There are a lot of reasons to race. An event looming on the calendar can be a great impetus for getting out the door; it can be a nice excuse to travel somewhere new; for the competitive, it’s a chance to test your mettle against the course and other runners.
At the very least, you’ll earn the right to plaster your rear windshield with one of those white oval stickers denoting various distances accomplished.
But first, you have to pick one.
“Trail running” and “ultrarunning” are often synonymous. Don’t let this fool you—there are plenty of trail races that will allow you to catch a late breakfast afterward, and which won’t require your family to crew.
Now, a 5K on trails is going to be a lot harder than one on the roads. And ultras are fun in their own regard. Just know what you’re getting into. Here’s a quick breakdown of race distances and what to expect:
10K and shorter. Is your time at a premium? Do you enjoy being at the very edge of your V02 max for extended periods? This is your distance.
10-mile to 26.2-mile. Short enough that you’re running hard, but long enough to require a sustained effort, this can be the most challenging range of races, particularly the half-marathon-to-25K distance.
50K to 100K. These ultras might take you an unprecedented distance, but tend to be doable if you can set aside time for your long runs. Plus, they usually take less than a full day.
100-miles-plus. Be ready to run overnight and face mental swings that can derail even veteran ultrarunners. Make sure you’re in good graces with your family before embarking on this time- and energy-consuming feat.
Research whether a race is flat or hilly; whether climbs are short and sharp, or long and sustained; whether the terrain is runnable, or rocky and technical. When possible, mimic those conditions in your training; also use it to gauge your time goals. Hint: if all of the times for that distance seem particularly slow, there’s probably a reason for that.
Races are a great reason to travel—whether to escape the frigid confines of winter (see below) or to traverse the mountains you spend so much time romanticizing. Be sure to consider the unique climate and terrain challenges offered by a location before signing up and concocting a training plan.
It’s common for family patriarchs and matriarchs to plan a destination race under the guise of a vacation. Your family might play dumb, but they’re wise to your ruse—just make sure the trip will be fun for them, and they won’t spend a day waiting around for you to be short-tempered at aid stations.
Be sure to take note of altitude differences between the race location and where you live and train. If you live in the Midwest and are traveling to Colorado for a race, expect a more strenuous effort per-mile than when you’re training at home. There are various techniques to prep for high altitude from sea level, which are covered in the training chapter.
Time of Year
Remember that ideal vacation weather (hot!) doesn’t always equal ideal racing weather; to that end, remember that people who say they love running in the swelter of mid-summer probably don’t run very much.
Ideal racing times for most of the country are in the spring and fall, when temps are cool but not cold.
That said, races in the dead of winter or the midsummer heat can be fun and challenging in their own right; just know that dealing with the climate will be a major part of your preparation and race execution.
Goal Race vs. Tune-Up
Not every race has to be your absolute best; in fact, it is not reasonable to expect a peak performance more than a couple of times per year. Trying to race all-out more often than that—especially in ultras – is a recipe for burnout and/or injury.
That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on a cool race with your friends if it comes up. But make sure to establish which race is your “A” race, and build your training cycle around that; if another race comes up in the middle of that training cycle, treat it as a long training run, or even a hard-effort workout, but don’t go all-out.
In the buildup to ultras, it is even common to pick a shorter ultra distance as a “tune-up” between a month and two months before your goal race. For example, if you are training for a 50-miler in September, you might find a 50K in August to act as one of your main training long runs.
It’s a truism to say that trail races are generally more relaxed than road races; but it bears repeating. While most events are perfectly well-organized, you will find incredible variety in the degree to which trail races mark and measure their courses or even denote a formal start/finish area.
Advertised race distances are not always exact—a trail 5K could be a half-mile longer, and an ultra might be several miles short or long—as organizers are usually working with the available trails to create an approximate distance. Complaints about discrepancies between an advertised race distance and one’s GPS data will likely go unheard at trail races.
The post-race atmosphere will be festive, but often loosely organized. Grab a beer and some food—bring some, too, if it’s a potluck—and debrief on your race with old and new friends.
As previously noted, the extensiveness of course markings can vary depending on the race. While most race directors take care to mark turns and give you the occasional “confidence” marking on a straight section (usually with bright flags, or something comparably visible), trail race navigation is far from automatic, and you’ll need to pay attention. Even professional runners at flagship races miss the occasional turn.
If you do miss one, take it as an opportunity to log a little extra distance, and be a good sport. Sometimes, it will be the race director’s fault; but sometimes, it will be yours.
If your coworkers, family or friends hear how long you’ve run, or are planning to run, you’ll probably hear some variation of the question: “Do you, like, eat during a run that long?”
Well, you usually can. Aid stations provide not only a cornucopia of calories (ranging from simple sugars in gels and soda to more substantial food, which you might find appetizing late in an ultra) to get you through the race; they work to break up the race into manageable chunks, and often provide a place for your crew, family, etc. to meet you. (Check on the rules, though, as some stations at some races don’t allow crew access.)
If you’re particular about the food and drink you like to take in during a race, be sure to check a race’s website ahead of time and see what brand of nutrition and other accoutrements they have; if you prefer ginger ale and a race only has Coke, for instance, you’ll need to plan ahead and have your crew carry some ginger ale for you.
Many longer races have weigh-in stations, particularly if they take place in hot weather. This way, race officials can monitor whether runners have lost a dangerous percentage of their starting body weight, which can indicate severe dehydration and portend major safety issues.
Aid stations are usually staffed by volunteers. Be sure to thank them—and make sure you volunteer once in a while in addition to racing.
Racing should be simple. But, alas, there are logistics to handle.
Study the course.
This step proves useful in both making sure you prepare adequately for the challenges of the race’s terrain and in establishing where and when your crew can meet you along the way, if you have one. It might also help you estimate how long you’ll be out there, which is paramount for planning how much water and nutrition to carry between aid stations.
Have a crew plan.
Crews can be a major boon to your racing, buoying your energy when you see people you know as well as providing more individualized support than what aid-station volunteers can offer. They’re especially helpful in races of over 100 miles, when you will likely run overnight and require a pacer to keep you on track through the wee hours of the night.
Make sure your crew is committed to showing up on time and performing their duties. Well-meaning friends and family might not always be the right crew members. Make sure they can handle you when you’re cranky, and make sure your pacer(s) can a) keep up with you and b) assess your mood and needs to keep you motivated and rolling. (Always remember to thank your crew profusely, pay for their transportation and lodging and get them a nice gift afterward. A six pack often suffices.)
In addition to the where-and-when, meet with beforehand so members know what to do when you arrive mid-race. You will likely be suffering and terse when you see them, so it is important to have a plan—including nutritional refills, bottle/pack handoffs and first-aid scenarios—made in advance.
Get there on time.
Check for road closures, weather events and other factors that could lead to delays on race morning. Check your tires for slow leaks. Set five alarms on your phone. Eliminate the risk of throwing your training out the window for lack of planning: look ahead, and leave earlier than you think you need to. (Bonus: if all goes smoothly, this tactic can also help you find premium parking and a more desirable spot in the port-a-potty queue.)
You’ve put in the training, and have handled the logistics sufficiently to stand on the start line. Now, try to get the most out of the opportunity and run well.
No matter the race distance, if you go hard, embrace the fact that it will hurt a whole lot. The sooner you accept that, the better.
Pacing and uphills. If the race is 10K or less, you can pretty much go out hard and attack hills; your pace at this distance means you’ll be maxed out and suffering either way. If it’s longer—10 miles to the marathon—hold back a bit and stay relaxed. Consider walking up hills if you’re close to redlining; managing your effort and recovering when the terrain gives you a chance (on flat and downhill sections) will be key to running strong throughout.
Nutrition and hydration. Generally, you only need to replenish calories if you’re running 90 minutes or longer—fairly rare for shorter races, but quite normal for distances of 10 miles or longer. You won’t be out there all day, so you don’t have to take the early-and-often approach to eating that you would in ultras; besides, the harder effort means your stomach is more likely to get upset.
If you need calories, keep it simple—gels, if you can stomach them, or even keep it to liquid calories—and be sure to hydrate a bit throughout. You don’t want water sloshing around in your stomach, but even slight dehydration can lead to a measureable decrease in performance.
50K, 50 miles and 100K
Here’s the short version: everyone feels good early in an ultra. The reason ultras are tough is because of what happens later. You can ward off fatigue, the dreaded bonk and low spirits if you take care of a few things early on and maintain them throughout.
Start slow. The adage in ultras goes that if you feel like you’re working hard early in the race, you’re going too fast. It’s tempting to burst off the line when you’re a tightly wound ball of well-tapered fitness, but remember you’ve got a long day ahead of you.
Power hiking. For most people, ultras will involve at least some walking to preserve energy and keep the heart rate at a manageable level. At the very least, a good starting point is to avoid running up hills, even early on, when you might have plenty of spring. (You won’t have that spring the whole race, guaranteed.) Put your hands on your knees and use your whole body to push. This takes some of the strain off your legs, and keeps your heart rate from spiking too much. Go slow and steady.
Hills, continued. For longer, more sustained uphills—such as what you would find in the mountains—consider alternating running and hiking in order to save some time. When running uphill, stay relaxed, keep your body upright and keep a high cadence. If possible, try to avoid eating or drinking while moving uphill, as it can disrupt your already-strained breathing.
Nutrition and hydration. This is simple: eat before you’re hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty. If you’re going to be out there all day, you’re going to build significant calorie and fluid deficits; the more your stomach can handle, the better you’re going to feel in the race’s late stages.
A good rule to follow is consuming 100 calories every 30 minutes, washed down with water. (In addition to causing dehydration, insufficient water consumption can prevent your stomach from absorbing calories, leading to low energy and upset stomach, a vicious cycle that can end your race.) You can round that out with food from aid stations and/or liquid calories, between 200 to 400 calories an hour, depending on what your stomach is capable of handling.
Dial in your nutritional technique on long training runs . Some runners can consume nothing but GU and water for a 100-miler; others require solid foods to keep their stomach functioning. The specifics are highly individualized, but ultrarunners universally need to consume significant calories to avoid depleting their glycogen stores and suffering from the physically and mentally debilitating state of low blood sugar known as “the bonk.”
Low patches. These are almost a given in a race 50K or longer. Assess what could be wrong—are you low on calories or hydration? Would changing out of your wet socks improve your mood? Or are you just, you know, really tired and hurting?
If it’s the latter, try to break the race by aid stations. Just make it to the next one; chat with some volunteers and eat some food. You’ll probably feel better after that. If all else fails, just ask yourself: where would you rather be? What would you rather be doing right then? Even a bad day on trails is better than a good day elsewhere.
When to drop. You may be tempted to drop at multiple points during an ultra. But there are instances where you should legitimately drop out of a race for your health and safety. That includes if you’ve sustained an acute injury—a badly twisted ankle, broken bone or open wound—that could endanger your running health in the long run. If a sore spot gets noticeably worse, it is likely not mere soreness from the distance.
Volunteers and race officials may also elect to pull you from the race if you are exhibiting signs of severe medical conditions, such as slurred speech and confusion, or symptoms of hypothermia. This can be disheartening, but is usually for the best.
If you drop out, always remember to alert volunteers or race officials, so a search party is not launched when you fail to show up to the next aid station or the finish line.
100 Miles (and Beyond)
Time on your feet. 100 miles might well take you more than 24 hours. Train accordingly, paying attention not only to distance covered but also to time spent on your feet, particularly in the dark, and/or when you’re already tired.
Overnight. Make sure you have a headlamp and extra batteries, and expect to move slower in the dark than you did during the day.
Hallucinations. It is perfectly normal, when you’ve been running for 20 hours, to look at a tree stump and see a face staring at you, or to see your pacer’s shadow jump and imagine a cougar bearing down on you. These are harmless, but it’s sure nice to have a pacer with you when it happens.
Crews and pacers. They are more of a necessity at this distance, especially since a pacer will not only keep you moving, but also keep you on the trail and assess your mental state in the late sections of the race. They can also help you keep the mood light, if that’s your thing. (See How to Crew and Pace below.)
Changing conditions. If you’re on the trail all day, conditions and weather might change drastically throughout the race. Be sure to have a variety of layers and accessories for different conditions and in case you get lost and have to hunker down.
Come in fresh. It’s better to be slightly undertrained than super-fit for a 100-miler, if being super-fit means you’re flirting with injury. Any nagging issues will almost certainly come to the fore during a 100-mile run.
Address problems early. Things like blisters and chafing are annoying at most distances, but can be fatal to your 100-miler. Keep your socks dry; change your shoes; use that BodyGlide; apply K-Tape to problem areas; eat early and often.
And remember—you signed up for this.