Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Does an Ultra Have to Do with a Marathon?

What Does an Ultra Have to Do with a Marathon?
 The Problem of Accurate Terminology in Trail Racing

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis

     The spiritual motivation for this post comes from a conversation I had with a friend at my job the other day, which I’m sure a lot of ultra runners can relate to.   I’m a nurse in a children’s hospital, and there must have been rumors going around, because he approached me on our unit and said, “Hey, I need to ask you something?  What’s the furthest you’ve run?  No, straight out, did you run 100 miles?!”  

     When people ask you things like that, a million thoughts flash through your head.  I think most of us are at least a little worried that saying “yes” to this kind of question will lead our peers to assume that we’re a little bit off.  I work on the psychiatric unit, and the guy who was asking me is a therapist, so it’s even worse - I’m sure he had at least five categories of illness he could immediately place me in just based on this short exchange. The question must be on a diagnostic questionnaire somewhere: “Do you hear or see things that other people don’t?  Do you worry that others are out to get you?  What’s the furthest you’ve ever run?”

     But at heart, the main reason that I felt uncomfortable answering “yes” to my friend’s question – even though I completed the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run last year – is that it isn’t really true.  Like most people who complete a 100 mile race, I actually didn’t run anything like 100 miles.  I’d estimate that I ran 75 max, and I definitely didn’t do that continuously.  
     During the race, I stopped for sandwiches, walked pretty much anything with even a slight uphill slope, drank a beer, and spent significant amounts of time sitting in lawn chairs.  Even when I was technically “running” on the flats and downhills, my pace couldn’t be classified as anything more than a jog, and was frequently more of a shuffle or a labored hobble.  If you want to really talk about running, I’m not sure I’ve ever continuously run anything much over a half marathon.  After that, you can be sure that I’ll be stopping to walk on occasion, wandering through aid stations, and sitting down from time to time if no one is looking.  I have absolutely no inhibitions about hiking.  Maybe I’ve run a marathon.  I’ve completed dozens of ultra-distance “runs”, but I’ve never really run one.  Not all the way anyway.

     Despite all that, for simplicity’s sake, I said “yes”. The guy laughed, slapped my shoulder, and walked away.  “That’s insane, man!”  

     “Running” an ultra-“marathon”?  

     Outside of work, in the bizarre social circle of ultra runners that I live in, conversations about terminology seem to keep coming up.  I know several people who are participating in the Tahoe 200 Ultra that is being put on by Candice Burt this Summer, and some folks aren’t clear what it should be called.  Clearly, 200 miles is a different animal than 100 miles, or 50 or 31, so shouldn’t it be called something other than an “ultra”?  Is it an ultra+ or a mega-ultra, indicating some kind of affinity to its shorter brethren?  Or alternately, is it a stage race?  The vast majority (and maybe all) of the runners will sleep during the race for some amount of time, after all.  
     Along different lines, a conversation keeps arising about the pretentiousness of referring to oneself as an “ultrarunner”, as if moving for longer distances somehow makes you superior to other types of runners.  Even if your neighbor was really good at their job, and spent more time doing it than any of their peers, wouldn’t you think they were a Grade-A turd if they insisted on referring to themselves as an “Ultra-banker”, “Ultra-waiter”, or “Ultra-teacher”?  Deep inside I cringe a little bit every time I hear someone refer to themselves as an “Ironman” (I know  you’re just a swimmer/biker/runner/tights-wearer), but I’m no better with my claims to be an “ultramarathoner”.

     And while the term “marathon” has come to refer to a distance (26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers) pretty generically, I personally think that it’s misleading to associate what happens in “ultras” with what happens in marathons by referring to them as “ultramarathons”. In most cases, it isn’t as if an ultra is just a marathon with more distance added.  In some ways they’re harder due to added distance and (usually) elevation gain and the occasional mountain ascent/descent, but in other ways they’re easier because no one judges you if you stop in the middle for a several mile stroll while drinking coffee and eating a bunch of cookies.  

     This is especially true with 100+ mile distances: when you can finish a race under the cutoff time while also getting a decent night’s sleep in the middle, it doesn’t have much in common with, for instance, Meb Keflezighi’s seemingly miraculous 2 hour and 10 minute speed sessions.  At the same time, it seems to do some amount of disservice to a mountain runner like Killian Jornet to compare him to a guy like Meb who destroys flats and asphalt.  They’re both beasts, but they’re clearly different breeds of beasts.  And culturally and spiritually, many “ultras” are no more “marathons” than my “stopping to eat a bacon pancake” during Cascade Crest was a “run”. 

     As it is though, trail runners are hamstrung by our terminology.  If we want to explain to our peers what we do with our weekends, there’s not a lot we can say concisely other than that we “run” “ultramarathons”.  I’m a firm believer in the need to delineate things – to distinguish what we do on the trails or in the mountains from what hikers do, or from what road racers do, or even from what those who race shorter distances do – but personally, I think that it would be great to start a larger conversation about terminology regarding these things we call ultras.  

     My proposal: Foot Races and Foot Tours
     Stylistically, I’m more into the classics and the old-school than the cutting edge, so my preference would be if we just stopped with the “ultrarunning” talk altogether, and went back to a designation that has a simple 1800s kind of vibe – Foot Racing.  If we’re organizing long events where the goal is to move overland without the aid of vehicles or other mechanical aids to locomotion, just state the distance and the approach: a 100 mile foot race, or a 5 mile foot race.  It’s all just movement on two feet, and an attempt to see who can cover the course the fastest.  

     But because I love nothing more than coining new terms (my goals in the trail running world relate as much to contributing to the community lexicon as to completing races), I would also like to suggest a new term, which describes other events and activities that don’t involve podiums and speed goals.  Drawing on ski terminology, I like the idea of referring to self-supported or unsupported long distance outings on the trails as Foot Tours.  The term is in the spirit of “foot race,” and complements it.  It’s basic, old-timey, descriptive and unpretentious, and it can be applied to a variety of activities.  It can encapsulate both hiking and running, and one-day or multi-day outings, but it suggests that a lot of ground is being covered.  And for some reason, if a guy at work asked me what I did over the weekend, I would feel more comfortable telling him that I went on a 30 mile foot tour than a 30 mile run.  

     As much as I’d like my own terminology to catch on, if I’m being realistic, the fact is that we’ll probably always be stuck calling what we do “running” “ultras”, because once something’s been branded in the public consciousness it’s almost impossible to make a change. At best we might be able to come up with a name for these new kinds of events, like Tor de Geants and the Tahoe 200 - that fit in a gap between 100 milers and multi-day stage races (any ideas?  I got nothing beyond “Foot Race”), but it’s still fun to have a go at coming up with something a little more apt, and a little more honest.

Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to He has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years.  One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso.  He blogs occasionally at and has contributed to and Trailrunner Magazine.


  1. Hey Tim, here are my thoughts.

    - The trail running community seems to have taken the term "ultra" to heart but I agree that incorporating the word "marathon' can be a bit confusing/misleading.
    - Then again, the term "marathon" is used generically any time you are talking about long/epic things; like this, "I just had a marathon session at the gym, holy cow am I beat." Used this way "ultra marathon" is perhaps somewhat redundant but people absolutely know what you are talking about.
    - Since trail running events let any (reasonably fit!) average Joe and elite athletes toe the same line at the same event, it's hard to justify different terms for events which include both people just trying to finish within the time limit and those racing to win.
    - The term "ultra" is incredibly relative. To you, today, ultra might mean anything longer than 26 miles but to your co-worker it might mean anything longer than a 10k! And recall for a moment how "ultra" a regular old marathon felt to you when you first started running, or how casual you are now about running a 50k. Ultra runners have a unique (somewhat distorted?) perspective when it comes to distance that's hard to deny.
    - There are times when you start a "foot race", realize today is not your day and end up completing a "foot tour". And the reverse is of course also true, you can start running a tour, realize you feel spectacular and then race it in, perhaps for a PR!
    - People have huge egos! Even if you call a long, solo run a "tour", someone will at the very least find it and then set a FKT and post it to make it official.
    - Maybe it only matters what YOU (read: anyone) call the event you are participating in? I suppose there is no problem with you "touring" around Mt St Helens by yourself and someone else spending $150 to race around it and get an official time.
    - Personally I'm not worried about differentiating between long events and really, really long events. Like I said above, the term "long" (read: ultra) is totally subjective. For myself I seem to have settled on "ultra trail running" when I head out with friends or "ultra trail races" when I pay money to run a particular course.
    - I see no problem with the term "ultra marathon" as to me "ultra" just means long and "marathon" has long ago ceased to mean only a 26 mile foot race. English is a rapidly evolving language after all, just check out stuff like this here:

    So there you have it, more opinions and no answers. :)

  2. Tim, very well written article pointing out some very true and humorous things regarding the labels we use. I agree with your proposition to start using "foot race"; but I'm not so sure about a "foot tour." The word tour sounds much too casual, easy and non-competitive. It sounds like a boring tourist attraction that involves little to no fitness or training. The term "ultra" makes sense (literally meaning "beyond"). So an ultramarathon is a perfect description in its literal sense, to describe any foot race that covers a distance beyond 26.2 miles. Besides the literal meaning I think the term ultra has grown into a term that represents a culture of RUNNERS (not walkers, hikers, or foot tourers). We are runners, we just happen to choose races with distances and terrain that include some level of hiking and stopping to eat pancakes; that is part of what ultra running is.

  3. Agree with jdvane21, we definitely need some distinction between "runners" and walkers & hikers (and I think here sometimes there is a fine line, and is often delineated only by the size of the pack and the shoes).
    What I object to is the term "race", which I feel runs opposite to the "trail" culture. Except for a few elite, I don't feel that events are °races° and feel uncomfortable in calling them so. A marathon can be considered a race, because after the first few, its not a matter of completing it, rather a matter of how fast. And within a few minutes, you can compare your times in most marathons around the world. On trails this is different, Every trail will be different, so no longer can you just use distance or distance + elevation gain as the only factors. In the trails there are many other factors. Also the community is smaller and I feel a much less competitive environment and a much more collaborative environment.
    So I vote no for "Foot Race".. Ultratrail still rings well to me; which I think differs greatly from an °Ultraroad°, and there you have another entirely different beast than ultratrail or marathon elites.

  4. Lots of good thoughts here. I like Martin's point about the subjectivity of this all. In part I think terminology is an interesting conversation at the moment because people still seem to be innovating and creating new approaches that seem to call for new designations. It's hard to agree on what those should be b/c designations, at some level, reflect values about what's happening. (It's funny - jdvande21 - I kind of like the term foot tour specifically b/c it is casual, easy and non-competitive, which reveals some aspect of my running ideals). I think it's also true that there's marketing importance in designations. I poopoo the term 'ultra', but if I'm honest a big part of tackling my first 50k (vs. taking on a trail marathon or something) was being able to call myself an 'ultra runner', even if I don't fully like the term nowadays.