So you want to get into ultra running? Your first question might be “Where do I start?” And not knowing where you are starting from is precisely my challenge in writing this article.
Let’s first assume you have experienced a couple things, and if you have not, you need to do that before you go on.
“Ultra running” is any distance over 26.2 miles, you should already have a marathon or two under your belt. Most ultra runs take place on trails, you should also have some experience with trail running. The other things you should have familiarity with are running clothes, shoes, nutrition and hydration.
From here, I can share with you my experience and my advice on ultra running.
I started ultra running almost 5 years ago. I have run countless 50k runs, two 40 mile runs, four 50 mile runs, a 100k, a 71 mile and two 100 mile runs. I have a bit of experience, but I am also spread thin as a mother, professional, homeowner etc. and so in that way, I am a bit of a hack as an ultra runner.
But there lies an important lesson about ultra running: you have to make it your own. Ultra running is an extreme dedication of time, desire and energy, you can’t just do what someone tells you to do, train how someone tells you to train, and eat and drink how someone tells you to eat and drink. Ever hear the expression about ‘what’s really inside us’ being squeezed out, under pressure? As an ultra runner you need to learn a lot about what is really inside you, what makes you “go” and what makes you “weak”. You also need to learn how to grow the things that make you “go” and how to minimize and get beyond the things that make you weak.
I have found that running with others is what makes me “go”. A weekend trail run with my friends is one of my very favorite things. And for those who are new, it’s the best ways to learn about ultras. Trail runners are fun, friendly and helpful and they would just love to suck you in. A few hours on the trail with experienced ultra runners will give you the chance to learn about more group runs, races, gear, do’s and don’ts, and the best stories you’ll ever hear.
Check out the Breakfast Club Runners, T-Rex and the Pagoda Pacers on facebook for some trail running ideas. I got started with the TrailDawgs of the Delaware Valley, a great trail running bunch, and the Virginia Happy Trail Running Club, who’s members and events are well worth the travel.
Next you may want to pick a race. There are a lot of good reasons to start with a 50k (31.2 miles). First, it’s only 5 more miles than a marathon. It is a good introduction to ultra running without an overwhelming distance jump. But be prepared for it to take up to two times the time of your road marathon.
50ks are easy to find anytime of the year and you will most definitely not be the only first timer there. Many 50k s are what we call “Fat Ass” runs. This indicates that it is merely a glorified group run and cost ranges from little to nothing. The only draw back is that some of these Fat Ass runs offer very little in the way of aid. So you will need to do your homework and come prepared to carry your own nutrition and hydration. However some Fat Ass races are supported so well with aid and volunteers that you don’t need to carry anything. Another consideration is trail markings. Find out ahead of time, if and how the trail will be marked so that you do not get lost. Getting lost was a regular part of my first ultra runs and that is brutal. But it also made for some pretty funny stories.
Other common ultra distances include 50 miles, 100k and 100 miles, but we can go there, later.
50k s are so common you can find one to fit your need for time of year, terrain, desire to travel and level of runner support, so it would be hard for me to pick what to list here. The next one, that I think is still open, is the Pagoda Pacers’ Blues Cruise, which is a wonderful, well supported, mostly runnable 50k. Although one of my first 50ks, Blues Cruise is still my PR due to the energy and support of the volunteers, easy trail and a merciless pacer. The HAT run, in Maryland in March is a local favorite, one of the largest and oldest and very well supported.