Is 100 Miles Still THE Distance In Ultrarunning?

Ellie Greenwood debates whether 100-mile races are THE distance in ultrarunning.

By on February 19, 2015 | Comments

Chicks CornerBy definition, as soon as you run a race that is more than 26.2 miles, you become an ultrarunner. Yet, I think that anyone reading this would have a hard time giving much respect if someone ran ‘just’ 26.3 miles and then went around bragging that they’d run an ultra. So maybe, we should start with 50k? That is a good five miles over the marathon distance and yet it would still seem that many in our community wouldn’t give much credibility to a runner if they never raced more than 50k, however many times and with however much success.

In the past I feel that there has been a tendency for the ultrarunning community to only accept runners truly into ‘the club’ once they have completed their first 100 miler, and those who have not run the distance don’t feel fully welcomed until they have done so. Does this mean that 100 miles is still THE distance in ultrarunning? Stephanie Howe posted three podium finishes at ultras from 50k to 100k distances in 2013, including a course-record win, but even she said that she felt like she wasn’t a true ultrarunner until she ran her first 100 miler (Western States, 2014). Maybe this feeling was partly due to the fact that in 2013, despite three excellent ultra results, she didn’t even make top 10 in UltraRunning Magazine’s Ultra Runner of the Year voting, likely making her feel slightly unwelcomed by part of the community. Although gaining the respect of the ultrarunning community was not Stephanie’s primary motivation in her running a 100 miler, it was certainly one of them. To me that sounds a little crazy, but then I must admit that I felt somewhat the same before running Western States in 2011, and I also have to admit that I know of friends who have run a handful of ultras but I don’t really class them as true ultrarunners and when I think of why, it’s due to the fact that they haven’t run further than 50 miles, and running 50 miles just doesn’t compare to running 100 miles.

Max King echoes similar sentiments (like Stephanie, Max ran the 100-mile distance for the first time at Western States in 2014), and he feels that hardcore ultrarunners are the people who are perpetuating this feeling in the community. That is not to say that Max himself feels that 100 miles is THE distance in ultrarunning, and he would far prefer to really master one distance before moving up to a longer event. This to me makes sense, even despite my tendency to feel ultrarunners who have run 100 miles are different from those who have not, I have much bigger admiration for someone who really works on ‘racing’ a 50 miler as fast as they can (even if that is not fast), rather than someone who progresses quickly onto the next distance and runs a 100 miler but in a time far slower than their ability would indicate. For me, ultrarunning is just as much about the quality of racing as it is about the quantity.

It could seem that Sage Canaday has a similar sentiment and it was refreshing to hear that he wholeheartedly felt that if someone had run more than a marathon then they were in the ultra club, regardless of the length of that ultra. Sage did concede that his viewpoint was likely because he came from a marathon and shorter-distance racing background, but he also feels that as 50k and 50-mile races grow both in number and competitiveness then they gain more respect in our sport. Could this be part of the reason why I feel that in recent years there has been a slight swing away from 100 miles being THE distance in ultrarunning? Certainly I do feel that there has been a shift away from 100 milers being the be all and end all; take races such as Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, UROC 100k, and TNF EC 50 Mile all of which have gained a lot of interest, as well as large numbers of participants, and are seen as some of the key events of the U.S. ultrarunning calendar, yet not so long ago these races didn’t even exist. Surely with the move of more faster and shorter-distance runners into the ultra world (Alex Varner, Kasie Enman, Chris Vargo, and Magdalena Boulet to name a few) there will be even more excitement around 50k and 50-mile ultras, which might shift the bias away from 100 milers.

It was interesting to hear Sage say that he’d felt some pressure to step up to iconic races and these races just happened to be 100 miles long. Certainly if we look back, many of the older ultras still in existence which have a long history of strong competition are 100 milers–Western States, the Leadville 100, the Wasatch Front 100–and it is interesting to see that many faster ultrarunners choose Western States for their 100-mile debut. There are of course exceptions, as Dave Mackey pointed out–the JFK 50 Mile was around for a good 10 years before Western States came into existence. I for one ran Western States as my first 100, and yes, I wanted to run it in part to say I had run 100 miles, but just as much I wanted to run it because it is an iconic event and I wanted to run in the footsteps of ultrarunners from years gone by. Had it been 90 miles, I’m sure I’d have still wanted to run it, over and above running some new 100-mile race with no history to it. In this respect, it can appear on the surface that 100 miles is still THE ultra distance, but in fact it is certain iconic events that are still THE iconic races, and they just happen to be 100 miles long.

Of course whether 100 miles is THE distance in ultrarunning might depend on where you live. Ian Sharman commented that when he moved to the U.S. from the U.K. he definitely got the sense that 100 milers were ‘the main event,’ and that he has now come around to that thinking due to the level of commitment involved in training for one, compared to shorter ultras. Certainly European and worldwide races seem less fixated on the exact 100-mile distance and instead are often random distances from one town to another, or a circumnavigation around a mountain–however far that happens to be. I’ve had runners look at me oddly when I say that Comrades is 89k, but why make it 100k when the towns in which it starts and ends in are 89k apart? It’s a natural route rather than a contrived course to make up a nice, round number. The North American draw to the 100-mile distance is surely shown in the fact that Sinister 7 in Canada has run for many years as 147k event but last year upped their course to 160k, or a nice round 100 miles. I can only suppose that this will draw more ultrarunners who want to join the club, run one of the most respected distances in our sport, and earn that much-coveted finisher buckle.

Whether rightly or wrongly it would seem that there is a good percentage of ultrarunners who still believe that 100 miles is THE distance in our sport, but why is this? Is it simply because we want to keep our club somewhat exclusive and feel that we therefore need to set the entry requirements a little higher than a fast, road 50k? I think in part, it is this. Certainly, many of us embrace the fact that our sport is a little niche and quirky and not exactly mainstream; so we’re a little concerned if, in a sport that we embrace for its challenges and suffering, ultrarunning is being encroached on by road marathoners who seem to quite easily be able to tack on another five miles and call themselves an ultrarunner. Yes, we are a friendly community–but runners have to prove their true worth first! Indeed Stephanie is someone who, now she has run a 100 miler, does believe that 100 miles is THE distance. The reason, says Stephanie?

It’s a true test of the human ability to endure and persevere and that’s what I think ultrarunning is all about. It’s not about pace or running fast–it’s about pushing your body beyond its limits and not giving up. That’s very different from running a 50k or a 50 miler.

This I wholeheartedly agree with, which makes me feel that it’s these values of perseverance and pushing the body to the limit that we respect in the ultra community, and that is why certainly many consider the 100 miler THE ultra distance. How this might change over time, as more and more shorter-distance runners enter the world of ultras, or as more top-end runners gain sponsorship and feel the need to race more during a year (which is clearly more feasible for races shorter than 100 miles), only time will tell.

[Author’s Note: Thank you to Dave Mackey, Ian Sharman, Max King, Ran Katzman, Sage Canaday, and Stephanie Howe for their contributions to this article.]

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think 100 miles is THE distance in ultrarunning?
  • Have you felt pressure to race longer distances to feel like you belong in the ultra community?
  • How many times have you used the word ‘just’ in describing a run 50k or 50 miles in distance?
  • If you think 100 miles is not THE distance in ultrarunning, what instead would you call the defining passageway into our sport? That is, what does a runner have to do or be, in your opinion, to become an ultrarunner?
Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood has IAU World 100k Championship, Western States, and Comrades victories to her credit. A Scot living in Canada, Ellie is supported by Salomon, Clif Bar, Udo's Oil, and Sundog Eyewear. You can read more about Ellie's running on her blog.