Which is harder, running a marathon or completing a 100-mile century ride?

It depends. There are several factors that play into the perceived difficulty of each event. And, there is a big difference between racing and simply covering a given distance at your leisure.

My idea of running a marathon involves pacing, managing pain, and chasing my BQ time. So, for me, racing 26.2 miles on my feet is much harder than riding a bike for 6.5 hours with four or five full-service pit stops along the way.

nyc 2013
Mile 17 of the New York City Marathon

I have not run an ultra yet, but my guess is that a century ride is akin to completing an ultra. The pacing is slower, the vibe is more social, and there is plenty of real food along the course. This is not to say that either event is easy, but the pressure to push the edges of the envelope are greatly reduced.

My century ride last weekend included 5,550′ of vertical climbing up and over three notches in the White Mountains. There were times that my quads felt like two balloons (try to get Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb out of your head now) filled with lactic acid, and there were times that I was able to tuck and coast for miles. The ability to coast is a game changer. When running, the downhill sections can be even more punishing than the inclines.

Kancamangus Pass Three Notch Century
Kancamangus Pass, Three Notch Century Ride

Mental toughness is required to finish either event. However, the century requires a level of immediate awareness that running does not. Believe me when I say that barreling down a hill at 40mph in traffic requires all kinds of mental acuity. After six or seven hours in the saddle, you’re mentally fried.

When answering the question of which event is harder, it really comes down to the intensity level of the athlete in any given event. For me, the marathon wins hands down because I push as hard as I can when I race. Completing a century was an endurance feat that left me humbled, but it didn’t leave me shuffling around in a glassy-eyed stupor like the marathon.

At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie philosopher, I leave you with this: Every race can be as hard, or as easy, as you want it to be. It’s a question of intensity, not technique.

What’s your opinion?

3 thoughts on “Marathon vs Century Ride

  1. I’ll let you know after this weekend when I complete my first century. My thoughts after running five marathons is the marathon is harder. It does seem as the recovery from running does take longer than biking, but that may just be me.

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