Who here has done an ultra before? Based on the participation numbers in the U.S., probably only a handful of people would be raising their hand if that question was asked at a running store fun run.
But who here is thinking of doing your first? Great! That is awesome, but don’t let any of those that have their hand raised ever tell you that doing your first ultra is a piece of cake.
Folks, ultras aren’t easy. But with good information, they’re manageable and totally rewarding when you complete one. And I am talking about just completing it, not racing it. There’s a big difference, and I would recommend anyone attempting their first to work on being smart and getting through it while having a good experience before attempting to get out and really see how fast you can blaze a trail.
When I went into my first ultra, I had little to no information about what I was doing. No nutrition knowledge, no pacing knowledge, not even any idea how far 31 miles really was. I entered a 50K a week after a lackluster showing in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, and I was going to get revenge by crushing my first ultra. Well, turns out my race was about 24 miles and then a 7-mile slog after a magnificent bonk I’d never experienced before. Not sure what I was thinking, considering I’d been training for a 3K on the track for years.
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It was still a great experience though; beautiful scenery, fun people, sunshine and dirt, but it gave me a new challenge and a goal to work toward in the years to come. Yeah, it took me years to figure out how to race the ultra distance. And I’m still learning new things with each one I compete in.
Here’s some advice I’ve received since then that could help a few of you working toward that first ultra (or even a long trail race) this year.
First, don’t train for a 3K steeplechase when you have to run 50K. Obvious, right? Yes and no. What I mean is that if you’re trying to do your first ultra, don’t just go do it. Put that goal as the focus of your training for 5-6 months and make sure you’ve worked out all the kinks—nutrition, gear, long runs, hill climbing, etc.
Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition
If your training is just about anything but off the couch, you’ll be able to finish an ultra. What will keep you from getting through one, however, is your nutrition and/or lack of a good nutrition plan. Your long runs and workouts are the perfect opportunity to try out different foods, gels, and electrolytes to see what works and what doesn’t. Before your race, have a solid plan outlined and follow it during the race. It takes some mental fortitude to get down that 20th gel, but trust me, your body will thank you later.
A key element to a good ultra training plan is a back-to-back long run about every 2 weeks leading up to a race. I like to break it down into two specific days. The first day is a slower paced run with a lot of elevation gain. Getting some good hills in at a comfortable pace. The second day is an up-tempo run on the road or smooth non-technical trail of about the same distance done in about half the time. This works on leg turnover and efficiency when your legs are already tired. At some point in an ultra, feeling comfortable running the flats at a faster pace will come in handy.
Do Your Homework
Know the course and train accordingly. I’ve done plenty of races where I get into it and realize that I didn’t train on the type of terrain I was running over, and not one of those has gone well. Do your due diligence and study course maps, profiles, and look at race photos. Pick out certain elements of the course that you feel may be particularly difficult and practice those in your training. It may be becoming more comfortable on technical downhills, more efficient at hiking steeps, or heat acclimating.
Your gear becomes a crucial element to your success the longer you go. Make sure you train with the gear you’ll be racing with and make sure it works. Never underestimate the performance-enhancing benefits of just being comfortable. Nothing destroys a good mental attitude faster than some chub rub. You’ll also be carrying calories, electrolytes and water. Making those items easily accessible with a pack system you’re comfortable with may be the difference between finishing and missing a course cutoff.
Don’t assume that even with a solid training, a race plan, and a good nutrition plan that you’ll automatically have a great race the first time. Some people do, but more often than not, they don’t. Use it as a teaching moment and learn from it. Come back stronger and more experienced and try it again. Like I said, it took me three years before I popped a good 50K, another year before a good 50-miler and 6 years of ultras before I even tried a 100-miler.
There is obviously a lot more to it than a six-bullet-point list, but this is what I’ve found to be the biggest factors. The learning curve for me was pretty long, and I believe the best way to do it and to shorten that learning curve is to get a knowledgeable coach that can help you do things right the first time—or at least reduce the number of trial-and-error races you have to go through.
Good luck in your first ultra. Completing one is a huge accomplishment.
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Salomon Running athlete Max King lives in Bend, Ore. He’s looking forward to a variety of races in 2015 and is excited to see what he learns new this year. Check out his adventures around the ultra world at maximus.runnerspace.com or on twitter @MaxKingOR.