“What’s the best ultra marathon?”
Is it the most remote or adventurous like Marathon des Sables, the most challenging like Badwater or the H.U.R.T 100? Rather, is the best ultra marathon simply your first 100 miler, the one that breaks you into the world of ultra-endurance?
Races with the most elevation change, winding through the widest variety of ecosystems, can be called the best. On the other hand, maybe it’s the one connecting you most to a community of other runners.
Is the the ultra marathon where elite athletes compete for first, or the one where beginners and veterans alike slog it out for hours, together on the Wicked Trail?
Are 24 hour races or a point-to-point courses the best format for running ultra distances? Is it a loop course? Does it cross rivers in the forest or is it a road-race?
I think you get the point…
If you’re looking for the best ultra marathon to sign up for, or to make your first, chances are you’ve already found it. It’s one of the many you’re currently considering, and it’s all of them.
Any race you set your sights on, any starting line you lace your shoes up for, will be the best ultra marathon, in the moment, while you’re out there on the trail.
How can whichever race you choose be the best ultra marathon?
Because each race is so unique, presents so many novel challenges, and brings together a specific combination of elements, people, and excitement that cannot and will not ever be replicated again.
Whichever ultra marathon you sign up for, my friend, will truly be a unique combination of a lot of awesome things, and a whole lot of really tough things; isn’t this why someone signs up for an ultra marathon in the first place? Because of the unique challenge?
The people you share the trail with, the sunrise and sunset, the rain and wind or blazing sun will never be in the same place at the same time ever again. Think about that!
Your fear of missing the best ultra is in vain; everyone who doesn’t sign up for the race you enter will miss meeting you and experiencing the unique race you’re privileged to experience.
Kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it?
It’s crazy to imagine that each ultra marathon you sign up for is perfectly unique; distances of 50, 100, and more, miles create a complete uncertainty of conditions and experiences.
For example, the mountains of a Colorado race will be replaced by the by the scenic rolling hills and valleys of the Midwest. That flat course, the one you feel most prepared for, won’t be able to capture the ocean views of another more challenging race in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, those ocean views might not allow you the time to make a new friend or finish with a personal best.
Each race, whichever you decide on, is the right decision and the best ultra marathon for you.
So go ahead. Pick that one. Don’t waste time finding the ‘perfect’ ultra marathon; it’s the one you’re about to choose.
And when you’re out there taking in ocean views, climbing Colorado Rockies, or making new friends on the way to a personal best, here are the 3 things you can use to determine if the race is the ‘best ultra marathon.’
And guess what?
It always is…
1. You Experience a Challenge You’ve Yet to Face
Running an ultra marathon is tricky business.
Over dozens and hundreds of miles, the weather and temperature change can be dramatic. This is a unique challenge alone; how do I prepare to venture down a 100-mile course over a period of 30 hours in the mountains; anything can change! Rain, snow, lightning, freezing cold or blazing hot.
Couple these weather changes with the unique terrain of the race; bridle trail will get beaten in and muddy, steep climbs can become slick, dry conditions can create horribly dusty trails, and roads become dangerous as storms move in.
How can you prepare for everything?
Adding the human element to these unique conditions only complicates the challenge further. Did I bring the proper clothing? Will my mind remain sound? What’s that feeling in my knee?
I experienced unique challenges at each of my first two ultra marathons. The first, a 50 mile run around a 12.5 mile loop presented the challenge of the weather in relation to clothing; it was a unique challenge! I had never run for 10 hours and was unprepared for the physiological changes and how these related to my environment. I was too cold to walk, but too ‘hurt’ to run and my clothing was soaked from incessant rain.
Could this have been the best ultra marathon, if ‘unique challenge’ was the metric?
It was, until my first 100 mile race only a few months later!
That race redefined my abilities.
My strategy was never to race the clock, but when ‘the human element’ strikes, it hits hard!
At mile 92 I was projected to miss the 30 hour cutoff by a mind-numbing 7 minutes. I came so far only to face apparent failure. I’d never faced a challenge like this. [Read more about my first 100 mile ultra marathon here].
And conquering that challenge, one that seemed so insurmountable, made the Burning River 100, my first 100-miler, the best ultra marathon for me. The event’s unique challenges, just like the cold and rain of my first 50 miler, instilled in me a character that won’t soon die, from memories that will live on forever.
When you wonder aloud “What the hell am I supposed to do?” you’re in the right place. This was the race meant for you; it’s confirmed by the unique challenge that will test you now and mold your future.
2. You Learn a Lesson About Yourself, and About Others
This one isn’t always as obvious as #1.
It requires a hard look at your actions during the race, those of strength and of weakness, and assessing how they reflect the person you are.
It also necessitates humility; you probably weren’t suffering the worst out there. There is always someone else worse off than you.
How would you have handled yourself if you were worse off? Would you have the strength they’d had? Would your character flaws pour out?
How can you look at the condition of others, those pushing past The Wall, and draw on their strength, or learn from their weakness?
During my first two ultra marathons I envied those who stayed smiling throughout the race.
How could I not?
Their cheer in the face of such a mountain as 40 miles to run, when you’ve already run 60, made me consider my own personality in the face of adversity.
He is genuinely grateful to be able to run.
Look at the way she smiles with her crew; they’re all in this together!
They’re happy to be outdoors tackling this adventure!
Learn about how others find strength and take a look at yourself. Ultrarunners learn of themselves through adversity and find new ways to shape their character through the actions of others on the trail.
Every race, because of the uniqueness and novelty of the challenge, presents an opportunity to learn a great deal about yourself.
And you will surely be able to draw on your observations of others to improve yourself.
Take notes; the people, weather, trail, and challenges in this race are all unique to this moment in time.
The best ultra marathon is the one where you can draw on these notes and observations in the future, during races and during your daily life outside of ultra marathon running.
3. You Find A Taller Peak
Finally, the step that makes whichever race you choose ‘the best,’ is the Taller Peak.
Two scenarios mark the end of your ultra marathon: the dreaded DNF [click here to read about DNF] and the success of crossing the finish line before the time limit.
Challenge conquered, or defeated by challenge, the Taller Peak looms.
This Taller Peak can only be seen from the vantage point of complete effort; whether you finish the race or raise the white flag of surrender, you can see the Taller Peak because your complete effort was required.
The ultra marathon becomes ‘the best’ in the moment you stand up, dust off your shoes and take in the view.
What do you see? What do you feel?
Opportunity forged in a new understanding of one’s abilities. The desire to climb another mountain, confront another dragon, and expose yourself to challenge greater than the one that you conquered, or were conquered by.
In short, you see a Taller Peak.
It is your decision to make the ultra marathon you run ‘the best.’
Not always because of it’s reputation or the expected challenge. It won’t always be the shiniest belt buckle or the scenic pictures posted to Instagram that make the race great.
Maybe it’ll be the unique challenges the course and day bring, the opportunity you take to learn from other people and from yourself, and the vantage point you entertain upon completion.
It might just be hiding the best ultra marathon yet…