Ultramarathon training for beginners: Lessons learned from my first ultra

Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find some amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through obstruction.
-William James

I have to admit I’m no ultramarathon expert—far from it, in fact. I did my first and only ultramarathon last spring—the Ice Age Trail 50, which takes place in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in La Grange, Wisconsin. So while I can’t offer the perspectives of a seasoned veteran, I can identify with the concerns and doubts some newbies may feel about tackling the daunting distance of an ultramarathon. I learned a lot during my experience. Hopefully I can pass on a few tidbits of wisdom that will help other runners tackle their first adventure beyond 26.2. Here are some of the biggest lessons I learned during my journey.

If you’re going to do it, go all out
Once I decided I was going to run an ultramarathon, I debated between the 50 kilometer and 50 mile race distances. Many urged me to ease into things with a 50 kilometer race. But my younger brother, an ultramaraton veteran, strongly encouraged the opposite—he told me that if I was going to do an ultramarathon, I should do it all the way. He reasoned that I knew I could run 50 kilometers (I had several marathons under my belt at the time), but that I didn’t know if I could run 50 miles. He encouraged me to go for it and I ended up taking his advice. Ultimately, It was a more rewarding experience to tackle something I didn’t know to be possible—to really test my physical and mental limits.

Find a training plan and take a big bite of that sandwich
I used two training plans I found online to guide my ultramarathon training. One plan was from Runner’s World (16 weeks) and the other was from Hal Higdon (24 weeks). Both are similar in their emphasis of the “sandwich run”—essentially back-to-back long, slowish runs on successive days (building up to runs of 4-5 hours each) that help practice the feeling of running on tired legs. Undoubtedly, you will find yourself running on tired legs during the course of a 50-mile race. The more you can replicate that feeling during training, the better you’ll feel during the race.

Carry and use a water bottle during training runs
In terms of hydration, my brother advised me to race with a hand-held water bottle—that way I’d always have liquids at my fingertips. I found a water bottle I liked that comfortably fit into the palm of my hand. But the thing is, those water bottles can feel like dumbbells when they’re full and you’re not used to carrying them. So I used my training runs to practice carrying the weight. My arms and shoulders were quickly tired from the added weight during the first few long runs. But after a while, I became stronger and more adept at carrying water over longer distances. By race day, I was like a mule.

Practice Running on Trails and Walking Hills
Most ultramarathon races take place on trails. And trail running is a completely different beast than road running, requiring intense concentration, balance, and precision. It’s important to train on the type of terrain you’ll experience during the race. Although there isn’t much trail running in the city where I live, I sought it out during training runs whenever possible—even if it meant just running on the grass along a road. I also made a trip to run on the actual course a few weeks before the race. That really helped boost my confidence going in. Another thing I practiced during training was walking up hills. Initially it was hard to get over my macho mentality of not wanting to walk hills, but it’s essential to save your energy whenever possible during ultra-distance races. I got over my ego pretty quickly.

Start the Race Conservatively
The most important piece of advice I can offer for the race itself it to pace yourself conservatively. Going into the race, I knew I was going to be running for at least 9 hours straight. That’s a really long time to be doing anything, let alone running. So take it easy. Walk the big hills with everyone else. Stop at each aid station to adequately fuel. The race doesn’t really even begin until mile 30. If you’re feeling good at that point, pick it up a little. And if you’ve committed yourself to training right and pacing yourself well, you should feel good!

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