Have you ever wanted to run an ultramarathon? Does the thought of running across majestic mountain tops, racing through silent forest pathways in the still of the night, and sucking back endless sugary gels fill you with joy? If so, brave reader, you have come to the right place!
I’m a relative newcomer to running in general, having only started “seriously” running in the last 5 years. Although I started off running short obstacle races and local marathons, I was quickly drawn to the world of ultramarathon. For the uninitiated, an ultramarathon is anything over the standard marathon distance (42.2 km), generally starting at 50K, with distances up to 100 miles and even beyond.
When I tell people that I do events like this for fun, the most common reactions are shock, revulsion and “why would you do that??”
It’s an understandable reaction. This definitely isn’t a sport for everyone. But the other response I hear a lot is: “That’s really cool. I wish I could do that!”
And this article is for those people. The truth is that anybody can complete an ultramarathon. There is no special skill or talent required, just the willingness to commit time and energy to the training, and the mental tenacity to see it through. If this sounds like your kind of adventure, read on for some of my top tips on ultramarathon preparation. These are just a few recommendations from my own experience, with a bit of help from two of my favorite ultramarathon authors
While it’s certainly possible to complete a 100-mile race without having done any shorter races, there’s a pretty good chance that jumping straight into a distance like this is going to result in disappointment and may turn you off of the whole idea of ultrarunning. If you’ve already run a marathon or two and have a decent aerobic base, you’ll be able to transition to a 50K race pretty easily. If you have yet to complete a marathon distance, I’d suggest building up to that before attempting the ultra distances.
Be prepared to train. A lot.
In his book “Relentless forward progress”, Byron Powell recommends a total weekly distance of at least 35 to 40 miles (56 to 64 km) (Powell, 2011), while Hal Koerner in his “field guide to ultrarunning” suggests a minimum of 50 (80 km) per week. Both recommend training cycles of 16 to 24 weeks before tackling a 50-kilometer race.
An important part of ultra training that distinguishes it from regular race training is the idea of the “back-to-back” long run. While most marathoners are content to do a single long run on Saturday or Sunday, it’s common for an ultramarathon training plan to include long runs on both days. This allows you to get used to running in a fatigued and depleted state, and will make you realize that completing an ultramarathon is just as much about mental tenacity as it is about physical toughness.
As much as possible, try to make sure your training includes similar terrain to what you’ll face on race day. Most ultramarathons involve a good deal of climbing and descending, so doing all your training runs on flat terrain isn’t going to cut it.
Nutrition is key.
An ultramarathon can have you on your feet for upwards of 24 hours, and the only way to keep your body moving through all of this is by keeping a steady intake of calories moving into the body. While some ultramarathoners are able to stomach solid food throughout the race, a lot of us rely primarily on simple carb sources like pre-packaged gels or specialized drink mixes.
Just how many calories do you need to take in? Powell recommends between 250 and 400 calories an hour. Koerner agrees that “400 is probably the most you are going to be able to get in per hour,” but emphasizes that “finding the right number of calories is an art as well as a work in progress.”
Use your weekly long runs to practice your nutrition strategy and assess your tolerance, and go into the race with a solid nutrition plan. I find that during the early stages of the race I’m able to take in 300 calories per hour, in the form of one 100-calorie gel every 20 minutes. As the hours wear on and the stomach starts to rebel, I reduce to about 200 calories per hour.
Expect the worst.
As noted above, the struggle of an ultramarathon is just as much mental as it is physical. Maintaining a positive mental attitude throughout the race is essential to success. Hours spent alone in the dark can put the human mind in some pretty dark places, so it’s important to remain focused on the positive. Your mind and your body are both going to give you all kinds of reasons to quit, so keep your goal in mind and don’t give up.
With that said, a lot can go wrong in these races, and it’s good to be prepared for that. Many racers will have a crew of one or more people to help them out at transitions, and some races will allow pacers. For those of us who run without a crew, it’s important to prepare for unexpected situations. Be sure you’ve got extra shoes, socks, and more nutrition than you think you’ll need. Many races are in remote, mountainous regions, and weather can change quickly, so make sure you’ve got clothing to suit any possible conditions.
We’ve really just scratched the surface here, but I hope this article has given you a glimpse into the exciting world of ultramarathon. If you’re interested in running an ultra, I highly recommend reading both of the books referenced above.