Even Ultra veterans are still learning things with every race they do; a new tip, something that works better since the last time around. Sometimes it takes a few races to figure out exactly what your stomach can handle with all that adrenaline. This is not an all-inclusive list but it is an ever expanding one. If you are considering doing your first ultra, here is some encouragement, ideas/tips and overall general advice. You’re never going to feel 100% ready or prepared to spend multiple hours on your feet but you can definitely read enough articles to make your brain hurt and trick it into thinking that it is.
Don’t think you can do it? I guarantee that if you’ve thought about doing a ultra, you can do an ultra. Why? Because crazy people can make crazy things happen. Just hit that sign up button and it will motivate you to get the training done and you can deal with the nerves once you get to the starting line. I’m going to suggest (probably pretty obviously) starting with a 50k as it’s the perfect distance to test your suffering and challenge yourself.
What To Pack
Gels – Use the ones you train with. I use Endurance Tap. I try not to rely on there being food at the aid stations that I’ll like or that I’ll be craving. You can generally look up beforehand what kind of things will be there but for the back of the packers sometimes those things run out and if you’re depending on it, it can be a game changer. Plus, always having food on you is the best way to keep a bonk at bay. I generally use my gels for while I’m running and then grab anything salty at the aid stations so I’m not just downing sugar for the whole race.
Baby wipes with a ziploc baggie – This is your friend for potty breaks. I learned my lesson at my first 50k just trying to drip dry and ended up chafing my entire butt crack and getting a UTI. You’re welcome, for both the tip and the information.
Pain reliever -It’s best to not use Ibuprofen as that works through your kidneys and isn’t great for when you’re already working those hard. I use Tylenol or Aleve but use what you’re used to. If you run with Ibuprofen and it works for you, then don’t change that for race day.
Front pocket soft flasks -I like to use these as opposed to a bladder because you can keep track of what you are taking in and it’s also an easy way to mix electrolyte drinks at aid stations.
Electrolyte mix -My GO TOS are Tailwind and Scratch. I’ve been using Scratch more commonly these days as I like that it’s less potent and the single packets are slightly easier to use. It doesn’t have as many calories as Tailwind though.
Gloves -Unless its forecasted to be hot the entire day.
Extra battery pack for charging -Probably wouldn’t worry about this too much for a 50k but it’s great to have if your phone/music or watch is dying.
Headphones and a downloaded Spotify playlist -Build a playlist specifically for race day so that you get a nice new fresh set of songs for motivation. Just don’t be the dick that runs with both headphones in and doesn’t hear anyone trying to pass them. One ear only, I promise you’ll still hear the music just fine.
Anti-Chafing cream -I don’t typically chafe but it’s the one thing you’ll regret not having once you need it.
Suncreen – You will get burnt, even if you don’t feel like you’re getting burnt.
Hat -Ultimate sun and sweat blocker and bonus fashion trendsetter.
Neck Buff -This is more for snot than warmth. I’m not great at snot rockets and I don’t usually have sleeves on. It’s amazing to have just a constant tissue right at your reach. I know it sounds gross but ultra running is gross.
Shorts & tank with a pullover or light jacket -Don’t overdress unless it’s forecasted to be hellacious weather. Be bold, start cold!
Salomon S/Lab 12 Set-Pack
Crew socks -Socks you’ve trained in! No new socks!
Shoes -Again, ones that you’ve trained in! If you ran your training shoes down to the ground, make sure to buy a new set of the same pair and get a few miles in them before race day. This is probably the last thing you want to consider changing up, stick to what you know.
Compression socks (Lily Trotters!)
Dry, warm clothes to change into
Immediate food & soda/beer
Pat on the back
Doggy snuggles, if available
I successfully finished my first 4 ultras, all self-coached. Meaning I went online & found generalized 50k/50 miler training plans and implemented them fairly adequately. This got the mileage I needed under my belt, but it didn’t necessarily get me endurance and speed. Is that really important? I finished, so some would argue no. But now that I have done a few races with having used a coaching plan that is personalized to me and my adaptability, I would say it makes the overall racing experience much more enjoyable. Can you finish an ultra without a coach? Absolutely. It all just depends on what you want your experience to be.
Overall General Advice
This may seem like common sense…but you would be amazed at how many people question this when the time comes…if you have spent your time training, put all that hard work in and it comes down to it and you’re injured/hurt or feel like running an ultra will exacerbate something into an injury…DO. NOT. RUN. IT. Ultras will always be there and there are soooo many of them out there. This will not be your only chance. But if you go out there and run with an injury, it may just be. Think longevity. If your ultimate goal is to just run one race and then give up on running forever, then cool maybe go for it? But if you want to be able to run for as long as possible, check the ego, feel bummed out but don’t test the limits of your bodies ailments…they usually win.
Don’t set a time goal for your first ultra. Make your goal to just finish. There is already doing to be so much internalized pressure, whether you mean for there to be or not. You don’t need to put a time limit on yourself too. Plus, it also makes for a fun surprise if you end up finishing faster than the cutoff. In my opinion, even if it’s not your first ultra, time goals set yourself up for disappointment of your achievement. No matter how hard you train and whether or not you’re capable of meeting a certain time, you never know what’s going to happen on race day. If you end up having a bad day and don’t meet your time, it’s going to be hard to not fixate on that rather than being amazed with yourself for finishing. It may even get in your head and make yourself want to quit during the race if you feel you aren’t living up to what you think you’re capable of. I’ve seen too many people undermine their accomplishment by getting fixated on not having met their time goal, or even having MET their goal but then overthinking that they could have ran it even faster. Trust me, it’s not the mindset you want to get into. Finishing an ultra is an amazing achievement that you should always be proud of yourself for, no matter how many times you’ve completed one.
Time on feet is just as important as actually running. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how much walking you end up doing in an ultra. Sometimes walking can feel like the slowest crawl and you’re never going to reach the end. The more you spend in your training getting used to the idea of being on your feet for long periods of time, the less it will suck come race day. Need a break from the impact of running but don’t want to miss out on training? Go for a long, steep hike.
A race performance is rarely going to be perfect, and if it is, it’s not going to be because you planned it that way. My advice is that you go in thinking anything can happen and if you end up having a great day, take advantage of that for as long as you can. If you end up having a bad one, it’s just another lesson in how to suffer and still finish. Try not to put a race up on a pedestal or put all your eggs in one basket. I’ve definitely learned my lesson on this one and all it does is set your expectations high for something that is kind of out of your control once you’ve started running. Trust your training, trust your endurance and just ride that beautiful ultra ride!
Have any more Ultra tips? Comment them below! Happy racing! You got this!