The first time trying something new can be exciting and intimidating, or both. Although nerves are probably part of the equation, don’t let those concerns keep you from testing your mettle. Perhaps you’ve never attended an ultrarunning event and are unsure of the details. For those of you considering your first ultramarathon, let’s walk through what you can expect at your first race.
Ultramarathon Registration and Mapping
Not surprisingly, most events feature online registration. The largest and most popular races fill quickly and many have a qualification and lottery system. That’s a topic (or two!) for another day. Once registered, most races have course descriptions and maps on their website. Studying the maps helps guide your training and informs your choices of gear for the terrain, distance, and environment. I strongly advise runners to upload the race map file onto a device you’ll carry with you during the event. This can help keep you on course. Many running watches support GPS files and there are myriad mapping applications that can also be used. Make sure you can access the map on your device without relying on cellular service or a data connection.
Organize Gear Ahead of Race Day
This seems obvious, but many athletes leave the organization of gear, clothing and nutrition until the last minute. Well before your first ultramarathon, set out everything you will need for your race. Include accoutrements you want to have at the finish line. Consider completing these tasks the weeks before race day so you can find or purchase missing items. Repeat this process the weekend before the race. You will have one fewer concern during race week. With practice you’ll find the best schedule for you, but plan to take care of details, including this one, early.
Race Packet Pickup and Pre-Race Meetings
Expect to receive communication regarding the steps of retrieving your race packet. You should also be notified about the time and location of any pre-race meetings. These are often – but not always – held the evening before the race. Regardless, it’s a good idea to arrive early so you won’t be rushed or stressed.
You’ll need to attach your race number to your clothing, usually using safety pins. It’s wise to keep extra safety pins in your car or running vest, just in case! There may be a timing chip incorporated into the race number. Alternatively, or additionally, there may be a timing chip you’ll wear on your shoe, wrist, or ankle. Ideally you will have time to pin numbers on and organize your gear the evening before the race.
Don’t skip the pre-race meeting. Often last-minute information is shared that won’t be communicated any other time. This may include how the course is marked, new hazards, weather information, and course changes. Many races shifted these meetings to online platforms during the pandemic. Others are still in person. Just be sure you arrange your schedule so you don’t miss critical information.
You’ve made it to race day and are ready to toe the line for your first ultramarathon. That’s exciting! What will the start line look like? Ideally, you scoped out the start area the day before the race. If not, don’t panic. Although the starting area is typically a busy location, even for smaller events, the basics are the same. There will be bathrooms for that nervous call of nature. There are often long lines for this necessity, so arrive with of time to spare.
Organizers need to know exactly who is on the course, so you will probably be required to check in. You’ll also be advised that you MUST inform a volunteer if you drop out before the finish line. Some hydration options (water and sports drink) will likely be available. Remember, don’t try anything new on race day. You should already be carrying the food and hydration products you want for the early miles.
There will be other excited, nervous, eager racers milling about donning headlamps. Do your best not to temporarily blind fellow runners with your lamp or be blinded by theirs. Someone will probably be making announcements over a PA system and there will likely be an obvious countdown clock.
Once your bowels have been addressed and you have your gear, find the start and wait for the gun. Once it sounds, you’ll be running in very close proximity to many of your newest trail friends. While this can feel frustrating initially, be patient. There will be many of opportunities to make passes as the crowd disperses.
For beginners, a slow-moving pack is a good way to ensure you don’t start out too quickly. Take cues from those around you. It’s very easy to run too fast in the early stages of an event. Let the seasoned veterans help contain your energy in the early moments of your day.
Although marathons typically have aid stations every mile, at ultramarathons they are often separated by four to 10 miles. Emerging from a long stretch of quiet, solo running into a busy aid station can be jarring. It can be distracting and unnerving after one or several hours of solitary travel. Mentally prepare for this shift in energy.
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Have a plan BEFORE you reach each aid station so you don’t waste time lingering unnecessarily. What do aid stations offer? Most will have a variety of foods, water, soda and sports drinks. Many events publish a list of basics they’ll supply, but keep in mind that aid stations may have different items. There may be a course map displaying your current location and distances to future aid stations.
Most aid stations will have one or two medical personnel available to address any health issues you may have. In some races or weather conditions, medical check-ins may be required. There are often tents, chairs, music, and a festive atmosphere. However, tempting, don’t get lulled into staying too long.
Volunteers are generally very accommodating, but very busy. Be especially courteous to these generous souls. However, be clear about your needs. I’ve had more than one helpful volunteer fill my pack’s entire 3-liter bladder when I only wanted a liter. Oops! Get what you need to get you to the next aid location and keep moving.
Aside from brief stops at aid stations, you should plan to move efficiently along the course. This looks a little different for each runner. However, throughout your training you should have dialed in nutrition and hydration strategies. You hopefully learned to manage body temperature, your pacing strategies, and how to keep your shoelaces tied. Attention to these details in training sets you up to move with intention, spending little on unnecessary particulars.
As you progress, be sure you’re seeing the appropriate trail markers. Many events feature a variety of distances on overlapping courses. In this case, course markings will have a different appearance for each given race distance. Know what markings you’re looking for and be sure you pass them somewhat frequently. Course markings can sometimes disappear, so check the downloaded map as soon as you have any doubt. Even seasoned runners occasionally veer off course, and it can be a very costly mistake.
Expect Rough Patches
There’s an adage in endurance sports that no matter how great or terrible you feel, it won’t last long. Expect to experience highs and lows during your first ultramarathon. When you feel great, enjoy it! During the lows, use the A.D.A.P.T method to work through adversity. Don’t think too far ahead. Solve the problem in front of you, then the next, and so on.
Congratulations, you’ve finished your first ultramarathon! This can be a very exciting and emotional moment for everyone. It’s common to experience the full gamut of feelings, including elation, sadness, shock, relief, and exhaustion. Realize that it’s difficult for anyone to anticipate exactly what they’ll feel at the finish. There is no right or wrong way to feel at the finish, so experience the emotions without judgement.
The finish area can be overwhelming. It’s best to have a basic post-finish plan (share it with your crew). Address hydration needs first and find a comfortable spot to rest, be that a chair, bench, or unclaimed grassy spot. After moving for many hours most runners will benefit from just being still, sipping on fluids and beginning the process of recovery. There will probably be a variety of food available, though you may not feel hungry and that’s normal.
It’s a monumental feat to complete any ultramarathon, and the first one is very memorable. Take in all that is happening. Put on the comfy shoes and wash your face. Wiping off some of the grime and stickiness from a long day (and night) is remarkably rejuvenating.
No matter the result, celebrate a spectacular effort that was hopefully challenging and rewarding. Take time to reminisce, note what went well and where you can improve and hopefully your first event will be followed with more successful endeavors. Welcome to the community of ultramarathon racers!
By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach