I’ve spent a lot of time learning about running in the last couple of years and there’s one common set of lessons I’d like to share about turning up to your first ultra.
I frequent an active Ultra Running group on Facebook which has been the source of a great deal of help to me but I thought it might be good to share a few tips and lessons I’ve learnt from being a total novice to running ultras.
1. Be bold
Sign up for something now. Often I see people planning on running their first ultra in 12 or 18 months when they’re already capable of running a half or full marathon right now (or at least after following a standard 16 week program). You could look for a 50km race or perhaps a 30-40 mile event somewhere and aim for that as a goal.
Pick a race that suits your existing skills or skills you’re willing to learn in training before turning up. I believe you have a responsibility to yourself and the race organisers to at least have a level of competence in the event you’re signing up for. By this I mean don’t enter a mountain marathon if you’re not able to navigate or learn to do it for the race. There are lots of types of races from fully marked ultras to gnarly mountain marathons so there’s something for everyone and every skillset out there.
There’s no need to scare yourself by looking at the course records on 100 mile mountain ultras just yet although some people do respond to a challenge so just be bold and set yourself a target.
Once you’ve broken through that “ultra marathon” name, the sense of foreboding and fear eases significantly.
2. Training doesn’t need to be complex
A lot of folks think that because an ultra is a long way that they suddenly need to start spending entire weekends on their feet running 50 miles in a single training session. You don’t.
I believe you can get great results in 30-40 mile race by using a standard marathon training plan you can find online with little in the way of modification beyond perhaps doing one longer run of about marathon distance to 30 miles to get a feel for time on your feet and eating over a longer period of time.
If you’re looking for a specific plan, here’s a massive list of training plans for all sorts of distances.
3. Fear management
For many people a big barrier seems to be the fear of the name or that number on the entry form. The reality is that if you’re able to train for and finish a marathon you can almost certainly make the step up to an ultra if you want to.
Quantifying the distances is sometimes overwhelming thought of going another 5, 10 or 15 miles beyond marathon which thanks to big events like London etc are fairly easy to quantify in our brain distance wise.
I found in my first ultra that counting down how many parkruns were left helped break down a daunting task into smaller more manageable chunks and dealing with a small task like “just cover the next parkrun in 30 minutes” in the present is easier than trying to get your head around how you’re going to keep going for 10 more hours if you’re feeling low.
4. Complete vs compete
For many an ultra is a social event as much as a sporting challenge. Once you’ve found one you’re interested in entering, find out if they’ve got a Facebook group, see if people are doing recce runs and arrange to join them.
Unless you’re already an excellent runner, chances are you’re not going to be competing for a win so enjoy the day and experience. Don’t worry about walking (well, power hiking!), nearly everyone will at some point. Walking is a good time to eat, drink and just do a few checks on how you’re coping.
5. Know yourself and your kit
“Nothing new on race day” is a long standing bit of advice that definitely holds true for ultras. You’re about to spend several hours wearing the same shoes, shorts and pack so be confident that the stuff you’re using on your race day is comfortable and works well for you.
Some people carry a massive amount of kit and some travel as light as the rules allow – learn from others what you need but also make your own decisions about what makes you comfortable. If you feel safer and more comfortable carrying a little extra something and you’ve trained with it then go for it.
Pay attention while you’re training to any little niggles or aches. If you’re anything like me you might get phantom injuries during your taper week before the race that tend to materialise but if you’ve been paying attention to your body while training you can ease the worry that a new injury has materialised when in all likelihood it hasn’t.
6. Eating and drinking
Depending on where you are in the race day field, ultras can be a demonstration of how little some racing snakes actually need to eat and drink to cover a great distance or if you’re a bit further back, you can enjoy a nice ice cream (as I did at Hardmoors 60). You don’t get that in a local 10k.
In my experience, food and hydration are specific to individuals and what works for one doesn’t for another so it’s tricky to give specific guidance but I’ve found in most events looking back – I’ve probably over-eaten in some way but usually my rule of thumb in normal UK race temperatures is that I go through about 500ml of water every 8-10 miles and top up with a cup of coke at checkpoints later in races.
As a former fatty who didn’t do any exercise for years, it’s still pretty hard to run past a checkpoint table crammed full of flapjack and sweets but I prefer to try and carry my own gels now and in recent longer training runs and the Ladybower 35 I found I didn’t need as much in the way of nutrition as I used to think I did. Stopping too much and overeating sweets and sugary snacks isn’t always a solid nutrition strategy.
Certainly I can’t chug gels at the rate the manufacturers often suggest! Still, this is something I experimented with long before race day.
7. Pack essentials
Like food and drink, what you carry will be something you learn about in training but I’ve found no matter what the essential kit list, I keep a small plastic bag in my race vest with
- Small pack of travel tissues
- 4 plasters
- £5 note for bus fare
- Folded down foil blanket
It’s hardly an extensive list but I’ve certainly had cause to use the tissues in the past. Don’t get caught without them. If a race asks for you to carry mandatory kit, don’t question it – carry it and know how to use it. The Race Directors are trying to make your day fun and challenging without you being a liability to yourself, fellow runners or marshals and support staff who might have to come rescue you in terrible conditions.
8. Don’t shortcut your training
You’ll no doubt know someone who is capable of turning up to a race and putting in a decent performance or you’ll meet them on the start line. That’s not me. It’s probably not you either.
Don’t try to kid yourself that you have more fitness than you do because you don’t.
There are no shortcuts to running 30, 40, 50 or more miles. It’s a long way. It’s a big challenge whether you walk most of it or you push hard to win. So many magazines and websites push these “smash a marathon with only 10 minutes training” type articles and it’s a shame because they leave people unprepared for a monster effort.
Training builds strength, base fitness and stamina and importantly – experience. When you arrive at the start line, you might not have run an ultra distance yet but you should at least have put in the training to belong at the start line as a runner. You should have spent the preceding months practicing with the kit you’re going to use, the shoes you can trust not to rip up your feet and an idea of what sort of food and drink you can handle and that works for you.
I’ve had to adapt my training to do my weekly long run on a wednesday morning leaving the house at 4:30am. Family and life commitments mean I can’t spend every weekend bashing out multi-hour runs every saturday and sunday and I’m sure many people are the same. If you want to achieve the results though, these are the things you need to do. That long run has to be done so find a way!
9. What could go wrong?
Anything, everything or nothing.
I’ve had great days out on a race, I’ve been doubled over with stomach cramps and had to make use of my emergency toilet supplies (see point 7 above) and I’ve carried on when I’ve been throwing up. You’re going to be pushing yourself further than you thought possible and further than only a tiny percentage of people are capable of but even the best runners can’t be 100% sure that on race day everything will go right.
The most common issue ultra runners tend to face beyond outright fatigue is some sort of stomach distress. Being prepared and aware of what might be happening to your body is something you can do with a simple personal mental checklist you run through every 5 or so miles if it helps
- When did I last eat?
- How much water/energy drink have I had in the last hour?
- Was it too much/too little?
- Am I going too fast?
Being prepared is better than being surprised! Here’s a long list of possible stomach related problems and suggestions from ultra runners on cause and fixes – Some might work for you, some might not. As a rule of thumb I’ve found a lot of my nausea tends to come from me going too fast so slowing down for a spell helps settle my stomach.
10. “It doesn’t always get worse”
I live by this phrase, it sums ultra running in a nutshell. Once you’ve gained confidence that you can push further than you dreamt possible, you also accept that such an endeavour doesn’t come without effort and struggle. I’ve had some massive low points in races both short and long and if you can remember to switch off your mind a little during these dark miles you’ll often find an hour later that you’re happily running along at a good pace again and all is well.
It’s not always the case, sometimes you do feel like shit and you continue to get worse and on those occasions you need to be pragmatic and sensible about whether to gut out a finish or call it a day and move onto the next thing. Some people maintain a “death before DNF” mindset which helps them, personally I don’t mind a DNF if it’s clear targets have gone whooshing by a long time ago and I have other plans on the horizon that would suffer from a punish-fest.
Take some time to consider your decision though. Do it at a checkpoint where you can take a minute to reconsider after a brew or some food and a short rest even if you’ve spent the last 10 miles absolutely sure you’re going to retire.
What are your goals/tips and tricks?
I hope this gives you a bit of motivation and allays some of the common fears about running your first ultra and that you can find something in the challenge of the distance to push your body and mind.
If you’ve got any tips and advice for runners looking to step up their distance feel free to add a comment or link to blog posts you’ve seen or written.