All About Ultrarunning: A Salty Primer

Disclaimer: This is merely a cute and snarky sticker. It in no way reflects Clove's deep and abiding respect for runners of all abilities. Image via

One of the reasons I was so excited to join the Salty Running team was that we have such a wide representation of backgrounds and abilities in our group.  I love that our writers aren’t just “fast marathon runners.”  But it’s not only the time spectrum that’s well-represented.  We have single women and married women.  Women with kids and women that don’t have children.  Women that work traditional jobs, women that work not-so-traditional jobs, and women that work from home.  And as with every group of runners, we each have very different, but deeply personal reasons for how and why we run.

As the primary ultrarunning voice in the group, I thought one of my first posts should be a sort of “primer” on ultrarunning for those not as familiar with life beyond 26.2 (or less).  Things can get a bit crazy over here on the dark side, so allow me this brief attempt to establish my sanity – before I immediately undo all my own hard work.  Ready?

The Basics

  1. Technically, an ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles.  Which means that if you’ve run a marathon and not followed the tangents, you’ve probably already done one.
  2. But slightly more technically, the 50K (31.12 miles) is generally the starting distance for “sanctioned” ultramarathons.  Common distances are the 50K, 50 mile, 100K (62.24 miles), and 100 mile.
  3. Yes, there are plenty of races willing to go farther, most notably the Badwater 135.
  4. If you’ve run a marathon, you can finish a 50K on the same training.
  5. Ultrarunning and trail running ARE mutually exclusive.  The majority of ultramarathons, however, do take place on trails.
  6. I prefer those ultramarathons that take place on trails, so I am officially a “trail ultrarunner.”

The Trails

  1. Yes, we walk.  We walk A LOT.  But I promise you, gentle reader, that we feel worse walking at mile 10 than you do running at mile 10.
  2. Because most of that walking is on something vertical, or something only Spiderman should really be climbing.
  3. Yes, we get dirty.  We get really dirty.  Wet and muddy and bloody and dirty.
  4. And that’s mostly because we fall.   We fall A LOT.
  5. Pretty much, we run through the woods.  There are hills and roots and rocks and sand and mud and water and streams and rivers and sometimes, the roots literally jump out of the ground and grab your ankles.
  6. Then you fall.
  7. And it’s tons of fun.
  8. Yes, trail running is “better” for you and “easier” on your body than road running.  But after your first few trail runs, you’ll probably feel as if you just competed in “The Hunger Games” and barely made it out alive.
  9. This is because you are using new and different muscles that you don’t normally use in road running.  Plus the whole ankle-grabbing root thing.

The Sickest Part of All (and my Favorite), the 100 Mile Race

  1. Yes, you run 100 miles all at once.  Except for the parts when you walk.
  2. No, you don’t stop, except to use the bathroom and maybe change your shoes.
  3. You get to eat A LOT of junk food, and you might consume more Ramen noodles alone than an entire college dorm over a single night.
  4. This (the junk food) is because your body primarily needs salt, sugar and fluid.  100 calories burned per mile x 100 miles + at least three missed meals over the course of the day = JUNK.  FOOD.
  5. For most of us, no, it’s not scary at all running through the woods at night.  That’s because we’re often asleep or hallucinating.
  6. I have never met someone that’s finished a 100 miler and not learned something profound and life-changing.  No matter how many they’ve run before.
Hallucinating? Clove as zombie at mile 87.5 of the Umstead 100.

Now this simple primer certainly can’t answer all of your questions, nor do I expect it to.  As my blogging continues, particularly over the next several months, I’m hoping to quell your curiosity as to what could possibly possess someone to attempt such a feat, and to spend a good part of their summer walking around like a zombie from simply training for it.

Training to race a 100 miler is certainly different from training to finish one; both are lofty and noble goals.  Because I have found myself in the unexpected position of being competitive at this distance, I will be training to race, and to hopefully finish in the top three.  Which brings me to the conclusion of this primer, and the part where you decide that what bit of sanity you might have originally credited me with was undeserved.

Clove’s Training Capers

  1. Yes, I will run real-live marathons … as training runs.
  2. Yes, I will run as many as 40 miles at a time … as a training run.
  3. Yes, I will run 20 or 30 or 40 miles at a time … overnight … as a training run.
  4. Yes, I will run at least 21 miles (at once) three times a week during heavy training.
  5. Yes, my weekly mileage will typically be in the 90’s or the 100’s.
  6. Yes, it will be a beautiful summer evening and I will be in bed fast asleep.  At 8:30 pm.
  7. And yes, I will always take Mondays off from running.  Always.

Remember:  for better or worse, I don’t have kids.  I’m self-employed.  And because my husband and I are both training for summer 100 milers, it’s difficult to resent that which you do yourself.  Difficult, but not impossible.

But let’s save the deleterious effects of joint 100 mile training on a marriage for another day.  Because I’m writing this on a Monday, which means it’s almost nap time.

Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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  1. I always take Mondays off too. And now I want to run an ultra so I can get that sticker for the back of my car! 🙂

  2. Good insights and tips!

    Curious what you mean by “Ultrarunning and trail running ARE mutually exclusive.” I don’t really get that. You seem to disprove that statement in the next sentence.

    1. You can be a trail runner without being an ultrarunner and an ultrarunner without being a trail runner or you can do both: run ultras on trails like Clove.

      1. OK, I still think there’s some unintentional miscommunication going on here.

        If they ARE mutually exclusive that means a trail runner CANNOT be a ultrarunner, and vice versa. I believe you mean they are NOT mutually exclusive– an ultrarunner CAN be a trail runner, and a trail runner CAN be an ultrarunner, but being one doesn’t require you to be the other.

        Not trying to cause hard feelings, just wanting to be clear.

  3. I’m gonna be a non-ultra-running trail runner soon! I signed up for Paine to Pain this fall, which is a great trail half marathon in Upstate New York. I’m really excited for my first trail race, which is a big step for me since I’m so used to pounding pavement in the City. But the big trail races are calling, and I gotta start taking these steps if I really want to try an Ultra!

  4. Thanks for the great and fun comments everyone, and thanks Salty for clearing up the “mutually exclusive” issue. Cinnamon, I’m so excited to hear about your transition to the trails. Amanda – go for it!!! High mileage is NOT a necessity – so don’t get overwhelmed by mine. Feel free to drop by with any questions if/when you get started, I’m happy to help!

  5. I admit I would love to try a 50k one day. The problem is finding that balance between life (kids, husband, job etc.) and training. I found last year when I was training for my first marathon it seemed to consume my life. Right now I am training for a 30k road race and it seems more manageable. One day, hopefully, I’ll find myself at an ultra!

  6. This shit is hilarious! And inspirational. You rock. Working up to a marathon now but hopefully ultra-running in the future (you sold me at LOTS OF JUNK FOOD)