Olympic marathoners and ultra running

How would the Olympic marathoners fare at running 100 miles, a common ultra ruining distance?

So, it’s 26 miles versus 100 miles. I think a reasonable guess is that the metabolic biological processes over this long of a time period (in either situation) are “steady state”, in that it’s mainly aerobic respiration, and blood levels of metabolic products are steady, rate-limited by the liver.

What this means in practice is that the Olympic marathoners will do almost as well. The catch is, they may not have enough body fat and fuel to finish a 100 mile race if you took someone who was trained and ready to compete in the Olympics, and told them on race day they had to run 100 miles instead of 26.

However, it seems like a small difference. Someone could probably eat more a month before the race and probably do the 100 miler.

Another factor is that athletes who have the genes to be a top 100 mile runner may not quite be the same as the 26 mile athletes. Liver capacity and other factors are probably different.

You mean, with no ultramarathon training? From what I’ve read from ultramarathoners, the average marathoner would probably start too fast, and/or not pay enough attention to small but eventually disabling discomfort, and end up slowing way down or dropping out.

Just like shorter-distance runners attempting to run a marathon without training for it. Yes, an Olympic-class runner would doubtless survive far better than the average sedentary schlub, but you still need to train for the event you’re competing in.

Most ultra runners are former marathoners, it’s a logical progression. Ultras are usually trail runs, so road runners need a different set of skills. There’s very little elevation gain and loss in a road marathon; it’s not uncommon to have 12-20,000’ in a tough ultra. That’s not something that is easy to just pick up, you need to trail for hills, and the rough footing of an ultra.

An Olympic marathoner is running at a much faster pace than the typical ultra runner for obvious reasons. They’d need to learn to pace themselves for a much longer event. Gear (shoes, packs, nutrition, headlamps) are much more important for an ultra and that needs to be worked out well in advance via long training runs.

Still, any Olympic marathon would beat me at any ultra distance (I’ve run one 50K) without having to work very hard.

There’s no way to store enough glycogen to finish a 100 miler. All runners take in carbs during an ultra. Even a runner with minimal body fat will have enough, 3 lbs will do it. The problem is that fat metabolism is very slow and forces a very slow pace.

An (ex) ultra runner friend of mine purposely went into ketosis (fat burning) all the time, living on a < 50g carb /day diet. He quit ultras due to hydration issues.


Ultra-ruining. He he he. More accurate than you may realize :smiley:

I’ve run a few ultras (50k-100k) and while I think that a high-level marathoner would do much better at a 100 mile ultra than the average marathoner (and an Olympian who trained for ultras would probably do quite well at finishing them), I don’t think they’d be successful if they leaped right from 26.2 miles to 100 miles.

Very different events. Terrain is dramatically worse (trails, uneven footing, questionable weather, mud, rocks, scrambling, etc) and the elevation changes, as Telemark noted, dwarf most marathons - WS100 is something like 21,000 feet of climb and 23,000 feet of descent (it’s a net downhill, how hard can it be!). One of the Colorado runs, I think Leadville, has more climbing than going from sea level to the top of Mount Everest. The physical toll that these things take on you can be pretty incredible and if your muscles aren’t ready for the pounding, things will just stop working.

Mentally you have to be pretty tough, or at least very stubborn. Not that an Olympian isn’t, but if you have just run 50 miles over nasty ground, you’re sore, tired and maybe barfing up all those gels by the side of the trail and you realize that you have two more marathons to go, it takes a certain mindset to get back up and keep grinding out those miles with no end in sight.

Time is also an issue - a fast marathon is over in 2-2.5 hours tops. Nobody runs those kinds of speeds in ultras. I think someone just cracked 14 hours in WS100 the other year - that’s 8.4 minute miles (a crawl by marathon standards). If you’re used to running maybe 2-3 hours in training and you suddenly have to keep moving for 14-24 hours, that’s very different. You need to learn what and how to eat & drink as well - a few swallows of electrolytes may do the trick for a marathon but you need to have actual food for ultras and many runners find out the hard way what they can stomach and what they can’t.

And of course the ultramarathoner’s mantra “Start slow and then back off” - for someone who is used to knocking out 4:30 or 5 minute miles, going out at, say, an 8 minute pace may be hard to do. If they can’t throttle back from the very start they may get worn out really quickly.

Just for the heck of it.
Ultrarunning records Road and Track

My thought as an armchair observer…

the pace a good marathon runner sets is something the average non-runner would have trouble matching for more than a few minutes - and they do it for 2-plus hours. Keeping up that pace for 8 to 10 hours would be incredible and I assume impossible.

Of course, anything at Olympic standards is analyzed to the gills nowadays. Marathoners run those paces because they know they can hit that pace, and maintain it, for exactly 26 miles. Going to slow and too fast are both counterproductive. If you’re going 26 miles, you won’t get a good time pacing yourself for 100 miles, and vice versa you won’t survive at that pace for 100 miles.

More like a few seconds. Go to a local track. Run a lap in 71 seconds. That’s slower than marathon record pace.

Even at ultra distances, a 100k is run at sub 6:00/mile pace by the men(road or track).

Alberto Salazar, 1984 Olympic Marathon, winner of Boston and New York Marathons, also won the Comrades Marathon(56 miles).

It has been interesting in the UK - Mo Farrah (5000m and 10000m World and Olympic champion) has stated that he wants to run a marathon. He was criticized in the media for choosing to only run a half marathon in this years London Marathon, with the aim of running the full marathon next time. To me, it illustrates that conditioning takes time - I’m sure that he puts in the miles needed, but dropping to a sustainable (and a respectable if not competitive) marathon pace and building up stamina is not trivial, even for an Olympic level athlete. He is a cross-country champion, so he is not strictly a road-runner.

Similar things must apply to marathon runners switching to ultra-marathoners.

On a side note: one of my former colleagues completed a deca - 10 Ironmen events in 10 days. That is the definition of endurance events. :eek:

No, you’re thinking of the Triple Deca. :eek: :eek: :eek:

For 100 miles I think that Yiannis Kouros has the fastest known time, he ran 11:46 on the road.

That’s 7-minute miles for nearly 12 hours non-stop.

I was proud of myself when I ran 5 miles in 39 minutes on a track years ago :smiley:

Anyhow back to the OP - I think an Olympic-level marathoner who decided to go out and try running 100 miles would not fare well (better than the average marathoner, but still not well). I’m thinking of trail ultras which most such races seem to be. It’s just a pretty big step up in terms of elevation, terrain and time.

However if that same runner decided to train for a 100M ultra they could do very well indeed, it’s just putting in the time, the distance and learning how to handle the particular challenges for those kinds of events.

Well, you know you have to do something at least 27 times regularly to make it a habit …

Just to be clear, the time limit for a regulation Ironman is 17 hours, so the participants have 7 hours (plus whatever they can come under the limit) to recover and sleep and eat (probably 7000-10000 calories daily) and then get up and do it again, for a month. I’m guessing they will start out hitting 12-14 hour performances in the beginning, but I’m betting they will all get pretty close to the limit towards the end.


Moved to the Game Room.

General Questions Moderator

I remember one Olympic marathon runner mentioning something about how he’d like to see the distance increased to 30 miles. Didn’t hear anything about 100 miles though. :eek:

Just based on visual observation Olympic marathon stars seem very lightly built, almost fragile with almost no body fat. How would they (especially the African runners) handle cold temperatures in ultra marathons?

They might do pretty darn well. A lot of those African runners come from extremely high altitudes where it’s fairly cold even though it’s near the equator.