An Ultra Marathon is any distance further than that of the typical 42.195km Marathon, with common distances of 50 & 100km, as well as 50 & 100 miles. Running a normal marathon has been generally regarded for decades as the true test of physical fitness, taking the human body to it's limits through tough training, not to mention conquering the gruelling event itself.
However, over recent years, distance runners have been growing the community in the Ultra Running scene world wide. Is it that they've completed the marathon a few times and now want something more? Or is it their pure passion for distance that the miles they pour out each week just doesn't satisfy? I've spoken a wide variety of ultra runners and have had as many different responses to this query as people questioned.
It goes without saying I'm sure that as the event distance increases, so too does the level of difficulty. However, I'd like to point out firstly that while yes the event itself is somewhat a monster task, the major obstacle in most peoples path here actually lies in the training. Most people won't even make it to the starting line due to the immense commitment required to prepare the body for the task.
The human body is an extraordinary biological machine, with a fine line between fragile, and resilient. Fragile in the fact that it is in essence biological which means things can go wrong. Unforseen, unplanned and unwarranted issues that can stop us in our tracks in a millisecond. Resilient by way that the body has an uncanny way of becoming accustomed to it's surroundings when given the right attention. In other words; the body adapts to the regular or consistent nature of it's existence.
With the above in mind, it must be said that there are endless variables that will affect how well, if at all each individual responds to such changes. Age, gender, genes, training, general daily activity, nutrition, and the list goes on......
So how can one prepare themselves to run 50km+ in one single run? Simple; get your miles up, and get your head right. There is a typical 'rule of thumb' in the distance running community that one should aim to increase their weekly running distance tally by 10-15% on a regular basis. While this is OK in a generic form, there is much to be said about generic advice. Remember, this is a 'rule of thumb' so I do not recommend you take that on board and go off straight away racking up the miles. There are many other important factors that must be taken into account to make sure these miles are QUALITY, EVENT SPECIFIC MILES.
SPECIFICITY OF TRAINING: (You don't become world number 1 in golf, by playing tennis 5 times a week......)
If you've never seen an Ultra Marathon, I highly recommend going out to watch one in action. Maybe help out as a volunteer to get an up close perspective to how the participants carry out their event. Be sure to talk to some before and after the event. Ask as many questions as possible, but most importantly, WATCH.
Some of the most consistent aspects you will notice about ultra runners is their pacing, fuelling, hydration, and technique. There's many more things to consider but these make up at least 80% of what an ultra runner will focus their attention on. (besides the never ending quest to find the ultimate shoe!!!!! LOL....)
But......... In amongst all of this, is their training. Ultra Marathons can see you on your feet from 5-12+ hours, and some much more. This brings about a massive challenge in being able to keep moving, and delaying fatigue for as long as possible, then learning how to keep moving once you are completely exhausted. This can be a gallant task.
Get a proper training programme. You have no room for guessing here. You can bluff your way through on 12k, half marathons, and maybe even full marathons on DIY training programmes. But you're risking it big time to go out into the Ultra world blind. It's not worth the risk of injury, so look into it. And more importantly, check that the one preparing your programme is an Ultra runner themselves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
LEARN TO RUN LONG!!!! I've written a separate topic on long runs here: http://creatinganultrarunner.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/ultra-marathon-training-long-run-one.html so I won't ramble on too much about that now, apart to say that this is the crucial part to any Ultra Runner.
MAKE IT TO THE STARTING LINE: Half the battle in running an Ultra is making it to the starting line in one piece. Ultra Marathon training ultimately means a massive sum of miles under the feet to build up the strength and endurance.
LEARN WHAT FUEL WORKS FOR YOU: You can't expect to run 60km, 100km, 160km without eating. Typically, the average adult body has enough readily useable stored energy to last around 3-4 hours at a constant output. What this means is, events/runs with an anticipated finish time equal to or less than this you can assume that you have enough energy to get you through comfortably. Above this you need to consider your expenditure and therefore a method for maintaining a sustainable level for the remainder of your event. Whilst I am not one for 'rule of thumbs' as it can steer people off course, I'll use one here. Typical/average output/energy expenditure for the average adult is circa 100Kcals per mile of running. Larger/heavier frames, slightly more, smaller/lighter frames can be slightly less. You get the idea I hope. What this effectively means is; let's say you're running a 50miler: This can mean total energy output in the area of 5000 calories. This is a lot of energy used. How do you intend to keep this managed during your race? You can 'carbo load' all you like, but there is no way you will store enough to get you through at race level output.
With this in mind, you need to find what works for you. Try, test, experiment, ask other ultra runners, read more blogs. Find what works, and practice using it.
GET THE RIGHT GEAR: Ok so I'm sure you're aware this task is a little more testing than the old run around the block! Therefore, you might want to consider a little more than just comfy shoes and a water bottle to get you through. Firstly, research the event(s) you wish to enter. Some have mandatory gear you MUST carry. If so, get it all early and train with it. No point in training with your normal shorts, singlet and water bottle if on the race you have 7kg's of mandatory equipment!!!!!!! If there is no specific requirements for your event, consider what personal items you're going to prefer? How far apart are the aid stations? Will you need to carry your own water and food? How much? Again, practice using it / carrying it.
Just like they say in the army. Look after your feet! If there's any area of your body you need to focus on the most, it's your feet. They're about to take a massive pounding so the more you can help them out the better. Many have found out the hard way (myself included) that your 'old trusties' that you've known and loved for years on your 12km races, may not give you what you need for a 100km.
LEARN TO WALK!!!!!!!!!!! Yes, you read it right. Let's face it. You're not going to run 100km straight through. And if you do, let me know. I want to meet you. lol. So many people miss the importance of walking training. The fact is, walking requires different muscles as well as a larger range of motion to that of running. Runners who neglect this in their training really struggle during big events as those extra miles put on the extra demand that the body was not prepared for. I like to put in at least 1 solid, hard, long walk session in per week. I use this as an active recovery from my running training, and it helps me stay loose and nimble throughout the week. In addition, I truly believe this helps me a great deal in the latter stages of ultra events when walking becomes more relevant.
Get committed!!!! Running an ultra is an amazing experience. One your sure to never forget. Do your homework, and don't skimp on your training and you're sure to make this memory a favourable one.
I'd love to hear from any followers of their experiences leading into their first ultra, so drop me a message and share your journey. Any questions, let me know and I'd be happy to help.