An Ultrarunner’s Totally Rational Fear of Marathons

In order to fear something, you must respect it first, and the marathon earns my respect. Each time I’ve run 26.2, I’ve been severely humbled by the distance, and I’m going back for thirds in a couple of months.

It’s a tough distance.  Fast and precise, it invokes fear and panic in many ultrarunners–including this one.

Why am I so afraid of the distance many trail divas look down on?

Here’s my reasoning:

4hr plan1.  They’re fast! Building up leg speed takes work, time, and commitment. Building up endurance usually means fun times on the trails, chatting with friends.

2.  Lots of flat pavement!  Running on pavement–especially at a decent clip–is tiring and leaves me with sore legs from repetitive use.   Running on trails uses so many different muscles I feel loose and refreshed after a good run.

3.  There’s no room for error.  In a fifty miler, stopping for an extra few minutes at an aid station, relieving yourself behind a tree, walking because you’re freakin tired, or stopping to fiddle with your gear won’t bear much effect on your race. However, performing any of those activities during a fast marathon will likely take you completely off pace and compromise your goal.  This is what scares me the most.

4.  The aid stations suck. Oranges and water handed out by the local Junior High drill team?picisto-20140213114734-478306WTF? Where are the burritos? What if I run out of something? What if I need gel or aspiring or ice or a massage? How about gummy bears? And where the hell is the chocolate?!?

5.  Anaerobic exercise hurts! Most of us are used to running aerobically, at a comfortable conversation pace, and never breathing too hard.  Training and running marathons often means running anaerobically, where breathing is uncomfortable and muscles scream in agony.

6.  Marathons are expensive! If I pay $150 for a 50 miler and end up not running it, I’ll likely still show up, volunteer, or just hang out with cool people at the event and drink beer. A road marathon costs about the same (for half the distance) and I’d be more compelled to run it, thus injuring myself further.

7.  Marathons are an equalizer. In ultras, not much emphasis is put on PRs. “Sub-24″ is about as specific as we get when talking about pan-event timing.  In a marathon, there are generally more similarities to the courses and your PR is your PR. Time to perform. No excuses.

anton hiking
Not OK in a marathon.

 8.  Math sucks!  In marathon training, it’s all about pace, splits, track work, and heart rate, and that’s often too much thinkin’ for this simple minded fella.  With ultras, I go out and run “a few hours” and feel pretty good about it.  Math scares me.

9.  You can’t walk afterwards either! Run a hard road marathon and you hobble back to the car…no running for a week.  Run a 50 miler on the trails, and I’m good to go the next day.  What the heck happened out on the road to make me so sore?

10. Risk of injury is higher in marathons. I’ve got zero evidence to back that up, but the combination of pavement and speed work leaves a lot of chance for injury.  Sure, when I fall in an ultra I’m scraped up…but tear something in a track workout, and I’m out for a few months.

I’ve got a hilly 50k in less than two weeks and I’m indifferent to it. It’ll be fun and messy, there’ll be good people, good beer, and I’ll do my best. I’ve got a marathon in February–more than two damn months away–and I’m up all night stressing and thinking about training and racing scenarios.

Hard-core marathoners, you have my respect.

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