Last year, speaking to Outside, ultrarunner Rickey Gates made the following observation while reflecting on Mount Marathon, the brief but notoriously brutal mountain race in Seward, Alaska: “There’s a great fascination with ultras being harder than other races,” Gates said, “but the mile is every bit as difficult as 100 miles if you apply yourself to it.”
Coming from a guy who is currently wrapping up a 4,000-mile run across the country, the notion that four laps around a track can potentially pose a serious challenge might seem a little surprising. The mile is every bit as difficult as 100 miles? How can that be the case? Only a sliver of the global running population will ever experience the rigors of racing Western States or Leadville. The mile run, on the other hand, is firmly ensconced as an enduringly unpopular fixture in high school gym classes from Miami to Anchorage.
When the goal is merely to finish, it’s logical to assume that the longer the race, the more formidable the task. There are exceptions, of course. Mount Marathon is “only” a 5K, but every year runners struggle to complete the precipitous 3,000-foot ascent/descent in one piece. In 2012, someone disappeared.
The underlying assumption here is that race distance, rather than effort, is the ultimate validation of athletic prowess.
But while surviving an ultra (or, for that matter, a boring old “regular” marathon) can be a gratifying item to cross off your bucket list, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that, as Gates notes, on the hierarchy of running achievement, longer doesn’t automatically mean more difficult. Another way of putting this is that it’s less about what you run and more about how you run.
In high school, I had a running mentor of sorts who insisted that the 800 meters (two laps around a track) was the toughest track and field event. His rationale was that the half-mile is essentially “a two-lap sprint,” requiring an almost all-out effort from the gun. The 1,500 meters was long enough that you could relax and find a groove. In the 400 meters, meanwhile, you had the psychological edge of knowing the race was just one lap. But the 800 was vicious. Two minutes of pure agony.
It’s a contentious claim, to be sure—for one thing, nobody can truly sprint for two laps—but at the time it helped me appreciate the way each event carries its own distinct challenges if one is willing to “apply oneself.” It may be a symptom of distance-running snobbery, but I’ll always find it more impressive when someone tries to run their fastest possible mile than when someone putters through an ultra and then expects adulation because they managed not to die.
(This is not to suggest that the only “right” way to run a race is so you’re semicomatose by the end. I have no beef with anyone who’d prefer to stop every mile for a selfie. If your idea of a good time is running 26.2 miles in Star Wars cosplay, may the force be with you.)
There’s a tendency among certain nonrunners to assume that anyone who pursues the sport competitively aspires to take part in ever-longer events. The underlying assumption here is that race distance, rather than effort, is the ultimate validation of athletic prowess. This is as untrue for amateurs as it is for professionals. I know dedicated 5K runners who have zero interest in the marathon but could qualify for Boston in their sleep. Some of these athletes have PRs that are so fast that it fills me with a combination of rage and despair, yet they still get asked if they think “they could do a marathon,” as if that would be a career-defining moment.
Call it the bias of a former track runner, but I’ve always believed there’s something vacuous and a little gimmicky about celebrating distance purely for distance’s sake. It’s the same thing that annoys me about one-upmanship in obstacle-course racing: the idea that the only way to “push the envelope” is by tacking on more miles or adding a larger vat of electrified manure for contestants to plunge into.
Again, this is not to disparage those who might find enlightenment in the church of Tough Mudder or by running 5,649 laps around a half-mile city block. But if you want to test the limits of what you’re capable of, a good old-fashioned 5K can be a just as effective (and probably more affordable) as a more ostensibly “extreme” alternative.
You just have to apply yourself.