Twenty years ago, approximately 9,000 people completed ultramarathons in the United States, surely to the bafflement of friends who don’t understand how anyone could run farther than a marathon distance (any race longer than a 26.2 miles is considered an ultramarathon), let alone one of the famed 100-mile ultra races. Yet, more and more people have been drawn to the challenge of ultramarathons in recent years, with nearly 10 times as many finishers in 2016 as in 1997.
Still, ultramarathons are far from mainstream, with less than 0.09 percent of people in Utah ever tackling a distance greater than 26.2 miles—and that’s the state with the greatest ultramarathoner density.
But ultramarathoners don’t have to be elite athletes—as I can certainly attest after running my first 50K. As I jogged and slogged my way through 31 miles in the desert of Moab, I met people of all shapes, sizes and ages. And, although finishing times for my race ranged from less than four hours to nearly 10 hours, each one of those people earned the right to call him or herself an ultramarathoner.
Chances are good that you could, too, said Stan Beecham, Ph.D., sports psychologist and author of Elite Minds.
“There is no doubt in my mind than any healthy person can train and complete an ultra,” Dr. Beecham told Paste Health. “It requires a tremendous amount of drive and determination but it can be done.”
All physically healthy people should theoretically be able to run, walk or jog an ultramarathon with the right combination of conditioning, said Ian Torrence, the lead ultrarunning coach for McMillan Running and legendary winner of 53 ultramarathons. The key is just training within individual limitations.
“Longer races don’t necessarily equal greater injury risk,” Torrence said. “Everyone has their own physical training limit and this ceiling fluctuates due to many factors like age, running experience, non-running stresses, illnesses and current training regimen.”
However, that doesn’t mean tackling an ultra should necessarily be advised for everyone: according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, some 1-in-5 people are genetically limited from responding to high levels of training and may even have adverse responses to extreme training.
“They push themselves as hard as everyone else, but their muscles do not extract the same amount of oxygen,” lead researcher and biology professor Jamie Timmons told The Telegraph. “These low aerobic responders would be better going to the gym to build up their strength and muscle tissue or taking up other competitive sports like martial arts or strength related sports.”
Ultramarathon success boils down to pacing, planning and patience, said Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist and author of Best Future You: Harnessing Your Biochemistry to Improve Balance in Body, Mind, and Spirit. “Successful ultra runners don’t wing it. They have a plan of what to eat when, when to change their shoes, socks or clothes and what time or pace should be between each aid station.”
From his personal and professional experience, another big variable is nutrition—with “gastrointestinal distress” cited among the leading reasons people dropped out of races. He said, “even as a Ph.D.-level nutritionist, a great deal of determining a race nutrition plan comes down to individual preference and trial and error.”
The ultra-runners who finish at the front of the pack have a fairly predictable look: lean, long legs and probably a mop of hair held back with a headband. But, according to a comprehensive 2014 study published in PLoS One, the physical characteristics are more than skin-deep—as the “prevalence of virtually all chronic diseases and mental health disorders appeared lower in the ultramarathon runners,” with the notable exception of allergies and asthma rates, which the researchers attributed to more time outside.
On the other hand, the physiques of people crossing ultramarathon finish lines are changing are the popularity of the races swells. In the words of Daughters of Distance author Vanessa Rodriguez, “If you’re waiting to be in the best shape of your life, you will never run an ultra.”
Although most bodies can endure ultramarathon distances, minds are different matters—and often not because people lack grit, but rather because they lack perspective.
“People who do the worst at ultras tend to have Type A personalities,” said Dr. Talbott. “They try to finish too fast, lack patience and are driven to run the event for bragging rights. Those who tend to do better and enjoy themselves more tend to be introverts and laid-back Type B people, who are more likely doing the race for personal reasons.”
Supporting Dr. Talbott’s theory is a 2013 study published in Pain Practice, which found competitors in the 2,700-mile TransEurope FootRace are less “reward dependent but more spiritually transcendent” than the members from the control group, who didn’t participate in ultramarathons but were otherwise similar to the runners. The runners were also found to have “significantly greater” levels of pain tolerance.
For Torrence, mindset is even more significant than that.
“Whether a runner is moving up from 5K to 50K or 50K to 100 miles, mental fortitude is the biggest variance and influencing factor,” he said. “It will be the mentally tough and dedicated athlete who finds ultramarathon success.”
Emily Glover is a freelance writer and amateur presidential historian based in Colorado.