Ironman versus ultrarunning

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I've now completed two different flavors of ultradistance event, Ironman-distance triathlon and a 50 mile trail race. In terms of time these events are fairly comparable—my Ironman personal record (at Ironman Canada) was 10:13 and my time at the Firetrails 50 was 10:10—so I feel like I have some basis for comparison.

Intensity
For my money, the biggest difference is that—at least for age groupers—Ironman seems to be raced at a much higher level of intensity than trail running. I think this can be attributed to a number of factors, some inherent and some cultural.

First, running 26 miles on road is really different than running 50 miles on dirt trails. Just covering that much distance on your feet, and having to constantly adapt to changing footing is really hard on your legs. Remember that even though the time in the Ironman is longer, a lot of that is on the bike, which isn't anywhere near as hard on your legs. Then there's the elevation change: the Ironman Hawaii run course has 400 or so feet of elevation gain; the Firetrails 50 run course has 7800 feet. When you put these two factors together, my experience is that you end up feeling a lot more beat up at the same intensity level; I was about as sore the day after Firetrails 50 as I've been after any Ironman, even though I went a lot easier. I don't think there's any way I could have raced a 50 mile trail event at the same level of perceived effort (e.g., heart rate) as I would an Ironman.

Conversely, you don't need to race a trail event the same way. Every halfway decent long course age group triathlete's goal is to qualify for Ironman Hawaii. The comparable objective in trail running is the Western States 100 (There are other big ultradistance running races, but they tend to be invitational only, rather than having clear qualifying criteria.) However, the qualifying procedures are radically different: Hawaii qualification is by place; each race gets some number of slots for each age group and the top N finishers who want to go to Hawaii get those slots. This means that if the person in front of you is in your age group, you have a very direct incentive to finish ahead of them, even if you're nowhere near actually winning your age group. By contrast, Western States qualification is by time: Every athlete who meets the time cutoff can apply and a lottery is used to decide who actually gets to race. This means you have no direct incentive—other than pride—to beat anyone in particular, since you can't stop them from qualifying (unless you trip them or something). Moreover, the Western States qualifying times are comparatively soft; out of 193 finishers at Firetrails 50, 140 qualified. Hawaii qualification rates are more like 10%. This means that you don't need to kill yourself, you just need to have an OK day. That's why you see people walking the aid stations in trail runs; good age groupers don't walk triathlon aid stations unless they're basically melting down.

Social Structure
Compared to the trail running, triathlon is intensely competitive. Obviously, trail running is competitive at the upper levels, but even mid-pack triathletes can be super-aggressive. I've been kicked, shoved, and swum over plenty of times, even in local races where I'm not in contention for anything. The bike and run tend to be less bad because people are more spread out, but there's still plenty of jockeying for position. This happens in road racing, too; people generally don't push too much, but I've definitely had to fight my way through a crowd plenty of times and there's a lot of bumping at the start. By contrast, trail running just seems a lot more mellow, even in situations that are inherently just as crowded.

I don't have a complete explanation for this. I'm sure it's partly just cultural, but I suspect it's also the setting you're in. Even nice road races and triathlons aren't typically in places that are that interesting. If you want to run on the Boston marathon course, nobody's stopping you, and to be honest, I'd describe the Ironman Hawaii course as more grim (20+ miles of asphalt and lava fields) than scenic. The only real reason to do the race, then, is to compete. By contrast, trail runs tend to be in nice places, often ones where it would be inconvenient to do a long run because you couldn't resupply yourself easily. This means you get a different, less competitive, class of people. Moreover, because the terrain is challenging and you're in the middle of nowhere, I think that people feel more like they're in it together.

Price
One more thing: trail racing is super-cheap. Even a cheap Ironman, like Vineman, costs $350 in advance and $450 on short notice. Ironman Canada is $675. Plus, if it's out of town you end up paying $200-300 to get your bike there. I paid $120 at the last minute for Firetrails 50, and you can put your shoes in your carry-on. I'm not blaming the people who run triathlons: it's an expensive sport to put together. But that doesn't mean it's not nice to race on the cheap.

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