Why Ultrarunning is Not Hiking

My wife got me a shirt for Christmas that says: “Ultrarunning: basically hiking.” Which got me thinking: how is ultrarunning different from hiking? The truth is, “ultrarunning” does involve quite a bit of hiking. During my last ultra-distance effort, my average pace per mile was 16:28. That’s not a running pace, that’s a quick hiking pace.

A screenshot of my run cadence during the Sky to Summit 50k race. Most of the race was spent walking or hiking rather than running.
The portion boxed in green shows the time I actually spent running.

So how is hiking different from running an ultra out in the woods? As best I can tell, there are at least six ways that ultrarunning and hiking differ

  1. Apparel: Hikers weather-appropriate shirts, shorts or pants, and hiking shoes, sandals, or boots. Unless it’s below freezing with a windchill several degrees colder, regardless of the weather, ultrarunners wear shorts, tank tops, running vests, and Altra’s.
  2. Rest: Hikers rest when they get tired. Ultrarunners keep moving, only they get slower and slower.
  3. Enjoyment: The purpose of a hike is to enjoy the day, weather, and nature as much as possible. The purpose of an ultrarun is to push yourself to be as miserable as you can bear and cover as much ground as possible as quickly as possible so you can enjoy eating a pizza and having a beer.
  4. Sarcasm: Hikers are often lovely. Ultrarunners are cynical, sarcastic, and packing fireball.
  5. Reasonable: Hiker: “lovely day, isn’t it? I feel great! I think I’ll take a rest, have a sip of water, and enjoy the view.” Ultrarunner: “I feel terrible. Everything hurts. Think I’ll keep going 30 more miles. No stopping.”
  6. Conversational etiquette: Hikers may have a philosophical chat or quietly walk along or even discuss politics. Who knows? Ultrarunners only discuss bodily functions and the deterioration of their feet.

Aside from those six things, yep, ultrarunning is basically hiking.

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