The Cost of Running an Ultramarathon

The Kettle Moraine. Photo credit: Eli Naeher, CC BY 2.0.

Running one hundred miles is an exercise in endurance, persistence and patience. It also comes with a price tag.

One of my original attractions to running was the low cost of entry. A person can pretty much step out the door and start running without dropping a dime. Then you start buying shoes, signing up for races, gulping down energy drinks and gels, and relying on GPS watches. I have been running for twenty years now and have successfully kept my spending in check. My one weakness is ultramarathons (running races greater than marathon distance), and to run you need to pay.

Training for an ultramarathon starts months and even years in advance. It’s the type of endeavor that requires more than hopping off the couch and running on pure willpower. Instead, consistency is key. Ultramarathon races mean day after day, month after month of running. Unless you’re an ultra-minimal runner — the type who runs barefoot, sustains themselves on berries and nuts, while timing their practice sessions by means of the sun — you’ll be paying the price of training.

Here’s a breakdown of my costs for a year of training before my last big race, which was the Kettle Moraine 100 mile in LaGrange, Wisconsin.

I have met runners and have close running friends who love to drop dough on any running apparel or apparatus they can find. Shoes tend to be their favorite piece of running gear to purchase. If you are the type who enjoys consuming, then you are now the running shoe companies’ best friend — because there are endless reasons to buy new running shoes.

“These shoes just don’t seem to fit right.”

“Did you see the new color scheme on the (insert your favorite model here)?”

“I think these shoes are hurting my knees.”

“I have a race coming up, better get some new kicks.”

The list goes on.

Shoe companies suggest putting 300–500 miles on shoes before replacing them. As I scan my Strava records I am currently running on shoes with 616, 751, 933, 559, and 113 miles on them. I am not a believer in the magic 300-mile mark. I have put over 2,000 miles on a pair of running shoes. Turning in my shoes at the suggested time would be financial suicide.

Still, shoes wear out quickly when you are a high-mileage runner. When I am training for an ultra I regularly run 80 miles a week. At this rate, I would need new shoes every month if I followed the 300-mile rule — but, considering the cost of high quality shoes, new shoes every month is not an option.

My favorite brand of shoes is Altra. These cost about $120 if you buy the latest model, but I try to always go for a previous model, which costs around $60–$90. Leading up to my last ultra I bought three pairs. Total cost of shoes for this training cycle was $240.28.

Next on the list of runner needs is clothing. This includes shorts, shirts, socks, hats, arm sleeves, compression socks, sunglasses, and cold weather clothing.

I try to be as minimal as possible — shoes, socks and shorts. I do have a hat, sunglasses, shirts and cold weather gear. This clothing can last years if you take care of it and rotate it. I rotate through about four pairs of shorts and shirts.

Before my last ultra I bought two pairs of new shorts from Rabbit, an American made ultra-specific running clothing company. They cost me $63.

Serious ultrarunners’ most expensive piece of gear is their GPS watch. These watches can run from anywhere between $100 and $1,000. The one I was wearing for the last five years was a remanufactured Garmin. I had sent it in for repairs, and they had sent me another remanufactured one, which eventually wore out and started having problems connecting to my computer and charging. For this reason, I was in the market for a new one. Pricing them out both excited me and put a lump in my throat when I looked at the prices. Thankfully, my Dad, who is himself an endurance athlete and appreciates the value of a good GPS system, offered to buy it for me. Score. I ordered a Polar M430. The watch cost him $230.

Another necessity for ultrarunners is a hydration system. These have come a long way over the years. Old school ultrarunners back in the 70’s and 80’s used Aunt Jemima bottles (which had handles and flip-tops) to carry their fluids for long distances. Now, the market is flooded with handheld hydration bottles that have pouches and handles. Many runners have started using vests or hydration systems that ride on their backs. I have always used handhelds that cost between $20 and $40. I shopped around for a hydration vest system but decided against spending so much for something I would only use during races. I ended up buying a Amphipod for $15.93 on sale.

I also picked up a The North Face trucker hat at REI on sale for $18.93.

Ultrarunners consume a lot of calories before, during, and after long runs and races. While training I try to use the least amount of nutrition as possible. I will use one energy gel during long runs of 20 or more miles, and down one sports drink after a hard workout. I used a gel a week and a couple servings of sports drink a week. Total cost for run-specific nutrition during training was about $114.

Nutrition during a race is a different story. Races have aid stations that provide free food. They have everything from energy drinks and gels to hot soup and quesadillas. Many ultrarunners, like myself, prefer to bring our own nutrition, the stuff we have been training with. I bought a 24-pack of GU Energy gels for the race, along with a bag of Tailwind nutrition drink mix and a box of Justin’s Nut Butters. This totaled $85.77 for race day nutrition.

Ultramarathon race entry fees swing drastically from free races to upwards of $1,000. The fee may seem large, but most race directors break even. Race fees go straight back into trail permits, food for aid stations, swag for racers, and other hidden costs. My last race fee cost was $170.

Traveling to races can also get pricey. This race was about an hour away from a good friend of mine, and he was also entered in the same race. I saved on hotel and gas costs by staying and driving with him for the weekend. Most races involve camping out or getting a hotel room for 1–3 nights.

My wife is always my crew. This means for the whole race she meets me at designated aid stations to help with whatever I may need help with. Of course, she needs food and drink throughout the day. Her food and drink for the last race cost about $30.

This brings the grand total for my Kettle Moraine 100-mile ultramarathon to $737.91.

Ultramarathons can take a lot out of you physically, emotionally, mentally, and even financially. A frugal runner like myself needs to budget for them in advance. My last ultra was not my first and will not be last, which means I will continue to have a personal fund labeled: Ultras.

Clint is a writer, ultrarunner, and running coach with over twenty years of experience. He recently turned the big 4-0 and is determined to get faster, go further and be stronger and help others through running consultations.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.

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