I just love this picture of Clinton Township, Mich. runner Jessica Ericson. She’s on the trails, she’s running long, she’s clearly celebrating the beauty and strength of the moment. I “met” Jessica through Another Mother Runner, where I write the weekly Follow This Mother feature. We’ve kept in touch–it’s always great to get to know fellow Michigan running bloggers; she pens Small Steps & Serious Chafing–and she generously agreed to share insight on what it’s like to enter the ultra running world. The thought of going beyond the marathon distance certainly has crossed my mind, as I know it has for some of you … Jessica is planning to run her first 50-miler, at next year’s North Country Trail Run, and this year she ran September’s Woodstock Freak 50K in southern Michigan. ~ MRG
The transition to ultra running, at least for me, was both a mental and physical transition, and both happened much quicker then I expected or would even recommend–I went from half marathon shape to a 50K in 12 weeks, and most plans recommend a minimum of 16 weeks. While I had a solid base to run half marathons on a consistent basis, I had not run over 15 miles in eight years. However, after pacing a friend at a 50K and becoming mentally exhausted with my quest to break a 2-hour half marathon time, I found myself printing up training plans and registering for a 50K.
Here are my Top 10 pieces of advice to any runner who is ready to make the leap to ultra marathons:
1. Understand that walking during an ultra marathon is normal, especially up the hills (I prefer to refer to this as hiking), and incorporate walking into your training program.
2. Let go of your pace expectations. Typically a runner will be 1-2 minutes per mile slower depending on the terrain of an ultra course and weather conditions. I will say that you will need to focus on pace a little if you choose a course that has a strict cutoff.
3. Find a training plan that you are comfortable with based on your ability. The book Relentless Forward Progress has several training plans for both higher mileage runners and those who prefer the lower mileage. (It also has some great information about ultrarunning as well that helped me tremendously.)
4. Stay safe. When heading out to the trails, carry a map of the trails in a Ziploc baggie, and carry a phone and enough food/water in case you make a wrong turn. Often on a trail you are miles from civilization so it’s always best to be prepared just in case.
5. Read race reports. I found that reading race reports from ultra runners helped me prepare mentally for everything that “could” happen, like bad weather, blisters, GI problems, etc. It also helped me to see what other people did as far as pacing, fueling, and race strategies.
6. Get involved in the ultra community–whether on Facebook, Twitter, or, if you are lucky enough, an active local ultrarunning community. Ultra runners are a great source of knowledge (about ultra running in general and course-specific information) and are always willing to help out.
7. Focus on the now. It helped me tremendously to break down training runs and the race into smaller chunks. I kept telling myself I only had to make it 4 miles; I can run 4 miles till the next aid station. I did this eight times! As a person who becomes overwhelmed extremely easily in training, I normally do not look past the current week, and often no further then that day’s run.
8. Listen to your body. The last thing you want is to get injured. Listen to your body and if there is an ache or pain that just is not right, modify your plan that day or week. Especially toward the end of the training my legs were so heavy, and this led to a few spills on the trails (I had gone months without a fall and fell three times in the first two miles). Cutting a run short, adding an extra rest day or substituting cross training will not make the difference in whether you finish the ultra or not…However, an injury can prevent you from starting in the first place.
9. Do NOT give up! Seriously just do not do it. Understand that there will be times when you want to quit. There will be times you will be uncomfortable (muscle soreness, heavy legs, overall fatigue, chafing in inappropriate places). Do NOT quit! You WILL complete the training run or the race, you just have to believe and keep moving forward.
10. Have fun! Seriously, have fun–it can be an amazing journey and an awesome experience if you focus on the positive.
Carry on friends!
(I am neither a coach nor a professional ultra runner; the advice given in this article is just a few things I wish I had known when I started.)