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Ultra Marathons: Is Categorization necessary?


Posted by Neil B under Ultrarunning, Trail Running, Running, Marathon Running on 23 February 2013 at 12:00 AM

Firstly, from the outset I should make one thing clear. I have approached this question from an entirely neutral standpoint, with no preconceived views on whether categorization is necessary or indeed wanted within the Ultra running community. I myself have never run an Ultra Marathon; indeed I’ve never even run a marathon. I am far more of a casual runner, who does it to stay in shape and keep fit and healthy.

Ultra running I thought it would be interesting to take an unbiased look into the Ultra Marathon world and discover what those within it thought on the subject of further categorization. That was important; only those within the Ultra running community, after all, why does it matter what those outside it think of Ultra running. Upon delving into this subject, I entered into it with nothing but admiration and respect for Ultra runners. Completing any Ultra Marathon, whether it is 50km, 50 miles or 100 miles is an achievement that is unfathomable to me at this point. As such, I found it very interesting that there appeared to be very little differentiation between an ultra runner who ran a 50km race and one who ran a 100 mile race. Both appeared to be held in almost equal regard. It appeared it was not a question of distance or time, but purely that you were a part of a community; an inclusive community that celebrates the achievement of completing an Ultra Marathon. 


However, given the explosion in popularity of Ultra running over the past decade or so, I have come across a number of arguments stating that there is now a need to distinguish between different distances and types of race. The majority of these arguments point towards the sharp increase in competitors, producing a need to divide runners into smaller, more distinguishable groups. 

One of the most common arguments revolved around, not what distance an Ultra Marathon was run over, but what terrain it was run over. One such blog, Ultrarunning is Dead by Geoff Roes argues that the explosion in popularity of Ultra Trail running has led to a need to distinguish between trail Geoff Roesand road ultras. He argues that while the total number of Ultra Marathon finishes has increased at a far greater pace than at any other time in the history of the sport, the number of finishes in road ultras has not increased at anywhere near the same pace.  Roes argues there is "an ever growing disparity between trail ultra and road ultra".

He goes on to argue that this explosion in popularity of Ultra Trail running is partially down to the fact that the key reasons why people like to run trails; "Less impact, more variety, get to go to remote places", are conducive to running really far. Here he argues that the numbers of Ultra Runners who have never run a road ultra has increased greatly over the past decade. "More Ultra Runners than ever before identify themselves primarily as trail runners and secondarily as Ultra runners." It is for this reason that he feels the all-encompassing 'Ultra runner' classification is outdated and inaccurate. 

Indeed our very own @ultrarory acknowledges this issue when he said "The thing now is that so many races are now on trail that there are a multitude of different USPs for races." However, he goes on to qualify this by stating "Variety is the spice of ULTRAmarathon running", suggesting official categories are not necessary or desirable. To be fair to Roes, he does say "In reality, it's all just running, but if you're going to break it down further, I think it makes a lot more sense to break it into trail running and road running than it does to continue with the category of Ultra running." Indeed this topic is further confused by the fact that many Ultra runs take place over a combination of both road and trail. Does this not make the classification of Ultra running as either road or trail impossible?

Ultra Running

When starting out on this quest to look into the issue of categorization of Ultra Running, it was my assumption (Wrongly) that the strongest arguments for categorization would revolve around the vastly different distances that the Ultra Running tag encompasses. However, it seems my preconceived presumptions were indeed wrong and ignorant. The overwhelming view from within the Ultra running community appears to be that there is no real need or desire for official classifications. As @montyc said in a discussion on the matter, "Most Ultras now have details on their websites about the type of terrain and the ascent involved....I don't really want them to be classified - when you run over 30 miles you are in." Indeed @petehenley echoed these sentiments saying "I'm not sure they need to be classified. People know the distance you have done....Lets encourage people into this amazing test of human endurance."

It is this idea of a community of Ultra runners that has struck me most about the world of Ultra running. As Flint F from Flintland Blog argued:Flint F

"I very much enjoy and respect the Ultra running culture of being very low-key and easy going....I think as an Ultra runner, you need to be way more about camaraderie, sharing the experience and cheering for everyone than about categorizing or classifying stuff. The result is that Ultra events are very inclusive and a group experience, much more than an individualist thing."

This has given me a far greater grasp of how it is possible to run such distances. The feeling of camaraderie, encouragement and collective will that a community like this must produce when taking part in an Ultra marathon, must lift runners and push them to finish. 

Indeed John Lacroix of Sherpa John Blogspot argues that this clamour for categorization of the different races is destroying the Ultra running community. He writes:John Lacroix

"once we start dumping each other into categories, we start to play a game where we have to figure out, who of us is better than the other... The term "Ultra runner" is defined by more than the miles or hours that we run. It used to define a community. What’s truly dead in this sport, is the community, the idea that we’re all equal, that we’re all in this together, that whether you’re coming in first or last.. you are the same as everyone else."

These views that the community is dead are very strong, and reflect how he feels potential categorization has affected Ultra running. Certainly from my point of view, from the insight I have gained into the Ultra running world, I would say that the community is far from dead. The majority still view the Ultra running community as an open and inclusive place, where participation in a 30 mile race or 130 mile race gains you entry into the Ultra running community. This is something that I greatly admire about Ultra runners.

Ultra running community

However, it is clear that the growing popularity of Ultra running is at least forcing the question of whether further categorization is required. However, for the moment at least, on the whole, it seems that inside the Ultra running community there is an inherent understanding of what each race entails, a mutual respect for everyone who runs an Ultra, no matter the distance and little need or desire for it to be divided up into official categories. 

Has the desire for classification come from outside the Ultra community, due to a lack of understanding of the values of the Ultra running community and a need to have control and a rigid structure outlining everything? Should we not simply be heralding the fact that a culture like this still exists, where there is a mutual appreciation amongst all competitors, where everyone feels part of a community rather than a group of individuals? 

My view, for what it’s worth, having considered everything I have discovered, is that the aspect of community and camaraderie is such a key part of the experience of Ultra running for so many, that I think it would be shame if these values were undermined by categorizing of Ultra Runners, which would cause categories to compare themselves and their achievements against each other’s, immediately removing the all-encompassing community feel of Ultra running. I echo the sentiments of @flintlandblog who ended his post with "Run Free". There are not many sports that have such a community and supportive feel to them and it is an aspect of Ultra running (on top of the remarkable physical and mental feats required) that I have been incredibly impressed by and is an aspect that, I at least, hope is maintained for the considerable future.

What are your thoughts on categorization? Do you agree that Ultra Marathons should be split according to terrain, distance or not at all? Join the debate....

  • Encourage

    encouraged this.



    First of all, excellent post! You've done a lot of research and thinking about this and it shows. I have just run my first marathon, and have my sites set on a 50K (classified as an ultra of course). My opinion is that it doesn't make sense to categorize... or rather, it would seem to be much too complicated. Be it road, or trail, every race over the standard marathon distance is going to be different. Especially from the trail perspective. Rather than categorize, I think the different races stand on their own and runners understand the nature of the courses and the difficulty. I love the trail running community, and I think a lot of that drives the ultra community. Where else will you see a race where competitors will stop to help other runners.. sharing water or whatever they can. They are competitive, yet it seems trail runners have the mindset of "we're all in this together". And, once I complete a 50K trail race and call myself an ultra marathoner.. will I be satisifed? Nope... to me, its all about pushing myself mentally to the next level.. I'll never be a fast runner, so I'm in it for the long haul, with completion, not competition on my mind.. Thanks for the great thought provoking post!! Happy trails, Jeff

    encouraged this.


    Great post! I agree with Jeff, firstly it's too complicated to categorize and secondly I just don't think it needs it. I like the fact it's more relaxed and that there's such a community for ultrarunners.

    Kara A encouraged this.


    As they say, "Why fix something that ain't broke?" The Ultra community appear to be happy with the current labeling, so whose agenda would be served to change it?

    Justin B and Kara A encouraged this.


    Great article, I run ultras because I love the banter, that all in it together feeling and of course the sense of personal achievement. With regards to categories, I personally can't see a need plus there are a lot of events that are random distances which would have to be changed. For example the West Highland Way race is 95 miles, it's been running for over a decade, would it need to be changed to fit into a category? Lets keep it simple because that's another reason why people love ultras :-)

    Kara A encouraged this.


    Lovely article. I agree that there is enough already.

    Justin B encouraged this.


    Bryon Powell from has just submitted his views on whether or not he feels categorization is necessary. He said, "One of the beautiful things about running is that it's just that, running. Sure, it's easy enough for one to state the surface on which they ran, hence, track, road, and trail running, and reasonable enough to use a bit of shorthand to describe a race longer than a marathoner as an ultramarathon, but to classify various ranges of ultradistances or categorize levels of off-road terrain is to bog oneself down in a mire of superfluous detail and muddy what is an otherwise simple pursuit, the natural challenge of putting one foot in front of the other in search of excellence." I think this sums up perfectly the views of most on this topic!

    Adrian K and Justin B encouraged this.


    Most of the links you cite are North American. I think that in many respects the North American ultra culture has a different view of things from the UK scene as its based almost entirely around trail running because for the most part thats where people like to run. Running and racing are not necessarily the same thing. I think that as far as the "community is dead" goes, it probably refers to the fact that the scene as it is now is very different to how it was 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. The evolution of ultrarunning is taking place right now and what that is centred around is how ultradistance runners perceive what they are are doing and why.For the younger runners those questions haven't really arisen yet Long live The Ultra.

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