The ultimate guide to navigating your first ultramarathon
So, what exactly is an ultramarathon? An ultramarathon is any distance which is further than the 26.2 miles (or 42.2km) of a marathon. Of late, this unique and exhilarating discipline has begun to rival the marathon in popularity. And, getting out on the trails, or in the mountains, is definitely the coolest way to take on a run of this length.
However, increasing your distance and time out running also increases the opportunity for things to go wrong. Or, as I like to see it, gives you more opportunity to problem-solve, grow, and conquer.
I hope this guide will help you to understand that ultramarathons shouldn’t be overwhelming or complicated. Instead, ultra running is about doing the basics well and keeping it simple. My guide is designed to give you the foundations for longevity and enjoyment, while being able to climb your own individual peaks.
No risk, no story: how to choose your first ultramarathon
When you google ultramarathons, you may well become overwhelmed by the sheer number of events that exist. Track? Trail? Mountains? Roads? 24 hours? 100km? 100 miles? There’s a lot out there, and this can be overwhelming, terrifying, and exciting all at the same time.
When I was searching for my first ultramarathon event I was 15 years old and the choice was very limited – there was only one race that would let a 15-year-old run. So picking was pretty easy and my first ultramarathon was a 100km event. However, your story doesn’t have to be quite so 0 to 100.
If you’re picking your first ultramarathon then my biggest piece of advice is to ask yourself some simple questions:
- What excites you?
- What can you realistically complete?
- What time frame do you have to prepare?
If you live in the city, and don’t have the time or means to get out onto the trails or into the mountains, then perhaps pick a race that’s closer to home and more accessible.
Ultimately though, when it comes to choosing your first ultramarathon you should find a race that really lights a fire in you, gives you goosebumps – then jump! No risk, no story.
Ultramarathon training: leave the numbers behind
Now you’ve got your race, it’s time to train! This should be the fun part. As cliche as it sounds, ‘it’s about the journey not the destination’. And, something I’ve always prided myself on throughout my career is consistency and my enjoyment of training.
When I trained for my first ultramarathon I only ran easy. No workouts, no programs. I ran with my Dad, before or after school. I rested if I felt tired or didn’t have time, and I didn’t stress about the numbers or the event. Instead, I choose to enjoy the feeling each day of getting 1% closer to being in the best position to enjoy race day.
So, if you’re training for your first ultramarathon then I suggest finding comfort and routine in getting up and getting out, before you start thinking about your pace, heart rate, hours trained, or other metrics. When you’ve got this consistency and routine, then you can begin to add other ‘workouts’ to your schedule.
That said, when it comes to ultra running, always prioritise the joy and the good feelings, and always remember that in this sport, the numbers don’t define you. If you have a good run and see that your pace was a little slower, that doesn’t make that run less good.
Now eight years into the sport I still have to check my headspace and ask: why am I running and who I am running for? I run for me, and the feeling it gives me, not to impress others with numbers.
Even now, my training consists of easy jogging 5 days a week. These are the foundations of my running. They strengthen my cardiovascular system and develop the muscles required for ultramarathons.
In terms of pace, these should be runs where you are breathing easily, can hold a conversation, and feel like you can keep going even when you stop. That’s when you know you’re on the right path.
Ultramarathon training: protect your body and it will protect you
Ok, so we’ve booked the race, and we’ve started training, but suddenly we feel pain. Here is where the ultra running community – although amazing – can be your biggest vice. There seems to be an unwritten award for the person at each start line with the most broken bones, or tape holding their limbs together, or who’s taken the most painkillers.
Generally, this is because they couldn’t handle the process and short term pain of resting when injury beckons during training. Don’t make this mistake! My advice? If it hurts, stop.
We want to enjoy running, it’s meant to be fun and there is absolutely nothing wrong with cutting a run short or not starting at all. This is a form of self-love that I advocate and have had to learn the hard way. I fell into the process of always justifying pain as “my muscles adapting” or “when you train a-lot, this is normal”.
Of course there will be stiffness and there will be mental fatigue on runs. You may even be bonking; where your mind and body is just telling you stop. It’s in these moments that I employ the 10 minute rule:
- If I feel a bit stiff / sore before I run, I’ll go out and just do 10 mins
- If I’m still not feeling great, I’ll turn around – at least I got 10 mins in and tried
- If I’m on the verge of bonking I give myself 10 mins to resurrect the situation: this could be eating, sitting down, taking on water, listening to music, or taking deep breaths
You’ll learn more about your body over time and you’ll appreciate it more than ever as you navigate through your first ultramarathon. Listen to your body, use the 10 minute rule and you can’t go too far wrong. Oh, and take any advice from the ultra running community with a pinch of salt!
Ultramarathon mindset: create a tool kit for the mind
The last, but most important thing when it comes to training, is the mind. We train the body and expect big things from ourselves, but if you’re running an ultramarathon then we must also train and treat the mind with the same love and support.
As I mentioned at the start, taking on a distance further than 26.2 miles will challenge you in many ways. I’m not going to paint an unrealistic picture of sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. Yes, those moments happen, but there is also darkness, rain and a whole lot of doubt. So, what I’ve learned is to have a tool kit for the mind, and ways to bring myself out of those situations.
My tool kit includes:
These are all options I use when the going gets tough, but the only way you will find what works best for you is by getting out there and trying. That way, when you feel the darkness, rain and doubt coming during the event, then you’ll be able to find the rainbows, the sunshine, and the unicorns, because you’ve trained your mind to do so.
It’s that incredible mind of yours that gave you the idea to do an ultramarathon in the first place and that endured the training to get there. And, the mind has an amazing ability to only remember the good moments. Before you know it, you’ll be back entering your next ultramarathon.
The ultramarathon community: you’ll need them, trust me
Finally, let’s talk about the ultra running community. After all, you’re going to need them and they’re going to see you, the real you. And, as the saying goes: ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
Well, when you enter your first ultramarathon, you are going to join an incredible and inclusive group of humans. This whacky community wakes up before the sun rises to get their long runs in, comes in all different shapes and sizes, and can always be seen wearing the loudest clothing and widest smiles.
These are the people who’ll help you go to the toilet in the bush, or pull you back up when your stomach rejects one too many gels, and, most importantly, who will be there when you finish – whether that’s first or last.
That’s the best thing about this community – they have your back: they’ve had mine for 9 years now. Being a young female, I couldn’t think of a better group to grow up with. They’ve seen me smile, seen me win, seen me injured and sad, make mistakes and learn from them. If you’re here because you’re entering your first ultramarathon, then welcome to this special community.
You’ve made it. Now, take your time and bask in the journey of running: this is where the growth happens and the best feelings are created.
Let’s Do This.