Getting Through Your First Ultra

January is always a good time to figure out your running goals for the coming year. One thing to think about while you’re fiddling with your New Year’s resolutions and sitting next to a warm fire under a down comforter is whether to add this entry to the list: Finish my first ultra. If you do, it’s a good bet that year 2010 is going to be one of the most memorable years of your life. You will, however, have to venture out from under the comforter.

Running an ultramarathon will force you to explore new territory, both mental and physical. You’ll need to learn all you can about training for long distance running, what to eat and drink, what to wear, how to run a smart race, and how to enjoy yourself while you’re doing all that. Your best source of information will be ultrarunners in your area, but there will also be a lot of trial and error as you figure out what works best for you. Here are a few things to be thinking about, some obvious, some not so obvious, as you contemplate that first ultra attempt.

Your most basic goal is to put in about four or five months of solid training. Nothing will help you finish an ultra as much as being properly trained for the event. And while good training can’t ensure success, being seriously undertrained will almost certainly guarantee failure or at least a very miserable day. Olympian Juma Ikanga says, “The will to win means nothing without the will to train.”

Pick your ultra well in advance and learn what you can about the course you’ll be running on race day. Pre-run sections of the course itself if you can. If the course is hilly, train on hills. If the course has lots of technical trails, find technical trails to train on. If it looks like it might be hot on race day, spend time heat training. Use your long runs to test out all the shoes, clothes, food, drink, and equipment you’re likely to use in the race.

When the day of your first ultra actually arrives, give yourself the best possible send off by being well-prepared for the start. Pull all your stuff together and double check it the night before the race. Make sure you know how to get to the start on time on race morning. Check off that you’re prepared to go before the race starts: plenty of sunblock, skin lubricant or band-aids on all your friction points, energy gels and electrolyte tabs loaded up, adequate water supply, proper clothing.

When the race begins, relax. This is not a timed event with a race to the finish. Well, okay, actually it is a timed event with a race to the finish, but don’t look at it that way. Practice a little attitude adjustment. You want to finish this first ultra, not go all speed demon. Unlike in a marathon, the pace in an ultra is relatively slow. Run comfortably enough to maintain a conversation. Almost everyone, even the elites, will walk the uphill sections of the course and run the downhill and flat sections to conserve energy.

Take the time to eat and drink adequately. Take a breather and walk for awhile if you need a rest. Focus on making forward progress, not on the finish line.
In a marathon there are only about four things that can go wrong. You’re gawking at the helicopter covering the start and you twist your ankle in a pothole. You trip over someone who cuts in front of you to grab a cup of water from the cute girl at the aid station. You flatten up against “the wall” worse than usual, or your hamstrings cramp like mad at mile twenty-two. Otherwise, marathons are pretty predictable. You run, run, run and finish pretty much where your training puts you. Not so with ultras.

With ultras, you have to expect the unexpected and get ready to roll with the punches because you’re going to get punched. Your hamstring may go south, your knee may go south, your ankle, a toenail. Name a body part, it might misbehave. You may trip and fall down over one of ten thousand roots or rocks; you may even fall off a cliff. You might dump your iPod in a river, leave your water bottle at an aid station, get stung by angry wasps, follow the wrong trail to nowhere, put your foot down on a rattlesnake, do a face plant in a rock garden, get blisters on top of blisters, throw up, lose heart, get dizzy, or get to the end of your rope. The trick is to realize ahead of time that anything can happen, so when something does happen, you don’t get discouraged and think, “Oh, something went wrong, I guess this is not my day.” Something is always going to go wrong, for you and everybody else, but it can still be your day. Actually, feeling like you’re at the end of your rope is normal in an ultra.

What do you do then? You sharpen up your gallows humor and work the mental part of ultrarunning. Ultrarunners talk about having fun, but it can be pretty grim fun, especially in the later miles of an event. Thus, you get quotes such as, “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” “You can sleep when you die,” “You’ll be wistful for the ‘wall’ of the marathon, when you hit the ‘death grip’ of the ultra,” “If the bone’s not showin’, just keep goin”, or a great one from Christopher McDougall’s new book Born to Run quoting Ephraim Romesberg, “I always start…with very lofty goals…the goals get evaluated down to… where the best I can hope for is to avoid throwing up on my shoes.”

Keeping your sense of humor when the chips are down accomplishes a key goal, which is replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. This is part of the mental game you’ll have to play when everything is telling you to quit, but you have to find a way to keep yourself going. One good tactic is to have a reliable mantra to repeat to yourself when your thoughts start spiraling downward. You can also associate the painful feelings with giving the race your best effort, and keep in mind that everyone else is also feeling pretty bad. Focus on what you need to do for yourself right at the moment. Getting cramps? Take some extra electrolyte or salt tabs. Feeling weak? Try an extra energy gel and get something solid to eat at the next aid station. Overheating? Slow your pace, walk for awhile and drink plenty of water. Avoid thinking about the whole distance you still have to travel. Break the race down into manageable chunks like the next aid station, the top of the hill, or the next bend in the road.

It may seem like an eternity, but eventually you will come to that last bend in the road and up ahead you’ll see the finish, and the year 2010 will become for you a signature year, the year you conquered your first ultra. Who knows? Someday you might even be telling your grandchildren about it.


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Gary Dudney

Gary Dudney writes the “Running Wise” column. A native of Kansas, he followed his Polish wife to a job located in Monterey, California in 1982 and signed on as a Technology Project Manager at CTB/McGraw-Hill. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had landed in the center of prime Northern California ultrarunning territory. Over two hundred ultras later, he still finds every race a fresh and unique experience, evident in the dozens of quirky race reports he’s submitted to UltraRunning over the years. He’s published numerous articles on running in Runner’s World, Running Times, Trail Runner, American Fitness, Walkabout, and Marathon & Beyond. He’s also published a raft of short stories in magazines such as Boys’ Life, Highlights for Children, Boys’ Quest, and several lit magazines. His new novel Cries-at-Moon of the Kitchi-Kit is available at Amazon.

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