Most people these days know the lineage behind the term “Marathon”, but many people are often unsure what an Ultra Marathon is.
In our adventure and travel filled lives, we meet lots of new people, and end up telling “our story” pretty frequently. When we get to the part where we tell them about Ultra Mel and Jon and how we run ultra marathons in different countries around the world, a lot of people stop us to ask “what is an ultra marathon?”
Personally, I’m glad when people who are unsure ask us this, because a possible alternative would just be to assume we think we are so elite that we feel it is needed to not only call ourselves “marathon runners”, but “ultra marathon runners!” As if we are of some special breed that could compete with the gazelles, haha.
An Ultra Marathon, is simply any running race that is longer than a standard marathon. A regulation marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.2km in distance, so that would make an ultra marathon any race 26.3 miles (or 42.3km) or longer.
Typically, ultra marathons will start calling themselves as such once they are at least 50km in length. And from there, common race distances are 50km, 50 miles (80km), 100km, 100 miles (160km) which are also known as “100 Milers!” However, ultra marathon running has been gaining so much popularity in the running world that races have began popping up all over the world and of all kinds of distances.
Here are some common terms used to describe Ultra Marathon Races:
- Multi-day stage race: These races will often last longer than one day and will have the race distance broken up into multiple stages that you complete one section at a time.
- Self-Sustaining: Means that there will be no support given to racers, there will simply be a start line, a marked course and a finish line.
- Semi Self-Sustaining: Similar to above, only there will be a little support. Usually in the form of checkpoints with water provided, sometimes a few snacks, and possibly the option to access a drop bag (see below)
- Supported: This term can vary but is commonly used to describe a race that will have adequate water and nutrition to sustain competitors as they compete the race. Water, electrolytes, medical support, food of various types, and sometimes even including things like tents and cots to take a rest/nap in.
- Drop Bag: These are bags which racers can fill with whatever they think they will need on course, and it will be left at a certain point along the race course so that the runners can access. Common items in a drop bag will be food, gatorade, headlamps (for longer races), change of clothes, new shoes, and maybe some emergency medical supplies often to treat stomach issues or foot problems.
- Pacers: More common to see pacers allowed in longer races (100 miles or longer), and what a pacer is, is a supporting runner who is not competing can run along with their racer (after a certain point, usually 60km) to provide some moral support. Pacers can in no way help the racer physically, pacers must run beside or behind the racer so that they cannot draft them, and the pacer is not allowed to carry any gear or food for the racer.
Why are pacers and support crew’s allowed in an Ultra Marathon?
Ultra marathoners demand so much out of their bodies that they eventually begin to diminish physically and mentally. The main reason why pacers and support crews are allowed and utilized, is for not only moral support to keep going, but for safety reasons. Both can keep an eye on the competitor and notice if they are in a dangerous level of exhaustion or dehydration. Pacers can also act as a second (and fresher) set of eyes to watch for course markings, which reduces the chances of runners getting lost.
Support crews and pacers are not always permitted, yet sometimes they are mandatory. Some runners will use both, some one or the other, and some runners like the two of us like to be completely self reliant.
This is a quick crash course answer so that you all now know what an Ultra marathon is! Feel free to comment below on what more you would like to know about them (nutrition, equipment, training, etc.) and we can share what we’ve picked up through our experiences. And be sure to check out our Ultra Marathon Race Resume to see what races we’ve taken on!