12 reasons why you should run an ultra instead of a marathon

Finishing at Quicksilver – my daughter is running me in 🙂

I’m still a little baffled by my recent experience successfully completing the Quicksilver 50 miler. Like much else in ultra-running it appears counter-intuitive. Maybe I was just lucky.  Isn’t 50 miles supposed to be way harder than a marathon? Shouldn’t the body break down after 8 ½ hours of running, leading to some sort of self-actualizing moment? I think I heard trail running is growing faster than any other sport. For those of you looking for a challenge to get you motivated to get fit, I offer 12 reasons why your next challenge should be an ultra instead of a road marathon.

1. Way better bragging rights
It seems like every man, woman and child has run a marathon by now. Tell someone you’re running a marathon and they’ll just nod and wish you luck. If you say you’re running an ultra, you invariably pique their interest. Almost no one even knows what an ultra is, let alone has run one. When you explain its longer than a marathon the average person’s eyes widen in awe. Bonus: the easiest ultra is 50km, which most people will confuse with miles, so you may well get credit for 50 miles, even though you’re only running about 31 miles.

2. No one cares how fast you run it
After your first marathon, it’s all about how fast you can run it. Can you qualify for Boston? Because no one know what on earth an ultra is, they have no idea how long it should take. Especially if it’s in kilometers. Add in the fact that every ultra trail is different with staggeringly different terrain, and that when things go wrong, the minutes can really add up, and you have completely unpredictable race times. And once you start talking about being on your feet for over 5 hours, everyone is so amazed by the duration, they never get around to computing the velocity.

3. Fewer injuries (you can run the next day)
If you’ve ever run a road marathon, if you don’t get injured trying to make it to race day,  you know how beat up you are after you finish, hobbling around. Not so with ultras.  You can even start training for them injured and still finish just fine.  After my first 50km race, I ran 6 miles with my wife the next day. A week after Quicksilver, I ran 10 minutes faster than I ever have on one of my favorite 13 mile trail courses. They say you should only run 1 or 2 marathons a year because of the damage it does.  There are people running ultras every other week.  My theory on this one is that in a road marathon, if you’re running for a specific time, you’re redlining the whole way. You want to cross that finish line, completely spent without a drop of energy left in your body. On an ultra, you always run within your means to avoid blowing up. To give you a sense of this, if I put the hammer down in a trail run, I invariably get crippling calf cramps after about 2 ½ hours, no matter how much water, electrolytes and/or salt tabs I take . As soon as I back off 5-10% in effort, I can run 8 ½ hours without cramping. Just like a car can only redline for a short time before overheating, we humans can only keep going if we stay consistently below the redline.

4. Walking is encouraged
There’s a certain degree of animosity in road marathons between the runners and walkers. Not so in ultras. And only the top contenders can actually run up those hills. Mere mortals keep heart rates under control – see the comments on redlining above. If you want to finish, don’t waste your energy running up the hills. Once the perceived exertion, or heart rate (if you’re using a HR monitor) hits your lactate threshold, time to back off and walk. But learn how to bomb the down hills – such an easy way to make up time.

5. More happy people
If you’ve ever been in a marathon, you’ll know there’s a large number of extremely tense people. They are very stressed about running their best possible time. At an ultra, people are there to have a good time, take it easy, and enjoy the scenery. There is no prize money at stake – everyone gets the same t-shirt or finisher’s medal. So there’s just a ton of goodwill and camaraderie.

6. It seems like you get better as you get older
The proportion of folks in their fifties, sixties and seventies running ultras is way higher than for marathons. I’d like to think this is because they’re just plain wiser. And they obviously have a lot of time on their hands. But given all that free time, the running must be pretty fun for it win over all the other recreation options they could choose. And finally it can’t be too bad for you, if seventy year olds are still doing it.

7. You can eat whatever you like
In the world of marathons and triathlons it’s all hi-tech energy drinks, bars, gels and powders. Hardly what Michael Pollan would call “food”. At ultras there are typically bananas and oranges and cookies and potatoes and PB&J sandwiches at aid stations. There are tales of people eating pizzas at aid stations. Chocolate milk, turkey sandwiches and burritos are popular. Not only do you need a ton of food if you’re running for this long, but you’re stomach tends to enjoy real food much more than gels or other concoctions. At Quicksilver I couldn’t get gels to go down, but my body was just taking as many bananas and potatoes as I could eat. Because you’re not redlining, your body can digest more complex foods. And of course, if you’re running all those miles and burning all that fat, you get to eat more in general, which is a huge plus.

8. No more speed work
Every time I’ve tried to add speed work to improve my marathon times, I’ve got injured. With ultras, if you’re going anaerobic, unless you’re actually in a position to win a race, you’re going too fast. Just not necessary. Ok, you need to run a lot of hills. But the best training is literally time on your feet learning how to run long, easy and smooth, and how to burn fat. You’ve got about 2000 calories available as glycogen from carbohydrates, but 50,000 from fat. No amount of carbo-loading is going to meet your needs, so your body has to be comfortable using those fat stores – that means you need a few long (3 hours plus), slow training runs.

9. Less time training
Despite these long runs, you really don’t need to run that much.  Arguably you can get by with less than you need for a marathon. A lot of marathon programs involve up to 6 days a week of training with mileage in the 30-50 miles per week range. Much like my training for the Quad Dipsea, I ran Quicksilver with 12 weeks of training in the 25-50 miles per week range based on just 3 days per week of aerobic training: a long run (12-32 miles) on the weekend, up to 1 hours in the gym with some combo of bike/elliptical/stairclimber/ fast hill walk/ fast run, and a medium 6-10 mile run. I even stopped the yoga and stretching. I periodize each 4 week bracket into 1 hard, 2 medium and 1 easy week, and do 2-3 longer long runs (18-32 miles) and 1-2 shorter long (12-16 miles) runs per week. I try to do 2 races as part of the prep – around 20 miles long for a 50km, or 50km for a 50 miler. These build confidence and simulate the challenges of trying not to run too fast and how food and drink go down when you’re running a little harder. . As I said, it’s all counter intuitive. How can one do so little, and still run strong for nearly twice the distance and over twice the time of a marathon?

10. More fun
Trust me it’s a lot more fun to run 3 hours in the woods than 3 hours on the road. The scenery is way better. You’re mind calms down in amongst all that nature. Plenty of time to think through all your problems. You get to witness the passing of seasons as wildflowers come and go, the trails get muddy and dry, the creeks and waterfalls get full and then empty. And because you’re not redlining, no need to spend the afternoon in bed recovering.

11. You don’t need to buy any fancy gear (but you can if you want to)
In your first ultra, don’t be tempted to try to outrun the old-timer in a ratty old cotton t-shirt, cotton shorts and beaten up no-name sneakers. I tried this on in my first 30km trail race, and was trashed by a guy matching this description who ended up coming second in the 50km on that day. Mind you that was 10 years ago, and the front runners now are typically sponsored, and most people are wearing all manner of technical gear. If you’ve got the cash, it’s can be fun to buy a bunch of gear. It’s just nice to remember you don’t need it. If the Tarohumara regularly run 50 miles in sandals and a tunic, so can you.

12. If you listen to audiobooks, you can “read” a book a week
This is a bonus. You can appear amazingly well read even if you don’t like reading (which I do, but if you’re not travelling, and if you fall asleep when trying to read horizontally, it can be hard to find the time). Sometimes it’s great to just run for the sheer pleasure of it: no watch, no HR monitor, no headphones, just taking in the sounds and sights of the forest. Other times, a good book can be a very enjoyable way to pass the time on a long run. I’ve enjoyed listening to and learning from: Crush It!, Outliers, The Big Short, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and most of all , Born to Run on my long runs this year.

If you’ve already made the switch to ultras, I’d love to hear your reasons for switching.  If you’re thinking about it, what’s stopping you?  Have fun out there.

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Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.

The best laid plans…

this month's cover

Happy New Year everyone! Sorry to have been out of touch – lots and lots of work in the day job, and then we kicked off the year with a family circuit of the over-hyped swine flu (comes out of nowhere, knocks you flat, then vanishes without warning – maybe they should have called it surprise flu…)

I realized today that many of us start a new year (or even more portentous) a new decade with big plans and resolutions only to see many fall by the wayside. This should in no way be discouraging. Life and work are full of unexpected twists and turns. (Imagine how dull it would be if we knew what was going to happen.) It’s how we respond that matters.

You may remember I wrote recently with much pride about finishing an ultra giving my surefire tips for success with minimal training. I was lucky – about the only thing that didn’t go my way was some salty watermelon (it almost went the wrong way).

For Christmas, my generous and lovely wife (perhaps unwisely?) bought me a subscription to “Ultrarunning” a mag for the hardcore crazies full of 50k, 50 mile, 100 miles and more race reports.  One of the articles (those mavericks, they take pride in keeping content offline) gave advice to newbies, and the most important point was something (and most likely many things) will go wrong, it’s how you respond that determines how you finish.  Various body parts will fail, you’ll get nauseous, your gear will fall apart, your support crew will get lost…  Like everything else in life, you choose if you get pissed off, and become captive to the negative reaction, or accept it and move on, deciding how best to move forward with the newly understood reality.

On a lovely morning run at  Windy Hill this morning, I finally caught up with the audio edition of Economist Christmas special and was struck by this quote on the human condition: “Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us.”  In other words, it is imperative that we keep trying to get better yet we should never expect to reach a destination of perfection.  So write down those resolutions, give it an honest effort and don’t beat yourself up if life gets in the way.  Now, back to work.  Big launch day tomorrow.

How I ran an Ultra on 3 days/week with bad knees

Me, happily finishing the 2009 Quad Dipsea

Health and wellness are key components of a rich life.  You only have to lose them for a day to realize how precious they are.

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I successfully finished the Quad Dipsea (roughly 29 miles and 9300 vertical feet of climbing) in 5 1/2 hours placing me at 29th out of a field of 250.  The feeling of joy and sense of accomplishment as I crested the final hill and knew I was going to finish almost brought tears to my eyes and will be with me for a long time.  An unlike a road marathon, I was walking well the next day, and headed out for a little trot on Monday to stretch out the legs.

This is the first ultra I’ve run since Way Too Cool 50k in 2003 and I wanted to share a few tips on how I pulled this off with a 12 week training program including only 3 cardio training sessions per week.  For those of us who want to take on a significant athletic challenge but have families and careers, I thought it’d be helpful to know you can do it.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been nursing temperamental knees, ankles, plantar fascitis, achilles tendons and hamstrings, yet somehow managed to avoid surgery or stopping running altogether, so several of the tips pertain to preventative maintenance which becomes more important as our bodies age and tighten.

1. Periodize Your Training

The human body gets stronger through a process of increased intensity followed by rest.  This is why they don’t climb Everest in one shot, but go up and down between the base camps getting used to progressively higher altitudes.  What this means for a training program is don’t build from your base to the max in a continuous line, but add a little, maintain, and then back off, before building again.

My 12 week training plan for the 2009 Quad Dipsea

For a 12 week training period this would mean breaking it up into 3 x 4 week periods each containing 2 Medium, 1 Hard, and 1 Easy week.  You can see my training plan on the left, and read an explanation of the key components in following sections.  The great benefit of this is you can typically take it really easy in the Easy week following a Hard week if you push it too hard and some body part gets aggravated (quite likely on an accelerated training program like this).   Also, its much easier on the mind to break down the challenge of the 12 weeks as 3 manageable chunks each of 4 weeks.

2. Long Runs are Top Priority

Time Commit: Build from 2.5 to 5 hours per week.

There are a number of reasons for prioritizing long runs:

  • If you can finish a long run at 2/3 – 3/4 of your ultra (I built up to 21 miles  for a 29 mile ultra), you can finish your ultra.  Long runs give you confidence.
  • Once you start going over 2 1/2 hours, you use up all the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body and the body starts to turn fat into energy.  This is typically associated with “hitting the wall” in a marathon (the point in time at which  your body turns to fat as a fuel source). You’ll need to train yourself to keep running when you reach this point to successfully run an ultra.
  • You can practice using different nutrition and pieces of equipment to find what works.  What are you going to eat and drink, when to provide rehydration and energy without causing nausea or cramping?  How are you going to carry all this stuff ?    Do you need to lubricate certain areas to prevent chafing?  What socks and shoes won’t cause blisters?

I highly recommend training on terrain as similar as possible to the ultra, at race pace (more on this later).  Find some beautiful trails close to home that you can enjoy running on.  After long runs, take a 10-15 minute ice bath (I’ve had good success with just cold water), very unpleasant on entry, but brilliant for recovery.

This is the most intensive time sink on the weekends, so start as early as possible to minimize the impact on family time, negotiate in advance with any significant others for the time, and find some interesting podcasts to listen too (I’ve enjoyed learning French with Coffee Break French, listening to Free by Chris Anderson and Triibes by Seth Godin (both free downloads), TED talks, iinovate, and the Economist).

3. Interval Workouts with Stairs & Hills are 2nd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1.5 hours per week.

If you’re doing an ultra with a lot of climbing, stair climbing sessions are a necessary evil.  My “favorite” 1 hour workout combined 20 minutes of stair climbing with approx 25 minutes of walking at 4mph on a 15% slope, finishing with a couple of miles at a fast clip.  Fast walking uphill when tired is an extremely useful skill in ultras as is getting used to the transition from walking to running when you crest a hill.  If you substitute elliptical or bike for the run at the end, you have a low impact workout.

4. Mid-week Run and other Cardio are 3rd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1 – 2 hours per week.

Don’t add miles for the sake of it.  But a second run is good conditioning for the legs (at the end of the day the best training for running is running).  If cardiovascular endurance is your main challenge and the musculature is strong, add more runs.  If  you’re worried about injuries, use elliptical or bike to add endurance.   The bike is great at the gym because it’s so easy to read while you’re on it (use a HR monitor until you know what level to ride at), and out on the roads for building quad strength climbing hills.

5. Use Trail Races to Test Race Pace and Nutrition and Build Endurance

Time Commit: 3-5.5 hours once per month

There’s nothing quite like an organized run to get the competitive juices flowing.  I’m a big fan of the runs put on by Pacific Trails.  They’ve found the most fabulous scenic and hilly trails in the Bay Area, they have about 25 events per year, each one offering distances from 10k to 50k they’re great hosts and very well organized with clearly marked trails and well-stocked aid stations.  And they know the ultra community so well, so you can learn anything you need to.

One of the key things to do in races is to learn how hard you can go without blowing up.  Its good to get on the wrong side of the line a few times for the conditioning effect and reminder of how humbling that can be.

The other key component is getting your nutrition right because its under stress that things start coming undone – especially dehydration, cramps and nausea.  I nearly blew the Quad via nausea by taking watermelon with salt at the first Stinson Beach turnaround because they had no potatoes.  So use the trail races – about 1/month to work out what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t).

6. Use Yoga to Build Core and Flexibility

Time Commit: 2.5-3 hours per week

Yoga has been the big find for me this year.  It provides great core strengthening, balance and flexibility improvements.  I’m particularly inflexible and yoga has offset the compression of running to keep my iliotibial (IT) band stretched enough to not bother my kneee. Twice a week of Vinyasa or other flow-based practice seems to do the trick.  And learning how to be grateful and at peace with yourself while practicing a little flow is good for your happiness as well 🙂

7. Roll, Stretch, Strengthen, Ice, Repeat

Time Commit: 30 mins in front of the tv, 3 times per week

I’ve got to believe most people have a long list of items to watch on their Tivo/DVR.  So its just something productive to do when you’d otherwise be completely immobile on the couch.  Using a foam roller will really help to break down scar tissue forming on your legs. Roll until you find a sore spot, hold for 20 seconds, roll to the next spot.  Then stretch out problem areas – nice long gentle stretches of up to 2 minutes duration without bouncing (believe it or not, stretching improves through relaxing, not forcing the muscles).  If you’ve got a few strengthening exercises (squats, 1-legged squats, leg raises, crab walks, etc) from your physical therapist or chiropractor now is the time to do them.   A few sit-ups, planks, crunches, and  back extensions are good if you’re not doing any yoga.  Then strap an ice pack on to the tender areas (in my case, knees) for 10-15 minutes.  You should ideally roll and stretch before exercising. 

8. On Race Day, Back off  the Pace, Have More Fun and Finish Quicker

Time Commit: 5.5-9 hours, Memories: Priceless

This is the most critical piece of advice I can give.  From bitter experience, if you go out too hard, you’ll most likely blow up.  Back off, enjoy the beautiful scenery and if you feel good later, pick up the pace.  If I go out too hard, (typically characterized by getting anaerobic on the first couple of hills) I typically get severe cramping after 2.5 hours, no matter how many salt tablets and/or water I take or stretches I do.  If I back off 5-10%, the cramps don’t happen.  In the Quad I ran the Double in 2:37 vs. my personal best of 2:27.  Those 10 minutes made all the difference in the world.  I had to consciously keep reminding myself to slow down on that first leg – coming into Stinson Beach the first time I just felt fantastic.

I hope this experience will provide some guidance and inspiration for others.  You really can make this happen off a pretty small base (say 3 days of cardio a week with an 8 mile long run) even with less than perfect knees.