What is an Ultramarathon? And Why I Ran One

Ultramarathon Running

I hear a lot of people talk about the meditative aspect of running, some call it a high, others peace. I agree to a certain distance. 

But when you know the 26.2-mile marker is coming up in a race, an official marathon, that inner peace…it goes out the window. 

During a race like this, whatever stillness a nice 3-mile weekend run might provide is replaced by the sound of ragged breathing, and a clear head gives way to a slightly delusion conversation with myself that urges my feet to keep moving. It’s hard to argue that the human body is “meant to” run a marathon—that is part of the appeal of running one—and this realization was definitely felt as I approached the marathon marker with my running buddy, Timmy, next to me. 

We crossed that line, grabbed some water, and I allowed myself a quick sense of accomplishment. This is the furthest I had ever run.

Then we kept running. We were halfway. 26.2 miles down, 26 to go.

Me, Rob, and Timmy.

What is an ultramarathon?

Technically speaking, anything over a traditional marathon is considered an ultramarathon. With that said there aren’t any organized races that go 26.3 miles. Anyone who claims to be a part of the ultra community would be quickly excommunicated if they told you the longest run they have ever completed was, for example, 27 miles.

The three most common ultramarathon lengths are 32 miles, 52 miles, and 100 miles. The 52-mile race I chose to tackle was in the Big Horn Mountain range in Wyoming. While many regular marathons weave through the streets of some city, ultras like the Bighorn Trail Run are—as the name suggests—confined strictly to mountain paths. So if you’re setting the scene in your head, think of what a hike would look like—ups and downs, some bits of flat, plenty of uneven surfaces, etc—but now you’re running it. 

And when I say “ups and downs”, it’s mostly ups. During the course of my race, we did about 7000-7500 feet of elevation gain. I don’t care what kind of crazy shape you might be in, the distance plus the elevation, you’re gonna feel it. 

What the hell was I thinking?

Perhaps it’s no surprise that this is probably the question I get the most. I’m not sure I have the perfect answer. A lot of people want to turn it into some long extended metaphor, that I’m not just running, I’m “running from something”. I get why people would think that, some people subconsciously think the only way someone would want to run 52 miles in the mountains is to carry some kind of trauma with them. Hell, I’d read that story too! But for me, I just wanted the challenge.

What I will say is that my adoptive home in Colorado played a huge part in tackling this goal. I’m originally from Ohio. Ohio, for those who haven’t been there—spoiler alert—is not exactly the mecca of outdoor recreation.

My running focus had always been short-track events, but when I moved out to Colorado, I realized it’s hard not to look around and wonder how you can incorporate your old hobbies with the mountains. Trail running was a nice solution. I can’t imagine that many more places in the world offer the kind of trail access that Colorado does. 

However, it wasn’t really until I got into a gym routine that ultramarathon running became a blip on my radar.

Training for an ultramarathon

When I joined Traverse Fitness in Denver, that’s when things turned. I knew that Traverse took fitness seriously, but once I started it was clear this was not your casual gym experience. Before long I realized I was surrounded by real athletes; Summer Olympians, Ironman competitors, and other professionals. I also quickly realized that Traverse and my coach Rob, would and could kick my ass happily. 

But in reality, without this gym community, I would not have even signed up for an ultramarathon. Working side by side with athletes with that level of drive and determination can inspire anyone to put in work. So, at the time, the question became, what was my challenge going to be.

I realized my window to be an Olympian was shut, the NFL wasn’t calling anytime soon, but luckily when I stopped to think about ultras, it quickly clicked. Since I already had some baseline skills with running and an interest in trail running, it was a logical challenge to tackle.

Once the Bighorn Trail Run became the goal, training switched into high gear. Rob had me on a strict routine; running specific distances each day, counting my calories, and on an exercise regimen to strengthen my core and leg muscles without adding any extra weight. 

The more I trained the more I realized this was gonna be no joke.

The Bighorn Ultra

Timmy and I getting ready for 52 miles of punishment

When the time came we packed our bags and drove up to Wyoming a day or two before the race to let ourselves rest from the road trip. A number of us went up there, including Timmy who would be my running partner for 52 miles, and Rob, my coach, who opted for the 100-mile option—the man is an animal. 

A 52-mile ultra usually takes at least 8 hours, although our goal was just to finish, likely several hours after that. But because of how long these things take, wake calls happen early. That’s where things started to go wrong.

After scarfing down a sizable dinner—a lot of calories were about to be burned—Timmy and I set our alarms for a 1 AM wake-up. The idea was to go to bed by 7 PM. Turns out the anticipation and anxiety of running 52 miles the next morning didn’t much care for this idea.

I laid in our Airbnb trying to convince my body to go to sleep, but despite my coaxing, I laid motionless, mind racing, and eyes comically forced shut, hoping that would induce some kind of slumber.

Eventually, I got some sleep. About 2 hours of it. Before the most physically exerting day of my life. 

But when that alarm rang I dutifully got up, gathered my pack which had some water and gummies for the run, and got moving. Timmy and I slunk around the kitchen, keeping each other’s spirits high and trying not to wake our friends who came to support us. We made the drive up the mountain—Rob was long gone, having run through much of the night—and soon were waiting for the gun to send us into the predawn darkness.

Waiting prerace was miserable. It’s freezing, literally, and packing bulky layers is not a luxury you’d consider when you know every extra ounce of weight would feel like a brick later in the day. So, finally, when the gun did sound, running 52 miles felt like mercy compared to the cold. 

When the bang rang out through the mountains, Timmy and I ran like bats out of hell. When put into an ultramarathon perspective, this means we ran like idiots.

The mix of the race anticipation and our shivering limbs, made us run way too hard, way too fast. Our goal was to keep about an 11 or 12-minute mile pace. The first few miles we were running them in 9 minutes and 30 seconds. 

Our speed, exhaustion, and over-determination led us to the biggest mistake of the day. Because we started so fast Timmy and I were on our own and couldn’t see the path other runners were taking. At around Mile 4, we blew past the race marker flags and into a swamp.

Course corrections are easy enough to handle, but what isn’t easy dealing with is wet socks. We knew we’d have to run through small water obstacles at some point, but not this early. Still dark, still cold, still 48 miles to go, and now my feet were wet. I was annoyed. 

I realized I’d need to get into some kind of zone if my legs and attitude were to hold out. I got there and settled into my run, the next number of miles I remember as little snapshots that interrupted my steady pace. Mile 8 sunrise and nice view. Mile 10 nature called, I answered. Mile 18 first rest station, fruit, water, and high spirits. We were crushing it.

What we didn’t realize was that the Mile 18 station was strategically placed. Around the next corner, we were met with our first real ascent. The next mile and a half were vertical, a straight-up climb. I’m telling you, this sucker was steep. It may have just been a mile and a half but it took about as long as 5 and felt like 10. The mountain had smacked the confidence straight out of us. The race had begun 20 miles ago, but the mental battle had now started. 

Finishing an ultramarathon

The ultramarathon moment we were waiting for

After the ascent, we were already well past any of the distances we had run in training, and with one big climb behind us, Timmy and I started to feel it. I would be lying if I told you that doubt didn’t begin to creep in. For the next few miles, I started asking myself if I could really do this. That was until about Mile 24 when we caught up with Rob.

Rob, our coach, about 75 miles into his run, was not in great shape. Here was the guy who had trained us to make it this far in the first place, and now he was having a tough time. He was completely out of it mentally. The mix of no sleep and physical exertion had definitely made its mark on this titan of a human. 

But somehow, catching him was the best thing for all three of us. Rob had company to snap him out of his daze, and Timmy and I got to put aside our exhaustion to lend some motivation to the guy that had been motivating us in training for months. Yes our hips hurt bad, yes my feet were still wet, yes I had had some doubts, but having my buddies got me going.

After the marathon mark, the run continued and continued and continued. Unidentifiable body parts began to hurt, the sun beat us to a pulp, the only breaks were to treat rashes that had sprung up across our bodies. 

But around Mile 40 a break station appeared. It was like it had been sent from some running deity to help us out. The stop volunteers fed us pancakes, bacon, potatoes, it was remarkable. Rob, Timmy, and I also all downed our own 2-liter bottle of Coke. And oh boy, bless Coca-Cola. The sugar saved us. We basically were nearly catatonic and the Coke’s ice cream scoop-sized amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup were like an adrenaline shot to the chest.

The remainder of the Bighorn race was, thankfully, less eventful. Not many words besides the occasional “ow” or f-bomb were spoken. We listened to Bohemian Rapsody twice. And eventually, my many blisters popped. But all three of us hurt, I wasn’t going to stop. None of us were going to. Even at the hardest moments when your two friends are running faster than you think you can go, we’d rally for each other. 

Crossing the finish line was excruciating. Everything hurt. My socks were wet but at this point, I wasn’t sure if it was from the swamp at Mile 4, sweat, or blood. The three of us collapsed, over 200 miles between the three of us. 

The mental fog that I had been in for the last number of hours lifted and I got teary-eyed. We had 11 friends waiting for us at the finish line. They swarmed us and I admit the emotions of the day got to me. I wish I could say it felt like pure relief, but it was more so just raw emotion.

101 people of the 237 that started finished the race. Timmy and I finished in just under 14 hours. Honestly, I barely remember my time though. My goal was to finish and to finish that day. That’s all I could tell myself when I was in that brain fog, “just fucking finish.” 

My ultramarathon experience

Bloodied, hungry, exhausted, but still smiling.

It was awful. It was hard. It hurt. But the next ultramarathon is already on my mind. Finding a community like the one I did in Colorado is intoxicating. Having people support an endeavor like this makes me want to give more and run more.

Strangely enough, I think that’s why I work so well with my job here at Booyah. It’s in a place I love, Colorado, and I’m surrounded by people who give a lot of effort and that motivates me to keep grinding.

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