Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Ultramarathons are Better Than Marathons

Or, Why Trail Racing is Better Than Road Racing.

I admit, I am a relative newcomer to the sport of running.  I have never run the major trail races, like Western States or Leadville.  Nor have I run in a premier marathon, like Boston or New York.  But I've run a in few road races and a few trail races, and have come to the incontestible conclusion that trail running is far superior.  Here are a few reasons:

1. Trail races are a better bargain. 
Entry fees for trail runs are quite reasonable.  For a 50 or 100 mile trail run, you would pay in the neighborhood of $60-$100.  For a big city marathon, easily twice that.  Some of the elite trail races have higher fees, but overall, trail runs tend to be cheaper and longer.  And if you figure it on a dollar per mile basis, ultras win hands down!

2. The food is better on trail runs.
Not only do you get to the starting line for less cash, you get tons more food!  Here's what I've seen available at road race aid stations: water, sports drinks, gels, bananas, oranges, and beer.  Here's what I've seen available at trail races: water, sports drinks, gels, bananas, oranges, M&Ms, pretzels, energy bars, peanuts, gummy bears, fig bars (store bought and homemade), many kinds of homemade cookies, many kinds of store bought cookies, brownies, potatoes, potato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese quesadillas, PB&J, PB&bananas, tortillas with peanut butter, Ramen soup, chicken noodle soup, Snickers, pizza, hamburgers, Reese's peanut butter cups, Coke, and beer.

3. Trail runs are held at better places.
Some road races are in nice places.  The race directors try to route the course through pretty or memorable parts of the city.  But you're still usually running on pavement looking at houses and buildings.  Yippee.  Go to a trail race!  Run on trails!  Rocky, rooty, muddy, grassy, smooth, or bumpy, they're all better than sidewalks and streets.  And rather than running through a cityscape, you can run through trees, rocks, meadows, woods, by a lake, down a stream, with the wildlife, away from traffic noise, in cleaner air, and if you're really lucky, up and down hills and mountains.

4. Trail runs aren't so crowded.
Have you ever lined up for a major road marathon?  Or tried to park near the start?  What a mob!  Unless you're one of the elite runners who starts out in front and finishes in less than 2 1/2 hours, you spend at least the first 5-10 miles shoulder to shoulder with the mob.  A crowded trail run might have a few hundred people, often less.  The atmosphere is less like a traffic jam at rush hour, and more like a bunch of friends on a Sunday drive.

5.  Trail runners are cooler.
The pace at trail runs is typically slower than road races, and with the longer distances, you're out on the trail longer.  So there are lots more opportunities to chat and get to know other runners.  And trail runners tend to be more laid back and friendly.

6.  The aid station volunteers are better.
Speaking of terrific people, it's been my experience that the volunteers at trail race aid stations are experienced trail runners themselves.  I appreciate the Hooters girls' willingness to pass out Cliff gels at mile 19 in Dallas, and the little neighborhood kids handing out orange slices are sweet, but what I really need is someone who I can talk to at mile 42 of a 50 miler about what is best to eat or drink.  I need to hear encouragement and tips from someone who has finished this race before, and who has faced the same physical and mental roadblocks to finishing an ultra.

7.  There are no obnoxious bands at trail runs.
I know some marathon organizers think they have to have a "rock and roll" atmosphere, but to me having a mediocre band playing cover tunes every half mile does not provide a motivation; it's just noise.  What's better than a quiet trail, where you are miles away from the noise of everyday life?

I know I have only scratched the surface.  Feel free to post your comments adding your own reasons to run trails!

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