How to survive your first ultra marathon

Ultra marathon training tips and advice

Preparing for your first ultra race will be like nothing you’ve ever faced before. You will push yourself beyond your previously established limits of physical endurance and mental resistance. Exactly how you get to grips with your first ultra will be an intensely personal experience, but there are various aspects of the race you will definitely need to consider beforehand. And remember, this is a first step into the unknown, which brings with it all sorts of new problems and challenges that you will need to solve if you are to survive your first race/event.  

Make sure you have the right kit

Having the right kit for your ultra marathon sounds so obvious it’s painful, but runners still get so caught up in the moment when they approach race day, it can be easy to forget something really important. While you might get away with forgetting to bring a cap or a sun visor in a half or full marathon, you will pay for that mistake big time in an ultra (try imagining a 50 mile (80km) race in the mountains and desert without one).

Long distance endurance races like this are difficult enough, so don’t sabotage your efforts with a silly mistake. Your motto has to be check and check again when it comes to your kit before you hit the road.

Pace yourself

Although there won’t be the usual stampede to break to the front that you sometimes get in distance races, it is really important to pace yourself. Despite the euphoria and nerves that you will inevitably experience, don’t go off too quickly. Stick to your pacing plan, even if that’s only 4 miles an hour. Always bear in mind that if you’re running a 100 mile race that will require 20 hours or so on your feet, which is an awful lot of running and walking.

Although you might initially feel fantastic for the first 10 hours at a 5 mile an hour pace, you can be sure the second half of the race won’t feel as much fun if you haven’t trained for that sort of speed. Keep in mind at all times that the point of running an ultra is to finish it, not finish up in hospital.

Break it down

Like all long distance events it can be totally overwhelming to try and think of the distance in the round. The best policy has to be breaking it down into manageable goals. For some runners, that can mean splitting a 100-mile event into roughly four marathons. Or it can be looking at it as 10 sections of 10 miles. Choose whatever works best for you and set a succession of mini targets that are achievable. It will help you enormously mentally and ultimately physically to view the race like this, and it will certainly help silence the persistent grumbling of that inner voice which is always looking for an excuse to tell you negative things.

Be prepared for anything

Expecting the unexpected is one of the best pieces of advice you can take with you on your first ultra. Be prepared for the fact you could suffer anything from heat exhaustion, frostbite, blisters, an injury, dehydration to hypothermia, and that those calamities are all part of the experience. But comfort yourself with the knowledge that you can mitigate the potential impact of any of the above by doing your homework beforehand, finding out exactly what and where the extremes of climate and terrain could be.

Given that there are so many potential variables when you are on your feet for so long, you need to be have a flexible race plan. Yes you must have a race strategy, but be ready to change that plan in a heartbeat if for instance the weather closes in, you become ill or your running companion sustains an injury. This also includes the ability to know when to pull out of the race if you’re struggling. Being stubborn and resilient is one thing, but jeopardising your health and safety is another.

You really don’t want to be 70 miles into a race in the middle of nowhere, wishing you had pulled out at mile 50 where there was a medical station where they would have confirmed your suspicion that you had indeed broken your foot. Always remember things happen in ultras, but as long as nothing is a nasty surprise, you will be able to cope with everything that happened within your event.

Mental toughness

Having talked a little about stubbornness and dealing with that, the flip side is your ability to tough it out when it hurts. Running an ultra will hurt. That is a fact. How much it hurts and where depends on your training, physical resistance and physiology.

As you prepare for the race, keep reminding yourself that it will be tough and you will have bad patches when you want to stop racing. But wanting to stop and needing to stop are two different things. Bad patches are a runner’s worst enemy but most constant companion. You will certainly have moments of doubt during the race, but learning to distinguish between an anxiety and a real problem is part of the challenge that an ultra will force you to meet.

Homework

The anecdotal accounts of runners who have run your particular event should be recommended reading as part of your preparation. Knowing how the weather can close in at a certain stage of a race, or how a trail can be icy even in summer, is exactly the kind of forensic knowledge you will need. Reading anything written by ultra runners can be invaluable generally and talking to people who have attempted the same kind of thing will crystallize things even more clearly in your mind.

Have a pacer

Depending on the race distance, a lot of ultras allow runners to meet up with a pacer in the latter stages of the event. This can be a huge bonus because they join during those stages of the event when you may be struggling. So many ultra runners will testify that the arrival of a friend, mentor, loved one or family member can work wonders for morale and give you the injection of enthusiasm, speed, re-assurance and good old running love you need. If you find you’re flagging at mile 60 of a 100-mile race, there is nothing more uplifting than the sight of a running companion to help you rattle off that final 40 miles.

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