My slippery slope into the secret world of Ultra Marathons

And how its discovery is already changing my life

Clara Zoellner
6 min readJun 8, 2022
Photo by Alessio Soggetti on Unsplash

Before 2021 I had, what I would call, an average level of awareness when it came to running and all the competitions surrounding it. I knew of course about Marathons with all its short forms, Triathlon’s big boss the Ironman and even volunteered at an obstacle run before — event management degrees make you do that kind of stuff.

But never before have I heard about Ultra Marathons. Or maybe if I did it was so brief or alien it went into my brain and straight out. So when I was finally fully confronted by it, I felt like entering a secret world only very few knew about and even fewer participated in.

So why aren’t Ultra Marathons more mainstream?

It’s a nuanced question, that runners or organisers can probably answer better than me. But it seems to me that Ultra Runners go quietly about their business, just run their miles and rest in their own pride — not needing grand media attention.

When I first heard about the distances these runners complete, I was simply in awe and also slightly outraged that these achievements aren’t plastered on all tabloids. But Ultra Runs are not as widely advertised in mainstream media as other extreme sports — maybe because of the steady pace that is boring to watch for 30 hours, as opposed to explosive or tense sports like Cliff Jumping or Free Climbing. The battle in Ultras seems a lot more internal and less entertaining to audiences. Also, for the average person the sport itself probably seems too accessible, as not many people would jump off a cliff or climb up a wall without safety precautions — but millions could stand up right now and run around the block.

Maybe this world wouldn’t be seem so secret to me if I would have engaged more with the running or general athlete world, read Running Magazines, etc. But the reality is that most people don’t do that either. And in general I think this is the big thing about extreme sports: Most of them are niche and the participants probably prefer it that way.

Breaking into the World of Ultra: A little bit of reading Can’t hurt me

It all started for me with the book ‘Can’t Hurt Me’ by David Goggings, in which the author outlines his intense life story “from a depressed, overweight young man with no future into a U.S. Armed Forces icon and one of the world’s top endurance athletes”. Whilst the book itself obviously isn’t purely about Ultras itself, his journey of growth and seeking of extreme transformation naturally lead him there.

The way he describes his experience of the Badwater Ultramarathon — “the world’s toughest foot race a 135-mile course starting in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley” — was so captivating I was instantly hooked. Just the location alone is indication enough how incredible this specific Ultra is.

David Goggins running the Badwater Ultra

I immediately understood that Ultras are primarily about testing your mental capacities. Goggings discusses the 40% Rule, which outlines that most of us tap into only 40% of our capabilities. To accomplish more we have to build our mental strength and learn to push past pain or fear. He also mentions fellow runner Rich Roll, and without really knowing what’s happening I was suddenly knee-deep in yet another transformation story.

Too late now: I’m Finding Ultra

In ‘Finding Ultra’, the reader follows the path of Rich Roll, who “on the night before he was to turn forty, experienced a chilling glimpse of his future. Nearly fifty pounds overweight and unable to climb the stairs without stopping, he could see where his current sedentary life was taking him.” Blessed with the epitome that if he won’t better his lifestyle he will never walk his daughter down the aisle, he embarks on a journey that literally changes his life and of course includes the running of Ultras alongside a fantastic introduction into the Vegan lifestyle that powered him through it all. The book ends in the extraordinary tale of completing the EPIC 5 Challenge: “Five Islands. Five Days. Five Ironman Challenges”. He partnered with an another badass athlete by the name of Jason Lester, who did the whole thing without the use of one of his arms. Yeah, you read that right. Absolutely incredible story, which leaves you wondering once again why not the whole world is talking about this. Coincidentally, Roll mentions yet another book and I was off again on a new adventure.

Jason Lester and Rich Roll running the EPIC 5 challenge

Simply Born to Run

This time it’s ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall. A fantastic book, covering several important ideas from the world of running. He takes us on the journey of the mysterious Tarahumara tribe, “while asking what the secrets are to being an incredible runner”. Through ‘Born to Run’, I discovered some of the most legendary Ultra Tracks, such as Leadville 100, whilst also diving into the evolution of running, the capitalist strategy behind Nike’s running shoes and the benefit of barefoot running. Shortly after — now equipped with my Vivo Barefoot Shoes — I marched on and encountered the Master of Ultras.

Master of Ultras: Courtney Dauwalter

After consuming Ultra literature primarily around the experience of men, I finally came across a documentary on Courtney Dauwalter. Seeing her run was all it took for me to be fully hooked, addicted, obsessed. Her track record is truly amazing; having won an array of Ultras, she even received awards for her accomplishments and was named Ultra Runner of the Year 2018. Overall, she stands out not only with her impressive finishing times, but also with her charisma and relaxed demeanour: “Dauwalter admits she doesn’t really have a set training schedule. ‘I just leave my door and see where my legs take me for the day’”.

Courtney Dauwalter

Every runner has brought their own unique aspect to Ultra Marathons: David Goggings illustrates the power of the mind and your capacity to push past pain. Rich Roll introduces the Vegan Diet for running and better living alongside making up crazy challenges, whilst Christopher McDougall explains the benefits of barefoot running and the sacredness of the sport in general. And finally Courtney Dauwalter ties it all up with silent determination, relaxed training practices and breaking the barriers of gender.

Where has this Ultra Journey lead me?

Definitely not to running ultra races quite yet, but it has taught me valuable lessons about endurance, mastery and opportunity of growth in pain. It inspires me to run more regularly, and test my limits not just in physical exercise, but beyond that. Ultras seem to have this gravitational pull on me, and I believe the main reason is the mental challenge hiding behind the miles. Struggling with my mental health sometimes, running an Ultra Marathon seems like a ultimate test but also an incredible journey to embark on to truly strengthen your discipline, will power and mental endurance. Your physical body becoming an absolute beast is a nice side effect — among other benefits.

I carry the stories of these incredible athletes with me, take them as my motivation and inspiration when I don’t want to get up, believe in myself, explore my limits. And through that I unlocked a whole new level of endurance, both physical and mental, that I didn’t think I already had in me.

The [in]complete list of content to get you addicted to Ultra Running:

Not mentioned in this article but also worth consuming:

Please leave a link in the comments to any other video, book, documentary, runner… that you came across in your journey whether you run, consume, or participate. I already have a few on my list but it never hurts to have more!



Clara Zoellner

3rd culture kid currently exploring the wonders of the UK