Your First Ultra?

” Any idiot can run a marathon but it takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultra marathon.”

Author: Alan Cabelly

“Are you crazy!!!!”

When you hear anyone say “I am going to run an ultra marathon” most people ask why? Quickly followed by, are you nuts?

Before you begin reading this section if you have completed one or many ultras this section is not for you unless you’re bored or want to write a critique. Its not an ultra “Bible” by any means but some basic advice from those whom have completed a few along with some words of encouragement.

“I am not much of a runner so how in the world can I ever run an ultra marathon?”

  • Firstly, an ultra marathon is any “running” distance over 42km.
  • “Running” an ultra you say?  For the purposes of the remainder of our discussion, we will refer to “running” an ultra as “completing” an ultra as that is what most if not all ultra participants do.  No matter what combination of running, walking, stumbling, leaping or falling is incorporated, run/walk regimes are almost always part of every ultra training regime and race whether you are a beginner or seasoned veteran.
  • Ultras are not just for very gifted super human athletes. No one is dismissing the difficulty of any particular ultra nor the things ultra athletes have accomplished. In fact, to the contrary. Many successful ultra athletes are test pilots. They along with the races they have completed have pushed the body to its limits in some cases. They are owed an extreme amount of gratitude and respect. Essentially what they have created is a platform from which the rest of us can take advantage. We encourage you to use it!
  • Training yourself to complete an ultra involves taking baby steps and enjoying the journey.  Make it fun otherwise you will likely quit. Build up your strength and stamina slowly doing things you enjoy.
  • To be frank, it is pretty much impossible to run an ultra without stopping. Only in very rare circumstances will this ever occur and usually only by top-notch world-class elite ultra athletes. Some suggest you also need to be blessed with the proper genes.  So unless you are one of them put that notion out of your mind at this time.
  • You do not have to be a well-seasoned competitive runner to complete an ultra. Sure, there are some ultra’s that are so difficult only highly trained elite ultra athletes can complete them but those are not the events you should be considering at this time.  In fact, there are numerous cases of people with absolutely no marathon running experience who have completed ultras.  One thing is certain however; you need to train your body and mind.  How you do this is up to you.
  • There are many reasons why you can’t run an entire ultra ie. temperature extremes, altitude, distance, lack of preparation etc. or, you may just not want to…that’s another story.  The terrain that some ultra marathons are held on may also make it impossible to run the entire distance as you may have to scramble over trees, wade through rivers, scale mountains without a trail…get the picture?
  • Completing an ultra is not like running a road half marathon or full marathon.  Most people train to run these entire distances without resting.  Running an ultra is different.  But not in a bad way.  It’s not like wrestling a wolverine…more like training your dog.  You need to be pragmatic, semi-disciplined and determined.
  • You can attempt an ultra solo or with a relay team.  We believe a relay team is one of the best introductions.  You simply break up the distances so they are more manageable.  You slowly keep “biting off more than you can chew!”  It’s not as impossible as you think! You will not regret the time and effort you put in!!!

“How do I prepare for my first ultra?”

Well…that’s a deep subject!

  • First and foremost, the goal should be to simply select one you would like to complete.  Select a manageable course and distance you want to complete.  We don’t recommend selecting an ultra that has significant elevation gain and loss for your first venture but rather choose a flatter course.  Once you have completed your distance of choice then you can concern yourself with bettering your time, completing a longer distance, choosing an ultra with more difficult terrain etc.
  • It is important is be consistently active in your training for sustained periods of time given the amount of time you will actually spend attempting to complete an ultra.  Most of the literature on this subject, which includes discussions with successful ultra participants, talks about the length of time exercising and, in particular, the amount of “time spent on your feet.”
  • Some things that should be top of mind are to get a good pair of “slipper comfortable” trail runners with good grips, comfortable running attire, something you can comfortably carry food and water in, find fun trails and a good attitude.  Notice the use of the word “comfortable”?
  • You can psychoanalyze things to a point where your mental gymnastics will stop you dead in your tracks (forgive the pun) before you even begin.  There is no question you will make mistakes in your training no matter how hard you try not to.  It’s normal.  Don’t worry, just keep plugging away!  Remember, the journey has to be fun as the length of time you will spend training for an ultra far outweighs the length of time you will participate in one.  So, make your training enjoyable!
  • Once you have found a training regime you like, try and do it on a consistent basis.  This does not mean you have to give up your life to do so.  You can if you like, but it’s neither mandatory nor required.  Sure you hear of people training for ultras running 100’s of kilometres per week but that’s not necessarily a pre-requisite for completing some ultra’s unless you are an elite runner striving for a fast time or, you want to take on a goliath sized ultra where this type of training is required if you hope of finishing within the allotted time period.
  • Where the ultra is held, the type of terrain it is held on, the distance you plan on completing, how quickly you want to complete it are all factors that should dictate your training regime.  In fact, many people have completed 100-mile mountain ultras running as little as 50 miles per week.  That may seem like a lot to some and not to others but the point is when you begin your ultra journey you need to take baby steps and tailor your training to the type of ultra you want to complete and align that with your finishing goal.  Just keep in mind the simple adage of “time spent on your feet” and gradually do more over time.
  • Some ultras have tight timelines such that if you do not “run” most of the course you will not make cut-off times and will be pulled from the race.  You can choose to attempt those with that inherent risk or select a race that will give you sufficient time to complete it. These types of races exist.  Keep in mind time cut-offs are generally speaking more applicable to soloists than relay teams as most ultras are planned so that relay teams will have sufficient time to complete them.

“How much time do I have to spend training?”

  • Well…thats a difficult question to answer because everyone is different including their goals.  Simply put, there is no one single training regime that will work for everyone.  So keep an open mind and try various methods until you find one or a few you like to do on a pretty consistent basis.  Keep in mind that you don’t just have to run to train for an ultra.  In fact cross training, where you combine more than one sport in your training regime, has been proven to be very good training for an ultra.
  • A good benchmark to keep in mind when trying to figure out how much time it will take you to complete your first solo ultra is how long it takes you to complete a training run of say half the ultra race distance you will be attempting on similar terrain.  For example, if you want to attempt a 50km ultra and in your training you average 15 minutes/kilometre it will take you roughly 12.5hrs to complete it.  This means if you can complete 25kms in 6.25 hrs in training you should be able to complete the 50 km distance in 12.5 hrs!  Please note there are a myriad of factors that come into play here that may affect this time so this is not a hard and fast rule but a rough guideline.

Some things to consider in preparing for your first ultra:

  • Find a training regime you like to do solo or with others.
  • Train as consistently as possible.
  • Practice run/walk regimes (“mean it when you walk”).
  • Incorporate hills into your training.
  • Walk all hills that are taller than you.
  • Find energy foods that sit well with you.
  • Practice eating/drinking things you like while training and use them in your ultra as new things may not agree with you on race day.
  • VERY VERY VERY IMPORTANT: Rest is just as important as training…do not over-train…it is much better to go into an ultra under trained than injured.
  • Strength and cross training in or out of a gym is great preparation.
  • Start off training slowly.
  • Learn how to pace yourself as it will be a long day.
  • Wear comfortable weather appropriate clothing.
  • VERY VERY IMPORTANT: Wear comfortable runners that are at least a half size larger than your normal shoe size…your feet will swell after time and will be thankful for the extra room…remember…if they do not feel comfortable in the store they will not magically feel better on the trails.
  • Work your way up to training on uneven trails as that’s what you will likely face in an ultra.
  • Most importantly…make training FUN, as twisted as that may sound!!

We have added some links to numerous training methods under the heading “Training Regimes” under this menu bar.  Have fun and enjoy!!

If you remember only one thing after reading this, remember this sage advise:

“There is no one correct way to train in preparation for running an ultra…do what works best for you.”

Author: Modest multiple ultra finisher!