Getting Started

There seems to be a consistent demand for how-to articles on ultrarunning. Newcomers to our joyous sport eagerly seek advice on how to minimize the time spent as novices so that they can play the game without learning many lessons through painful experience. So, in answer to that call, I will offer you the tips of an experienced plodder. These are not secrets to becoming one of the great ones — that is all done with talent and hard work. This article is about how to have fun. After all, that is what ultrarunning is all about.

Not very long ago choosing an ultra was an easy task. If it was possible to find one within your geographical area, that was your race. Times have changed and now we see a great variety of choices in each month’s listings. Since no one can do them all, and most of us can do very few, a selective process is necessary.

The first factor to consider is distance. Weigh this factor based on your experience. If you have never even run a marathon, then do one first. Certainly many, perhaps most, of us can successfully negotiate an ultramarathon without prior experience at the marathon distance, but that is not the point. Ultrarunning reserves its greatest rewards for those with the patience to work toward long-term goals. The first lesson that we each must learn is how to take one step at a time; that is how every ultra is done. Marathoners deal with a mythical 20-mile wall. For ultrarunners there turns out to be a series of walls, each indicating a change in the basic nature of the race in question. If we bypass all these landmarks and run a 1,000-mile race after our first 10-km, then we have wasted the opportunity of enjoying the personal fulfillment at the successful passing of each of these barriers.

Here is an evaluation of the different race groupings as I see them. Most ultrarunners would agree with this division, although the exact cutoff points depend on individual ability and the nature of the course.

  1. Races under 20 miles are your basic road races. Be it a 10-km or a 30-km, the factors to be reckoned with are roughly the same. Being able to finish is not the question; it is simply a matter of how fast.
  2. The 20-40 mile distance consists, essentially, of races similar to a marathon. Fifty kilometers is technically an ultra, but it is run simply as a long marathon. At these distances mistakes no longer penalize only your finishing time, but bring to the fore the very real possibility of failure to finish at all. The 20-mile wall is real, and going beyond it while attempting to perform at the maximum of your ability is an accomplishment to be proud of.
  3. The range between 40 and 70 miles brings us to the realm of the 50-mile and 100-km. The barrier we passed at 20 miles seems only to have been put there to prepare us for the bigger wall waiting between 40 and 45 miles. For the average runner, walking is now an important part of the equation for success. Still, these are essentially running events.
  4. Races between 75 and 100 miles put us into elite company. Walking is now a major consideration and sleep deprivation becomes a new critical factor. If the barrier we conquered to reach 50 miles seemed demoralizing, the wall between that and 100 miles is devastating beyond description. Training and experience may render marathons and 50-milers routine, but even the great ultrarunners will tell you that 100 miles is always hard.
  5. At 120 miles and beyond we reach the multi-day level (if you can run 120+ miles in an event that is not a multi-day, then my advice will be of no use to you anyway). At these distances the barriers are no longer clearly defined and periods of depression and elation rise and fall as inevitably as the ocean’s tides. Here, during these ultimate running experiences, we one day reach the realization that no longer are we limited by distance, but only by the time it will take to achieve it.So my first sage advice is to take each of these steps one at a time. Savor each moment of success, celebrate each passage into greater things separately, and, most of all, learn to appreciate the journey as well as its completion.Now that you have decided to work your way up the ultradistance ladder, there comes the choice of which races to run. The variety here is almost infinite. There are the choices between road, track, or trail, and the great variation in race organization, from the small low-key events to the megaraces such as Western States. Again, my philosophy is one of gradual accretion of difficulty. Begin on the more moderate track or road courses and work up to the monsters.

    As nice a dream as it makes, running one’s first 100-miler at Western States is an error. First, why enter a lottery situation and take a slot that someone more experienced could have filled, someone whose dues are paid? Second, why combine two magic moments and ultimately get only half the thrill? Your first hundred and your first WS should each be savored individually.

    When selecting your races, start well in advance, go through all the listings, and send for every entry form that interests you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about items of concern, such as probable weather, requirements for handlers, and so on. The information you collect will be useful far beyond that one year’s running. The wise ultrarunner is out to experience every type of event available; if two of your choices are irresistible, then one may have to become another year’s dream.

    For your first race at some landmark distance you want to select a moderate course and a small event. The moderate course is due to the fact that your challenge will be merely to make it, and that is enough. Choosing a small event will mean that most of the runners and race people will know what you are after and you’ll be aided by the kind of personal support that such a special occasion warrants.

    Later, as the distances become part of your normal range, you can go after the challenges of the monster courses and the celebrations of the big races. Some will become annual pilgrimages and others you’ll taste once only as you move on in the quest for new experiences. These decisions may not be so much conscious decisions as simply a feeling you’ll have in your heart about certain events.

    There is one final consideration in picking an ultra: location. Initially you might prefer to stay close to home and concentrate on the race itself. As he or she matures, the smart ultrarunner begins to think about more exotic locales. Ultrarunning constitutes more than just an opportunity to travel; it is a reason to travel. The average tourist visits a place by staying in a motel full of tourists, visiting tourist places, and, generally, leaving without ever really “seeing” the place at all. As an ultrarunner we go and spend our time with the local runners, doing something that gives us a genuine taste of the locales we visit.

    Each year Tennessee is visited by millions of travellers. They go to Opryland and ride carnival rides, they visit the Grand Ole Opry and see a show put on just for them. They do a multitude of things that are found in every other tourist spot in America and then carry home cheap souvenirs stamped with “Tennessee,” or “Smoky Mountains,” or some such, which are identical to souvenirs stamped “Philadelphia” or “Hawaii.” At the same time, about fifty out of these millions come for the Strolling Jim. These visitors sit on the porch of the old Walking Horse Hotel and talk, they eat a little dust on gravel roads, they cross creaky old wooden bridges, and they spend their time as guests, not tourists. These people go home with a genuine taste of Tennessee. Veteran ultrarunners call this the “shit in the woods” tour. While some people drive cars plastered with stickers stating the names of places they have visited, I can point with pride to having defecated in the woods in places ranging from Maine to Hawaii. Sure, lots of folks have been to Pensacola Beach. I, however, have squatted amongst the briars in a swamp to relieve myself. They have passed through; I have been there.

    So my third bit of advice is to constantly look for new places to race. There are only so many hot spots for touristing; there are an infinite number of wonderful places to visit.

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Gary Cantrell

Gary Cantrell writes the “View From the Open Road” column. Gary has written for UltraRunning more or less continuously since his column “From the South” first appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 back in May of 1981. He is perhaps most well-known as the founder of the Barkley, a trail race in eastern Tennessee. (Although some would comment that it isn’t really a race, and others would add that those aren’t really trails.) He is also the founder of the Strolling Jim 40 Mile and periodically organizes a 314-mile run across Tennessee, the Vol State Road Race. He is currently the race director of the Backyard Ultra. In the real world he works as an accountant.

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