Friday, July 13, 2012

Training Tips: Ultra Marathons

This is the last installment of the training tips series for the summer! We saved the big one for last: ULTRA MARATHONS! In case you missed the other training tips, you will find links in a previous post on running a marathon, half marathon, 10k, 5k, and training here. Today we have a FABULOUS runner named Danielle! Danielle and I first connected because we both ran our FIRST marathons on the same day! While I was preparing for a belated birthday party/marathon celebration and a few weeks of REST, Danielle was getting ready to amp up her running prowess! I've enjoyed following her journey from casual runner to a BEAST runner. 


Be prepared to be inspired! ENJOY!

Name: Danielle
Twitter Name: @LngMayYouRun


A mere two months after running my first marathon, I found myself lining up at the start of my first ultra- the Croom Zoom 50k Trail Race. Anxiety, excitement, giddiness, and fear were all flooding my little brain as I huddled with the 78 other runners trying to stay warm in the 20-degree weather. I was about to begin the journey of a lifetime- I was about to begin my first ultramarathon.

An ultramarathon is simply any distance longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon. The most common distance for the ultramarathon newcomer is the 50k, or 31.1 miles. Other distances include 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. The most famous ultramarathon is the Western States 100 Miler (WS is to the ultra community what the Boston marathon is to the road racing community) and arguably the most difficult ultramarathon is the Badwater Ultra (a 135 mile journey through the desert in the middle of summer). Of course there’s the Barkley Marathons, but that’s an entirely different kind of crazy.

So what on Earth possessed me to run an ultra? Simply put: to see if I could. There’s an unexplainable power to conquering our fears and pushing our bodies past their limits and then some. In a way, it makes you feel superhuman. It makes you feel like you can do anything.

Some people might argue this, but I think that if you can run a marathon, you can run a 50k. Completing 26.2 miles will give you “adequate enough” training to cover 31.1 miles. But if you want to really enjoy your first ultra, I would recommend a different approach.

Most ultras are on trails but my first marathon (and most of my training) was on roads. When I was preparing for the Zoom 50k, I kept my basic marathon training schedule but added two new components: more trail running and back-to-back long runs.

Running on trails is a different ballgame than running on roads. Your stride changes, you slow down, and you trip more often (some more than others). There’s really no alternative to getting trail experience than running on trails. Plus you get to see some pretty awesome parts of Nature that you wouldn’t see otherwise.

The purpose of back-to-back long runs is to prepare you body and mind to run on tired legs. I ran a 20 miler one day followed by a 10 miler the next day. Another week, I ran three back-to-back 10 milers.

Additionally, your long runs will give you an opportunity to practice your fueling strategy. I’ve found this is the one thing that greatly differs from marathon running. You MUST eat, there’s no getting around it. If you’re body isn’t metabolizing food and giving you constant energy, you might as well just embrace your DNF (did not finish) before you even start.

Of course ultrarunners use energy gels and such, but after 10-12 hours, these things can get cumbersome. Common foods found at ultra aid stations include: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, candy (such as M&Ms, Snickers Bars, cookies, etc), pretzels, bananas, boiled potatoes, orange slices, watermelon, and Pepsi/Coke. If you’re trying to imagine how someone might possibly stomach said foods while running, don’t forget that in ultras, you slow down and do more walking (two things that road runners ABHOR!). Just a handful of these items can do wonders for your energy levels in the middle of an ultra!

Back to the Zoom 50k- about 6 hours and 47 minutes after the bullhorn sounded (and 33+ miles… I got a little lost), I finished my race and could officially call myself an “ultramarathoner.” It was amazing, horrible, empowering, and painful all at once.

There were three things that really stood out to me on my first ultra experience. The first was the greatness of camaraderie. The race began before daylight, so we were all running behind each other down the single-track trail with headlamps on. It was very cool to see the string of lights up ahead of me and hear the banter of my fellow runners.

The second was the beauty of Nature. As I ran through the dark, I could see the dew hanging in the air like frozen snowflakes as armadillos were scurrying off to my sides. The frost on the ground sparkled like silver from the light of my headlamp. When the sun rose, everything turned a beautiful golden color. You could almost hear Mother Nature yawn. You just don’t get these things on the roads.

The third thing about my first ultra that stood out was about myself: conquering my inner demons. In marathons, it’s all about how to avoid hitting The Wall. In ultras, it’s about how many walls you hit, because you WILL hit them. Despite my meticulous calorie intake, I still bonked around mile 27. I felt like I had nothing left in me. I wanted to quit. I questioned my ability as a runner and felt so, so inadequate. My wall was more than just physical, but also mental. Yet somehow, I dug down deeper and found more strength, more confidence, and more perseverance than I thought I had.

In order to see what you’re made of, you have to push yourself to your breaking point. And when you’re faced with the decision to quit or keep going, and you chose to keep going, you know you’ve achieved something fierce.


“Your body can achieve what your mind perceives.”

(For more info on training for ultras, check out Bryon Powell’s book, “Relentless Forward Progress.”)

THANK YOU, DANIELLE! That was an awesome post! You've made me consider an ultra...uh oh!

How about you?! Have you done an ultra? Do you WANT to do an ultra?! Did this post make you feel tired just thinking about running more than 26.2?! TELL ME ABOUT IT!

113 days until the ING NYC MARATHON!!!
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