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).
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.
Ragnar 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.
View 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!
Boston 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?