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Opinion: we need more names for ultramarathons

We use the name to describe anything longer than a traditional marathon, and it's time for the madness to stop

Photo by: Graeme Murray

The title of “ultramarathon” is overused. This term can be applied to anything over 42.2K, which is pretty ridiculous, if you think about it. That means that a 50K and a 250-miler fall under the same umbrella. Both are long and tough races, and if you finish either one or any distance in between the two, you should be proud of yourself. But let’s be honest, there’s a world of difference between a race that takes a few hours and one that lasts days. Here are a few reasons why the running community should consider changing the term ultramarathon so that it’s a little more specific. 

Photo: Instagram/Laura Szanto/The Golden Ultra

It’s too broad 

As we said, the title of ultramarathon is simply too broad and all-encompassing. We’ve compared the 50K to a 250-miler, but we can go even farther. A 500-miler is an ultra, too. So is a 1,000-kilometre race. There’s probably some story from Greek mythology in which an immortal being was punished for some heinous crime and sentenced to running for the rest of time.

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In that case, that god or goddess would technically be running an ultramarathon, since he or she went farther than 42.2K. We need to be able to distinguish between different distances in the world of ultrarunning. Yes, we can refer to races by their actual distances, but in the end, they will all be classified as ultras. (Legal disclaimer: in the case that the tale of the never-ending run is not already published, whether by the Greeks or anyone else, Canadian Running reserves any film or animation rights to the story.

Alissa St Laurent
Alissa St Laurent overseas at the Lesotho Ultra Trail race. Photo: Terence Vrugtman.

Sleep vs. no sleep 

In many ultramarathons, runners are on the course for days, and sleep becomes a factor. This throws an entirely new challenge into the mix, and racers are tasked with managing their energy and determining how far they can go without sleep. Then, when they decide they have to sleep, it’s a question of how long they should stop to rest. It’s a whole new game when sleep is involved, which is something that runners competing over 50K, 100K or even 100 miles don’t really need to worry about. Different games deserve different names. 

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Why no mini-marathon?

Calling everything beyond 42.2K an ultramarathon is like classifying anything under 42.2K as a “mini-marathon.” We would have three distinctions in running: mini-marathons, marathons and ultramarathons. Imagine how silly it would seem if Andre De Grasse said, “Yeah, I’m a mini-marathoner,” to Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, who would reply, “Oh, so am I. What distance do you prefer?” That would just be confusing. The 100m is vastly different from the 800m, and there’s only a difference of 700m between the two races. No one would accept that classification, but for some reason we’re all OK with the fact that a 50K falls under the same category as a race that’s five or even 10 times longer. 

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc
Photo: UTMB.

It takes away from the shorter races 

Lots of ultra events feature multiple race distances, meaning you could have a 50K race and a 100-miler on the same weekend. There have no doubt been so many instances in which runners who completed a shorter ultra have said something along the lines of, “I only did the 50K.” The words “only” and “50K” don’t belong in the same sentence. Running 50K is seriously impressive, but when it’s in the same category as 100-milers, it can be diminished. 

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The solution?

We need more titles. Ultras can refer to anything between a marathon and 100K. From 101K up to 100-milers, we can use the term “mega-marathon.” Races any farther can be “mega-ultras” or “ultra-megas,” depending on which you prefer personally. Finally, for the Greek being in the soon-to-be filmed blockbuster The Endless Marathon (produced by Canadian Running), the term “inifinathon” will be used.