“Back in my day, I had to thumb through printed magazines to locate obscure little ultras and go to register with pen and paper and pay by check that I mailed FROM A POST OFFICE! I didn’t get no fancy tri-blend shirt, elevation tattoo, battery powered finisher buckle, or handcrafted microbrew! Nope. We got pain! That was it -and we drove 900 miles one way to get it. It it was only 10$” Anonymous Crotchety Old Ultrarunner
Maybe the above quote is exaggerating a bit but there are most definitely many, many more, and more sensationalized ultramarathons now even when compared to 2010 when I ran my first. It was easy to select races, as where there were relatively few, they were pretty spread out, and the risk of selling out was basically
non-existent. That is not exactly the case in 2016! More than a few races require signing up months in advance, have a qualifying race, and more and more of the most popular ultras are moving to a freaking lottery selection. May the odds be ever in your favor! Due to the increased popularity in ultrarunning, there is no shortage of new races popping up every single day, so this guide is to help the average mid-packer decide what race has the most bang for his or her buck and fits best with your personal tastes.
Is the race somewhere close to you? Is it far away? Do you have the time to get away from work and real-life responsibilities? Can you afford to travel to get to this ultra? These are super important questions when you start the process of filling in your race schedule. Personally, I prefer to mostly do races that I can drive to the morning of because I hate paying for a motel room that I can’t sleep worth a crap in anyway. Ultras, specifically trail ultras, that have onsite camping are great for since I grew up (and love) camping. What will the weather be like at this venue? I like hot, some love cold, everybody loves the mud, and I HATE SNOW!!! The point is that it is quite a bit like real estate – LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.
Let’s say you find a handful of ultras in the areas you want to travel to run – what’s next? Do you prefer trails? Hills? Mountains? Desert? Dirt Road? You can basically find an ultramarathon on just about every imaginable terrain. Personally I dislike road running or running on sand while I prefer technical trails at altitudes closer to sea level… I am from Kansas afterall. In my opinion finding a course that embodies what you love about running is the single most important factor in choosing a race. Maybe you hate trail and it scares the heck out of you but you want to prove to yourself you can do it – we don’t always have to choose things because we like them. Aside from the terrain, the shape of the course is important as well. You can find courses that range from point-to-point to 1/4 mile loop and just about every imaginable layout in between. The shape of the course can determine how difficult the logistics are and how much help you might need from crew. Running laps around a track like a hamster on a wheel means you hit your drop bag every 400 meters. – pretty simple as far as planning goes. Running a point-to-point single track race means you have to arrange a ride to the start or back to the finish depending on how it is laid out. All of these factors come into play when deciding what is the right course, and ultimately the right ultra for you.
Let’s face it – price is a concern. You may find a 50k for as little as 50$ and up into the thousands for stage or destination races. How bad do you want it? Is the value there for you? Can you afford it? Hey, if you are an American and want to run a mountain ultra in Europe and don’t mind training off of ramen and hotdog water soup, get to saving and make it happen! If you don’t want to spend a dime on entry and don’t care about getting a shirt or a medal, find 10 friends, plan a route and run your own race. You can find all range of prices of events, but ultimately it boils down to: 1.) How bad you want it? 2.) Can your budget can handle it?
Some people love all the race swag. Shirts, mugs, beers, catered dinners, etc. etc. etc. As the number of ultras have grown to accommodate the booming ultra crowds, so have the items used to lure this new generation into registering. It used to be a buckle/medal and a shirt were about par for the finish line, but now you may find anything from mugs, to buffs, jackets, headbands, gaiters, hats, and just about any small running related promotional item you can think of. Personally, I love the custom handmade items, which are becoming more popular. Races are even bringing in high profile keynote speakers to help draw in the crowds. This category definitely ties into price, but may have some elements that are very important to you – so definitely take a look at what kinds of goodies have to offer.
The last thing I will leave you to ponder when thinking about what races you want to register for are your own personal goals. Believe it or not, the race selection is pretty tightly tied to your goals. Maybe the race IS the goal (Laz, if you read this – once The Barkleys are done this weekend, email me please) or maybe you are looking to set a time or mileage goal. If your goal is to set a PR, you will probably want to look for a flat and fast race (here we are going back to course considerations). The point of this is look for a race that gives you the best chance to meet and exceed whatever goals you have set for yourself.
I know that it can be easy to get caught up in all the details, but don’t forget that part of the reason we do this is to HAVE FUN! Scope out the races on social media or print magazines – this will give you a good idea of the culture of the event. Many social media sites have groups set up that you can meet the people that participate or even organize the events. Pictures are flowing all over the internet of finish line parties and the crazies crossing them – use these to gain some insight into the culture of the ultra, runners, and volunteers. When your body is suffering it makes it a lot more fun to suffer with the right crowd.
So get to work! Hop on your computer and find the right races for you, get registered, get on the trail, kick ass and have a great time!
See you in the middle of the pack! #midpackzach