Ultramarathoning for Beginning Masochists
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Ultramarathoning for Beginning Masochists

by Dustin Stephens

So...you've decided to do your first ultra- as if the marathon weren't quite enough! God knows why, but for some reason the thought of running for hours, even days, on end - up mountain passes, down rocky ravines, through parching deserts, on the verge of complete exhaustion, battling glycogen and sleep deprivation - suddenly sounds like a great idea. Well, you get this one last chance to reconsider. Because once you start this addictive habit, you probably won't be able to stop.

Maybe you were left a little unfulfilled by your last marathon PR. There was just something about running on wide asphalt streets in a massive herd of people, with well-stocked aid stations and clearly defined mile markers that seemed a little too...artificial.

Lucky for you, most ultras in the U.S. are run on trails - steep, rocky trails. And there's something about running through the real outdoors, with fewer people, often alone for miles at a time. For one thing, you'll get immense satisfaction from saying "I ran 50 miles," or "I ran 100 miles." Some hard-cores go even further - from the 146-mile Badwater race from Death Valley to Whitney Portal, to 12, 24 and even 48 hour endurothons.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of fulfillment and self-respect you get from completing an ultra. There's also nothing quite as hard on your body. It's a true physical challenge in the purest sense, with a heck of a lot of mental endurance thrown in as well.

If these are the reasons you're drawn to the ultra, then keep reading - you've come to the right place. If you've never really considered an ultra, and think such people are a bit nuts, an article about power-walking or water aerobics will probably suit you better.

The Fundamentals

Officially, an ultramarathon is any race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The most common distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and the good old fashioned 100 miles. In Europe, the most popular distance is the 100K, and most of these are run on roads.

There are also timed events such as 24-hour races run on loop courses, often 400 meter tracks for those thrilled by monotony. In these, the competitor who covers the longest distance in the allotted time wins - and in many cases the race turns into a classic case of "last man standing."

Most American ultras are staged on trails, which is a good thing, since the continuous pounding on asphalt city streets would be murder on the legs and connective tissue. Because of this, two considerations arise in terms of preparation and footwear: Are your ankles ready for the abuse? Can your shoes stand up to the rugged terrain? As always, it's best to iron these things out in training, before race day arrives.


As any runner worth his weight in beans will tell you, an effective training regimen is the only thing that separates a miserable racing experience from a wonderful one. There are volumes written on marathon and ultramarathon training, by some of running's most respected authors - Hal Higdon, Jeff Galloway and the late Dr. George Sheehan, to name a few. Any good running store and most good bookstores will carry these authors; they are also available online at sites such as Amazon.com.

Beyond this, a good training group can help get your ultramarathon career off to an auspicious start. Unless you're outright anti-social, nothing is more motivating than having someone to share the highs and the lows of ultra training with, both the great pain and the overwhelming joy simultaneously embedded in the running experience. Ultramarathons are an increasingly popular discipline, and many cities have open, positive groups you can join for little or no cost to support your training efforts. A good example is Team in Training, which benefits the Leukemia Society and has helped many people succeed in their first marathons. To find training groups in your area, consult your local running store or search the web.

As for formulating an actual training regimen, a big boost in mileage is not the right approach when gearing up for your first ultra. According to training guru Hal Higdon, in fact, if you're already training at the marathon or even half-marathon level, then all you really need to do is readjust your current workout routine to fit the demands of the ultramarathon. That means shifting a significant portion of your mileage over to the long run, while allowing yourself to take extra rest days when you need them.

Team in Training coach Rich Hanna, silver medalist in the 2001 World 100K Championships in France, couldn't agree more: "The most important thing is not to overtrain.You can use a lot of what you do in a marathon training program to prepare for an ultra. A couple of key workouts are all you need - maintain your mileage, but extend your long run, without foregoing the [fasterpaced] tempo workouts. And you shouldn't be afraid to take a rest day whenever you need one."

Hanna has helped many runners succeed in their first 50-miler, the most popular distance for a first ultra. For this distance, he recommends running overdistance every other weekend, and gradually extending your long run from 22 to 36 miles. On the other weekends, do a medium-range tempo run of 10-16 miles at 85% effort to get your body ready for the more strenuous, even anaerobic portions of the race - and be sure to include some hills in your schedule. "It's a great idea to do some workouts on the race course if you can, too - like running the last 10-15 miles of the course as a tempo workout," Hanna further advises.

As for the 100-mile distance, such as Auburn's well-known Western States race, it's a whole different ballgame. Speedwork is much less important, and your long runs need to get even longer - up to 50 miles or more. "Plan to spend lots of time on your feet and mix in some walking to keep yourself going," says Hanna. "Patience is very important, and gearing down isn't easy for those with a background in marathons and shorter races. In the 100K, I run around 6:25 per mile - but in Western States, if you're running ten or eleven minutes per mile, that's pretty darn good." Obviously, a new understanding of the word "pacing" is fairly critical here.

Race Day!

Almost every runner can relate to the race day and pre-race day jitters. There's nothing quite like the feeling of waking up at 5 a.m. (or 3 a.m. for longer races) and thinking, "Oh God, am I really going to do this?" You nervously eat the food already planned out in advance, putting on the shorts and top you chose weeks ago, putting a warm-up layer over that and then finally lacing up your trusty, probably a bit malodorous, shoes just before you head out the door with your favorite energy bar and a bottle of water.

Yet, despite all this meticulous preparation, you might be outright terrified. That's to be expected - and just part of the fun. A race is a big deal, a sort of line of demarcation between runners and joggers, and no amount of well-organized training can fully prepare you for the rigors of putting it all on the line - especially in an event as grueling as the ultramarathon.

Nonetheless, there are a few crucial points to keep in mind:

1. Always rest, refuel, and rehydrate.

Even more than the marathon, ultras make immense metabolic demands on your body. You have to compensate for this by making conscious, deliberate efforts to regularly refuel and rehydrate during the race - and that becomes even more complicated in trail races that don't offer well-stocked aid stations. In those cases, you must bring all your food and water with you the day of the race - so plan ahead, and try out various energy bars and gels in training before you get to the race itself. "I recommend easily digestible snacks like energy gels and drinking 12 ounces of water every four miles," says Hanna. "It also helps to be prepared for the natural peaks and valleys you'll feel during the ultramarathon experience, and to slow down and rest when you need it." In other words, don't be afraid to take advantage of rest stations and really rest.

2. Beware the dreaded cut-off times.

Most races have cut-off times for various points in the race; these are strictly enforced. It's imperative that you check these times before signing up for a race. You should have a pretty good idea you can make these times. If not, it could turn out to be a frustrating experience, and your entry fee is non-refundable. Few things are as discouraging as getting pulled off a course, not to mention feeling rushed during the entirety of an eight-hour race - so check with the race director beforehand!

3. Wear shoes you trust and bring some back-up if possible.

This is more or less self-explanatory - especially in the case of rugged trail ultras. A little Vaseline and sunscreen is always a good idea, too.


Go out slowly - even slower than your goal pace for the finish. As long as you make the cut-off times, you're better off starting easy and warming up to a comfortable pace. If you think hitting "the wall" in a marathon is bad, just imagine mile 40 of a 50-miler! "I didn't respect the ultra when I did my first 50K," admits San Jose, California runner James Minze. "I went out with the leaders for the first 15 miles - at around 5:30 pace - and ended up dragging in the last 12 miles with my girlfriend. I would say that pacing - going out much slower than feels right - is the most important thing. You've got to respect the extra distance of an ultra, even if it's 'only' a 50K."

5. If in doubt, walk.

OK, so maybe you're a little self-conscious about it in a marathon. But in an ultramarathon, especially if you're on trails, all the rules have changed. If you try charging up every single 1,500-foot incline in the course of a 50-mile race, you won't make it too far - unless you're a member of the Tarahumara tribe from the mountains of Mexico. Even those guys walk from time to time in Western States or Leadville 100-milers. Heck, even the legendary ultra-runner Ann Trason walks a little when the going gets tough. Walking is much more physiologically efficient than running, and the idea of killing yourself on a steep hill to save a couple minutes in a five or ten hour race just doesn't make sense in the long run (pun very much intended). With these tips in mind and a few months of hard training behind you, your first ultramarathon experience is sure to be a good one. That's not to say it's going to be all fun - anything you do for half a day is bound to have a few emotional dips and moments when you're dying to quit. But if you stick it out, pace yourself and prepare adequately, you're in for one of the best running experiences of your life - and one that you'll want to repeat for years to come

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