The LetsRun obsession with ultra runners reeks of insecurity. Of course, half the content here reads like Yahoo Answers posts by adolescent girls, so I shouldn't be shocked. Let me just lay this out for you, so maybe we can drop the subject and talk about other stuff for a while. Right now, in the US of A anyway, all marathon finishers are considered equal, and anyone who slogs in an Ironman finish before midnight is seen as way cooler and more athletic than you and your 29-minute 10k, which roughly 1% of the population understands is a pretty darned impressive time. It's best to accept this unfortunate fact and move on.
Everyone here realizes that running - especially in America - is in a phase where just getting to the finish line has become "victory", albeit a personal one. Given the rise in obesity, and the generally appalling physical condition of our population, I have to grit my teeth and applaud my lumpy co-workers for slogging out a 2:00 half-marathon.
Anecdote time: a (very nice) dude I work with did a Tough Mudder, and wore the stupid orange headband to work (we are engineers who should be at least a little more professional than that). I couldn't hold the snark in, and I asked, "so, did you run the Tough Mudder?" Blinded to my sarcasm by his sense of accomplishment, he responded with a disarming and triumphant boyish grin, "yup... FINISHED IT!" As horribly douchey and sad as that was, I couldn't help but being happy for him.
The LetsRun community is primarily college or ex-college runners who have a decade or three of long miles, brutal interval sessions, crushing defeats, and victories won at the cost of social lives, sweat, and sometimes blood. For the competitive runner who has given up much to drop 15 seconds off their 5,000m PR and go to NCAAs, it stings to have their co-workers and neighbors elevate themselves to the same level after they complete a grueling 6-week, 20mpw couch-to-5k plan and crack 30 minutes in the Turkey Trot.
Given this celebration of mediocrity, it's no surprise that a new form of one-upmanship was to emerge. If race finishing times are more watered-down than Millennial GPAs, how is the 20-something tough-guy (or girl) going to prove that their cross-fit sessions are paying off? If finishing is the goal, suddenly finishing something LONGER is the way to distinguish one's performance. The marathon suddenly appeared as a way for the elite hobby-jogger to distinguish themselves from the unwashed hobby-hobby-jogger masses. Of course, times suffered. I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say that 4:00 is the new 3:00 marathon time.
Possibly the most annoying bit about marathon-completion fever is that once finishing longer distances became the goal of literally nearly every jogger in the country, specializing in shorter distances became something nobody could understand. I’m sure I’m not the only one rankled by the constant questions: “Are you training for a marathon?” I’m running 45 miles per week with 3 track sessions. What part of that looks like marathon training?
The lingering issue with the marathon for these joggers is that it's still a competition. There are, even today, a group of solidly sub-3 runners at the front of every marathon, no matter how small the field or difficult the course. It’s easy to dismiss the 2:10 times as superhuman – they are nearly beyond comprehension for me, and much more so to someone running literally twice that time. But it's an unavoidable affront to a 20-something male's ego when they notice their 3:58 time wouldn't have made top-10 in the female 50-54 category.
What was needed was a new kind of race, where such comparisons wouldn't happen. Trail runs existed already, but were not terribly popular. However, the variable course conditions and uncertain distances meant that times were not directly comparable, which is a welcome relief to people who would really rather not know. Obstacle races came next - many without timing at all! Anyone who finished was just as Tough as any other finisher.
Ultras already existed well before this trend. They are not a product of it. Their popularity however, is. There's another issue with Ultras - they aren't really running races, at least not we know them in the modern Olympic era. The nice thing about the mid-D to marathon distances is that many people can excel in them all – they are fairly similar in physiological demands. College milers can become elite marathoners. The 1500 is a largely aerobic effort, and the marathon is just barely within the muscle fatigue and glycogen-storage capacity limits of elite runners (sort of, but let’s not get off-track).
Ultras change this. Even the 50k is markedly different than the marathon. The 50 mile to 100 mile races are a different ballgame entirely. The ability of the athlete to process calories on the move suddenly becomes very important. Raw speed is of zero value, and the ability to take 150-200 mile training weeks at slogging paces matters tremendously. And, worst of all... the WINNERS in these races often walk significant chunks of the course.
The ultra races were perfect fuel for the "every finisher is a winner" fire. Suddenly, these slow, un-committed joggers had heroes. And they were not 13-minute 5k runners or 2:10 marathoners; they were wacky, charismatic ultra runners with trucker hats over their long hair, and sandals on their feet. Nuurmi and Zatopek started and refined this modern running thing with vomit-inducing interval work, and runners like Geb had essentially perfected athletic self-immolation, with staggering results. For competitive runners who respected oxygen debt and 55-second last laps, seeing the vast majority of the running population showering praise on a bunch of haphazardly-trained misfits is sacrilege.
The situation for the competitive runner is thus an awkward one, today. Running is tremendously popular, and yet being good at running as we’ve known it for decades garners no respect at all. Worse yet, enthusiastic praise is heaped on fringe “athletes” who are often performing athletic party tricks.
I know it’s a big ask, but maybe LetsRun can accept this, be the bigger person, and just smile knowingly at the ridiculous whims of the masses. We know that ultra running is not really the same thing as traditional distance running, and furthermore, that the talent pool is rather shallow. That knowledge should really be good enough. If you want accolades from your co-workers, go run a 100-miler. If you just love running and racing, ignore the oblivious chit-chat and asinine magazine covers and go run some 400s.