When the Marathon Is Not Enough: The Rise of Ultra Running

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If you’ve run a marathon but want more of a challenge, you’re poised to join a small but quickly growing tribe: the ultrarunners. Get the scoop on what exactly an ultra race is, along with why its fans are so devoted.

The Races

The shortest standard distance that is considered an ultra is a 50K (31.07 miles), which is the most popular ultra distance, followed by the 50-miler. There are also 100-mile and 100K races, as well as those that last for specified periods of time (6 hours, 12 hours, 48 hours, 6 days). Although there are nowhere near as many ultras as there are marathons or half-marathons, the number of events is growing. According to data from UltraRunning Magazine, there were 293 races in 2004. By 2014, that number had quadrupled.

These races differ from your typical 5K, where you might run the whole course brushing elbows with your competitors. With fewer participants and spectators that are spread out over many miles, an ultra is a solitary adventure. “You’re running by yourself for much of the race, so a lot of your power has to come from within,” says Eddy Lentz, a 46-year-old marketing manager in Portland, Oregon, who recently ran the Forest Park 50K in Portland, Oregon, and the Gorge Waterfall 50K in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. So what makes logging 30 or 100 miles appealing? The challenge. “It’s really cool to realize that you can go farther than you think,” explains Lentz.

27The Shoes

The rise in ultra running has changed the shoe market. In 2010, Hoka One One became the first ultra-born brand with the launch of the Mafate, a sneaker designed to keep legs fresh for longer. Moving away from the minimalist trend, it offered extra cushioning, a stable profile and a rocker motion to help runners roll through their strides. Now the shoes are loved by 10K runners and 50-milers alike. The Challenger is all-terrain so it’s great for trails, while the Vanquish, Valor and Odyssey are primarily for road-running.

The Runners

In 1980, less than 3,000 people finished ultra races. In 2013, nearly 70,000 did. The demographics of the ultrarunning crowd are changing—70% of the sport’s devotees are male, but the number of women is on the rise. Last year, 35-year-old Priscilla Barker joined the growing ranks of female ultra runners. A long-time trail runner, the Portland, Oregon, editor decided that it was time to push her limits. At the starting line of her first 50K, she felt like she was going to throw up. She followed the advice of an ultra veteran, who told her to break up the race into thirds: Run slowly and hike the hills on the first third, pick it up a bit on the second third, and push yourself for the final third. Barker hit a low point between miles 20 and 26—she was running by herself, and she felt exhausted and discouraged. Suddenly, things turned around at mile 26, when her adrenaline kicked in and carried her. “I grinned for the last five miles. I just kept telling myself, ‘This is crazy! I’m going to finish this race!’” she remembers. “I couldn’t believe I had any gas left in the tank, but it ended up being the best race of my life.”

Competitive ultrarunner Yassine Diboun knows that feeling of finish-line euphoria well. The 36-year-old founder of Animal Athletics, a group that organizes training and hiking/trail-running trips in the Pacific Northwest, took 15th place in last year’s Western States 100-Miler, and he won the Ultra Trail Torres Del Paine 109K in Chile. He runs five days a week; depending on what he’s training for, those runs are anywhere from 6 to 30 miles. “It’s a time-consuming sport, but I love it,” he says. “Luckily, my wife understands. When we got married, she actually said in her vows that she would support me in all my crazy ultra adventures!”