Any ultrarunner will tell you each step past 26.2 miles is transcendental. “It’s a willingness to get really uncomfortable for self-enlightenment,” says ultra coach Jimmy Dean Freeman, who ran his first 50-miler in 2005 after seeing “Ultramarathon Man” Dean Karnazes speak at the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.
Thanks to books like Born to Run and celebs like Karnazes, participation in ultrarunning events has more than doubled over the past five years, according to Ultrarunning Magazine. Last year, more than 52,000 people tested their grit at 717 ultra-distance events held in North America.
The draw lies in something beyond tight abs and a roaring metabolism. Forget worrying about time and rank. Running 50 miles is an exploration of your own resolve—a psychological challenge that borders on a spiritual awakening. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
“Don’t do it!” is the first thing Freeman tells runners considering a 50-miler (a typical intro distance for aspiring ultramarathoners). “Imagine how difficult it is to train for 26.2 miles, the sacrifices and the challenges both physical and mental." Then tack on a battered immune system, amplified exhaustion, and a higher risk of injury.
“You’re not doubly as healthy running 50 miles,” Freeman says. “You’re not doubly as fit.”
So why go the distance? It all comes back to the mental challenge and the opportunity for personal growth. “I definitely have learned new levels of patience, perseverance, and focus through participating in 50- and 100-mile mountain races," Freeman says. "I’m a better person than I might have been otherwise.”
Ready to test your mettle? Follow our guide to get you to the starting line.