Ultrarunning isn’t a sport you choose casually. It’s not for everyone; it’s not even for most runners. Unlike running for cardio benefits or racing at the shorter distances, ultrarunning will tear the body down, not build it up. Recovery is critical; even elites succumb to overtraining syndrome, a sidelining collection of physical and neurological crises that may plague an athlete, potentially for years.
So why do it? Why volunteer for the agony of staying awake around the clock, running for hours or days, hurting in body and mind? I can’t speak for any other ultrarunner, but I can tell you why I did. I needed to see if I could.
If you ask twenty runners why they chose the ultramarathon distance—considered to be any race longer than the standard 26.2 miles of the marathon—you’ll get twenty answers. But you’ll also be able to discern a common theme. Ultrarunning puts you in a position to know yourself more deeply than you might ever do otherwise. You will discover things about yourself that inform everything you’ll do going forward. You’ll learn how far you can push yourself, even when you think there’s nothing left. You’ll experience a level of exhaustion, a depletion of resources, and, most important, your response to those states that few other events in everyday life will demand of you.
If you decide you’d like to train for an ultra, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind.
If this is your first ultramarathon, consider a loop course rather than a point-to-point. Loop courses are typically friendlier, with ample opportunities for aid and human contact. On a point-to-point, you might find yourself in the middle of the woods or desert at 2 a.m. without another soul in sight and miles between aid stations.
Also, many loop courses offer timed divisions, which means instead of miles, you can elect to run for a period of hours, e.g., a 12- or 24-hour run. This takes some pressure off and lets you see how many miles you can run comfortably within a certain period, which will help you determine your goals for your next race.
Those four-hour training runs are a great opportunity to try out your shoes, socks, hydration pack, etc. If possible, train on the terrain and in the weather conditions you’re likely to encounter at the race. For example, runners training for the heat of the Badwater Ultramarathon will sometimes resort to treadmill training in a heat box or sauna. Pay attention to things like altitude and climate. Training at low altitude will not prepare you to run a race at an elevation of 11,000 feet.
Start nailing down your nutrition. Understanding what works and doesn’t work for you can make the difference between feeling great at mile 50 and having diarrhea for 50 miles.
Take into account climate factors—heat, humidity, rain or snow—and prepare yourself. Know whether you’re a “salty sweater” and if you struggle to maintain warmth in your extremities when the temperature drops below 40. Prepare accordingly.
Read everything you can get your hands on regarding ultrarunning, endurance sports, and foot care. Read books by the pros and blogs by newbies. Search for race reports online and read them to see what helped or hurt other runners, especially those who ran the race you’re training for.
Try things out and see what works for you. There is no boilerplate training plan for ultramarathons; every race is unique to the individual runner. What works for you, works.
Pick your crew carefully; you’ll come to rely on them; to abuse them; to cry, scream at, and celebrate with them. Friends and family don’t necessarily make the best crew members, especially if they’re sensitive. Crewing is not for the faint of heart. Your crew will be responsible for forcing you to take in nutrition or hydration when you forget or outright refuse. They will tell you stories, sing you songs, make jokes to keep your spirits up...and know when you need a silent companion.
Choose people you can feel 100 percent sure of, and who you know will put your needs before their own. Your crew will need to go without sleep, tend to their own blisters, listen to a lot of complaining and stay positive, and motivate you when you are sure you can’t go on. They’ll also need to attend to intimate tasks like cleaning and dressing your feet midrace and dealing with toileting issues. And there will be toileting issues.
At least a couple, and ideally all, of your crew members should be able to pace you for a few miles at a time. This is especially critical in the overnight hours, when everything starts to look and feel particularly bleak. A companion can make the difference between staying in the race and dropping.
Regardless of how well you prepare, there is no way to predict the actual events of race day. Seasoned runners know that even the same race can be dramatically different from year to year. Listen to your body in training. Know what works for you. Take care of yourself. Then push your limits.
Ultimately, the best strategy for running farther than most people drive in a day will come down to this: Just keep going.