Technically anything over the marathon distance of 42.2 km (26.2 miles) is classified as an ultra distance. With this in mind it means I officially ran my first ultra trail race in August 2013, when I ran the Squamish 50 50 km (31 miles) trail race. However, it wasn’t until I decided to run my first 80 km (50 mile) trail race that it actually felt like I was entering the ultra arena. This felt monumental and to be honest a little outside of my wheelhouse. But I was committed to running it, not just surviving it, and I tried to focus hard on training.
Seeing as I am not a professional and fairly new to the trail running scene, my approach to training, although a little more refined recently, could be called somewhat clumsy and haphazard. I have several sports/hobbies that I like to pursue – rock climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing,skiing – so my attention and energy can be diverted easily. Because of this my training became a bit of a juggling act. I ended up learning a lot while training and running my first ultra. Here are the top 10 things I learned during the process:
1) Run a lot of hills – Yes this means hill repeats. BORING! That’s probably what you are thinking and I know because I thought the exact same thing. In fact I remember one elite trail runner say that you know are deep into training season when you have a fair share of boring runs. Yes, not every run is going to be about having fun but about pushing you outside of your comfort zone. Besides if you are anything like me, slightly masochistic as most long distance runners are, you will find joy in these training runs too!
2) Run back to back long runs -The LSD (long slow distance) is the trademark of endurance runners. Spending a lot of time on your feet, not worrying so much about the actual distance covered, but about the hours you spend out there. So run a big 6-8 hour run on Saturday and get ready to run at least another 2-4 hours on Sunday. Let your body know your mind is in control and you are running whether the body protests or not; run on tired legs.
3) Eat a lot while running, even when you don’t want to – I learned this when I let a podium finish slip through my fingers because I didn’t focus on getting calories into my body early on in the race. It was only when my friend, who was keeping pace with me that day, asked me about an hour in if I had eaten anything. I hadn’t. As my friend put it “you were one gel away from podium.” It may be the last thing you want to ingest when pushing hard, but get calories in early. Personally I make sure to have something at least 15 minutes pre-race and do my best to intake something every 30 minutes. It will make the difference between bonking and having the mental and physical fortitude to keep pushing on.
4) Push to the point of fatigue and then just keep going – My motto while training was ‘No matter how tired I felt on a training day, it was nothing compared to how I would feel on race day.’ For me it was extremely important to push myself to exhaustion. Some days for me this meant running a 50 km alpine run and then heading to the crags to go climbing for the evening. This was more than physical training, it was amazing mental training. I was forcing my body and mind to get used to keep moving no matter what.
5) Run more than you think you need to – Yep, whether it is raining or snowing get out the door. If it requires running for a shorter distance, coming home to warm up and then heading back out, do it. My biggest mistake training for last years 50 km race was not running nearly as much as I needed to. Only since training for the 80 km, when I decided to be fully active for at least 6 days a week, did I realize how much this changes race day. Last year I was cursing the last 10 km’s and really struggled. This year from kilometres 70-80 I was feeling better than I ever thought I could. I attribute this to putting in a lot more mileage on my legs.
6) Run with people who are faster and stronger – This can be extremely intimidating but believe me a good kick in the ass keeps you honest and lets you know where you stand and what you need to work on. It’s extremely inspiring to run a trail you didn’t think was even possible to run up and then watching your friends charge up it. The first few times I did this, I was at the back of the group, breathing heavy and trying not to lose the pack. But it didn’t take to long to start getting quick enough to keep up with the front runners. Watch them, ask lot’s of questions and learn as much as you can!
7) Eat fat and just eat a lot in general – This applies to outside of training. I started to get extremely lean with all the mileage, climbing and hiking. So I made sure to consume a lot of natural fats – coconut milk, coconut oil, avocado , butter, nuts. You are burning an insane amount of calories and starting your next training day in a deficit is just a disaster waiting to happen. But remember don’t use this as an excuse to eat whatever you want whenever you want, eat whole foods that are unprocessed and can provide you with the nutrients that you need. You are taxing your body and demanding alot of it, so be sure to fuel it properly.
8) Run early in the mornings – My choice for early morning running was a local steep hiking trail called The Chief. This is a 1.6km (1 mile) uphill trail that gains approx. 600 meters (1950 ft). I would start my run between 5:15-5:20am so that I could be home in time to shower, eat breakfast and catch my ride to work. This is especially helpful as most ultra runs start ridiculously early in the morning. It also helps to toughen you up, running on an empty stomach (I would usually grab a handful of raisins for a bit of sugar) and running when you least feel like it.
9) Make your training days harder than you think your race will be – Plan a route that doesn’t get easier as the day goes on. Put a huge hill 45km into your run, even if it means you have to power hike it, just keep pushing.
10) Have fun! – This is one of the most important. When I trained for my first road marathon I burnt myself out. I was in tears most of the time, grumpy and didn’t enjoy running anymore, I just wasn’t having fun. And as the saying goes “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” So this time around I decided to not take my training so seriously and have fun with it. I ran with friends that always had a positive attitude and when running solo, instead of being hard on myself I chose to smile when things felt tough (yes it happens more than you think). The act of smiling, whether it was forced or not, started a chain reaction in my body. I started to feel more positive and more appreciative of just being able to do what I was doing. It gave me perspective and forced me to look outside of myself. I would focus on the beauty around me, the fact that I had a body that could take me to these places and came to the realization that this was part of the process.
11) This is a bonus one, but so important….take rest days! – These are the hardest part of training and something I continually work on. In full training mode I would try to take at least 1 day of full rest, from climbing, running, hiking, and allow my body to completely relax. This is a great time to focus on stretching and mentally taking a break.
I have really come to love the process of training. It has given me courage, strength of character and in the end the only person you can rely on out there is yourself, so don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes and trust your intuition. Every run is an opportunity to learn.
Do you agree with the above tips? Do you have any of your own tips to share?