Has your interest in running half marathons and marathons plateaued? Are you bored with running road races? Are you looking for a new endurance challenge? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you might find yourself intrigued about running your first ultramarathon.
Ultramarathons range in length from 27 miles to an unfathomable 240 miles, but the most common distances are 50K (31 miles), 50 miles, 100K (or 62 miles) and 100 miles. For your first one, most coaches and experienced runners will suggest starting with a 50K. Although the niche sport of ultrarunning is still relatively small (with an estimated 75,000 finishers in the U.S. annually) and races are tiny (most races have fewer than 300 entrants), the sport has grown considerably in the past two decades.
Here are five key things to consider as you approach your first 50K race:
The first thing you need to know about running an ultra-distance race is that it’s nothing like running a marathon. Sure, a 50K is approximately 31 miles, just a mere five miles longer than 26.2 miles, but most ultras are run on trails and include challenging features such as hills, rocky terrain and long sections between aid stations.
Running very long distances can be rewarding and a lot of fun—especially if you are training and racing on trails. But with all of the variables that come up during ultra-distance runs—fatigue, hills or mountains, inclement weather, minor aches and pains and the need to continually refuel and rehydrate—you’ll certainly experience times when ultrarunning feels more like torture than fun. As long as you stick to it and embrace the challenge and the journey, the enjoyment will increase as your aerobic fitness grows and your body is hardened by the longer efforts.
“An athlete must possess a true passion for the distance,” says champion ultrarunner Ian Torrence, a coach with McMillan Running who lives and trains in Flagstaff, AZ. “That is personified by patience, tenacity and a talent for handling discomfort for prolonged periods of time.”
The main (or perhaps only goal) you should have when entering your first ultra is simply to reach the finish line. While that might at first feel like setting the bar too low, chances are your first one will be tougher than you think for reasons you never suspected. Afterall, you’re headed off into the unknown!
For your first 50K, give yourself six months to prepare and follow a training plan that allows you to ramp up your mileage gradually. That might mean you eventually increase your volume to 50 or 75 miles per week (or, for a slim few, maybe more). But unlike road running, where specific mileage is important, many ultrarunners consider training time or “time on your feet” to be a more valuable measure of training. For example, instead of logging a pre-marathon 20-mile run, a weekend long run during the build-up for a 50K might be going out for 3 to 5 hours on your local trail system.
“The best way to improve is to have fun, stay motivated and keep running longer in your training,” says Bryon Powell, editor of the ultrarunning site irunfar.com. “But you need to be patient and let the gains of your training come over months and years rather than trying to do too much too soon.”
Having an experienced coach guide you through your training will help you understand the rigors you’ll endure and make adjustments to your training along the way.
Ultrarunning requires a lot more gear than a half marathon or marathon. It starts with your shoes, and if you’re training for an ultra-distance trail race, it means you should invest in at least a few good pairs of trail running shoes. There are a lot of different kinds of trail shoes, so it’s important to get a pair that has enough technical features—namely, traction, cushioning and protection—to match the type of terrain you’ll be training and racing on. (Check out our guide for finding the right trail running shoes.)
You’ll have to get used to carrying your hydration, snacks and often an extra layer of clothing in a running-specific backpack. While you might opt for carrying a pack with a 50-ounce hydration bladder, most ultrarunning packs have easily accessible 16- to 20-ounce bottles or soft flasks mounted on the front. A lightweight, water-repellent jacket, arm-warming sleeves, a lightweight, moisture-wicking cap, compression socks, sunblock and anti-friction lube are some of the other gear you’ll likely want to have with you. Running with lightweight trekking poles has been on the increase among trail runners in recent years—they can significantly ease the burden your legs will endure—but be aware that not all races allow runners to use poles.
Studies show that a runner can burn 100 to 150 calories per mile during an ultra-distance race, which means you might burn between 3,000 and 4,500 calories during your first 50K. That suggests that you need to eat right before running and fuel smartly and regularly throughout the race. Start by having a hearty, well-balanced meal a few hours before, but also plan on consuming a few hundred calories at every aid station and continually consuming energy snacks along the way.
In a typical half marathon or marathon, runners take in calories through gels, chews and liquid sports drinks. But in an ultra, you’ll find aid stations stocked real food like potatoes, sandwiches, ramen noodles, chips, fruit, etc.
Begin by teaching yourself to eat real food and various energy snacks during your training runs. Get used to running with a hand-held bottle or a hydration pack (or both) to maintain your hydration. On race day, eat energy bars and gels you carry in your pack during the race, but also take a few minutes at aid stations to eat something hearty. “Eat from the start to the finish of your race, and eat what you like,” Powell says. “That will help you get calories into your system even when you don’t want to or feel you need to.”
Ultimately, ultrarunning isn’t about racing to beat other people or to beat the clock. It’s about taking on an immense challenge and testing yourself against a wide range of variables including the course and its natural features, the weather, how your body reacts and your own limits. But be aware that things will go wrong. Learning to make adjustments and running through discomfort is part of the game. Sometimes those adjustments might mean refueling more frequently or with different foods. Or it could mean swapping out your shoes for a half size larger to adjust for swelling feet. Or, if you’re running a 100-mile race through the middle of the night, it might even mean taking a 10-minute power nap to reset your system.
While enduring an ultra-distance race is a huge physical endeavor, it’s also about become mentally stronger, developing mental tenacity and doing your best to keep your emotions at bay. During any given ultra, you’ll experience times when you feel on top of the world, and moments that you’ve never felt so physically miserable and mentally and emotionally frayed. Don’t let this discourage you, because, in an ultramarathon, you’re bound to recover if you make the right adjustments. The key is to maintain relentless forward motion and keep a positive attitude.
“Expect the unexpected and don’t panic,” Powell says. “If things start to go sideways, try to figure it out and make sure you’re fueling and hydrating correctly. Even if things do start to go south, give yourself time to make adjustments. If you were to go to the finish line of any ultra and ask every runner if their race went perfectly according to plan, almost no one would say they had a perfect day. Stuff happens out there, but overcoming those things is part of what makes finishing your race so rewarding.”
By Brian Metzler. Metzler has raced just about every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, is a three-time Ironman finisher and has been involved in the quirky sport of pack burro racing for more than a decade. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, the former editor of Competitor and the co-author of "Run Like a Champion: An Olympian's Approach for Every Runner."