Ultra Marathon Tips

Ultra Running is becoming increasingly popular, and, while it is certainly not for everyone, many people who have run a few marathons get the urge to “go long” at some stage.

Taking on an ultra should not be done lightly – the training takes commitment, and the race itself is never easy. My experience is that some people, who may not be the fittest or the fastest, are ideally suited to ultras, while others, who can knock off marathons with ease, are just not mentally designed for the longer distance – and make no mistake, ultras are mental (in more ways than one!). A marathon tests your fitness and endurance, but an ultra tests your willpower and your will to go beyond what your mind believes your body is capable of. If you take the attitude that an ultra is just a long marathon, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. The ultra is a separate and very different challenge.
I’ve heard it said that a marathon is twice the distance of a half marathon, but three and a half times as hard – if that is true then a typical ultra (say, a 100K) is many multiples the difficulty of a marathon.

All that said, the ultra is my favorite event. There is something epic and life-enhancing about running an ultra that you just don’t get from a marathon. For me, the act of reaching within myself, into the deepest reserves of my willpower, and facing down the negative thoughts that tell me it can’t be done, keeps me coming back for more. The feeling I get when I cross the finish line at the end of an ultra makes every ounce of the pain worthwhile.

There is also a camaraderie and sense of togetherness among ultra runners that is probably unique among individual sports people.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from the ultras I’ve run to date, and from some of the wonderful ultra runners I’ve had the pleasure to run with, that may be of use to you if you decide to take on this challenge:

  • Slow Down! Ultras are not marathons – and if you try to run an ultra as if it is just a long marathon, you are likely to run into serious trouble. Forget times – aim to finish.
  • The training is Key! You can get away with stuff in shorter races that you won’t in the ultra – if you don’t train your ass off, you WILL pay for it on race day. Train for every aspect of the ultra – the eating, the walking, the fueling, the changing of shoes and clothes, the crewing. Unless you are an elite athlete, you are likely to use the Run/Walk method for your ultra – practise this in all your long runs.
  • Fueling is very important – you must practise it, and practise it well – as I found out the hard way in my first ultra, if you don’t practise eating while moving, it won’t work for you on the day. Typically, you will need to take in 120-240 Calories per hour. This is harder than it sounds, and if you haven’t done this many times during training, your stomach won’t want to know about it during the race. Pick foods that you can eat lots of, and that contain carbs, fats, and salt. My favorite is crisps – I eat packs of them during an ultra, as I find them easy to digest, high in salt and fat, and I can vary the flavour to suit. Lots of people use boiled potatoes rolled in salt. The key thing is to find something that you can eat hour after hour – anything with a strong flavour, or that is stodgy, is likely to become sickening after a while. The same is true of sports drinks – anything too sweet is likely to be undrinkable after you’ve been having it for 3 or 4 hours straight. Salt is critical – hyponatremia (low blood sodium) is very common in ultras (I’ve suffered badly from it myself) and you should take salt supplements during the race to prevent it.
  • Study the course – ultra courses vary greatly, from laps around a nice flat running track, to trails up the side of mountains. Get familiar with the route of your race, where the aid stations are, where you will meet your crew or drop bag, where you can use a toilet (or more likely, a field!), do you need to navigate? What type of footwear you need, etc. Discovering that a marathon is unexpectedly hilly half way through makes for a painful experience, discovering an ultra is unexpectedly hilly halfway through will probably lead to a DNF. Train for the course and conditions that you expect to meet on the day.
  • Test your gear thoroughly. I have a saying for marathons: “Don’t eat, drink, wear, or carry anything that you haven’t eaten, drank, worn, or carried on at least two long runs” – this is doubly important for ultras, and I would say that two long runs is nowhere near enough to test your gear. The slightest bit of chaffing or discomfort can turn into a major problem over many hours, especially with shoes – lots of people end up dropping out of ultras with severe blisters, so make sure you have a plan to deal with them. Using talcum powder in your socks can help, and some people swear by coating their feet in vaseline (though I found this uncomfortable when I tried it). For the guys, nipple protection is vital – band aids work for some, but for me, I just have to take a small tub of vaseline, and recoat them every 10-15 miles.
  • Prepare yourself mentally – barring a serious injury, you will drop out or finish an ultra with your mind, not with your body. There will be pain, there will be suffering, there will be moments of despair, so be prepared, keep the goal in mind, and keep moving forward. Try to keep something in your mind that drives you on when your mind tells you to stop. I think about my kids when times get tough, and think about the example I want to set them, and how I want them to see me. That makes me keep going when otherwise I might just give up.
  • If you are doing an ultra that calls for having a crew, pick your crew carefully – you need people who understand why you are doing this, what it means to you, and who don’t mind putting up with a bit of abuse (there are no gentlemen at mile 60 of an ultra). You want people that care enough for you to look after you, but not so much that they will let you wimp out at the first sign of trouble, or get panicky if you start hallucinating. It helps if they don’t mind popping blisters. An ultra can be a very long and trying day for crew, so they need to be tough too.

Check out my posts on Things That Work and Things That Don’t Work, and Marathon Advice For Beginners, as well as my Tralee 100K 2014 and Tralee 100K 2015 race reports for more tips.

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