The idea of moving up from the standard marathon distance (or less) to an ultra distance, can be quite intimidating. One of the many questions that precedes that, is what actually is an ultra-marathon? Linguistically ‘ultra’ means something akin to ‘more than’. So simply, an ultra-marathon is any distance greater than the standard 26.2 miles of a marathon. Standard distances are generally 50kms, 50 miles, 100kms and 100 miles, but can really take any form and variation past the point of a marathon (including multi-day events surpassing 200 miles). The terrain you run an ultra on is as encompassing as the natural world in which we inhabit. Forests, deserts, all types of mountains, jungles, open plains and so on and so forth. So when considering how to step up to the ultra distance, it remains as varied as the ultra itself. A final point to note, is an ultra doesn’t have to take the form of a race or competition. It can be as simple as running the entire Wonderland Trail around Mt Ranier, for fun, at a comfortable pace, with as many stops as required, across several days.
Running 42kms to running 50kms, isn’t a huge amount in the grand scheme of things. It’s 8kms. If you factor in the change in mindset and execution of an ultra race, it’s an extra 8kms. 8km’s that comes with opportunities to walk, eat real food, have multiple points to stop and collect yourself, and to carry water and food with you. Regardless of the terrain, the generic approach to training for that distance, is not much different to a marathon training plan. You may add a little more to your overall mileage, but would also drop the intensity for some of that. Plus, the general approach would be to include training to take in calories like you would during a race. Whilst many would already do that for marathon training long runs, the ultra training long runs should be including more. On race day, you start a bit slower, and apply a more measured approach to your race. Whilst a marathon is essentially as hard as you can for as long as you can, an ultra has far more nuance. The 50km would see you strategically walk and power hike (the longer the ultra, the more of this you would do, and this is always dependent on your particular fitness, ability and circumstances on the day). You would be taking on more calories (300 an hour as a benchmark) and making use of the aid stations, to take a few minutes or more, to replenish and reset, before you make your way out for the next section. Whilst it is important to note that every person is different, and every race is different, the 42km to 50km jump once broken down in to small parts, isn’t a huge gap to cover.
Now, 26.2 miles to 50 miles, is a different ball game. As is moving to any distance upwards from that. It isn’t just a little bit extra anymore. It is a significant increase of distance, and depending on the type of race you are doing, will often have factors such as big elevation (Transvulcania in the Canary Island of La Palma boasts a monster 8000m/26,000ft across 73kms), or terrain that makes the distance infinitely more challenging (think jungles or deserts). Without even adding factors such as weather, an ultra-marathon can now feel like something far beyond the realms of possibility that it isn’t worth pursuing. So lets break some of these factors down into more manageable chunks.
Whilst the distance plays a big part of the challenge, isn’t as bad as it seems. The same aspects apply as to a 50km, but just in larger quantities. Even the elite athletes who win these events, don’t run the entire distance in training (30-35 miles is the standard ‘longest’ long run that elite ultra-runners will do). Having consistency in your training is the critical component here, and that varies person to person. Power-hiking is a huge facet to successfully completing ultras, and in many cases is more efficient and equally as fast as running sections (think steep hills/inclines). The idea of an ultra is to get to the finish as efficiently as possible. Efficiency translates to overall speed. Run when you can, power-walk when you need to, and take as much time as you need at the aid stations to prepare yourself for the next section. Take one minute, five or even 20 minutes if you really need to. Then keep going. Keep reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. Instead of trying to run 100 miles, run the 8kms to the next aid station. If that’s too much, run to that big tree in the distance. If even that’s too much, take a single step, and repeat.
Nutrition is a crucial element to any race, but the longer you go, the more important it becomes. You will have ideally incorporated nutrition into your training, which will give you an idea of what does and doesn’t work. Ultras by nature are really just an eating competition, with some running. Those that stay on top of their nutrition, and just keep getting the calories down hour after hour, tend to do the best. Whilst you will either have mandatory or optional kit depending where you race, everyone in an ultra ends up carrying some form of nutrition on them. The longer the distance, the more they carry. Water and electrolytes are almost standard, whilst gels, bars etc are also easy to carry whilst you run. As you hit an aid station, there is generally a generous spread of fruits (watermelon is my favourite), savoury foods (I have seen pizza at aid stations before), soups/broth, sweets (cake, brownies, chocolate etc) and depending on the race and the aid station, almost always something that you can eat and get down. As a bonus, the aid station volunteers are almost always the happiest and most accommodating people you can find. The aid station becomes a respite from the race, an opportunity to eat and drink real food and take precious moments to collect yourself before you continue onwards.
The final component that is important to remember is kit. Ultra’s are a longer effort, and unlike a marathon (or less) where minimalism is key, ultras open up a world of options for kit. With distances and terrain being so varied, there is so much out there to help you get through your respective challenge. Special running packs are plentiful, allowing you to efficiently carry water (in any combination of water bottles and/or bladders), food, multiple clothing items (such as jackets, gloves, long sleeves, spare socks) and even trekking poles. This gives you the freedom to plan and take what ever you need, with a huge range of options to carry and manage all the additional extras. Some people run with a single hand held water bottle, and some races have a list of mandatory items you are required to carry for your safety and the safety of others (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc has a large list including a specific standard waterproof jacket, a long sleeve, emergency foil blanket, whistle, multiple head torches/headlamps, and much more). And as previously mentioned, aid stations provide re-supply points (and in many races allow you to have drop bags of your own items, or even your own crew to meet you there), which means you don’t always have to carry enough for the entire race, just enough to get you to the next aid station or re-supply point.
Ultra’s are tough. They are by nature, supposed to be hard and for most people that is exactly why they do them. Whether it’s a 50km, a 100 miler, or a solo adventure covering a set trail or distance over a period of time, an ultra provides a challenge and experience unlike anything else. Whilst that willingness to embrace hardship is part and parcel, there is so much more to running an ultra. The exposure to beautiful landscapes, places, people and experiences, make it all worthwhile. The personal growth, achievement and satisfaction from this undertaking, and the process of committing and going all the way to the finished product, however that looks, is what remains important (giving everything and ‘failing’ is perfectly ok too, it’s just another step in the process). It’s never about the end. It’s about the process of finding what life is like past that comfortable place we all struggle to leave. The victory is always in leaving that, and the mere results whilst a factor for many, are outweighed in the grand scheme of things. Ultras are hard for that reason, but not out of reach. Break ultras down into manageable parts, and like anything in life, they are achievable. Whilst this is by no means a 100% formula for success, training plan or guarantee, it highlights an approach to a largely daunting endeavour, somewhat reconciling the additional challenges with factors that make them a genuinely achievable outcome. Respect the distance, respect your abilities, but don’t let fear or the unknown prevent you from doing something truly life changing. I never thought I could run an ultra until I ran one. The same way no one thought a sub four minute mile was possible, until it was.
I seek adventures, and I love running and racing across beautiful natural landscapes. I am an advocate for exploring the natural world, seeking adventures, travelling, movement, and a dynamic lifestyle that puts value on health, wellness and balance.
Blog by Nic Errol. Nike pacer, ultra runner and endurance athlete.