Road Marathon vs. Trail Ultra: Which Is Harder?

This past week I peaked in training for the April 13 Lake Sonoma 50 Miler, and I bookended the week with the Oakland Marathon and a nearly 8-hour-long, 34-mile solo training run on Mount Diablo. Those two long runs gave me an apples-and-oranges kind of comparison between road marathoning and trail ultrarunning, making me contemplate, which is “harder”? Which is better for me, and which do I like more?

I ran the March 24 Oakland Marathon as a pace group leader for the 3:40 group, which meant I carried a sign that said “3:40″ so anyone wanting to finish right around that time could run with our group. Given that I ran the Oakland Marathon in 3:17 last year (a 7:32/mile average pace) and have a marathon PR of 3:05, this pace (averaging 8:22 minutes/mile) felt manageable. Still, it was quite challenging to pound the pavement at such a steady rate for so many miles, since I hadn’t trained or tapered for it, and to hit the mile markers at the target time to finish a half a minute under 3:40.

The Strava profile for this run calculates that the Oakland Marathon had a total elevation gain of 954 feet and burned 3221 calories.

By contrast, I averaged a 13:20 pace on Friday’s Mount Diablo run. That’s right, about 5 minutes per mile slower than at the marathon! (My Garmin battery died just after 29.5 miles, so the following stats are based on those recorded miles rather than the whole 34.)  I was aiming for 5 miles/hour, or a 12-minute pace, in the hope of doing 35 miles in 7 hours. However, that proved too difficult. After 20 miles, when I faced another steep climb, my pace slowed to hiking in the 18-minute/mile range. I was running on tired legs from a hard week, and the mountain depleted everything they had left in them. When I started running again on a flat or downhill section and sped up to 10 minutes/mile, I felt as if I were really cruising.

The Strava profile for this run calculates a cumulative elevation gain of 7938 feet and 5219 calories burned.

I superimposed the elevation profiles of the two runs on the following graphic, which puts the “big hill” of the Oakland Marathon, around miles 7 – 10 when the course skirts the Oakland Hills, into the perspective of how it compares to the Mount Diablo run.

diablo vs oakland elevations

Whereas an 8:20 mile on the Oakland Marathon felt comfortable, a 10:20 mile the mountain felt hard and fast. Obviously, what feels fast or easy is entirely relative to the circumstances of the terrain, elevation and other factors such as weather and the condition of your legs on that day.

The less obvious conclusion I reached is that—contrary to what the elevation profiles and stats suggest—racing the Oakland Marathon is in many ways harder than a mountainous ultra.

What’s so hard about racing a road marathon? It’s a dig-deep 10K with an aggressive 20-mile warmup. It demands an ability to run relentlessly at a pace that is right on the edge of unsustainable—a feeling I like to think of as “the wheels are about to come off.” By contrast, the varied terrain of a mountain run means the pace fluctuates dramatically. Constantly shifting gears in a trail race to accommodate always-changing terrain gives the mind and body a break.

At the Oakland Marathon finish line, flush with the fun of hitting our group’s target pace and running through such a community-wide show of support and celebration, I toyed with the idea of challenging myself to break 3:15, or even 3:10, on the Oakland course next year. I felt a tingle of anticipation mixed with intimidation at that goal. To train properly for a road marathon takes incredibly dedicated, specific training. It means high-octane track workouts and long runs on flat paths that progress to marathon goal pace and beyond.

But when I consider the challenges and surprises that the mountain presents, I think I’m crazy to think that road marathoning is harder. Running 26.2 on pavement with moderate hills seems totally tame compared to the physical endurance and mental toughness of an ultra on a challenging course. On the steep, ankle-rolling single track leading to Diablo’s Eagle Peak, for example, I had to grip spiky branches and rock outcroppings with my hands to keep from sliding off the trail and tumbling hundreds of feet down. When I mentally flip through the gallery of California and Colorado trail runs stored in my mind, I picture rocks and roots, summits and cliffs, hail and lightning, rivers and mud, heat and cold, towering trees and scraggly brush—all part of the panoramic beauty, and danger, of nature.

Which leads to the more subjective questions of which type of long-distance running is “better” for me and which do I like more?

To date, I’ve run 18 road marathons (Napa x 4, Big Sur x 2, LA x 3, Boston x 2, Oakland x 3, Portland, Chicago, Cal International, Buenos Aires). I’ve run 29 other trail races that are marathon distance or longer (10 trail marathons, 13 50Ks, four 50Ms, one 100K and one 167-mile multiday ultra). As these numbers suggest, I do in fact prefer the trails. However, last Sunday at the Oakland Marathon reminded me of the high energy and community spirit that urban marathons offer. Running in a pack in a road marathon pushes me to run faster and steadier than I ever seem to muster on the trail, even when I’m pushing hard in a trail race, perhaps because I inevitably bliss out or space out in the more serene natural setting.

Ultimately, training for trail ultras feels healthier for me. My nagging injuries are more likely to flare up while training hard for a road marathon than on the trail. I also fight to drop several pounds (futilely, since they always come back) while training for a road race, which rewards whippet-thin body types, whereas I can do better at trail running with a lot of meat on my bones. Think of 2:25-marathoner Shalane Flanagan versus world-class trail runner Anna Frost:

Shalane Flanagan

Shalane Flanagan

Anna Frost (from Droz-photo.com via Anna's Facebook page)

Anna Frost (from Droz-photo.com via Anna’s Facebook page)

I admire Anna’s sturdier, stronger-looking body and the fact she deliberately put on weight when being too skinny compromised her health (read her earlier post on dealing with the Female Athlete Triad).

For these reasons and more, I feel better balanced and healthier when tuning up for a trail race compared to a road race. But I also think an occasional road race can be a great add-on to a training cycle, even if it contradicts the principle of “specificity of training.” Running the Oakland Marathon, or getting my legs tuned up for an annual Thanksgiving 5K, hones speed and provides some fun variety.

Feeling drawn toward both road marathoning and trail ultras enhances my admiration for runners who do both well—such as Bay Area ultrarunners Devon Yanko, who won the Oakland Marathon in 2:47 after she finished second at a 50K the prior weekend; or Scott Dunlap, who ran Oakland in 2:53 to finish as the first master’s male and who always excels at ultras.

And then there’s my pace group co-leader Mark Tanaka, who runs so many extreme 100-milers, through such adverse conditions, that he and other ultrarunners like him might laugh at my suggestion that a road marathon could be harder than the multiple crazy 100s they do. Perhaps when I cross over to the dark side of running through the night to complete my first 100-miler in September (the Pine to Palm in Oregon), then I’ll feel it’s silly to suggest that a three-hour road marathon might be as hard or harder than a 24-hour trail ultra. Perhaps then I too can give the ultrarunner’s retort to the hackneyed saying, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Which is, “A marathon is a sprint!”

Who’s to say which type of training and racing is harder? It’s relative and subjective. An elite-level sprinter might argue that sprinting is really the hardest of all. Think of all the effort you have to expend and precision you have to master when fractions of a second count.

I’ve spent enough time on this somewhat circular and self-absorbed debate, but if you have an opinion on which is harder and why, please share it in the comments below!

Here are a few photos from the past week:

Mark Tanaka and me at the start of the Oakland Marathon on March 24, getting ready to lead the 3:40 pace group.

Mark Tanaka and me at the start of the Oakland Marathon on March 24, getting ready to lead the 3:40 pace group.

Running the marathon and showing that I hella love Oakland. (photo by Mark Tanaka)

Running the marathon and showing that I hella love Oakland. (photo by Mark Tanaka)

On top of Mount Diablo's Eagle Peak last Friday.

On top of Mount Diablo’s Eagle Peak last Friday.

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18 Responses to Road Marathon vs. Trail Ultra: Which Is Harder?

  1. Gretchen April 1, 2013 at 4:51 am #

    This is funny because you echo so many of my own thoughts. I think we are even more similar runners than I had realized! (Except that I will never run a 3:05 marathon!) I like to tune up my season with a fast road marathon (It’s Eugene this year), but I generally have less motivation to do the necessary training to run truly “fast” on the roads. I do like speed more than most trail runners I know (I actually love a good interval session on the track), but I like the trails more than most road marathoners I know. I just can’t put in the miles on pavement. I think road marathons are harder, definitely.
    Gretchen recently posted..CanyonsMy Profile

  2. John Nguyen April 1, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    “We are all an experiment of one”… I think its different for everyone, based on their speed, stride, and abilities on the trails. Some veteran marathoners have trouble on the trails. Likewise, some veteran trail runners hate the monotony of asphalt and can’t stand the pounding. And some people, like Mark, Scott, and YOU are monsters on both! In the end, we’re all going to do whichever one we enjoy the most. It is harder for a working parent to train for the longer trail stuff though, just because the “long runs” are longer and good trails aren’t always accessible or convenient. Knocking out lunchtime 7-milers on asphalt is better geared toward marathon training.
    John Nguyen recently posted..DreamsMy Profile

  3. Doug April 1, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    “After 20 miles, when I faced another steep climb, my pace slowed to hiking in the 18-minute/mile range.”

    When I transition from running to hiking because I’ve just hit a steep climb and I’m exhausted, I drop down in to the 30:00 range. I’m impressed and greatly humbled that you’re able to hike at that pace, after that exertion, on that terrain. Keep it up!

    As far as the debate between trail and road, I prefer the trail. I would much rather be running through the trees or over open earth than running alongside cars and buses. My knees and feet prefer the trail, too. Yes, there is more exposure (danger of falling) on the trail, but there are potential accidents waiting to happen when on a road, too. You have to be mentally present, wherever you are, to maintain a reasonable safety factor.
    Doug recently posted..Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness – 9 Mar 2013My Profile

  4. Pete Ferguson April 2, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    From the small amount of experience I’ve had in Road/Trail Marathon/Half Marathons. During and after trail runs I feel like I’m in sync with the world. The sights, smells and wildlife give you this nice feeling of oneness even though you’re in a competitive environment. When completed I say to myself,
    “That was nice”. Even though I’m toasted.
    Road racing, I feel like my mindset is that of a sweating, snorting race horse with blinders on. Pure instinct, sweat and blood. Full on competition with myself and anything that moves. I feel at the end I need to be hosed down and trotted around for awhile. I’d have to say Road Racing at this point. Not much reward but the medal and maybe a PR.

  5. chris April 2, 2013 at 10:03 am #

    They are both hard. I dont think one is harder than the other, just different. Which you find more difficult might have a lot to do with which kind of running you enjoy more. Great post

  6. Bean April 3, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    I really enjoyed this post! I am currently training for a road marathon and wanting to move more into trail ultras/marathons due to the trail half marathons I have run just feel better. Road races always feel harder on the body with the unforgiving concrete and asphalt while trail race seem harder on the mind due to the need to embrace a slower more controlled pace and pay more attention to the terrain.
    Bean recently posted..MarathonMy Profile

  7. Dane April 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Interesting that while you don’t explicitly say it, you do at least put it in the reader’s mind that Flanagan is at an unhealthy weight.

    Jornet is probably outweighed by both Flanagan and Goucher but seems to do decent in the mountains and on ultras.

    • Sarah Lavender Smith April 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      Hi Dane, thanks for reading and commenting! I didn’t get more into the weight issue, as that’s a huge issue that would turn into a tangent for this post, but in a nutshell, I can’t say whether Flanagan is at an “unhealthy” weight. I do know though that when you’re that thin and pushing yourself that much athletically, and you’re female, then you are at risk for amenorrhea (loss of periods) which leads to other health problems. Personally speaking, I know I get more mentally hung up about my weight when training hard for road racing than for trail racing, because I race better on the road when a few pounds lighter (who doesn’t, right? :-)) whereas my stockier, more muscular build a few pounds heavier serves me well in trail ultras.

      • Dane April 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

        I 100% agree that any weight issue comment would fill volumes, which I is why I found it curious it was brought up in the first place. It is almost inline with the “real women have curves” attitude which I feel is as sexist as anything men could ever say about women. Having said that, I feel a few extra well-placed pounds benefit most runners who are battering themselves on trails, or more accurately, over ultra distance where the fat can be used as fuel. But even of those you mentioned, Devon is very tall, lanky and perhaps even whippet thin and she does mighty fine on trail and ultra distances.

        Well-written article juxtaposing races, however. I disagree that road is as unforgiving as trail, as some assert (especially depending on the trail in question) and feel one’s attitude toward either trail or road says much more about the person than the surface of road being run on. One can very well be in tune with every biorhythm running through an industrial warehouse section of Queens and also be snorting and chomping at the bit in the final stages of a pristine mountain race nestled against a backdrop of lush forests and babbling brooks.

      • Lynette April 4, 2013 at 6:44 am #

        Amen…A thin little waif I will never be. For me trail running has helped me accept my body image because of what it is capable of doing…not being afraid to climb any mountain :)

  8. Evan April 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Great entry! I think the pain is in the eye of the beholder. I personally feel more nervous going into a flat road marathon, or any road race in general, than a trail marathon or ultra. I think a big piece of that is how I spend my time training- 95% of it is on trails, and I don’t do as much speed work as I would need to for peak performance in a road marathon. I like the intermediate goals provided by a hilly trail run, I like being in nature, I like scenery, but more than all that, I like the sense of adventure that accompanies long trail runs in the wilderness. That being said, it sure is nice to have community and camaraderie in a run, and that is often hard to come by in a long trail race when you’re trying to run toward front of the pack. And I have had fine adventures in the urban wilderness too, especially on long night runs.

  9. Gina April 3, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    Interesting post! This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I did my first ultra last year (a 60K) and I was expecting it to feel a lot tougher than a road marathon, but I think because of the easier pace it ended up feeling not so bad. Racing a road marathon on the other hand feels like an all out battle the whole time! That being said, I love both and they both fulfill a different need for me.
    Gina recently posted..My visit to Big Yoga HoustonMy Profile

  10. Lynette April 4, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    Love your dilemma, though in 12 years of running I only have 3 road marathons under my belt. I swore off roads after my first 50K 10 years ago. Since that time, though I do think road has a good place in training, my spirit soars so much higher on the trails. Follow your heart, follow your gut :) Best of luck to you at Lake Sonoma. Train well for P2P. Regardless running 100 miles turns you into a cynical trail snob, nothing beats the feeling of running through the day and night and finishing your first 100 mile race.

  11. Ken April 4, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    Well said, Sarah. I agree that road marathons seem more difficult than a good trail ultra. The repetetive pounding of the same muscle groups while maintaining an aggressive pace can do mnore damage in three hours than twice that amount of time spent on the varied surfaces of the trail.

    Good luck at Sonoma!
    Ken recently posted..American River 50 Mile Training Week Three: Redwoods and Jalama BeachMy Profile

  12. Jennifer April 4, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    They are different kinds of hurts. I’ve been mulling the same thing this week, as I was sort of your slower sister on this journey. ;) After leading the 4:15 pace group at the Oakland Marathon, the next weekend Chris and I ran 30 miles from our house to the Mt. Diablo summit and back. Both runs were hard but in very different ways. I enjoy both kinds of running, but I’m more comfortable with trails. I feel nourished by the experience even if my pace is off.

    See you at Sonoma!

  13. Jeff Rock April 4, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    I would have to say that there is no comparison. Just the hours alone one must train to finish a 50 or 100 mile race makes it harder in my mind. Back to back days of long runs just to get time on your feet. Then throw in mountains and hills besides! Uffda! The road to recovery is paved with determination. This is my journey back from knee surgery to a 100 mile ultra. Dream big! Now go #run. @234seerockrun

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