An estimated 60,000 people finished an ultra in the U.S. in 2012, up from about 10,000 in 1990. That number is still small compared to the 487,000 people who completed a marathon in the U.S. in 2012, but it’s still an awful lot of people running exceptional distances. The sport has been bolstered by author-athletes like Dean Karnazes (Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner), Scott Jurek (Eat and Run) and Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen). Pros are pulling down sponsorships from serious outdoor companies like New Balance and Salomon; The North Face sponsors a series of high-profile ultra runs with growing purses and a competitive pool; mainstream media are starting to cover races. There’s a growing interest in the exceptional.
And now you’re thinking about toeing the line for an ultra. Good for you. We’ve got a handy guide to help you through, complete with advice from a few pros at the top of the sport. Here’s a preview: it’s going to be hard work, but well worth the trouble.
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Setting Goals, Hatching a Plan
Anyone who has run a marathon — and if your goal is to run an ultra, a marathon is a sensible stepping stone — knows that the time commitment is akin to a part-time job. It’s manageable, but one look at the training plans we suggested in the Complete Guide to Running Your First Marathon and it’s clear that you’ll be running five days per week for anywhere from a few miles to 20, or for roughly 30 minutes to four hours, not including recovery work. For an ultra, expect to carve out more time: anywhere from a little bit more if you plan to run a 50k (31 miles) to a whole lot more for a 50 miler. Anything longer than that, and you should plan on giving up all of the time that was once free.
“I wake up early and run, then run or cycle to work. I’m lucky to have a supportive work environment, and if I don’t get out for a lunch run they kick me out. Then I bike or run home, where I’m a full-time dad. To get the longer runs in on the weekends, I usually get up, go for a run before I meet people for a run, or race and then run afterwards, or run to the race and then run afterwards.”
Once you accept the commitment and sign up for a race, you’ll want to figure out a plan to get you from your current level of running to ultra-distance running. You’ll get most of the way there with the same framework you used for marathon training; the addition of longer long runs and some back-to-back runs will make your body more durable. “Add some 3-, 4-, and 5-hour runs, then follow that up with a two-hour run the next day, or maybe two four hour runs”, Michael Wardian, a decorated American ultra runner, says. “You want to get used to running on tired legs because in a race like that you’re going to reach a point where you’re exhausted and have to keep running.”
Building that durability can also mean using uncommon approaches to training. Ashley Arnold, Salomon team runner and 2013 winner of the prestigious Leadville 100, suggests more than simply running, especially for a 100-mile race. “If you have a desk job, create a stand-up desk and use it for an hour to a few hours every day,” she says. “Take walking breaks and get used to running after being on your feet for an extended period of time.”
Like marathon training, training for an ultra puts runners at risk for all kinds of overuse injuries, including plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, stress fractures, patellofemoral pain and iliotibial band syndrome — not to mention the psychological trauma of losing all your friends because all you do is run. This is the cost of doing business; there are more friends to be made. But there aren’t more lower extremities, so you’ve got to go to great lengths to take care of yourself.
“I highly recommend training off of feel, something we seem to be moving away from thanks (or no thanks) to GPS watches and heart rate monitors that can pull us out of internal focus by providing us with data we’re supposed to use to make all our decisions. Learn to listen to what your body is telling you.”
“Most injuries occur because athletes overextend their training efforts beyond what their body can handle”, Steve Sisson, Founder and Head Coach of Rogue Training Systems, says. “I like to say that the human body can adapt to any stress if given enough time…Our bodies have been evolutionarily designed to cover long distances at steady efforts. While we might have lost some of the specific fitness and neuromuscular adaptations in the last few thousand years, these are quickly developed with consistent training.”
In addition to increasing running distances gradually, cross-training, post-workout stretching and getting proper rest all go a long way toward preventing injury. Sisson suggests a weight training regimen to counteract the imbalances that occur because of the asymmetrical nature of running. Both Wardian and Arnold incorporate some other physical activity like hiking and cycling into their regiment, though neither has a dedicated cross-training plan. Wardian also says that he’s seen a trend in ultra runners who train by skinning up mountains and skiing down during the winter months. GP’s own ultra-distance runners have had good fortune with regular yoga practice, cycling and swimming — the last of which has the added benefit of preventing a scrawny upper body.
The Vermont 50 route alternates between roads, dirt trails and single-track as it passes through Windsor, Hartland and South Woodstock, all the while accumulating 8,900 feet of vertical. It’s a beautiful course and the race happens right during the peak of foliage season. This race offers the option of a 50 miler or a 50k. Leadville 100 winner Ashley Arnold suggests the latter distance for a first-time ultra runner. vermont50.com
JFK 50 MILE
The JFK 50 Mile was first held in 1963 as part of President Kennedy’s bid to encourage physical activity. “It’s a great first-time race because some of the aid stations have been around for 20 years”, Wardian says. “They’re completely dialed in, and if they see you come in looking wonky they’ll hook you up and get you back on the road.” jfk50mile.org
THE NORTH FACE ENDURANCE CHALLENGE
The North Face organizes six ultra runs in the U.S., each with options for everything from a 50 miler on down to a 5k. The Championship race is in San Francisco. “It’s right on the coast overlooking San Francisco”, Wardian says. “You get lots of views of the Golden Gate Bridge while you’re running around in the Marin Headlands. You run through beautiful trails with huge trees — it’s just an unbelievable course.” thenorthface.com
While general nutrition guidelines for training apply — eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods, and plenty of them — there is a trend in endurance racing toward teaching the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates (we address it in our marathon guide and in The Road to La Ruta). Ultimately, though, people of every dietary persuasion, from vegan to paleo, run ultras. The key to surviving and thriving is race-day nutrition, which is quite different for an ultra than a marathon.
It’s possible, for example, to slog through a marathon on just a few gels and some water; the same is not true for an ultra, which is more like an Ironman in terms of nutrition: you’ll need to take in calories all day in order to cross the finish line upright. Runners consume anywhere from 100-300 calories per hour using everything from custom nutrition blends — we used INFINIT during the Vermont 50 — to gels to solid foods like sandwiches and fruit. Wardian eats only Double Latte PowerGels during his races. He estimates that he’s eaten 15,000 of them.
Assembling a kit for running an ultra is, as you might imagine, fairly similar to gearing up for any other long run. We’ve outlined the basics in our kit from the Vermont 50, but there are a few important additions worth noting. One is a buff, or sports scarf, which is a seamless tube of fabric that you can wear as a scarf in cold weather, a headband to soak up sweat, a bandana to cover your head or as a mask to keep dust out of your nose and mouth. Depending on where you race (Wardian has raced in the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara) this could be the single most versatile piece of gear you wear. The other is a a race vest. While we were content with a luxurious Geigerrig Rig 500, a lot of runners wear a more minimalist, close-fitting pack like the Salomon Advanced Skin pack. “They’re super comfy and they don’t move”, Arnold says. “Plus, they’re easy to fill at aid stations.”
1. We see you’re sitting in front of a computer. You should really be out running.
2. It sucks, but the guy in the conical Asian hat and not much else? He’s going to beat you.
3. “Use a mantra. Designing your own mantra during training that will help you navigate the highs and lows you’ll experience on race day can be extremely valuable. It can be as simple as one word as long as it motivates you in a positive way.” – Ashley Arnold
4. Here’s a little haiku we made up: “Without BodyGlide / A Nice Day of Running Drowns / In Your Salty Tears”.
5. You don’t necessarily have to grow a ponytail and a beard.
6. “You’ll have the bleakest, darkest moment, where you’re like, ‘I can’t make it to the next tree.’ Then 20 minutes later you’re like, I can run this pace until the cows come home.” – Michael Wardian
7. On the other hand, this is the one time you’ll be around other people with a ponytail and a beard.
8. Come on, it’s just another 30 miles and you’re there.
9. Eating soup while running may sound silly, but trust us: ask for soup at the aid station.
10. The phrase ultra runner rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn’t it?