Speed and ultradistance

Tomoe Abe’s fantastic 100-kilometer result will most likely make many people believe that speed is the key to good performances in ultradistance running. Some individuals who view the issue from a narrow point of outlook sometimes perceive ultradistance runners as underachievers. Those individuals tend to believe that marathon runners are some kind of superior breeds of people, too great to bother with distances longer than Marathon.

Let us look at what it takes in order to perform a great result in ultradistance running! It takes a talented runner with an excellent training background and the right kind of spirit. All world class marathon runners do probably fit that description as far as the training background goes.

All of them do not have the right mental capacity, muscular surplus, proper metabolic pathway or physical talent for ultradistance running. But some have. Tomoe Abe did obviously have what it took. She did most likely perform relatively better as a 100-kilometer runner than what she ever did as a marathoner. Maybe we can say that Abe physically and mentally is more of a 100-kilometer runner than marathoner?

Comrades is the only ultrarace that can compare to the big time marathons. The winner of that race can earn a good day’s pay, and possibly extend the earnings by getting sponsors. What stops a talented Southafrican marathon runner from just going out and winning it? South Africa has many excellent runners. The very best, those who can earn more money at the races in Berlin, Rotterdam, London, and maybe in the Championships, may be excused. But why don’t some 2:11 marathoner come out and make Charl Mattheus, Nick Bester, and the Russians look like jolly joggers? Mattheus has, as far as I understand, never broken 2:20 in the marathon. He should be very easy to keep behind all the way to the finishline, according to the underachiever theory. Are those marathon runners who are reputed to be able to do training runs of 80 kilometers at 2:20 marathon pace stupid enough to turn such an opportunity down, or is somebody else believing in tales that are not true?

The most absurd display of the underachiever theory is when “experts” try to explain the superiority of Yannis Kouros by claiming that he is the best because he is, with his marathon result of 2:24, the 24-hour runner with the most speed. I have run 2:18,38 for the marathon, but only 262.6 kilometers for 24 hours. With 16 years of experience as an ultrarunner, I have come to the conclusion that one needs enough speed. But “more than enough” speed is not the key to better performances. Especially the long ultras demand very complex qualities. Durability counts more than speed.

The problem for us ultrarunners is that we are amateurs. We compete in one of the most demanding sports one can find, but since we can’t support our selves by running, we must work full time, and fit training and resting in to our lives whenever we can. When I was at my peak, I could train 200 kilometers per week, but then I did only have time to sleep six hours per night.

A professional runner can give training full priority, and can rest enough so the body will absorb the training. How many ultrarunners have had the privilege to live like that for some years? As far as I have understood it, some of the Russians can train full time, Kouros can, and some runners who have been using the safety net of unemployment benefits and the welfare system in order to give ultrarunning their full attention.

How many of those fantastic marathonrunners who are the hypothetical winners of all ultra races do work 40 hours per week in offices or factories, like almost every ultrarunner has to do?

If many talented ultrarunners would get the chance to train and live as professionals, we would see radical improvements as far as results go. Ultrarunners need professionalism more than speed. We are not underachievers – we are high performing amateurs. Besides, we do only compete against those who start in the races.


Rune Larsson