By Michael D’Aulerio
Many times you’ll find writers focusing solely on the mechanics: anywhere from race day splits down to what diameter shoelace to wear. I cannot deny that mechanics are an essential part of completing an ultra marathon and I do touch on the subject; however, I also strongly believe that if you already have some basic mechanics down then you can focus on what’s most important. You can focus on what gets us from the couch to the trail and what transforms us from running a 10-mile race to a 100-mile ultra marathon. This focus is psychological. This focus is our mental strength. It’s our mental strength that keeps our legs moving when the body tries shutting down. It’s our mental strength that pushes us through those last few endless miles to the finish. It’s our mental strength that tells us to push harder and go farther past anything that we ever conceived imaginable. In this article I provide 10 tips that will help you cross that ever-so-satisfying finish line. So please enjoy the post, use whichever tips help, and most importantly: KEEP IT MOVING.
1) Get to the starting line.
We often fail before we ever begin. I’d say most of the time it’s from focusing on fears we’ve create from thin air; for example, causes of failure or being unworthy. But what’s incredible about becoming a runner is that it literally ONLY takes one step forward and poof – you’re a runner. However, we naturally develop excuses during training to stop us from even getting to the starting line. Discussing your excuses with someone else will only provide more comfort to quit before you even start. Your friends and loved ones mean well but unfortunately it’s difficult to rationalize or make logical sense out of running an ultra marathon. I’ve learned to try and recognize excuses for what they are–excuses–and keep moving forward to race day. Because there’s one thing I know for certain: if you look for excuses you will always find them. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.
2) Absolute Certainty
It’s always beneficial to have a definitive level of certainty for both getting to the starting line and crossing the finish. When building up to race day I attempt to eliminate any thoughts of incompletion. This type of mentality can be controlled. But just as easily as you can control this, you can just as easily loose control. If you want to complete your first ultra bad enough, then you can do it! The secret ingredient is FOCUS. Make a clear and precise decision. I ran my first ultra three years ago. Since then, between races and training runs, I’ve ran over 60 ultra distances in total. Before race day I make sure I’m absolutely certain that I will cross the finish line. In training I run so far away from home that I must complete the run unless I want to hitchhike my way back. One time, during a training run, I was on pace to beat my personal best 50K time approximately 15 miles from my house when I hurt my knee. What a long walk home that was!
3) Stay calm and hold on.
When the race begins, it’s common to get a rush of adrenaline and you may not even realize it. This causes a much quicker starting pace. If you give in, it will certainly catch up to you later in the race. I remind myself of this rush at every new starting line. I stay in tune with my body and back my pace off slightly. Personally, I do not wear watches. I run on feeling. From experience, I’m usually able to notice the difference between an adrenaline pace versus a race day groove (usually!).
During one of my first marathons I noticed a super-excited guy running next to me. He was smiling, waving to all the bystanders, and jumping around for a number of miles. I remember thinking to myself, “I hope he’s conserving some of that energy.” Up by mile 16 I saw the same super-excited guy lying flat on his back on the side of the road. He unfortunately dropped out.
4) Run your own race.
There are many runners of all different shapes, sizes, and speeds. I try not to get caught up in attempting to run faster than the person next to me. It’s a long race and this common mistake can cost you a high amount of energy too fast. It’s a tough and lonley place to be out of energy on your 30th mile with 20 miles to go. Or your 45th mile with 65 miles to go. I know this from experience. The real race is against yourself. Let your internal control effect your external environment, not the other way around.
5) Fueling Technique
It’s a good idea on race day to fuel the same way you’ve fueled during training. I seldom try something new on race day. I’ve learned the harm from this first hand. Race day is not the day for experimentation.
One race, before I started fueling all-natural, I used whatever was at the aid stations. Between this, the heat, and hydration issues I pushed my self to a point where my body control was lost and I forgot who I was. I literally couldn’t tell you my name or what I was doing. I finished, but it was dangerously difficult and it took several days to get myself back to normal. This would be a worse-case scenario but the point is to be careful and stick to the plan.
6) Uphill Striding
Keep your uphill strides small and quick. Think about it – if you put a pair of weights in your hands and walk uphill, what’s easier? To lunge or take quick, short steps? Hills can be a great change of pace and a chance for different muscles to be activated. Hills can be your best friend or your worst friend, the choice is yours.
7) Know your aid stations.
Most races will have a section on their website dedicated to aid stations. You’ll find information on the various types of food and drinks available, along with the precise mile location. If you have any additional questions, you can always email the race director. This information will allow you to plan what fuel to carry and what to leave home. Ultra runners use handhelds, belts, pockets, hydration packs, etc. Our bodies are all different. A fueling plan for one person could be completely different for another. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Find out what works best for you. Personally, I prefer almond butter, dried fruit, and a handheld filled with coconut water.
8) Stay in the present.
While racing, I try not to think about the finish line. I’ve been a quarter mile away from the finish line and it’s felt like an eternity and I’ve been 30 miles away from the finish line and it’s felt like a walk in the park. Keep your mind in the present and enjoy the experience. If you like running to music, create a killer playlist in the days leading up to the race. If you prefer the sounds of the forest, then take in the surroundings and get lost in your run.
One technique I use is to look at an object in the near distance and run to it. Then pick another object a little further and run to that. Then another, and another, and so on. This technique can help take your mind off the ultimate finish line. You can also focus on one aid station at a time. Let the goal be the next aid station. Celebrate each small victory and readjust your goals, keeping the finish line distant in your mind. Every small achievement will eventually be one amazing success.
9) Prevent Chafing
Lube up all friction spots. You will thank yourself later in the race. Reapply during the race periodically and proactively – more so if it’s raining. Compression gear can also help. In 100-mile ultras I tend to chafe bad towards the end. I’m currently working on an ultimate solution, however petroleum jelly works well for me. I keep a bag in my pocket to reapply.
10) Priceless Energy!
Race day is an incredible day with many mixed emotions. Nervousness is extremely common, especially if you’re new to running or if it’s your first ultra. Bottle up that excitement and use it to your advantage. This type of energy is priceless – a type of energy you can’t purchase online with a holiday promo code. I haven’t run a single race that took more effort than what I accomplished in training. In my opinion it’s not the races that make us better as runners – it’s the intense training and sacrifices we make to get us there. I look back at the time I ran 10 ultra distances in preparation for my first 100 mile race. Or the mornings I walk out my door at 3:00 a.m. to run 30 miles in time to get home and feed my son breakfast. Or the winter runs where my eyelids have literally frozen shut. The runs that don’t end up with a finisher’s buckle, tech shirt, and post race meal. The type of runs with no official starting time, stocked aid stations, or results posted online. It’s the type of run when you’re only driven by the inspiration of the morning sun and the vision of achieving something incredibly distant in the unknown. So when you take that starting line, guess what? The hard work is done. The only thing left to do is stay focused, enjoy the ride, and run baby run!
So there they are – 10 tips to help you complete your first ultra marathon. I hope these tips will help get you to that finish line. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I wish you all the luck in the world in reaching that starting line. Enjoy your training, KEEP IT MOVING, and I’ll see you at the finish!