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Chapter Three: Can I run ultras if I’m already a slow runner?

Posted by on Feb 26, 2010 | 4 Comments
There’s a myth that runners have to be good to run ultramarathons.  By “good” I mean fast.  Sure, many ultrarunners are blazing fast in shorter races.  It’s not a prerequisite, though.  It’s entirely possible to be turtle-slow and still finish an ultra.  I would go out on a limb and say it may be advantageous to be slow.
Generally speaking, there’s an inverse relationship between speed and distance.  As distances increase speed (as measured by pace) decreases.  Once you get to ultra distances, the non-elites are pretty slow.  How slow?  When i finished my first 100 this last September, my average pace was around 17:30.  No, that’s not a typo.  Yes, most people can walk faster than that.  The point… it’s a VERY slow average pace.  Even at my fastest, I doubt I ran more than 10 minute miles.
In ultras, slow is the name of the game.  If you already run slow… perfect!  You won’t have to learn how to restrain yourself in the early miles of ultras.  Many novice runners start out way too fast, which results in a severe crash-and-burn.  The ability to run slow is an under-appreciated skill set.
I know you’re still doubting me.  You’ve convinced yourself that speed is a necessary ingredient to building long distance running ability.  Unfortunately this belief keeps many runners from ever attempting an ultra.  They convince themselves that they have to reach some arbitrary time-based goal at a shorter distance before they can make the jump to ultras.  I know people that can run 100+ miles per week, easily drop Boston-qualifying times in marathons, and can recite the ingredients and nutritional value of every energy gel, bar, and drink on the market.  Yet they doubt their ability to survive an ultra.
If your goal is to simply finish (and it should be if this is your first ultra AND you are truly a lazy runner), pick a goal race… maybe a 50k.  Find out the cutoff time (how long you are allowed to finish before everyone packs up and goes home.)  Go to the cool running pace calculator here:  Enter the cutoff time and the distance; it will return your pace.  Now go out and run a few miles at that pace.
Okay, now that you’re back, how was that pace?  Pretty slow, huh?  I bet it felt like you weren’t even moving.  I bet your normal training pace doesn’t feel too slow now.  That is the minimum you would need to finish the race.  Anyone can do that.  Don’t worry, I’ll give you more advice in the coming days… just have confidence that your slow running is an asset in ultras! 
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  1. Marny
    February 26, 2010

    Cool! 15:36 pace seems doable. Feeling better about my upcoming ultra already 🙂

  2. Barefoot AngieB
    February 26, 2010

    I just calculated and feel much better about the 50k in July!

  3. Barehanded Matt
    February 26, 2010

    Cool. I can definitely do slow.

  4. Genesis
    February 26, 2010

    maybe i should switch to ultras since im a slow runner. 😉