10 Tips For Running Your First Ultramarathon

You might be looking for a bold new challenge.

By: Carolyn Highland
August 18, 2015

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You might want epic bragging rights. You might be a serious glutton for punishment. You might have gotten talked into doing something you never thought you’d do by that crazy friend. You might have gotten bamboozled by the prospect of a fancy destination course. You might have had a momentary IPA-infused fit of insanity. Whatever path you took to get here, you are on the precipice of a weird, wonderful, knee-crunching adventure: an ultramarathon.

You will laugh. You will cry. You will sweat. You will probably bleed. Here’s how to love every minute of it even when you’re hating every minute of it.

Photo: Rumon Carter

1. Do it. Do it do it do it!

What may at first seem like a daunting, intimidating, downright insane thing to do may just be the best, most awe-inspiring sufferfest you’ve ever had.

2. Pick the right pair of shoes

You’re going to want trail runners that can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Whether minimalist or maximalist tickles your fancy, make sure you have a pair that fits well and suits your needs—and replace them on proper mileage intervals. Worn out, beat up shoes are an express ticket to foot injuries. I am a diehard fan of the Brooks Cascadia trail runner series.

Photo: Rumon Carter

3. Round up a crew of running mates

I ran my first ultra with three kickass running partners, who were invaluable sources of encouragement, camaraderie, and random rap solos. All of which, of course, are equally crucial ingredients for a good run. And when race day comes, they will be there for you in your darkest moments, keeping you upbeat and moving forward.

4. Make every run a fun run

During our long runs we had a mandatory “fun item” policy that manifested itself in leopard print leggings, knee-high whale socks, sparkly headbands, and lots of neon. The goofier the mood is, the less grueling a multi-digit training run will feel.

5. Be prepared and flexible

It’s good to have some sort of training plan to go off of to give you a general idea of how many miles you should be putting in, but don’t stress about following it down to the last inch. Stuff happens. Sometimes you will be sick or busy or your foot will feel funny. Sometimes, there will be pow days and you will have every right to leave your trail runners at home and go skiing. It’s okay to skip a run or tweak your training schedule to fit your life.

Photo: Rumon Carter

6. Practice putting fuel in the tank

Prior to running my first ultra, I ran 4 half marathons in college without taking a single sip of water from start line to finish line to avoid cramps. And while this strategy perhaps falls under the category of “not advisable” for a shorter race, it is a one-way ticket to being evac’d off the course in an ultra. If you’re not used to eating or drinking while running, start practicing as you train—whether your fuel of choice is a whole food, an energy bar, or a gel, know what works for you and be used to how it affects your body by race day. As for hydration, pick a system that floats your boat (water bottles in hand, hydration vest, hydration belt, etc.) and keep sippin’ the good stuff throughout your run. I used this Mountain Hardware hydration vest, which comfortably fit my 2 liter Camelbak in the back pouch, plus my phone, sunscreen, and plenty of snacks in the front pockets.

7. Stay positive

When we showed up to the start line on May 16 at the Grand Canyon and it was 30 degrees with four inches of fresh snow on the ground, it was hard to not want to curl up in the aid tent and accept defeat. But the truth was, what we were doing was hard. That’s the point. People don’t sign up for ultramarathons because they want to have an experience reminiscent of drinking margaritas on a white sand beach. It will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Complaining and feeling sorry for yourself are only going to make it worse. Channel that energy into something positive.

Photo: Rumon Carter

8. Listen to your body

Your body is the one carrying you from 32, 50, 64, or 100, so it should be the one calling the shots. Feel thirsty? Drink. Feel hungry? Eat. Feel like you need to walk? Walk. Feel like consuming three packs of caffeine-filled Shot Bloks is making you feel super weird? Put down the Shot Bloks. When you’ve been running for multiple hours in a row, your mind is not necessarily to be trusted, so heed the incredible machine that’s allowing you to do this badass thing and treat it with love and respect.

9. Have your power song ready

Everyone has a different stance on in-race music, but whether you opt to blast tunes from start to finish or listen to the sounds of nature and/or your own ragged breathing, make sure you have your jam ready. When you start to have an out-of-body experience (and not in a good way), you’re going to want to have it on hand, whether it’s “Backseat Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar or a funky James Brown number. Different strokes for different folks. If it weren’t for “Get Up Offa That Thing” around mile 28, I may not have made it.

10. Be ready for the full scale of emotions

Running is far from a simple physical pursuit, and this is turned up to 11 when it comes to ultrarunning. You will likely feel every possible emotion on the feeling spectrum at one point or another during the race. There will be the excited it’s-finally-here moments. The pissed off this-hurts-and-I-hate-it moments. The discouraged will-I-survive-this moments. The delirious it’s-hour-seven-and-I-can’t-feel-my-face moments. The dark I-do-not-feel-like-a-human moments. The determined I-just-put-on-James-Brown-and-it’s-go-time moments. The bleary eyed are-we-there-yet moments. But finally, and most importantly, the euphoric, transcendental, glorious, tears-of-joy filled I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that moments. The ones that assure you that even though you can barely walk afterwards, you know this won’t be your last ultra.

Photo: Rumon Carter

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