Please enjoy today’s guest post! I find ultra running SO interesting.
After doing my first Goofy Challenge in 2012, which is a half marathon on Saturday and a full marathon on Sunday, I felt the next challenge in my run calendar would be an ultra-marathon. With 50k’s being a common distance, I figured it was a very achievable race with 5 months of training I had ahead of me.
An “ultra-marathon,” ultra for short, is technically any distance past 26.2 miles, with 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles being the most common, though there are much further including multi-day stage races. Timed races of 6, 12, and 24hrs are popular as well and in both distance and timed races, you can usually sign up for one of multiple distances or times. In timed races you run as far as you can in the registered time and the person that goes the furthest “wins,” plus there is usually a minimum distance to be considered “done” where you get a medal. If you check UltraSignup.com you’ll likely find a 50k close by. This is a good distance to start with even if you’ve never done a full marathon because the training is really about the same at only 5 extra miles. The bigger factor will be in the type of training miles you put in since many ultras are run on trails, even in the flat parts of the country.
As a primarily road trained runner, this was a mistake I made in underestimating how much even a flat trail could affect you. You have to lift your feet higher because even “flat” ground isn’t flat and typically there are small hills and bumps as well as roots and rocks on the trail. Stumping a toe at full speed hurts at best case and can even take you down if you’re not careful. The curves, holes, and dips will also take its toll on your ankles and knees if they aren’t used to landing off camber and changing direction every other step, another detriment of only flat road running. Training on trails is a must to strengthen the little muscles needed to support and stabilize the feet and legs and some cross training will help even more.
(Relatively easy trail section here in southeast Georgia)
If you search for an ultra, I recommend trying one that’s run on a loop course, though most 50k’s I’ve seen are loops anyway. This takes a lot of mental stress out of planning because you can self-support without carrying food and hydration with you. Usually there is at least one aid station which will be far better stocked than any food and water station you’ve seen at a road race. You can also stage your own pit area to swing in to and grab a headlamp, drop off a jacket, change shoes or socks, etc, it’s really a lot like NASCAR. You’ll usually get to know the volunteers at the aid station as well since you see them many times. They are typically other runners or their significant others so they know better what you need and will take care of you when you come running in asking for water, grapes, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At road races the volunteers usually stand there quietly holding out a cup of water and you see them for 2 seconds as you zoom by and most of them know nothing about running because they are only there with their school or some volunteer organization. The volunteers at an ultra will blow your mind with how helpful they are.
(Typical aid station at an ultra. Multiple hydration choices, fruit, potatoes, sandwiches and cookies)
The best part about ultras is that you get to run with everybody, fast and slow. At road races you typically line up in a corral based on ability, fast runners up front, slower runners in back, and me usually somewhere in the middle away from all of my friends. During the race you never see anyone since you can’t catch your faster friends and your slower friends can’t catch you. Ultras are typically smaller with 50-200 people so you all start out lined up together. You’ll see many of your friends throughout the race since your fast friends will catch you and you’ll catch your slower friends. You may catch each other at the aid station as well since you might spend several minutes there before heading out on another loop if they are long. I’ve met many faster runners, MUCH faster than I am, but I was able to hang with them when they were drinking or taking a difficult section slower than their normal pace.
(100 runners at the start of a 50k. We only needed headlamps for the first 4.5 mile lap here.)
(Hit Girl ran at least 2-4.5 mile laps in this outfit and did 2 other costume changes at this ultra. Notice she’s wearing Luna sandals as well)
You may also find that the atmosphere is closer to a tailgate party than a race. You’ll still see people in costumes and there might be canopies with friends of runners sitting in lounge chairs eating and drinking beer. You may even see runners come in from a loop and chug a beer mid race. If you have someone to cheer you on they’ll get to see you many more times than a point to point road race, plus they may even be part of your “crew.” At point to point ultras, and even bigger distance loops, runners will typically have someone crew them by having them take care of them when they come by if they want something that isn’t supplied by the race or even just moral support. I’ve even seen them take off and pace runners for a lap or walk with them for a while to boost spirits if needed.
(Having a beer on our “hash” lap!)
If you think you can’t run an ultra, you’re both right and wrong. Anyone can get through a 50k because they typically have lesser pacing requirements than road races since they are longer distances, the race directors plan for them to be longer due to distance and fatigue. Plus since they are on trails, they aren’t as concerned about reopening roads. If you have to run on or cross a road during an ultra, there is usually traffic since they don’t shut them down, you do have to pay attention. But you’ll have to be more self-aware than on a closed course anyway, even on the trail portions. Where you’re right is that few people, even long time runners, actually run an entire ultra, especially if there are hills or mountains or distances past 50k. You’ll end up walking a good bit so plan on that from the get go and save your feet for later. A good tip is to walk up hills to save energy, then run down the other side. If you’ve ever tried run/walk, a la Jeff Galloway, you’re half way there already. You can run/walk almost any distance.
Check out an ultra-marathon if you find one nearby, they are always looking for volunteers or you can register for a shorter distance part of one to get the feel of how they work. It’s a great way to learn and have a lot of fun too. You’ll likely make a lot of local friends and get motivated to try a full one yourself. They are huge confidence booster as well, you’ll look at your next half marathon as “just a training run.”
Marc Bigbie is a part time ultra-marathoner, part time blogger, and full time Disney lover. Visit www.MarcBigbie.com to follow some of these passions and more.