You Don’t Have to Super-Size Your Ultras

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During the final miles of the challenging Telluride Mountain Run, while descending a rain-slicked ski slope and trying to prevent wiping out in the mud, I reveled in the prospect of finishing this extreme course when several others had dropped out or missed cutoffs.

The scenic single-loop route superbly circumnavigates the town of Telluride’s box canyon by traversing four major passes, the highest at 13,500 feet. On its most challenging segment, we runners had to use our hands to shimmy along an extended fin-like, Skyrunning-style ridge made of chunky rock and drop-offs on both sides. We had to navigate that tightrope as a slate-gray sky blasted thunder and unleashed hail.

The race, held in late August, is “only” 38 miles, but it took me longer (12+ hours) than my last 100k. Suddenly, a “What if?” question popped into my head and harshed my buzz.

I pondered with some dread, “What if someone suggests or self-dares doubling this loop?” I imagined how it would feel to reach the start/finish point and, instead of being done, to head out at sunset for a second round during nighttime, for a total of 76 miles. Any hardy souls doing the double would probably overshadow, and on some level, diminish the accomplishment of those of us doing the single 38.

Could a 114-mile triple be that far off? Please, say it ain’t so.

But in this era of 200-is-the-new-100, it feels almost inevitable that many runners and race directors will super-size perfectly good and satisfying ultra routes, and we ultrarunners will feel compelled to choose the longer option or feel slightly guilty or less accomplished if we take the shorter route.

Part of me relates to and shares that urge. It’s a natural progression (or as some – like my husband – might say, a slippery slope to the dark side of addiction to longer and more frequent endurance challenges) to go from completing a 50-miler, to 100… to 200, perhaps.

The other part of me wishes, however, that a lovely loop or point-to-point route could be respected for the distance it is, and that runners who push themselves to perform their very best on a shorter course would receive all the kudos and bragging rights that someone doing a slower yet longer version of that route would earn.

The granddaddy classic trail race, the seven-mile Dipsea in Mill Valley, provides a good model and somewhat allays my concern that this sport promotes the ethos that longer always equals better. The Dipsea morphed into the Double and the Quad, but the single Dipsea retains all the notoriety and high-stakes competition it always had. Each distance became its own storied and sought-after race, and doing all three is feasible and incredibly rewarding.

I’m also inspired by the example of ultrarunners such as Dakota Jones. He has a couple of Hardrock 100s under his belt, along with numerous 50-mile top finishes, but this summer he embraced shorter distances and went on a four-win streak at the Kendall Mountain 12-mile, La Luz Trail 9-mile, Pikes Peak Marathon and Imogene Pass Run 17-mile. To me, that’s as impressive as if he had graduated to winning more 100s and 200s.

As 2018 winds down, I’m concluding that variety is the spice of ultrarunning, and every distance, every type of elevation profile and every mix of terrain or surface deserves respect, because each presents a unique challenge. Longer isn’t always better or harder.

I raced the following distances this past year, in this order: 24 hours (totaling 115 miles), marathon, 5k, 25k, 50-mile, 1.3-mile, 100-mile (DNF’ing at mile 66), 18-mile and 38-mile. The shortest – the 1.3-mile hill climb up a ski run –
felt intensely challenging and rewarding.

During Thanksgiving week, I’ll toe the line at a 5k road race and, a couple of days later, at the 28-mile Quad Dipsea, and I honestly can’t decide which seems harder or intimidates me more. The answer depends on the level of effort I can give each.

For 2019, I’ve got a 100-mile Hardrock qualifier on my list, but honestly, I’m more excited about training for a road marathon this spring, and then exploring a new destination and distance at the 54-ish-mile Whiskey Basin trail run in April, which covers the entire Prescott Circle Trail in Arizona.

As you contemplate your 2019 goals and race calendar, I encourage you to mix up the distances. Or guarantee yourself a PR by choosing an event with a distance you’ve never raced. You don’t have to always strive for and sign up for the longest option.

Who knows, you might discover a new level of suffering and redemption at your local 5k.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. In other words, racing goals can be about quality over quantity. That’s a healthy approach to have as a runner, not to fixate exclusively on numbers but to also consider the less tangible qualities like novelty, uniqueness and spirituality of a course. My last proper race was a 15-miler in Ireland, and it was the perfect distance for the circumstances I was in, even if it wasn’t objectively impressive among my ultra colleagues. My next ultra will also be overseas, as I find that unpredictability factor of running in a foreign country brings out my insecurities and is a greater test of character than running loops on a familiar course a few hours from home.

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