So You Want To Run An Ultra…
By Mary Arnold
At the start of my first 50 miler, I paced nervously back and forth. It seemed odd no one else was as keyed up as me.
As a matter of fact, the guy on my left was tucking into a plate-sized chocolate donut. His face was liberally coated in icing when the race director stepped onto a small platform at the front of the group. With little ceremony, the RD looked around and remarked, “OK good, you’re all here,” and then holding a stopwatch aloft yelled, “Ready and GO!”
The baked goods enthusiast made a choice that ultimately shaped my view of ultra runners. He shoved the ENTIRE donut in his face and chewed for the next three miles, trailing crumbs in his wake. I had never seen this at a race before, and I knew immediately that ultras were different.
Choosing to run an ultra marathon (any race of 26.3 miles or longer) has proven to be one of the most enjoyable decisions I have ever made. The athletes are relaxed and friendly, the races are beautiful and the community is very supportive.
However, all the warmth should not be mistaken for ease; running ultra distances (50k, 50 miles, 100 miles or even 200 miles) is very challenging and requires proper training, planning and execution for you to make it to the finish line.
So, if running a 50k in the fall colors of Vermont or a 100 miler through the wilds of Zion National Park sounds intriguing to you, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Choosing Your Adventure
The opportunities to race ultras have exploded in the past ten years. As an example, the number of domestic 100 milers has grown from 50 to 156! With so many options and distances to choose from, it’s a good idea to review your options with 3 T’s in mind: Type, Training and Time.
- Type: Select an ultra that suits your talents and interests and research it well before signing up. Read the course description carefully and review it on well-regarded sites such as ultrasignup.com or ultrarunning.com. Make sure that you know exactly what you are in for before plunking down your hard-earned dollars.
- Training: Once you find a race you like, research training programs for it. Resources like Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress and Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultra Running are invaluable; they provide very systematic plans, broken down by speed and distance, and it is important to find one that will adequately prepare you. Will you need to do lots of hill work? Spend time on technical terrain to get comfortable with rocks and roots? Be clear on what training will entail.
- Time: You have found a 50 miler that you love, and the training looks do-able. The final step before you sign up is a long, hard look at your time commitments. Take everything into account, from your work and family schedules, to holidays, vacations and even upcoming social engagements. Make sure that you have the time to train, travel and race.
Getting the Miles In
You did it! You clicked “register,” and that first 50 miler is on the calendar. It’s time to gather your resources and get started.
As a good rule of thumb, you should be able to run 20 miles comfortably before stepping up to the ultra distance. Being able to spend 3-5 hours on your feet, at the outset of training, will help you succeed. Keep in mind that it’s not just grinding out miles. Each run should have a purpose and add to your overall preparation.
Here is a quick example from my 50 miler training log:
- Monday: 30-40 minute Easy Run
- Tuesday: Speed Workout with 30-minute warm up, 10x 1 minute fast with equal recovery, 20-minute cool down.
- Wednesday: 80-90 minute Easy Run
- Thursday: 50-70 minute run on Hills
- Friday: OFF/XT
- Saturday: 4-5 hours
- Sunday: 2.5 hours
Notice that time is the dictating factor here, not necessarily miles. There is also some speed, specificity (hills) and a double long run on the weekend. Keep track of your progress and review it often.
I like to keep a spreadsheet with my log entries in green (for a good workout), yellow (for a so-so workout) and red (for an unsuccessful workout). This allows me to see, at a glance, if I need to modify my training; 3 yellow entries in a row, and I take two days off to rest and recover. Find a method of recordkeeping that works for you and stick with it.
Finding Your People
When you first mention your interest in ultras, people respond with shock and awe. If I had a dime for every time someone told me, “You run what? That’s crazy!” I would have a whole lot of dimes. The best advice I can give is this: find a group of like-minded humans and get a conversation going about training, your goal race, gear, etc. Volunteer at a local race, research local trail and ultra groups, visit sites like run100s.com, irunfar.com or follow the community through social media; whatever works best for you. The support that you find in the ultra community will help carry you through training and racing.
Nailing Your Race
Getting things right on race day is tricky. It is a mix of training, planning and focus that can be hard to achieve. Add to that the pre-race jitters and questions: “Did I pack my drop bags right?” “Will there be mud?” “What if I fall in the woods; will someone hear me?” You can be in a panic before the starting gun goes off.
The best advice I can give here is to be patient. You are learning to do something new, and you will make mistakes. Deal with issues as they come up, and do not worry about the time it takes. Got a rock in your shoe? Get it out right away and smooth your sock down flat and perfect. Feeling sleepy? Get some coke at the nearest aid station. When coping with these things, stay as positive as you can; ultra running is all about problem solving, and getting angry rarely helps you find the right solution.
When it gets tough (and it will) recall a phrase or image that helps restore your mindset. I am a big fan of flipping the negative thought around. Here are two examples that have gotten me through multiple races:
“I don’t HAVE to run 20 more miles; I GET to.”
“It’s not 100 miles, it’s 1 mile, 100 times.”
No matter what happens on race day, try to take the time to savor it. It is likely to be one of the biggest adventures you have embarked upon thus far. No matter the outcome, you will have grown as person for taking this on; be proud of yourself.
Fifteen years ago, Mary Arnold took up running with a 10k. She wasn’t exactly sure how far a “k” was but she felt overly confident that she could do ten of them. At the finish, they gave a nice t-shirt and a beer, and she was hooked. Along the way, Mary has completed 65 races of a marathon distance or longer, including six 100-mile races. Follow her on the Instagram.