We’re All Ultra Runners: Why Understanding Effort is the Key to Conquering Any Goal

An expert coach explains why smart training is all about understanding effort

What if someone dared you to sign up for a 100K ultra marathon right now? Would you take on the challenge or completely dismiss the idea?

I would tell that someone they were crazy. “I’ve never even completed a marathon. How could I possibly cover more than double the distance?” I would say. Heck, I’ll run my first marathon this year, but even after that I’m still not sure I’d be able to wrap my mind around the idea of finishing an ultra.

Eric Orton believes otherwise; for me, for you and for all runners everywhere. And he mostly has me convinced.

You may know Orton as the coach from Christopher McDougall’s widely popular book about running, Born to Run. Or you may know him as the author of his own book The Cool Impossible. I know Orton as an enthusiastic coach who believes in adventures and following your dreams.

Orton has an impressive background as a running coach and fitness expert. He is the former fitness director for the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and works with dozens of athletes from recreational runners to elite ultra-marathoners. He’s helped countless athletes reach feats they never dreamed possible, but his real dream is to create a larger, lasting impact.

Enter, the Jackson Hole Running Camp; a three-day, running-intensive camp set in Jackson Hole, Wyo. amidst the breathtaking terrain of the Tetons with Orton as your coach.

“I’ve always wanted to do this camp,” Orton told me. “Timing is everything and the timing just seemed right. With my book The Cool Impossible and with Born to Run, these last four years I’ve heard from people all around the world who wanted to come and train with me. This camp will really allow me to affect a lot of runners globally.”

The camp is designed for experienced runners who want to push their potential to the next level. Although Orton requires that you must be able to run continuously for two to three hours upon arrival at the camp, he emphasizes the fact that it’s meant for runners of all abilities.

“It’s important to get across that even though we will be running a lot and people need to be running two to three hours up to that point, that this is a camp for all abilities. Experienced runners of all abilities,” he said. “It’s not an elite camp. It’s a camp for runners who have a good foundation and who have the ambition to find the next big goal for themselves.”

In all that I discussed about the camp with Orton, he seemed most excited to be able to share the exquisite scenery of Jackson Hole (where he currently resides) with his new student athletes.

“I think this is an opportunity for people to come and use the mountains as a way to challenge themselves within their own abilities,” he said. “The mountains provide a natural challenge that is above and beyond anything anywhere else. It’s like ‘nature’s classroom,’ when they walk away from this three days later… The point is to walk away thinking, ‘Wow there’s something more possible for me.’”

That’s a lot to learn about running and your own potential in just three days. So I asked Orton how he trains athletes to conquer the mental aspect of training, which is arguably the most difficult part of the battle to overcome.

He says it’s all about understanding effort.

“Most people have the ability but they don’t understand the effort. We’re all ultra runners. It’s just understanding how effort works and how we manage that. You have to be efficient,” he said.

In fact, Orton told me that it’s his passion to help his athlete’s morph the physical and the mental aspects of athleticism together. “They’re so important and go hand in hand,” he said.

But how exactly does one go about better understanding effort? And probably more importantly, what does that really mean?

“That’s where heart rate training comes in,” he said. “That learning will take place and how they use the heart rate monitor will help them understand what proper effort is based on what they’re doing, how to really manage their effort so they can run four or five hours every day. That’s the key… to understand what running at 160 beats per minute means for you. Work interval, rest interval and distance all go together to form this understanding.”

Related: Heart Rate Training 101: How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

So, maybe in terms of running experience you’re more towards the beginner end of the spectrum, if that’s we’re you’re at what can you do right now to improve your performance? I asked Orton to share some of his best running advice.

“If you’re looking to train and get better you really have to have purpose. My number one tip is to set a goal,” he said.

He also said that he always reminds his athletes to never confuse difficulty with failure. “It’s supposed to be difficult and we have to view that as part of the process,” he said.

Related: The 20 Best Running Quotes of All Time

And for runners like me who are somewhere in the middle (say, about to start training for their first marathon), Orton reiterated the following advice.

“Understand what effort is. What is my marathon pace? What should my interval pace be? Many people don’t get to have that understanding,” he said. “Understand what’s appropriate for you based on where you’re at, that will allow you to run more without breaking down. The more we can run well the better.”

At the end of the day, Orton says that accomplishing your goals is about eliminating any fear you might have.

“People are dealing with fear, they don’t know what they can do. When they leave my camp and go back home they might think, ‘I don’t know if I can do 100 miles, but I know can try.’”

Related: This Simple Exercise is the Key to Injury Free-Running