I was chatting on Twitter with some friends and we were discussing Beth’s first marathon, possibly in 2014. This was because Beth mentioned she read Born to Run (do not read that book near the internet or you will sign up for a 50k and order yourself some Vibram Five Fingers while you’re at it). And I pointed out that a lot of the camaraderie and awesomeness that is on display in Born to Run, and is, in fact, running at it’s best, is not necessarily something you are going to find at your average marathon road race. For that, you need an Ultra. And she said that she would probably start with a marathon. I pointed out that there are shorter Ultras, like 25k and 20 mile races, and Robin piped up and said, correctly, “an Ultra is >26.2, yes?” Robin’s husband just ran his first Ultra, and yes, Robin is correct, that an Ultra short for Ultra-marathon and a 20 miler is not, in fact, an Ultra-marathon.
I think of a 20-miler or a 25k or a metric marathon or some other distance between a half and a full marathon as an Ultra-Half-Marathon. This is for a few reasons. The first is that you usually find the ultra-halfs as the shorter distance at an Ultra. You often have a 40 miler or a 50k with a 20 miler or 25k option, the same way you often find a half marathon with a full. The second is that most true Ultra-runners do not sign up for these distances, unless they are using it as a training race. The people who sign up for these races are the spouses and friends of the ultra-runners who get talked into going along for the ride and think the distance is something they can handle. It’s people who have done a half and are looking for more, without the grueling commitment of a full marathon. But the races are often the same races – it’s usually a loop or a half of the course (I’ve only done the one 20-miler but I spend a lot of time browsing race websites looking for my next ultra-half), and the food is usually the same, and the crowd is usually the same (small but mighty), and the people are usually the same (super-friendly and way supportive).
Trail racing is not for everyone. If you want a really good crowd and a lot of energy on race day, it’s probably not for you. If you hate hills, it’s not for you. If you are afraid of falling down, it’s definitely not for you. If you don’t like dirt, stick to the road. If you are easily lost, you may want to stick to the well-defined course of a road race. (My favorite ad for a trail run included, “THIS YEAR WE WILL MARK EVERYTHING CLEARLY AND NO ONE WILL GET LOST.”) Longer distances than halfs are not for everyone either – I don’t even really think that they are for me. I’m not planning on doing another full marathon for awhile, and even then, it’ll be brutal again, I’m sure.
Anyway, the real issue is: ultra-halfs are hard to find. There are simply not that many people who want to run a 15-miler. (Which is odd, when you consider how many people want to run a 10-miler and a half-marathon, but something about those two extra miles, oh no!) Even trail halfs can be hard to find. I’m sure this has a lot to do with zoning issues as well as logistics, because parking is an issue and hiking in all the stuff to set up aid stations can be tricky, so I guess I understand the low availability. Anyway, where do you stand on trail running vs. road running and half-ultra-half-full-ultra?