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Your first ultra - 5 things you know and 5 things you don't

Your first ultra - 5 things you know and 5 things you don't


Last updated: 07-Nov-17

By James Eacott

Running your first ultra is a fantastic, but daunting experience. You can prepare for months but still feel that you are not ready. Here are ten things to help you on your way. You may or may not know some (or all) of them, but I’ve found that they are pretty handy to bear in mind.


1 Pacing

An ultra is difficult to pace. The distances involved, particularly at your first ultra, will seem intimidating and a very long way. Unfortunately, most overestimate their ability and head off way too fast in the early stages, only to pay the price and be overtaken by those who set out more conservatively in the latter stages of the race. Even if you’re not trying to be competitive within the field, most of us want to get to the finish as quickly as possible, and that largely comes down to proper pacing.

2 Recce

For some, a sight unknown is easier to cope with. But numerous studies have shown that knowing what lies ahead will reap benefits on race day. It may not be possible to recce the course, but if you’re able to, then I’d highly encourage you to do so. At least the tricky, technical or navigationally-challenging sections, anyway.

Knowing when the hills are, what the gradients actually feel like, what the terrain is, what shoes will work best and so on will pay huge dividends. There are enough unknowns lying ahead on your first ultra – don’t make the course another one of them.

3 Practice nutrition

It’s something you’ll hear a lot, but practicing your race nutrition is key. I admit, I still struggle to do this even years into the ultra running game, but it is worth it. Make the focus of your long training runs all about trying out new kit and fuelling in the way you’ll hope to on race day. Have a think about how much you’ll need on the race and what your taste buds do when you’re 3 hours into a run. It’ll surprise you what you crave when the body runs low on salt and gradually fatigues.

4 Mentally prepare

An ultra is a long way and as you stand on the start line of your first ultra, with everyone around you looking like the raciest of racing snakes, doubts will creep in. It’s true that the more ultras you complete, the more you realise what your body can do, but that first one is always a foray into the unknown. Physical training will comprise most of your preparation, but don’t totally neglect utilising mental tactics to get your head in gear too. Have a look at this super article on the Psychological Profile Of Ultra Success from Sarah Cooke.

5 Test your kit

Like your nutrition, don’t try anything new on race day. Whatever promises the clever marketing campaign is making about their latest shoe, resist. Make sure you’ve used your kit on some long runs and are totally happy with it.


1 You’ll get emotional

There are numerous peaks and troughs through the course of an ultra. Merely knowing that you’ll go through dark patches will help you deal with them. Expect them, embrace them and let them pass. For every trough there will be peaks where you feel as strong as an ox. At the finish, the euphoria will be the greater for the emotional rollercoaster you’ve been through!

2 Your taste buds will change

Stick to real foods for as long as possible. Real foods mean things most of us would eat as a snack or meal during the day. I’d personally recommend you stay off gels and sugary sports drinks in your first ultra unless you’re very low on energy and need a hoof of sugar or caffeine. The aim is to keep your blood sugar level and subsequent insulin response as level as possible, avoiding spikes and dips in energy.

Having said that, don’t expect to be able to eat sandwiches, flapjacks and pasta the whole way, particularly on longer races of 100km+. Your taste buds will change and the food you fancy will vary dramatically. Things you’d never normally consider eating become an absolute craving. Salty foods are a common example, and a Pot Noodle or Pepperami hits the mark for me. Chocolate tastes phenomenal in the wee hours and fresh fruit is a marvellous change from sticky bars when all you really want to do is brush your teeth. Expect a serious yearning for a Maccy D’s, too.

3 Having your own crew goes a long way

At most ultras, there will be multiple checkpoints. And at most races, the CPs are just magic: friendly, motivating marshals will see to your every need, nursing your sore bits (within reason) and you’ll have access to a veritable smorgasbord of fuel choices from coke and gels to burgers and watermelon.

Despite this, I will always still have my own crew if possible, in addition to the race CPs. Even if you decide to get your entry fee’s worth by eating the checkpoints dry, having a friendly face to keep you motivated and on track will increase your enjoyment

4 You’ll make the best of friends

Unlike during 10ks or half marathons, where you’ll probably not speak to anyone, ultras are full of chat and banter. Due to the relatively slow pace, it’s possible to run and talk at the same time and the duration is such that having company for parts of it is often very welcome.

It’s in these situations where you’re really exposed. You’re tired, hungry and exhausted and the person plodding alongside is in the same boat. Camaraderie plays a huge factor in getting you through the event, and you may surprise yourself by how much you open up and expose your inner thoughts and feelings to this total stranger. All this creates the optimal environment in which to forge and cement firm friendships. Embrace it.

5 You’ll get hooked

There’s a reason this sport is growing at an alarming rate: endorphins. Endorphins are produced in the central nervous system and the word means “a morphine-like substance originating from within the body”. They’re mighty effective at inhibiting the transmission of pain signals so during, and particularly after, an ultra, the release of these chemicals within your body mean you forget the physical pain quite quickly.

The downside (if that’s what you call it!) is that come the Tuesday after a 50 miler, you’re looking for your next hit. Like any drug, you need another fix of this glorious feeling so before you know it you’ve signed up to your next race.

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