Is the ultrarunning experience different when you run a flat race compared to a mountainous race?
Obviously, every course and every race is going to be a unique experience; even if you run the same race year after year there are just too many variables for it to be the exact same race.
But mentally and physically, there are differences when you are running a mountain race as compared to a flat race. Most 100 mile races and even 50k and 50 milers are in the mountains. It’s just easier to plot a course when you have hundreds of miles of trail to choose from and you don’t have to deal with streetlights, cars, and all the complications a city would create. I’m not saying putting together a trail race is easy. It definitely has its own challenges, but I would rather have those issues than the city issues.
Some mental challenges are similar and others are different. Similar: comprehending the distance you are running; mental exhaustion; working through aches and pains; working through the amount you have left to go (such as when you’re at mile 25 and you realize you have an entire marathon or three left to go. This becomes more of a challenge at mile 50 and 75 because you are more tired). Different: in a flat race the lack of variation can become tedious, especially if there isn’t much vegetation; you get bored more easily. With a flat race, you think it is going to be easier. It’s not. When you get out there and it’s just as difficult, or more, discouragement sets in and can cause you to slow down. The entire race is runnable, so you become frustrated when you have to walk due to heavy legs, sore feet, or whatever.
Some physical challenges are the same and others are different: Similar: you’re going to hurt, eventually, you’re going to have to eat when you don’t want to, and you’re going to be physically exhausted. Weather conditions can very and you need to be prepared for those. Stomach issues still need to be anticipated. Different: during a flat race, you are using the same muscles in the same way the entire time. In a mountain race, you incorporate different muscles as you climb and descend. This can lead to more aches and pains. The entire race is runnable, without mountains, there aren’t automatic hike sections, thus making you push harder or not take rest walks early in the race, which leads to being more tired than you would be if you had walked a bit at regular intervals. If you think the race is going to be easier, you may not stay up on your fuel, hydration, and electrolytes. This will lead to all kinds of problems making a schedule and sticking to it is going to prevent this.
As you can see, the physical challenges are linked to the mental challenges. Training is the sure fire way to find these challenges/differences and learn how you can deal with them. Every runner is going to deal with them in different ways. Training properly, will alleviate many of the physical issues which will then reduce the mental challenges as well.