Time after time I see the question being asked about running a marathon without training. Do you really believe that’s possible? Are you serious when you ask that question?
Having run quite a few ultramarathons over the past few years I do have my opinion on the matter, but to ensure I’m not just talking from my own experience, I thought I should do some further research to see what other people thought.
Can you really run an ultramarathon without training? In my opinion, it is possible, but unlikely. Your body won’t be ready for the exertion and there are normally cut-off times to contend with. Without prior training, you won’t be ready for what your body and mind are about to go through.
With this in mind, let’s take a more detailed look into why I don’t believe it is possible to run an ultramarathon without training and let me explain why.
Ultramarathon Cut Off Times
Not only do ultramarathons have cut off times just like a road race, they often have cut-offs at certain checkpoints throughout the race as well.
So if your pace is fast enough, i.e. your not at least doing some running, then you are at risk of being pulled from the race.
Here is a table of some of the average cut-off times of the various trail distances. These can vary, so don’t take them as an absolute time.
|Race Distance||Average Cut-off Time|
|Marathon (26.2miles/43k)||6 to 7 hours|
|50k (31 miles)||8 hours|
|50 Miles (80k)||12 to 13 hours|
|100k (62 miles)||18 – 20 hours|
|100 Miles (161k)||30 hours|
Let’s assume, depending on the terrain of the race that we walk 20-minute miles, or 3 miles per hour – remember, there might be steep hills and muddy ground. Now I say walk because if you haven’t trained you will be doing a lot of it.
You would also need to consider that you will also stop at checkpoints which also reduces the time moving. Depending on the length of the race you are looking at a possible 15 minutes to over an hour spent at aid stations.
Considering this, let’s look at the time it would take to complete a distance by only walking.
|Distance||Cut-Off Time||3mph Finish Time||3.5mph Finish Time|
|Marathon (26.2miles/43k)||6-7 hours||8hr 45min||7hr 30min|
|50k (31 miles)||8 Hours||10hr 20min||9hr 50min|
|50 Miles (80k)||12 – 13 Hours||16hr 40min||14hr 15min|
|100k (62 miles)||18 Hours||20hr 40min||17hr 45min|
|100 Miles (161k)||30 Hours||33hr 20min||28hr 30min|
As you can see, the shorter the distance, the more difficult it is to meet the cut-off times, the longer distance appears to be closer. but is this true?
Trail Ultramarathons Are Hard To Run
In all the trail marathons I have ever run, there is always a point where it gets hard. This might be the terrain, niggling pain, mental state, nutrition, weather, etc.
Let’s break these down individually and discuss why no training may result in you failing due to lack of training.
Ultramarathon Race Terrain
One thing you can absolutely guarantee with an ultramarathon is that the terrain will vary throughout the race. Unless you are running small loops around a park of course.
I will use a race I ran a few years ago as an example because it really highlights how terrain can change. The race was the Snowdonia Trail Marathon – for those of you unfamiliar, Snowdon is the highest peak in Wales at 3,500 feet (not huge but tough).
Starting off it was a few miles of level road and tracks, then onto so really boggy marshland which is tough to run through. There was also one section where a single track had one stile you had to get over – there were hundreds of people waiting to get through and I think I waited around 15 minutes for my turn.
Then there was some more hard-packed track to run on for a few miles before the ascent of Snowdon. The climb was around 3-miles and I think I was reduced to a pace of around 32-minute miles.
I had trained long and hard for this race, but even with all of the training, it was very hard. Imagine trying to walk or run it without training? Honestly, it definitely isn’t something that I would want to take on.
The Pain Of Running An Ultra
One of the reasons we train for long distances is not only to build endurance but to get our bodies as ready as possible for what is about to come.
At some point in the race, you are likely to have an issue around pain in the body. Whether it be sore muscles, cramp, blisters, or even chafing. Are you prepared for that?
Without training, you have no idea what how your body is going to react to this feat of endurance. At least when you are on a training run and you have a blister, or you cramp up, you now learn how to prevent or deal with these issues.
If you have never experienced this pain before, how will you know how to deal with it to get you through? Which leads me onto the mental state.
Your Mind Will Play Tricks On You
Your Mind Will Give Up Long Before Your Body On An Ultramarathon
Usually, after around 8 to 10 hours on your feet, there is a potential urge to give up. There is that little voice in your head telling you that you can’t go any further – you just need the excuse to stop.
I remember during my 86-mile Ridgeway Ultra that the majority of people that quit was due to them mentally giving up.
There was one particular aid station at mile 68. You hit it between 3 am to 5 am when you have been running over 12 hours and 6 of them in the dark. This aid station has a lovely campfire with chairs around it.
It is the single biggest checkpoint for people dropping out of the race.
Why? Because once they sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and get nice and warm, their brain is telling them that they should stay and rest, which many do.
I didn’t go near that campfire. I grabbed a quick hot drink, stayed on my feet and then went off on my merry way. I had don’t 68 miles, I wasn’t going to give up with 18 to go. Plus I wanted the medal.
But all joking aside, running a long race takes a lot of mental toughness, so this needs to be trained leading up to the race as well.
The Weather Is A Factor
Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather, but it is a huge factor in how your race goes. The conditions can be perfect or it could be blistering hot, or wet and miserable.
Are you ready for this? If you haven’t trained in certain conditions, how do you know how you are going to react to it?
I have run marathons in 32C heat and it is one of the more energy-sapping experiences, even with training in warm weather. I have seen people dropping like flies out of races because of the heat, and these guys trained.
On the other hand, like in the picture above, the last 3 hours of a 86 mile race we had the most horrendous wet and cold conditions. My feet were badly blistered, I was tired, and I was cold and wet.
I’m not smiling in the photo, I’m grimacing in pain!
You Need The Right Kit For An Ultramarathon
Did you know that there is a mandatory kit list that needs to be carried on ultramarathon? At the bare minimum, you need waterproof gear and a certain volume of liquid to carry – ofter much more.
So let me ask you – are you going to just pop on a pair of shorts and running shoes and off you go? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Another reason for training is to get used to the kit you are wearing and wear that kit on race day. What will you need?
- Trail Shoes
- Running Socks
- Running Top
- Waterproof Jacket
- Running Vest
- Head Torch
- First Aid Kit
The list goes on. Would you seriously run an ultramarathon without first trying this kit out?
Will your shoes give you blisters or remove your toenails, will your shorts chafe so badly you start to bleed, have you run at night with a head torch before, is your waterproof jacket actually waterproof?
These are all questions that need to be answered during training and not during a race.
Getting Your Nutrition Right
Often overlooked but vitally important, you need a nutrition strategy when running an ultramarathon. Depending on the distance, you should be consuming anywhere from 200 – 400 calories per hour for what your body is going through.
You should also be taking on at least 500ml of water per hour as well as replacing salt and other essential minerals in your body.
Failure to get you nutrition and hydration right will ultimately lead to failure.
You get hungry or you dehydrate, you get tired, cramped, nauseous, and what happens? Your mind tells you enough is enough.
You also need to train your body with the food you are going to eat – there is nothing worse than taking on the food you haven’t eaten before and finding out it doesn’t agree with you.
As an example, a lot of people use gels for calories. But there a countless stories of people getting ‘gut bomb’ from having too many of these. I won’t go into too much detail, but they are leaking from both ends – not pleasant.
Do I believe you can do an ultramarathon without training? Yes, it is possible, there is always someone out there that will prove it can be done.
Do I advise doing an ultramarathon without training? Absolutely not. There is a huge chance that you will not complete it due to cut-off times, injury, or fatigue, and that is not a pleasant situation for your body to be in.
If you really want to run an ultramarathon, do the training, put the miles in, get you kit and nutrition right, and get out there and enjoy the race.
If you enjoy it then it will feel like a huge achievement and you will probably want to do more. Don’t train and prepare yourself for a pretty poor experience you won’t want to revisit.
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