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I Raced My First 50K Ultra Last Month—Here’s What Training for It Taught Me
There’s nothing easy about running an ultramarathon, but there are ways to make it more manageable. These tips can help ensure race day is a success.
My heart pounds in sync with my strides as I leap across slick red rock. Sweat drips down my temples. My arms swish against my hydration vest. I follow navy ribbons marking the trail, which climbs and curves between cacti and sagebrush.
I’m deep in the desert near Moab, Utah, 23 miles into my first ultramarathon race. Suddenly, it hits me: this is the furthest I’ve run. Ever.
Equal parts thrilled and fatigued, I give a whoop in celebration, then stumble on a loose stone. A shot of adrenaline jolts my thoughts from my playlist to a drop-off on my right—a brutal reminder to stay sharp and present. Eight miles to go.
I like fitness challenges. One year, I hiked 600-plus miles across Spain in 33 days. Another year, I finished a 200-hour yoga teacher training in less than a month. This past March, I upped the ante. Tired of pandemic-inspired workouts and virtual running challenges, I registered for the Dead Horse Ultra 50K. The furthest I’d ever raced was a trail half marathon, but I figured: Why not? With three goals in mind (have fun, feel good while rehabbing a hip injury and enjoy some travel), I trained for nine months on trails across the U.S., from Washington’s Columbia River Gorge to North Carolina’s Appalachia.
It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. I made a lot of mistakes. But through trial and error, patience, perseverance and support from friends and family, I learned enough to toe the starting line. As the miles—and hours—ticked by on race day, I began to trust I’d finish. My discipline kicked in, my doubts cleared, and somehow the last five-mile push over an arduous, sandy road became effortless. With a surge, I crossed the finish line injury-free and feeling like a rock star.
Ultras aren’t for the faint of heart. But with enough time, proper nutrition and deliberate recovery (not to mention the right gear), many athletes can conquer them. Before you dive into your first 50K, here are a few dos and don’ts of training you should know.
Do Fuel Early and Often
Dial in your nutrition long before race day. Every athlete has different fuel needs, so working with a registered dietitian can help. (I didn’t, but should have.)
Part of eating on the run, literally, is training your stomach to digest while your body is in motion. In general, eat small amounts of food early and frequently. “Practice fueling training runs that are longer than 90 minutes,” says Kylee Van Horn, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in Carbondale, CO. She suggests starting with 200-300 calories and 16-20 ounces of fluids per hour, including 250-500 mg of sodium to replenish electrolytes.
Don’t just stick to the run itself, though. “Pre- and post-run fueling tops off reserves,” she says. “It gives you a quick source of energy pre-run, while post-run it allows for glycogen (from carbohydrates) to be stored and muscle repair to occur.”
I ate jerky sticks, salty chips, energy chews and stroop waffles, and drank electrolyte mixes, water and soda, but it took six months to nail the fuel combinations that worked for me.
Don’t Take Bonking for Granted
Bonking, from an endurance standpoint, means running out of fuel and hitting a wall. Several months into my training program, I bonked nine miles into a 17-miler because I hadn’t eaten early enough in the run to allow my body to digest and utilize the fuel. I ran on empty. From then on, no matter the mileage, I began eating 30-45 minutes into my workouts.
“Typically, your body is using stored carbohydrates for fuel during exercise, except that after about 1.5-2 hours, those stored carbohydrates are depleted,” says Van Horn. “Protein and fat can be used for fuel, but they are broken down much slower, and you typically won’t be able to hold the same pace. Your brain also prefers carbs for quick energy, so this can increase feelings of lethargy.” Fueling properly can help avoid bonking, but if you get to that point, look for quick sources of carbs—energy gels, candy, juice, honey or maple syrup—to bring you back to life, Van Horn recommends. Also, hydrate often.
Do Set Your Intention
Decide why you’re attempting an ultra. Every racer needs a reason. Training is time-consuming and physically and emotionally demanding. “Getting clear about why you’re doing this will decrease performance anxiety throughout the training process,” says Marek Sawicki, a licensed massage therapist and yoga instructor who has worked with endurance athletes in Asheville, NC, for over 20 years. “You’re pushing yourself to do a very difficult thing, and if you don’t know why, it can become a problem for your psyche. Your state of mind is key to success during training and on race day.”
Whether you’re doing an ultra to get fit, reach the podium or just prove to yourself that you can, commit to your “why” on the front end. It’ll focus you on tough training days.
Don’t Let Expectations Trip You Up
Realize that no run is the same. There will be good days, bad days and dozens of variables to manage in between. The sooner you let go of expectations and approach each run as its own adventure, the quicker you’ll bolster your mental game.
Nicole Mericle, a professional obstacle course racing athlete in Boulder, CO, ran her first ultramarathon in 2020. “I trained hard, but for pure fun,” says Mericle. “It was like: ‘Let’s go out and see how it feels and push myself out of my comfort zone. It felt more like an adventure than a race, which was good.”
Do Utilize Breathwork and Visualization
Harness your imagination to focus on your goal(s). “With any major endurance feat, being present with your body and mind is crucial,” says Sawicki. “If you get distracted with other things when you’re training or in an event, you run the risk of injury. But if you keep your mind focused on being present, you can make corrections with speed, cadence and stride.” Sawicki recommends starting and ending each run with LSD (light, slow, deep) breathing. Aim to average five to six breaths (inhale plus exhale) per minute, for five minutes, while envisioning your goal.
Don’t Underestimate Your Recovery Routine
I put off my usual yoga and rolling routine until an old hip injury flared up seven months into training. Big mistake. I had been 100% focused on bagging mileage, and frankly, too lazy (read: exhausted) to recover properly. Due to my negligence, my hip was on fire. Luckily, with two months before race day, I was able to calm the joint down through bodywork, stretching and rest.
“There’s a large amount of kinetic energy stored in our connective tissue,” says Taos-based Daniel Pretends Eagle, a licensed massage therapist and instructor of medical massage at the University of New Mexico. “If a runner cultivates fluidity and springiness in the fascia and tendons, they won’t have to work as hard to maintain pace.” Like a coiled spring, healthy connective tissue stores energy as it compresses, then releases it as it lengthens and relaxes. “By using this interplay of compression and release, a runner doesn't have to rely on muscle strength alone,” he says. Lengthening and hydrating connective tissue through slow, gentle stretching can help athletes bounce back stronger, and more quickly.
Bottom line: Training for an ultra was tough. It took gumption (and adaptation) to execute my endeavor, but accomplishing my goals was worth every step. I bet you feel the same when you clinch a finish, too.