When I finished my first ultramarathon, I could not help but marvel at my own stupidity.
My friends had to drive me home, because I could not drive myself. And they continued to check on me for the next couple of days to make sure that I hadn’t toppled over dead from the exertion.
Yet it was one of the best experiences of my life. My sense of accomplishment was profoundly satisfying even when my arms trembled while I climbed the stairs.
There is so much to the mental aspect of running an ultramarathon that is hard to understand.
Here are a few pieces of wisdom I acquired after that first ultramarathon and subsequent competitions. I hope they will be of value to runners and non-runners alike.
1. You can’t do it alone
I mentioned how I needed my friends for a few days after the race finished, but I also needed them before the race. They were there to provide support when I told them about running an ultramarathon (after they finished looking at me like I was crazy), and were eager to know how I was doing.
Shame was useful. Once I had told my friends I wanted to do an ultra, I couldn’t go back and give up on it. On the worst days of training, that thought gave me motivation to keep going.
2. It hurts
Whoever said “pain is weakness leaving the body” never ran an ultra. Pain is pain. Pain is not fun. And no matter how you train for an ultra, running one is going to hurt a lot. Often, the only thing you can do is grit your teeth and hope it will go away soon.
Sometimes it does, especially after you get a drink. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to grit some more.
3. Ditch the music
No one runs an ultramarathon listening to music. But when I first started training, I thought that listening to it would be fine.
But you should never run with music. As Scott Martin observes, you gain a newfound appreciation for running when you stop listening. If you’re listening to music, you’re not running. You’re exercising. And you’ll never complete an ultra if you’re doing it just to get fit.
4. Other sports are fine
I didn’t run all the time. I swam, biked, hiked and kept active in different ways. By my doing this, running felt less like a slog and I reduced my chances of burning out. Even the weight room can be an interesting change of pace compared to running all the time.
5. Train for time, not distance
An ultra is really not about how far you run. It’s about how long you can keep running. That is what your training should focus on. As Runner’s World recommends, train for long runs where you just keep running. You don’t have to run fast. In fact, most ultra runners begin their races going too fast.
6. Don’t change your diet
If you run regularly, you probably don’t gorge yourself on sweets and processed foods. Admittedly this isn’t always easy considering that many ultras take place in far flung parts of the world, and getting the food you’re used to can be a challenge. This is where good planning comes into play. Rather than checking for good hotel deals when preparing for your next running trip, consider what food you’ll be able to get when you arrive. The stress of changing your diet to something unfamiliar is not worth any miniscule gains.
7. Know your terrain
If your ultra is on trails, train on trails. If your ultramarathon is on asphalt, train on asphalt. And if it is on both, train on both.
8. Have good equipment
I admit that my pack was too small during my first ultra, and that became a problem. Get good equipment which can carry all the food, water, and medical supplies you need for an ultra. Remember that an ultramarathon can last 9 to 10 hours. Good jackets and clothing like those listed here are essential.
9. Believe in yourself
It’s a trite, hackneyed cliché and yet it is true. You need to have self-confidence to keep running all day. When you’re running, it is just you, your competitors, and the trail beneath you. As long as you can keep putting one foot in front of the other, you need to keep trying. And in those moments when all seems lost, you need to keep muttering, “I think I can.”
10. Failing is normal
If you have never DNF’d a marathon or ultra, you’re not a real marathoner. Sometimes you get injured. Sometimes you have a bad day and miss the cutoff time. Sometimes you just are not feeling it or lose confidence.
I won’t say you shouldn’t beat yourself up over not finishing your race, because you will. But success is the best revenge. Buckle down, keep working, and you’ll have a good day or be more ready.