The Difference Between Trail Ultras and Road Races

They feel less like huge events and more like just a couple hundred people with the same bad idea. I absolutely love them.

I’m sitting here in my tent, the night before the 2017 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, a horribly rocky 100 mile (160K) race in the mountains of central Virginia in the US (my feet hurt just writing this). Right now, the sky is clear and bright, the air is fresh, and the camp is still and quiet. As I try to get some last-minute sleep before the 4 a.m. start of what will be my fifth 160K race in 3 years, I’m staring at the sky, thinking back about how I got started running these super long trail races, and why, to me, this is running.

I spent eight years trying to fit in as a road runner. I ran 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons. I aimed for a Boston qualifying time (and missed). I joined running groups. Eventually I just realised that I wasn’t getting the high from it that I wanted – that I had been reading about. I didn’t care for the regimented training programs, the crowded expos, the corrals filled with people, or the elitism of many Boston Qualifiers, who often treat slower runners dismissively. What I love about running is the experience of feeling free and having adventures. All that other stuff was just bringing me down.

By 2013, I was getting tired of running, and considering giving it up. Then I stumbled across a video on YouTube of the 2011 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. This crazy scene unfolded of runners sprinting out of the town of Chamonix, France, up huge mountains, and into the night.

There were fans lining the trails of this race the entire way, cheering and ringing cowbells. Cows were running alongside runners. Goats darted up and down cliffs, and there were broadcast helicopters reminiscent of the Tour de France. In an instant, a whole new world of trail ultrarunning suddenly seemed to appear out of thin air.

Apparently more than just a few crazy people were signing up for races that require you to run through the bush for an entire day in hopes of getting – of all things – a belt buckle. And they skipped all the things that turned me away from road races: there were no roaring crowds, no big fancy expo trying to sell you extra socks you don’t need, and a looseness to the whole thing. They feel less like huge events and more like just a couple hundred people with the same bad idea. I absolutely love them.

I have run trail ultras almost exclusively for the last two years. I’m starting to figure out that it’s precisely because these races feel so under-the-radar and irreverent that I choose to keep doing them instead of road races. When I sign up for a race, I know exactly what kind of experience I’m getting: adventure.

In a road race, the idea is to create a course in which nothing slows you down. If a train or cross-traffic causes runners to have to stop momentarily, people inevitably complain about missing out on their chance at a Boston qualifying time. But when you run a trail ultra, it’s understood that you’ll be crossing rivers, roads, train tracks, and encountering a number of factors outside the race director’s control that will inevitably affect your finishing time. I prefer the adventure and unpredictability of racing in the backcountry.

I run to experience the world as it is. Having to interact with these factors makes my trail ultra experience richer. I remember during one race I had to wait at the side of the tracks as a train trundled past. I was 152 kilometres in and this was in the middle of the forest at 1 am. I’d been running for 30 hours, and just woken from an aid station nap where I had fallen asleep with soup in one hand, and coffee in the other. I was 10 hours past my goal time, I hadn’t been able to run for the past 50 kilometres, and I was bribed with coffee and a bag of gummy bears at the previous aid station to continue instead of dropping out. But there I was standing next to some train tracks under a starry sky, about to march my way to my second 160K finish. I pretty much became indestructible that night. Of course, I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

Trail ultras also feel like family reunions. Hundreds of people run these races, not tens of thousands. And it seems to be the same few hundred people that show up each year (at least in the races I run). The pre-race meeting and meal become a time to catch up with acquaintances, and make friends with the new faces. And the conversations continue through the entire race. You’re sharing in the misery with each person you pass, or who passes you. It’s worth it taking the time to thank aid station volunteers for coming out to the middle of nowhere to serve grilled cheese to probably the worst-smelling group of people on earth.

There’s a casualness to the trail ultra scene that doesn’t exist on the road. I’ve been on the receiving end of more than one death stare after trying to strike up a conversation with someone looking to qualify for Boston in a marathon.

There’s a lot more equality in trail ultras, too. The guy taking 36 hours to finish a 160K race is just as tough, if not tougher, than the winner. But to me, these races feel less like a competition against other runners than they are against the distance itself.

It’s one thing to be fast, and float over rocks, roots, and rivers, but to keep going when night falls and a new day starts takes unbelievable endurance. There’s never certainty that runners will make it to the finish line, no matter how elite they are. Even the best trail runners in the world have their fair share of DNFs. We all cross the same start line, and it’s not uncommon for winners and top runners to wait around the finish line until the last runners finish and the race is cut off.

The main draw to these ultras, large or small, is the wildness, and the chance to experience parts of the world you can only get to on foot, often kilometres away from the nearest signs of civilisation.

Every trail race is personal. In a marathon, I’d pass maybe 15 aid stations blindly swiping cups or gels from volunteers, but in an ultra, there are crews of volunteers camped out along the course just to feed, patch up, and motivate runners. In the minutes it takes to refill bottles and stomachs, I have a chance to personally thank the volunteers for being out there.

Even the race directors, with their extremely busy schedules on race day, can be found at multiple points on the course, checking up on aid station supplies, and asking runners how their day is going. I have yet to cross the finish line of an ultra without receiving a handshake and a personal congratulations from the race director. I couldn’t name a single volunteer or race director of any of the road races I ran if my life depended on it.

I may not always run as fast as I want, but road races tend to go pretty smoothly. Ultras, on the other hand, almost never do. Between weather, nutrition, and terrain, something always fails to go according to plan. And I find myself coming up with new curse words as I push my tired feet to keep slogging up yet another gigantic pile of stupid rocks.

But that’s part of the joy of it. Running, for me, has always been about finding my limits, of testing myself. I run to rediscover that initial moment of potential that got me into running in the first place. There simply isn’t enough time or distance in a shorter race to truly test myself, to push beyond what I already know I can do, and get back to that point of discovery.

In a single race, I’ll have experienced that previous eight year journey of falling in and out of love with running a million times, of feeling on top of the world or that the weight of the world is on my shoulders, but by the end of the race, I’ve experienced every emotion possible, I’ve eaten so much that on any other day I’d puke my guts out, and I cross the finish line with a smile I find nowhere else in the world.

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