A Marathon Can Rev Up Your Ultrarunning


My husband and I have an ongoing argument about whose car is better. He drives a sleek BMW 4-series convertible, which I honestly don’t like to drive because it’s too low to the ground and attracts attention. My vehicle is a GMC Canyon mid-sized truck with a camper top, and while I wince at its fossil fuel consumption, I’d choose it over a sports car any day. My truck’s engine is strong enough to pull our horse trailer, and its all-terrain tires and high clearance can traverse rocky slopes above the tree line. It works for pretty much anything I need, and therefore I can load it up and feel self-reliant.

The car debate entered my mind while I struggled to maintain a relatively fast pace in a recent road marathon – my first 26-miler on pavement in many years – and I reflected on how I’ve evolved as a runner, trading some speed for strength and endurance. I fell behind my goal-pace splits in the second half of the race, and self-criticism began to snowball as I bemoaned my slower, older self.

Then, as I considered the apples-to-oranges comparison between road marathons and mountain ultras, I wondered. What if, instead of trying to be the marathon runner I used to be, I embraced the tougher, heavier, more truck-like ultrarunner I’ve become? The idea instantly made me feel better.

Let me shift into reverse and explain.

During the past decade, I’ve avoided road marathons (except for a hilly one run during ultra training). I PR’ed in 2009 at the Napa Valley Marathon at age 39, and feared the prospect of seriously training to run another because that PR time felt so out of reach.

But in 2017, I got the itch to run a real road marathon again. Ultrarunning legend Blake Wood is partly to blame. Not resting on his laurels of a record number of Hardrock 100 finishes, nor his impressive Barkley attempts or his Nolan’s 14, he challenged himself at age 58 to run a sub-3-hour marathon – and he did, in 2:58.

I also blame Michael Wardian, Devon Yanko, Ian Sharman and every other accomplished 100-mile ultrarunner who can throw down a wickedly fast road marathon. I want to train and race more like them. Or, to use the car analogy, I’d like to have the versatility of the car that my husband and I can agree is awesome – our old Subaru Outback.

I decided to return to the Napa Valley Marathon in 2019 partly as a celebration of 25 years of running. In 1994, half a lifetime ago, I spectated at the event and felt inspired to try running the next day. I got hooked, and ran my first marathon at Napa the following year when running changed my life for good. But mostly, I wanted to test myself and face the fear of running 26 paved miles as fast as I could.

In hindsight, I recommend marathon training to any ultrarunner who lacks motivation or laments being slow. Completing specific weekly speed workouts to prepare for a marathon goal time undoubtedly improves running economy and cardiovascular fitness while also fine-tuning a sense of pace. Accelerating to goal pace in the final third of a steady, long run revs up training with a renewed sense of purpose.

By Mile 20, my feet suffered a level of discomfort they rarely experience in ultras, and my body yearned for a hill steep enough to justify a hiking break. Toe-curling charley horse cramps preyed on my arches and calves, and it took all my ultra-honed mental toughness to keep running.

I set an aspirational but realistic goal to finish between 3:35 to 3:40 – about a half-hour slower than my decade-old PR, but that prior marathon pace in the low 7-minute range now feels suitable for a 5K. Age-related decline in oxygen-carrying capacity isn’t the only culprit. I believe my specialization in mountain/ultra/trail fundamentally altered my leg turnover and sense of pace, leaving me less adapted to faster-paced running on flatter terrain.

Instead of regretting those changes, I’m trying to embrace my inner truck. With a body like this, I have the ruggedness and strength to handle challenging terrain for a longer distance and carry a load for self-supported adventures.

The entire experience deepened my appreciation for dirt routes with undulating and jagged elevation profiles. When I crossed the finish in 3:42, I felt relief coupled with excitement for trail ultras on the horizon.


About Author

Sarah Lavender Smith is an ultrarunning coach, writer and mom of two who divides her time between the Bay Area and southwestern Colorado. She is the author of the book, The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. Follow her blog TheRunnersTrip.com.

1 Comment

  1. “Completing specific weekly speed workouts to prepare for a marathon goal time undoubtedly improves running economy…” This sentence is worth the whole article, great coaching tip, thanks for posting!