Your First Ultra – You Can Do It

By David Horton

So, you’re thinking about doing an ultra or looking for a new challenge? Completing an ultra may be the perfect goal for you. You may be thinking, “but I haven’t even completed a half marathon or a marathon.” Most folks believe you should do a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon before even considering doing an ultra. I don’t agree.

I teach an Advanced Running class (students must complete 360 miles of running for the semester) each spring at Liberty University. I have been teaching this class for over 20 years. One of the requirements for the course is the completion of an ultra – any ultra the student chooses. The class begins in the middle of January and over 90 percent of the students complete the Promise Land 50K in Bedford, Virginia, on the last Saturday in April, just over three months after the start of the class. Most of these runners have never completed a marathon. I have had many students who go on to do lots of 50Ks, 50-milers, and even 100-milers and have still never completed a marathon.

What is an ultra? Typically, any distance over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra distance. When I was doing ultras in the early ’80s, most runners’ first ultra was a 50-miler because there were very few 50Ks at that time. What should you choose? I would suggest a trail 50K because you want to be successful; 50Ks are much more doable than 50-milers if done correctly, and mentally, running on a trail is much easier than running on the road.

Below is a list of suggestions for completing your first 50K:

  • Your number one goal should be to complete the race within the time limit.
  • Pick an established 50K that is noted for a high rate of completion (over 90 percent) and has a good number of aid stations (usually one every 3 to 5 miles).
  • Read the race reports from previous years and see what the runners say about the race.
  • Choose a trail race with some elevation change (for a 50K – 2,000 feet or more). If you pick a flat race, your chances of having a positive experience are decreased, as you will run too fast and too much on a flat course.
  • If possible, train on the course and cover the entire course in two or three runs. If you can’t train on the course, train on comparable terrain.
  • How fast do you run? Run at a comfortable pace, one where you can carry on a conversation. If you are breathing hard, slow down or walk. You want to stay below that lactate threshold so that you are burning more fat and less carbs and will have less of a chance of bonking.
  • Carry a hand-held bottle or one-bottle pack and drink electrolyte-replacement fluid or water. How can you tell if you are drinking enough, or too much? If you are urinating every 30 minutes or so, you are drinking too much. If you are only urinating every 2 or 3 hours, you may not be drinking enough.
  • In the last half or third of the race, try drinking Coke or Mountain Dew. The sugar and caffeine may give you some needed energy. n Don’t make a pact to run with someone. One of you will always feel better than the other and desire to run faster or slower.
  • When the going gets hard (and it will), visualize how cool it will be to be called an ultrarunner and think about how good that post-race food will taste.
  • Before the race, lubricate areas that may rub or chafe. Guys, put a piece of duct tape on your nipples and lube the inner sides of your thighs. Ladies need to lube under their arms.
  • Don’t run too close to the runner in front of you, especially going downhill.
  • Basically, walk the uphills and run the downhills. If the course is flat, walk for a couple of minutes every 10 to 15 minutes. When you walk, walk with a purpose – FAST.
  • Pay attention to the course markings. At every road or trail, look to see if the course makes a turn. Don’t assume that the runner in front of you knows where they are going. n Expect things to go wrong; they will at some point. Try to keep a positive attitude. Adapt.
  • Don’t be concerned if you don’t sleep well the night before the race, you won’t. Try and get a good night sleep on Wednesday and Thursday night for a Saturday race.
  • Don’t eat too much the night before the race or the morning of the race. Eating too much can cause GI problems.
  • Wear the shoes (trail or road) you have been training in and are accustomed to using. Discuss this issue with others who have completed the race before, and don’t tie your shoes too tight.

Just remember: This too shall pass…you can do more than you think you can…the pain and discomfort will end…it will be worth it once you’ve finished…and it never always gets worse.

I have been fortunate to have participated in a lot of ultra events (I still hope there are more to come). One of the major highlights of my running career was completing my first ultra, the JFK 50-Mile in November of 1979. I will never forget that experience. And you will never forget completing your first ultra. So, now go out and do it and then send me a story at dhorton@ liberty.edu telling me about your first ultra completion! Get ready…there will be more!



  • Jay Greenfield

    great suggestions, and I never get tired of reading advice from other ultra runners. Had my first DNF last year and it still stings. Yes, I was undertrained, but more importantly I was not prepared mentally for the suffering that I knew would eventually take place. So add be mentally prepared to suffer!!

  • Kirsten Sireci Renner

    First ultra was NorthFace 50k 2011, prepared and ready, killed it – Then did JFK50 later that year, did ok — did two more 50ks and was less prepared and didnt do great but finished – doing my first 24-Hour in a couple days….not as ready as I’d like to be but not planning on giving up – thanks for the great article ;-)