Five Tips for Running Your First Ultra

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By Rick Alexander

Running your first ultramarathon is a great commitment to make to yourself. It’ll hurt you in ways that you didn’t know running could hurt you and it will force mental fortitude that you didn’t know you possessed. Overall, regardless of how prepared you are physically and logistically, it is likely to be one of the most difficult things that you ever embark upon. The constant metronome of your feet hitting the ground will cause more unravelings in your body than most people are comfortable dealing with. Now is a good time to stop thinking of yourself as “most people.”

As a quick disclaimer, it is worth pointing out that it is possible to run an ultramarathon with none to very little training and preparation. Yes, it is “all mental” like they say but in truth, the mental fight doesn’t really begin until your physical body starts falling apart. I can tell you from experience that you are going to want to put off the moment it becomes “all mental” until the last possible second. I have run a 50-mile race with no training at all and although I finished, I’m not sure the injuries were worth it. When your legs start hurting bad, which they inevitably will, every step turns into hell and every mile lasts an eternity. I can assure you that you are going to want to stay out of that place. So, assuming that you have logged the necessary miles and put in the training preparation ahead of time (if you haven’t, there isn’t an article in the world that can help you now), here are my top five tips for running your first ultra.

  1. Plan accordingly. Improper prior planning will create an emergency if you let it. Spend time considering all of the various scenarios that may go wrong and actively plan to combat them ahead of time. This will save you a lot of heartache mid race. Ask yourself and answer as many questions as you can think of.
  • What if your crew and pacers don’t know where to meet you? Leaving detailed directions on how to get to each aid station by car may be necessary.
  • What if the aid stations don’t have food that you want? Try to keep some of your go-to foods in your drop bags so you have them if you need them. For me this includes easy-to-chew simple carbohydrates like powdered donuts as well as electrolytes that aren’t packed with sugar, such as coconut water.
  • What if the clothes you are wearing start rubbing you raw in all of the wrong spots? Put a change of clothes and shoes in most of your drop bags. Also consider an extra tube of aquaphor, which will become your best friend in the world when the friction starts causing a fire where there should be a nice cool meadow, if you know what I mean.

If you are worried about time cut-offs, it may be helpful to give yourself a cheat sheet for each aid station with planned pace times as well as any cut-off times. This way you know relatively where you are at in your timeline with each aid station that goes by. 

  1. Stick to your plan. This isn’t necessarily specific to running long distances as much as it is just good to know info heading into any competition. As the great Michael Tyson once said. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” It can be extremely easy to get caught up in the rushing tide of emotions that overcome you when you begin a race. There are essentially four steps that will lead you to a place you never wanted to be. Look out for them.

Step one is thinking to yourself how good you feel, especially early in the race. Step two is picking up the pace a little faster than you had originally planned. Step three is skipping food or drink at the first couple of aid stations because you feel good. Step four is realizing you’ve made a grave mistake. You’re in a physiological deficit that is going to be really hard to overcome and now you have to figure out a way to get recharged and survive the remaining miles of the race.

Any time you find yourself picking up the pace too early in a race, remember the fact that you can’t finish a race in the first 25 miles but you can surely drop out of it. Depending on your distance, you might have to scale this number up or down, but regardless, the wisdom remains. You want to stay as comfortable as you can for as long as you can and this includes sticking to your plan by running the race at your pace, refueling often and topping off your bottles before you leave an aid station, regardless of how short the next leg might seem to be. Getting caught in the middle of a leg being hot and dehydrated with no water in sight because you went out too fast is no way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

  1. Manage the highs and the lows. It is possible that when you finish, thinking back on the start will feel like it was a lifetime ago. A lot will transpire from the time that the race director yells go and the time that you take your final senior-citizen-like strides through the finish line. When you are running for hours on end, you are inevitably going to go through cycles of different emotions. You are best served to manage both ends of the spectrum and not get too caught up in the extremes.

When a good runner’s high hits you, it’s like a gift from the gods. If you find yourself running over night, you will probably find that the rising sun almost always brings a runner’s high with it. Picking up the pace at this point is all too easy. Unfortunately, it is also detrimental. In order to preserve the good feelings you get, you are going to have to quell your emotions and slow yourself down. Don’t run yourself out of your high prematurely. It is easy to get caught up in feeling like you need to make up time and while that may be true, you don’t have to make it all up in the next 5k.

Conversely, the lows will take a bit of counseling through as well. If you are looking for a reason to quit, I can guarantee that you will find it. The reasons not to go on will be plentiful. Stay out of your own head by never entertaining the idea. When I personally start hurting bad, I focus on my form and begin going through my mental checklist (tip four, below) and I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I have gone through hell enough times to know that it won’t last. Keep moving and eventually you will get back to a high.

  1. Create a mental checklist. As the race winds on, the hours and miles will begin to take a toll on your body and your mental state. Much of ultrarunning comes down to just dealing with the pain that sets in. Having something to go back to in order to keep your running mechanics on point and your mind occupied is critical. For me that thing is a checklist. I run through it over and over in my mind throughout a race to ensure that I am not causing myself any more pain or lost efficiency than I have to.

Begin with your head. Neutral chin? Check. It gets easy to start letting your head fall backward or down as you get really fatigued. Keeping your chin neutral allows you to get more efficiency out of your stride. Slight forward lean in your upper body? Check. The forward lean has been shown to help increase propulsion, provided that you are not angled to sharply at the hips. Are your knees under your hips and your feet under your knees? Check. Too long of a stride can cause a heel strike which will cause even more pain down the line. Mid-foot strike? Check. If your stride becomes too much of a shuffle, every time your foot hits the ground can be like slamming on the breaks. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you have cramps coming on? When was the last time you ate Tums or salt? There can be great solace and meditation in running this loop in your mind.

  1. Take time to fix the little things. When running ultramarathons, it is easy to carry the same mentality that you would bring into running 5k races, sprint triathlons or any other competition. Whatever hurts can be dealt with when the race is over. In ultrarunning this couldn’t be any further from the truth. You are simply out there for too long not to deal with problems when they arise. The smallest of problems will turn into the biggest ones if they are left alone. A pebble in your shoe will cause a change in your stride, which will eventually manifest as terrible joint pain, most likely in your hip or your knee.

It can be helpful to run with basic first aid things in a ziplock bag, that way you have them if you need them. If a toenail starts deciding to part ways with a toe, it’s nice to have glue to keep it where you want it. If you notice anything in your shoe like a blister or a rock, or something else that you can fix at the time, stop where you are and fix it. Don’t put it off until the end of the race or even until the next aid station if you don’t have to. You don’t want that problem becoming untenable because you didn’t want to take a minute and sit down on the side of the trail. You have time. I promise.

One of the beauties of this niche, yet rapidly-growing sport, is that every race presents an adventure. There is mother nature to contend with (when she teams up with Murphy things get really exciting), scenic views that can only be appreciated when earned and an unlimited number of unknowns that will surely present themselves. The goal should always be to control the factors that you can and remain positive and solution-oriented in the face of those things that you can’t. It’s like getting a new tattoo: it might suck at the time, but once the memory of the pain fades, you’ll definitely be coming back for more.

Rick Alexander is a writer, speaker and the host of “LionHeart Radio,” a podcast for the active lifestyle. As an ultrarunner, strength athlete and active duty military member, Rick focuses on creating content around maximizing human potential and overcoming adversity.

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