Ultra running is going further than a marathon. That’s more than 26.2 miles or 42.195 km at one time. The marathon is a pretty significant distance in the world of running. And not something to be taken lightly. Yet some runners choose to go further.
In our new three-part series Inside an Ultrarunner’s Mind, we speak to three ultrarunners with different lives, backgrounds and goals. None of our speakers are professional athletes. They all live so-called ‘normal’ lives and yet they also manage to run incredible distances.
Tune in to our new video series to find out how they got started, what keeps them going, how they balance their running with work and all their tips and tricks for pushing through. In a panel discussion, our runners are joined by Ben Martynoga, a neuroscientist and science writer, who’ll provide input from leading research to explain what’s happening to our runners.
Meet our runners below or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the episodes.
Meet the Speakers
Alexx Johnson-Dupri works for Recreational Equipment Inc.(known as REI) in Seattle. She’s a five-time Ironman athlete, a 24-hour marathoner, an obstacle course endurance athlete, a self-confessed tomboy, a hiker and a dog lover with a passion for the outdoors.
She has her sights set on one day running the Badwater Ultramarathon – also known know as the world’s toughest footrace – and would love to appear on the the TV show Survivor. Further proof, as if it was needed, that she lives for challenges.
“I started ultra running nearly 10 years ago as I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore from my IRONMAN pursuits, so I decided to focus on longer distances for a single discipline.
“I run ultras for the sense of accomplishment and feeling of strength it provides me. Even more than this, I love how ultras make me mentally tough. The focus, discipline and determination it takes to follow through with ultra running is a skill I use in all areas of my life.
“My successes are a constant reminder that I am tough, even the biggest challenges in life are unable to break me, and there’s nothing I can’t do if I set my mind to it.”
Liz is a mom and a public lands advocate, working for the US Forest Service as a Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Specialist. The outdoors is very important to her and when she’s not working full-time or homeschooling her two kids, she loves to go on long distance runs.
She got into trail running about seven years ago without any real ambitions of running long distances. But just over two years ago she turned to ultra running as a way of processing some personal issues to give her the space she needed to mourn the loss of a family member and dealing with the stress of being a working mom.
“I stuck with trail running because it’s my time to be outside and to challenge myself. There is so much to learn about life in running and I love that. I also really like to train for runs that aren’t races.
“I prefer to run by myself or with my husband and my dog. I like to train and plan for long distances runs where the finish line is cracking a beer and dunking my head in a river or jumping in a lake with my husband. The reward is in being able to physically do it, and the view along the way.”
As well as being a dentist and father, Karel Sabbe holds some incredible records for his long-distance running exploits. Highlights include winning the 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra and being the last man standing at the infamous Barkley Marathons - a run that only 15 people have ever finished since its inception in 1986. He is also the current speed record holder for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, among other things.
“I started running as a relief from my sometimes-stressful job as a dentist. I quickly realized that I was able to run long distances and so I started using this ability to go for long days in the mountains and see more than I could if I would hike.
“Running ultra distances always feels like a breeze of fresh air in my life. When I have a few busy months at work, my training helps to cope with the stress. But it's the actual ultrarunning events that help me reset and realize that not much is needed to be happy in life.
“All of my ultras are also in beautiful settings, so I use them to explore and see new scenery. They help me to feel strong and teach me a lot of lessons that I can extrapolate to other things in life; like the importance of partners and relationships, of persistence and of being happy with the small things in life.”
Ben is a neuroscientist, science writer and published author who’s spent over a decade working at the forefront of brain research, studying how it changes over the course of our lives. He’s a keen runner himself and has spoken to numerous leading brands and media outlets about the impact running can have on our brains. Making him the perfect counter balance to our three runners, well-placed to provide input on some of the phenomena and feelings that our runners discuss.
“For me running has always been less about getting fit and more about exercising what goes on in my mind. If I’m stuck on a problem at work or feeling a bit down then I basically know that it’s time to get out and go for a run. And it works for me. There’s so much research now that exercise and running in particular is so good for for our mental health.
“If you put a running wheel in a mouse’s cage it will just run for hours on end, and if you look inside its brain you’ll see that in many ways it is working better. You can even see that it grows new neurons, new connections. Until a couple of decades ago, we didn’t think this was possible in human brains. We thought that you were sort of stuck with what you got at birth. So I’m interested to know if these benefits scale up and you get them on long distance runs.”
Inside an Ultrarunner’s Mind
Episode 1: Why would you do this?
Episode 2: Pushing through the pain
Episode 3: Can anyone go ultra?