Interview with an Ultra-Marathoner

_DSC8855-X2

Ever think that 26.2 miles is not enough? Have you ever considered running an ultra marathon? Today’s post will feature a Q&A with my friend Amber- who decided after running marathons for 10 years (including Boston marathon as a qualifier) that she needed a new horizon. After reading “Born to Run”, she was inspired by research that showed that humans are built to run/walk long distances. Thus began her journey into ultra marathons- and she hasn’t looked back since. Enjoy this inspiring interview!

Question: How many ultra marathons have you run? Which was your favorite and why? 

Answer: I’ve run two 50Ks, two 50 milers, one 100k and a few ultra relay races (running about 25-42 miles each time, depending on the race). I’m sure no surprise, my favorite race was the one in which I suffered the least and had the best finishing time: the Mt. Hood 50 miler in Oregon. Beautiful scenery, perfect weather (for me, cloudy in the low 50’s) and pretty gentle terrain. And it just happened to be a good day for me. (I did twist my ankle and didn’t realize it (adrenaline?) until the next day when my ankle blew up).

"SAMSUNG CSC"Finish line of Mt. Hood Ultra Marathon

Question: How did you select which ultra marathons to run? Word of mouth, reviews? Fewer people run ultras than marathons/half marathons so what information is available?

Answer: The first thing I learned about ultras is that they are almost always on trail, so that moved me from road racing to trail racing which limited the pool of available races, especially on the east coast. I have a good friend that was transitioning from marathons to ultramarathons (he also ran the Boston Marathon with me). He found the first ultra we did, the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in San Francisco. There is also an ultramarathon calendar online.

Question: What training plans (if any- formal or informal) did you follow for your ultras? Did you incorporate races for training, and if so, what distances?

Answer: Honestly, I am not good at following a formal training plan, for the same reasons I can’t really follow cooking recipes – I end up improvising. And life sometimes gets in the way, so sticking to a strict plan just won’t work for me. I do keep track of my runs, usually focusing in on a 4-month period. I learned about a technique that involves running a long distance on Saturday (20-25 miles) followed by half that distance (10-12) on Sunday. This gets you used to running on tired legs. Then I try to get my weekly mileage to around 50 miles with a lighter week, 30 miles, every few weeks. When I’m doing a 50 miler or longer it’s helpful to run a 50k race as part of my training. In addition to pushing my pace, it’s a nice break to be around other people and have water/food along the way that I don’t have to carry.

Question: What plan do you recommend first-time ultra marathoners follow to adequately prepare them for this distance? What about for more experienced ultra marathoners?

Answer: For most, following a more formal plan for your first ultra marathon would be a good idea. And I think that picking a scenic course in a new part of the country or world will help with motivation. In general, I would say more is more, barring any injuries. The more time on your feet, the better.  

IMG_3058Ragnar Ultra Trail Race

Question: What was your maximum weekly mileage leading up to an ultra? 

Answer: I hit 60 miles a few times, but that hard to do with working full time and maintaining a social life!

Question: Have you experienced any setbacks (injuries, etc) during your training cycles? How would you prevent these setbacks, if any, in the future?

Answer: I’m lucky and never really had any injuries. And I don’t foam roll or stretch (I know I shouldn’t say that!). I have had some on/off ankle tendonitis and for that, I just iced after running.

Question: During the race, what did you eat and drink? How often did you eat and hydrate?

Answer: I’ve had to train myself to eat while running. It’s not easy but important. For a 50 miler or longer it’s important to get calories in during the whole duration of the race, you can’t wait until you feel hungry, it’s too late. And you can’t eat just gels. In my last race (100K) I ate a cheese burger, a quesadilla and chicken noodle soup…in addition to the normal aid station food like fruit, candy, cookies, chips, gu’s, potatoes, and peanut butter and jelly, all while rotating water and electrolytes in my water bottle.

Question: What are 3-5 essential race-day items? In terms of gear, clothing, shoes, etc? In terms of shoes, did you choose a specific brand built for trail running?

Answer: I mostly run in traditional running shoes (Asics Nimbus) but I’ve also used a hybrid road/trail shoe by Solomon. Since I’m out in the elements for hours on end, it’s important to have a range of clothes, like long- and short-sleeve shirts (technical is best), gloves and a hat. I usually run with a camelback (sometimes a handheld water bottle) and bring my ipod shuffle.

Question: What are the top 3 most important lessons learned after you ran your first ultra? Is there something you modified in your training cycle/prep/race day in your second race that made a huge difference? 

Answer: My first ultra, 50 miles, was REALLY hilly with 19,000 feet elevation change. (Jane can attest to this as she was my pacer for 17 miles of the race, going through a section with three false summits….). Given that I live in Boston without a car, it’s hard to get out to trails with serious elevation. In retrospect, I should have done more of that. Also, with marathons, I was used to keeping a 8-8:30 pace the whole time. Ultras entail a fair amount of walking, especially with lots of uphills. It’s more like fast hiking than it is road running. If you try to run up those hills early in the race, you’ll crash and burn later. So start training with elevation and use a run/walk strategy.

Also, each race is just so different, it’s hard to know what will happen, even if you know the course. In my last 50 miler, I beat my expected time by almost 2 hours. Like most things in life, you never know what will happen, you just have to be prepared but flexible.

IMG_1357View of Marin headlands, SF during first 50 mile ultra

Question: How much more difficult is running an ultra compared to a marathon? Do you prefer running ultras over other distances, and why?

Answer: I would say marathons are harder physically and ultras are harder mentally. Maintaining a fast pace for 26 miles can be really painful, mostly on your legs (I have been more sore the day after a marathon than an ultra), whereas an ultra is a full-body experience that requires mental perseverance to get you through the hours where you want to cry, take a nap or just stop. Running for hours at a time in the dark is another mentally difficult aspect. My last race I spent 7 hours in the dark (and that was only a 100k!). Lastly, not all ultras are created equal! A 50k and 100 miler are both considered “ultras” but 100’s are a whole other ball of wax.

Question: In your opinion, is completing an ultra marathon more rewarding than a marathon? How did finishing your first ultra personally affect you?

Answer: The first time I completed each left me with a similar sense of accomplishment. For me, I’ve had more intense feelings of joy (and pain) in ultras because I’m usually in the woods, watching sunrises and sunsets and experiencing the serenity that nature brings. After my first ultra, I leaned that a little perseverance and patience can go a long way. I’ve made the transition from “3 hours of running is a lot” to “3 hours of running is just the tip of the iceberg”…you have to shift your whole mental frame!

IMG_0637Boston Marathon 2012

Question: What are your future ultra/ running goals in general? Do you recommend ultra marathoning to anyone or a specific type of runner/person? 

Answer: At the moment I’m taking a break from running (and it’s ski season!). Also, goal setting has fundamentally changed for me. These races were so much more about the journey than the destination…I’m not as focused on distance or time goals. Now that I’ve hit the 50k, 50m, 100k milestones (with no desire to go beyond that at the moment), I have to get creative about my next steps. 

Question: What is one piece of advice that you’d give a runner who is interested in running an ultra marathon? What kinds of sacrifices will they have to make in order to meet their goal of finishing an ultra?

Answer: You have to put a lot of time into it. There is no way around that (I’ve tried). I try to motivate myself with scenic training runs, running with friends (though there will still be HOURS that you have to run out there alone), and killing two birds with one stone (running home form work- a commute and training run at the same time!). If you’re willing to put in the time, anyone can do an ultra, you’ve just gotta want it. 

Readers, have you ever run an ultra marathon? Tell me about your experience!

Do you have any interest in running an ultra? What is the longest distance you’ve run? 

What are your race goals for 2016?

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “Interview with an Ultra-Marathoner”

  1. Some excellent advice in here.

    I have run three ultras and finished two. They are definitely a beast mentally and physically and yes it takes time to prep and time to run it. I advise runners to find things for their family members to do because they will have a bit of downtime between meeting you at aid stations.

    Walk the uphills. Excellent advice. The experienced runners said this Day 1 in Haiti and it saved me.

    Food and hydration are a key factor and the trick is in knowing how you operate. I find that I don’t eat as much as I think I will and the snacks I bring in between Aid Stations are largely unused. As for water…well both of my ultra finishes were with minimal water thanks to two leaking bladders (yes one at each race). I finished with handheld water bottles picked up along the way.

    I love ultra-running and I made the jump to it very early in my running career. I prefer the solitude it provides and the knowledge about myself that I gain each time.

    Race possibilities for this year: Fatass 50K in ABQ, Cedro Peak 45 Miler, Mt. Taylor 50K and Deadman Peaks (again). I love that race. I will also do at least a local half as a fundraiser for the zoo and I should get a marathon under my belt officially.

    Goals for the year: run more and mindfully.

    Thank you for the great post. You were right I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I blogged about the most recent Deadman Peaks experience. It was awesome. I’m happy to entertain any questions, though it seems to me you have loads of experience to draw from yourself. I read your running resume and I’m super impressed!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea for an article and some great insight into the ultra world. It’s not something I’ve ever done…wont say I haven’t wondered “what if” but no plans for me right now to go much further than the finish chute of a 26.2! Next year, I’m hoping for 4-5 marathons and if I’m lucky all under 4 hours while adding 4 more states to the checklist.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a long way to go as the idea only developed this year as a long term 10-12 year journey to combine our traveling with running marathons…I’ve run 5 marathons in 4 states, so 46 to go!!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks– this was really interesting to read! I remember seeing a PBS show way back before ultramarathons were popular like they are now (I was probably in junior high?), and I thought it looked super cool and kind of wanted to do it. It’s not on my radar at this moment, but I also first got interested in triathlon/Ironman because I saw it on TV, and I’m doing that now, so… who knows… there is an awful lot of good trail running where I live…

    I liked seeing that Amber doesn’t run much more than 60 miles a week. I would have thought you needed to run at least 80-90 miles a week to do ultramarathons, and it’s nice to see that’s not true.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is awesome! I’m training for my 3rd ultra, and working up to my first 50 miler this summer. I agree with much of what Amber says – except for the stretching part. Not stretching led me to my first injury w/my IT band.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insight! I agree- I can’t run without a foam roller myself! Impressed with people like Amber who can get away without stretching. Good luck in training for your 50 miler, and let us know if you have any questions!

      Like

  5. Really enjoyed the interview and catching some great advice! And she’s right: you gotta want it!! I just ran my first trail ultra 50k down in Greenville, SC the Paris Mountain Ultra and loved every minute of it!! I plan on returning! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would love to run an ultra one day. My for sure races on the books so far are the LB marathon in october, the seattle rock and roll 1/2 in june, a trail 10k in march and three 5ks starting this saturday and one each in january and february. i am also going to do the portland triathalon sprint in septmeber.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In transition and found this interview great.
    Have run ten marathons and have been doing halves recently. Progress in the future is intended to be;
    Two halves in two days in Spring 2016
    Two marathons in 2 weeks in autumn 2016
    42 mile local ultra Spring 2017 aged 63.
    Thanks for all the advice.
    Runwelshman.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s