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Photo credit: Natalie White

Top advice on how to plan your first ultra

21-Mar-19

Last updated: 17-Apr-19

By Robbie Britton

Everyone is running ultra marathons now, it’s the cool thing to do. Lots are even skipping the initial marathon and jumping straight to the long stuff, but what should you think about before tackling your first ultra?

Often the running media gives an unbalanced view of the running world. The biggest kudos is given to those running the longest and if you tell someone you ran 100 miles they won’t care about the time, but will be more impressed than with a 14 minute 5k time for sure.

So rightly or wrongly, we’re all going long. You’re on a website called RunUltra so one must assume the decision has already been made or it’s about to happen. Ultra running isn’t easy, but it is accessible to the masses. One of the biggest lies ever told was that you had to be superhuman to run an ultra, which is simply not true. Anyone can run an ultra, if they want to.

Choosing your first ultra

If you want to tackle your first ultra then possibly the hardest aspect is picking the right race. There are so many options these days and the variation is huge. From 50km to 200 miles, with mountains, towpath, road or smooth trails to choose from picking the event that is right for you is key.

It’s not a decision to rush. Remember the races are annual and if you can’t find one on the weekend you want, then there will be another the week after. Starting with a 50-60km race is the sensible option and can be the start of your ultra journey, rather than your only soiree into the discipline.

A good way to inspect an event is to look at the times from previous years. Distance alone can be misleading as trails can be rocky, on the fells or super-fast. Not all miles are created equal and the 42km UTMB MCC in the Alps is a lot tougher than the Stort 30 miler on British canals. Maybe ask on Facebook or the RunUltra forums if people have finished a race before and what they thought.

Your own strengths and weaknesses are key as well. If you struggle in the heat then don’t go straight to the desert and if you get cold on a summer’s evening don’t tackle the Artic Ultra on your first go.

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Photo credit: Natalie White

Build up to it

Everyone seems to be in a rush these days, but savour your ultra journey. When starting out every new distance is an adventure. A new personal best isn’t just about time, but how far you’ve come. When I took a new step into the unknown, past my previous longest distance, it was a great feeling. It happens less and less as you continue so make the most of those moments.

Many want to “conquer” the 100 mile distance, but it does not have to be in your first year. Ideally you’ve done a few marathons and felt strong at the finish, it feels like the right time to step up. If you’re diving into the deep end then practice longer runs in your training.

It’s not just about physiological adaptations, although your body will develop better endurance over time, but also logistical and psychological preparation for the bigger distances. If you start with a 50k, then a 40-50 miler, maybe a 100km next and then start thinking about your 100 miler then you will be much more confident of success on the big day.

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Photo credit: XNRG

Find what works for you

Part of building experience is working on your pacing, fuelling and mental strategies. No one is born any tougher than anyone else, but nature will have sculpted us over many years and not just during your running. One of the reasons older athletes excel at ultras is that life has taught them how to suffer.

So use that experience. Mental strategies can be taught, practiced and improved. You’ll find that naturally we have coping strategies and mental skills that get us to the finish line, but there are plenty to learn. Self talk and visualisation might be vital to getting you to the finish line and half of the time you will use them without even knowing it’s a recognised mental skill.

There are a huge amount of individual lessons to be learned in ultra running and what works for one runner does not always work for everyone or anyone else. You are “N=1” and the only study that really matters is testing for yourself.

Be it food, drink, shoes, packs or running style, you need to discover what works best for you. This is done in training, racing, through running with your peers and doing your own research. Develop a desire to learn about your sport and self-reflect on your own performances and you will become a better runner. A coach can help with this process but isn’t necessary for success.

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Photo credit: Natalie White

Test everything

For your first ultra there will be new ground as you won’t have run the full distance in training, but test everything you can. Food and drink is key to success and even though a huge amount of stubbornness will always keep you moving forward, it isn’t necessary if you eat and drink well.

Many put a huge amount of drive into that relentless forward motion, but not into fuelling their body to keep going. You’re not eating for the mile you’re running, but the miles ahead. That energy you spend taking that next difficult step might be better spent eating some jelly babies that will make the next few steps that much easier.

There always needs to be variety of tested foods before race day and have a selection with you as well as using the checkpoints. If you’re running on empty or just can’t face another gel then don’t be afraid to try something new at an aid station, you might find the best fuel for you and the checkpoints are often staffed by experienced volunteers so ask their advice, but always remember to thank them.

Smile like you mean it

The last thing to remember for your first ultra is that is supposed to be fun. This is your hobby. If you’re not enjoying the race in the first half then you’re going too fast. If you can’t smile at a volunteer or a dog walker then take a few minutes to collect yourself, eat some of your favourite food and keep moving.

Smiling has been scientifically proven to help you run, just ask Eluid Kipchoge and his cartoon sized smile. I’m not saying you’ll run 2:01 for the marathon if you’re grinning but it sends signals to your mind and body that life is good, you're smiling.

The situation may often be tough, but it is your perception of what is happening that really matters. If you feel good, smile and know you’ll make it to the finish then more often than not, you’ll make it. Sounds too easy right?

It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Eat, drink, smile and look after your feet. They can take you to some amazing places.

About the author

Robbie is a self-confessed insouciant ragamuffin from London, UK, but now lives in Chamonix France. A 24hr Specialist who is doing all he can to be competitive in the mountains.  He’s recently took on the Jordan Trail covering 650km over 9 days, 10 hours and 17 minutes.  Check-out his website here.

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