Friday, 20 April 2012

Are ultrarunners slow?

So tell me if you've heard this one before?

"Pft. Ultra running? Ultra walking more like!"

Reading around various forums and blogs, it seems that some people have a negative view of ultrarunners. The main trope seems to be the opinion that ultrarunners are slow, and are basically speed-walking. Other more extreme views are that ultrarunners are failed marathon runners who weren't able to cut it. Rather than putting in the training to push their marathon PB to a new level, they just go a little bit further.

Of course, the obvious response to this is that, well, I'm sure 100m sprinters look at marathon runners and think exactly the same thing. My wife was a 200m sprinter when she was younger, and she couldn't understand why anybody would want to run any further than that. So if ultrarunners are slow and shambling in the eyes of some marathon runners, does that mean that marathon runners are viewed in the same way by sprinters? No. There is mutual respect - they're just two very different events; one focuses on pure explosive power, while the other focuses on endurance. When you get up to ultra distances, particularly those out on the trails, up mountains, or in other inhospitable parts of the world, additional factors come into play - gear selection, nutrition, hydration, pacers and crew are all important for marathon racing but are more complex for ultras, plus you also may have to deal with tougher terrain, navigation, etc. Is it any surprise that ultrarunners are slower than marathon runners when running up and down mountains?

But even despite this, is it really fair to claim that ultrarunners are slow? In many of these discussions, it seems to me that the comparisons being made are between top-class marathon runners and the average middle of the pack ultrarunner who typically is not out for a podium place, and is just there for the experience and the love of running. But there are ultrarunning guys and girls out there with blisteringly fast times. So when we compare apples with apples and look at the times for the top marathon runners vs. the top ultrarunners, does the accusation of being slow still stack up?

I decided to do a bit of digging; a bit of Google-ing and Wiki-ing and I had put together a list of the fastest times over a range of distances ranging from 100 meters to 100 miles (apologies if I've got any of these wrong, but if it's on Wikipedia it must be true...):