If you haven’t seen The North Face’s new video titled “Curiosity” about ultramarathon runners racing around Mount Blanc in the European Alps, you should probably get on that. Once you have seen it, however, you may be gripped with the urge to burst out your door and attempt to run 100 miles. Humans are a weird animal, that way. We can go for a long time thinking something is impossible and being totally unable to do it; then someone proves it is possible and suddenly everyone can do it. That is what happened when Roger Banister broke the 4 minute mile and it is what has happened with ultra-running since the publication of Christopher MacDougall’s 2009 book “Born to Run.” A quick scan of youtube will turn up videos of 70 year old grandmothers crossing the finish lines of 100 mile races, a testament to both human endurance and the growth of the sport. But don’t be fooled. Running 100 miles isn’t easy. Before you go chasing the horizon, consider these tips.
1. Slow Down
According to Geoff Roes, 2010 Western States 100 Champion, nearly everyone goes too fast in their first ultramarathon. Whether your race is 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles or something even longer you can’t comprehend the distance properly if you’ve never run it before. Since most ultra runners never cover the full race distance in their training, race day is usually their first attempt at it. For that reason, you need to go slower than you think. Don’t be afraid to walk, even the pros do it. There are plenty of miles in the second half of the race to switch into a higher gear if you think you can manage it.
2. Focus on Nutrition
The pros agree, a good nutrition strategy is as important as good training when it comes to running distances beyond the traditional marathon. While you might be able to get away with a light meal before running shorter distances, you need to make sure you pack a lot of energy into the breakfast you eat before your ultramarathon. Use your training runs to experiment with what your stomach can handle at various distances. Try different gels, liquids, and solid foods to find what works for you. Regardless of what you eat, make sure you get lots of calories. Eat early and eat often.
3. Train Your Brain
If there are three pillars to running an ultramarathon they would have to be body, stomach, and mind. The first two are straightforward enough through adequate training and a good nutrition plan for race day. Mind on the other hand is a tricky thing to master. Our brains are used to a pretty cushy lifestyle. 21st century life provides most of what we need with minimal physical effort. To run and ultra you need to learn to think like a caveman. When your feet start to hurt, keep running. When you’re about to throw up, keep running. When you feel like you can’t take anymore and the distance you still need to cover is a soul crushing impossibility, keep running. Experienced ultra runners accept low-points as par for the course. Train your brain to be able to push through the worst your mind can throw at you.
4. Race Yourself
The biggest mistake novice runners make is competing against the people next to them at the starting line. Run your own race at your own pace. The only purpose the other runner serve is to motivate you and provide a sense of community. Ultra running is a team sport at the aid stations and a solo sport on the trail. All that matters is you do your best and you go home feeling like a champion, regardless of where you finished.
5. Be Ready for Anything
Ultramarathons offer an incredible range of challenges for runners to overcome. Steep terrain, changing weather, blisters, mud, and mental breakdowns. The key to effective training is to face as many of those challenges as you can before the day of your race. The only way to be ready is to know that you can overcome what the course throws at you. When you encounter a new obstacle in your training, be grateful for the opportunity to become a better runner.
6. Listen to Your Body… Sometimes
By far the most challenging thing about training for and running an ultramarathon is the fact that pain is a normal part of the experience. Even the best runner on the best day of their life will experience intense physical pain when running 100 miles. That is what makes finishing a race an accomplishment but it is also what makes it dangerous. Part of good training is learning to recognize things like blisters and chafing and how to push through them while at the same time knowing when you are on the verge of a real injury and choosing to stop. Don’t place short-term success over long-term health. Listen to your body and train yourself to recognize real problems versus par-for-the-course pain.
Focus on these 6 tips and running your first ultra will still be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Just remember, everything worth doing is tough. Train smart and do your research and you’ll be able to run with the best of them in no time.