-John Andersen, co-owner of Crozet Running
Congratulations! You are about to take on your first ultra! Or maybe you’ve run a lot of them before and just want to keep learning ways of doing better. The beauty of ultramarathons is that there truly is no “right” way to train or race. Yes, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, but you will find that training for and finishing your first trail ultramarathon is a uniquely rewarding experience that will change the way you think about running, exercise and adventure. First, repeat after me: “I can do this!” Just the name “ultramarathon” intimidates the heck out of people, but you will hear me say again and again that a trail ultramarathon is actually easier than a road marathon. You don’t have to be fast. You don’t have to be talented. You just have to be committed! If you volunteer for an ultramarathon, you will see that most of the runners are just average people of all ages and body types, and the vast majority are having a ton of fun! So, it’s time to put away your doubts and insecurities and conquer step one; BELIEVE that you CAN
Finishing your first ultra is a very significant experience that teaches us many important life lessons – patience, persistence, focus, self-assessment, perseverance, grit, problem solving, and hard work, to name a few. Additionally, the trail-ultra community is the most open, encouraging, kind, and positive collective group of people I know. You will find that you are quickly embraced as we all go through this journey together, regardless of our skill or experience level. The following “Handbook” is simply an attempt to address some of the basic principles of training for your first ultra, as well as executing the race. There is so much great info out there from books to articles to podcasts – now is the time to read and absorb as much as you can! There is no substitute for your own personal experience, but we can always learn a lot from the experience of others. Remember, there is no “one way” to do this – we are all so different in our lives, our schedules, our fitness, injuries, etc. I can confidently say however that we all want a few basic
things in our ultrarunning experience:
• To have purpose in our training – i.e., know the purpose of each run or workout and collectively see our fitness and confidence improve
• To avoid injury and show up to the start line healthy
• To show up on race day prepared with the information and confidence needed to run a smart race, problem solve as needed, and FINISH!
So, without further ado, here is your ultra handbook!
I. Picking the right race
In the mountains, or flat? Lots of fire roads, or all single-track trail? Close to home or a destination race? Obviously, there is no one right answer to picking your first trail ultra. However, I think one of the most important qualities is that you should feel somewhat inspired and challenged by the race. Maybe the allure of running on a beautiful mountain course inspires you? Perhaps near a central location where you can have a reunion with some friends? Whatever the case may be, you really need to WANT to do your first ultra, so choose one accordingly.
My personal opinions on picking your FIRST ultra:
-Stay local – here in Virginia, we have loads of 50k trail ultras to choose from. Traveling far/out of state for races is typically a stress in one way or another, and you want your first race to be as logistically easy as possible. Choosing a race that is within 1-2 hours’ drive time makes it much more simple not only for you, but also for your family.
-Don’t worry about elevation change/mountains – Contrary to what you might think, you actually WANT a lot of elevation change in your first ultra. This means more power hiking to break up all the running. This is of course assuming that you are able to incorporate this into your training, which can be challenging if you live at the beach, for example.
II. How much time do I need to prepare?
Boy, this one is a can of worms! All I can say is this will be extremely variable between people. Is 16 weeks enough? Maybe a year? Maybe 2? Students at David Horton’s running class at Liberty University seem to go from minimal running to an ultramarathon in just 16 weeks. On the other hand, I have many friends for whom it has been a 3-4-year journey through injuries and life changes before they completed their first ultramarathon. So really, there is no set time, but here are some general guidelines:
• I don’t think it’s wise to go from not running at all, to running a 50k in less than 6 months. Sure, a lot of people can do that, especially if they are fit with other athletic pursuits. However, it simply takes time for your bones, ligaments, and tendons to adapt to trail running. Ramping up the mileage too soon is likely to leave you injured. I think it would be great to have about 3-6 months of consistent running before starting a 16 week 50k training program. What is “consistent” running? For the most part running 3-4 times a week, at least 3-5 miles per run, or let’s say about 15 miles a week.
• You do NOT have to have run a marathon before considering a trail 50k! In fact, a trail 50k will be easier on your body and in my opinion, newer runners will better be able to avoid injury training for a trail 50k than a road marathon (this is because there is less specific repetitive stress on a long trail run vs. a long road run).
• Most important, when you decide it’s time to go for it – just listen to your body. Realize that despite being as careful as possible, your body may or may not be ready. If you are finding yourself hurt and frustrated, back off and fix what is wrong or go for it next season. The mountains will always be waiting and will always be calling!
Training for an ultramarathon is very similar to training for road races in some ways, and very different in other ways.
• Consistent running is always rewarded
• Speedwork makes you a stronger and faster runner
• For many, we have some easy road routes right from our door
• Rest and recovery are very important
• Ideally, you need to train on trails, especially on your long runs
• You need to learn how to eat on your runs!
• You will typically also become very self-sufficient in carrying food and water for long runs
• If you are running a mountain trail race, you need to get your legs used to mountain running – i.e. long uphill climbs and long descents
• Ultras test your mental toughness and problem solving – there is a lot more “strategy” to learn – eating, pacing, grit… Experienced trail runners are your best resource!
I find that in ultramarathons, you need to be STRONG, both in mind and body. Running fitness alone is not enough. Consider viewing your “training” as getting you to show up as a strong, confident athlete first, and a runner second.
• Mileage – there is no set mileage criteria for what you SHOULD be doing before running an ultramarathon. However, most would agree that you don’t need to be running anymore miles per week than you would for marathon training. Mileage is so variable and what you can get in depends on your health, your time, and what your body responds to. I know many ultrarunners who prefer higher mileage (above 70 miles a week), but I know many ultrarunners who do very well with 40-60 miles per week. For your first 50k, I think that making sure you can average at least 35-45 miles a week for your peak training is generally a good idea.
• Training schedules – Be flexible! Come up with a training “plan”, but make sure it is fitting in with your real life, and if you are feeling beat up, don’t be afraid to dial back your mileage and/or intensity. Similarly, if you’re feeling great, don’t be afraid to turn up the volume a bit. Adjust your training to fit your weekly schedule so that it is sustainable. The best training schedule will not make you feel guilty, stressed, or shameful about your running.
• REST! – During training, you are stressing your body in order to create a positive training effect. For this to happen, you need rest as well as training! Making sure to take 1-2 days off per week, and also making sure that you have plenty of really easy days is a start. Also, make sure you are getting enough sleep. Your body and mind need sleep to keep you going through a training cycle. Be consistent with your running, but be consistent with your rest as well!
• Specificity of terrain – If you are running a mountain ultra, you should get some training done in the mountains, especially if this is your first ultra. Knowing how to manage your effort and mind up a 3-mile climb, or knowing how to take it easy on a 4-mile technical downhill are skills you can only learn by experience. Similarly, if you are running a flat ultra, but you spend all your time training in the mountains, your legs may be in for a surprise on race day! As you get a few months from your race, be sure you are thinking about specificity of trail and elevation during your long runs.
• Uphill running, downhill running, and steady running – In most trail races, you are doing a lot of different types of running that use a lot of different muscles. This is good, because your legs get a break and it’s not so monotonous. However, you just need to make sure you do work these
muscles during your training. Practicing your uphill running, your “power hiking”, your downhill running, and of course your flat running are all very important. Also, you will learn on your long runs what it feels like to transition between these differing types of locomotion.
• Slow running – easy days – One of the most common mistakes runners make is not going easy enough on your easy days. Especially true for ultrarunners – because our races are so long, you really need to start to learn to embrace the easy pace! Be sure you have several easy days in your training to allow your body and mind some recovery. Don’t be afraid to walk some of those hills on the road!
• Speed work – If you want to run faster, you’ve got to run faster. Note, speed work is certainly not a requirement at all for successful running, however doing some regular speed work can help your fitness and strength, and if you are looking to increase your speed, you’ve got to get some speedwork in to get your legs used to the faster turnover. Whether workouts at the track or fartlek runs, speed work is a rewarding, challenging, and fun part of training and very relevant to trail ultrarunning.
• Tempo Runs – these are some of the most grueling runs you may do in training, but they also teach your body and mind endurance. I always say, I’ve suffered much more on some of my tempo runs than I ever have in a race. Whether 20 minutes long or 2 hours, running at that uncomfortable tempo pace definitely “toughens you up”.
• Long Runs – Your long runs for ultras are the most important of your training runs. On the long runs, you’ll learn how to manage your body over many hours on the trail, you’ll learn what works regarding your nutrition, as well as what gear works best, and how your body holds up. The long run is the laboratory where mistakes are made and solutions are found.
• Time management: making it happen – This is one of the biggest hurdles that many people have for training for ultras, as well as just keeping fit in general. I think you just have to look at your time management in a different way. You’ve got to carve out time for running and exercise and make it a priority. At the same time, it needs to fit in with your life and your family life. So, this
may mean that you are waking up at 4:30am three days a week to run. If that’s what it takes to realize your goals, then make it happen. If you don’t have time to drive an hour to a trailhead on a Saturday morning, then don’t – find some local routes where you can run near home and get back to spend time with family or for your other obligations. Sometimes doing multiple
loops in your local park can sound mundane, but it can also provide a good challenge and great training. Make a schedule, discuss it with your family, and stick to it. And you will find that it is MUCH easier to get up early if you go to bed early – so, cut out the wasted time on television, etc. Make sleep a priority.
Gear matters in ultrarunning. Whether during training or in a race, you will be traveling long distances with little support and you need to be self-sufficient. Aid stations in races are typically anywhere from 4-10 miles apart, so you need to get used to carrying “stuff” to keep you going during that time. And the training long runs are where you are most in need of being self-sufficient. Going on a 5-hour training run with zero aid stations, you need to carry all your food and water and other supplies you may need. So, here’s a quick primer on gear:
• Shoes– Having a good trail shoe is not necessarily a requirement, but it will definitely help keep your feet happier. What are the differences in trail shoes vs. road shoes? Trail shoes tend to have good grip/tread on the bottom for better traction on slippery and uneven surfaces. Many trail shoes also are firm enough on the bottom, or even have a “rock plate” embedded which will
blunt the pressure of stepping on a sharp rock. Trail shoes typically have a reinforced toe area so when you accidentally kick rocks (which WILL happen), you will be better off. They also tend to drain well, as many trail runs and races here in Virginia will take you through streams – you need to get used to running through these streams and trusting that your feet will be ok. There are many different types of trail shoes and tons of differing opinions and preferences. I find that trail shoes are a lot of fun and most people have a wider range of what works for them in trail shoes vs. their road shoes. The best way to find a great trail shoe for you? – go to your local
specialty running store and just try on a bunch!
• Socks – If you are still wearing cotton socks, now is the time to change! Cotton is notorious for holding water and rubbing and causing blisters. I think synthetic socks are a must for trail running to help prevent blisters. There are also several performance socks with wool blends that work well for a lot of people. Some people swear by certain brands of socks, but the key is trying a few different types and seeing how they work with your feet.
• Cold weather gear – when training through the winter and going out on long runs, you’ve always got to think about cold weather safety. If you or your running-mates were to get injured 4 miles from anywhere, can you stay warm for 2 hours if you were just sitting there? I can’t overemphasize the importance of thinking about this when it is cold outside. I will always pack
an emergency space blanket in my pack – it takes up little space and weighs nothing. When it is really cold, I also am sure to bring an “emergency puffy” jacket. These weigh very little and can often be stuffed in your pack or tied around your waste. Of course, gloves, hat, neck gaiter, etc. Don’t be afraid to overdress – wear layers! Running with a jacket or layer tied around your
waste is really not uncomfortable at all. Last, always bring a phone!
• Packs/vests – one of the essential pieces of gear that you will need as an ultrarunner that you probably didn’t need when running shorter distances is a pack/vest. For long runs and races, a vest is by far the most comfortable way to carry things like food, water, extra jacket, etc. Some people do still like waist belts, but they bounce a lot and their storage is limited. There are a
ton of different packs out there, from minimal “race vests” to vests that you could do an overnight with. It is best to head to a running store to actually try the vests on – they are all so different and it’s important to try on the thing which you’ll be wearing for hours and hours at a time. Many vests
come with water reservoirs/bladders that you carry in the back and drink from a hose. Reservoirs are necessary for longer training runs unless you have a water purifier and you know you’re running near streams.
• Handhelds – Some people love them, some hate them. But handhelds are a great way to carry water for shorter runs and if you get used to them, are a great way to carry water for long runs and races. Handhelds are essentially a water bottle with a strap attached, so it can be tightened on your hand – thus, you can carry 20oz of water without having to “hold” it with your hand muscles. The benefit is that you are very aware of how much you are drinking and handhelds are again perfect for that 60-90-minute run. This is another item to try on first to make sure it’s comfortable.
• Headlamps – You need a good headlamp! Many races start very early in the morning, in the dark. However, to squeeze in your training, many of your trail runs and runs during the week may be starting or finishing in the dark. Headlamps have come a long way and are now super bright, lightweight, comfortable, and USB rechargeable. I would strongly consider investing in a
good, USB rechargeable light – it is so worth the additional expense to never start with a dead lamp!
• Gaiters – you will see some people wearing gaiters on trail runs. These are essentially lightweight fabric that is tight around your ankles and attaches to your shoes to keep stuff from getting down in your shoe. Some people love them, some hate them. For longer races (100k/100miles) and races where there are deep leaves, gaiters become more important. Most people don’t wear gaiters for 50-miles and below and are fine.
One of the major differences between running an ultramarathon vs. just about any other running race is the importance, or really necessity, of eating during the race. Many runners can get through a half marathon without eating a thing, and even get through a marathon with eating only one or two gels. However due to the long time that you’ll be moving in an ultramarathon, if you don’t take in calories, you WILL bonk.
Coming up with a nutrition plan is a key part of planning for an ultra – don’t be the runner who spends so much time putting in a great training block, only to fail at the race because you didn’t give nutrition enough of a priority. There is a ton of information on this subject out there, so I won’t try to give you all of the differing opinions, however I will try to simplify: For MOST of us, if you can consume 200-300 calories per hour, you will be golden. This takes some planning and some focus during your race, but its relatively easy. Simply consider the typical calorie content of various foods/sports products, practice what works for you in training, and then make sure you execute your plan and take in enough calories during your race. For example:
Gels typically are 100 calories/gel packet
Shot blocks/chomps are typically 200 calories per packet
Tailwind and other sports drinks are often 200 calories per 20oz bottle at fullstrength
Many bars are about 200 calories.
So, for these sports products, doing just 2 gels an hour and an occasional snack at aid stations would serve you well for the entire race. Or maybe you use 100 calories per bottle of a sports drink that you drink every hour and then you just get in 1 gel or a half package of chomps every hour. Keep it simple, but don’t forget how important it is to be sure you are taking in enough calories!
During your training, you need to practice taking in this many calories and make sure you stomach can handle it. The sports products listed above are simple – the math is simple, the packaging is simple, and typically the simple sugars in these products are fast and easy to digest. However, some people just don’t do well with gels, etc. – maybe they get cramps, nausea, etc. Or maybe they just can’t stand them! So, some people use bananas, PBJ sandwiches, snickers bars, etc. But again, they key is to have some knowledge as to how many calories you are putting in so that you are not shortchanging your nutrition. The further on in your race you are, the more susceptible you are to bonking if you are behind on calories. Your long runs are the
time to practice your nutrition.
What is “bonking” anyway? Typically, bonking refers to when you just run out of energy – it seems that all your mental and physical energy just got wiped away. Bonking will take the strongest runner to a mere staggering walk. This is typically caused by not eating enough during an extended, hard effort. Many people get discouraged during a bonk and quit. The good news, you can “un-bonk” by starting to take in calories and just start walking until you feel better. Don’t bonk! Bonking is avoidable! But if you do bonk – unbonk!
As you start to put more training in and start getting your body used to new stresses (i.e. running Jarmans;), you need to also focus on your recovery – how can I best allow my body to recover from the training I do so that it gets stronger. If you shortchange your body on recovery or sleep, you simply won’t get as much positive training effect. Rest and recovery is often overlooked, but take it seriously, give it some thought, and you will definitely be a happier ultrarunner.
• Sleep – I probably don’t need to overstate the importance of sleep. Both your mind and body need sleep for ultra training and racing. We often have to wake early to get our training in, and of course there are a lot of other pressures that are keeping you from sleeping as much as you should – kids, work, stress, etc. Consider your daily and evening schedule so that you can
get as close to 8 hours of sleep a night. This is huge!
• Rolling/massage – This is often neglected but is such a key part of staying healthy. As we train, we are creating small damage in our muscles, which then heal and become stronger. But that healing doesn’t always happen in an orderly fashion. We sometimes develop knots/tight areas/”trigger points” in our muscles from training that over time start to put additional tension on
our tendons. For example, tight calves can lead to Achilles tendinitis or plantar fasciitis.
Stretching is a very slow method of improving this, however by massaging/rolling these muscles and soft tissues, we are able to work out the knots/trigger points and restore better length and function of the muscle/tendon unit. There are many tools, but I believe every runner should own a foam roller, a massage stick, and a lacrosse ball. Pay particular attention to your calves and quads. There is a ton of information on how to roll out these areas out there.
• Easy days/active recovery/walking – Be sure to go really easy on your planned easy runs. On your days off or your active recovery days, don’t overlook the benefit of going for a long walk or hike. Avoid sitting down for extended periods after your long runs or harder workouts – this will just make you more stiff. Consider some different types of easy exercise like swimming or cycling as a way to move the legs and body without impact.
VII. Race Week:
Ok, race week is here. Your training is in the bank, you can’t get any more or less fit. So, what to do?
• Taper – ok, tapering is typically started a few weeks out. There are no specific rules, but generally you’re just trying to give your body a break by reducing your training volume and getting more sleep/rest. Just remember, you can’t really gain or lose fitness a few weeks out from the race, so all of your running is just to keep your body’s schedule and try to keep the mental
and physical sword sharp.
• Get tons of sleep – Most ultras start very early in the morning – like 6am. So, on top of the normal pre-race night jitters, you also may be waking up at 4am on race day. So, bank sleep the week of the race. Make that a focus. Your body and mind will feel better and then it won’t matter if you only get a few hours of crummy sleep the night before your race.
• Eat well – Don’t diet or try to lose weight, but you should focus on eating well. Your body works best with good nutrition – try to stay to whole foods without a lot of processed foods and cut down on sugar. Keep hydrated. Close to your race is NOT a good time to be thinking about race weight!
• Planning logistics – will you be camping the night before or staying in a hotel? Will there be a coffee maker? Can you make your favorite toast? Or will you drive up the morning of? Will your family be coming? Is your car full of gas? Try to think of these types of logistics a week out so that you are not cramming in last minute planning.
• Planning your race – This is a very important part of successfully completing an ultramarathon. No, you don’t have to memorize the course map, but you should definitely take time to review the course, the elevation profile, and the aid station locations several times. Or better yet, you can often find elevation profiles with aid stations labeled on them that you can print out and laminate (clear packing tape works great!) and keep in your pack or a pocket.
o Mentally, it is very helpful to know how long the big climbs and descents are, and how long it will be until the next aid station. Also, for timing your aid, mentally pacing, filling your bottles, etc., it is very important to know how far it is between aid stations, which may vary greatly throughout the race. An example would be “ok, I’ll fill my bottles at aid stations 2, 4,5, and 7”, or maybe just knowing that “between aid station 4 and 5 is gonna be a really tough, slow climb”.
o Depending on the aid available at the aid stations, you may also be carrying a lot of the food/fuel that you want to use. This is important to plan – if you’re using a certain type of gel, or snickers bars, etc., be sure to carry enough in your pack/shorts, etc. Or maybe it’s a loop
course where you can get to a bag you set out so you can refill. But overall, you should have a plan for where and when you will get your fuel and water.
o If you are doing a race for the first time and have no idea what time you may be shooting for realistically, you can always go and look to see if the race website has historical results and splits posted (most do). Then you can look at other races you’ve done and generally figure out where you are in the pack and compare. For example, if you often finish “in the middle of the pack”, then check out some times and splits “in the middle of the pack” for the race you’re doing. Still, your
effort will be what it will be on race day, so don’t get hung up on a random time goal, but it’s a good way to at least give you a clue of where you may end up.
o Always have goals and have a reason WHY you are doing this. I can guarantee you that at some point in your race, it will get hard. If you don’t really have a goal or don’t have an honest reason why you are doing this, you can easily lose motivation and not want to finish. I think every person, regardless of speed, should ALWAYS HAVE A GOAL TO FINISH. Make that your most important goal. Then, you may have more specific goals, such as a certain time or placement.
Keep those goals and don’t give up on them, even late in the race when all feels lost. However, you’ve also got to be flexible and realize that you may or may not hit that goal, so have “B” and “C” goals. For example, A goal: 7 hours. B goal: 8 hours. C goal – just finish before the cutoffs! Be satisfied with any of these possible outcomes!
o Last, in this same vein of goals, just be relaxed and flexible for your expectations and goals on race day. The beauty of ultras is that they are so long, anything can happen. You can go into a race incredibly fit and confident and then DNF (did not finish). Or perhaps you go into a race undertrained and not confident and have a fantastic day. Just remember to finish, remember you are doing this for fun, and enjoy the experience. A finish is ALWAYS something to be proud of!
VIII: Race Day
Ok. You’ve made it. You’ve worked hard, adapted your body, tapered, and here you are on race day. You’ve put in the miles, you’ve learned a ton, hopefully you’ve got a nutrition plan, and you’re prepared for the tough, but rewarding day ahead. Ultras are all about “putting it all together” for a successful day. Also, if there is one thing for sure, things will probably not go exactly like you’ve planned, so although you need to have prepared well, you also need to be flexible and be ready to trouble shoot problems without getting frustrated or panicked.
• Morning wake/eat/poop routine. Hopefully you’ve already figured this out and are just repeating what works for you for some longer runs you’ve done. I will typically wake 2 hours before the race and get in a meal and some coffee so I can preload some calories and get the GI tract going. But there are no hard rules here. Some people don’t eat before the race; others shovel in a ton of food right before the start. Again, try to figure this routine out weeks before so that you are not stressed out! Also, it’s wise to consider setting out your clothes and gear the night before so you are likewise not stressing out about where that dang left sock is…
• I think two of the most important aspects of racing/running an ultra that can make or break your day are pacing and nutrition. Choosing the appropriate pace/effort level admittedly takes some experience, but you don’t have to make a mistake here – start slow! For most of you, you’ve never run as far as you’ll run at your first ultra, thus you’ve never had to pace yourself for this
distance and time before. If you start too fast with too much effort, you will likely end up finishing the race much slower than if you had eased into it. Also, “pace” specifically (i.e., minutes/mile) is a pretty worthless indicator of effort because you are likely not running on a flat road. You are really trying to figure out the best effort level, as many races start with a big climb or a lot of varied terrain by the time you’re warmed up and “in a groove”. So, be conservative! Here are some time-tested tips whether you are just wanting to finish or whether you are trying to be competitive:
o The ideal starting effort isn’t just “easy”. Adrenaline and excitement make everything “easy” at the start. You should be slightly concerned that you are starting too easy. That’s the right effort!
o You want to be able to finish the race at the same pace/effort as you start. When you are running those opening miles, think “will I be able to run this pace at mile 30?”
o At the end of the race, I can almost guarantee you that you will not say “I wish I would have started faster!”
o If there is a big climb at the beginning of the race, walk as much of it as you can!
• Race day nutrition is the other area that will make or break a race. Ideally you’ve got a nutrition plan that you have confidence in, but that you are also flexible with. Just be sure to execute this plan! Use your watch to time your calorie intake and never forget to focus on this. Too many people get swept up in the moment and lose track of when the last time they ate was. Or they start to feel tired and get discouraged and stop eating. Don’t be like these people. For your first ultra, concentrate on your nutrition intake for the entire race. This does take a lot of focus. When people ask me “don’t you get bored when you’re running for 12 hours?”, I think “No! I’m really busy remembering to eat!”
• Hiking uphills vs running – Hopefully you have started off at an appropriately easy effort level – but now you’re cruising and you come to a hill – do you walk it? Run it? This of course depends on your fitness level, but just know that even the front-of-the-pack runners are doing a lot of walking (aka power hiking”) in the race. I recall one race where I had a runner a few hundred
yards ahead of me and we were going up a 2-mile climb. He ran every step. I power hiked almost all of it and he never got away from me. When we got to the top, I easily passed him and never saw him again.
• Dealing with fatigue. Your legs WILL feel tired. Possibly early. Don’t get discouraged. Your legs will definitely get fatigued throughout the day, but if you stay positive and keep up with your nutrition, you’ll be amazed at how tired and miserable you can feel one moment, and then how strong and confident you can feel just 30 minutes later. Stay positive, just keep moving forward and know that it’s perfectly normal and ok for your legs to be tired early in the race, and that does not mean you’re going to walk the last 25 miles. This is very different from a marathon where once your legs start to go at mile 22, it can be very hard to recover. In ultras, we take power hiking breaks, eat, and stay positive and our legs rejuvenate!
• Mental toughness – Not only will your muscles become fatigued, but your mind and body will also become tired. This is often overlooked but is extremely important to realize and embrace. You may be at mile 20 and simply exhausted and if you focus on the fact that you’ve got 12 more miles to go, it can be hard to overcome the despair. Remember, “it never always gets worse”. Break your race down from aid station to aid station. Just focus on the next aid station and literally do not think about anything beyond that. You will most likely feel much better at the next aid station. Also remind yourself why you are doing this and never forget that you will be very glad you hung in there and finished.
• Trouble shooting – Something WILL go wrong on race day. An early blister when you’ve never had blisters. Your water bottle broke. You fell and banged your knee. There are a few things that may end your race (significant injury), however most things just throw you off your game and can easily frustrate you if you don’t trouble shoot. First, recognize that a problem is starting to pop up (…I’m feeling a blister forming on my heel). Second, make a decision to do something about it physically (…I’m a half mile from the next aid station, I’m going to stop, take off my sock and see if I can get some help popping/taping it). Last, deal with it mentally (…Crap. I’ve got a blister.
That is going to make today less comfortable, but it’s not going to kill me. I can do this!) Sometimes it seems easier to just ignore problems while they are minor, only to have them turn into major problems. Be flexible, stay positive, ask for help.
IX: After the race
Woohoo! You did it! You are now an ultrarunner! Now what?!….RECOVER!
This is a whole new experience for your body and it will take you a lot longer to fully recover than it does your friends who have been running ultras for years. One of the most common ways I hear of people getting injured is jumping right back into training too early. Take time to properly recover and give both your body and your mind time to reset. I recommend taking an entire week off from running – catch up on sleep, life, etc., and then slowly get back into activity. It can take a solid month for your mind and body to be “recovered”, so a good rule of thumb is to just take it really easy the month after your ultra – be very careful with workouts and high intensity running
during this time!
I hope this was a helpful “primer” for tackling your first ultra. Remember, don’t take yourself too seriously, but put in the work, stay committed and determined, and ask for help from more experienced runners if you are having trouble during your training. Completing an ultramarathon is a significantly rewarding experience, and is surprisingly doable if you have the right mindset!
John Andersen is the co-owner of Crozet Running and a competitive ultramarathon runner in
Virginia. He has had 17 consecutive top-10 finishes in ultras from 50K to 100 Miles over the past
three years. He lives and trains in Crozet, Virginia just outside of Shenandoah National Park.