The Gateway Drug


If you’re an ultramarathoner, chances are that you started with a marathon. An informal survey of ultarunning friends reveals that most of them did at least one marathon before moving up to ultras. Going 26 miles seems to be a sure-fire path to becoming an ultrarunner.

This makes sense to me. Back in 2003, on a dare, someone got me to agree to run a marathon as a New Year’s resolution. I had done tons of running, but never over four miles at one time.

Twenty-six miles seemed crazy if not truly impossible to me. Doing the Napa marathon two months later was arduous and downright painful, but crossing the finish line sent me into nothing short of euphoria. Accomplishing something so epic was deeply fulfilling and satisfying. So much so that I needed a new frontier so I could have that experience again. I was hooked.

Eight months later I completed my first ultra. Eighteen months after that I crossed the finish line of my first 100-miler, and I continued to do about five ultras per year for the next seven years. But without that first marathon, there never would have been ultras in my life.

A few years ago I had an injury and had to take a break from ultras. Getting back into ultra form and fitness has been extremely difficult. Since 2013 I’ve averaged about one ultra per year while battling a lack-of-fitness-and-injury cycle. I’d sign up for races expecting to just get them done. But I could not even handle the training necessary for ultras, much less race them, and I continued to fall short. I needed something new.

I decided to sign up for a road marathon and I had one goal: run every step while remaining injury-free. At first it felt weird to go out for six-mile training runs on pavement at a steady pace. But soon I came to love these runs –
they only took about an hour, didn’t destroy me and they left me refreshed and wanting more the next day. Who knew running could be fun? As the training ramped up I slogged a few requisite pavement 20-milers and felt wrecked at the end of them, but hey – no pain, no gain.

The race went well – I exceeded my goal time, ran a negative split and most importantly I was not injured at the end. Win, win and win.

After recovering from that marathon, since the beginning of the year I ramped up to 50-mile weeks (including on average one long run per week). I recently raced a 50k all-out, and injury-free. I am upping my game to a 50-miler, a 100k and even a 100-miler in June.

Once again, without a marathon there wouldn’t be ultras in my life. If you are in an ultra slump, put a marathon on your calendar and you will not regret it.

What role have marathons played in your running career? How do you compare and contrast them with ultras? As a numbers geek, all of this marathon stuff got me wondering about comparative stats and trends – hopefully you find them interesting too.


About Author

Karl Hoagland has been the Publisher of UltraRunning Magazine since June, 2013. Hoagland is a former investment banker and hotel entrepreneur, having worked at Goldman Sachs, Montgomery Securities and Larkspur Hotels & Restaurants after graduating from Brown University in 1987. Since running the Quad Dipsea in 2003 Hoagland has been obsessed with ultrarunning and everything about it, especially the community and new friendships he’s made. Karl especially likes to take on challenges and strive for improvement. Ultrarunning is the perfect platform for such endeavors, and his big goals are to encourage others and help the sport grow.

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