By Andy Jones-Wilkins
CTS Ultramarathon Coach
Runners who are thinking of making the jump to ultra distances frequently ask me what they should do to prepare for that jump and how they will know they are ready. While it is, like many things in this sport, often a matter of individual circumstances, I have, over the years, compiled a list of the five signs you are ready for your first ultra:
1. You’ve figured out how to eat solid food and run at the same time
There are no two ways around it, once you’ve graduated to ultra distances, being able to eat and run at the same time is imperative. Sure, some speedy folks can get through on sports drinks and gels, but for the rest of us being able to get solid food in and digested is a fundamental key to ultra success. If you can wolf down a peanut butter sandwich and a handful of pretzels without breaking stride you are ready to roll. As time goes on, your gut will adapt to handle greater volumes of food and fluids per hour.
2. You know you don’t always have to run when you are on a run
One of the great secrets of ultrarunning that non-ultrarunners don’t always realize is that it’s not all about running. In fact, being able to walk efficiently and powerfully is essential for ultra success. In order to be ready for what your first ultra will throw at you it’s important that you are OK with walking. It’s true what they say that walking is the best way to be a good runner. Or, as the classic Western States saying goes, “If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, walk anyway.”
3. You know not every run is fun
Recreational running at sub-ultra distances can be quite fun, and if you don’t add excessive distance or intensity it can often stay that way. However, in ultrarunning, there inevitably comes a time when running ceases to be fun and turns into a painful, mind-numbing, grind. In order to be prepared for this certain misery one must practice being uncomfortable in training. Then, when that time comes in your first ultra, say, when you hit Mile 26 of a 50K and realize you still have 5 miles to go, you’ll be ready.
4. Your feet are calloused and your quads are seasoned
There are several physical indications you need to look for in preparing to run your first ultra, but the two most important are calloused feet and seasoned quads. Regular training in moderately hilly terrain tends to accomplish both of these goals. Ideally, if you can run a 20 miler with 5,000 feet of descending with soaking wet feet, and survive intact, you’re ready.
5. You get back from a 20-mile training run and think, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Mental readiness for your first ultra may be more important than physical readiness. And, in order to know you are ready between the ears, you first need to have a healthy respect for the distance as well as a certain degree of confidence that you can cover that distance. The best way to do this is to take stock after a long run. If your regular 20 miler doesn’t feel “that long” then it’s time to log onto ultrasignup.com
and pull the trigger.
Tip: Give yourself ample training time
Being ready to sign up for your first ultra doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to run one next week or even next month. Everyone starts with different levels of fitness and experience, but in order to enjoy your first ultramarathon it pays to be patient and diligent with your training. Often, fall and winter are the best times to make the decision to make the leap to ultramarathons, because you can set a goal for next spring or summer and have a long runway to deal with the inevitable ups and downs and schedule snafus that will come along. The fall is also a good time to make a decision because November and December is typically “lottery season” and you need to get your application in by the deadline if the race you want to do awards entries through a lottery.