Ultra Marathons – Loops vs Traversing

If you’ve been following my blogposts, you are probably one of my running friends who are already pro (if not almost pro) ultra runners, haha! But for those of you who have been supporting me although are not runners yourself, here’s a brief explanation about loop vs traversing ultra marathons.

I have written the following based on my limited experience… if there are any errors found in the following, feel free to let me know so I can make the correction!

WHAT IS AN ULTRA MARATHON? WHAT IS THIS LOOP YOU SPEAK OF? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LOOP AND TRAVERSING?

Okay, so here’s a brief explanation for those who of you who don’t know what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, an ultra marathon is a run where the minimum distance covered is more than a full marathon (42.195km), which in Malaysia, is normally 50km.

There are generally two types of ultras: a loop ultra, and a traversing ultra.

A loop ultra marathon is an ultra marathon event which is localized in an area with one fixed track which loops upon itself. There is usually no minimum or maximum distance; runners would need to complete as many loops as they can within the fixed amount of time. The length of the loop and the amount of time allocated depends on the event. For example, the Bukit Cinta Ultra has a loop of approximately 5km, and the allocated time is 12 hours (from 8pm to 8am the following day). The 24H run has a loop of about 1.38km with an allocated time of 24 hours (from 3pm to 3pm the following day). There are some events which have a loop length of only 400m; some may have an allocated time of 16 hours or even up to 48 hours (or more). The loop length and the time duration is up to the organiser.

In a loop ultra, participants are allowed to run at their own pace and take a break whenever they want. During this break, they can choose to take a nap, have a meal, or even take a shower if there are facilities provided. Runners may or may not be allowed to leave the event venue once they complete their targeted distance, depending on the event organiser. For example, to date, the Bukit Cinta Ultra requires runners to run a minimum of 50km for a silver medal and 100km for a gold medal; upon completing the required distance, the runners can collect their medal and leave, or choose to keep running if they wish to. However the 24H event does not allow runners to leave at all anytime during the event, and any runners caught doing so will be disqualified immediately.

Because we run in loops, this means that upon completing every loop, we know that there will be a beverage/refreshment station available, which is set up at the start/finish area, near where the timing mat is which marks the completion of each loop.

One of the biggest challenges to overcome though is the boredom… running the same loop is an extremely repetitive task, and the mind can go numb from seeing the same thing over and over again as we run, especially if the loop track is not very long, and the route is not scenic.

In a traversing ultra however, the route and distance are fixed. Runners can of course run at their own pace and take a break when they wish to; but there are usually cut-off times allocated for the runners to reach each checkpoint, to ensure that they can complete the entire race within the overall allocated time. If the runner fails to meet the respective cut-off time at each checkpoint, they will be given the status of “DNF (did not finish)”. Within this type of ultra, there are road runs and trail runs.

So, between a loop ultra and a traversing ultra, the loop ultra is not as taxing as a traversing ultra, because each runner can go and stop at his or her own pace. Even if we take too long a break, we can still continue if we wish to, and we don’t have to worry about being stranded anywhere, because we are already right there with everyone else! The only problem with taking a long break would be that we will run less loops and therefore cover less distance. And we know that “support” (support here meaning water, food, medical aid, etc) is provided at fixed intervals, i.e. every loop.

Traversing ultras on the other hand are, of course, far more challenging. It is generally self-supported – meaning that we would generally have to carry our own water and fuel to make sure that we have enough to keep us going to the next checkpoint. Of course, food, water and medical aid are provided at each checkpoint, but the number of checkpoints provided are at the discretion of the event organisers. Normal short distance runs (full marathons and below) have water stations at about 3-5km intervals (or even less; some have water stations every 1.5km); but ultra marathons, because they are designed to challenge the runners, usually have water stations that are more spaced out. Because of the long intervals, ultra marathoners are expected to be well-prepared and to carry enough of their own water bottles. It is more challenging, but because of this, many runners find it more exhilarating and exciting.

SO… WHICH DO YOU PREFER?

Personally, I don’t find one better than the other. Both types have their own sets of challenges, and completing both types create very different feelings of achievement. I am of course still quite new to this ultra marathon scene, and have only done a few ultra marathons to date. Hopefully there will be more to come! 🙂

Zyen Hoo

Zyen is a Physics, Chemistry and Math teacher with many interests, including running and dancing. She also enjoys indulging in vanity projects such as her personal blog, and is a self-proclaimed reviewer. She is also notoriously slow in updating her blog due to her constant search for the next adrenaline rush (on top of her heavy workload at school and her freelancing projects), so she asks for your forgiveness and understanding of her very delayed updates.

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