There was a time when the idea of running a marathon was extraordinary, but it seems those days have passed. The big deal now is ultrarunning, where people compete in races that exceed the marathon length of 26.2 miles. In 2003, about 18,000 people completed an ultramarathon, but by 2017 the number jumped to more 100,00o, according to UltraRunning magazine. In Alabama alone, there are more than a dozen ultras each year, and no matter the terrain, these long-distance runs put your mental and physical abilities to the test.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of ultrarunning, it’s best to start with a nearby 50-mile race, and then work your way up. Finishing your first ultra may be one of the most daunting yet rewarding feats you will ever tackle. Your body will ache, and you’ll have to overcome mental hurdles you didn’t know existed. But with the right plan and mindset, you can go well beyond 26.2.
Here are nine expert tips to get you started.
1. Get Support
You cannot complete an ultra run alone. While you can find training plans online, your best bet is to join a group like Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) or Huntsville Track Club. You should have no problem finding a group or mentor that has experience preparing for and finishing an ultra. This will also be the best place to find a support crew for race day, which is vital for a successful finish.
If you consistently run long distances, and you’ve previously completed a couple of marathons, you should still give yourself about 16 weeks to train. And Alabama is the perfect place to train and start ultrarunning. There is a thriving ultrarunning community, and the state’s varied and unique terrain gives aspiring competitors plenty of options. In Alabama, Southeastern Trail Runs organizes two of the most popular races, the Lake Martin Endurance Race and the Blood Rock Trail Race at Oak Mountain State.
2. Train to Match the Race Terrain
The adage you practice like you play applies with ultrarunning. Give the course map a look, including elevations and terrain. If your race is a trail run, it’s best to train on a trail and incorporate the course into your training regime if it’s nearby. Being familiar with the course will inspire confidence when you hit those final miles. If your race includes significant gains in elevation, and you don’t have easy access to similar training situations, get creative and run stairs.
3. Avoid Chafing
Do not overlook the importance of anti-chafing products. Friction from running over an extended period will cause your skin to chafe in areas you never thought possible and hamper your ability to not only finish the race but leave you in pain during and after. There are plenty of anti-chafe products on the market, making it easy to find what works for you. Also, make sure you bring extra to re-apply during your run.
The importance of hydration cannot be overstated, and it’s critical to be hydrated before the day of a race. If you’re dehydrated on race day, you won’t be able to take in enough fluids that morning to get you sufficiently hydrated to compete. Once you’re dehydrated on a run, it’s too late. This is especially important if your ultra is during the hot and humid summer. On the days leading up to your race, keeping pushing water, and take it easy on the alcohol. It will make that celebratory post-finish beer even sweeter.
5. Know the Course
Aid stations are your best friend during an ultra race. Know where they’re located, and if possible, know what drinks or food will be available. It’s also wise to survey the surroundings and see where the starting line is before the race starts. You don’t want to be scrambling to get to the starting line while everyone else is locked in and ready. Also, if you’re competing in an out-of-town race, figure out beforehand your travel route, the time needed to get to your destination, and exactly where you’ll park. These little details will ensure your first ultra gets off to a stress-free start.
6. Don’t Change Your Routine
Mile 20 is not the time to realize that those new shorts you’ve never run in are chafing in unexpected areas. Also, if you use a specific kind of energy drink or gel during training, do not use something different because it’s offered at an aid station. It will harm your mind and body, which is already under stress.
7. Steady Your Pace and Run Your Race
This is an ultra, not a marathon. There will be extreme highs and lows, making it essential to keep your pace steady as much as possible. You will range from feeling like Forrest Gump on a multi-year run to calling it quits and giving up. Find something to keep you steady mentally. Fall back on your running mechanics to stay focused, and if any issues arise, like a rock in your shoe that alters your stride or the beginnings of a blister, take care of it immediately before it becomes a crippling problem.
8. Set Small Goals
A 50- or 100-mile run is intimidating. Start by having a solid plan and support system to get to the starting line, and then create small goals within the race. This can be something as simple as making it to the next aid station or to that next landmark. These small victories will create positive momentum that will help drive you to a successful finish.
9. Stay Fueled and Hydrated
As you near the finish, it may be tempting to stop eating and drinking. You’ll grow tired of ingesting the same food and drinks, but you don’t want to crash with the finish line in sight. Keep a variety of options in your pack or with your support crew to avoid food fatigue. That final bit of energy could be just what you need to finish strong.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.