Growing up, I was very much a music junkie. While I developed an extensive knowledge and appreciation for almost all genres, my heart belonged to two specific styles: rock music and reggae.
Rock music was always a part of my identity, and shaped the way I see the world. It was loud and crazy and intense and unpredictable and endlessly fascinating. Along with playing sports and chasing girls, it was the primary thing that made life worth living.
(This was before I became a grownup and discovered things like family and goodwill and spirituality … but to this day, rock music is still a solid top-5 on my list of greatest joys in life. I’d better not tell you exactly where it ranks - but it’s a solid top-5.)
By contrast, reggae spoke to my soul. It was uplifting and gracious and peaceful, and made me appreciate the gifts in my life and the wonder of the world around me. Although the two musical styles are remarkably different, there’s no reason why somebody can’t develop a passion for both; indeed, I’ve spent the better part of forty years doing precisely that.
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing my comparison of ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons.
Between August 2007 and August 2008, I was fortunate (feel free to substitute the word crazy) enough to complete an Ironman distance triathlon and a 100-mile ultramarathon. At points along the way and afterwards, people asked me which one was harder to prepare for, which was tougher to complete, which I enjoyed more, and so on. So this post will hopefully provide a long overdue answer to a lot of those questions.
Triathlon is rock music: it’s vain and flashy and crazy and intense, and it’s loaded with sex appeal. Professional men are like rock stars: all the women want to be with them, and all the guys want to be them. (Best of all, the triathlon attraction crosses genders quite nicely; while I’ve always found rocker chicks to be somewhat scary, I’d jump at the chance to share a few workouts with Desiree Ficker. Yes, this is a cheap excuse to post her picture again.) It’s a hard lifestyle to maintain, but those who successfully do so feel almost immortal – or if not that, at least forever young.
(I’ll set aside my usual cynicism and resist the easy joke about suspected drug use in both groups. No need to thank me.)
Ultrarunning is reggae: much simpler, while simultaneously much more profound. Just as the reggae sound is more complex than it initially appears, so too is ultrarunning more meaningful than the repetitive rhythm of one foot in front of the other all through the night. Those who practice it regularly can readily describe humility and hard times, yet typically manage to keep a positive outlook in the midst of hardship.
So think of the events as two different genres of music – while most people will prefer one style over the other, having an attachment to one doesn’t automatically preclude you from enjoying the other. In fact, the two sports have a lot more things in common than they have differences – and that’s how we’ll base the comparison.
Finally, a few ground rules before we start. First, I’m only comparing the longest distance events – so the discussion here pertains to an ironman-distance tri and a 100-mile ultra. Second, there are actually two separate categories to consider: one that revolves around training regimens, and another about actually participating in the events. Accordingly, I’ll break this analysis into two sections – training and racing – and make this a two-part post. In each subsection, I’ll indicate which event has an advantage, and add up a final tally once we reach the end. (This might be interesting - I honestly have no idea which way the scores will go.)
My goodness, I’m already rambling way too much - why don’t we just get started:
1. Time commitment
The main idea is that either one of these events will completely dominate your free time. They’ll also eat into family time and work schedules and vacation plans and just about every other leisure activity you enjoy. From the time you sign up until you finish the race, one concern will dominate your thoughts: I’m probably not training enough.
If you were to survey the triathletes lined up at the World Championships in Kona earlier this month, I’ll bet 95% of them will tell you that they wished they had trained more in preparation for the race (they’ll also tell you that they would like to be 10 pounds lighter, but that’s a separate post). These are the best athletes in the world – and if they’re not satisfied with their training volume, what makes you think that regular schmucks (in other words, all the rest of us) would be?
Part of this compulsion is simply the nature of people who are drawn to these events, but another major factor is the daunting prospect of the ironman distance, and the need to be proficient at three disciplines. Anytime you go more than a couple of days without doing one of the three, you feel like you’re falling behind or losing fitness. The only way to keep up is to do two workouts per day, or back-to-back workouts that take several hours.
At one point in my IM buildup, I was doing three workouts per day, and it didn’t seem the least bit excessive – it was just what I had to do to keep up the mileage I wanted to complete. At my peak, I was logging approximately 7000 weekly yards in the pool, 180 miles on my bike, and 50 miles running – and all of those numbers felt entirely too low. Even if I had figured out some way to do three-a-days on a regular basis, I probably still wouldn’t feel like I’d done enough training. That’s just the way it goes.
Training for an ultra, the compulsion is similar – especially if you’re somewhat new to the sport and have no idea what is required for success. Visit a few ultra forums, and you’ll see discussion threads about how much weekly mileage is recommended to complete a 100-miler. And no matter how many miles you run, you’ll probably feel like you should be doing more.
There’s a common expression among ultra runners that “if you can run it in a week, you can run it in a day”, meaning that whatever distance your event is, that’s what you should aim for in weekly mileage. However, in my experience, 100 miles per week on hilly trails takes an enormous amount of time, and leaves you completely drained. I settled into an average of about 70 miles per week, with a high of 110 – which sounds like a lot, until you consider that one of my favorite ultrarunners was averaging well over 200 miles per week before Western States this year. Have I mentioned that it never seems like I’m doing enough?
There’s one distinction worth noting on this subject, however: veteran ultrarunners will tell you that once you have a 100 under your belt, you can continue from race to race with very little training in between events. For example, if you’ve got a 100-miler, a 100K, and another 100-miler in a three-month span, your weeks in between events might only feature 15-20 miles of training. All of that training for the first one is like an airplane working to climb to its flight altitude, where it can then level off and cruise for a longer period of time with less fuel consumption.
With IM training, in order to maintain your speed and remain sharp at three disciplines, you’re in climbing mode before every race. It’s a subtle difference, but enough to give a very slight edge in this category to ultrarunning.
Even when you’re able to get some midday or afternoon workouts done, the cumulative effect is the same with IM training or ultra training – so we’ll call this category a draw.
3. Difficulty of training
On the other hand, many triathletes struggle with one discipline or another. I’m always encountering people who were terrific runners but can’t swim, collegiate swimmers who have no power on the bike, or strong cyclists who can’t run a fast mile. Triathletes often say to “train your weakness, race your strength”; in that case, I imagine that a lot of triathletes spend a lot of hours doing training that is either awkward or uncomfortable in the discipline they like the least. That would get pretty old after several months.
Ultrarunners, however, concern themselves with just one thing: running. It’s a pretty good bet that before they sign on to run 100 miles, they usually recognize whether or not running is something they enjoy. Even if they’re not fast, many ultrarunners come to the sport because they’ve discovered that the long miles on the trails offer them much more than simply the physical benefits of a good workout. If you’re doing something that you love, the training doesn’t seem nearly as mundane. Big advantage to the ultrarunners here. However …
4. Injury potential
Of course, this refers only to the cumulative, day-to-day injuries that befall most athletes – not the career-ending, life-threatening variety such as getting crushed on your bike by an 18-wheeler, attacked by some sort of predator in the ocean, or any other sort of freak tragedy. I tend to lump those types of incidents into a separate “lightning strike” category, meaning they can happen to anyone at anytime, regardless of what we’re training for. I mean, I cracked three ribs on a boogie board, for crying out loud – should we count that as a tri injury or a running one? Better to just chalk it up to bad karma.
5. Gear and Expenses
No doubt about it, triathlon is a rich man’s (or woman’s) game. It seems like every time you turn around, you need to drop some money (sometimes a lot of it) just to keep on training.
You pay pool dues and insurance fees and buy a wetsuit and goggles and pull buoys and paddles. You drop a few grand on a bike, then upgrade it with so many new components that it barely resembles the thing you saw in the online catalog. You shell out top dollar for cycling shoes and helmets and power meters and aerodynamic hydration systems. Even the most basic tri-outfits seem to cost hundreds of dollars. By the way, this is in addition to all of your basic running gear.
Triathletes are also prime consumers of all sorts of crazy gadgets (speed laces, anyone?) and nutritional supplements. Nobody uses Gatorade or Gu during workouts or eats normal food between sessions – it’s all specially developed formulas and superfoods that promise to help you shave a handful of minutes off of your IM time – perhaps enough to make it from 19th place to 17th in your age group. Yahoo!
So it’s easy to see why ultrarunners think they have a huge advantage in the finance department. However, once you start calculating the costs of several pairs of trail shoes per year, state of the art hot or cold weather clothing, hydration packs, lighting systems, GPS devices, and a lot of those same nutritional expenses … well, it’s STILL a lot cheaper than triathlon. But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Score another point for ultrarunners.
Those are the major training issues to compare, which brings us to the conclusion of Part 1. At the intermission, our score stands at Ultrarunning 3, Triathlon 1, with one draw. Will ultrarunning gradually pull away and drop its competition in the second half? Will triathlon come back to even the score? Will we have any more silly rock and reggae analogies? All these questions and more will be answered in Part 2.