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What Drives an Ultra Runner?

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Psychology is a crucial part of ultrarunning, as is strategic nutrition, physical conditioning, a laser sharp focus and iron will… The ultrarunner – that rare unicorn – is a whole that is composed of these essential components. Leave one component out, and the chances of membership in this elite club significantly drop.

Many of us already display some or all of these traits in our everyday life, yet we do not eagerly sign up to run 100 miles nonstop through a lonely desert or rugged mountain pass. So what truly makes an ultrarunner? Many have attempted to answer this question over the years, and no one has come up with a one-size-fits-all theory. Let’s start at the beginning, with the information we already know to be true.

What is an Ultrarunner?

Previously known as a “marathoner”, an athlete who runs a distance longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles) is an ultrarunner. A run that is longer than a marathon is therefore referred to as an ultramarathon. Typically, the shortest ultramarathon distance is 50k (31 miles), but they can be as long as 100 miles or more. As opposed to marathons which are usually run on paved roads, ultramarathons most often take place on nature trails. The reasoning for difference in terrain is varied. Ultramarathons are often hundreds of people, instead of the thousands a marathon generally attracts. Practically speaking, it’s not easy to cordon off sections of paved road for longer periods of time, especially for so few people. But if you spend some time in the ultra world, you’ll find that the answer to this question is a lot more complicated than just convenient logistics. Ultrarunners seem to have a close tie with nature.

What Do You Need to Run an Ultramarathon?
According to the ultra running community, here are the five crucial things that are necessary to run an ultramarathon.

  1. Race-Specific Training

In order to prepare for the run of a lifetime, covering distances heretofore undreamed of… well, you need to practice running long distances. The best way to start out is by increasing your distance slowly, steadily, and in increments. Start with a 5k, and work your way up to a 10k, 20, 30k. When you feel ready, shoot for a 50k.

Because most ultramarathons are trails winding through varied nature scenes, any serious ultra training must include some climbing and descending. Include speed workouts like interval training: you won’t be running that fast in an ultra, but a speed workout can push your lactate threshold higher which in turn will help build your endurance. It’s always helpful to train at elevation if possible.

  1. Sufficient Hydration

Running an ultramarathon can take anywhere from six hours to over thirty hours. It’s no joke, and it means a runner has to prepare for their sufficient hydration and nutrition throughout this whole time frame. Different runners handle this in different ways – some carry their own water or liquids, others arrange to have it dropped off at aid stations or delivered by their crew. The most important thing is that a runner knows beforehand exactly what they will need (from all that practice), and make sure it will be available to them and at the right time.

  1. Sufficient Nutrition

Same goes for a runner’s nutritional intake throughout the ultra race. Again, everyone’s body processes fuel differently, so it’s something that must be figured out individually before a race. Some runners are known for snacking on boiled potatoes or cooked bacon, some swear by chia seeds and oatmeal, and others are contented to rely on popular bars, goos and gels to keep them sufficiently fueled for their run.

  1. Quality Gear

“You’re only as good of a runner as your socks and shoes allow you to be” is never more relevant than during an ultra. Ultrarunners are busy pushing their mind and body to their limits, they need gear that will take them there with unquestioning support the whole way. Each ultramarathoner has their favorite, time tested sock and shoe they prefer to carry them through the miles.

  1. Mental Strength
    Now, we get into the grayscale area of what makes an ultrarunner. As mentioned above, even if you’ve trained like a maniac and have all of the necessary fuel to run 100 miles, you still need the mental strength. When you are on mile 27, mile 49, or mile 78, on the verge of puking, blisters are forming and you are simply so incredibly bone tired you feel like you can’t go on… how do you go on? The well of strength an ultrarunner draws on must be deep, and the reasons are different for each individual.

So Why Do Ultrarunners Do It?

As Bruce Lee said, “The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus”.  There are varied answers from ultrarunners, and even more educated guesses from countless observers on why a human voluntarily undertakes the heroic feat of ultrarunning. Here some of the best reasons Runnerclick found.

It’s a test of their strength of will. In this modern, comfortable world where we seem to have established our domination, humans are rarely challenged. Yes, there are many worthy occupations out there that demand strength and agility, both mentally and physically. But the majority of us are never truly challenged past our limits. It’s not so long ago that the survival of a human required guts, brain, brawn, stamina, and a million other things…. just to stay alive for a few more minutes. This driving desire to push oneself to the top, to survive and thrive and prove one’s resilience has never quite disappeared – it’s just been muted in the modern world. An ultra run is the ultimate chance to find out what you are truly made of, and what you are capable of.

They are seeking a higher level of self-awareness. Ask an ultrarunner why they do it, and chances are good that their answer will include achieving some kind of transcendental state of mind. When it’s just you and the road and your thoughts for the next 50 miles, you can be sure you’ll be wrestling through some interesting topics and perhaps finding some compelling answers.

A true ultra offers a unique sense of adventure, danger, and accomplishment. As mentioned above, an ultra is not a walk in the park. Depending on the race, a runner may be traversing rough terrain in complete isolation for long stretches of time (between aid stations). Conditions vary, but they can include sub-arctic temperatures (like the North Pole Marathon) or tropical humidity (like the HURT100 in Hawai’i) and a whole range in between. Not just anyone can walk onto an ultra starting line and expect to finish. It takes serious training and preparation, a lot of faith, and a little bit of masochism.

It offers entry to an exclusive group of like-minded individuals around the world. While ultrarunning has gained popularity in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, it’s still a relatively small community and its members enjoy a tightly knit family vibe. There’s no doubt running an ultra is very much an individual experience, but the camaraderie of fellow runners going through the same grueling experience and making it out the other side is a connection few get to experience.


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