An ultra-marathon is a running race that tests the bounds of human sanity even more than your usual marathon. The Leadville Trail 100, for instance, is a great example. It has an excessive distance (100 Miles), hostile environment (Colorado Wilderness, at 10,000ft of elevation and up), and long running time (up to 30 hours).
People who run these races call themselves ultra-runners. They seem to average around 40 years of age. These people use ordinary marathons as training runs.
Ultramarathons are also practiced in cycling. There are many races around the US which are 12 and 24 hours in length, and as many which are set distances (such as the many 'ride across <fill in your state here>').

The penultimate ultra marathon for many die-hard cyclists is the Race Across America (RAAM). The RAAM occurs every year near the beginning of summer, and the route can change every year. Generally the route is at or just under 3,000 miles in length, and the solo winners are expected to complete the task in under 10 days. 4 person teams complete the trip in just over 6 days (~500 miles per day, or just over 20 miles per hour without stop)

Having just completed a 24 hour race in Florida (come visit Sunny Florida! See our orange groves! Spend money at our attractions! Get sunburn and push your heartrate over 200bpm fighting our gulf winds in a futile attempt to achieve 425 miles in 24 hours on a bicycle!) so I feel that I am qualified to say that it isn't trivial.

When you want to ride a bicycle for that length of time you need to train beforehand. I only trained for 7 weeks, which is not nearly enough for one's first bike race.

The basic idea with an ultra marathon is you treat your body like a machine. Calories in = calories out. If you aren't eating enough during the race you will bonk. Calories aren't enough, though. Salts and water are vitally important to your success. Through training I determined that I needed to eat nearly 400 calories and 1.5 liters of water per hour of riding. While it's easy to think of eating 400 calories sitting down, when you are exerting yourself your body doesn't want to use any energy on the digestive system. You get very nauseated eating about 2 liters of stuff every hour. You also have a natural fast energy storage system that uses glycogen. When this is depleted (because you can't digest food fast enough, or aren't eating enough) then you will slow down.

The specifics of the race I competed in (so you know what you're in for if you want to compete) are fairly straightforward. There were fifty 12 hour race competitors, but only 9 riders felt up to racing for 24 hours. There was an out and back loop which went 121 miles. Afterwards competitors went around a 10.7 mile loop as many times as they could until the 12 hour race ended. At this point (12 hours) I was just over 150 miles. The 12 hour race ended with an awards ceremony while the 24 hour racers rode onto a car race track (Sebring International Speedway, in this case - 3.7 mile loop) and continued looping until the morning.

It was apparent by this time to all the 24 hour racers that no one would qualify for the RAAM (425 miles for men, 400 for women) and 5 of the racers quit about 12 hours into the race. Knowing that I wasn't going to qualify I decided not to quit but to take it easy and have as much fun as I could comfortably have.

At this point I'm going to make a laundry list of my reasons for taking frequent (long) breaks so you will know what to expect. First and foremost, my rear end hurt. But only when I was on the saddle (seat). I didn't have aerobars (middle of the handlebar, rest elbows on cushions) so my weight was on my seat and hands the entire race. Secondly, my hands hurt and the palms were swollen. I had a pain in my left foot which requireed a good 40 minute rest and shoe adjustment which never bothered me again afterwards. My sunburns weren't bothersome, but if that sort of thing bothers you make sure you reapply sunscreen as needed. Lastly, and probably most worrisome was lack of pain - or numbness. My pinky and ring fingers on my left hand were numb. My nether region was also numb - from the beginning of the race.

Now there are two kinds of pain, and two kinds of numbness. With pain, it hurts but doesn't require any extra attention, or it hurts and will cause problems in the future if not taken care of. My pains were cause by swollen sore (from vibration, pressure, etc) tissue. Something that would be taken care of over time so ibuprofen and a will to keep going were all that was needed.

Numbness is more complex and more consideration is needed. You are already familiar with the numbness caused by blood loss - sitting in an odd position for too long, etc. You know it by pale limbs and the odd, annoying and almost painful tingling sensation that occurs when the blood flows back in. The other kind you may have experienced occurs when nerves get pinched. In my case I had a combination. The saddle reduces (but didn't cut off) blood flow to my genitals. But what really got me is nerve pinching due to swollen tissue. It took two days for the swelling to go down enough so that I regained feeling. My fingers took over several more days, and even a week later there is a patch on my pinky finger which is not sensitive to heat/cold.

Many riders adjust their equipment as best as possible, and then accept whatever else they must in order to compete.

Lastly, it interested me that there was no one, other than my sister and I, under the age of 30 in either race. There are people in the 70-79 age division as well. Ultra marathons are not for those who can't train for 2-4 hours a day, and spend every other saturday in a 6-10 hour ride. It is common to pursue this sort of endeaver when one has a steady non-demanding job or is retired. Therefore we 25 year olds have a physical advantage :-)

Seriously, though, this is a huge time investement. I ended up going 209 miles during the race, but I only trained for about 1-3 hours a day on weekdays with 2-12 hours each saturday. I had to change my sleeping schedule to fit it in around my family, work and school.

However, I haven't ever felt more physically fit, and I've accomplished something which very few people in the world even contemplate doing.

It wasn't bad for a first race.

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