…and 5 tips for running an ultra marathon.
Although I wouldn’t be caught dead calling myself a runner, a few years ago I signed up for an ultra trail race. I was a little nervous; as a former football player and self-proclaimed MOG (man of girth) I was under the impression that only gazelle-like humans should be signing up for races of this nature. At the time, I’d never (and still haven’t) run an official road marathon, and I knew I’d really need to get focused. So I immediately signed up for a few trail races that would, in theory, help me reach my running goals for the year.
I trained hard for my first 50K in April of 2012. The race went well and I learned a whole lot that day. Now, less than 2 year later I managed to somehow still be running ultras and I decided that I should finally convince my sister to sign up for her first 50K Trail Race. I did this by writing her a training program and offering to help advise her as she takes on this goal. My advice to her is below, in the form of 5 tips to help her (and now you!) finish and enjoy a 50K trail race.
1. Run Your Own Race
You’ve probably heard it before and you’re going to hear it again, but undoubtedly, without feats of incredible discipline you will be excited and anxious at the starting line. The gun goes off and you feel like a rabid honey badger. You start passing runners, weaving through traffic cursing the fact that you started so far back, fighting to seed yourself among the many other runners in the singletrack conga line.
You’re nervous because 33 feet from the starting line your Garmin GPS watch is telling you that you’re on pace for a 19 hour finish so you start passing people, and eventually your ego and lack of experience take the reins. You’re jamming stride-for-stride with some ultra-runner stud through the beautiful rolling trails. This snowball gains momentum for about 17-20 miles until you’ve realized you’ve just made a big mistake. Your calves have seized, your feet are hamburger and you’re thinking negative thoughts that even Tony Robbins couldn’t reverse. You must now resort to the all-too-often seen “ultra shuffle” with 11 miles of misery to overcome. You’re in survival mode. Welcome to the pain cave.
The good news is that none of this needs to happen: Don’t let your ego or race pressures dictate your pace. Go into your first few races with a plan. Running by “feel” is much more difficult when you’re new to ultras. I would strongly recommend wearing a watch and sticking true to a pre-determined pace that you have proven to be realistic given your training and preparation for the 50K. Your body and mind will thank you as the race progresses and you will know late in the race (mile 29 or so) if you have extra juice left in the tank to burn.
2. Nutrition Plays A Massive Role In Ultra Success
You’ve trained hard, you’re feeling strong and you’re following an efficient pacing strategy to a T. You’re a well-oiled-ultra-machine, but with all feats of endurance, you need fuel to preform. This is another unfortunate cause of many DNF’s (Did Not Finish) or painful ultra sufferfests. To run an ultra, you burn an incredible amount of energy. It takes training and discipline to run the race well hydrated and well nourished.
I remember the first time I found the real value in proper and proactive fueling. I was running a trail race fast & furious with a pack of about 7 other runners. We hit the first aid station 8 miles in, and I was the lone runner that veered off to check out the delicious assortment of trail treats. I felt like the fat kid at a super buffet and doubted my decision to derail and lose momentum from the running pack. I stuck to my fueling plan, scarfed down a few fig newtons and half a PB&J sandwich and continued on. I ran the entire race this way, methodically eating and drinking on a set schedule, regardless if I “felt like eating” or not. I ended up passing every single person in that running train many miles later.
When I ran the Headless Horsetooth 50K, I burned 6,391 calories during the race. That’s a whole lotta GU’s! Running nutrition is an entire blog entry in itself, but it’s incredibly important that you figure out what types of things you enjoy consuming during a race and are diligent about fueling. It significantly affects how your body and mind feel during and after the race.
3. The Ultra Community Is Amazing
I knew what the typical road race and triathlon crowds were like, but the ultra-community is a completely different animal. Maybe it’s the nature or humility of an ultra-race; nipple band-aids, a well-greased undercarriage and the occasional trail-side squat are just a few common occurrences at any ultra. You will meet some incredibly interesting, modest and talented people during your race. The community is tight-knit, and everyone genuinely hopes that you will have a successful day(s) on the trails! Use the energy and encouragement of your fellow runners – you’re all out there together working towards that common goal of getting to the finish line.
4. Not All Pain Is Significant
Pain is weakness leaving the body. Well, maybe, but sometimes when you’re running an ultra, you might feel like your entire body is made up of weakness. Running in general has an awful reputation with injuries that I think a lot of people are very sensitive to, and with good reason. We run because it’s fun, keeps us healthy, and we enjoy the challenge – so there’s no use in being sidelined due to a lasting injury.
However pain and injuries are two very different things: It’s almost guaranteed that you will, at some point, become “uncomfortable” during the course of an ultra. It may be a blister from running through a stream-crossing, the strained groin from slipping on that patch of ice, indescribable chaffing or that fussy__________(insert joint) that won’t seem to stop nagging you. It’s up to you as a runner to determine ahead of time what the race is worth to you, and what you are physically and emotionally willing to endure to reach the finish line.
With anywhere from 5-10 hours of trail time for a 50K, you do a lot of thinking. Sometimes a little too much and it’s easy to over analyze every little thing that your body is doing or trying to tell you. It’s easy to just say “I’m going to listen to my body” but that’s not going to cut it, at least until you have a few races under your belt. For most people running their first 50K; 31.0686 Miles is the furthest distance their bodies will have travelled at one time. Because of this, it is common that you will feel some discomfort from various body parts during the race. The way I determine significant pain or ultra-discomfort is the 10 minute rule.
This obviously does not apply to issues like a blister or chafing that can be instantly resolved with a strip of duct tape and a handful of Vaseline – but when it comes to that tweaky knee or sore hip, continue running. Make sure you are well hydrated and properly fueled, then glance at your watch. Run for 10 minutes. Chances are that fuel you just took will kick in, and after three minutes you will have forgotten about what was hurting you.
If that’s not the case, slow down, stretch, and re-evaluate the pain for 10 more minutes of forward movement. If after 20 plus minutes things aren’t getting any better, then you need to determine if the pain is your body telling you that something is really wrong and you are creating irreversible damage, or you’re just experiencing a “standard” ultra-marathon experience. Welcome to the club.
Ultimately it’s up to you as the runner to determine what “real” pain is, but I have found those precious 10 minutes have ruled out many issues, and won’t allow my mind to get too caught up in typical race pains. I’ve usually completely forgot about it after a few minutes because I’ve allowed my mind to move on.
Humans are incredibly powerful machines. We are genetically designed to run and travel great distances at one time; it’s just a matter of re-training our body and mind to do so – and to do so efficiently. The MOST Important piece of advice for running, and more importantly enjoying your first 50K is to have a positive attitude and mindset. Take obstacles as they come, and embrace them as part of the ultra-experience. We run these distances to challenge ourselves mentally and physically and the sooner you embrace the experience, the more you will enjoy it.
With long races, your mindset can be drastically affected by your race strategy and nutrition. One little negative thought and you could spiral down back into the black hole of self-wallowing. Don’t allow it. My first 50K was hard. I had a few visits to the pain cave that took me a while to escape. However after a few races under my belt I have run much longer distances and truly enjoyed every step of the experience. Attitude is a huge dictating force in your ultramarathon experience, and I didn’t realize how powerful my mindset affected me in my first few races.
The Headless Horsetooth 50K went great. I ran those 50 kilometers as closely through the eyes of my sister, trying to pinpoint the most challenging parts of the day, and translating them to advice that will hopefully aid in her success come June. As with all ultra-races, you can plan as much as you want but nature and your body will undoubtedly throw you a curveball…or five. Even after participating in ultras for a few years, I’m always learning new things. Start with these five tips. Take the race in stride, one step at a time, relentlessly moving forward.
Jason Antin is Director of Partnerships for Gociety. He’s a mountain guide in his spare time, tackling rock, ice and alpine routes across the west. He also enjoys endurance sports where he can spend some long days with great people.