Conquering the Impossible: A Glimpse into the World of Ultra Marathons


When it comes to pushing the boundaries of human endurance, ultra-marathons stand as a testament to the relentless pursuit of extraordinary feats. These grueling races, often far beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathon, capture the spirit of individuals who seek to conquer the impossible.
In this blog post, we'll explore the world of ultra marathons and their allure, and showcase some remarkable races, including the infamous Backyard Ultra.

ultra runners in nature

What is an Ultra Marathon?

An ultra-marathon, often referred to as an "ultra," is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers). These races can vary dramatically in length, terrain, and conditions, challenging runners to explore the limits of their physical and mental stamina.

How Long is an Ultra Marathon?

Ultra marathons are not bound by a single set distance; instead, they span a spectrum of lengths, each with its own allure and challenges. Here are a few examples:

  • 50K Races:

    These are excellent options for runners looking to transition from marathons to ultras. They cover approximately 31 miles and are often chosen for their approachability.

  • 50-Mile Challenges:

    These ultras provide an intermediate step between 50K and 100-mile races. They offer a significant test of endurance and often introduce runners to longer distances.

  • 100K (62-Mile) Races:

    The 100K ultra, equivalent to approximately 62 miles, represents a formidable challenge. It combines the speed of shorter races with the endurance required for longer ultras.

  • 100-Mile Ultras:

    At the far end of the spectrum, 100-mile ultras are legendary for their brutality. They take runners on an epic journey, both physically and mentally, and can last for hours or even days.

  • 24-Hour Challenges:

    These races focus on running for a full day, covering as much ground as possible. The distance achieved depends on the runner's pace and endurance.

  • Backyard Ultra:

    Among the most intriguing ultra-marathons is the Backyard Ultra, where participants run a 4.167-mile (6.7-kilometer) loop every hour, aiming to complete as many laps as possible until they can't continue. The last person standing wins.

Diverse Challenges:

Each ultra marathon distance offers a distinct challenge. The shorter ultras demand speed and endurance, while the longer ones require unparalleled grit and determination. The allure of ultras lies in their variety, allowing runners to choose the distance and terrain that best aligns with their goals and appetite for adventure.

The Backyard Ultra: A Battle of Willpower

The Backyard Ultra, founded by Gary "Lazarus Lake" Cantrell, exemplifies the relentless nature of ultra marathons. Runners gather at a starting line and set off on a looped course on the hour, every hour, until only one runner remains.
This race strips away the familiar markers of traditional ultras, like distance and time limits, leaving only the runner's willpower and determination.

One of the most renowned Backyard Ultras is the "Big's Backyard Ultra" held in Tennessee. It's a grueling event where participants often run well over 100 miles before a single runner is declared the victor. Only very few participants complete this race and some years, there are no finishers. The sheer mental and physical endurance required makes this race a true testament to the indomitable spirit of ultra runners.

Mountains in Iceland
Photo taken by me during the Laugavegur Ultramarathon 2023 in south Iceland

Why Run an Ultra Marathon?

So, why do people subject themselves to such extraordinary challenges? The answer varies from runner to runner, but many are drawn to ultras for the following reasons:

  • Personal Growth: Ultras offer an opportunity for personal growth, self-discovery, and pushing one's limits beyond what was once thought possible.

  • Connection to Nature: Ultra marathons often take place in breathtaking natural settings, providing runners with a profound connection to the environment.

  • Community: The ultra-running community is known for its camaraderie and support, fostering a sense of belonging among participants.

  • Achievement: Completing an ultra marathon is a remarkable achievement that carries a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Effects on the Body

During or after an ultra marathon, you may encounter surprising sensations you never expected from running long distances.
For instance, an empty bladder rubbing against itself for hours can mimic the feeling of a urinary tract infection.
Additionally, heavy breathing in dry air during the race, combined with dehydration, might lead to post-run asthmatic sensations.
These unexpected experiences highlight the unique journey of pushing your limits in ultra marathons. Here is a list of the most common effects that an ultra has on the body:

  • Physical Endurance

    Ultra marathons push the limits of physical endurance. They require a high level of cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, and stamina. Continuous and prolonged exertion can lead to physical fatigue.

  • Muscle Damage

    The extended duration of ultra marathons can lead to muscle damage and soreness, particularly in the legs. Runners may experience muscle cramps, strains, and even mild to moderate injuries.

  • Dehydration and Hydration Management

    Maintaining proper hydration is crucial in ultra marathons. Dehydration can lead to various issues, including muscle cramps, heat-related illnesses, and reduced performance.

  • Nutritional Challenges

    Ultra runners need to consume a significant amount of calories to sustain energy levels during the race. Nutrition and hydration strategies are critical to avoid hitting "the wall" or "bonking."

  • Blistering and Chafing

    This is the one I have struggled with the most. Prolonged running can lead to skin problems such as blisters and chafing, which can be painful and debilitating.

  • Gastrointestinal Issues

    Some ultra runners may experience digestive problems due to the stress of running and the intake of energy gels, bars, and fluids. This can include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

  • Reduced Immunity

    Intense and prolonged physical activity can temporarily suppress the immune system, making runners more susceptible to illness and infections in the days following the race.

Participating in ultra marathons demands rigorous hydration and a substantial calorie intake to sustain energy levels, all while enduring the risk of muscle damage, skin issues like blisters and chafing, and potential digestive problems.

Effects on the Mind

  • Mental Toughness

    Ultra marathons test mental fortitude and resilience. Runners must overcome moments of self-doubt and mental fatigue. The ability to stay focused and determined is essential.

  • Emotional Highs and Lows

    Ultra marathons often lead to emotional highs and lows. Runners may experience euphoria during successful moments and despair during difficult stretches.

  • Mind-Body Connection

    Long hours of running can create a strong connection between the mind and body. Runners may become acutely aware of their physical sensations and mental state.

  • Problem Solving

    Ultra runners often encounter unexpected challenges during a race, such as changing weather conditions, navigational issues, or equipment problems. Problem-solving skills are crucial in these situations.

  • Sense of Accomplishment

    Completing an ultra marathon can be an immensely gratifying experience. The sense of accomplishment, pride, and personal growth that comes with finishing such a challenging race can be life-changing.

  • Spiritual Experience

    Some runners describe ultra-marathons as a spiritual journey. The solitude and connection with nature in remote race locations can lead to profound introspection and personal transformation.

It's important to note that the effects of an ultra marathon can vary widely from person to person. While some runners thrive on the physical and mental challenges, others may find it overwhelming. Adequate training, preparation, and self-care are essential to maximize the positive effects and keep the risks associated with ultra marathons to a minimum. Additionally, consulting with a healthcare professional before undertaking such an event is advisable to ensure that it aligns with an individual's health and fitness goals.

Mountains Mountains

How to train for an ultra marathon

Training for an ultra marathon is a significant undertaking that requires careful planning and dedication. Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or new to long-distance running, here's a step-by-step guide to help you prepare for an ultra marathon:

  1. Choose Your Race

    Decide on the specific ultra marathon distance and location you want to target. Some popular distances include 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles.

  2. Assess Your Current Fitness

    Evaluate your current fitness level and running experience. Ultra marathons demand a solid foundation in running, so it's advisable to have completed several marathons or long-distance races.

  3. Set Clear Goals

    Determine your goals for the ultra marathon. Are you aiming to finish, achieve a specific time, or simply enjoy the experience? Having clear goals will shape your training plan.

  4. Create a Training Plan

    Develop a detailed training plan that spans several months. Focus on gradually increasing mileage and building endurance. Consider including back-to-back long runs to simulate the demands of an ultra.

  5. Build Base Mileage

    Start with a strong base of weekly mileage. Most ultra marathon training plans assume a base of 30-40 miles per week. Ensure you're comfortable with marathon distances before increasing further.

  6. Incorporate Long Runs

    Long runs are the cornerstone of ultra marathon training. Increase your long run distance progressively, aiming for at least one or two each week. Some of these runs should be on terrain similar to your race.

  7. Include Hill and Trail Running

    If your ultra marathon will be on hilly or trail terrain, incorporate hill repeats and trail running into your training. This will help prepare your body for the specific demands of the race.

  8. Practice Nutrition and Hydration

    Train your body to handle nutrition and hydration during long runs. Experiment with different types of fuel (gels, bars, real food) and hydration strategies to find what works best for you.

  9. Recovery and Cross-Training

    Prioritize recovery days and cross-training to prevent overuse injuries. Yoga, swimming, or strength training can complement your running routine.

  10. Simulate Race Conditions

    As you get closer to your race, simulate race conditions during your long training runs. Wear the gear and use the nutrition and hydration strategies you plan to use on race day.

  11. Listen to Your Body

    Pay attention to your body's signals. If you experience pain or injury, don't push through it. Rest and seek medical advice if necessary.

  12. Taper Before the Race

    About 2-3 weeks before your ultra marathon, begin a tapering phase where you gradually reduce mileage to allow your body to rest and recover.

  13. Race Day Strategy

    Plan your race day strategy, including pacing, nutrition, hydration, and gear. Have a support crew or aid stations in mind if needed.

  14. Mental Preparation

    Mental toughness is crucial for ultra marathons. Practice mental strategies such as positive self-talk, visualization, and staying focused during challenging moments.

  15. Post-Race Recovery

    After the race, prioritize post-race recovery with rest, nutrition, and light activity to aid in recovery and prevent post-race blues.

Remember that ultra-marathon training is a long and challenging journey. Be patient with yourself, adapt your plan as needed, and enjoy the process. Seeking guidance from an experienced coach or joining a running group can also provide valuable support and motivation.