Beyond the Marathon: How to Get Started in Ultra Running

Pacers, despite the name, don't actually pace a runner as a typical marathon pacer may for the front pack. Ultra pacers help their runner stay on course, keep safe and, if allowed, carry their runner's supplies (called "muling"). The specific race dictates how much assistance is permitted. Pacers act as companion, nursemaid, entertainer, psychologist and coach. Most ultras require the runner to complete at least half the race before a pacer can come in. It's common to have more than one pacer for 100 milers to ensure each is fresh for his or her job. Pacers are official participants of the race; they will often sport the same bib number in another color as identification. Most races allow one pacer at a time; the number is transferred to whoever has the current duty. It's not an easy job, but it's a wonderful way to vicariously participate in an ultra event.

During a marathon you may be able to get away with a few energy gels, some water and a couple cups of Gatorade. The ultra takes hydration and fueling to another level. "Ask 100 ultra runners what they eat, you will get 100 different answers," O'Grady says. Of course, personal preferences prevail, but most runners need some sort of solid food to up their calorie intake.

Nancy Shura-Dervin, founder of the UltraLadies Running Club (ultraladies.com) and finisher of 61 ultras, recommends finding out what will be provided at the aid stations and using your training runs to experiment with those products, especially solid foods. She says you can expect to find a variety of items such as meal replacements shakes, PB&J sandwiches, chicken soup, pizza, potatoes and fruit. Carry water or an electrolyte drink with you at all times. Some races make this mandatory. And, just like the marathon, practice your fueling options during training.

Mental Challenge

Many ultra runners agree that finishing an ultra is as much, if not more, a mental undertaking as a physical one. According to O'Grady, "being in good running shape isn't enough--you have to be prepared mentally." She suggests "doing some long runs when you are already tired to get the feeling of pushing through when you don't feel like it." While marathons certainly can throw challenges at you, knowing you have six or 10 miles left is often a number you can wrap your brain around. Tell yourself that you have 20 or 30 more miles, and it's a whole new kind of mental challenge.

Many ultra runners employ a variety of techniques to help them cross the finish line, like visualization, relaxation, goal setting, positive affirmations and avoiding negative talk. Shura-Dervin uses mantras and often will repeat phrases like, "next aid station" or "hurts so good" to keep herself moving, what ultra runners call "relentless forward motion." Ultimately, though, she says what helped her most was learning how to enjoy the journey as much or more than the outcome.

Running on Trails and at Night

Marathons are typically road events, while most ultras are held on trails. You certainly can find ultras on a 400-meter track or road-like conditions, but trails are the main host of these endurance events. Shura-Dervin recommends that newbies should start logging some miles on the trails right away. Learning how to navigate roots, mud and overhanging branches is essential. Expect your pace to be slower, and don't let that discourage you. Many trail runners will focus on time rather than miles when out on the trails.

Also, night running is often part of the ultra adventure. Fifty milers may start before the sun rises and finish after the sun has set. In a 100 miler, you can guarantee covering miles in the dark. While some recommend practicing a bit of running at night, most agree that there is no real way to train for this. As you can imagine, fatigue is often multiplied while running for hours in the dark. O'Grady suggests pacing a runner through the night portion of an ultra to get a feel for the experience. Even if you don't get in any night running, make sure to test flashlights and headlamps that you plan to use on race day.

Life-Changing Experience

Within the ultra running community, less is considered more. The rewards of an ultra are often internal rather than external. There are things that you learn about yourself that can only be learned hours into a demanding physical effort. Self-reflection is pretty much a given when you are out there for that length of time. "You learn that your own limits are far beyond what you ever imagined," O'Grady says. "You have the satisfaction of doing things you never thought you could do." If you think a marathon is life changing, wait until you complete an ultra.


Christine Hinton is a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and fitness expert. A competitive runner herself, she has been coaching beginners through elites for 10 years.

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