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What Nobody Will Tell You About "Easy" Ultras (or Marathons)


a man runs along a long flat dirt road through a field

Not all marathons or ultras are equally-difficult – we all know that. Some are steep and technical, others are flatter and repetitive, still others are on pavement or a track! Some are incredibly well-marked, and others you will need to navigate by yourself, and may not even have a single set 'course.'


Ultramarathoners in particular are used to viewing course profiles and logistical information prior to registering for a race.


However in recent years we've seen an influx of marathons and ultras that are marketed as being exceptionally 'easy.' Extreme net downhills, multiple short and flat loops, or even short out-and-backs.


"Flat and fast," they say. "PR's all but guaranteed!" goes the marketing jargon.


One particular race company, Revel, only organizes net-downhill marathons (and half-marathons), and uses nearly identical marketing language for each:


"This incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful road race takes runners from X Location to X Location. Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in X geographical area, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time.

X Race is the fastest and most beautiful marathon and half marathon in X State!"


"Will be sure to help?" Are these races really as easy as race-directors and marketing gurus would have you believe?

The short answer is... almost definitely not. I have seen very few runners run their best races on these 'easy' courses. In fact, the DNF rate is often higher among these 'easy' courses than among more moderate courses. I also see much higher rates of 'blowups,' by which I mean anytime someone with big goals has to slow down so much they are solely worried about merely finishing. That's not to take away from the accomplishment of simply finishing, but it can be dispiriting to have happen when you are hoping for a faster race. Additionally in some cases, there is a significantly-increased risk of injury.

Some will argue that that higher rate of DNF/blowups and even injury risk is because people who want to seek out these 'easy' courses are more likely to show up under-prepared.


That could be true, and indeed the best way to think of these courses is having more headroom for a potentially fast time, but being more difficult to prepare for and actually run that fast time. But doesn't that... make them harder?

A faster course does not mean an easier course.

It's difficult to provide anything but anecdotal evidence when comparing different courses, especially on trails, so most of this is based on my experience as a coach, and conversations with a wide variety of runners that I haven't worked with. However actual data doesn't lie, and I present that in the 'Net Downhill' section below, which is also a separate article.


In this article, I'm going to dive into the pros and cons of various course profiles and route designs. These are based on my experience as a runner and a coach of hundreds of athletes on 70+ different marathon and ultramarathon courses, including dozens of Boston Qualifers across many age groups.



Pros/Cons and the Bottom Line

Like all things, there is no black and white here. Just because I list something as having significant negative attributes, doesn't preclude the possibility of having an amazing day on that course.


Additionally these pros and cons may vary depending on your speed, experience and preferred training. What's an easy course for a world-class athlete may not be the same for a mid-pack runner, and vice-versa.


Above all, you should choose a course that makes you excited not only to run the race, but to train for it. If you like running on hilly trails, don't do a track ultramarathon. If you prefer running on smooth trails and roads, don't do Hardrock. If you don't have long sustained downhills to practice on, don't choose a downhill race.


Finally, I don't intend to take away from the worth of any event. Every race has its place, it's pros and cons, from the course to the atmosphere, swag to the finish line party. For most courses, there is a type of runner and variety of training that will experience success. If your reasons for doing a race go beyond personal performance, that's entirely valid!

My aim with this article isn't to bad-mouth races, but rather to offset what I see as extremely misleading marketing, and offer athletes information from a coaching/running perspective, rather than a race-directing perspective.

 

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Elevation Profiles

I break elevation profiles into the following categories, very approximately by the amount of elevation gain per mile, averaged over the course. So 3100ft of elevation gain in a 50k = 100ft per mile. 20,000ft of gain in a 100mi = 200ft per mile.


However there are a variety of complicating factors, especially for the middle three categories. First, the technicality of the trail may flip a course into one category versus another. Second, the size and frequency of hills throughout the course has a big impact. A mostly-flat race with a big 2500ft climb and descent is going to be very different than a course with 2500ft spread fairly evenly in 150-300ft climbs throughout.


Note that the elevation profile of the race may not be what makes it difficult, there are a lot of other factors to consider. Boston is known for it's extreme (for the season) weather. Western States is known for its heat. Leadville is known for its altitude. All of these factors complicate courses that may not be difficult in other circumstances.


Again, there is wiggle room here, and any individual might provide different range for these categories. I provide my analysis as a coach of a wide variety of athletes from the front to back of the pack.



Reasoning

This is just a broad overview of some of the considerations, and I go into a bit more detail in each section. If you are choosing a race from the extremes (net-downhill, flat or extreme) it's going to be especially beneficial for you to have an experienced coach. A training plan will almost certainly fail you in those cases.


First, the more extreme a race, meaning outside of your normal training terrain, the more specific training it will take to succeed, or perhaps even survive. If you normally train on rolling terrain, succeeding at an all-downhill race OR an extreme mountainous race will take more specific training than a race that is similar to your home terrain.


Second, that specific training may take away from your training to make long-term athletic progress. This is again most dramatic at the extremes, as you can imagine. Long-term progress requires working on what is most likely to improve your overall athletic ability, based on a long convoluted list of factors from your athletic history to your current fitness and physiological responses to training. However in the vast majority of cases, it is probably not the same training that's required for success on one of these extreme outlier course.


Third, specific courses, again mostly at the extremes, have specific structural demands of your body, and may have increased injury risk even with adequate specific training. That's not a guarantee of course; it's just degrees of risk. But a 50k of flat pavement is going to be a very different kind of stress on your biomechanics than a 50k in rural rolling hills or a 50k in the mountains with 10k ft of elevation gain.



Net Downhill

Note this section is an abbreviated version of a full article that was released here. That article is filled with data and charts, and is a must-read if you are considering a net-downhill marathon. If you read that article, skip ahead to Flat in this one


If you aren't considering a downhill race, please skim the 'Why Aren't They Faster?' section, as some sections below may refer to it.


Point-to-point, net-downhill races have been seen in the marathoning world for awhile now, generally promising a huge percentage of Boston-qualifiers. (Implying of course, that you will too). The race company I mentioned in the introduction exclusively organizes these events, and uses the same language that nearly promises a PR/BQ for each.


Now we're starting to see some ultras being created this way.


These courses come in a variety of flavors, from the gentle net-downhill to the extreme.

The gentle ones generally still have plenty of rolling hills in them, so I lump them into that category.


Really it comes down to the intent. Some point-to-point courses end up being net-downhill, but you can tell that was a side-effect, not a goal, say The Boston Marathon or Western States 100. That said, Boston is notorious for requiring somewhat more specific training versus other marathons due to the downhills, and many world-class runners run slower at Boston, even though on paper, it's too-fast to be a record-eligible course!


But the races I'm really referring to in this category are the ones that were clearly specifically created to be net-downhill, such as running from a mountain into a valley. The five current Revel Marathons have an average of 5,043ft of vertical drop. On pavement. Compare that to Boston, which has only 1275ft of elevation loss, with 815 of gain to mix things up.


These more extreme courses might have the potential for faster times. However it takes extremely specific training to succeed at a race like this without ending up DNF'ing, sustaining an injury, or both. The training required also may prevent you from making long-term progress. In essence, you may be sacrificing your fitness next year and the year after for a slim chance at a fast time now.


My data shows that these races are not as fast as they advertise, and indeed are slower than many flat/rolling marathons. This isn't an opinion, this is based on data. That data isn't perfect, and I explore some of the caveats in the full article, however it is the exact same kind of data that those races use to describe themselves as faster.



Why Aren't They Faster?

The most basic reason is that the benefits of running downhill simply can't overcome the drawbacks and risks, likely leading to big blow-ups, mid-race injuries and DNF's.

Some other reasons include decreased breathing efficiency, poor running economy (which is strongly correlated among most grades), and a leveling-off of downhill benefits as grades get steep enough athletes begin braking. The latter is particularly relevant when races start with the steepest downhills at the beginning, at which point athletes are not fully warmed up, and likely intending to start conservatively.


Let's explore why these races may lead to higher injury and DNF rates. Net downhill races have a higher injury risk due to mechanical stress on the body.


Obviously impact is the first concern that comes to mind. No matter how perfect your downhill running form is, it's still higher impact than running flat or uphill. This can increase the risk of not only stress fractures, but also soft-tissue injuries due to eccentric contraction to absorb shock. No, not just in your quads.


In addition, you are stressing your legs via a longer stride than you are used to. You are also compounding that with an un-changing stride - consistently using the same muscles in the same proportions for hours on end. That's a recipe for early fatigue, sometimes in muscles you didn't even know existed. In some cases those muscles can overload in a manner that results in a long-term injury.

Think of it like a 70mph speed limit on a really bumpy and rutted out, but downhill dirt road. Sure, you could legally go faster but also... you can't really go faster or you'll blow the struts on your suspension, smash your bumper, etc. Except in this case, you probably won't realize until you're halfway through and already hurt yourself.


Flat

Flat courses are almost always designed specifically to be flat, and often marketed as 'flat and fast.' While that may be true for national-class athletes, especially those training primarily on roads, it may not be as simple for the average athlete. After all, the difference in finishing time can be 1.5 to 2x the winner of the race; and time is what measures stress on your body, not miles.


The problems with a totally flat course really come down to those mechanical stresses, just like the extreme downhill. You have an un-changing stride - consistently using the same muscles in the same proportions for hours on end. If you've been training on rolling hills, you are constantly changing muscle balance and ground reaction forces, which increases the time to muscle fatigue and failure, particularly for smaller muscles.


You can prepare for a pancake-flat race by being really diligent with your strength and mobility training, particularly in the frontal plane. In addition, you need to do your key long runs on similar terrain and surfaces. Being sure your overall weekly volume doesn't prioritize the long run is also important, as is having a medium-length run the day after your long run. Running a long run in isolation doesn't help you run a marathon. Being able to run a long run after a bunch more miles that week... and then run again the following day – that definitely does!


One key thing to remember is that while running is an injury risk, it also is protective against future running. That impact is what prompts strengthening of your bones, tendons, muscles and ligaments. If you try and limit your impact too much while you train such as via training exclusively on soft surfaces, or doing mostly cross-training, you may be decreasing your likelihood of success at the race, and increasing your injury risk. That said, if you are a high-volume runner relative to your expected finish time, you are probably safe to shift some or many of your miles to soft surfaces.


In essence, you need to train really well, not just satisfactorily, to ensure success. Don't think of the flat course as easier – think of it as harder, just with a faster potential if everything else is perfect.


If you are a faster athlete who spends a lot of time training on roads, this could be your ticket to a fast time if you adequately prepare!



Lightly Rolling

When I think of lightly rolling terrain, I think of routes with approximately 20-50ft of elevation gain per mile, averaged across the entire course. However, as noted above, the size and frequency of hills plays a massive role here, as in the following three categories!


For several reasons, I'd consider this the 'most-likely to be fast' type of course for a randomly-selected athlete with average training. There is just enough variety to keep things from getting monotonous, and enough variation in your stride and biomechanics to delay the specific fatigue discussed above. For many faster athletes, these are the most enjoyable types of courses, especially if the hills are evenly spread throughout the course, but most runners with adequate preparation can run a great time on a course like this.



Rolling Terrain

Rolling terrain is the bread and butter for a lot of road runners in the Northeast US – approximately 50-100ft of gain per mile. For whatever reason, races in this category tend to be the most variable – with some courses in this category sporting smaller rolling hills or flat sections combined with some really big climbs, and others having consistent rolling hills. Be on the lookout for any huge climbs/descents followed by flat sections, as well as the overall size and spacing of hills.


While these courses decrease the potential to run the absolute speediest time, I find for most athletes that train in similar areas, these courses are the 'easiest' for ultramarathons. If there ever was such a thing! If you want to run a great race without overthinking the specific training, choose one of these!


There are a variety of reasons, but I'm sure you can guess them by now. Constantly changing terrain switches things up for your biomechanics, and allows for easy and frequent alternations between running and hiking, where necessary.



Moderately Hilly

I think of the classic reasonable trail race, with 100-150ft gain per mile. These courses generally will have their hills pretty spread out, but like with other categories, be sure to analyze the actual course profile for what to expect!


On the one hand, it's probably not going to be the fastest possible course for an elite athlete. However it can still be very fast for most people, and indeed some people will set their PR's on a moderately-hilly course.


Similar to courses on rolling terrain, you are constantly changing your stride, which also good for your mind. Anecdotally, many athletes tend to finish strongest on moderately-hilly courses, though it's impossible to tell if that's from starting too-conservatively.



Hilly

These courses have 150-200ft of gain per mile. Western States falls in this category, however it's net-downhill offsets it quite a bit, and I'd probably consider it in the former category. A race like the Vermont 100 is a great example of this category, with no extreme climbs, but endless hills that can really add up.

Again, the size, nature and spread of the hills makes a huge difference.


This is where things generally start to slow down, although a net-downhill race like Western States still has the potential for faster times, especially when combined with the level of competition there.


Notably, I don't believe that these courses are necessarily difficult, assuming you're adequately trained and don't have a spectacular blowup. You don't need a ton of specific training, and can succeed at a race like this with pretty standard trail and ultra experience.



Extreme

I'm sure you can figure out which races belong in this category. Hardrock. Wasatch Front. UTMB. High Lonesome.


These races have 225ft of gain per mile and often much more. Notably, most races in this category have really long climbs and descents – no rolling hills here! Expect to be climbing for many miles. You may hike much more than you run, especially with races at higher altitudes or on steep and technical east-coast courses that may climb/descend 800-1000ft in a single mile without a switchback in sight.




The Fallacy of Excessive Climbing/Vert in Training

I have always been one to caution against what has become practically pop-culture training for runners, particularly trail runners – and that is a fixation on vert and climbing in training. This can hold runners back from making progress, and even cause regressions if used as a training methodology over the long-term.


The fact is, most runners make more progress and are often better-prepared for their race by training on reasonable terrain for the majority of their volume. (Which I consider as flat-to-rolling in the categories above.)


There is a ton of research and reasoning to support this, but it's far too big a topic for this article.


In short – rolling hills are king for daily training, with a flatter run and a hillier run once each per week. Shift that a bit to either side depending on your goal race, starting about 4-6 weeks prior, and you'll be good to go knowing you both improved your fitness and are prepared for the race.


There's a lot more on this topic, and I know this goes against the conventional ultrarunning culture, so be sure to read the full article when it drops. Subscribe now to the newsletter, or check back here in two weeks!




Route Designs

Route design is important primarily for psychological and logistical reasons, however a few of these categories have physiological reasons too.


It's important to note two things: first, a lot of these psychological benefits/drawbacks will be very different between individuals. Second, a lot of how individuals think they think may change when they've been running for 12+ hours already.

The bottom line is: know yourself, but also know that yourself changes not only in long races, but over time!


A lot of people also view ultras as a mental test rather than a physical. If that's you, I understand, even if I don't agree. Just don't base your self-worth on self-torture, and keep in mind that taking that viewpoint can set you up for potential injury.


Don't worry – this section is shorter, so you're almost done!



Point-to-Point

In my personal opinion, the point-to-point route is sort of the holy grail of running routes. You can look up at a ridge and say, I'm going to run from here, across that ridge, to there. Or better yet, you look back and say I just RAN from here to there. Particularly in the mountains above treeline, there's just something undeniably awesome about being able to visually see where you're going or where you've been. It really makes it hit home just how epic what you're doing is! (My favorite point-to-point route is NH's Presidential Traverse, which has over 10 consecutive miles above treeline.)


Even just looking on a map – have you ever looked at a point-to-point ultramarathon route on a map? It's so cool.

Western States... visible on a globe.

So what are the benefits here aside from being generally awesome?


First of all, you never repeat a section of course. You are always experiencing something new.

You always have someplace to go. It feels tangible and organic to be heading to a destination rather than just running until you've reached a certain distance. You don't get a sense of completion until you've reached that destination (and finished the race.)


I have seen this have significant mental benefits for many runners.


The drawback is that logistics are typically a bit more difficult. Since each aid station only gets used once, a race may have more limited aid stations or drop bag locations. Some might be inaccessible by crew, or even totally unmanned. Additionally, the course is always new, and the full distance. That means they need to mark the whole course, and you'll need to really stay alert to stay on course.



Single Loop

Single loops share a lot of similarities with point-to-point. You don't repeat sections of the trail, and there's always something new to think about exploring. You don't get any organic sense of completion until you're done with the whole race.


Like a point-to-point, there's something unique about one big loop, especially if it's a circumnavigation.


Drawbacks are also similar to point-to-point in that often logistics are more difficult, as crew access may be limited, and there may even be fewer aid stations.



Single Out and Back or Lollipop

Single out-and-backs, or lollipop courses are great. They offer a good balance between knowing the kind of terrain you have left and being too mentally taxing with lots of repetition and opportunities to feel like you're done. You also get to go down whatever you went up, and vice-versa which can be fun.


They also offer benefits for race-directors, who can have aid stations that count as two. However staffing aid stations on extremely long courses like this may become difficult in the backcountry as volunteers may be out there much longer than a station that's only used once.



Multiple (Different) Loops

These races are often held in areas with fewer trails. From the same start/finish location, you'll run one loop, then another, and perhaps more. This combines the advantages of constantly seeing new terrain, while also returning to the same start/finish, where you may have a drop-bag or crew, and race support can be outstanding.


That said, it can sometimes be confusing for runners, staff/timers and spectators. I have seen some significant timing issues at races of this nature unfortunately.


At times, it can also start to feel a bit more contrived, like you're just running and running until your watch says a certain distance. You pass by the start finish multiple times, which can make it easier to waste time, or DNF when it wasn't necessary.



Multiple (Same) Loop or Out-and-back

Mentally, these can be a bit more of a challenge, as you are repeating the same terrain over and over again. Like the category above, you do have the benefit of easy drop-bag/crew access at the start/finish area, but you are also passing it many times, making it potentially easier to waste time or DNF early.


While I separate races made from 5+ laps into a separate category below, keep in mind that 4 out and backs is eight times over the same terrain.


Often these courses are done for convenience so a race director can offer multiple race distances on a single course. For example, 12.5km loops can offer a lot of variety. It also allows you to hold a longer race on a trail system that otherwise wouldn't have enough trails. There's nothing wrong with these courses, just know what you're in for!



Many (5+) Short Loops or Out-and-backs

If you're doing many loops and out and backs, such as at a fixed-time ultra (24hr/48hr/3-day/6-day), you should be prepared for it to be more difficult than other ultras.


Why? Physiologically, many of the same reasons as discussed in the elevation profile section apply. You are running the same terrain, with the same stride and muscle balance for a really long time. That opens you up to a higher potential for injury versus running the same distance on varying terrain. I have seen many phenomenal and well-prepared athletes get injured at fixed-time events.


Mentally of course, it can also be a struggle. I mean, what's the point? You're not going anywhere. You're just running until someone tells you that you ran a certain distance/time. Every few minutes there is great food, chairs/beds or your car and the drive home just waiting for you.


The positives about these kinds of races is that it's often a communal/party atmosphere. You'll be passing or being passed by the same people all race, so you'll be able to support each other.




Is There Even Such Thing as an 'Easy Ultra?'

No, there isn't.


Anyone who tells you their race is easy just wants your money. In fact, many races advertised as such, actually fit into the extreme categories that I would call more difficult.


In reality, there are courses that are likely to be faster, and courses likely to be slower, but none are going to be easy! In particular, many of these fast courses will take more training in order to have a satisfactory race. In my book, that makes them harder.


Regardless of the race you choose, ideal training is going to look extremely similar, at least until your final few weeks. Don't choose a race thinking that it'll be easier or faster; choose a course that inspires you to travel across that terrain, and train for it!






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