From Road to Ultra by David Murphy

Most of us begin our running life with just a mile or two. Over time that mile or two becomes a little easier and the frequency of running increases. With the huge number of local 5k fundraisers, it’s not long before we find ourselves trying to figure out the proper placement of a race bib and the appropriate number of safety pins to use. Very seldom is that first 5k approached with nerves of steel. More often than not it’s a task that has stomachs in knots and the embarrassment of having no clue on where to line up.

A quick study of the veteran runners is helpful but it usually brings up more questions and doubts about what you’re supposed to do. “Am I lined up right? Will I be in anybody’s way? This guy looks really fast. Maybe I should move back some. I can go faster than that guy. Maybe I should move up some. What kind of watch is that anyway? Should I start with a hard push and try to hang on? Maybe I should go slow at first and see how it feels. What kind of shoes are those? Can I even do this? What business do I have trying to race anybody? Am I crazy?”

All of these questions are natural in the beginning. They are also all questions you will ask when lining up for your first ultra. Well, not the watch question, by the time you line up for your first Ultra you will have, most likely, owned several Suunto’s and other gadgets designed to track distance, pace, cadence, heart rate and maybe even give you the time of day. Of course, a lot of us take on our first Ultra without a clue as to what all those things mean or how to use them in training. But we have them just in case.

5k’s are almost always run on the road. Times are fast. Puking at the finish line is normal and it’s an awesome feeling of accomplishment. Throw in some age group prizes, if you are lucky enough to place, and a cool t-shirt you will walk (or limp) away calling it a great day. Eventually, 5k’s become 10k’s then 10k’s become half marathons and half marathons become full marathons. You see where I’m going? It’s a vicious challenging progression.

Finishing a full marathon is not easy and is, in many cases, considered to be the big dance. It is the distance touted as being completed by only one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population. I have no idea if that estimate is true but, at one time, it was a great thought that I could do something that most couldn’t. Online training plans, magazine articles and the sage advice from veteran marathoners is easy to find and generally enough to get a few finishers medal. After a couple of marathons, a little trial and error, steady training and a smart race day approach some will even master the distance, avoid the dreaded wall and leave them wondering, “Now what?”

Ultras. Any distance beyond the marathon, but debated wildly throughout social media. While gaining much popularity throughout the running community, ultras still remain an enigma to most. “I read a book” or “I watched a documentary on Netflix” is often repeated among Ultra runners when asked why they decided to go beyond a marathon. And of course, the old standby, “50k? Sure. Only 5 more miles”. That’s what we all say and even though it’s tough to imagine 5 more steps after finishing a marathon it still somehow feels reasonable enough. Of course, as many of us have discovered, those 5 more miles can be absolutely no fun and more like a death march until we understand exactly what “5 more miles” really means.

Online plans are becoming more prevalent and everybody has a blog with race reports so information about ultras is much easier to find than it was 8 or 10 years ago. One thing that is usually missing from those references? A concise and convincing persuasion to change the mindset from marathons to ultras. There is a difference and it’s huge.

Lining up for your first Ultra will be much the same as that first 5k. “Do I pin my bib on my shorts? Is that even legal? Those guys look fast. Maybe I should move back. What’s that on his head? A light? Am I the only person holding a flashlight? Do I need a drop bag? That guy has a drop bag. Crew? I need a crew? Aid stations have real food? What about all these gels? Should I carry a water bottle? Hydration pack? What kind of shoes are those? Why is everybody smiling and joking around? Wait… is that toilet paper in a ziplock? Why does he have toilet paper? Toilet paper? Do I need toilet paper?”

A few years ago it was pretty well accepted that the word Ultra meant trail. If you ran ultras then you were a trail runner. Who would run 31, 50, 62 or even 100 miles on a road? The popularity of the Ultra distance has spread and road ultras, including many on flat and fast crushed gravel courses, have popped up everywhere and, once again, spurring the great social media debates about road versus trail. Having experience on both surfaces for 50k-100k I will say this- they will both leave you asking for a bullet to the head at some point along the way. The distance doesn’t change. The terrain changes simply require a different approach.

A 50k on a road can be approached much like a marathon. Training doesn’t change a whole lot other than time or distance. Realistic goal split times can be easily calculated based on training runs. A 50 miler on the road is a little tougher but the approach will be similar. 100 miler on the road gets a little trickier with run-walk ratios to plan but still easier to predict than a trail race.

There is an old saying, or maybe it’s just something I made up, that dictates you can not compare one trail race to another and can not assume a 5 hour 50k on one course will net the same result on another. Why? Because all trails are not created equal. Run a few trail ultras and you will soon find that all trail races are not even measured equally. During a marathon, it’s very easy and generally accurate enough to judge the success of the race on the feedback from a watch or other gadget. GPS readings are ALWAYS off at the end but not by much. Not enough to equal an hour or more difference on the finish time you thought you would have at the halfway mark. 50k is supposed to be roughly 31 miles. Sometimes they are 33. Once in awhile, they come in at 29. And this is traditionally an acceptable discrepancy met with laughs and jokes over a few beers at the finish line.

Training changes too. Not to say that Ultra training isn’t just as disciplined or structured as marathon training. Indeed, it is. Maybe even more so. Speed work still plays a major part. Maintenance runs and long runs still hold equal value. Strength training and core work remain a solid must. The biggest difference is time. A marathon plan may peak with 50-55 miles and 7-8 hours of running. A 100-mile training cycle may peak with 110 miles and 15-17 hours of running. During marathon training, most will work up to and run a 20 miler a couple of times. Any Ultra distance training will cover that distance several times and a runner looking forward to 100 miler will become so comfortable with the distance that they will be thankful to see an “easy 20” on their schedule.

The biggest difference from “road to Ultra” is the mindset. It gets lonely on the trail. There can be stretches of solitude that last for miles. Walking becomes part of the race and is no longer something to be embarrassed about. Learning how to walk and, more importantly, when to run again is not easy but is very necessary.  A small hill that would be easily conquered even in the late stages of a marathon become giant mountains and a welcome opportunity to walk. Effort-based training becomes your best friend as pace based training can lead you astray if relied upon as the sole factor during training runs.

I’m going to reveal the big secret. How can I be successful in the Ultra world? Well, it’s actually really simple and the advice is free.  Knowing that you will finish BEFORE you start is key. Fear is good. Even necessary. Fear will keep you hungry and fighting. Doubt is the destroyer of dreams and will either kill your day before it starts, or prolong the agony to levels of pain you have never known. Resolve to go the distance. Find a plan or coach to get you there. Become comfortable being uncomfortable. Walk the line smartly between tired and injured. Learn how to eat real food and drink more than you think you should. Buy a headlamp. Carry toilet paper. Collect finisher medal or buckle. Brag on social media.

Be Healthy, Train Smart, Have Fun

David Murphy is the Head Ultra Coach at Prs Fit his personal accomplishments include:

5 x sub 24 100 mile finishes
MO AG State Record 50 miler
Sub 3 marathon PR
Numerous ultras and marathons
For more information on Ultra Training and Racing