What’s in a name?

“An ultramarathon, also called ultra distance, is any sporting event involving running and walking longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi).”

In theory, if I ran just a millimetre further than 42.195km then I would have run an ultra. This idea doesn’t sit well with me, nor a lot of “true” ultra runners and organisations who believe the minimum distance for an event to be called an ultra is 50km.

That sounds like a fair premise, although, when I think of marathons I think of events run on flat roads like Berlin where a plethora of world-records times have been set. The IAAF rules note, “It is recommended that for Road Races staged over standard distances, the overall decrease in elevation between the start and finish should not exceed 1:1000, i.e. 1m per km (0.1%). For approval of Records, see Rule 260.28 (c).”

If you call running a 42.195km event with a total increase in elevation of 42m on smooth roads a “marathon” then what do you call the event over the same distance with over 1000m elevation change run on treacherous trails? Surely, they aren’t the same? Are they both marathons? Why do we focus only on distance when classifying an event?

This argument is not one into which I am going too deeply. If someone calls me a “marathoner” or “ultra-marathoner” I really don’t care; I simply myself a “runner.”

For my personal accounting purposes, any event I run where the course distance is 50km or greater1 I shall classify as an ultra, regardless of the course terrain or elevation. This will mean I will run a lot more marathons longer than 42.195km, some of those events will be a lot tougher than other events due to the elevation or course terrain, so be it.

After thought

Distance runners all have a family member, friend or colleague who has innocently asked, “How far is your marathon?” We’ve always answered smugly from high on our soap-box that all marathons are 42.195km. Changing what we call a marathon to include distances other than 42.195km means we can no longer do that (not that we should have been doing it anyway!)

1 The course distance has to be 50km or greater, not the route I took around the course. Getting lost or not running the most direct route does not make an event an ultra if the course distance was less than 50km.