Top 5 Differences between a Marathon and an Ultra-Marathon

You didn’t think that THIS could be all I had to say about my first 50K now did ya?

Yup, I’m back with some more thoughts (that keep pouring into my head) about my Ultra experience, and with a few answers of the handful of questions I have received since completing the race. So without further ado…

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5. The Organization

Now, I cannot speak for any race other than the one I did, of course, and it is a bit of an unfair comparison to stack up this one event against the 8 marathons and countless other long distance events that I have completed, but in general, it can be boiled down to one concept – less mess, less stress! With paper registration, no real race website and no email communication prior to the event, I was originally a bit taken aback – after all, I was used to the BIG events with constant updates, the ability to confirm my bib #, tracking…all that jazz. With this event. the only way I could tell if they had even received my information was seeing if my check was cashed, and then personally contacting the race director. So, although it felt confusing to me at first, it actually was as simple as could be. I didn’t find out my bib number until I arrived that morning (which I believe were assigned as to when you registered) and we got the low down on the course and aid stations 10 minutes before the race started – a “difficult” concept to grasp for a “Type A” sort of person, but deep down, a wholly simplified one. Winner: Ultras.

4. The Dirt

Literally, the dirt. I don’t like being dirty. It’s the main reason you will most likely never see me at one of those Tough Mudder, Pretty Muddy, or even themed Color Runs. Sweaty? Okay, I can handle that because it’s just part of the package here in SW Florida, but yeah, me and dirt – we don’t get along very well.

Despite my aversion to messiness, I did still enjoy the course, which included packed sand (some parts more packed than others), slightly muddy shaded, foresty areas, small pebbles and more, but did not LOVE the fact that I had to stop and shake out my shoes twice during the race – so when I take another jaunt on the trail running side, I will definitely need to procure a pair of gaiters. You know what else about that dirt?? It permeates! Seriously. I was wearing knee-high CEP Compression socks and even after removing them, my legs were totally filthy. And the insides of my shoes? Let’s just say I am glad that they were black to begin with.

Every marathon that I have ever run has been strictly road (or other cement/blacktop/not dirty type surface) and in general, I prefer that – though there will be hard-packed sand running at DONNA later this month, so I’ll have to report back on that when the time comes…but I digress. Winner: Marathons.

3. The Food

About halfway on my short drive over to the park, I realized that I had forgotten my regular race fuel, my Salted Caramel GU! As I glanced at the dashboard clock, I made the decision to just rely on course refreshments – and I am glad that I did – with three aid stations available on each loop, I was sure to stop each time for water, gatorade, Coke, M&Ms, fig newtons and even peanut-butter filled pretzels. Each time, I stopped, chatted for a bit, then headed back out. I probably took in about 600 calories altogether, and never felt dehydrated/fatigued/etc. Oh, and at the finish: turkey sandwiches! Yum!

Of course, these goodies fared well with the fact that I was definitely running an easy, comfortable pace (especially after Mile 26 – it took me an hour from then to 31 to complete, since I wanted to finish strong and ready to take on the last two weeks of Donna training) so they probably wouldn’t be quite as ideal at a 26.2 distance. Winner: it’s a tie!

2. The People

I love runners in general, and there were no unpleasant people at all at this event – which makes sense, because really, you have to kind of know what you’re getting yourself into to run 25 or 50K through a soggy park on a humid Florida day,  and there is a sort of unspoken bond in the air. Every person – runner, volunteer, young, old, veteran, newbie – had these huge, genuine smiles on their faces for the hours we were out there – and I think that really made a difference for everyone.

While there is nothing (to me) the compares to the energy and excitement of a marathon event, I have unfortunately come across a situation or two of “Grumpy Gusses” and while I do know it’s a bit unrealistic of me to think that everyone is actually having fun while running 26.2 (haha), I have to say, running 50K showed me that a little positivity goes a long way!  Winner: Ultras.

1. The Pain

In the eight full marathons I have run so far, there have been four instances of memorable pain: (1) Richmond Marathon, right after the finish – those hills leading back to the hotel darn well sent shooting pain up my legs, which continued until I got back to the room to shower (2) Shamrock – from around Miles 22-26, when I thought the balls of my feet were on fire from running the sides of uneven, banked roads (3) Three Bridges Marathon – just the worst, all around, and (4) Mile 26 of the Space Coast Marathon (drained of all energy). And yes, these are the four instances, of eight – which means quite simply, that the other four were magically pain-free marathons 😉 Hah! Okay, but really, after a few goes at 26.2, you kind of can get a feel for what kind of world of pain you might be asking for depending on your prior training, the intensity of your goal, or the weather conditions, and if you ask me, I have never felt better than I did post-SF Marathon, which was one of my worst “times” but one of the best days of my life.

So, wit my 50/50 record, I went in to this 50K with the attitude that a little pain was allowed, if necessary, but not a lot – after all, DONNA is coming up, and I had to stay “fresh” for that. So, I kept a pretty even clip through the marathon distance (hit 26.2 at 4 hours and 10 minutes) and when the sand started to feel more challenging on that last loop, I walked. Yup! I completed Miles 27 and 28 and something like a 16 minute pace (slow even for Disney) which bruised my ego for the split seconds I saw the lap pace pop up on my Garmin, but when I had that energy to hit the last .15 of the race (I did pretty good with the tangents this time, lol) and didn’t feel any soreness after the race, I was incredibly stoked.

Now, I do understand that depending on other conditions (elevation changes, terrain, etc) this could be a completely different story – but for me, the pain quotient was the least of my concerns with this race, and that was awesome. So again, this is a tie.

In this exercise, Ultras may have taken a SLIGHT edge, but believe me, this road gal is definitely not running away from marathons! In fact, today when I set out on my first run since Saturday, I felt faster, even running a similar pace, and realized that I was able to look up and forward, instead of fixing my gaze on my feet, avoiding tree roots and rocks. You see, the beautiful thing that I realized is that by adding longer, and different distances to my “running resume,” I am just discovering more of the sport I love, and the best thing is, I don’t have to choose or confine myself to one definition of a runner.

Running is awesome, and if you think so too, and are curious about trying something new out (whether that’s a new distance, a new pace goal, or anything) TRY IT! You may be surprised what you discover 🙂

What’s your favorite race distance…and why? 

4 thoughts on “Top 5 Differences between a Marathon and an Ultra-Marathon

  1. Congrats on your ultra! You’re right — each race distance has its own perks and downsides. I have done a couple of trail half-marathons, and those are definitely a different beast than your average half. Anyway, kudos! I thought a 50K was in the stars, but things aren’t aligning… so maybe “down the road” sometime.

  2. Congrats on your ultra! I’m definitely a half marathon girl – far enough to require training but not so far as to consume your life with training. I’d love to be someone who loves 5ks and 10ks, but the bling whore in me hates that there are rarely medals and I’ll never be fast enough to place, so if I want bling, I pretty much need to stick to half marys.

  3. There are so many things about ultras that seem so fun, but considering it takes me forever to run a marathon I don’t think an ultra is in my future. I love the comparisons you did, but I must say trying a trail race might be a lot of fun.

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