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.
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:
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: