By Alice Hunter Morrison
Moroccan-based journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, writer for RunUltra, author of “Dodging Elephants: 8000 Miles Across Africa by Bike” and Special Correspondent for IRUN4ULTRA, a subsidiary of Hope So Bright.
The definition of an ultra running is any run that is over the marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers or 26.219 miles. For many people, once they have conquered their marathon and ticked that off their bucket list, they look to move up to the next challenge and discover the joy of ultras. There are two main types of ultra: the long single stage race and the multi-day stage race.
Single Stage Race
50km or 31 miles is a very popular starting distance as it is achievable for most fit marathon runners. However, make no mistake. That extra five miles at the end of your marathon can feel like a very long way indeed.
The next jump up, if you are going for straight runs (i.e., not multi-day runs), is 50 miles or 80.5 km and this really does signify a big change to the way that you have to approach a race and how to train for it. One marathon is hard enough, but two back-to-back means you have to be crazy, no?
Well, apparently not. Ultra running races, including both long day and multi-day races, have tripled in the last decade, with more than 12,000 races now held annually in the U.S. alone and that number continues to increase.
So, what does it take to step up from a marathon to a 50 miler and then a 100 miler or more? Whereas an average beginner marathon training program varies weekly from 15 to 45 miles per week, you need to be running a weekly volume of 50 to 60 miles I order to attain your first 50. If you have run a marathon before, a good plan is to add 10 to 15 percent to each week’s total mileage. Increase the mileage for three weeks, and then give yourself a break to recover during a fourth week by dropping your mileage down to the same range as week one. The long run must remain sacrosanct. This is the foundation for your race and will give you the confidence to succeed.
Why do people take on these ultra long distances?
“I like to compete. And, I like to work hard. I’ve made this point before: an ultra is the fairest sport out there. It doesn’t discriminate by race, gender or really even genetics. The harder you train, the better you do. I like that . . . a lot,” says ultra runner, Dave Krupski.
Matthew Inman had this to say about his first 50 miler: “The run itself was surprisingly enjoyable. After you’ve been running for 8+ hours every little thing becomes an incredible luxury. At mile 21, I drank a cup of flat Mountain Dew and I swear it tasted like unicorn tears. At mile 43, I ate a PB&J sandwich and it was like eating the entrails of a fallen angel.”
Vanessa Runs says that it is all about the egalitarian nature of the ultra challenge: “Ultras are hard for everyone. Ultras are just plain hard. Everyone struggles up that hill. Everyone has trouble breathing. Everyone feels the hot sun. Everyone is sweating. Everyone wants to sit down. You—sitting at your computer and reading this—would not be any worse off than I am on a steep, rocky hill. Trails can’t tell whether you’re an elite or a newbie. They’ll kick your ass just the same. So, you belong here just as much as I do and I belong here just as much as the dude who wins first place.”
The beauty of the long, one stage race is that you set your mind to it, you set off, you run/walk/crawl/complete it and then you are done. There is no break in focus or determination. You start and you go through to the finish, however hard and far away that finish is.
One of the other great joys of the long one stage race is that they are usually run off road on trails in amazing parts of the country. One of the most famous, Badwater ®135, is an exception as it is a road race, but it carries its own special beauty.
Top One Stagers
Here are three of our top one stagers:
Badwater®135 covers 135 miles (217 kilometers) of California’s Death Valley. Starting in the Badwater Basin, approximately 85m below sea level, the finish line is at Whitney Portal (Mt. Whitney) at 2,530m.
Started in 1978, the approximately 100 runners travel through Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf course, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Keeler, Alabama Hills, and Lone Pine. Many of these names give a very good indication of the extreme July temperatures (well in excess of 40ºC) and the stark landscape that surrounds the brave participants.
Western States 100
First, run in 1974, this race stretches just over 100 miles (or 161 kilometers) from Squaw Valley to Auburn, in California along the Western States Trail. Steep and remote, it must be completed in less than 30 hours. Some of the nature spots along the way include Emigrant Pass, the Granite Chief Wilderness, the canyons of the California gold country and the Middle Fork of the American River.
This race is a looped 100.5 miles of dirt trails along the San Juan Range of Southern Colorado with a total elevation of 67,984 feet. Starting at 6 a.m., the cut off time for the race is 48 hours. Runners cover extremely rugged terrain, steep scree climbs and descents, snow, river crossing, and boulder fields. Alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise every year, this extremely challenging course leads participants from Silverado through the towns of Telluride, Ouray and Sherman and back, crossing 13 major passes in the mountain range. Survival and navigational skills are required.
Multi-Day Stage Races
The multi-day stage race is a different beast from the one stage. As the name suggests, it is a race that takes place over a number of days. The total distance of the race must be over marathon distance to qualify as an ultra but each day does not have to be, so you will often find multi-day races with day runs ranging from around 35 kilometers or 21.7 miles. Often, the distance is around the marathon mark and with a couple of longer stages up to 100 kilometers or 62 miles. Each multi-day race is different.
As you are running over a number of days, these races involve having a kit, camping and food supplies. Every race is different, but typically a race organizer will provide the tents or overnight accommodations and the runner will take the rest of their kit and food in a backpack. The organizers may provide food and transfer of sleeping gear if so, this is great news for the runner as they don’t have to run with a big backpack. If not, then the issue of weight on one’s back versus taking enough food and warm clothes becomes an issue.
Training for a Multi Stager
The biggest piece of advice from experts on working towards a multi stager is to build up your endurance base. These races are going to call on you to perform day after day, so you need to be strong enough to withstand the strain that you will put on your body. At the beginning of your training, work on your endurance with different disciplines – cycling, rowing, and hiking are all useful options. Then, when you are into your running program, focus it around the daily average mileage you will have to do for a race. Don’t forget to add in the variables such as extreme heat or cold, altitude, the amount of ascent and the varying terrain.
Psychologically, these races are different from the one stagers. You have to keep motivation high over a long period of time. They are not as immediately physically demanding as 130 miles in one go, but they definitely require mental pacing to maintain a positive attitude. Day three can be a bit depressing.
Three of Our Top Multi Stagers
There are so many great races out there to choose from. Here are three of our favorites:
Grand to Grand
The race starts from the awe-inspiring north rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and finishes on the summit of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations. The course takes you through a high desert landscape of sand dunes, red rock canyons, buttes, mesas, and hoodoos. You will navigate compelling slot canyons and experience the remotest part of continental America in the way of the earliest settlers: the Navajo and Paiute Indian tribes. This is where Montezuma’s gold is still reputed to be buried.
Marathon des Sables
Known simply as the MDS, the race is a grueling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry on your back everything except water – everything you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night but any other equipment and food must be carried.
Set against one of the most iconic and awe-inspiring backdrops on the planet, the Everest Trail Race is one of the world’s toughest high-altitude ultra-marathons. Winding through the remote Solukhumbu region of the Himalayas in Nepal, the Everest Trail Race (ETR) is an annual multi-stage footrace, with a brutal altitude of more than 25,000 meters. Along hard trails of frozen earth, crunching through crisp snow and running over different types of rock, red, green and grey in color, prepare to cover a grueling 160 kilometers over six days.
Inspired to Run?
Whether you decide that your next race is going to be a multi-stage or a one stager, you are probably already in the throes of training. Long days out on the road and trails that lie ahead, one of the most valuable things you can have in your program is a great partner. There you have it! Happy Running.