WHEN YOU TELL someone that you’re training for a marathon, the most common response (from non-runners, at least) is a combination of awe and incredulity. I heard this enough in the lead-up to running this year’s TCS New York City Marathon. Yes, 26.2 miles is quite a long distance to cover over a few hours. Yes, you have to plan out your strategy and train for weeks—preferably, months—beforehand for best results. But a marathon is still largely viewed within the realm of the achievable for the everyday guy.
When you start talking about running even longer distances for races that span 50 or even 100 miles, like the famous UTMB ultramarathon race in the Alps, the layman’s general understanding of the level of endurance required goes out the window.
Running a race like this is absolutely within the realm of possibility for anyone with the will to put one foot in front of the other—but you’ll need to know what you’re doing before you take on this type of challenge.
What Is Ultra Running, Anyway?
Let’s start with a little more knowledge about the type of activity we’re talking about. Ultra running and ultramarathons generally refer to races longer than the 26.2 miles you’ll cover in a standard marathon, according to UltraRunning.com. Most of these competitions take place on trails, or terrain off the paved roadways runners traverse during traditional road races.
Ultra running has exploded in popularity over the past decade; the sport consistently gained new participants in North America each year leading up to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, and is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels of participation in 2022.
The UTMB Race
More specifically, the UTMB (which stands for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) World Series is an institution in the endurance sports world. The organization holds a whole series of trail races around the globe leading up to its crown jewel event held in Chamonix, France: The UTMB-Mont Blanc Final. The actual UTMB race spans roughly 171 kilometers (about 106 miles) and about 10,000 meters of elevation gain, covering terrain in and around the mountains in France, Italy, and Switzerland before finishing in the Chamonix city center.
Runners at the start of this year’s UTMB Final.
This year’s winner, Spaniard Kilian Jornet, took home his fourth UTMB title with a record time of 19 hours, 30 minutes, and 49 seconds. But most runners who complete the course do so over more than one full day of effort, with the official cut-off point for finishers at 46 hours and 30 minutes.
I was lucky enough to watch the UTMB Final in person this year thanks to the event’s sponsor, Hoka, the popular running brand that can trace its origins back to the same region. I ran some of the trails around Chamonix and watched the leaders speed through several of the race’s early aid stations, and I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what it takes for a runner to endure for mile after mile, especially over such challenging terrain.
The physical, mental, and emotional toll is extreme, but for ultrarunners, it’s all part of the sport they love. I caught up with a few of Hoka’s top athletes, all of whom competed in this year’s UTMB Final, to learn more about what it takes to endure the challenges presented by ultrarunning—and how regular guys can apply those lessons to their own training, even if your goals are a bit shorter than 100 miles.
4 Lessons on Endurance From Elite Ultrarunners
Have a Race Plan
You wouldn’t step out the door to run more than a few miles without knowing the route, how you’re going to stay fueled and hydrated, and, if an emergency strikes, where you’ll find the closest toilet. That goes double when you’re setting out to run for hours at a time.
Jeff Mogavero, a Hoka pro runner who is also a running coach, started his ultra career without following this first rule. He says that when he was in college, before he’d ever run more than a marathon, he decided to run a 24-hour route through the Adirondacks. He took a pack, some food, and not much else. He didn’t have a plan. “I remember it being like 1 a.m.,” he says. “I just knelt down in a patch of dirt and like whimpered to myself, and shut my eyes like, ‘I feel like I’m dying. Everything hurts., I still have 12 hours to go. And I’m done.”
Ultimately, he pushed through the pain and finished—he had no other choice. Now that he’s more experienced, Mogavero takes a different approach (especially for competition): “I kind of go into race assuming everything’s gonna go wrong,” he says. “And then that way, when it does, you’re a little more prepared.”
Other runners also depend on their experience. “If I know the trail, it’s easier based on the past or my feelings about the trail,” says Ludovic Pommeret, a runner from France who won the UTMB Final in 2016. “It’s very difficult to make a plan if you don’t know the trails as the mileage and elevation are not enough to have an idea of the pace, it depends a lot on the [technicalities] of the trail, but also the weather that we will have during the race. So a rough estimate is done, mainly to plan, how much food and drink I need between all aid stations.”
Before each race, Xiang Fuzhao, one of Hoka’s elite runners from China, sets a time goal for each checkpoint she’ll visit along the way. She’ll change the goals during the race depending on how she’s feeling—but having the framework can help to establish the pace she wants to run.
At the 2022 UTMB Final, she set four targets: finishing the race, besting her previous time, finishing in the top 10, and finishing within 26 hours. She hit a few of these goals, when she finished the race, placing seventh overall for women with a time of 27: 14: 21.
Have the Right Gear
Every pound counts on the course, but every piece of gear is also incredibly important not only for helping runners traverse the landscape, but also for keeping them dry, able to see, and importantly, equipped to treat the cuts, bruises, and other ills that happen during a race. The UTMB race has a list of required gear—which is so strict that runners can be penalized if their pack is inspected and found to be missing any of the mandatory equipment—and most ultrarunners will at the least be accustomed to running with a pack to hold extra layers, fuel, and liquids when they go out on training runs.
But there’s more than what’s on the runners’ backs that is important. Having the right footwear, layering schemes, and more can be the difference between success and failure once the miles really pile up. For all of the Hoka athletes I spoke to, this starts with footwear.
“The first criterion is that the shoe should be comfortable, especially for long distances,” says Pommeret. “This weight is also a criterion.”
Fuzhao says that the type of shoe she picks depends on the course’s altitude and terrain. Second to the footwear, limiting weight in her pack and being able to stay warm are her top priorities.
“You need shoes that aren’t going to trash your feet, something you feel confident in there,” says Magavero. “And then clothing is incredibly important. And whatever it may be, that fits the conditions. But I think headlight is also super important, especially when you’re running at night for eight, 10, 12 hours.”
Mogavero, running with a headlamp.
Check out these picks for a few of our top choices that can help you to get ready for your first long run:
The Tools You Need to Start Ultrarunning
Take the Breaks You Need
One of the biggest misconceptions about ultramarathons is that the competitors are running for the whole race—as in, their finishing time equates to the amount of time they spent on their feet, moving. That’s not the case.
At ultramarathons, aid stations are more than just water handoffs you’ll see at road races. There are places for runners to eat, meet up with coaches and supporters, and even catch some Zs.
Mogavero recalls the toughest part of the 2022 UTMB race—which he was able to gut through after taking some much needed time at an aid station. “I saw my girlfriend at Mile 75. I walk in the tent and I was like, ‘I feel horrible,'” he recalls. “And she was like, ‘okay, like, sit down. Let’s have some food.’ And she made me eat a chocolate croissant, which is my go to…. and like, started drinking Red Bull.”
Some athletes take even longer breaks at aid stations, and some, like Fuzhao, take it another step. She advocates catching some rest and getting horizontal when you feel like you’re going to hit a wall. “If you are very sleepy or very tired, exhausted, it’s not efficient to keep running,” she says via interpreter. So rather than pushing hard through a wall, Fuzhao will take a nap for 15 minutes. She’s not fully asleep, she notes—instead, she’s allowing her body to have some rest and taking a moment to recharge. She’s still focused on the race, but she’s able to give her body some much needed recovery time.
If you’re just out on a long run, knowing that top flight athletes take breaks during competition should be more than enough proof that it’s okay to slow down or even stop. Give yourself the time you need to finish.
Never Quit—But It’s Okay to Stop If You Must
Yes, you might find yourself defeated by the terrain and the mileage. But you’ll find that it’s important to understand the difference between pulling out of a race because you’re unable to continue and quitting because you’re uncomfortable. You’ll have plenty of time on the trail to think yourself out of a race, according to our athletes. Don’t succumb to the temptation to call an early end to your run without having a solid reason.
“There is no shame in dropping. But I’d rather die before I drop,” says Mogavero. While he does admit that he would in fact stop running if he was forced to—by injury, most likely—he says that he would prefer to find a way to cross the finish line no matter what, working until the cutoff time comes (many races have a predetermined timeframe, after which runners are eliminated from competition and the race ends).
The main goal is to finish the race, Fuzhao says. She never quits—if she misses out on the first goals she set out before the competition, she’ll shift her focus to another down the rung.
But there are times when safety is in question.
“So for me, the first question, and sometimes a doctor on the race could answer, is what do I risk if I continue? How long I will need to recover if I continue or what is the risk if I continue?,” says Pommeret. “The balance of the risk and the motivation to reach your objective could drive you to drop the race.”
Physical injury isn’t the only reason someone might be forced to stop. You might discover that mentally, you’re not able to do what it takes to cross the finish line. “I remember in 2018 during TDS, I was not injured, but I was not taking pleasure and I was wondering why I was running,” Pommeret admits. “That’s another topic and in this case, it was due to the work prior the race that needed to be done…”
In other words, Pommeret admits that there are times when even elite athletes will not make it across the line. You can have an outlook like Mogavero and Fuzhao—but at the end of the day, if you’re not able to convince yourself you should be on the trail, it might be worth stepping off, reassessing your situation, and going from there. After all, giving yourself that grace can open yourself up to returning to the next opportunity even stronger.
“In every case, dropping a race is not bad, dropping a race or a summit ascent gives you the possibility to come again,” Pommeret continues. “Remember that sport is only one part of your life, it’s not your life.”
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.