Running, as a sport, is extremely varied. First, we have the sprint distances of 100m, 200m and 400m, which are among the most widely anticipated events at the Olympics and athletic meets. Then come the middle distance races that span between 800m and 3,000m. Anything upwards of 5km all the way up to the marathon distance of 42.195km are all classified as long distance races, which are among the most popular mass participation events in the world.
When you go beyond the marathon, you enter the world of ultra running, which is fast growing in popularity across the world and in India as well. Technically, even running a distance of 43km could be considered an ultra-marathon but the popular distances in ultra running are 50km, 100km and 100 miles (160km). There are plenty of races with unique distances, the most popular one being the approximately 90km race called Comrades, in South Africa, which is in its centenary year this year. Then there are the time-format ultra races in which the person who covers the maximum distance in, say, 12, 24 or 36 hours wins. Then, there is the Last Man Standing format in which the person who runs the longest and the furthest, wins.
And the best part about ultra running is that you don’t even need a race to participate. You could just set out on your own ultra runs like Tom Hanks did in Forrest Gump. Ultra athlete Robbie Ballenger ran his own race from Los Angeles to New York in 2019. Earlier this year, he set a world record for covering about 160km by running New York’s Central Park in a loop.
So, how is ultra running different from all other running formats? Marathons, half marathons and 10k races are a combination of endurance and speed, says 39-year-old ultra runner Binay Sah. “Most runs are primarily about speed. Ultra running is a test of endurance and mental strength not merely of one’s physiological capabilities,” says Sah, who holds the national record for running the maximum distance (236.9km) in 24 hours.
Sandeep Kumar, 35, who is one of India’s fastest ultra runners and also a World Athletics certified junior running coach, agrees with Sah. “Ultra running is not just about running with your legs, sipping electrolytes and consuming gels along your way to the finish line. It’s a whole journey full of ups and downs that your body and mind go through while running an ultra,” says Kumar, who had quit his job as an engineer to focus on running and coaching. “You don’t only think about the finish line but also about the pain and struggle you are going to encounter along the way and prepare and plan for it. It is about patience and your strength of character shines through during the course of an ultra marathon as it tests your body strength along with grit, focus and mental strength.”
Pain is inevitable when you run an ultra, say Sah and Kumar, both of whom have represented India at the World Ultra Running championship. You can easily manage your pace and effort during marathons and shorter races to ward off pain and cramps. But in ultra running, there comes a point when the body starts rebelling and asks you to stop. For Sah, who ran his first ultra in 2016, that “hitting the wall” moment comes at around the 45-50km mark, while Kumar feels that way around the 60km mark.“When you run an ultra you know that the pain is coming. With experience you know around what time that would happen so you wait for it. It is only by accepting and dealing with that pain that you can finish an ultra race,” says Kumar, who ran his first ultra in 2015.
It’s common to start feeling delusional and lost during the course of an ultra run, especially when you are running for over 12 hours. Ballenger had one such moment during a race earlier this year. It was only after his support crew gave him salts and food and forced him to rest that he realized that he was participating in a race and then went on to complete it. Blisters, losing toe nails and cramps are issues all ultra-runners face, but these things don’t stop or faze them. Sah talks to himself all through the race all the way to the finish line. “I keep bargaining with myself as to how much more I want to push myself. The other big differences in ultra running are the fact that you can stop and receive treatment from physio, have a buddy pace you through segments, take a break to eat (even pizza at times) and re-fuel and sometimes even take naps mid-race,” he adds.
It is best not to go straight to ultra running when you’re starting out, even though that may be your ultimate goal. Sah had run seven half marathons before participating in a 35km race in the Himalaya, and then moving on to ultra distances. “Ultra running takes time… there are no shortcuts. You could train for a couple of months and finish strong in a marathon. But in ultra running, in order to finish strong you need years of training your body and mind to conquer the challenges that it throws at you. You need to accumulate the experience and strength with every run which is necessary for this sport,” says Kumar, who loves the freedom of ultra running and the journey of preparing for the run.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.