When is an ‘ultra’ an ultra?

I’ve just picked up my race number for the EcoTrail race on Saturday and it’s starting to sink in that the race is in only two days. ARGH! I’ve been thinking about this race for such a long time now but it feels like it just crept up all of a sudden. In less than 48 hours I will be in the start-pen, ready to take on my longest running race distance yet. 45km is a hell of a long way…

The whole time I’ve been preparing for this race, I’ve called it an ‘ultra’ in inverted commas. Officially, an ultra-marathon is any footrace longer than a marathon (42.2km) – as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, Wikipedia, etc.. When you start reading blogs on the topic though, usually the next sentence is “however, the shortest standard ultra distance is 50km”. That means that my 45km race is technically not a ‘real’ ultra, because it falls 5km short of the typical minimum distance.

If you follow this definition, this creates a grey area for races of between 42.2km and 50km. You’re running more than a marathon, but (technically) less than an ultra. Basically the question is, can you call yourself an ultra-runner, or are you just a marathon-plus runner on completion of the race?

Personally, I’m starting to come around to the fact that this ‘technicality’ is plain stupid. For one thing, my 45km race is completely unlike any road marathon, given that it’s mostly off-road, goes through several forests and has 900m of elevation gain. It requires you to carry mandatory kit, only has two aid stations (at 25km and 35km) and will take longer to complete. If that’s not enough for the race to earn ‘ultra’ status, I don’t know what is.

There will be puddles, and mud.

Of course, you could then argue that other, shorter races by that definition could also be considered ultras, at least in regards that it will take an ultra-effort to finish. Take the recent TransGranCanaria race which several of my friends completed. The marathon option covered 42.2km, and yet had 1000m of positive elevation, a hell of a lot of downhill, and took most of them over six hours to complete – longer than I hope to take for the EcoTrail race.

Then you have road races longer than a marathon. The Great Ocean Road Running Festival in Victoria, Australia has a marathon option, yet the distance is 44km. They have chosen to adhere by the ‘technical’ definition of a marathon, and perhaps in a road-scenario it could apply. For one thing, when running a road marathon your actual distance run (as measured by your watch GPS) is often longer than 42.2km, simply because you have to weave amongst people, and don’t strictly follow the tangent lines on corners which are used when measuring the course. On the other hand, we runners spend much of our life explaining to non-runners that a marathon is always 42.2km (not just any race!), so to use that term for any other official distance could be seen as blasphemy.

All of that doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not I’m running an ultra on Saturday, but in some ways it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be running 45km, which is a whopping 2.8km more than I’ve ever raced before. More than that, it’s entirely new race territory because it’s a trail race with significant elevation change. The longest trail-race I’ve completed to date is 21km, so this is definitely a huge step up from that. It’s the first time that I will have to carry survival equipment with me in case I get stranded in the forest (please no), the longest time I will race between aid stations (25km, as opposed to… 8km?) and the most elevation I will ever climb in a single run.

That could be incredibly terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that I have spent the last three months preparing for this race. I am ready. I have run the entire course in sections from start to finish, including running almost all of the middle trail section in one go. I’ve practised with my pack, and have been working hard to improve my hydration and nutrition. I can’t think of anything more I could do to prepare for the race, I am definitely set to go!

I’m super excited to take on this new challenge, I really can’t wait to race! In the meantime I’m just going to forget the labels and not worry about whether this is an ‘ultra’ or not. The preparation for this race has already taught me so much about getting off-road and loving the trails that 5km of difference really doesn’t matter. I have already embraced the ‘trail-runner’ label, and that will do for me for now. Come May though, ultra-runner is mine!

If you want to track me during the race, you can find me on LiveTrail by searching my number (4010) or my last name (Mitchelmore). There’s also the LiveTrail app to download if you want a more friendly mobile experience, you can then add me as a favourite to quickly check back in with how I’m going. If you are tracking me, I would love your encouragement along the route too. The best way to get in contact while I’m out there is to send me a message on Instagram @julia.runs. Thanks!

What’s your definition of an ‘ultra’? Does it matter?

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