Senior editor Mario Fraioli shares some of the lessons he’s learned preparing for his first ultramarathon.
“Yeah, it will be a nice early season speed workout for some of the 100-milers I have lined up this summer,” he shot back with a straight face.
I just shut my mouth for the next few minutes and kept running. As someone who thinks the marathon is still a really long distance to run, what do you even say to that?
At first, you don’t say anything. As you try to wrap your head around the fact that the 50-kilometer race you’re training for is less than a third of what the guy you’re running with does with some regularity, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue doing so for a really long time.
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Perspective is a funny thing, particularly when you’re preparing to tackle your first ultra. Sure, a 50K is only about 5 miles longer than a standard marathon, but when I began to realize that I was going to be racing for at least an hour longer than the slowest 26.2 miles I’ve ever run (and that’s if I’m having a really good day), it started to look a little intimidating.
You see, I am not a distance guy by design. When I first started running in high school, I told my coach that I had no interest in racing over 800 meters. Eventually I gave in and became a miler, then a 2-miler and raced 5K cross country my junior and senior years. In college, I stuck to the short stuff on the track and had fun racing 8K and 10K on grass. And while I’ve dabbled in some longer stuff over the last 10 years, including three marathons, I wouldn’t say that I enjoy it as much as gutting out a hard 5K, 10K or even half marathon. In fact, I like to joke that my interest starts to wane after 90 minutes of running—although I will admit I haven’t made that quip as much of late.
But I’ve had to quickly get over all of that in the past 10 weeks and change my mindset, training, nutrition plan and racing strategy as I prepare to step on the starting line at Way Too Cool on March 8. When I hit the 90-minute mark of race on Saturday, I’m not even going to be halfway done! I’ve learned a lot of lessons in the last two months, some of which I saw coming and others that have caught me by surprise. Here are my top-5, in no particular order:
— A long run on trails is a lot different than a long run on the roads. The former will likely take you a lot longer to complete and present you with a lot more things to worry about, including, but not limited to: rocky, uneven terrain, radical elevation changes, gale-force winds and rain, and lack of readily available places to relieve yourself, refuel your body or refill your water bottle. In some ways, it’s almost a different sport!
— Fuel early and often. When you’re running for hours on end, you’ve got to eat and drink early and often, whether it’s a long training run or during the race itself. After bonking in a big way on my first long run a couple months ago, I wised up and made sure that moving forward I had a full tank anytime I was going to be running for more than 2 hours. I’ve also been more mindful of making sure I refill that tank a couple times along the way. This is a big lesson I’ll need to keep in mind during the race, too. Reigning Way Too Cool runner-up Chris Vargo, a Nike Trail Elite athlete who will also compete on Saturday, advised me this week: “The best piece of advice I can give you is to eat more than you think you should. I started eating no later than 25 minutes into the race and take in at least 250 calories an hour.”
— Long runs are more fun with friends. I know there are many runners who love nothing more than to go out all alone on the trails for a few hours and get lost. I am not one of those people. A big thank you to the many more ultra-minded friends I’ve met through San Francisco Running Company for showing me new trails, getting me through my most important workout of the week and making 2+ hour runs not seem like such a big deal.
— Agility is important. Most ultra-distance races take place off-road, which is the situation I find myself in this weekend. I’ve learned the hard way that running fast(er) on winding singletrack trail requires a different skill set than the open asphalt roads. After rolling my left ankle twice during training runs, I started to be a lot more careful about where I stepped and how my foot hit the ground. While my once wonky ankle is fine now, if I could go back and add anything to my training, it would be agility drills and ankle-strengthening exercises a few times a week. I come from a cross country background and running off-road isn’t anything new to me, but you’ve really got to watch yourself (and your feet) when fatigue sets in on a long run.
— Ultrarunners are an awesome bunch. Not that ultrarunners are all that different from marathoners, road racers or track athletes, but the sense of community and camaraderie among this mileage-bagging crew is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my 17 years of running. While my affinity for running hours on end might not yet be on par with many of the folks I’ve been logging miles with of late, the enthusiasm for tackling something bigger than myself has definitely rubbed off on me. In fact, I’ve already got my next long adventure planned out, and I’ll be sure to share that after I check this weekend’s race off my bucket list.