Handling Your First Ultra | May 10, 2015
In marathons and shorter distance races, most runners have one goal in mind: speed. Holding a particular pace right at the upper edge of their abilities for the duration of the race is the end all and be all. To them where the race is being held, the other runners, or enjoying the experience are secondary issues or entirely irrelevant. And we’re talking here about most of the pack, not just the frontrunners. Amazingly, you can watch the runner finishing 6,787th at the New York City Marathon and you’d swear his or her life depended upon clipping that last two seconds off the clock.
Most people running ultras have different goals. Understanding these goals will help you understand how to handle your first ultra. I would list my goals in an ultra and rank them in order of importance as follows: (1) finish the race, (2) enjoy the adventure that the ultra provides, and (3) go hard but run within yourself. Ironically, even though ultra distances are longer than a race like the marathon, ultras tend to be more relaxed affairs, more conducive to accomplishing the second goal, enjoying your adventure. The less focused you are on speed, the more you will be able to relax, and in another ironic twist, the more likely it will be that you will succeed in having a good race.
Not surprisingly the training you put in before the race is going to be the biggest factor in your being able to handle your new ultra distance. As with marathon training, the long runs are key for building the strength, stamina, and mental toughness required to run for six, twelve or twenty-four hours straight. Unlike with marathon training, don’t worry about your pace or how far you are running as much as just spending more and more time on your feet. Pick rugged, rocky, hilly terrain for your long runs, especially if your target race has that character, and walk the hills, take some breaks, and go slow to extend the hours you can keep running. If you can bump your weekly mileage up to between 40 and 60 miles and keep that up for three or four months, with a few rest weeks thrown in, you will be ready to run an ultra.
While you’re out on your long runs, practice eating and drinking to keep up your energy and hydration. That’s another key difference between ultras and shorter distances; you’ll need to replenish the calories you’re burning during the race to stave off the dreaded bonk. You can’t rush through an ultra and then eat when it’s over like with a half-marathon. You should also use your long runs to dial in your choice of shoes, clothing, hydration system (bottles or hydration pack), energy gels versus solid foods, and preventive measures, such as, sunblock, skin lubricant, adhesive tape, double socks, bug spray, and lip balm, that is, all the things you’ll need to protect your skin from blisters, chaffing, bites, and burns.
The key factor during the race will be your attitude. Start slow and try to relax. Run comfortably enough to talk to the other runners and pay attention to the scenery. Take the race one section at a time. Don’t get all hung up on how far away the finish is in time and distance. Use the aid stations to relax and regroup. Take care of all your needs and then walk off with some food to eat. You’ll usually feel a nice “bounce” right after an aid station. Keep running within yourself. If you get to the last five miles and you’re good to go, you can always speed up at the end. If you start feeling awful, you can bet that the runners around you probably feel the same way. If they can keep going, so can you.
Finally, expect some unexpected problems to pop up along the way. It’s hard to run all those miles, often in remote, wild areas, and not face some kind of nasty surprise. You could take a fall, have your stomach go south, cramp up, get lost, run out of water, or get stung by bees. Don’t tell yourself, “Oh, it’s not my day. I should quit” Tell yourself, “Shit happens. I should finish.” Do what you can to mitigate the problem, think of the problem as a setback but not a knockout blow, and then get back to running.
Remember the more “stuff” you overcome out there and the more you struggle, the more satisfying will be that moment when you cross the finish line. If it were easy, anybody could do it!