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How to Become an Elite Ultrarunner

Posted by on May 23, 2013 | 4 Comments

So you wanna be a great ultrarunner, huh?

I know the secret.

I know what you’re thinking. I am… or was… a half-assed ultrarunner on the best of days. On the worst of days, I was just showing up for the food.

What would I know about becoming an elite?

Luckily, I’ve gotten to know a lot of runners, both good and, well, bad. And there’s a definite pattern that led me to discovering the secret.

So what is this secret?

Work your ass off.

You’re disappointed right now, aren’t you? You were hoping there really would be some magical shortcut; some way to attain the upper echelon of the running world without having to put in the countless hours of training, treating your body as a temple, following a strict diet, cutting out the weekend benders, sacrificing social and romantic relationships, and ignoring your children.

As it turns out running is no different than any other endeavor. To get really good, you have to pay your dues.

Unfortunately Americans love a good shortcut. Maybe the secret is to become vegan and eat nothing but the bounty from the ground. Or maybe eating nothing but fruit is the secret. How about a diet like our ancestors ate when they were rubbing elbows with Neanderthal?

What if the solution is the right training plan? Nothing but long, slow distances. Or Fartlek runs. Or hill repeats. Maybe the solution is the eliptical machine at Curves.

Wait, what about the crap we can buy? The right shoes should make us great runners, right? Or that new hydration pack with the angled bottles… you know, the one that gives the ladies great cleavage?

Of course none of it will make you an elite ultrarunner. All receive significant hype, but it’s nothing but window displays. We buy into the false promise. Yes, that dress will look as good on our fat ass as that size 0 mannequine.

Every good ultrarunner I know has either a) been running ultras for years AND train like a fiend, or b) were competitive runners at shorter distances (track and field or cross country)… in which case they’ve been running for years AND they train like a fiend.

The idea of the “overnight success” is a fallacy. There are no overnight successes. Those that accomplish great things put in the hard work that made them great. They just toiled away in obscurity before they entered our consciousness, ergo the appearance of instant greatness.

But what about those with talent? Aren’t there a few Michael Jordan’s or Tiger Woods’ out there that clearly have some biological gift?

Absolutely not. Maybe they have some biological gift that gives them a tiny leg up on the competition, but it doesn’t explain their dominance. They achieved great things because they spent years busting their asses.

If we want to become great at something and we can’t seem to get there, there’s a better than average chance we’re just not willing to do what it takes to become truly great. There are no shortcuts. There’s no magical formula that brings immediate success. It takes hard work and dedication. It takes sacrifice.

If you really want to be a great runner, you probably shouldn’t be reading blogs in your free time. 😉





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  1. Chuck
    May 29, 2013

    Great point!

    We celebrate the greats as everyday people a little to much. We want celebrities to be people we could have a beer with. It gives us the thought that we’re all just one break away from being rich and famous.

    In reality the celebrities, sports heroes, business titans that we celebrate got there through grueling work that many of us aren’t willing to put in. Like you said they got there “having to put in the countless hours of training, treating your body as a temple, following a strict diet, cutting out the weekend benders, sacrificing social and romantic relationships, and ignoring your children.” Not all apply to all facets of life, but many apply to those that rise to the top. You might still want to have a beer with them, but they probably don’t have the spare time. Or at least they didn’t when they were working to get to where they are.

  2. Minimal Runner
    May 29, 2013

    Love the honest advice. It’s applicable to anything in life. You want to be the best? Work for it. Great blog — keep it up. I’m quickly becoming an avid reader.

  3. Adam
    May 24, 2013

    Yes, I agree with every word of this. To me, the most dangerous shortcut is the shoe fetish, which I suspect more than a few of us have sacrificed far too much time and money to. Meanwhile, Sage Canaday is out there breaking records and breaking hearts in Scott shoes. What the hell are those?

  4. Dave
    May 24, 2013

    For MJ and Tiger, there have been others with similar work habits and physical capabilities. These two however separated themselves from the pack with their nerves under pressure. I don’t know how much benefit there is to ‘nerves’ in running (racing). Perhaps at the very front, a select few will have the nerve to hold up a pace that others fear will lead to disaster?

    Certainly, hard work is a prerequisite to reaching your potential as a runner. There is however a wide disparity in the max potential for each individual, perhaps a 100% difference. Some people are 2:03 marathoners at best, and others may be 4:00 marathoners with equivalent training (effort + time). But those gifted few with 2:03 potential would have a tough time breaking 4 hours without at least a minimum amount of training.