A Newbie's Guide to Ultramarathons

By RacingThePlanet Staff

From running your first 5km race, through to marathon distance, it seems that not a great deal changes except for some longer sessions in training, and a little more pacing strategy come race day. When we enter the big brave world of ultramarathons this all changes doesn’t it?

Well the truth is, yes and no. 

The same ethos can be used as moving from these other distances to the one above. A lot of runners will progress from marathon, to a 50k race, a 50 mile race, and up to 100km before hitting their first 100 miler. The same is true as whenever moving up in distance; more conservative pacing; more regular training including ever longer training sessions.

This is not the whole story however and there are a multitude of other factors that become increasingly important to consider as the duration of the race increases. With the ceiling removed as soon as we label something ‘ultramarathon’, it is hard to generalize. A 50 miler can feel as different to a 100 miler as a 5k race does to a marathon. One thing is for certain however. With a greater number of hours, come more and more possibilities for things to go wrong. Please carefully consider these factors when competing in your first ultramarathon:

Fuel/Nutrition: In a marathon we may very well get through the race without any food or snacks or perhaps by just using a few gels. In a 50k race this does not really change much, but as we creep much further then race nutrition becomes a massive factor. Getting the nutrition strategy wrong can lead to a premature end to a race, and the dreaded DNF. Conversely, getting the strategy exactly right, (which is indeed rare), can make the race a joyous occasion from start to finish without any sensation of the wall/bonk or whatever we may call this sensitive of lack of usable energy.

Hydration: Again, in a marathon we may get through the entire race without any fluids, or perhaps minimal sips of water (depending on the race temperature). As race duration increases this is not the case and we must continue to keep our levels topped up. This can be harder than you think as combined with the nutrition strategy, it is easy to start to begin feeling full and bloated if we consume a little too much at a time. Only by practicing these techniques in training can we predict how our bodies will react come race day. 

Sleep: In a longer race, (perhaps a gnarly 100km trail race, up through 100 miles, to 24 and 48 hour races), sleep deprivation can be a real factor. Many of the world’s greatest 100 mile races begin in the late afternoon or early evening. This means that everyone will run through that first night, continuing onwards at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning. Depending on your pre-race rest and the time-zone you may have flown in from, every cell in your body can be screaming at you, “PLEASE SLEEP!” Imagine then, that at least half the competitors may have to endure an entire second night and you can see how this becomes a massive factor. It is quite common for ultramarathoners to share hallucination stories from their longer events!

Boredom: Even in the most beautiful parts of the world, the brain can grow weary of the race especially if it’s not playing the way you’d hoped. If a top 10 finish was the goal, and for one reason or other that’s no longer a possibility, the will continue can be tough, with the excitement, expectation, and adrenaline all a thing of the past. At this point it really is a mental rather than physical battle. The mind can come up with a hundred reasons per minute to quit, and that one reason to continue can be elusive to nail down. Everyone has a different strategy when it comes to boredom or lack of motivation. Some turn on the iPod, some buddy up with someone running the same speed and share life stories, and some will use motivational techniques like imagining a collage of photos all their loved ones who support them, and pictures of inspiring people and places. Whatever trick you decide to implement, it is important to have something in the arsenal for when things get tough!

Gear: Finally one of the most fun things about ultrarunning is the need for more gear. This might seem like a negative and can be if you’re used to running free and only feel right without the hindrance of a backpack. Researching, identifying, and collecting the right gear can be an absolute pleasure however. Similarly to booking a holiday and identifying where you might visit whilst there, gear research can really whet the appetite and start the imagination working overtime on possible uses. The discovery that an X litre bag is going to be necessary for a given race might at first provide a jolt, but once you start to realize that same bag could lead to overnight running/camping adventures, or allow you to carry enough gear for an assault on a long local trail, it can be an absolute blessing. Gear can be expensive it’s true. The best, lightest stuff will go for premium prices. When you realize the opportunities for adventure and challenge that these investments afford, it very often ends up the best money you’ve ever spent! Gear is also something that can ‘go wrong’ and add to stress and discomfort come race day. It is important to test your gear in situations as close to race scenarios as possible. What may feel very comfortable in the store, may feel far from it once it’s laden with mandatory equipment and you’re 8 hours into a race.