Now that you’ve made the decision to do this ultramarathon thing, how do you go about choosing your first 50k? I reached out to some of my good friends across North America who are coaches, race directors and ultrarunning legends for their personal recommendations.
Scotland native and Canadian dweller, Ellie Greenwood’s favorite first 50k is the Chuckanut 50K in Bellingham, Washington. The location is convenient for Canadians as it’s just a short hop over the border and attracts a large number of runners from the Vancouver, BC, area. Greenwood says it’s an excellent first ultra for many reasons:
• The lollipop-shaped course includes a very runnable first and last 10k section with a super approachable trail for those coming from a road background. This makes 20k of the course less intimidating and because this section is flat, it’s also relatively fast so you won’t be out on the trail for a crazy amount of time.
• The middle 30k is more “real” trail running (you don’t want your first ultra to feel too tame). This stretch gives you 5,000 feet of climbing and descent, technical stuff and overall, enough to put you a little outside your comfort zone and feel the reward of achievement when you make it through.
• Weather and altitude are both a non-issue, and the course is not remote even though it travels across the famous Chuckanut Mountain Ridge. Sure, there might be a lot of rain, mud and occasionally a little snow, but nothing too extreme for the Pacific Northwest.
Liza Howard, from San Antonio, Texas, has a couple of 50ks to suggest in the Lone Star State. Many of the trails in the Texas Hill Country are pretty rocky, populated with spiny sotol plants and anything but flat, so the terrain can be a bit of a shock to someone coming from the roads. She suggests:
The Hells Hills 50K in Smithville boasts a beautiful course with stream crossings, pine trees and wildflowers. There is minimal elevation gain, but plenty of short, steep hills challenge most runners.
Wild Hare 50K at Bluff Creek Ranch is comprised of 7.8-mile loops with mountain bike-style shallow dips and 180-degree turns. The race takes place alongside other distances, so runners can cheer on fellow competitors.
Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW) has two suggestions for first-time ultrarunners in the South. Both have excellent courses, are extremely well run and feature some of the best terrain most southern states have to offer:
The Sylamore 50K in Allison, Arkansas, consists of an out-and-back course on 14.5 miles of trail, a mile of pavement and water crossings thrown in for good measure.
Walking Tall 50K in Big Hill Pond State Park, Tennessee, has 50k of mostly single track, includes a fire tower climb and a swamp boardwalk that stretches for over a half-mile.
Yassine Diboun, from Portland, Oregon, says his favorite for first-timers is the Mt. Hood 50K for the following reasons:
• Oregon weather in July is almost guaranteed to be nice.
• The first several miles are run on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains and it doesn’t have a crazy amount of elevation gain at just 2,500 feet.
• There is one section of trail where runners have a clear view of the majestic, snow-capped Mt. Hood which stands at 11,250 feet.
• Tired runners can soak in nearby Timothy Lake after crossing the finish line.
In Montana, Mike Foote’s favorite for first-timers is the Hootenanny 50K in May:
• This 50k is three 10.5-mile loops and is a great first ultra because it’s on non-technical, double and single-track trail outside of Lolo, Montana.
• The course offers beautiful views of the Bitterroot Mountains and has 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
• Winners receive their weight in beer (or sparkling water), measured by sitting on one end of a seesaw with the beer stacked on the other.
In California, my personal favorite 50k for first-timers is Way Too Cool 50K in March. When much of the country is still battling winter, it is often very mild and evokes the feeling of spring:
• It’s a fast course and the first mile is paved which helps spread everyone out before hitting a single-track loop that brings you back to the start/finish area at mile 8.
• The course is 98% single track and runs on the famous Western States Trail in multiple segments.
• Some of the fastest ultrarunners in the country are often entered, which makes for an exciting race, while also catering to hundreds of athletes of all abilities.
• Post-race treats include Way Too Cool’s trademark frog cupcakes.
With the exponential growth of our sport, there are definitely plenty of options. If you need something closer, check in with your local running store or club for more opportunities. Use the above examples when making your own checklist of what you are looking for in a race, find a course that excites you and start training for your very first ultra.