The New Year is here. Gulp. This year you finally went for it and made ‘run an ultra marathon’ your big resolution. As if it wasn’t scary enough to put such a huge goal out there like that, now you actually have to pick one, train for it, and…run it. Here are just a few important considerations you ought to make while selecting which ultra to take on:
Ultras range wildly in how one gets to the starting line. Some are so easy going that all you have to do is show up and tell them your name, and they’ll give you a pat on the back and a painted rock as a souvenir when you finish; others reach maximum capacity every year, so a lottery is held to determine who gets to run; others still have unique and extensive requirements, such as volunteering at the race in a previous year, being a pacer or finisher in a race of comparable distance, or raising money for charity, among other things. Make sure you qualify to apply before you set your heart on it. If you don’t meet the qualifying standards this year, get started on them pronto so you can enter next year.
It’s vital to find out if the race offers support, such as food and water stops and first aid supplies, or if you’ll need to carry your own. It’s not unusual for ultras to offer significantly fewer support stops for runners than are typically found in marathons or shorter, more popular, distances. Running with a backpack full of race supplies requires practice—you need to become accustomed to the extra weight, ensure backpack straps are correctly adjusted for comfort to avoid chaffing, and to figure out what supplies are necessary versus what are extra weight. When carrying something 50 miles or more, every ounce makes a difference.
The number of people who will race tells you a lot about what type of race it will be and how you’ll want to prepare. Is it so popular that you need to enter a lottery for a chance to compete? If so, you’ll want to pick a ‘Plan B’ race as well. If it’s a small race, find out why; is it new? Is it harder than hell, so no one signs up for it? Is it a boring view, so no one signs up for it? There’s a reason for everything — get to the bottom of it. If it’s a popular race with thousands of runners, make sure that it matches the environment you’re looking for. Unless you plan to be out there with the winners, where it’s usually spread out a little, are you prepared and willing to run with packs of people, fighting for elbow room and waiting to pass someone slower on a trail until the single track opens up?
Consider where the race takes place. If you live in Seattle and decide you’re going to go dominate the Leadville 100 in the Colorado Rockies, you sure as hell better acknowledge the change in elevation. Training for a high elevation race at sea level isn’t the brightest idea. You’ll want to consider getting in some altitude training either by traveling to higher elevations on the weekends for your long runs, or traveling to the race a week or more beforehand to allow your body to climatize. Altitude changes how your body reacts to everything, from how you digest your food, to hydration needs, to the oxygen levels in your muscles; all factors that can make or break your performance in an ultra.
What type of terrain does the race cover? Whether it’s forest, desert, city, hilly, flat, or a combination of things, you’ll want to get to know it as intimately as possible beforehand. Your training should be on the closest thing you can find to the actual race terrain. Running on pavement affects your body differently than running on rocky trails, and you’ll want the right muscles as preened as possible come race day. Also, the more you train on race-like terrain and in expected race day conditions, the more likely you are to realize what you’ll truly need, and what you can live without, during the race.
It’s totally normal to have a mini panic attack as you realize what you just committed yourself to by signing up for your first ultra. Take a few deep breaths, shake your arms and legs out, take a good long look at yourself in the mirror, and remember that you’re a badass. That’s why you made this goal to begin with. You can do it.
By: Audra Rundle