Running an ultra trail race had always been a goal of mine. For years I had wanted to do it — run a 50-kilometer or 31-mile race — but something always got in the way or I felt like I just didn’t have enough time for training. Because, let’s be honest, running more than a marathon requires some dedication, no matter what your goal may be.
But this year I decided no more excuses. I was going to do it. I was going to run my first ultra trail race.
So I found a race that looked fun, signed up, paid a decent amount of money (races aren’t cheap) and start creating a rough training plan. Soon enough my weeks consisted of a lot of trail running, at least one long run (which by the end was in the 20+ mile range) and one longer bike ride.
During this period I figured a lot out about my body, my mental fortitude and just what it really takes to train and race such a long distance. Below you will find 11 of the biggest lessons I learned during my ultra training and racing.
\\ 5 Things I Learned Training For My First Ultra Trail Race
1 | YOU WILL BE VERY TIRED.
This one (weirdly) surprised me. I found that I was just exhausted most of the time — especially once I really started to build up my mileage. It got to the point where I had to plan my long runs to be done on a day when I could just do absolutely nothing afterward because I knew that I would have zero energy to get anything accomplished.
During your training, really try to get as much sleep as possible in order to help your body recover.
2 | NUTRITION IS AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR TRAINING.
This was another thing I didn’t really think about before I started training for my first ultra race. While I have been a runner for many years, I never really took my nutrition and eating habits too seriously. I always ate what I wanted and felt like that was good enough. Well, now I feel like if there is one thing that is important, it is to know what exactly is going into your body and what you might be lacking.
I don’t like counting calories but I did start focusing on my protein intake and it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t eating enough (though I should have probably known when I randomly started craving bacon and hamburgers…). When training for a longer distance, really try to meet your daily nutritional needs and focus on getting in good, solid healthy food.
💬 INSIDER TIP: but also… eat whatever sounds great to you. Craving ice cream? Go for it. Pizza? Yessss. Listen to what your body wants and enjoy life.
3 | LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
Running is hard on the body, it just is. So if something starts to hurt, stretch it, ice it and maybe take a day or two off. Remember, an ultra is a marathon (well, actually more but you get the idea) NOT a sprint. Taking one day off to help a small pain get better is going to be so much better in the long run for eventually that small pain could become a much bigger problem.
4 | HAVE AT LEAST 1 TRAINING RUN MIMIC YOUR RACE.
This can include wearing the same clothes you plan to race in, bringing the same gear with you (like your backpack, snacks, etc.) and even running at the same time as when the race is planned to start. Think of one of your long runs as a trial run to work out kinks that might pop up. I know when I did this on one of my last long training runs, I realized that the shirt I planned to wear ended up starting to rub wrong after about 20 miles. I was so glad I felt that discomfort on just a training run instead of on race day.
5 | DON’T TAKE YOUR TRAINING TOO SERIOUSLY.
I talk about this a bit more below, but I think this was a key reason I didn’t really get burnt out after training for months for my first ultra. I really focused on keeping it fun and making sure I continually ran in pretty places, didn’t take my runs too seriously, and was kind on myself if something didn’t go as a I planned (like getting really sick and having to take a full week off of training).
\\ 6 Things I Learned During My First Ultra Trail Race
1 | KNOW WHAT FOOD WORKS FOR YOU AT AID STATIONS.
For me, this meant staying away from really sugary stuff (like Coca-Cola) and just eating basic potato chips (I was craaaaaving salt). If you are really worried about getting a stomach ache then simply avoid food at the aid stations and just make sure to pack enough food with you to make it through the race on your own.
2 | KNOW THE COURSE AHEAD OF TIME.
A 50k is a long distance so definitely don’t wreck yourself in the first 10 miles. Likewise, know what is coming on race day, as in what the course elevation profile looks like, the type of trails you will be running on, and where the aid stations will be located.
3 | BUT ALSO DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO FOR IT.
Consider pushing the pace a bit and see what your body can handle. All of your training has led to that day, so why not leave it all out there and just see how it goes!
4 | NO MATTER HOW HARD YOU TRAIN, IT WILL STILL BE TOUGH.
This is unfortunately just the way it goes. You can train for months and months and put some serious miles in and still be hurting — especially towards the end. A 50k is quite a distance and your body will definitely be taking a lot of pounding.
5 | YOU WILL LIKELY EXPERIENCE SOME “UNIQUE” PAINS DURING THE RACE.
For example, the second toe on my right foot started to burn with 12 miles to go. It was the weirdest thing and even now (a couple of weeks later) I still don’t understand why I was feeling that at nearly the halfway point. Similarly, at around the 25 mile point, my back really started to ache.
So while it might be obvious to expect some pain in your legs, you too will likely find that you’ll have your own weird pain moments during your ultra race.
6 | IT MIGHT BE CLICHE TO SAY — BUT HAVE FUN!
A 50k takes a lot of energy and effort, and not just the race itself, but all of the training too. Try to keep it fun and interesting. For me, that meant running on trails that were pretty and also changing it up for every long run (I don’t really enjoy running the same trail over and over again). Similarly, for the ultra race itself, I focused on finding one that was in a really scenic spot (I ended up picking one in the hills near the coast of Oregon).
Running longer distances can be quite boring — especially if you are doing it by yourself. So, try to find your own thing that makes training and running more fun (be it scenic trails or a funky playlist).
Training and racing your first ultra trail race can be both exciting and terrifying. Because at the end of the day, an ultra is a whole lot of running (not to mention all the training you need to do beforehand). After successfully training for and racing my first ultra, I felt like I learned a lot — about running, but also about myself. It really is a great experience and such a good way to get outside and explore (and feel like a total badass!).
Hopefully, you found this inside look at my own ultra trail running experience to be helpful. If you have any questions about trail running, training or the like, please don’t hesitate to reach out!