Trail Sisters Half Marathon & 10k

September 14th • Buena Vista, CO

Spartan vs. Ultra

Des is a crunchy, plant-powered, trail-loving ultra runner. She grew up exploring the woods of central PA, and currently lives and runs in Arizona.

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The Spartan Ultra-Runner: Part 1

I’ve always been one to look for a challenge.  There’s just something I find enjoyable about setting up a difficult goal, and then planning and working hard to accomplish it. I’ve most recently focused on trail ultras and Spartan races.  This July I completed my Spartan trifecta by running a Spartan sprint with my husband.  Then I came home, showered, napped for an hour and competed in a local 12-hour overnight run that I won, beating all the guys too, and setting a course record. I had so much fun with all of it (honestly, I swear), and with being around my two tribes.

I find that both ultra and Spartan races offer a unique set of challenges within an equally unique culture, and by balancing both, I have improved my fitness and positively impacted other aspects of my life.  In part one of this two-part series, I’m going to talk about the differences between Spartan and ultra.

The crowd

Perhaps the first thing you might notice as a difference between Spartans and ultras is the crowd at the starting line.  Spartan crowds tend to be a little hype, maybe even leaning towards “frenzy.”  After all, this is Sparta.  There are DJs pumping loud techno music, a master of ceremonies to stir everyone up, and the last thing you do before you leave the start to run through a cloud of smoke up a huge hill is yell a group chant “AROO, AROO, AROO!”

The ultra crowd tends to be a little more chill.  While there’s definitely excitement around the start, I would say it’s much more subdued. Occasionally someone might give a battle cry, like Scott Jurek at Western States, but never as a coordinated group. I find that I can be at home at both of these starting lines and draw energy and good vibes, even with the very different approaches.

Deserae all smiles as she does the bucket carry at the Spartan Race.

The Obstacles and environment

Let’s be honest, in both Spartan and ultra-racing, you are your own biggest obstacle.  It is inevitable that you are going to come to a point where you are tired and sore, and any combination of cold, hot, wet, dirty, sweaty, smelly and bloody.  Only mental fortitude gives you the power to push on.  All the other obstacles in the two events are very different.

Spartan obstacles are mostly man-made, typically at a ski-resort-style venue. This is good because thousands of people are going to be tramping through, throwing themselves over walls, and generally tearing things up…not that great for wilderness conservation.

In ultra-racing the obstacles are more natural; trees, rocks, roots and hill climbs. The locations tend to be more remote and wild.  Field limits and rules such as disqualification for littering are put in place to protect the wild places we are exploring.


Deserae racing the World’s End Ultramarathon.


The Spartan race waiver states “There is a real possibility that you may die or be catastrophically injured,” and they say it again on the back of you race bib just to make sure you get the point.  The original Spartan Death Race even more simply stated “You may die.”

Now, I know that ultras have their own set of dangers including wildlife attacks, dangerous falls, exposure, and serious health issues like rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure.  However, I think the danger is perhaps less in your face and less celebrated than in the Spartan series.

Fitness Focus

While there are definitely full body aspects involved in ultras as you need upper body and core strength to keep yourself upright on uneven footing, most of the work falls to your legs.  In Spartan races you also need the legwork, but there is far more focus on upper body challenges.  You hoist, drag, or carry heavy objects, and propel yourself up and over various obstacles.  Being unable to complete any of the obstacles does not mean failure, it means burpees, which equals more upper body work.  Part of why I like competing in both events is that the varied physical demands help give me a more balanced fitness.

While both Spartan and ultra races are very different, they both present great athletic challenges to the participants, and I have found satisfaction through both of them.  In my next post I’m going to talk a little bit about how the two are alike, the positive effect they’ve had on me and why you might want to consider trying the crossover as well.

About the Author

Des is a crunchy, plant-powered, trail-loving ultra runner. She grew up exploring the woods of central PA, and currently lives and runs in Arizona.

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Sept. 14th 2024

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