Hello future ultramarathoner,
I’m so excited for your upcoming adventure!
I’m excited for you to experience a long trail race. I’m excited for you to meet the wonderful people that participate in these crazy events. I’m excited for you to become overwhelmed with the beauty of the terrain surrounding you, and I’m excited for you to discover what a pleasant distraction it can be.
I’m excited for you to test your limits and reach new heights. I’m excited for you to experience the very real “I can/I can’t”, angel/devil debate in your head, and I’m excited that you will conquer that little asshole and show him (and yourself) that you, in fact, can.
I’m excited for you to feel the deep ache of exhausted legs, sore feet, tender blisters, and burning chaffing. And I’m excited for you to feel it all disappear when you cross the finish line. I’m excited for you to swear off trail running altogether halfway through, only to be browsing UltraSignup the next day (or that afternoon).
I’m excited for you to become an ultramarathoner because you are awesome and we’ll be lucky to have you among our ranks.
You’ve come such a long way! Remember the first race you did? Was it that cross-country race your freshman year of high school or a local 5k? Remember how you didn’t think that finish line would ever come? But it did. And then you decided to put even more distance between the start and finish as you tackled 10ks, and half marathons, or marathons. And every time to you toed that line, you weren’t sure if you could do it. You were nervous. You were doubtful. But you did it. You conquered that distance, scratched it off the list, and said, “what next?”
So here you are, a week or two out from the big dance. Soon you will be crossing that threshold from road runner, to trail runner, to ultramarathoner. It’s exciting, isn’t it? And also terrifying. There are so many unknowns for you right now, so many “what if’s.” What if it’s hot? What if it’s cold? What if it’s raining? What if I fall? What if I bonk? What if, what if, what if…
You’ve prepared so well. You’ve completed so many training runs. You’ve run early in the morning. You’ve run late at night. You’ve run when you had a terrible day at work. You’ve run when your heart ached. You’ve run through all of the stresses life has thrown at you, and you’re still running. I can assure you that whatever twists or curveballs the race tosses your way, none of them will compare to the challenges that you have already run through. You are resilient. You are prepared.
So as you put the finishing touches on your training, I wanted to share with you some advice that I have learned in my own transition from track runner, to road runner, to trail runner, to ultrarunner. These are in no particular order, each equally important to the previous and the next.
- Replenish early and often – You’re gonna be out there for a long time – probably longer than you ever have before. You’re going to be pushing your body and burning through calories, and losing electrolytes, and sweating (profusely, in my case), and you are going to need to try and replace everything you’re using and losing in order to maintain energy levels. Eat and drink before you’re hungry or thirsty.
- Be patient – This might be the most important advice for road runners. Road races are traditionally pretty flat, so you are used to getting out quickly and settling into your race pace as soon as possible. Don’t do this, you will regret it later. Position yourself farther back in the pack at the start than you would in a road race. This will keep you running easy during the early miles and prevent you from blowing your load in the first half of the race.
- Don’t judge a book by its cover/Leave your ego in the car – “But Steve,” you’ll say to me from the starting line once you’ve positioned yourself in the middle of that pack, “I shouldn’t be starting next to this old lady and this fat guy.” Yes, you should. That old lady has run 55 ultras and that fat guy is a beast on hills. Ultrarunners take many shapes and sizes, don’t be such an elitist road-running prick. Your 5k/10k/half/marathon PR don’t mean a thing out here. Ultrarunning is a different beast, altogether.
- Run by feel, not by pace – Your Garmin will screw you. Don’t even bother looking at the current pace screen because it will make you run too damn hard. You need to run by feel. Your effort should be relaxed and easy to start. You shouldn’t be breathing hard at all. You should be extremely comfortable, and that pace will be slow for you, and still, you are probably going too fast. Don’t worry, that same pace that feels so easy at the start will feel very, very difficult later in the race.
- Walk the hills – Unless you’ve trained extensively on hills (like 8,000 ft+ elevation gain per week), walk steep hills. The time that you think you are losing by walking the hills will be made up in the later miles of the race when you are still able to run/jog. (see #2)
- Be grateful – Nobody is entitled to anything, so be grateful. Be grateful for the opportunity to be out there. Be grateful for the weather (whatever it is, it could be worse). Be grateful for the new friends you will meet. Be grateful to the volunteers. Let me repeat, BE GRATEFUL FOR THE VOLUNTEERS. These folks are forfeiting their weekend to help YOU. Be kind to them, thank them profusely. Never, ever, ever, ever, get mad at a volunteer. They are not the race director.
- Smile – This isn’t just some fluffy, hippie-dippy advice about life, or a reminder to look good for the on-course cameras, this is legit racing advice. Things are going to get hard during this race, guaranteed. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, embrace the pain and force a smile – you will feel a hundred. Times. Better. I don’t understand the physiology behind it, but it works. Trust me.
- Segment – A great trick to staying positive during your race is approaching the course in segments. There are usually built-in segments between aid stations that are generally about 5-8 miles apart. These allow you to focus on the task at hand, 5 miles at a time. So instead of thinking to yourself, “I’m only at mile 18?!? F@CK!” think to yourself, “Only 4 miles to the next aid station! And cute guys/girls in costumes! And music! AND SNACKS! ” 5-8 miles should seem short for you since your typical easy runs are around this distance. This makes the total distance of the race much more digestible and less overwhelming.
- Prepare – If your race allows for a drop bag, use that as your survival kit. Include a change of everything (hat, shoes, socks, shirt, shorts), I can’t tell you how nice a dry shirt felt at mile 30 of 50. Have reserve on-course food like gels, granola bars, fruit roll-ups, and my personal favorite, gummy bears. Include a worst case scenario pick-me-up – something that will lift the darkest of spirits. Maybe an iPod, maybe a photo of your family, maybe a beer. Whatever it takes to put a smile back on your face. If your race has no drop bags, carry these things on your in your pack. Preparing ahead of time will prevent you from having a terrible time.
- Maintain perspective – No matter what happens during your race, be mindful of what it is. It’s simply a run of an arbitrary distance that allows you to explore your own perceived limits. If that run does not go as you had planned, you are no less of a person for it. If you race amazingly well and crush your goals, it makes you no better than anyone else. Be proud of the strength it took to test your limits but realize that this is just one mile marker in the much longer race we’re all running – the race of life.
I hope you take my advice to heart, for these were lessons learned the hard way. I wish you all of the strength, stamina, fortitude, resiliency and joyfulness needed to endure your challenge. I guarantee this will be an experience you will never forget.
May the wind forever be at your back,