Your First 50 Miler

An open letter to you, the one thinking about tackling your first ultra:


Let me start by saying that I will not make you suffer through an exposition of the many layered self-revelations I experienced while training and running my first ultra marathon. As epiphanic as the experience was, its general arc has already been captured by those more accomplished than I at both running and writing.

No, what I hope to do here is briefly share the kernels of knowledge that got me to toe the line and comfortably complete my first 50 mile ultra.  With luck, it'll speak to you.  Yes, you - the one with the nascent gleam of ultras in your eyes.

In order of importance, as I see them:

1. Herd mentality is good

You can’t beat running regularly with a group, especially a group of experienced ultra runners. Pretty much everything I learned that got me to the starting line of my 50 miler (and everything I write here), I learned from an accomplished group of ultra marathoners who were kind enough to put up with my naivete and share their experience with me. From them I learned the ultra lexicon, found out secret tips, and really saw what it took to be a successful ultra runner. Then there are the training benefits. On group runs you’ll be pushed (or in my case shamed) to going longer and harder than you normally would, and even on the day’s you’re not running with the group, they’ll haunt your psyche and training logs, driving you to get that little bit extra out of every week.

2. Every long run a buffet 
Eating on the run isn’t something you can take or leave when it comes to ultra running or training. It’s essential, and you need a lot of steady calories to make it through a race or a hard stretch of training. Hardly needs to be said, right? Well, you’d be surprised how many ultras are ruined by slip ups in nutrition. Too many calories; not enough calories; the wrong type of calories. It seems straight-forward when you read that most ultra runners need around 200 – 300 calories an hour when racing 50 miles or longer. Harder, though, is getting it dialed in, keeping to a schedule and figuring out what works best for you. Until this past year, I had trouble getting 150 calories an hour; my stomach just couldn’t tolerate it. But, by experimenting and practicing even on shorter runs, I finally found a combination of nutrition sources that worked for me, and that’s basically what I stuck with. Now, I can take in about 300 calories an hour, which finally put ultras within my grasp.

3. Lot’s wife had it right. Salt
You lose a lot of salt in the course of a 9 hour race or multi-hour training run. Replacing it with salt tablets, sodium-heavy gels or chicken bouillon is key to keeping sodium stores in balance and your stomach feeling good. For me, salt turned out to be the missing arrow in my nutrition quiver. Once I started taking salt regularly on my runs, even in winter, my usually sour stomach calmed and I could take in all the calories I truly needed. Of course, everyone’s different, with different sodium needs. And you need to find out what works for you, but keep in mind that ultra running taxes the body in different ways than shorter endurance running, so what you didn’t need for marathon training may become quite important when you start thinking of longer distances.

4. Head for the hills
It’s easy to become obsessed purely with mileage when training for an ultra, but you can’t forget to get in your vertical feet, either. Most trail ultras have a good amount of climbing, so having quads trained for the big ups and big downs can be the difference between a great race and a miserable race. Leading up to my 50, which had over 8500 feet of climbing, I felt a little light in the miles but I had a great deal of vertical, which helped me get to the line feeling stronger than I should have based on miles alone. And not all of my vertical was put in on remote mountainous singletrack . A lot came from lap after lap on shorter climbs near town.
On course, 2008 White River 50
(photo: gtach)

5. Miles, miles, miles, but also rest
Yes, vertical is important, but ultra running still requires a training log pretty fat with miles. There’s really no two ways about it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be smart about it and train smarter not longer. Basically, you need to know when to go Herculean and to know when to rest. My biggest week leading up White River was a dash over 80 miles but most weeks in my final phase were 50 – 60 miles. And I had some big weeks of rest as well so I could recover from the big buildups. It’s easy to become a mileage junkie, but keep the addiction in check. Injuries can scuttle your race, and even whole seasons, completely. Having a few easy weeks here and there can help you toe the line healthy and rested.

6. Patience, Prudence 
I shamelessly co-opted this tenet after chatting on a run with friend and accomplished ultra-runner, Andy Jones-Wilkins.  And it’s truly sage advice.  If there’s one thing there’s a lot of during the training for and racing of an ultra, it’s time.  So be patient.  Take it easy early on in racing as well as training runs.  Don’t be afraid to walk those easy hills or go slower than you think you need to.  There’s always time to pick it up and suffer later. At White River, I went out easy in the first flat miles, which left me in the painfully slow conga line up the first climb to mile 15.  As antsy and anxious as this made me, it couldn’t have been better. The slow advance meant I could eat, drink, conserve energy and even enjoy the views–all of which left me primed for a great second half pace.

7. First family; then miles
Ultra running can put a real strain on the family. And, if you don’t want your first ultra to be the last one you do legally bound to your betrothed, it’s important to do whatever you can to hold up your end of the family/relationship contract. What does this boil down to? Basically, trying to have as little impact as possible on normal family life, which is admittedly hard to do when even modest long runs can take four hours. For me, and a number of my running companions, this meant a lot of early miles with 4:00am alarms, and forgoing that afternoon recovery nap for trips with the kids to the pool, park, ski slopes, or playground. Remember the old Nike ad – “there is no finish line”: that’s the life of the ultra-running parent.

So that’s it. The short list that got me through my first 50 miler. Yes, it’s pretty straightforward on the face of it, but like baking a cake, all the ingredients have to come together just the right way to make it all happen. Just six months ago, I thought I’d never be able to complete a 50k, let alone a 50 miler. Yet, I was lucky enough to run with a great group of runners who helped me work through my inexperience and see what it really takes to get to the finish line. And if you think an ultra may be in your future, even the slight possibility of one, I hope these thoughts convince you it’s within your grasp.

Next up? Maybe my first 100 miler. If so, brace yourself for another letter. I’m sure it’ll be an epiphanic experience.

-October 2008

While the follow-up letter is still pending, the author did go on to complete numerous other ultras, including some 100 milers, all which were chronicled (and continue to be) ad nauseum on the pages of this blog.