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It’s Time To Run Your First Ultramarathon!

As marathons continue to gain popularity, so to do ultramarathons. Are you ready to move up?

As marathons continue to gain popularity, so to do ultramarathons. Are you ready to move up?

Stuck in a rut running marathons? Looking for a new challenge and new adventures? It might be time for you to run your first ultramarathon, a race longer than the marathon’s 26.2 miles.

Okay, so maybe you need some convincing to leave the familiar and tackle your first ultra. Here are some reasons for running an ultramarathon.

Journey into the Unknown. You may have mastered-or at least plateaued in-the marathon. Before that you ran every sub-marathon distance under the sun. You need a new challenge.  What better way to challenge yourself than by racing further than you’ve ever raced before?

Reconnect with Running. Devon Crosby-Helms, who placed 4th at the 2009 100k World Championships, offers, “A good reason to switch from marathons is because in ultras you have to think about more than just splits and ticking off the miles at a certain pace. I think it reconnects you with running in a way marathoning doesn’t.”

Make a whole new group of friends. Most folks who have tried to transition from the roads to ultramarathons have found a tightly knit, but welcoming community.  Ultrarunners are often eager to share the trail with anyone dipping his or her toe into the ultra world. Not only are these runners welcoming, they can be an invaluable resource.  Lisa Smith-Batchen, who coaches new ultrarunners, suggests to new ultrarunners, “Find a group of people that are already running on the trails so they can help you.”

Stop Sucking Car Exhaust. Most North American ultramarathons are run on trails and getting ready for one is a great excuse to get off the pavement and up into the hills. While you’re up there you might just see spectacular things. Scotty Mills, who has run ultras for more than a quarter century, notes, “The advantages of training for trail ultras over road marathons are the beauty of the trails, the shared trail time in remote areas, and the peaceful feeling of training on long runs with the mindset that you can run forever.”

Race yourself, not others. It’s easy to get caught up racing when there are 10,000 runners blasting down the course with you. The smaller fields, longer distances, and variable conditions of an ultra help shift your competition from others to yourself. Knowing that others are thinking the same way makes this transition all the easier. Plus, if it’s your first ultra, you’ll be setting a PR no matter how long it takes to finish! Finally, as Mills points out, “The training and friends you make in ultrarunning are the real payoffs; the race itself can almost be secondary in importance.”

Inspire yourself. “The mind is a very powerful thing, and it’s generally the only thing standing between you and something incredible. You can always do more than you think you can,” suggests recent ultra convert Paige Troelstrup.

Tips For Traveling Down The Ultra Trail

Every ultrarunner learns mainly through experience on the trial – often the hard way. But it’s best to start the journey armed with some knowledge learned through collective experience, such as the following tips.

Train with Specificity. Many ultramarathons feature challenging, if not downright grueling conditions. Be ready for them. If the race is on trails, gets in some trail time during training. Running a big mountain race? Be sure you’ve been to the mountains before race day. Note that training for descents is just as important as training for climbs. Going to run in 125˚ F heat at the Badwater 135 mile race? Get thee to a sauna!

Start Out Slowly. A standard saying in the ultra world is “Go out slow and slow down.” It’s not bad advice. Early in ultramarathons, I envision that I’m running an out-and-back course and ask myself the question, “Will I be able to run this pace when I’m this distance from the finish line.” If the answer is “no,” then I slow down.

Walk When You Need To. A common rookie mistake at ultras is trying to run every step of the way. First off, you’ll likely encounter hills that are more efficiently walked than run. Second, it’s a fool’s errand for most to try and run the full distance. Ultramarathon legend David Horton once wrote, “If you wait until you feel like you need to walk, you’ve waited too long.” Even in a flat ultra, it’s useful to mix in short walking breaks. Taking such breaks on a pre-planned schedule ensures that you’ll take them from the start and prevents you from feeling defeated when you do walk.

Cut Up the Course. Even for an ultra veteran, it can be hard to wrap the head around running 30, 50, or 100 miles. Fortunately, most ultras come in lovely bite-sized pieces: the stretches between aid stations. Run from station to station until things get tough and then break up the distance even further. Run to the next tree if that’s all you can manage.

Eat Early and Often. Just like an army, an ultrarunner marches on his or her stomach.  While a gel or two may cut it on the marathon course, many ultrarunners will eat an energy gel every 30 to 45 minutes from the gun. Some will even guzzle a Gu up to three times an hour. Others prefer to nosh only at the buffet-like aid stations found at many ultras. If you’re drinking only water on the course, make sure to eat salty foods or take electrolyte tablets to avoid potentially dangerous hyponatremia.

Take Care of Problems Before They Take Care of You. When you feel a hot spot on your foot, decide if you need to treat it. Getting chafed? Find some lube or other way to prevent additional pain. A bout of nausea is a warning sign – figure it out before you can’t keep anything down. Remediation is much better than regret!

Recognize Pain. Respect Injuries. Even with careful planning and quick action, blisters, nausea, chafing, and fully fatigued muscles are common in ultras. While you should try to avoid these problems (see above), you also need to realize that you can usually push through them without causing permanent damage. On the other hand, don’t sacrifice your long-term well-being for the sole purpose of making it to the finish.

Enjoy the Roller Coaster. Most ultras end up being physical and emotional roller coasters. Be prepared to have some “down” sections, but know it’s normal for them to abate provided you continue to take care of yourself.  Remember a common ultra mantra, “It never always gets worse.”

Make Relentless Forward Progress. “Relentless forward progress” is another mantra to keep in mind. Whether you’re stopped at an aid station or taking a necessary break on the trail, remember that no one ever finished an ultra standing still. The same phrase is just as useful when you’re struggling at the end of an ultra. No matter how slow it has to be, just keep moving forward.

Be the Town Crier. Before your first ultramarathon tell everyone you know that you’ll be running it. This will make you accountable to them. Sometimes the fear of having to share with everyone that you didn’t make it is enough to get you through a rough patch. Having friends and family help at the race can make you even more accountable.

Stop and Smell the Roses. Yes, this is a race, but it’s a race that could take from 4 to 48 hours. Greg Loomis, a veteran of many ultras, offers this race advice: “Stop to see the view now and again.” Scenic vistas have buoyed many an ultrarunner’s spirits and given more than a few reason to stay out on the course when nothing else was going right.


About The Author:

Bryon Powell is a competitive trail runner, coach and editor of iRunFar and the author of Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide To Running Ultramarathons.