According to Wikipedia: ‘An ultramarathon, also called ultra distance or ultra running, is any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometers (26 mi 385 yd).’
I admit when I first heard of ultra running my immediate thought was no thank you. I can barely wrap my head around running a mile, let alone 5 miles, let alone 13 miles, let alone 26 miles and for sure not anything that is 50 miles. But as I started to run little by little, building up stamina in both body and mind, I found myself more and more curious as to this crowning jewel of running. The ultramarathon.
In addition to the long distance there are actually two distinct types of ultramarathons. One is the pretty standard, most used type. There is a designated length on a designated route with a designated time allowance. The winner runs the most in the shortest amount of time. Very, very similar to any track and field running race. The most common distances are 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers, 50 miles, and 100 miles. Yes you read that right, 100 miles to run. The other styles of ultramarathons are double marathons, 24-hour races, and multiday races of 1,000 miles (1,600 km) or longer. And you thought 100 miles was long. There are races that span day and night where contestants run 1,000 miles to completion.
The routes can be loops around a single track, others are point to point courses on a paved road, and many trail races run cross country on trails, forest roads and more. Trail runs are particularly difficult as obstacles are many. Stormy weather, washed out trail portions, fallen trees and rocks, plus the elevation gains and losses as you climb mountains. But what adds difficulty also adds a unique and quite gorgeous experience.
On these longer runs there are tents set up throughout the course as aid stations every 12 to 20 miles. These points of oasis have food to munch on such as candy, cookies and quesadillas. Drink supplies such as soda, electrolyte replacement capsules and water to refill and recharge. Some of the fancier races have hot pads, warmer clothes, messages and music to pick up spirits.
Still not sure you want to run an ultramarathon? There are racewalking events that are similar distances but encourage walking with longer time allowance and a tortoise versus the hare mindset.
The Big Races
Now that you have a better concept of what ultramarathons are let us explore more just what races are out there.
- Zane Grey Highline Trail: This self described brutal race is 50 miles located in the desert paradise north of Pine, Arizona. The elevation gain boasts of 7,579 feet and the track is a mix of rocky cobblestone and sand. The perfect combination of more than one stumble. This is a pretty technical ultra so if you are just beginning maybe save this one as a goal to work up towards. In fact to even enter the race you must submit a resume with comparable trail runs you have completed. Why? This helps organizers know that you would be able to care for yourself out on the trails, and be without aid for extended periods of time.
- Jay Peak Trail Festival: Located in Jay Peak Vermont this trail is located on what is lovingly known as the Beast Coast. This festival has easy to moderate run options the whole family would enjoy. Over the weekend there are 7 different runs that are designed for newbie trail runners, kids who want to run versus compete, and a 53 miler for ultra runners wanting to get a big one in. Another major bonus for families is between each race, kids can ice skate on an ice rink, splash around in a water park, watch a flick at the movie theater, play games at an arcade, and climb up a climbing wall. Parents can join in the fun or just relax at a luxury hotel. Win win for all if you ask me.
- Grand to Grand: This stage race is almost 171 miles in total over a 7 day period. If you break it down, that is roughly 20 miles a day. Easy as pie right? Well maybe not but the course traverses one of the most iconic magically gorgeous landscapes in the world, stretching from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the top of Grand Staircase in the, you guessed it, Grand Canyon National Park. This race is self supported but still has water checkpoints, overnight camps and hot water. Since it is one of the most remote races in the world, you will be on your own to handle the notorious desert heat. To enter you just need to be 21 years of age and have a general practitioner sign off a bill of health.
Want to find a race near you? First check out your local running clubs or classes. These communities can help recommend a race you will enjoy as well as provide a supportive network for training. Online there are a plethora of searchable race calendars to browse with races all over the world.
Now you know what an ultramarathon is, you have some ideas on which one to start on or a goal to work towards and now you are ready for the actual race day. So what happens? How do you prepare for the big day?
- When you register for a race make sure you are checking for updates often. Many organizations are great with emailing information plus have websites with all the ins and outs. The very worst thing is not keeping informed and showing up on race day with a surprise cancellation or time change. An easy tip is to set up a repeating calendar appointment the week leading up to the race to confirm the race each day.
- Make sure you study the course details. It is helpful to understand elevation gain and losses, what type of track you will be running on and if it changes plus refill stations to portion out your supplies. You can take these details to a treadmill to create inclines to mimic the course. That way you are truly prepared physically and mentally for what is to come!
- Although you can pick up your race packet the day of your ultramarathon, I highly recommend picking it up early. Before each race there is typically a registration day to collect your number and sign in. Other bonuses are sponsors will set up booths with the latest running gear and food to check out.
- Race day has specific timing for when to arrive. But I recommend arriving early to avoid unexpected traffic, parking, or oops I forgot something – mishaps.
- When you are ultra running outside there are always variable factors in play. The temptation to run at a pace will burn you out when you are faced with weather changes, altitude and trail conditions. Instead run by focusing on your heart rate. This effort focus will be the best endurance versus trying to stay a certain speed.
- This one is the hardest for me. Be proactive at solving problems as they occur on the trail. This means when you start to feel a blister do not wait until it’s intolerable and stop immediately to apply a Band-Aid. When you are in an ultramarathon the long distance makes pushing through pain a tried and true method for not finishing. If a muscle is sore, stop and stretch. If the uphill section is really steep, walk it to give yourself a break. Other ways to be proactive in avoiding problems is to hang out a little extra at aid stations to consume fuel and rest, then start slowly as you ease back into the race.
- Really focus on staying on the course. Wayfinding can be tricky on these back country long distance routes. Study the course beforehand but always keep a close eye on your course’s markers. There is no shame in turning back if you are not positive you are still on track.
- Pre-hydration is super important. A good rule of thumb is to drink 17 to 20 fl. oz. about two hours before you run. Having that water in your system makes sure you are starting off hydrated and on a good foundation.
- That being said, once you are on the trail maintaining hydration is also super important. Try setting a goal to consume about 10 fl. oz. of water every 15 minutes while running. That is basically a good gulp. Do not wait until you are thirsty which is a tell tale sign you are already dehydrated.
- I know it seems not comfortable but you need to pre-fuel before your run. It should not be anything heavy but a nice and light meal at least an hour or two before the race is ideal. The goal is not to arrive at the race hungry. Also the time gap and light fare makes sure you are not expending excess energy to digest things that are high in fat or fiber during the race.
- While you are actually racing make sure you are actually eating as well at each of those first aid stations. While you are running on your ultra run, you should consume 200–300 calories per hour while running. These calories mostly come from carbohydrates that are fast digesting into sugar for that energy burst your body will be craving.
- Create your very own first aid kit to meet your needs. You may have your own anti chafing cream you just love or a type of tape that works the best. Plus you will need any prescription medicine on hand just in case.
- Even though you may really want to, you most likely are going to be too full of nerves to sleep well the night before the big race. Instead try to get a good night’s sleep two days before the race.
Ultramarathons are intimidating but they are also quite the accomplishment. No matter which one you choose or how fast you run it make sure you enjoy it. Simply starting one is an awesome achievement!
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus.