Rojo and Wejo’s Favorite Ultra Marathons

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by LetsRun.com (Sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE)
June 15, 2019

Over the last month plus, thanks to HOKA ONE ONE’s sponsorship we’ve had a lot of fun learning about the ultramarathon scene. We’ve named what we view as the greatest records, greatest races, the ‘majors’, and G.O.A.T.s  in the sport. But the sport is so much more than those lists. LetsRun.com co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson wanted to share a few final thoughts.

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Robert Johnson:

Coming up with the “triple crown of ultras” wasn’t all that hard for me. I liked how the list comprised three different length of races in terms of time – quarter day, half day and full day – and three different terrains – road, trail and mountain.

Then we pretty much added in the world championships as well as the Lake Saroma 100k which is the closest thing Asia has to Comrades as the other ‘majors’ we’ll try to pay attention to each year.

But there are a lot of of amazing races out there in the ultra world. If I was going to run one, I’d probably not do one of those in our ‘majors’ list.  But coming up with a ‘majors’ list was the right call because if we tried to rank individual races based on beauty of bucket-list worthiness, it would be too hard.

I’d say the most interesting thing about the whole process for me was to learn that the name ultramarathon is a misnomer. Ultramarathon technically is any distance longer than 26.2 miles but many of the most popular and famous trail races are less than that.

Switzerland’s Sierre-Zinal, which Kilian Jornet has won 6 times, is only 31km. Spain’s Zegama-Aizkorri, which Kilian Jornet has won 9 times, is the classic marathon distance.

But since our task was to find the “best ultras”, we decided to limit the search to only the races longer than 26.2 miles which certainly helped make things easier.

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But if I was going to run one of the races that I learned about, I’d probably definitely do something much less than 26.2 miles, particularly since I’m way out of shape. I might start with the Mount Marathon race.

I’d heard about this race as it was a priority of Allie Ostrander even after she won her first NCAA title.

Now that I’ve learned a little more about it, the more it appeals to me.

  1. It’s on July 4th – one of my favorite holidays.
  2. It’s in Alaska – a beautiful place I’ve never been to.
  3. It has live tv coverage.

Combining a vacation and a race that doesn’t destroy your body would be ideal. The problem with this race and many other trail races is they are very hard to get into. They only take a couple hundred people per gender per year.

If I was going to do a crazy long race, yes, Barkley’s would be near the top of the list if I got invited. Who wouldn’t want to see a guy start a race by lighting a cigarette? So many runners are diehard health nuts and smoking is so unhealthy that it appeals to my anti-authoritarian streak. Plus since hardly anyone finishes the race, I wouldn’t feel bad at all about my horrific fitness.

Coming into the exercise, I probably would have thought races like Barkley’s or Badwater might make our ‘majors’ list, but quickly decided that races with less than 100 people would be hard to make the cut. And is Barkley’s even really a race? Sage Canaday called it a “Scavenger hunt in the woods. “

If I was actually going to train for a true ultra, I think I’d want to do an ultra that “makes sense”. What do I mean by that? I think I’d want to do a course that seems to exist for a logical reason – like you are running around a mountain range as is the case with UTMB or across an island like with the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) – as compared to running an arbitrary distance like 100 miles or 100k.

Both UTMB and MIUT are beautiful and would make great family vacations as well, so they are high on my bucket list. As a new father, I’m not sure just taking off to for a week to run an ultra is the right call unless it could be combined with a vacation.

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Actually, the ultra that makes the most sense to me is Spartathlon. I said above the most surprising thing I learned during this exploration was the fact that ultramarathon may be a misnomer for the sport, but I take that back. That’s the second most surprising thing.

The most surprising thing I learned is that Pheidippides may not actually have run from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC and then collapsed and died, as that tale is what birthed the modern marathon. It turns out that story may be ahistorical. It seems that there is much more proof that Pheidippides ran an ultra in 490 BC, covering the 246-km (153) between Athens and Sparta.

The Spartahlon race follows that course and thus is definitely something that appeals to me for historical reasons although I imagine the beauty of running across the Portugese island of Madeira at MIUT would dwarf it.

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Weldon Johnson:  I have no idea what ultra marathon I’m most likely to do.

I’m probably more likely to do some sort of FKT, or some sort of course out in nature that makes sense.

As a kid, many of us would see how fast we could run to the tree and back. Then to the lightpole in back. I actually remember trying to run during our entire PE class in kindergarten with Robert and another kid in our class. Only later do we become fixated on seeing how fast we can cover a certain distance. But once we do, most of us then shift our training and we become fixated on miles we do which I don’t really think is the best way to train.

It wasn’t until I moved to Flagstaff to train that for the first time in my life as an adult, I learned to just embrace running instead of logging miles. Sure at the time, I was trying to keep track of how many “miles” I ran and running a lot of them, but once you’re off the roads and on the trails, it’s a much more inexact science. In retrospect, I bet I ran a lot less miles than I thought I did.

Soon I realized it made more sense to do the runs I wanted to run, rather than run what I thought was a nice round distance in terms of mileage.  It made a lot more sense to run and touch Fisher’s Point and then head back home, rather than turn around after 45 minutes because I thought that would mean I hit 13 miles on the dot when I got home.

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I would apply some of these concepts to my faster training as well. Sure I’d often start on a track for a tempo run to try and make sure I was going close to the desired pace I thought I should be able to run, but forcing a pace is not the best way to train and a lot of pressure. So then I’d exit the track and run loops in a neighborhood, where the goal wasn’t to force a pace (because I didn’t know how far the neighborhood loop was) per mile, but rather to run the loop fast and smart. When I was out of shape the loops might be pretty slow, but this wasn’t as frustrating as when I knew exactly what pace I was running because in some ways the goal was like it was when I was a kid- to run the prescribed course to the best of my abilities on that day, not force some pace I might not be able to keep.

I think running in nature takes us one step closer to our evolutionary roots in the sport of running and that is why trail/mountain ultras captivate the public’s attention.

I’m probably way more likely to see how fast I can get to the top of a mountain and back, or even run my normal running route, than figure out what ultra I should enter.

I’d love to see Western States sometime up close, but I’m not sure I need to run it. Something about having to cross a river while clinging to a rope romanticizes the race for me. Our ancestors didn’t run on the roads, or just run on a trail, they ran from point “a” to point “b” and often had to cross whatever got in their way.

And while I said you might see me run to the top of a mountain and back. Hopefully you’ll never see me do this:

Utterly amazing and terrifying at the same time.

One reminder to everyone. Be safe if you do go run off the roads. Be prepared and let people know where you’re going. Don’t forget you can die. I don’t say that lightly. 15 years ago, a runner named Margaret Bradley came to Flagstaff. She had been 31st at the Boston Marathon and was a friend of a friend. On July 4th, a group of us went to the horse races in Flagstaff. Some of us went for a run. We had pizza. She talked about doing some long run in the Grand Canyon. Cool I thought.  Less than a week later, she was found dead, dehydrated in the Canyon. This all happened despite her being super fit and going on the run with another person. Actually, this probably happened because she was super fit. A non fit person wouldn’t have attempted what she did, and then things went wrong in a series of events that you can read about here.  In retrospect, I wish I had even just said to her, “Be careful,” but now I would have much stronger words. The Grand Canyon is one of my favorite places on Earth, and one of the most beautiful. Pretty sure Margaret would want us all to keep enjoying it and embrace the opportunity to run in beautiful places, but do it judiciously. You are missed Margaret, but your memory lives on.

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Robert and Johnson are the founders of LetsRun.com. Neither has run an ultra marathon. Robert’s claim to fame is pacing Catherine Ndereba to the world record in the marathon in 2001. Weldon’s claim is pacing Paula Radcliffe to her first world record in 2002.

HOKA ONE ONE sponsored LetsRun.com’s exploration of the ultramarathon over the month of May (and a little bit before and after), trying to determine the answer to the question: “What are the best ultramarathons in the world?” You can see the debate here. While this is sponsored content, HOKA had no say in what was written. 


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