Gulp. You Signed Up for an Ultra.
Okay. You are in. This could be your first 50k or your thirty-third 100 miler. If you’re anything like me, something clicks inside your brain as soon as you hit that final “ENTER” button on Ultrasignup. You may not get off the couch and go run hills right away—but mentally, your life direction changes course a few degrees. Priorities change. Running may take precedence over other mundane responsibilities that usually take the lead in your life. Stand tall, we are all here together, facing our fears. You are almost ready to slay the big dragon. It’s on now, baby.
Again, if you’re anything like me (I hope you’re not)—you tell yourself you are going to train right this year. You are going to be up at 4 am every day, getting those early miles in and safely build to 100-150 mile weeks. There will be a focus on getting 9-10 hours of sleep every night and still have ample time for cross training, yoga, strength training and hill sprints at least once a week. You imagine happiness. Bliss. You imagine a scene out of a James Parker novel, Once An Ultramarathon Runner—The Old Guy is Back At It Again. You romanticize big mileage mountain weeks leading up to the most perfect, effortless, peaceful race.
As you can see, I live in a fantasy world.
When you have a job, family, responsibilities—basically a whole other life outside of running—all the glorious training plans of hundred mile weeks get thrown out the window pretty quick, making one feel like they are not training hard enough and NOT going to be ready for their goal race. Relax. It’s going to take some effort but we can do this. We are doing this. Be in it.
Every person is going to be different. So don’t take my advice or anyone else’s for that matter. You’ve got to put in the work and figure it out for yourself. Nothing here about how to run or what to eat, those are separate topics. These are just a few random things I picked up over the last handful of years running ultras. Things that work for me and a few other people I know. Results may vary…
Cross Train It Up
To get better at running, it’s true, one must run. But if you jump into running 50 mile weeks right off the couch, you’re likely going to get injured and may not even make it to the start. To begin with, find a relaxing stretching or yoga routine, even if you’re just doing it a few times a week in front of the TV. After a week or two, start to mix in some light strength training with a focus on your core. Don’t worry if your weekly running mileage is suffering due to cross training and taking care of yourself. Mix it up. For instance, if you are at home doing a push up and squat routine, just focus on keeping your heartrate up for the duration of the workout. If your heartrate is elevated and you are moving and / or sweating, you are training for your event.
During an average week of training for a big race, for instance Wednesday, you might run twice. But then Tuesday and Thursday could be a run in the morning and yoga in the evening. Make yourself a plan but remain flexible and swap workouts if you have to. If that tweak in your knee is bothering you before a long run, don’t be a hero. Adjust your plans. Go play Frisbee golf or set some other arbitrary goal for yourself. See how long you can hold a plank and try and build up off of that time. Or see how many pushups you can do while watching The Godfather trilogy. Ride a bike, go to a climbing gym. It all counts as training toward your race.
Not everyone has the luxury of a couple days off of work in a row, I get it. Mix this up in any way that suits you. Saving your longer runs for the weekends probably goes without saying. These should be done slowly. Unlike what you heard in school, you don’t need to be afraid of a little LSD. That’s LONG SLOW DISTANCE in case you didn’t know. Get creative and change things up often to make the miles go by.
Sometimes you can get lucky and find a shorter, secondary race to include in your training about 4-6 weeks before you’re A-race. If you are training for a 50 mile run, find a 50k a month or two before, just to play around—no pressure. Practice your strategy for the race or get more familiar with your gear and using drop bags.
Maybe you’re training for your first hundo and there isn’t a convenient practice race near you. You could pick a weekend a month or two before your race and plan an all-night run. Be sure to inform a loved one exactly where you will be running. Set up water and food drops if you have to. Invite friends out to run a portion of it with you. Make it fun. Make it a party!
Another idea is to plan out a weekend with back to back long runs. Once you’re trained up and ready for it, running an easy 15 on a Saturday and then an even easier 15 on Sunday (on tired legs) can really be beneficial, both mentally and physically. You don’t need to do this often but play with it a couple of times within your training. Include lots of hiking.
Another little hack that I have a love / hate relationship with—plan yourself an epic bonk. This could be dangerous if not done mindfully so be careful and train up to this. However, if your training is done correctly, you should find yourself in the pits of hell at least a couple of times before your race. We do this so that on race day, we don’t have to go to hell. The easiest way to simulate an epic bonk is simply to not bring enough food with you on a long run, run yourself into the ground and then find yourself on a death march to get back home or to your car or wherever you started. Another option is after your long run, go home and eat a meal of protein and a little fat but zero carbohydrates or sugars. Then put in another long run the next day. More than likely, you will find yourself in an epic bonk-fest. Please be careful. Do this with a buddy or plan your route accordingly so that you don’t get yourself into trouble. Never short yourself on water. I can’t really state this enough, only do this if you are very familiar with your body. If you are able to simulate a couple of these before the race, you are not only learning more about your body and how to properly fuel it but you shouldn’t have to worry about a suffer-fest on race day. You will have outsmarted it.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Don’t take anything I say as gospel. I believe in plenty of goofy things. Play around and find out what works best for you, your body type, your goals etc. Take what is useful from this and discard the rest.
There are a lot of races now days that won’t allow you to listen to music…but you better believe you can while you are training. For me, running is the best time to listen to podcasts and books. However, if I really need some motivation or it’s the last 20 miles of a race and I’m pretty much done with running altogether and feeling a self-indulgent meltdown coming on…I have a playlist made specifically for moments like these. I’ll shuffle about a hundred songs that can bring me up and out of any misery I might be in and get me pumped up and moving again. Not everyone is into music or headphones but for me, it’s been another tool in the toolbox. Try not to become too dependent on it. For example, I wouldn’t recommend starting your long run with headphones in. Practice listening to your body for the first half of your run, your breathing, your cadence, paying attention to your surroundings. Let your mind wander off wherever it wants and then bring it back to the NOW. Once in a while (and sometimes I am really forcing myself) I try to smile at every person I pass on the trail or street. C’mon man, we’re healthy enough to get out for a run. Be in it. And then, later on, tactfully use your headphones when a distraction is needed.
If you are into tempo or speed work and I highly suggest it, once a week is probably enough, unless you are young or some sort of super-stud. Be sure to start easy and build your way up. Hill sprints, even just one session a week, can really take your fitness to the next level. Start with a couple 50 yard sprints, then add one or two more the next week. Remember, if you jump in too hard and end up injured, you are not even going to make it to the start of your event. Don’t waste your time or money. If you’re paying to get into a race and setting a date and time to LIGHT THE WORLD ON FIRE, train smart and make sure you’re healthy and hungry on race day.
Rest Hard, Rest Often
When training your butt off, you’re going to need to REST your butt off as well. I would advise you to sleep as much as you can while training hard but realistically, that’s almost always easier said than done. Try and make time for real rest and relaxation and don’t beat yourself up if once a week or so you wake up for a run and decide to sleep an extra hour instead. Your body will tell you when to back off and rest the same way it will tell you when it’s okay to push harder. This is a practice that can take years.
Pick out a couple of days for rest and / or active recovery. If you have weekends off and you are training hard both of those days, Monday and Friday make great rest days. In the beginning of your training, REST. Put your feet up and watch a movie after your workout. Or two. Sneak an extra hour of sleep here and there. Then as your training progresses, explore active recovery options rather than sedentary resting. Take the kids to a new park, walk the dog or go for a swim. Something easy and enjoyable and right on the verge of breaking a sweat. This helps your body to flush out toxins from the heavy training as well as promote faster healing. To build a muscle, you must stress it and then give it proper time to completely recover before stressing it again. It’s a necessary part of the building process. Rest is one of the most important aspects of your training. Use it. Enjoy it.
The Work Isn’t Going To Do Itself
Do what you can, when you can. One thing that’s always helped me is training twice a day. This can be a real mental hurdle for some folks but I felt like it broke the mileage into more manageable segments. Getting up before sunrise and facing a double digit run only sounds like a good idea in the evenings. When the alarm goes off—for me, the results are pretty dubious. However, if I get up in the morning and run a quick 4, then in the evening squeeze in another easy 5 and some stretching—I’m not as tired or as mentally taxed.
One of my biggest pieces of advice, find time to practice slowing down, taking some breaths and just listening. What is your body trying to tell you? Are you overworked? Or is your body responding to the training? If the race you signed up for is a new distance for you—you are going to have to put some work in. If you’ve done this distance before, your body will remember how this goes once you are into your training. Hopefully. You still have to put some major work in but you aren’t out there breaking new ground every weekend. Try to build up your weekly running mileage and / or speed in 10% increments to be safe and remain injury free. When training for an ultra, you need to spend a lot of time on your feet. Hiking or walking count as training and should be mixed in regularly, especially if your body is feeling tired or overworked. Unless you are an elite or you live vicariously through your own running fantasies, like myself, you will likely be hiking large portions of the race and you need to train for this. The goal is to get you to the finish line as quickly and efficiently as possible and for most people—that consists of a combination of running and hiking.
After you have managed to run an insanely long distance once or twice, it can feel like you’ve tapped into a superpower you never knew you had. And in a way, you truly did. Be proud, you dared greatly! You were probably brought up to think running an ultramarathon was nearly impossible. Or stupid. And to be honest with you, there is a lot of truth there. I’m guessing your parents weren’t grooming you to run ultras when you were a kid. But you grew up, stuff probably happened and eventually, you learned to follow your gut. Running long distances appealed to you. Maybe it felt like you were waking up for the first time. I personally feel like you either found this sport or this sport found you for a reason. Whether you know it or not, you inspire the people around you. Just remember the Peter Parker principle: “With great power comes great responsibility”. We have to take care of this organic vessel we are traveling around in. This will help ensure we toe the line healthy. If we trained properly, the race itself should just be a celebration of all the training. If a client comes to me and wants to run the Leadville 100 for the first time, I can set them set up with a customized training plan but let’s be honest, you can probably find one online. I’d rather dig deeper and spend some time visualizing the upcoming race, incorporate healthy self-talk for when things get tough and more importantly, practice getting behind your thoughts. The thoughts that are rattling around in our heads have the ability to sabotage everything, if the mind is not properly trained. Believe me, I know firsthand. We don’t want this happening on your big day. If we can practice simply observing our thoughts rather than reacting to them, even for portions of a race, think of how beneficial that could be in our day to day lives as well. Isn’t that why we run? To somehow become better people?
As you probably know, there are many ways running long distances can parallel our own day to day lives. It’s a beautiful thing, really. I’m not going to list the ways because it’s up to the athlete to find them. Running ultras can be a great vehicle to get us where we need to go. There are many avenues. This is ours. Maybe not forever but for now. It’s ultimately up to us to find the meaning in it all. Savor the journey, you’ll look back on these days with fondness and joy. Get dialed. Stay woke. Crush your goals and DO BIG THINGS!