Ultramarathons can be intimidating even to regular runners – perhaps it’s the ‘ultra’ right there in the name that makes it sound so terrifying? But Andy DuBois, ultramarathon coach and founder of Mile 27 Personal Training, says there’s nothing to be afraid of. “Ultras aren’t as extreme as they may sound – sure some of the more gruelling ones are suitable for the experienced runner only, but many other races are within the realm of anyone with a modicum of fitness if they train properly for it.”
An ultramarathon is any race that is longer than the traditional marathon length of 42 kilometres and DuBois says they come in four main types: trail races, road races, track races and multi-day races. As the name suggests trail races are run on trails, so they are often on rockier terrain. Road races are typically 50km or 100km, with the longest one in Australia being the 240km Coast to Kosciusko. Track races are usually run to see how fast one can run in a specified period, which can be anything from six hours to six days.
And ultramarathons have seen an increase in popularity in recent years. “In Australia participation in ultras has really grown over the last few years, particularly in trail races,” says DuBois. “The most popular is The North Face 100 held in the Blue Mountains each year in May with almost 1000 participants. I think the reason they have grown so much is people are looking for a new challenge – they are bored of running on roads and running races with thousands of other runners. The chance to run in nature with a few like-minded souls is very appealing.”
Another interesting aspect of ultras is that unlike to the vast majority of sports there is a relatively even playing field between men and women. “Women, whilst making up the minority of runners in ultra, actually compete very well against the men. They often place in the top ten or higher, and in some races have won outright,” says DuBois. “The strength advantage men have over women is of far less importance in an ultra and whilst men still have the physical advantages since the mind plays a much bigger role it allows a very mentally strong female to be competitive with almost all the men.” He name checks triumphant women runners Pam Reed who won the Badwater Ultramarathon twice, Krissy Moehl who won the Where’s Waldo 100km and locally Jess Baker who won the Big Red Run this year, a 250km multi-day race in the Simpson Desert. “Women should definitely not be intimidated in taking up ultras,” says DuBois. “It’s a very friendly and welcoming sport where everyone gets respect from the winner to the last person who crosses the line.”
For regular runners who want to try doing an ultra DuBois advises that training is key. “Assuming we are talking about a trail ultra of between 50 to 100 kilometres in length, then the key part of their training should be to increase the long run and get more time on their feet. Mixing up walking with running is a good way to increase the time on your feet without getting injured, but it’s something many runners struggle with. Walking is seen as the soft option. Not so in ultras – walking is usually the smart option, particularly up hills.”
DuBois also recommends training specifically for the course, as a lot of ultras are extremely hilly compared to other running events. “The Sydney City2Surf –considered a hilly race – has less than 200 metres of ascent and descent in it. In some ultras you may have several thousand metres of ascent and descent.” So to prepare for the ups and downs hills and stairs need to be included in any training regime.
So if you want to take your running to the next level, it might be time to drop the fear and look into ultras. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that ultra marathon runners are all elite athletes. This is definitely not true,” says DuBois. “Many ultra runners are quite slow runners who just happen to like running for long periods of time.”