What is Ultrarunning? And 12 Tips to Get You Started
Many of us are noticing our waistlines expanding in the age of instant gratification and fast food.
You probably know someone that enjoys taking walks, jogs, and striving to complete a 5k, 7k, or even a marathon. You probably think they are crazy, right?
How could someone want to slog along during a marathon for 26.2 miles just to barely make it across the finish line?
What if I told you there is another group of people who look at the traditional marathon as a simple warm up? This extreme sport is called ultrarunning and it is gaining popularity.
What is Ultrarunning?
Ultrarunning is a long-distance running sport that has grown in popularity.
Typically, an ultra distance race goes beyond the typical marathon.
The most common races start at a 50k which is 31.069 miles, but races can reach up to 100 miles long. The races take place on a varying landscape on trails, tracks, or roads. It is estimated that more than 70,000 athletes compete in ultra races every year.
There are typically two types of ultramarathon events — events that are timed and the winner is who covered the most distance, or an event that covers a specific distance. The most common distances are 50k, 100k, 50 miles, and 100 miles. Of course, there are many races with other distances.
The 100k event is recognized as the official world record event by the International Association of Athletics Federations, which is the world governing body of track and field.
Other races include multi-day races that span up to 1,000 miles or longer, 24-hour races, and double marathons. The format of these courses vary from doing single loops on a 400-meter track, point-to-point road or trail races, or cross-country rogaines. But wait, there's more. Many of the ultramarathons — especially trial challenges — contain severe obstacles like elevation change, rugged terrain, and inclement weather.
Many of these races will take place on dirt roads or mountain paths, but there are other races that are on paved roads. Generally, there are aid stations every 20 to 35 kilometers where you can refuel or take a short break.
Timed events, on the other hand, can range from six, 12, and 24 hours up to three, six, or ten-day multi-day stage race events and generally are run on a track or short road course.
If the distance or time hasn't scared you away, there are tougher events that are self-supported, meaning you will need to carry all of your supplies you need to survive the full length of the race — which is typically a week.
The First Ultra Race
The story goes that the first ultrarunners were actually native people. There are stories in ultrarunning circles about tribal men who could run for days through harsh conditions with just a little bit of food, and sometimes without shoes.
But in the US, ultra races started as an "ultra walking" event in the 1700s. There would be wagers placed on the distance men could walk in 24 hours, and the winners would start pushing their skills and competing more challenging feats at greater distances.
The first actual attempt to develop the sport as we know it today started back in 1928. A sports promoter named Charles C. Pyle held a footrace across America from coast to coast.
The winner was Andy Payne and it took him a little over 573 hours.
Best Ultrarunner of All Time
While "best" is always debatable, many ultrarunners regard Yiannis Kouros, the Greek ultramarathoner, to be the greatest the sport has ever seen. Known as the "running God," Kouros holds every outdoor road world record for men starting at 100 miles to 1,000 miles, and every road and track record from 12 hours to six days.
Fastest Ultrarunning Times
A couple of the fastest recorded times ever belong to Thompson Magawana, who finished a 50k road race in 2:43:48, and Takahiro Sunada, who finished a 100k in 6:13:33.
The sport is rapidly growing, so it is likely these record times may soon get crushed.
The Hardest Ultrarunning Race
While there are many different races, many ultrarunners agree that the hardest ultrarunning race belongs to the Badwater Ultramarathon. In this event, participants have to climb 19,000 feet through 135 miles of desert.
The course winds through Death Valley, which is considered to be one of the hottest places on Earth. Many competitors run along the white line in the middle of the road to keep their shoes from melting in the 120-degree heat.
If that's not the toughest race, I don't know what is.
Another honorable mention is the Marathon des Sables. It takes place in the Sahara Desert, and runners have to contend with sand, rocks, and heat over a 151-mile course that lasts for six to seven days. Not only this, you need to carry your own camping gear and prepare your own food. It's not a race for the faint of heart.
The Most Exotic Ultrarunning Locations
If you were to ask this question several decades ago, there wouldn't be many locations. Today, the ultrarunner can choose from hundreds of different races that vary in terrain and location. Many serious competitors may opt to race through the Alps in Switzerland, the jungles of Madagascar, or even across the Antarctic ice.
What Should You Pack?
When it comes to running, you can't be too organized. But you also shouldn't carry everything plus a kitchen sink. Finding the right balance is the trick to running a successful ultrarun, so your choices of gear, fuel, and fluid will be personal to you.
Just because something works for one runner doesn't mean it will work for you — practice, experiment, and find what works and what doesn't work for you. As you train, try various products and experiment with your refueling options. This is going to give you the confidence you need to go into the race and stay relaxed.
Make Sure to Do Your Research
Before you start building your kit, you need to do some research about your race. Get online and check out the information on their website and any reviews or forum posts you can find. If you can't find an answer you are looking for, don't be afraid to email the organizers or give them a call.
Preparation is key.
Choosing Your Hydration Pack
It can be weird running with a hydration pack due to the weight or simply being uncomfortable. This is where practice will help. Check out what other runners are using for their hydration pack and take into account your own preferences.
Get yourself a hydration pack and start training months in advance so you can get used to it. Make sure to load it up with what you expect to carry at the race, too.
Your pack needs to be big enough to carry everything in, including drink reservoir or bottle holders. You need to make sure it fits well and as comfortable as possible. There's nothing worse than a 100-mile race with a hydration pack that rubs or chafes you the wrong way. Sure, it may be alright after 10 or 20 miles, but what about at the 50-mile mark?
Get some practice in with your pack so you know what to expect.
When choosing the size of your pack, take into account the length of the race and what your expected conditions are. If you are expecting rain or any wet conditions, taking a hydration pack that is waterproof may be a smart idea. Some people will opt for a heavier pack so they can have everything they need, while others go for a minimalist pack risking leaving something behind.
Items You May Need in Your Ultra Pack
Here are some of the most common items an ultrarunner may take in their bag.
- Compeed Blister Packs or Bodyglide
- Rocktape that is cut into strips already
- Energy bars, chews, sweets, and gels
- Electrolyte drinks or sprays
- First aid kit
- A map — waterproof if wet conditions
- Tissues or wet wipes
- Cell phone with a spare battery or charge pack
- A lightweight waterproof layer if needed
- Arm warmers if needed
- A head torch for night races
- A hat
- Lightweight gloves
- Immodium and headache pills
- Plastic bag for trash, water protection, or wet clothes
- Lip balm
- First aid
Make sure you don't skimp on the first aid — you or another runner may need it.
Ultras can be remote and the marshals are spread out. This means if a runner gets hurt or injured on the course, it could take a while for someone was able to come help. Take a kit, you never know what's going to happen. Take a first aid kit especially if you are medically trained whether you think you'll need it or not.
Do it for the runners.
If you participated in your first 5k and 10k, you may start getting hooked on running. Then comes the half-marathon... and then the marathon.
But you want more.
When you want to take up ultrarunning, you're going to be running further than 26.2 miles. Many are 50 to 100 miles and races that can span over days. Once you've made the decision to start ultrarunning, you'll need to know a few tips.
#1 - You Don't Need to Run Much More Than Training for a Marathon
For your first 50k, which is 31 miles, you'll notice that is just a few miles longer than a marathon. That means your training can be similar.
Jessica DeLine is an ultramarathon race director in Southern California. She recommends running for 23 to 25 miles for a 50k, but you can also get it done with just a 20 to 22-mile run. The important things is your weekly mileage — you need to increase that over time and then hit a peak total, and then staying at that peak for a few weeks.
As you go for longer distances, you'll need to have more time on your feet. For more ultrarunners, they do not run more than 30 or 40 miles at once while they train for a 100-mile run.
"Another training tip for feeling that it is like to run an ultra is to do back to back long days," says DeLine. "Run 15 miles on Saturday and 15 more on Sunday — or do a long run Saturday morning and another run Saturday night. This will help you feel what it is like to run fatigued and sore because you will get fatigued and sore during an ultra run."
#2 - Manage Your Hydration and Refueling Needs Before the Race
Take it from the professionals — you don't want to try something new on race day. When it comes to ultramarathons, hydration and refueling is extremely important.
These races are long, so you're going to need to figure out how to replenish calories — which needs to be more than just a few gels. While your preferences may be different, many runners will drink soup or broth so they can get some salt back into their systems. They also opt for things like pretzels, chips, sandwiches, and pizza.
You'll need to eat at regular intervals, so don't wait until you are hungry or thirsty because you are too late.
#3 - Think Smaller Segments
A long 50 or 100-mile race can be overwhelming. Instead, break the race down into smaller manageable chunks like a 5k or even just getting over the next hill. This makes time go by faster and keeps your head in the game.
"Knowing the cutoff times and just go from cutoff time to cutoff time or aid station to aid station can help," says DeLine. "Don't think that you have 20 miles, think about the fact you have to get to mile 18 by 1 p.m. or you only need four more miles to the next aid station.
#4 - Start Out Easy
As you stand at the start of your race, don't let your adrenaline get the best of you. Many runners will get swept up in race day excitement, but pacing yourself is important when you have to run 30, 50, or 100 miles. This is especially true for your first race, so go out and have fun.
If you pace yourself and you still have something left in the tank at the end of the race, use it on the last few miles.
#5 - Study the Map
It's important to know what you are getting into and if you need to modify your training so you can be successful at the race. "You should train on the actual course if at all possible and if not, familiarize yourself with the terrain and train on a similar course," DeLine suggests. "Training for the type of terrain is just as important as training for the mileage."
If you know there are going to be several large hills during the race, know where they are at in the race. This helps you know what's coming and helps you prepare for what's next. Train by becoming better at climbing up a technical hill or jogging down some rocky descents.
When you study the map of the course, you can plan your gear drops. Many ultras will allow you to transport and drop off a bag to at least one aid station. This helps you plan your refueling needs and where your bag should go.
#6 - Bring Extra Food and Hydration
Short races you may not need to carry much, but for ultramarathons, you'll want to have hydration and snacks with you. There are generally aid stations and you can drop your gear off, but you'll want to make sure you carry your own things so you always have what you need for the longer races.
#7 - Ask a Friend to Pace You or Be Your Crew
Some ultras will allow you to have a crew or at least a person that can pace you for part of your race. If the race allows it, you can have your crew meet you at aid stations or certain access points to provide fresh gear like socks or a jacket, first aid, hydration, or food. This will take some planning, but you can utilize a crew to help you succeed.
A pacer can run the latter part of the race with you and provide motivation and support during the hardest part of the race. Pacers can help you navigate the course, stay on track, and maintain proper refueling.
This typically isn't allowed for races shorter than 100 miles.
#8 - Trail Running is Different
If you've never stepped foot on a trail, it's time to get on one. Road racing and trail racing are two completely different monsters. There are a lot of books and websites that offer great help for trail running, but you'll need to get on your feet and practice the trails to learn how to maneuver around roots, rocks, and rough terrain.
You'll need to grab a solid pair of trail running shoes so you have enough support for your feet and ankles. The great thing about trail running is that they encourage walking. In fact, walking up hills and running down hills are a strategy that many trail runners will employ. DeLine goes on to say how "even some of the top ultrarunners will walk from time to time on some courses."
#9 - Follow Your Plan
Look, if you've put the time into planning your race out, don't worry about what other people do for their training. They will say they've done more miles, more ascent, more races, and ultimately over-training themselves.
Don't listen to them. Trust your instinct, make a plan, and stick to it.
Don't try to emulate other runners' gear, what they are carrying, or how they refuel. You know what you like to wear, what to carry, and what you like to eat, so quit changing your mind because someone's doing something different.
#10 - Embrace the Suck
Something about ultrarunning that intrigues me is how you have to embrace the suck. You aren't necessarily trying to beat other people or the clock... instead, you are testing yourself. There is a wide range of variables during the event, you'll hurt, and you'll ask yourself what did you get yourself into. The weather sucks, you are sweaty, and you want to go home. Things are going to go wrong, but being uncomfortable is part of the game.
It's all mental.
An ultra-distance race is a feat, a huge physical endeavor, and it makes you mentally tougher. The same willpower it takes to complete an ultrarunning event is the same willpower it takes to not eat that donut or overeat. It's the same willpower that drives someone to build a business, to wake up early and go to the gym, and to put forth the effort to get that raise you deserve.
Ultrarunning is a lot more than running or walking for hundreds of miles. You're going to need to expect the unexpected and you need to keep the emotions at bay. You've probably never felt more physically miserable and unable to keep going, but you will. The key is to maintain the relentless forward motion and know you are going to complete the race.
Stuff happens, but when you can embrace the suck, it makes finishing the race much more rewarding. An ultrarunner has a true passion for the distance. They exhibit patience, tenacity, and a talent for handling the suck for prolonged periods of time.
#12 - Have Fun
You've put the time into training, planning, and getting everything ready for the race. Don't take it for granted.
You aren't racing because you have to, you are racing because you like it. Don't let the race ruin your spirits and learn from any mistake you may make. Learn to embrace the suck and enjoy the challenges ahead.
Wrapping It Up
When it comes to running ultras, there are a few basic principles to follow:
Know the ins and outs of the race, make a plan, and stick to it.
Get time on your feet — train on trails if your race is offroad.
Embrace the suck.
Make this the year you sign up for that ultra.