Getting Started in Ultra Running

Getting Started in Ultra Running

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By Gary Cantrell

There seems to be a consistent demand for how-to articles on ultra-running. Newcomers to our joyous sport eagerly seek advice on how to minimize the time spent as novices so that they can play the game without learning many lessons through painful experience. So, in answer to that call, I will offer you the tips of an experienced plodder. These are not secrets to becoming one of the great ones — that is all done with talent and hard work. This article is about how to have fun. After all, that is what ultra-running is all about.

Not very long ago choosing an ultra was an easy task. If it was possible to find one within your geographical area, that was your race. Times have changed and now we see a great variety of choices in each month’s listings. Since no one can do them all, and most of us can do very few, a selective process is necessary.

The first factor to consider is distance. Weigh this factor based on your experience. If you have never even run a marathon, then do one first. Certainly many, perhaps most, of us can successfully negotiate an ultra-marathon without prior experience at the marathon distance, but that is not the point. Ultra running reserves its greatest rewards for those with the patience to work toward long-term goals. The first lesson that we each must learn is how to take one step at a time; that is how every ultra is done. Marathoners deal with a mythical 20-mile wall. For ultra-runners there turns out to be a series of walls, each indicating a change in the basic nature of the race in question. If we bypass all these landmarks and run a 1,000-mile race after our first 10-km, then we have wasted the opportunity of enjoying the personal fulfilment at the successful passing of each of these barriers.

Here is an evaluation of the different race groupings as I see them. Most ultra-runners would agree with this division, although the exact cut-off points depend on individual ability and the nature of the course.

  1. Races fewer than 20 miles are your basic road races. Be it a 10-km or a 30-km, the factors to be reckoned with are roughly the same. Being able to finish is not the question; it is simply a matter of how fast.
  2. The 20-40 mile distance consists, essentially, of races similar to a marathon. Fifty kilometres is technically an ultra, but it is run simply as a long marathon. At these distances mistakes no longer penalize only your finishing time, but bring to the fore the very real possibility of failure to finish at all. The 20-mile wall is real, and going beyond it while attempting to perform at the maximum of your ability is an accomplishment to be proud of.
  3. The range between 40 and 70 miles brings us to the realm of the 50-mile and 100-km. The barrier we passed at 20 miles seems only to have been put there to prepare us for the bigger wall waiting between 40 and 45 miles. For the average runner, walking is now an important part of the equation for success. Still, these are essentially running events.
  4. Races between 75 and 100 miles put us into elite company. Walking is now a major consideration and sleep deprivation becomes a new critical factor. If the barrier we conquered to reach 50 miles seemed demoralizing, the wall between that and 100 miles is devastating beyond description. Training and experience may render marathons and 50-milers routine, but even the great ultra-runners will tell you that 100 miles is always hard.
  5. At 120 miles and beyond we reach the multi-day level (if you can run 120+ miles in an event that is not a multi-day, then my advice will be of no use to you anyway). At these distances the barriers are no longer clearly defined and periods of depression and elation rise and fall as inevitably as the ocean’s tides. Here, during these ultimate running experiences, we one day reach the realization that no longer are we limited by distance, but only by the time it will take to achieve it.

So my first sage advice is to take each of these steps one at a time. Savour each moment of success, celebrate each passage into greater things separately, and, most of all, learn to appreciate the journey as well as its completion.

Now that you have decided to work your way up the ultra-distance ladder, there comes the choice of which races to run. The variety here is almost infinite. There are the choices between road, track, or trail, and the great variation in race organization, from the small low-key events to the mega races. Again, my philosophy is one of gradual accretion of difficulty. Begin on the more moderate track or road courses and work up to the monsters.

When selecting your races, start well in advance, go through all the listings, and send for every entry form that interests you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about items of concern, such as probable weather, requirements for handlers, and so on. The information you collect will be useful far beyond that one year’s running. The wise ultra-runner is out to experience every type of event available; if two of your choices are irresistible, then one may have to become another year’s dream.

For your first race at some landmark distance you want to select a moderate course and a small event. The moderate course is due to the fact that your challenge will be merely to make it, and that is enough. Choosing a small event will mean that most of the runners and race people will know what you are after and you’ll be aided by the kind of personal support that such a special occasion warrants.

Later, as the distances become part of your normal range, you can go after the challenges of the monster courses and the celebrations of the big races. Some will become annual pilgrimages and others you’ll taste once only as you move on in the quest for new experiences. These decisions may not be so much conscious decisions as simply a feeling you’ll have in your heart about certain events.

There is one final consideration in picking an ultra: location. Initially you might prefer to stay close to home and concentrate on the race itself. As he or she matures, the smart ultra-runner begins to think about more exotic locales. Ultra running constitutes more than just an opportunity to travel; it is a reason to travel. The average tourist visits a place by staying in a motel full of tourists, visiting tourist places, and, generally, leaving without ever really “seeing” the place at all. As an ultra-runner we go and spend our time with the local runners, doing something that gives us a genuine taste of the locales we visit.