Two weeks ago, I completed one of the most challenging experiences of my life—a 100 mile road ultra-marathon. Traditionally, endurance contests used to be identified as half and full marathons, but, just like anything else, people began pushing the extremes. An ultra-marathon is a walking or running event that goes beyond the traditional 26.2 marathon miles, and is completed on trail, road, or a combination of both. Road races are more urban and are run on asphalt and concrete, while the trail can be run anywhere, such as through beautiful mountain terrain, in the desert, and even on sandy beaches.
Before I dive into my experience with my first 100 miler, I thought it would be helpful to give a bit of background information on these runs, so I’ve broken this blog entry into two posts. Here is part 1:
As lightly detailed in a previous blog, traditionally, ultra-marathons are either 50k, 50 miles, or 100 miles long, and currently their popularity is soaring. Ultra-marathons as a sport can be dated back for decades. In the 1980s, ultra-running was officially recognized as a sport, and, either on road or trail, if it’s over 26.2 miles, it’s considered an ultra-marathon. Ultra-marathoning is distinct from marathoning for many reasons, but one in particular is because it is much less about time and much more about pace. One friend put it this way, “If you tell a person you just ran a marathon, one of the first things out of their mouth is, ‘what was your time?’ Contrary, if you tell a person you ran an ultra-marathon they usually reply with, ‘you are crazy.’” Pacing is key; training is time on your feet, not how fast you run a 5k. To train properly for a road marathon takes incrediblydedicated and specific training with track workouts and long runs on flat terrain. But running on pavement with moderate inclines may seem totally tame when compared to the physical endurance presented and mental toughness required on an ultra challenging trail run. Many times trail races are more challenging in nature and the runner is often given more time to finish. However, in my personal experience, road races can be much harder on the body, and, for that reason, I find them to be more difficult.
The key to running these types of marathons is training and proper nutrition in order to give the runner enough energy to finish. There is always controversy when it comes to nutrition. The old rule was to plow your body with high-carb intake. The new rule is not so much. At this point, if you believe what you read, neither way is perfect. What is important is to make sure you have a good intake of both simple and complex carbs during the run.
Recent studies have shown that low-carb diets increase fat burning during running. However, this has not been linked to improved endurance performance. Research has shown that runners are not able to train as hard on low-carb diets because it produces low glycogen stores, which keeps the body running. Most runners have enough glycogen in their bodies to run a 13-mile race, but the marathon and ultra-marathon are metabolic challenges and the runner needs something to push past that theoretical brick wall we all hit sometime during the event. When running an ultra-marathon, the runner is burning thousands and thousands of calories. So, unlike typical marathon races with aid stations offering cliff blocks, water, and maybe some Gatorade, aid stations at ultra-marathons offer bacon, Coca-Cola, hamburgers, pizza, burritos, and cookies. There is some controversy as to whether taking in foods like these are actually helpful, but the idea is when your body is burning that many calories, where the calories come from is not important. Speaking from personal experience, on ultra runs, eating a bar, or even imagining a salad, which I typically love, almost makes me nauseated. My body is like, “Give me the juice,” and if you don’t, sickness is sure to set in.
Hydration is paramount in any exercise program, but is often a topic of controversy, especially in ultra runs. How much to drink, what to drink, and how often, continue to be the center of running studies. It is imperative that runners maintain proper hydration and electrolyte balance, but going overboard can be just as dangerous as not hydrating enough. On ultras, there are mandatory weigh stations set up throughout the course. These will typically happen about every 25 miles. The purpose of these weigh stations is sort of a superficial way of monitoring hydration levels. One would assume that if a runner loses weight throughout the run, they are not hydrated properly; however, due to the fact that each gram of glycogen in the body stores roughly 2-3 grams of water, as glycogen is used, it releases the water into the body—resulting in a loss of weight. A runner will lose about 2-3 percent of body weight during an ultra-marathon. If a runner has gained weight or if their weight has remained constant, this person is likely over-hydrating. Over-hydration is dangerous because it could result in hyponatremia, which is defined as the amount of sodium in the blood being too low. This results in water being forced into cells in the body to compensate for the lack of sodium. The problem arises when the water causes the cells to swell, and, in some cases, can lead to hyponotremia encephalopathy—swelling of the brain.
In order to prevent hyponotremia, many runners will replenish the loss of sodium with salt tablets. As we sweat, we often just drink water in order to hydrate. We forget, though, that we also lose salt with sweat, and long stages of exercise will require more than just water in order to replenish the body. Salt tablets can be highly beneficial to the runner as a fast, easy way of replenishing sodium in the body. (Bear in mind that salt and sodium are distinct; however, not being an expert myself and to keep from getting too scientific, I will leave you to do your own Google search on that one.) Although there are some definite warnings, runners should consume salt tablets systematically and know exactly how much they’re consuming. For example, if a runner chooses to eat salty food, this will result in thirst, so the runner will drink water, resulting in the occurrence of a natural balance of water and sodium. Salt tablets, on the other hand, do not result in the same type of thirst, so it may be difficult to gauge your sodium levels naturally. Too much sodium could result in high blood pressure and water retention, as the body is holding on to water in an effort to balance the sodium and water equation. There are some really amazing articles and studies on proper hydration I would encourage those interested to read. One in particular is by Marty Hoffman, titled “Weight Changes During a 100-mile Race.”
So, now that you hopefully have a better foundational understanding of ultra-marathons, read my next post on my experience, trudging my way through my first 100-miler!