You’re an avid runner who spends every day celebrating life running trails, roads, forests and mountains. You’ve done several races now, measuring yourself up and assessing your running abilities. You feel that you’re finally ready for the ultimate running challenge – an ultra-marathon, but are wondering what to expect from this exciting new experience?
The Plentiful Options
The short answer is that it will all depend vastly on your previous running experience and the type of ultra – marathon you are interested in doing. To begin with, the term ultra-marathon covers any distance above the marathon distance; hence it could be anything from 50 km to several hundred km. It is important to understand this, and choose your challenge wisely; if you haven’t done much distance running before, start with shorter distance and see how your body reacts. Moreover, most of the ultra-running events these days are trail running and mountain races. Hence, in addition to picking your distance, you should also review the terrain you will be running, the elevation gains, and the level of technicality of the trail.
Not all ultra-marathons are designed equal, and make sure you are familiar with the type of terrain and possible challenges. Most mountain ultra-marathons also require appropriate gear and familiarity with mountain conditions and possible dangers. Some races require ability to navigate snow and exposed ridges, which is super exciting, but potentially dangerous for a newbie.
As many distance runners will tell you, the true work and challenge will be the training and not the race. Of course the race itself will be a challenge too, but dedicated preparation for many weeks is where your actual endurance will be tested. And the truth is that training is very important; not only for your performance, but to decrease the chance of injury and develop the strength (mental and physical) required for running an ultra-marathon.
If you’ve done several marathon distance races before, your training distances and overall regime likely won’t change much. However, if you’ve never run more than 15 km in your life and your weekly mileage is low and irregular then you have some major work ahead of you. Progress slowly, get used to regular running and gradually increase your weekly mileage that would prepare you for your chosen event. Set up a training schedule and do not forget to recover well, give yourself some rest days and focus on nutrition; it’s easy to burn out or get injured from intense training.
Finally, mind your running technique and choose appropriate footwear. After spending hours and hours on your feet, even minor flaws and problems might ruin your race and cause long-lasting injuries.
Looots of Food
Ultra-running is a lot about the food – eat enough and you’ll get anywhere. Eat well before the race and after every training run. It’s important to consume a combination of protein and carbohydrate immediately after your exercise for efficient muscle recovery. And what you ate after your last training session before the race/event might have a massive effect on your performance.
During the race itself, food and water is of major importance. Many distance beginners do not eat and drink enough, causing them to “bonk” or “hit the wall”, where one completely runs out of energy, making it hard to move forward or even stay fully conscious. The problem that often people fail to fuel on time; it takes time for any food substance to be processed for accessible energy, hence you should be eating BEFORE you feel hungry. General rule of thumb is to first consume food 30-40 min into the event, followed by snacks every 20-30 min. An optimum portion is 100kcal of simple carbohydrates that will provide you with an immediate (almost) burst of energy.
Make sure to drink enough fluids, as they are essential in keeping you going. Adding some hydration tablets containing some sugars is a useful addition for your hydration, also providing some of those essential calories. Ultra-marathons in warmer, more humid climates will require more fluids, but event running in cold conditions, you should not forget to hydrate.
It is very important to test your nutrition plan before the race. Go out for a long run and take the exact types of food you are planning to use in your race. Every person is different in their water needs, and snack preferences, and it all gets affected severely be the intensity of the race.
The Art of Mental Struggle
It does not matter how experienced or good you are at running; there will be some (a lot) suffering involved. Everyone from completely amateur to experienced pro athletes experience that. On some point during the race you will have to fight off the doubts, the discouraging thoughts and potentially, mental and physical pain and keep on going. This is what ultra-running game is all about – the highs and lows of battling your own limits, the satisfaction and inspiration you get from your own achievement of accomplishing something you thought was beyond your abilities.
An ultra-running race event is a trip through a landscape of emotions and feelings, varying from runners’ high to intense suffering to tears of joy, when you realize, you CAN actually make the distance. It is an incredible experience to say the least. What I find exceptional about these competitions is that they do not feel like competitions. People running along-side of you will become your support network, and you will likely form some beautiful connections. In short, ultra-running is celebration of human ability and spirit, with lasting effects on all aspects of your life.
The ultra-running experience is an intense and difficult experience that eventually results in the final relief. You completed it! You’ve done the distance. Now it’s time to refuel, recover, and … start planning your next race. They say the best adventurers are the ones with poorest memory. Ultra-running is a very individual experience, and you won’t know what it is for you, until you try.