***In the first of a two-part series on ultra running, I am excited to be co-authoring this piece with friend and Ultra-Runner, Alex McDaniel. Alex has competed in multiple ultra's, and his experience and insight is extremely valuable for those who are current and first timers at this challenging event.***
For a long time 26.2 was considered the ultimate and final distance challenge a runner could undertake. This is still the viewpoint, but with respect, the "wall" has been crumbling and participation in the 50k and 50 miles distances both on roads and trails has sky rocketed over the past decade. Even 100 mile races have exploded in popularity with the number of organized races in the US going from 20 to 200 over the last 15 years, many so popular that they hold lotteries to gain entry. The cat is out of the bag; going farther isn't impossible, can be an amazing, and often times a more rewarding experience than your normal marathon. The slower pace allows people to be more social and scenic locations make for incredible aesthetic experiences.
In my experience, people are pretty good at training, planning, and encountering their favorite type of challenge. Where people struggle (myself very much included) is when they encounter obstacles and setbacks in situations they did not anticipate or don't prefer – as ultras can provide these in abundance. Beyond physical preparation, success at ultra-marathons is more skill based, more mental challenging, and more execution dependent than shorter distances.
Potentially more than any other sport, ultra-running presents a continuously changing environment. However, it’s the athlete that learns to become comfortable with being uncomfortable that has a greater chance of being successful than someone who focuses on the things that they cannot control.
Having said that, Part I of this series will be addressing on how to focus on what you can control. We will address both environmental and physical factors that normally occur during these long bouts of competition. If an athlete can learn to control their controllables, then they will have a great chance to have an even greater run.
Conditions that would cancel a local 5k road or trail race would never be considered a hindrance to ultra-runners. Oh, it unexpectedly snowed in April? No biggie, run it anyways. Record Heat wave? Bring an extra bottle of water. A week of rain before the race leaves the 50 mile trail a muddy slippery mess? The race is still on.
You often sign up for races months in advance and invest time, money in entry fees, training, and travel. What happens to you, your mindset, and your goals when your usually warm and sunny spring race will start in the rain with the potential for snow and ice at higher elevation? Now it's a different challenge entirely - and it may lead many people to crumble. If you are going to be successful at any type of racing, but especially this one, you need to realize that you cannot control the weather – you can however control the effort. The second you think the weather has affected you, it’s maybe too late to save yourself from a bad experience.
Things like blisters on your feet in long races can become catastrophic if you don't know how to prevent and treat them. Chaffing in difference sensitive areas can be a mind killer, ‘do I really want to keep going for 4 more hours when my inner thigh and under looks like uncooked hamburger?’ Falling down or, taking a good "digger" and getting "trail rash" is inevitable in trail running. Some people get very shaken and some people find a way recompose themselves and finish, bloody knees and all.
The most important thing to do in these situations to is be aware of how much this really effected your ability to continue on. Awareness, as we will discuss thoroughly in this series, is an invaluable tool to have for ultra-running. This is not just an external awareness of the environment, but an internal knowledge of how you are feeling and if you need to make decisions that affect your physical health. You can’t control whether you get hurt, however you can control your ability to tolerate pain and make the safest decision for yourself moving forward is.
With the exception of road and track ultras, following the course can sometimes be a challenge. Trails are often sparsely marked with colorful ribbon. If you're running fast, not paying attention, or hazy from low blood sugar it can be easy to go off course. And how would you respond mentally if you realized you were off course by half a mile or more? You've worked so hard to get this far! Can you accept these setbacks and fix the problem or do you panic and get frustrated?
Again, this all comes down to awareness. Not only is it about being aware visually, but if for some reason you lose focus, and get lost, it’s your ability to re-focus that is critical. Don’t get down on yourself if you get lost, just re-focus, re-gain your awareness and get back after it.
Social Interaction [or lack thereof]
The smaller, longer, and more mountainous a race is, the more likely it is that you will spend long periods running by yourself. Potentially many hours. While the more competitive athletes are used to running alone in the lead, this can be a new and taxing experience for mid-pack runners and people who consider themselves very social. Are you ready to spend time with yourself or does your brain eat itself with negative thoughts and doubt?
Our suggestion here is simple: focus on the process. Don’t worry about the outcome. Thinking of how good the food at the finish line is going to be, or how nice it would be to stop and take a nap does not help you when you are out for hours at a time alone. Focusing on the process of getting up the hill that you are running up, the mechanics of running to the next tree, the technique you need to use to get up the mountain. This will keep you mind busy and your anxiety down.
The longer the race, the more that nutrition matters. The human body has an astounding ability to keep moving forward as long as you keep filling it with liquids and calories. Many people struggle to relentlessly fuel after 5, 10 or 20 hours, it just stops being fun. But without fuel in the car, it won’t go anywhere. Again, you have the ability to control doing the right thing and filling the body up with what it needs, and hurting yourself by doing the opposite.
Again, other than training, the most important thing that you can do to be a great ultra-runner is understand that you need to focus only on what you can control. Whether it is the weather, an injury, or what and if you consume food as the race goes along, the reaction to all of this is up to you. Part II of this series coming tomorrow!
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