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What is an Ultra Marathon?

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A Technical Perspective

What is an ultra marathon?

That question has a perfectly technical answer (and another not-so-technical answer I’ll get to shortly).

Technically, an ultra marathon is completing, on foot, any distance over the 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) that marks the marathon distance. Yes, that’s right: if you run 26.3 miles, many ultra runners would (with a little eye roll) agree that you ran an ultra marathon.

That being said, the traditional starting point of an ultra marathon is a 50 kilometer (commonly called a 50K) effort. After that, especially in the trail scene, distances vary. The common distances, however, are 50K, 50 mile, 100K, 100 mile, 200 mile, and beyond.

You’ll see many distances other than these popular ones listed on UltraSignup, the go-to registration site for many ultra events.

Here are the different types of ultra marathons (with all races going longer than 50 kilometers, usually):

  • Distance races can be road, trail, track, or treadmill. The goal here is to cover a set distance, just like any other race. Some are loops, others out-and-backs, and many are point-to-point.
  • Timed races can also take place on roads, trails, tracks, or treadmills. In this race format, the runner (or…jogging hiker) tries to cover as much distance as possible in a set period of time. Oftentimes these races are loop courses; you’ll usually see runners opting for 6 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, or 24 hours, though plenty of races go beyond (and sometimes way beyond) these times.
  • Last man standing ultra marathons (like the infamous Big’s Backyard Ultra) are usually loops (though I’ve seen some out-and-back races like Race Mozey’s Magnificent Bastards Challenge pop up) where runners have a set time to complete a distance, and they must continue to do so until only one runner can finish a loop. These races can go on for days.
  • Fastest Known Times are another format of ultra running growing in popularity. The goal here is to set a record on a known, well-used route and have it recorded on the official FKT website. These routes can be thousands of miles, or just a few miles on a local route.

That’s the technical explanation of the ultra marathon.

So go ahead, lace up your shoes and cover a 50K (many runners will cover this distance just while training for longer distances). You can knight yourself an ultra runner and call it a day. Or dive into the adventure that is 50 miles, 100 miles, and beyond.

That’s ultra running.

But for me, “What is an ultra marathon?” has another, non-technical answer.

A Philosophical Perspective

I think this *other* answer also explains why people undertake such suffer-fests.

And much of it has to do with life outside of ultra running.

Because plastered on the walls of culture, covering every surface in every city, are messages of comfort, messages of the modern objectives of humans, messages of contentment.

And why shouldn’t there be?

We are biologically inclined to amass, feed, and shelter.

Amass resources, feed heavily, shelter luxuriously.

It’s the secret (or oftentimes not secret) pursuit of modern people to be comfortable. That’s why those messages of comfort exist, it’s why they are successful, it’s why we need an antidote.

Those messages exist because other people who seek to amass, feed, and shelter know those messages are successful in perpetuating comfort, that biological addiction modern people can’t easily shake, that biological addiction upon which they profit.

And money talks.

Money talks, and comfort is addicting.

Not only is it addicting, but it’s a socially acceptable, conformative addiction.

We need an antidote.

I need an antidote.

Because that sickness—perpetual, mindless, warm and happy comfort—is like a vapor cloud emanating from every piece of plastic, every sugary aisle of the grocery store, and every advertisement pushing us deeper into cozy contentment with how we operate, how the world works, and what thoughts we entertain.

It’s an infestation in the mind, the heart, the lungs.

We breathe it in, and sigh out happy contentment.

Here’s a hard truth: you and I can operate better, the world has some broken pieces that need replacing, and most people aren’t willing to question their thought patterns.

But how can we operate better when every moment of our lives is assailed with loudspeakers of comfort? How can we replace the broken pieces of the world when the modern world revolves around comfort? How can we expand our thought capacity—or accept new thoughts in our minds—when we’re so preoccupied with the next step toward endless comfort?

We can’t.

We need an antidote.

And I think ultra running is that antidote.

I think the ultra marathon is a marvelous medicine to the modern social, environmental, health & wellness disasters that plague comfortable cultures like our modern country, and those like it.

I believe that the ultra marathon is ultimate, perfect, voluntary discomfort. There is no challenge, no self-prescribed adversity, quite like it. You’re going to hurt very bad for quite some time for some little, intangible, silent shift in your character.

And that shift is what we’re after.

Because no finish line is like the 100 mile finish line.

No 5K or half marathon or full marathon can complete a person’s view of themselves quite like an ultra marathon. And I’m not exaggerating. It’s life changing.

And anyone who admits their life needs changing, anyone who is willing to venture into such mental, physical, and emotional hostility, has a place at my table.

Because they’ve stepped far outside of comfort for the betterment of themselves.

And when we better ourselves, we can’t help but see the world through a new lens…

“I stepped way outside of comfort, and I am far better for it. Let me take this perspective into the world. If I am better for this suffering, this new perspective, let me share it with others so that our world might be better. Let this new relationship I’ve forged with my body, my mind, and the natural world shine for others to see. Let my experiences mean something, and let me now begin to learn what that something is.”

For me, THAT is what an ultra marathon is.

Ultra runners aren’t crazy.

We’re curious.

We want to know what lives on the other side of fatigue and discomfort.

We’re not satisfied with the illnesses of convenience, modernity, and ease.

We’ve found another way, a curious way, a courageous way.

While other people amass resources, feed heavily, shelter luxuriously, and die…

We will amass fatigue on gnarly trails or lonely towpaths, fuel our weary bodies for the next climb, and shelter under tall pines from blinding rain and cold wind. Because we want to live.

And sure, many will enjoy a comfortable couch and a cold beer after a big race. But they won’t die on that couch, clutching a can of regret and anxiety. Their eyes are already staring up another mountain, into another storm, curious about what adventure waits in the clouds.

They’re willing to die on that climb, so that they don’t die on the warm, comfy couch.

I think a few hours (or days…) of discomfort is worth more than years of idle luxury, every pleasure within arms’ reach. Those few hours of reflection, staring at oneself and facing the insecurities of one’s own thoughts, are worth more (in my estimation) than all the self-help books in the world.

I wrote the following about ultra running awhile back: “The world may look the same after an ultra marathon, but your world will be drastically different.”

When we spend that time with ourselves and study our thought patterns, we change. It’s impossible not to. And when we change, our worlds change. And when my world changes, the whole world changes.

That’s what an ultra marathon is.

It’s a distance, a mindset, a curiosity.

It’s an antidote.

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