Should I Try an Ultra?

If you are looking for a new challenge, an ultra marathon may be right for you.


By Tom Denniss


Ultra marathon races tend to be dominated by an older crowd. Yes, there are some younger ultra runners, but the proportion of youth in ultras is less than that in shorter races. The reason is simple – young runners tend to be more fascinated with speed. And speed is not something one associates with ultra marathons.

However, the average runner tends to lose their preoccupation with speed as they mature, looking instead to other ways in which to challenge themselves. This is, of course, partly forced upon us all. We all get slower with age. However, we don’t seem to lose our endurance. On the contrary, within limits, our stamina seems even to increase with the years.

This persistence of our endurance, even as we observe the demise of our speed, leads many long term runners to a logical decision. Why not take advantage of the phenomenon? After all, in a relative sense, this should result in a greater competitiveness at longer distances. That, coupled with the normal inquisitiveness for a new challenge, leads many runners to gravitate toward ultras as they get older. If you’ve felt your speed waning yet you have a thirst for a new running challenge then, yes, you should consider an ultra.

An ultra is technically defined as any race greater in distance than a standard marathon. In practice, ultras begin at the 50 km distance. Other common ultra distances are 50 miles, 100 km, 100 miles – and the less common 1,000 km and 1,000 miles. And then there are the time based ultras – 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, and 6 days.

Not to be outdone, classics such as the 246 km long Spartathlon in Greece, and the 89 km Comrades Marathon in South Africa, attract loyal followings.

So, why are many runners so hesitant to attempt an ultra? The usual attitude is “I know how much a marathon hurts, so I can only imagine the pain involved in an ultra.” But this is not the case. Personally, I’ve never experienced an ultra that hurt as much as my most painful marathon. And the reason is speed.

The majority of runners who attempt a marathon have an ambitious time in mind. This often causes them to run too fast. The outcome is a lot of pain and bad memories. Most of us harbor such memories from one or more marathons in our younger days.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that runners attempting ultras tend to be much more realistic about their time expectations, running conservatively and maintaining a more even pace throughout. When you do approach an ultra this way, it doesn’t need to hurt at all.

In fact – and this was a great surprise to me when I first ventured in to distances greater than 42.2 km – running ultra distances at a slow pace is actually quite easy. If you slow it down enough, virtually any distance is achievable, and with a bare minimum of pain. If you do discover that sustainable pace, there’s no reason why even a serious ultra distance, like 100 km or more, should be a negative experience.

Lots of long slow running in training is the way to approach your first ultra. And if you do fancy a new challenge and decide to take the plunge, make sure you employ enough discipline and start slowly. You can always up the pace in the final 25% of the race if you’re still feeling good. You might be surprised at how easy and enjoyable such an event can be.

And once you get used to standard ultras, you might then feel up to the ultimate ultra challenge – a multi-day journey run, across a state, country, or even a continent.

Tom Denniss is an Australian athlete, scientist, and entrepreneur. He has a PhD in Mathematics and Oceanography, has invented a technology to convert the energy in ocean waves into electricity, founded a company to commercialise that technology, has played professional rugby league, and was a finalist in the 2014 Australian of the Year Award. In 2013 he set a new world record for the Fastest Circumnavigation of the Earth on Foot. Tom lives in Sydney, Australia. A former professional musician, he has played to audiences in eight countries. He has written various articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as a book about his run around the world, titled The World At My Feet. You can read more of Tom's work here.

Main Photo Credit: lzf/; Second Photo Credit: Pavel1964/; Third Photo Credit: Halfpoint/; Fourth Photo Credit: Jaromir Chalabala/