Ed Ayres: My Five Biggest Challenges to Becoming an Ultrarunner

Ed Ayres
Ed Ayres is a pioneer of ultrarunning. He’s 72 years old now and has been a competitive runner since 1956, the year he joined his high school cross-country team. His newest book, “The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance,” is about running the historic JFK 50 Mile, a race he runs often and which he has won. The committed endurance athlete also placed third during the first-ever New York Marathon (the inaugural event was in 1970), and is the only runner of that race still competing in it today. Ayres is the founding editor and publisher of Running Times magazine, as well as an ardent environmentalist. We wanted to know the biggest challenges he had to overcome to become an ultrarunner, so we asked. These are his answers:

5 Realizing That an Ultramarathon Isn’t Necessarily Harder Than a Marathon

“The first ultra I’d ever heard about was a 50-miler,” Ayres recalled, “nearly twice the distance of a marathon, so at first I imagined that it would be twice as difficult. Eventually, I learned that ultras aren’t harder. They’re just hard in different ways.” The important thing, Ayres said, is not to be intimidated.

4 Finding the Time

We live in what Ayres calls a “sprint culture”—one in which everything is getting ever faster. “An ultra is the opposite of a sprint,” Ayres said. “To run an ultra well, I knew I’d have to devote several hours a day to training. But I didn’t want to hear people saying I needed to get a life. I have a family, friends and other interests, too. So the challenge was to use my time and energy as efficiently as possible.”

3 Learning Patience

Once Ayres had decided to do an ultra, he was eager to crank up his training mileage. “But the goal,” he said, “of running a long race is like the goal of losing a lot of weight: If you try to achieve it too fast, it doesn’t end well.” Probably the single biggest mistake runners make, he adds, is that they try to improve too fast. “Successful training entails a gradual building of capacity. I had to learn to follow nature’s pace, and that meant learning to slow down, and to stop looking at my watch.”

2 Figuring Out How to Rehydrate and Refuel Without Upchucking

“I knew that in running a 50-mile race, I’d burn about 7,000 calories beyond the 2,000 I’d normally consume in a day,” Ayres remembers. “I thought it sounded like no problem—I’d just keep eating energy bars throughout the race. But that was a big mistake. The body rebels after too much sugar and can start a riot in your stomach. It took me years to find combinations of electrolytes and calories that I could consume sustainably.”

1 Internalizing the Rewards

In other sports, Ayres points out, top competitors are paid fat salaries. Even in track or urban road races, there’s usually prize money to be won—and for the slowest runners, there are cheers. An ultra, however, is a low-key event with no appearance fees or prize money, and hardly any spectators. Said Ayres: “You can go for hours without hearing a cheer. I had to learn that the real rewards in this sport are the things that change within you.”

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