Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Few Commonly-Asked Questions About Ultramarathons

The promise of groupies did it, right? I thought so. Oh, they usually congregate at the finish line... so don't expect to see them until then.

So now that you're interested, I'm sure you have more questions. Here are a few I regularly field:

You mentioned health? Are these things really dangerous?

I won't sugar coat this- you may die. That's unlikely, though. More realistically, you may get injured. Most ultras are run on trails, so there's a danger of tripping, falling off a cliff, being attacked by wild animals, or getting hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere. Now that we put everything on the table, we can be more realistic.

The race directors that conduct these races are fantastic. Runner safety is always a primary concern. Proper training will eliminate many of the dangers. There are countless ultrarunners that have been doing this for decades without ill effects. Good preparation should eliminate almost all potential hazards. This book will help prepare you to face the challenges. Also, I would always recommend consulting your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.

I ran a 10k a few weeks ago, and it was really hard. Why the Hell would I want to try something so much longer?!?

It's common for people to take their experiences in shorter races (even marathons) and extrapolate the experience to ultras by imagining them being exponentially more difficult. Ultras ARE tough, but they're completely different animals.

Let's look at a common semi-serious race distance runners tackle: the half-marathon on a road. There's a huge crowd. Parking sucks. The porta-potty lines are worse than the Black Friday lines outside Walmart. And there's always that jackass wearing matching spandex shorts and tank top that gives you the “You have no business running this race” look . You know, the one with the heart rate monitor, iPod, and some mysterious gadget you could swear is a bubble gum dispenser. You run through suburbs, through industrial zones, and somehow always manage to pass the waste water treatment plant. On top of that, you run really hard for 13.1 miles.

Now let's look at a typical ultra. It's not uncommon for runners to party the night before. The race itself has a laid-back low key vibe. The race course is almost always held on interesting trails through beautiful natural settings. The people, even the elites that usually win, are supportive and approachable. When running the race, it's acceptable to run slow, walk, and even stop occasionally. We call it “strategy.” And the food! Each aid station, usually between three and six miles apart, is essentially a snack food buffet in the forest.

How long does it take to train for an ultra?

Experiences vary, but most people can go from no running experience to running a 50k in about six months. If you already have experience running shorter distances, this number could easily be cut in half. Some people can go farther. I did my first 50 miler after about six months of training. I've known people that have successfully run a 100 miler with less than a year of training. This isn't an endeavor that will take years to achieve.

How is this training going to change my lifestyle?

Most of us are pretty busy. When I started ultras, I had a full-time job (teaching high school), earning a Master's degree, and my wife and I had a newborn baby. It was difficult at first... until I learned a little secret. I started treating every experience as if it were ultra training. Waking up to feed the baby at 2am? Sleep deprivation training. Trip to the supermarket? Park as far away as possible and get some practice walking. Have a grad class on the tenth floor? Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

These little shortcuts allowed me to live my life with minimal distraction. I didn't have four hours a day to train. I was lucky if I could eek out four hours per week. I'll share many of my “using life as training' tips in this book.

How do I know if I'm ready?

You don't. Odds are you never will feel ready. No matter how hard you train, you'll always feel as though you could have done more. In fact, “I'm not ready” is just code for “I'm scared.” Running an ultra is intimidating. Everybody is scared when they run their first ultra. Hell, I'm still scared when I run ultras.

If you wait until you feel like you're ready, you will never do it. I lived a good portion of my life in a state of fear. I was routinely paralyzed by “what if's.” I did what I could to get the fear to vanish, which never worked. Eventually I realized the fear would always be there. The trick was to just close my eyes, accept the fear, and take a blind leap.

If you can't overcome this fear, I'll give you some good tips later in the book.

I know you have A LOT more questions. Don't worry, I'll answer all of them in the coming pages.



  1. This is great!! i am looking forward to the "coming pages".

  2. Damn you! Now I want to run one, and probably will. My wife does not approve.

  3. eric orton's coaching took me from unable to run consecutive days -to- a 50k