You’ve signed up. You’ve decided the Wicked Trail is meant for you; you want to experience your first ultra marathon and all the joy that comes with conquering, and the eradication of complacency that comes with the pain.
Are you ready?
Have you prepared mentally?
Have you prepared physically?
Don’t underestimate the challenge; there is much to experience and much more to learn at your first ultra marathon. The beauty of these events is the uniqueness of each race; none will have the same challenges, scenery, people, or joys of the last.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
Here are 5 (maybe not-so-common) things you’ll learn at your first (of many, I’m sure) ultra marathon.
1. It’s More Simple Than You Think
All of your speed and mileage calculations, your food rationing and hydration strategy, drop-bag placement and cellphone charger access; this planning takes you to the start line with confidence, perhaps, but when the runners venture out, the simplicity of the whole event unfolds.
Yes, there lies challenge and adversity, and knee pain and blisters, but this struggle is dealt in the simplicity.
You are required, for many hours, to put one foot in front of the other. You are required to run and walk a distance. When you are thirsty, you drink. When you are weak, you eat or rest. And then you begin again.
Think about it; where is the complication?
Your in-depth strategies and plans, your calorie counting, your heart-rate and GPS monitoring, your intervals of walking and running; these are all in preparation for an event you’ve never experienced.
And that’s what your first ultra marathon ought to be about: simplistic experience.
Exist in the individual moments of the race; take in the scenery, meet other runners, enjoy the discomfort for its purpose. When you do this, when you abandon expectations [click here to learn about ‘expectations’], you set up your first ultra marathon to be a success.
How could it be a failure?
You’ve broken down the event to a simple exercise in movement and opened your mind to be eagerly molded by experience.
Your first ultra marathon doesn’t have to be complex; leave the war plans at home and exist in the simplicity of the race.
2. …but Ultra Marathons Do Require Skill
Running is a skill; running for dozens or hundreds of miles, running an ultra marathon, tests your development as a runner.
How do you handle elevation change or rough terrain? What will you do after 50 or 100 miles on the same flat surface? When pain, and thirst, and nausea come into play, how will they affect you?
How does the terrain and the hours and hours on your feet impact your stride and your cadence and your neuromuscular connection?
When I went to packet pick-up at my first 50 mile road race, someone mentioned the flat elevation and the ease of pace it will allow. The race director shook his head and laughed.
“Doing the exact same motion for 50 miles will tear you up. Make sure you’re switching muscle groups.”
I had never thought of it before for ultrarunning. I’d practiced muscle activation in lifting and stretching; I knew the profound impact mindfulness-of-movement could have on performance.
I’ll keep that in mind, I thought.
And I did. While running those 50 road miles, I found myself changing my gait ever-so-slightly and adjusting which muscles were absorbing most of the impact. When my calves and Achilles tendon grew fatigued, I switched to my glutes. And when my posterior chain felt the effects of high-volume glute activation, I’d fall forward into my stride and let my quads take over, almost like running downhill on flat ground.
Running is a skill; while ultra marathons are simple events, minding the details of your movement can have high impacts on endurance and performance.
I won that ultra marathon [check it out, here], and I leave some credit to the race director for his wisdom.
“Make sure you’re switching muscle groups.”
3. While they require some skill, Proper Nutrition Can Give You An Edge
You’re at mile 40, or 80, or 98.
It hurts; it’s supposed to hurt.
You’ve cycled muscle activation throughout the run, and now you’re left to dwell on the simple torture you’ve subjected yourself to.
Your body is aching and your mind is fleeing from sanity. Wait a minute…
When is that last time you ate? And what exactly did you eat?
You’ll see aid stations stocked with sugar and processed food, quick fixes and pickle juice potions.
My advice? Bring enough food to get you through!
I said food. Not cookies and pizza rolls and candy and protein bars.
Fruits, vegetables, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And Larabars. That’s what I eat during races. And I eat these often. Very often.
Why? Foods like these, natural and plant-based foods, are nutrient dense and provide essential vitamins and minerals your body is dying for. Your body is craving the anti-inflammatory, iron rich, blood-pumping harvest of the outskirts of Whole Foods and your local juice bar.
At my first ultra marathon victory (and in every race from that point forward), cold-pressed juices became my secret weapon. Nutrient dense juice packed with everything my body needed, and nothing it didn’t. A bottle per aid station until the very end, and I didn’t touch a single electrolyte gel.
At each aid station I also eat salt-sprinkled cucumbers and bell peppers. I run with a Larabar and keep bananas, mandarins, and minimal-ingredient PB&Js handy with my crew or drop bags.
My nutrition strategy isn’t perfect; there are still times I take a big swig of Tailwind or Gatorade, but I’ve yet to leave an ultra marathon injured or sick.
[UPDATE: my first DNF involved very poor nutrition the night before the race. Read about it HERE]
Take care; pay attention to what exactly you’re putting in your body. Think of the consequences in two, three, or ten hours.
Nutrition certainly involves eating a lot and eating often…
4. …but maybe Slim Down Your Hydration Pack
I get it. Especially first-time racers. I was there, too.
I was loaded for war for my first 100 mile race. Three GUs, two bottles of water. A sandwich and some fruit. I could’ve lasted a week in the Sahara.
I would, however, reach an aid station hosting my crew in less than two hours.
I didn’t need all that food; I’m sure I hardly touched it!
You’ve run for two or three hours alone before (unless you trained like this guy), so calm down; you’ll be perfectly okay without that extra rain jacket and sandwich and electrolyte gel and batteries and whatever else is stuffed in your VaporKrar.
Take a deep breath. You’ll be around more food and drink than you can imagine in just a couple hours.
So eat and drink often and well, but mind your efficiency on the road or trail. Lose some of that weight and focus on forward motion.
5. At The End Of The Race, The Taller Peak Awaits
I remember the emotions as I waddled toward the finish line of my first 100 mile race; it was a high that lasted for a few days.
I remember how my ankles, my feet, my hip flexors, and my hamstrings deeply ached for rest; it was muscular pain I hadn’t ever experienced before.
And I remember the awe of the whole ordeal when I saw the spectators and race crew, and my own crew, waiting. I would be the last finisher to receive my belt buckle with barely 9 minutes to spare; it wasn’t the way I had envisioned my first 100 mile ultra marathon.
I didn’t think I would have to race the clock for 30 miles, fighting pain and frustration the entire way. I didn’t think I would spend 6 hours on a technical 16-mile stretch of trail. I didn’t think I would be projected to miss the cutoff at mile 92.
And I didn’t think the finish line of the Burning River 100 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, would offer the most incredible view I’d ever seen.
It wasn’t snowy mountains or lush valleys I saw. It wasn’t a small mountain town coming to life to celebrate the finishing of an endurance race. It wasn’t a sunrise or sunset over the fall colors of a forest.
In fact, it was hardly scenic.
People milled about, but as stragglers and the final battered who-knows-if-they’ll-make-it runners appeared over a concrete hill, the life of the party faded. The brewery where the race ended became more of a final aid station; runners laid about in various stages of recovery.
I closed my eyes and saw what I had been running for, the incredible view.
As I faded between consciousness and a deep, calm sleep, I kept seeing, or dreaming about, a Taller Peak.
That Taller Peak was a mountain of opportunity; what’s next? What else can you do? You’ve summited the mountain of your first 100-mile race. There is much more out there. Start climbing.
The Burning River 100 had been my goal, my peak to summit, for quite some time; I didn’t know that in finishing it, I would only realize how small a mountain it was.
I hadn’t before climbed such a mountain, accomplished such a feat; I hadn’t before had the view I now entertained as I lay in the parking lot.
That’s what ultrarunning, especially jumping in and running your first ultramarathon, is all about: attaining a vantage point that allows you to see all of the opportunity the world offers you.
Few people climb the mountain, reach their own peak, accomplish their own goal; it’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.
To those that do, those who venture down dark trails and explore twisted forests, those who pursue their passions and reject comfort: find the Taller Peak.
Close your eyes and examine your vantage point; the world is full of opportunity.