I came across this article that my wife Anne wrote for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine a year or so ago. Most of us have just a race or two left on the 2008 agenda and some of us are looking at new goals and challenges for 2009. I thought this article was appropriate for some of you out there considering a jump up in distance running. There are so many ultra races out there now that it is pretty easy to find one (if it has not filled up yet), a testament to the growing popularity of ultra running.
RUNNING YOUR FIRST ULTRA
by Anne Lundblad
I frequently receive emails from runners who want to run their first ultra. Maybe reading about the exploits of Dean Karnazes, aka Ultramarathon Man, has piqued their curiosity, or perhaps they’ve completed several marathons and are seeking a new challenge. Whatever the case, they have decided to take the plunge into the world beyond 26.2 miles and are seeking advice on how to accomplish this goal. Here are some of the tips I generally share with them:
Run a marathon first. Rare is the person who can jump from a 5k to a 50k. Success is more likely if you progress gradually, allowing both your body and your mind to adjust to the increased workload. I ran for close to twenty years before I attempted my first ultra. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs two decades of training and racing, but I do believe that it was the years of accumulated miles, rather than the six months of training immediately preceding the race, that gave me the strength to complete the distance.
Choose a race four to six months out. Now is the perfect time to target a spring race and begin to ramp up your mileage. If you’ve been running consistently for some time, you may be able to get by on a four month build up; otherwise, five or six months is preferable. There are many great races in the country to choose from. Two comprehensive sources for locating upcoming ultras are http://www.coachweber.com/ultramarathoncalendar.htm and www.ultrarunning.com.
Train on terrain similar to that of the race. If you’ve chosen a race contested on gnarly singletrack, you’d better get plenty of experience scrambling over rocks and roots. If the course offers lots of steep climbs and descents, practice your powerwalking and downhill skills. Speaking of walking, it is perfectly acceptable in ultras. Whereas walking in most road races carries with it a certain degree of embarrassment and even shame, some ultras are won or lost on the basis of a competitor’s ability to powerwalk up hills without losing ground. Some ultrarunners like to practice a structured run/walk strategy, e.g. run ten minutes, walk two; however, I prefer to let the terrain dictate my pace.
Practice eating and drinking on the run. While most people can make it through a marathon on fluids and perhaps a gel or two, you will require much more nourishment in an ultra. Fluid and calorie intake is a must, as a 50k can take as long as 4-5 hours for a competitive runner and up to 8-9 hours for a back-of-the-packer. The good news is that the slower pace of an ultra is generally easier on the digestive system, meaning that you can take in solids while on the run. Most ultras have aid stations every several miles, but don’t let this fool you – mileage on trails is not always accurate and sometimes it can take over an hour to run those “3-4 miles”. Carrying a handheld bottle or fanny pack is advisable in order to ensure that you’ll have fuel when you need it.
Another note on aid stations – some of them tend to be quite abundant. Beware the temptation to eat and drink things that you haven’t tried in training. My friend was psyched to see ice cream sandwiches at mile thirty-two of Bull Run, until he saw fellow runners barfing them up several miles down the trail. Try to avoid the cake, pizza, cheeseburgers and tequila shots until after the race. As ultrarunning great Howard Nippert puts it, “It’s a race, not a buffet.”
Don’t skimp on the long runs. Even though I once had a coach who maintained that “you can run a 50k on a whim”, this is not a practice I recommend. No matter how long you’ve been running, there is simply no substitute for logging the miles. It is during those long hours on the trail that you will discover what you are really made of and how your body and mind respond to extreme fatigue, certain foods and energy drinks, and even boredom. These runs, which for a 50k should be at least 20-25 miles, build your confidence and your strength. Once you have three or four of these under your belt, you will approach the race with assurance that you can do it.
Although the idea of running an ultra may be intimidating, it is an achievable goal – if you’re willing to put in the effort. See you on the trails!