It might start this way: you run your first 10K, then get hooked on running and decide to do a half-marathon, then it’s a marathon next … But there’s another distance that’s becoming more and more common (though arguably no less crazy), and that’s the ultramarathon. This is classified as any distance beyond 26.2 miles. While the majority of ultras are 50K, 50 miles, 100K or 100 miles, there are also 24-hour races and multi-day options, too.
Once you’ve made the decision to take on an ultramarathon, here are eight things to know:
1. YOU DON’T HAVE TO RUN MUCH MORE THAN YOU DO FOR MARATHON TRAINING
The 50K (at 31 miles) is just a few miles longer than the marathon, so your training is going to be similar. Jessica DeLine, an ultramarathon race director in Southern California for 10 years says, “You don’t need to do an ultra distance training run. I’d recommend a 23–25 mile run for a 50K, but you can get it done with a 20–22 mile run. One of the important things is weekly mileage and increasing that over time then hitting a peak total and staying there or a few weeks.”
When you get into higher distances, though, you’ll go farther and time on your feet is important. For example, most ultrarunners don’t run more than 30 or 40 miles at once while training for a 100 miler. “Another training tip for feeling what it is like to run an ultra is back to back long days,” says DeLine. “Run 15 miles on Saturday and 15 more on Sunday — or do a long run Saturday morning and another run Saturday night. This will help you feel what it is like to run fatigued and sore because you will get fatigued and sore during an ultra.”
2. FIGURE OUT YOUR HYDRATION AND REFUELING NEEDS BEFORE RACE DAY
This is a race day tip across the board — never try something new on race day. But when it comes to ultramarathons, this is even more important. In longer races, you’ll need to figure out how to replenish calories, and it will take more than a few gels. While what you eat will vary greatly based on your personal needs and preferences, many runners drink soup or broth (it also gives you some salt) or eat things ranging from pretzels or chips to sandwiches or pizza. Whatever you do, eat at regular intervals. If you wait until you’re hungry (or thirsty), it’s already too late.
3. GO OUT EASY
Everyone gets swept up in race day excitement, but it’s even more important to pace yourself when you’re running 30, 50 or 100 miles. Especially for your first race, just go out easy and have fun. If you have something left in the tank, use it on the last few miles.
4. BREAK THE RACE INTO SIMILAR SEGMENTS
When you are running a 50- or 100-mile race, you don’t want to think about the full distance, or you could become easily overwhelmed. Break it into smaller, more manageable chunks like 5Ks (or even just getting over the next hill if you have to). It’ll help make the time go by faster, too.
DeLine recommends breaking it into chunks by “knowing the cutoff times and just go from cutoff time to cutoff time or aid station to aid station. Don’t think that you have 20 miles, but think about the fact that you just have to get to mile 18 by 1 p.m. or that you only need four more miles to the next aid station.”
5. CHECK OUT THE COURSE MAP AND ELEVATION PROFILE
It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into and how to modify your training so you can be successful. “You should train on the actual course if at all possible and if not, familiarize yourself with the terrain and train on a similar type of course,” suggests DeLine. “Training for the type of terrain is just as important as training for the mileage.”
Knowing that there are several big hills and where they are on the course, for example, ensures you know what is coming up when and won’t be surprised. Practice becoming better at climbing up a technical hill or cruising down rocky descents.
Studying the course map can also help you plan for gear drops. Many ultras allow you to have a bag that is transported to at least one aid station, and you can plan your refueling needs based on where your bag will be.
6. CARRY EXTRA HYDRATION AND FOOD
In shorter races, it’s usually not necessary to carry much on your own, but in ultramarathons, you’ll want to carry a hydration pack and snacks. There will still be aid stations, and of course you’ll have your bag drop, but for races this long, you’ll want to carry your own to make sure you always have what you need.
READ MORE > A FOOLPROOF POST-MARATHON RECOVERY PLAN
7. ASK A FRIEND TO BE YOUR CREW OR TO PACE YOU FOR PART OF THE RACE
Some ultras allow you to have a crew or at least a pacer for part of your race. If allowed, a crew will meet you at aid stations or certain accessible points to provide fresh gear (new socks, a jacket, etc.), first aid (for blisters, etc.), hydration or food replenishment. This takes quite a bit of planning, but your crew is there to help you succeed.
A pacer runs the latter part of the race with you, providing motivation and support during the hardest part of your race. Typically not allowed for races less than 100 miles, a pacer can help you navigate the course, stay on track and refuel properly.
8. LEARN THE NUANCES OF TRAIL RUNNING
If you’re already a trail runner, you can skip this one. But if you’re coming from road racing, trail running is a whole new world. There are plenty of books and websites out there that can give you tips for trail running, but you’ll need to practice on trails and learn how to maneuver around roots and rocks. You’ll need a solid pair of trail running shoes to support your feet and ankles. And, trail runners are typically a much more relaxed bunch — walking is actually OK. In fact, walking up hills and running down hills is a strategy some trail runners employ, and according to DeLine, “even some of the top ultrarunners will walk from time to time on some courses.”
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RACE