Going Longer: An Intro to Ultrarunning

A primer on how to train for a 50K race

For years, the marathon was a motivational carrot to runners of seemingly all abilities. Running 26.2 miles was the ultimate challenge for runners and finishing one—or many—was rightfully considered a significant achievement and became a personal badge of honor.

While the marathon is still an authentic challenge that more than a half million participants are drawn to every year in the U.S., the audacious task of running even farther—farther than most people typically drive on a given day—has become the new goal for many runners. Although the niche sport of ultrarunning is still relatively small (with an estimated 75,000 finishers in the U.S. annually) and races are tiny (most races have fewer than 300 entrants), the sport has grown considerably in the past two decades.

Ultrarunning—the term given to any race longer than a marathon—is one of the fastest-growing segments of running and has become the de rigueur test-piece for ambitious endurance athletes all over the world. It represents the new frontier of human endurance and tenacity, especially with the proliferation of 100-mile and even 200-mile events.

To bear witness at the finish line of an ultramarathon is to watch hopes and dreams come to fruition through hours of solitary work, dedication and determination. It’s an experience like none other. And you’d be surprised at the wide range of runners that stream across the line. Although the athletes at the sharp end of the sport might be genetically gifted beyond belief, the vast majority of finishers are “normal people” just as you might find in a marathon.

Here’s the thing though: You can’t fake your way through an ultramarathon and you certainly can’t run one off the couch because you were a high school athlete, have been running all of your life or even because you’re a proficient marathoner. If you’ve ever tried to run a marathon on less-than-ideal training, you can start to imagine how much you might suffer by trying to do the same for a race that is considerably longer.

But, if you train intelligently and consistently by following a good training plan, chances are good that you can finish a 50K (or 31 roughly miles), typically the first distance new ultrarunners tackle. With the help of two of the sport’s most experienced coaches, McMillan Running’s Ian Torrence and Sharman Ultra’s Ellie Greenwood—we’ll help you figure it out.

One of the primary keys to ultrarunning races is discovering the pure joy of running long distances. Photo: Glen Delman

What It Takes

Running very long distances can be rewarding and a lot of fun—especially if you are training and racing on trails. But with all of the variables that come up during ultra-distance runs—fatigue, fueling, hydration, weather and minor aches and injuries—there will be times that ultrarunning will feel more like torture than fun. As long as you stick to it and embrace the challenge and the journey, the enjoyment will increase as your aerobic fitness grows and your body is hardened by the longer efforts.

Take the long view and add mileage gradually at a slow pace, and make sure you’re prepared with the right shoes, clothes, accessories and elements for fueling and hydrating. When you push through the occasional discomfort of extending your mileage, you will eventually find on the other side that running, or running far, is no longer as difficult.

“An athlete must possess a true passion for the distance,” says Torrence, who’s won 50 of the more than 190 ultra-marathons he’s completed since the early 1990s. “That is personified by patience, tenacity and a talent for handling discomfort for prolonged periods of time.”

Greenwood, who’s won major races like Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the 90K Comrades Marathon in South Africa, says to move up in distance from the marathon you first and foremost is about enjoying the process and immersing yourself in running.

“Because a lot of training miles are necessary even to just finish your first 50K race, it goes without saying that it requires a love of running,” Greenwood says. “It’s important to enjoy the vast majority of the process, so be honest with yourself. And if you like running but don’t like the idea of multiple hour long runs on a weekly basis when in peak training, then maybe ultrarunning is not for you right now.”

The majority of able-bodied humans without any preexisting conditions can train for and finish a marathon. It’s not easy, but following a plan can get you there. The jump from marathon to ultrarunning can be nominal, especially for those who enjoy the miles, and it will feel like a natural progression. You won’t need to quit your job and move into your van, but, as with training for a marathon, you will need to prioritize your daily training.

Then all of a sudden, after your body has become used to the extra miles, it begins to require them. You are an animal after all, and your body wants to run, exercise, sweat and breathe deeply.

It is possible to just go out and run however many miles you like and find yourself accomplishing ultra-distances. For most people, though, following a training program will simply get you there faster and avoid the common mistakes many new ultrarunners make. A progressive training plan with intelligent recovery built into the mix isn’t rocket science, but an experienced coach has seen almost everything you’re likely to run into through their years of working with other athletes. Running coaches are analogous to hiring a financial planner; there are things you can figure out for yourself, but if you are busy, why not hire someone to do it for you and outsource what you don’t have time for. Plus, they’ll be able to take a more objective view than we’re typically able to apply to ourselves.

Fueling

The longer you run, the more important nutrition and hydration will become. Running long hours means you will go past what your body is prepared to do without supplemental calories and water. Continually rehydrating and replenishing your glycogen (or energy) stores is key, but you can’t just mindlessly consume, either.

An ultra-tough stomach is an asset, but it’s impossible to figure out what works for you body without lots of trial and error. So test and retest constantly, and learn how to adapt on the fly too.

Take a methodical approach to the process of using different foods during your long runs to see what works best for you. It’s difficult to determine what your body needs and thrives on during races with varying temperatures, weather, humidity and terrain. It’s also a moving target, as you gut biome changes based on your health and how you eat and drink. As fatigue and dehydration set it, gastrointestinal challenges can become more acute.

“You want to keep your fuel tank constantly topped up rather than digging yourself into a hole,” Greenwood says. “A basic guide would be to aim for 300 calories per hour, but, of course, this can vary between races and individual racers.”

A good benchmark is to start with what has worked for you during marathon training and racing, and build from there. Most people appreciate variety, and most ultrarunners even eat small portions of real food during long events. (Whereas most marathon aid stations offer water, an endurance-oriented sports drink and gels, ultrarunning aid stations are known to have bananas, oranges, potato chips, cookies, pretzels and candy, as well as tortilla wraps, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, boiled potatoes and even bacon.)

Developing a fueling and hydration strategy and experimenting in training are the keys to success on race day.

“As the distance grows longer, the ability to eat and drink to sustain efficient forward progress becomes a more important success factor than simply training volume and intensity,” Torrence says. “Race-day fueling must be practiced. Begin by integrating components on training runs. For example, get used to running with a hand held bottle, and/or a hydration pack and taking sips from them on a regular basis.”

One thing you’ll have to get used to as an aspiring ultrarunner is carrying your hydration, snacks and often an extra layer of clothing in a running-specific backpack. That might mean carrying a 50- to 70-ounce hydration bladder or carrying a pack with 18- to 20-ounce bottles or soft flasks on the front.

Some runners carry bottles in races—knowing they can run from aid station to aid station—others carry running-specific backpacks. Photo: Glen Delman


Training
 

To reach the finish line of an ultra-marathon you need to habituate your body to running far and being on your feet for hours on end. To increase an athlete’s performance, it’s necessary to alternately increase and reduce workloads. The best way to do this is to intelligently add mileage to the amount of volume you are already comfortably doing. “The 10 percent rule” is often used by those attempting to train on their own, without a coach. This is a conservative way to increase the amount you are running week to week. But when you consider how different we all are, based on genetic variation, athletic background and running ability, this method isn’t likely to get you to your goal in an efficient way.

“It is impossible to predict how an athlete will react to added training volume. We must take in to account their non-running stresses and environment,” Torrence says. “Smart incremental increases are good, but those bumps in volume might be more or less than 10 percent depending on an athlete’s feedback, injury history, life and race schedule, and recovery rate from recent training.”

Greenwood will sometimes use the 10 percent rule as a guideline for new ultrarunners, but stresses it’s different for all runners and all races. Course-specific training is imperative to achieving success in an ultra-distance race, so if you race is relatively flat, hilly or on very steep mountainous terrain, you should be training on similar terrain in the months leading up to it. With that in mind, a runner training for a 50K might get by with as few as 30 to 40 miles per week or as much as 75 to 90 miles—and in each case might have max long runs of 20 to 25 miles (or 3 to 5 hours).

“There is certainly no ‘one size fits all,'” Greenwood says. “The number of miles a first-time ultrarunner does in training can vary tremendously between individuals.”

Training for ultramarathons is a process of testing your body, then intelligently responding to its feedback. This is where a coach is helpful, if only because you are not the best judge of your own condition.

Training for any sport is about stress and recovery. In other words, stress your body with new mileage, intensity or speed and then respect the effort by giving it time to rest. The work you put in is the most important part, but a close second is how much rest you get. If your training increases, so should your sleep. Without proper down time your body won’t absorb the training and you won’t get the most out of it. So, prioritize sleep and consider it your legal and very necessary “performance-enhancing drug.”

READ MORE: Trails & Ales—In Search of Trails, Beer and Sushi in Japan

Race Day

Race day should be a celebration of all the hard work you’ve put in. If your training has gone well, then you should arrive at the start line uninjured and confident in your abilities. Staying calm when the gun goes off is important, especially in the early miles, when, assuming you tapered before the race, you’ll feel anxiously ready to jump out of your shorts.

Torrence suggests writing down your top five goals for each race, in a prioritized order for the event, which he says helps in developing a race strategy. Make a race plan for your event, but don’t freak out if you get off track early. It’s been said that running an ultra-distance race is like living life compressed—because a lot can happen between the start and the finish. And like life, an ultra-distance race is not about what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it that matters. You will have adversity during these races, and it will probably be something you didn’t plan for at all. But that’s what ultrarunning is all about and one of the reasons you should be intrigued by it, no matter if your goal is to run fast or slow or somewhere in between.

For example, you crew might not make it to an aid station on time. You could trip and fall on your water bottle and lose all of your hydration for the next four hours. You might take a wrong turn. You might get stung by a bee or charged by a moose. You might cut your leg. You could have an asthma attack so bad it feels like you are breathing through a straw. But you can finish an ultramarathon if your mind is strong enough to reframe those things and allow you to overcome the variety of physical, mental and emotional  stressors that will come your way. As Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville Trail 100, famously says every year, “You are stronger than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.”

Are You Ready for the Challenge?

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Greenwood advises. “The ultra community is by and large very welcoming to new ultrarunners and folks are all too happy to share advice and training miles with you. Yes, a 50K might ‘only’ be 5 miles more than a marathon but with lots of other variable aspects the more questions you ask the more you will learn ahead of race day, which will help your training and give you confidence when lining up at the start line.”

Ultimately, ultrarunning isn’t about racing to beat other people. It’s about taking on an immense challenge and testing yourself against it again and again. Successfully training for and racing a 50K race will likely just whet your appetite and inspire you to want to challenge yourself with longer races and perhaps new types of running adventures. Will 2018 your year to become an ultrarunner?

READ MORE: Running Across the Grand Canyon—At Night

 

In ultrarunning, it’s all about the journey … but reaching the finish line of your first 50K will bring a riveting sense of accomplishment. Photo: Glen Delman
Matt Hart
Matt Hart is an independent journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Men's Journal and Outside magazine, among others. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @TheMattHart.