Monday, January 23, 2012

Choosing a First Ultramarathon: Is There An Ideal First Ultra?

If you ask experienced ultrarunners, they will often recommend a specific race as an “ideal first race.” Here's the problem- it's the race they recommend based on their experiences. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong. Their suggestions certainly deserve consideration, but I'd recommend tailoring the choice a little more based on this criteria:

1. Choose a distance that you can realistically train for given the time frame. If you're choosing a 50k, a few months will probably be sufficient. A 50 miler will take more time, as will a 100k or a 100 miler. You have more latitude with timed races since you can run whatever distance you want.

2. Pick a race that features terrain and elevation similar to your training grounds. If you live in Florida where hills are non-existent, it's probably a bad idea to sign up for a mountain ultra with thousands of feet of climbing and descending. It's the same deal with terrain. Don't sign up for a notoriously rocky ultra if you routinely get passed by soccer moms pushing jogging strollers on your local trails. The Ultrarunning Magazine online calendar has a handy 1-5 rating scale for both terrain and elevation with the higher number represents more elevation and more technical trails.

3. Bring experienced friends. Nothing can be more valuable than the support of friends that have ultra experience. When I ran my first ultra, I was helped by a dude that had run several hundred in his lifetime. He ran with me for about 12 miles and kept me from quitting when I hit some serious lows. Since relying on strangers can be difficult, set the stage by asking a friend to run the race side by side. If you can't find a willing or experienced friend, join some online ultrarunning communities. It's usually pretty easy to make friends, then ask them for the same favor. If it helps, offer to pay their entry fee.

4. Don't bite off more than you can chew.  The longer the distance, the more likely issues will arise that will have to be solved.  For example, 100 milers require you to navigate trails in the dark while both fatihued and sleep deprived.  It's difficult to get the needed experience in training.  The fewer the variables, the greater your chances of success.  You'll have plenty of opportunities to tackle the toughies down the road.

Considering these three issues can go a long way toward finding your “ideal” first ultra. The goal is to put you in a position to succeed, then use that success to conquer greater challenges in the future.


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