Everything longer than the 26.2 miles or 41.195 km of a marathon we call an ultramarathon. But there is much more to it than that.
If you want to impress your running friends, any other friends or even work colleagues, a marathon will not cut the cake any more. You must come up with a longer run before you can claim your 15 minutes of fame!
Ultra-marathons can vary in distance or time. Common distances are a 50 km (31 miles), 50 miles (80.47 km), 100 km (62 miles) or a 100-mile (160 km) race.
There are also ultra-races based on time. Within a certain time frame, the winner is the person who runs the most miles. This time can vary from 6 or 12 to even 24 hours and everything in-between.
Typically, a 50 km race is the shortest ultra-distance race, but there appears to be no real limit on the maximum distance. There are plenty of races that exceed the 100-mile distance. Sometimes ultramarathon events take place over multiple days. (see top ultra marathons)
Over recent years we have seen a 1000% increase in ultramarathon races. Somebody must be moving out there!
With your new interest in ultramarathon running, we will go more in-depth and cover various aspects of running and participating in an ultramarathon.
Is a 50k an ultra-marathon?
Yes, a 50k race is an ultramarathon. The distance is longer than a marathon, although just by a few miles. You can ask yourself if it is a marathon with a few miles added on or is it indeed an ultra?
To me, the answer is clear, it is an ultra. Another 8k after already having run 42k is good enough for me. The definition of an ultramarathon is anything longer than a marathon. Certainly, this qualifies as an ultra.
You do not want to underestimate what these extra 8 km will do to you and what they mean during a race, mentally and physically. Your race strategy will have to change slightly compared to running a marathon.
No matter if you want to run at a fast pace or slow down your pace. Keeping well hydrated and getting the right amount of nutrition during the race is now even more important than during a marathon.
Having run a marathon is an achievement and something to be proud of. However, if you like to move into ultramarathon running after having completed one or more marathons, a 50k race is the easiest way to make the transition.
First, transitioning into an ultra-distance is easier if you have marathon experience. You are already used to making long training miles and only need to make smart, simple adjustments to your training schedule.
A second point is that you probably are familiar with mental preparation and nutrition needs, a required and important part of ultra-marathon running.
Experienced 5k, 10k, 10 milers, and half marathoners do not bring this necessarily to the table. They can still scale up to an ultramarathon distance, but it will require a more profound approach and research into many specific areas of long-distance running.
What is a 50-mile marathon called?
A 50-mile is called an ultramarathon. As such, it does not have a specific name. However, it has a long history. It appears that the first documented race over this distance took place in 1592 in northern France, won by a Dutchman in 12 hours.
Around 1870 they started to appear regularly. During the 1880s these walking events had strict walking “heel and toe” rules.
Around the same time, we see the establishment of “go as you please” 50-mile events. Now participants could also run the distance.
The 1920 Olympics changed all this when the marathon becomes formally accepted as a competitive distance. Slowly but surely the marathon starts to replace the by that time popular 25 miles (ca. 40 km) and 50-mile races.
For experienced ultra-long-distance runners, this is also where the ultramarathon seems to start. 50k races are part of their training schedule to prepare for 50-mile races.
On the other hand, ultra-runners that prefer distances over 50 miles (ca. 80 km) consist only of a quarter of all ultra-runners.
50-mile races are immensely popular. In 2019, in the USA alone you can find some 300 races scheduled on the race calendar. Covid-19 seems to have put a temporary hold on that growing number.
How many miles does an ultramarathon runner run?
An ultra-marathon runner runs distances varying from 50k to 100 miles or more. Beware, these are race distances!
An average training week is around 50 miles which will lead to strong and comfortable ultra-finishes. Once you are up to 70 miles (ca. 113 km) per week over 8 weeks, you are most likely in top-notch form. If you already navigated and managed other distances, you will be competitive at many ultras.
If that is not enough, some ultra-runners run 100 miles per week! That might mean a new pair of running shoes every month!
Just keep in mind that progression is a key factor in building up your mileage. Do not just start running 50 miles a week without previous training or experience. This will most likely end in disaster. The secret is to know how many miles you can add per week without getting injured. It is as important to know when to cut back and take it easier for a week or possibly more. After you cut back, you can start increasing your mileage again.
Building your training up in these kinds of blocks will help you to avoid injury. Your body needs time to recover and get used to the increased weekly mileage.
Many ultras take place on trail routes. It is a good idea to start running more on trails, so you can get used to the difference of running on paved roads compared to the much softer and uneven trails. Not to mention the steep inclines that seem to go together with trail running.
How much time do you have for running an ultramarathon?
The time you have for running an ultramarathon is depending on the distance you run, but in general it is a generous time limit.
Most people take around 3 to 6 hours to complete a marathon. In contrast, a 50k race takes an average of around 10 hours.
Most 50k races in the USA have a cut-off time of 9 hours. A 50-miler usually has a cut-off time of 14 hours whilst 100 k ultra-trail races tend to have a 16-hour cut-off.
The Comrades Marathon, a 90k road race had an 11-hour cut-off. This was extended in 2003 to 12 hours.
The most famous European race, the UTMB (The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) is 166km with a 46-hour cut-off.
Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a trail run, cuts off at 30 hours.
Officially named as the hardest ultra-trail race in the USA, the Hardrock Ultra Marathon cuts off at 48 hours. The unofficial hardest ultra-trail run in the USA, the one that eats its young, the Barkley 100 miler, has a cut-off time of 60 hours.
However, each 20-mile (ca. 32 km) loop must be completed within 12 hours. More often than not, nobody can complete the race.
If you do complete 60 miles (ca. 97 km) or 3 times a 20-mile loop, it is considered a fun run! The first edition took place in 1986. In only 13 years one or two finishers made it to the finish line. Only one year saw three finishers! The full, five-loop race has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners as of the 2019 event. The 2020 event has been canceled due to Covid-19.
As you can see, cut-off times vary between race distances but can also vary between races with the same distance. Many of these ultra-races take place on trails and most of the time there is a serious incline profile to be dealt with.
In general cut-off times give you an idea of the degree of difficulty of said race. Finishing an ultra counts only if you can manage this within the prescribed cut-off time. If you reach the finish line after the cut-off time, you will be considered as DNF (did not finish) in the official race results.
Is running 100 miles a week healthy?
Running 100 miles per week can be healthy if you build up how to get there. You need to slowly increase your weekly mileage and progress to a situation in which you can run 100 miles per week without getting injured.
Progression is key, just starting with high mileage will highly likely lead to injury. Building up your mileage can take weeks or months. Taking sufficient rest is also crucial. Your body will need to recover from these increased activity levels.
Increase your volume by 10-15% over two or three weeks, then take a recovery week. Now you can increase once more 10-15% over another week before you cut back for one week. This is a good progressive build-up to extend your weekly mileage.
If you want a breakthrough in ultra-running, you will need to put in the extra miles during your preparation or training period. This means that besides work, sleep, and running there will not be much time for anything else during a 100-mile week. Any time left you probably spend sleeping! Can you and your family deal with that? This is important for your mental health.
With increased mileage, up to 100 miles per week, you will also need to start looking at your nutrition. Your food intake is of importance for staying healthy. Not only whilst at home or work but also during your long runs.
You want to start eating pretty much at the get-go of your long runs. Keep in mind that what you can eat in the first 10-20km is quite different compared to what you can eat around km 40. By now your stomach is a bit touchier for what you can feed it. Most likely it will be something as fluid as possible with lots of calories, carbs, and electrolytes. Try out during your training what works best for you and do not start experimenting on race day.
Running hydration is also of importance. Different races, climates, and environments may ask for different hydration strategies. You will need to find the right balance for the number of electrolytes that you will need during various stages of your training and race. All these factors need to be taken into consideration, before 100 miles per week can be healthy. Running 100 miles during a week is not just a figure on a sheet of paper, a lot more thought and preparation come into play.
What is a respectable mile time?
A respectable time for a mile is 13:16 during an ultra. That is a whooping 1:41 slower compared to 1996 when the average pace was 11:35. One reason for this slowdown is that ultras have become more popular and the field is now mainly consisting of amateur runners.
Interestingly enough, the pace becomes faster the longer the race seems to be. The longer the race, the more professional participants seem to flock to the start line. Race over 50 miles tends to attract more dedicated ultra-runners. In general, these runners have more training miles under their belts, which in turn leads to a faster pace.
The pace in races longer than 50 miles has not much changed, but the pace in shorter ultra-races has indeed decreased since the mid-nineties.
One thing that you will need to get used to, is that your general pace will slow down once you start getting into ultra-running. Choose an Ultra-Marathon watch and follow the plan!
Can you sleep during a break in a 100-miler?
During most 100-miler you can get through without sleeping. Short naps can be helpful and once or twice have a longer break, so you can change socks, shoes, shirts, and the like.
The aid stations during an ultra are usually much better equipped with food compared to marathon races, where you basically can rely on water, gels, and sports drinks or electrolytes.
Ultra-aid stations will most of the time have nice spreads with all kinds of different food on display. You will also have the opportunity before the race starts, to have your bags deposited at designated aid stations. In this way, you can make sure you can receive the nutrition that you specifically require plus other items that you may need.
How long are breaks in an ultra?
Breaks in ultra-running vary depending on the distance you participate in. It is however important to have breaks.
You can have running breaks and start walking. Especially during the uphill parts, this is a good strategy. Practice your power walking skills.
At the aid stations, it is also important to take enough time out to replenish your nutrition and hydration needs. Besides these two important issues to take care of, you may also need to change shoes and socks or shirts and shorts. The battery life of your running watch may also run low. All things to consider when approaching aid stations.
Unless you are competing, breaks are a good way to make it to the finish line. Just keep an eye on the watch that you do not spend too much time at aid stations, you do not want to finish outside of the cut-off time.