What to Know Before Your First Ultra
Pro ultra-runners provide five keys to help you make the jump to going long.
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Tackling your first ultra can feel daunting. Even if you’re a marathon veteran, add in trails, varying weather, longer long runs and learning how to fuel on the run can make running your first ultra exciting, adventurous, and slightly terrifying. We talked to the pros about their tips and tricks, and learned some helpful advice. But we also learned—given different running backgrounds, training styles, fueling strategies, and more—even pros admit that tackling your first ultra can be done many different ways.
1. Step Up to the Distance and the Terrain Gradually
Kaci Lickteig, 2016 Western States 100 winner and professional athlete for Hoka One One, offers some great advice. Long before she took on challenging 100 mile runs she was a seasoned marathoner, and when she moved beyond the marathon, she initially went only a small step farther.
“What made me confident to run my first ultra was that I had been racing marathons prior to my first 50K,” Lickteig says. “Knowing I was only adding 5 more miles made me feel like I was capable of running the distance.”
Even more than the distance, however, the fact that the ultra would be on trails rather than roads scared her. “I knew trail running was going to be much harder and that I would be slower—that meant I would be running longer than I ever have,” she says. “I calmed my nerves by making sure I was running at an easy effort and to make sure I was having fun! Not putting pressure on myself to finish at a certain place or time.”
If you’ve run a marathon, taking on a trail 50k might be the best step. Only have a 10k or half marathon under your belt? Try getting used to the trail first. Many ultras offer shorter distances like a 10k or 18k to get you started racing on the trails and meet and interact with the community.
2. Learn What Fuel Works for You
Courtney Dauwalter, a Salomon-sponsored pro whose successes include victories the 2017 Western States 100, Moab 240 and the Tahoe 200, is obviously brilliant at the really long stuff. With longer races, she says, comes the importance of learning how to fuel.
“It took me about five years of doing ultras before I had nailed down a fueling plan that works for me,” Dauwalter says. “Each person is different so taking advice and nutrition strategies from other ultra runners was a great way to get ideas on what to try—but then I had to try it out myself to see how things worked for my stomach during the races.”
Through experimentation, she has learned that if the race is less than 100km, she’ll stick to a very simple menu of fueling options: Tailwind, Honey Stinger Chews and Honey Stinger Waffles. If the race is longer than 100km, she adds mashed potatoes.
“Knowing what fuel works for me makes it easy to plan out my fuel prior to a race because I keep it very simple,” she says.
Simplicity can be best with fueling strategies, but it is critical to learn what works for you on the run. Trial and error on training runs (particularly long ones) and in your non-goal races can be the best way to figure out what works. One thing is certain: Fueling, both drinking and eating, is essential to running an ultra.
3. Balance Other Commitments with Adaptability and Honesty
Dauwalter was a teacher before she committed to the life of a professional runner, and, she was still successful as an athlete. Lickteig is a PT and also balances life around work. How do they manage to balance long miles with full-time jobs?
“You make it work!” says Dauwalter. “I was getting up before teaching to get in a few miles, sometimes sneaking in a lunch run, and then keeping the option open to get in a run after work. If there were weeks when my teaching schedule and life outside of work were too busy, then I would be patient with myself and not stress out too much about getting in all the runs.”
Lickteig also notes that consistently putting in daily miles is key. Not every weekend has to include a really long run. In fact, most ultra runners don’t need to put in as much mileage as marathoners.
The pros advise that lengthening your long runs on some weekends, such as building up to 30–35 miles in preparation for a 50-mile race, is plenty. Many ultra runners stack long runs together, such as a 20-mile run on Saturday, and again on Sunday. Practicing on different terrain and trying challenging trails can be key, as well as time on feet instead of just miles—trails are slower!
Hayden Hawks, professional trail runner for Altra, also juggles a busy schedule. “I am a dad, husband, run a coaching business, part of a trail maintenance committee, and have other church and family commitments,” he says. “It can be hard to find time sometimes, but I like being busy and it keeps my mind off the running and makes running a time that I get to enjoy nature, relax the mind, and find some peace.”
Hawks stresses the necessity of getting buy-in from all the important people in your life. “I think it is important to sit down with your partner, boss, kids, and let them know what your dreams are and what it’s going to take,” he says. “Make a plan with them and schedule out the time for your running.”
4. Be Patient, It’s a Long Road
Hawks admits he didn’t quite know what to expect with his first ultra, and made some mistakes. “In my first ultra I didn’t really understand how important fueling is. I didn’t fuel a lot and therefore suffered a lot at the end of the race,” he says. “I still was able to barely hold off second place for the win but could have run a lot better race if I would have had my fueling down properly.”
Hawks found that his success on the track didn’t immediately make him competitive, even among ultra runners he once considered slow. It can take a few races to really get the hang of things—even for pros—so don’t be discouraged if the first ultra doesn’t go as you hope.
“It takes years to learn different race strategies, nutrition, technical footwork, and to build mountain legs,” he says. “Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t click right away. I am a whole lot better now 4 years later than I was because my body has adapted over the years and I now have experience and respect for the mountains and the sport.”
Not only do you need to adapt to the new rigors physically, but you also need to learn new skills. “There is more to this sport than just running,” Hawks says. “You need to work on other things to help you with hiking sections, night running, technical sections, and the distance. It becomes a game and is more than just raw talent that wins these races.”
5. Embrace the Love
Both Dauwalter and Lickteig didn’t expect to enjoy ultras. Duawalter says, “I guess I didn’t really know that I would end up loving it so much. I knew I liked running and I knew I liked being outdoors, but I did not have any idea that it would land me where I am now, 8 years later… I love the silence of the trails and the hours spent with just my thoughts. I also love sharing the trails and experiences with friends and family.”
These pros also note how much they appreciate the ultra running community. “What I love about ultras is the community and becoming a part of it,” Lickteig says. “You meet so many amazing people and you get to travel the world and see so many different places that you wouldn’t normally see without running.”
Hawkes agrees: “I really love the people and the community. The people of ultra running are so cool. They are very down to earth, care about everyone, and are in it for the same reason you are—the love of the mountains and trails. We all have a lot of fun after races hanging out, chatting about the race, getting a drink, and talking about our next ultra.”
As you explore, make mistakes, learn and get better, be confident that this community has your back as you approach your first ultra.