What It Takes To Be An Ultrarunner

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This writing is excerpted from The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, From 5Ks to Ultras, by Trail Runner contributing editor Sarah Lavender Smith. The book offers extensive information on developing trail-specific skills, adapting your training for ultra distances and reaching goals on race day.

To become an ultrarunner, you should strive to develop the following nonphysical attributes:

Mental Toughness: Put another way, “mental toughness” means tolerance for unpleasant experiences. Your ability to suffer through and bounce back from the inevitable periods of discomfort, apathy and fatigue during a run has much more to do with your state of mind than your physical state, unless you are hampered by a genuine, significant injury that impairs your physical ability to run.

Patience: Trail running in general takes time and patience; ultrarunning takes even more. To be an ultrarunner, the idea of spending an entire morning—or even, an entire day—in a mellow, steady state of running and hiking through nature, often alone with your thoughts, has to truly appeal to you. You shouldn’t rush either the training or execution of an ultramarathon. If you do, you’ll likely “blow up” and not finish the distance.

Respect and Humility: An ultramarathon often unfolds like a Greek tragedy, in which the runner, as protagonist, pays for the sins of arrogance and pride through suffering. Nothing cures hubris like an ultramarathon or an extra-long training run. If you get cocky and think a 20-mile training run on trail is “no biggie,” or that your next 50K will be “a piece of cake”—that is, if you fail to respect and prepare accordingly for the distance and the trail’s unpredictability—you’re almost guaranteed to suffer a comedown.

Successful ultrarunning on trails also benefits from humility fostered by an existential awareness of one’s smallness and mortality in relation to the massive, eternal mountains. A culture of humility—along with gratitude—reigns in the sport, and showboating runners who excessively brag about their results on the trail or online, or display a self-centered lack of sportsmanship, deservedly get dissed by their peers.

Strategic Planning: In 1985, at age 24, the now-legendary Ann Trason “winged it” at her first 50-mile race. She entered the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run with so little planning and knowledge that she didn’t carry a water bottle in the triple-digit heat. But she won, set a longstanding course record, and went on to become one of the greatest ultrarunners of all time.

Unless you’re as exceptional as Ann Trason was in her prime, you can’t “wing” an ultra, or “just do it.” You really need to plan ahead, practice, and fine-tune the logistical aspects of the sport, especially fueling, hydration, and gear.

To develop the skill of strategic planning for ultras, there’s no good substitute for the last quality I’ll mention: experience.

The author, Sarah Lavender Smith, smiles and cultivates patience during the 2016 Sean O’Brien 50K even though at that moment, she physically felt less than ideal. Photo by Howie Stern, reprinted from The Trail Runner’s Companion.

Experience: Success at ultra-distance trail running—measured not just by speed or distance, but also by longevity in the sport—takes wisdom and physical adaptation gleaned from experience. I’ve met first-time ultrarunners at 50Ks who ran their first half-marathon mere months before, and decided to jump into ultra distances. Like having a whirlwind romance, they got swept up and developed passionate feelings for the sport. But going too far, too soon is a recipe for failure or injury (not that failure and injury aren’t great teachers!).

If you want to run ultras well—and avoid the fate of hotshots who burst onto the ultrarunning scene only to become one-year wonders sidelined by injury or burnout—then it behooves you to take your time training for these races, and graduate to longer distances gradually and prudently.

6 Ways Ultras Are Different from Shorter Races

1. Caloric Needs and Aid Station Fare: You need to ingest a lot of calories during an ultra, and after several hours on the trail, you probably will want some of those calories to come from solid and salty food instead of only from gels and sugary drinks. For this reason, aid stations at ultras are set up as buffets, with a variety of sweet and salty snacks that include fat and protein in addition to carbohydrate-rich fare. The longer the distance, the more substantial the food offered. If you run a 100-miler, you may be treated to soup, pizza, bacon, burritos, pancakes, and hot chocolate at aid stations along the way.

2. Crews and Pacers: At the 100K and 100M distance, ultrarunning becomes a team effort for runners who choose to have “a crew,” a small team of friends or family members to offer assistance and moral support at checkpoints along the route. If the race rules permit pacers, then runners might also elect to have a companion run part of the route at their side. (Some 50-mile races also allow pacers and encourage crews, but they’re more common at longer distances.)

A runner rummages through his drop bags. Photo by Howie Stern, reprinted from The Trail Runner’s Companion.

3. Drop Bags: Ultrarunners who believe they may want something that’s not provided at aid stations may choose to use drop bags. A typical drop bag includes a change of shirt or socks, a headlamp, an extra layer of warm clothing, and special snacks. Runners label their bags with their bib numbers, and race organizers transport the drop bags to designated checkpoints. (I usually opt not to use a drop bag, preferring to keep my race plan as uncomplicated as possible and to carry what little I need in a hydration pack.) Additionally, some runners use drop bags in lieu of crew.

4. Nighttime Running: 100-milers and sometimes 100Ks go past sunset for all but the fastest finishers. Practicing nighttime running with a headlamp—and coping with sleep deprivation, if running takes you past midnight—is an essential part of training for extra-long ultras.

5. Trail Work or Volunteer Requirements: To promote trail stewardship and help ultras staff events with much-needed volunteers, some ultramarathons require a certain number of service hours for entry. Usually this requirement entails volunteering at an ultra’s aid station or doing trail maintenance for a park district, and having your work verified by the event organizer or a trail supervisor.

6. Small Size: Trail ultramarathons have a much smaller number of participants than road marathons, typically numbering in the low hundreds rather than in the thousands. Some low-profile ultras have fewer than one hundred runners. Permit regulations limit the number of trail users to reduce the environmental impact on singletrack trails, which simply can’t accommodate thousands of runners all at once. Thanks to the small size, ultras tend to be less crowded events where runners form friendships and experience the peacefulness of nature. But the demand to run certain popular ultras exceeds the spots available. Consequently, some sought-after ultras use a lottery system for entry, resulting in chronically disappointed runners who, year after year, can’t get into their “bucket list” races. Race directors are responding to these market forces by creating new ultramarathons, so runners who can’t get a spot in a marquee event generally can find a lesser-known ultra worth discovering.

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