like I missed the reason for running a marathon.

And like I missed the reason for pushing past 10 miles.

Just like I thought an ultra marathon must be bad for a person’s bones, heart, lungs, back, and everything else.

Put on your gas masks. Welcome to the Wicked Trail.

Are Ultra Marathons Bad For You? | Wicked Trail Shirt

Don’t Miss the Point

Ultra marathons are the epitome of adventure, challenge, and physical prowess. Obstacle course races and triathlons come close, but neither explore the monotony of lonesome trail or open road over a period of a whole day, or multiple days. How far is too far?

People do many things that are bad for them. Drinking pop, eating fast food, smoking cigarettes, spending too much time reading ultra running blogs, and yes, diving into ‘the crazy’ and running an ultra marathon.

I would argue, however, as I’m sure many ultra runners would, that running an ultra marathon is not bad for you. It’s actually one of the best things you could do for yourself, long term.

Ultra running is an investment that pays better than any stock ever will.

What exactly is the ultra marathon runner getting from his or her time on the trail? When do we see a return on the battered knees, bludgeoned ankles, twisted stomachs, and tears of frustration from running for 8, 16, or over 24 hours?

Joint pain, ligament stress, and sleep deprivation are signs of overuse. Our bodies need rest and we’ve deprived them of it. Stop. Rest. Lie down. These can’t be good. So much wear and tear.

Ultra marathons are bad for you!

Wait.

Could these bad side effects be a byproduct of something intangible and great?

What is the toll for extreme mental growth? Temporary joint pain, ligament stress, and sleep deprivation? What if hurting for a few days, or even a few weeks, didn’t even matter?

Ultra Marathons Aren’t Bad, They’re Free Gas for Life

Would you pay $1,000 for a lifetime of free car gasoline?

I shouldn’t have to answer that.

That $1,000 might hurt in the moment. You might notice the small pains it causes in a few months, or a year from now.

But guess what?

You’ll never wonder if you have what it takes to fill your car up and get on down the road. Any financial struggles that rise up against you won’t affect your ability to keep going; you paid a fee many years ago that has given you the freedom of (auto)mobility. Nothing can stop you from filling your car up and getting on down the road.

That $1,000 is going to hurt. You’ll feel it in your bank account and you might have to skip a night out. Maybe you’ll need to pick up a couple extra hours at work. It’ll slowly come back, but the sacrifice is worth the reward.

Freedom.

Pay the $1,000; run the ultra marathon. Are ultra marathons bad for you? Can you, right now, afford the foot pain, the bloody toenails, the knees aches, and the sleep deprivation?

No?

What if it unlocked a lifetime of free gas? Whenever a new challenge rises up against you, what if you had complete confidence in your mind and body?

This is the gift of the ultra marathon: the mental fortitude, perseverance, and strength to overcome obstacles. Not physical obstacles; mental and emotional obstacles.

You won’t feel the post-race knee pain when you lose your job.

Your feet won’t throb and ache, like at the finish line, when your car breaks down.

You’ll no longer taste the cold and lonely nighttime miles when a relationship falls apart.

But you’ll be quite familiar with emotional fatigue and mental discomfort, pillars of ultra marathons and life.

Your mind will be ready:

“This is just another Wicked Trail. I’ve been here before. I know this emotional fatigue, this mental frustration; we became well acquainted at mile 80.”

Are ultra marathons bad for you?

Take care of your feet with a good running shoe. Read a few books about it.

Stretch often. Strengthen your muscles. Train well.

Invest in the discomfort, in fatigue and frustration.

Fill your tank.

Are Ultra Marathons Bad For You? | Burning River 100

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