Could an ultra marathon ever be easier than a normal marathon?

OK, stay with me here and I might be able to explain what I mean, despite the apparent (and possibly actual) nonsense of the title.

Please note that I’m not saying that marathons are easy – they’re not. If you’ll forgive me getting scientific here, marathons are officially ‘a very long way to run’ and so are ‘extremely difficult’. Although ultras are ‘even further’ my point is that, while still being extremely difficult, they might not be quite as difficult.

Big talk for someone who has not run beyond the marathon distance. I may yet live to eat my words – but here’s the reasoning …

I like running but I’m not particularly good at it. Now in my mid 60’s I’ve run three marathons (two just under, and one just over, 4 hours) and have decided to try an ultra (a 50km trail race).

The third of my key aims in all my marathon attempts has been to run all the way (the first two are to get around safely and to try to enjoy the experience). I’ve also had a time target for each of the marathons – sub 4 hours for the first two and sub 4.15 for the third.

I’ve hit the targets each time but there is no doubting that they put extra pressure on the event.

For most entrants, ultra marathon running is a bit different. All credit to the super-fit who run them all the way, and are actually racing, but they seem to be the minority – the majority of entrants are going to be very happy finishing and will almost certainly do some walking. Indeed, walking is often expected and even encouraged. In addition, stopping at feed stations is also actually encouraged – adding yet more time to the race.

That leads to one interesting difference between marathons and longer distance races: the time taken to complete an ultra seems to be much less important to the extent that, other than for the elite racers, it is pretty much irrelevant. Why?

Could it be that, 30 or 40 years ago, no one but elite athletes did marathons so when mere mortals started doing them it was awe-inspiring simply to see ‘an ordinary person’ complete one. Now so many folks have run one, they seem more within reach to the majority. As a result, perhaps doing one seems to be less impressive in itself (though to me they are always impressive) so we look to ‘how well (ie fast)’ we do it.

Put ‘ultra’ in front of ‘marathon’, and perhaps some of the sense of awe comes back. Ultras have not made it into the mainstream like marathons have so, to the majority, it is impressive just to complete an ultra. Accordingly, the ‘how well did you do’ it aspect disappears again.

If you talk to a non elite athlete who has run a marathon, you probably ask what time they did it in. If you talk to that same person who has completed an ultra, is time a factor at all?

If time is a factor, is the longer the time all the more impressive as a measure of endurance and suffering, rather than a sign of less speed?

Given that an ultra (including the one I’m aiming for) can be as little as another 5 miles beyond the marathon distance, the awe for such an ultra is probably not 100% merited but its existence does seem to take the time pressure off.

I’m very happy to say that I have completed a marathon in under 4 hours – but I’ll be delighted if I am able to say I’ve completed an ultra marathon, irrespective of the time, or the amount of running/walking involved.

So, freed from the time pressure, and with walking entirely allowable, could the 50km ultra (potentially) be a bit easier for someone like me who feels obliged to run the whole way and aim for a target time if doing a marathon?

Perhaps it could be, mentally at least – but if that leads to complacency in the training, the extra distance and more difficult terrain of a trail race may well constitute a real sting in the tail that will come back and make me look a complete fool …

Or, of course, I could mess it all up by deciding that I want to run the whole thing …

7 thoughts on “Could an ultra marathon ever be easier than a normal marathon?

  1. Julie

    I think that the terrain will be the challenge of the ultra, won’t it? What will it be like? I don’t fancy trail running for that reason – give me a smooth footpath any day!! I’d be a nervous wreck

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Omil Post author

      I’m with you – the smoother and flatter the better. I don’t think this bit of the Ridgeway is too bad and people suggest walking up the hills (although running down them can be even harder). All good reasons to take it gently.

      Liked by 1 person


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