“What’s Another Mile?”
By Gary Dudney
An ultra-marathon, or more commonly referred to as just an “ultra,” is any race that exceeds the length of the standard marathon. Common distances for ultras, and these distances are often roughly measured, include 50 kilometers (about 31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (about 62 miles), and 100 miles. Ultras can also be organized around a timeframe, where you run as far as you can in 12 hours or 24 hours.
Having put in the training and developed the discipline to run a marathon, you might think that training for something even longer is way over the top. But the truth is ultra training is very similar to marathon training. The once-a-week long-run routine that got you ready for the marathon is the very heart and soul of good ultra training. And surprisingly, most ultrarunners will tell you that an ultra is a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience than a marathon.
Marathons are typically run with grim intensity. Time and pace are uppermost in your mind. Ultras are more about the pure joy of running, knowing how to transition through the countryside and down the trail for 20, 30, or 40 miles at a pop and enjoying the experience. Ultrarunners also seem to share a strong sense of community. Runners don’t compete so much as coexist during the race, sharing the effort and getting to know each other.
How do you train for an ultra? Mike Erickson, who runs ultras when he’s not flying planes for the Navy or taking care of his two kids, says there was no difference between his marathon training and his ultra training, but he says, “I extended my long runs into the 30 or 40 mile range.” Ultrarunners consider the long run obligatory, and no wonder. The long run builds the indispensable stamina and strength needed in an ultra. It forces you to develop all the critical new skills you will need: eating and drinking properly, protecting pressure points, building your mental preparedness for the several hours it takes to run an ultra. “You can learn a lot about what equipment you need and how to use it by running with it for several hours at a time,” Mike adds, pointing out yet another key benefit of the long run.
Time on the trail is more crucial in your long runs than distance. You are learning to stay out there, stay comfortable, and stay well supplied with food and drink, more than you are trying to cover a certain distance. You might try working up week by week in half hour intervals from 2 hours to 6 hours. Cut back on some weekends along the way if you become fatigued, or skip a weekend altogether. Speed is not important. Try to enjoy yourself.
Elite runners may tally up to 100 miles a week or more, but most ultrarunners train in the 40 to 70 miles a week range. Assuming a long run of 20 to 30 miles, the rest of the training week should include a couple of days of rest, 2 to 4 days of moderate runs, and one day with a shorter more intense run for anaerobic conditioning. To induce some ultra-like stress in the training, ultrarunners will sometimes run two workouts in a day, or do two long runs on consecutive days.
Eating and Drinking
Eating and drinking properly is essential to making it through an ultra. In fact, dehydration is the number one reason runners fail to finish. The key is drinking soon and often, because once you are dehydrated it is hard to recover. On training runs, you should be drinking a minimum of one 16-ounce bottle for every hour on the trail. During the race, you will need to carry a bottle and refill it at each aid station. Many runners use a “quick draw” holder so the bottle is readily at hand at all times.
Unlike a marathon, where you can see it through to the end only on liquids, you will need to eat during an ultra. Use your training runs to experiment with different foods to see what agrees with you. You should also try out different sports drinks, power gels, power bars, and other supplements, such as electrolyte and salt tablets. Even veteran ultrarunner Robert Josephs with 14 finishes at American River 50 Mile was stumped by a sharp drop in energy and motivation halfway through his races. Another ultrarunner suggested salt tablets and the problem was solved.
One of the biggest differences between a marathon and an ultra is the amount of walking done in an ultra. David Nakashima, who made the jump from marathon to ultra and went on to place fifth overall in his very first 50 miler, learned about walking the hard way. “I was running all these hills that I definitely should have been walking and I paid the price later on,” he laments. A common practice in ultras is to walk all uphills and run all downhills and flat sections throughout the race. David quickly learned there was more to walking than just a gentle stroll. “I wasn’t that good a walker,” he says. “People kept passing me on the hills.” He recommends training yourself how to walk with a powerful stride and rapid turnover by picking a steep hill and then walking up and running down repeatedly. “You need to transition back and forth from running to walking because you’ll do this all the time in a race.”
Aid stations at ultras, in addition to offering water and electrolyte-replacement sports drinks, offer a whole range of food choices: cut up power bars, bananas, oranges, cookies, pretzels, crackers, baked potatoes, cut up sandwiches, and even soup. You will need to match up what is offered with what you need. During the race, it helps to plan for the next aid station before you arrive. Normally, volunteers will be standing by to help fill your bottles. Meanwhile, you can chug a cup of water, sports drink, or Coke and begin grazing over the food stuffs. You’ll need to eat foods rich in carbohydrates for energy and take in some salty foods to compensate for salt loss. Don’t be in a big hurry here. Eat plenty. Take care of any additional needs: some lubricant for a hot spot on your foot, an antacid to settle the stomach, ice to put under your hat. When you get your bottle back, check that you have everything, thank the volunteers, then fill your hands with extra food and keep eating as you walk up the trail.
Designated aid stations along the race route are also meeting places for you and your crew. Your support crew can sit you down in a camp chair for a brief rest, help you with a change of shoes and socks, give you your favorite snack foods, and replenish your supplies. You should pack everything you might need in a bag that the crew is responsible for and give your crew estimates for when you can be expected at different points in the race. Even if you don’t have a crew, many ultras allow you to pack an extra bag, called a “drop bag,” which is transported out to a designated aid station and will be waiting there for you when you pass through.
You’ll want to do some homework about your first ultra race. Try starting small. It is a lot easier to complete a 50K than a 50 mile first time out. Learn about the course. What is the surface? Mostly single track? Fire road? This should inform your training plans. Significant elevation changes? If yes, you had better add lots of hills to your workouts. How far between aid stations? If most of them are 5 to 7 miles apart, you can get by with one bottle. If there are stretches of up to 10 miles or if the weather is typically hot, you had better have two bottles. Look at finishing times from the previous year to see how long runners were on the course. That will help you plan your supplies and prepare you mentally for what is ahead.
In the rush to make the typical early morning ultra start, it’s easy to forget some small but critical detail in your preparation for the race. Here’s a top-to-bottom list of things to check before toeing the line at an ultra.
- Cap with visor (back flap optional)
- Lip balm
- Sunblock, plenty on the face, back of neck, arms and legs
- Water bottle and holder
- Fanny pack with extra pouches
- Energy gel, ibuprofen, salt tabs, electrolyte tabs (depending on your preferences)
- Skin lubricant applied to inner thighs, small of back (where pack rubs), nipples (Band-Aids work here, too), toes
- Toenails well clipped
- Double socks to reduce friction against the skin
- Broken-in shoes
Ultrarunners sing a common refrain about their first ultra experience: “I went out too hard,” or “I didn’t know how to take it easy.” First timers don’t understand that the basic pace of an ultra is less intense than that of a marathon. Veteran ultrarunner Dave Olney describes his ultra pace as “slow enough to be rear-ended by a sleepy snail.” So during the race, try to relax. Talk to the other runners. Make the most out of each aid station.
Mentally breaking the race down into manageable segments helps. Thinking about the whole distance you have to go will only scare you. Super ultrarunner Ann Trason, who has held national records outright over various distances and has triumphed at Western States 100 a remarkable 12 times, when asked during one tough race if her strategy was to run from aid station to aid station remarked, “No, more like from tree to tree!” If you keep making forward progress, the distance will eventually take care of itself. Invariably you will pass through physical and emotional high points and low points. When you hit a low point, slow down and keep tending to your basic needs, eating and drinking, and you should recover. Tell yourself what runners are told before beginning one of the most difficult races in the country, the Leadville Trail 100, “You’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.”
Remember that feeling you had when you finished your very first marathon: the incredible joy and pride in the accomplishment, the immense relief that it was over? You’ll have that same feeling—only better—when you finish your first ultra!