Beyond the Marathon: How to Get Started in Ultra Running

Remember when the idea of running a marathon seemed crazy? Then you completed one. You should think about ultras the same way. Ultras are defined as anything longer than the marathon distance (26.2 miles). The most common race distances are 50K, 50 miles and 100 miles. The 50 miler is often considered the true entry point by many ultra purists.

Preparing for an Ultra

If you've trained for and completed a marathon you possess the basics of what it takes to run an ultra. The good news is that running the equivalent of two or four back-to-back marathons doesn't mean you double or quadruple your training mileage. Your longest long run, typically about 20 miles in marathon training, will be 30 to 40 miles (in the four- to six-hour range), depending upon the race distance.

"Running 30 miles will allow you to experience the ups and downs that are an inevitable part of an ultra and how to get through them," says Janice O'Grady, a veteran of 100 ultras. Rather than running these long runs every weekend, do them every two or three weeks. Another method is to run back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday run will give you a taste of running on fatigued legs. O'Grady advises to "never cut your run short because you don't feel like finishing. Develop the habit of finishing everything you start out to do."

Walk Early and Often

These super long runs are kept at an easy pace with frequent walk segments. Often, runners "need to shift gears from running an entire marathon to running and walking the 50 or 100. Most races have hills, so plan on walking up hills powerfully and briskly and running the downs and flats," O'Grady says. Walking may be a four-letter word to a marathoner, but even elite ultra runners walk portions of their race. While it may be an honorable goal to run the entire length of a marathon, it's not smart to attempt this in an ultra. The goal should be to finish. Walk early and often--every step toward the finish is a positive. Practice this by including walk segments into your long runs.

When considering your first ultra, look for either a 50K or 50-mile distance. It's not recommended to go straight from running marathons to a 100 miler. In fact, most ultra runners will include a marathon and shorter ultras into their training for such an extreme distance. O'Grady strongly recommends doing multiple 50 milers before stepping up to the 100 miler.

Crewing and Pacing

Intrigued, but still unsure if ultras are for you? Crewing and pacing are both great ways to be a part of the experience without running the full distance. Crew members take care of their runner at various points along the course, while pacers encourage their runner to keep moving through fatigue and doubts as well as monitor salt, calorie and fluid intake. Pacers are usually allowed toward the later stages of the race. They also help make that crucial decision if stopping is the safer option.

The size of the crew often depends on the length of the race. A one- or two-man team may be plenty for a 50 miler, while more people may be required to work in shifts at longer races. Crews organize drop bags and personal items at aid stations and are ready for any possible request. Although most ultras have experienced volunteers to help the runners, having a crew that focuses specifically on you can be essential to getting out of the aid station faster and keeping you moving when things get tough later.

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