Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The thin end of the wedge...

The last couple of Saturday’s and the next few I am attending a weekend class, it’s a personal/professional development thing and has no bearing on running etc. Every weekend we have a different instructor and so every weekend we have to go through the what’s you name and where’re you from routine, this weekend we were asked to tell something about ourselves that nobody in the room would know and so this weekend I mentioned that I liked to run…a bit, when pressed I mentioned ultra running. I’ve leaned that most people can’t actually comprehend it; see this post for a typical conversation. During a break a few people came up to talk about it a bit more and that was the catalyst for this post. While I am no expert here are my top things to consider if you want to go long…

Base; like any house you need a foundation; the deeper it is the stronger it is, and the higher you can build. Like my profile says I have always been a runner; track and field at school, a stint in the military; running and tabbing, general fitness and more recently actually racing, this is on top a pretty good base of mountain biking which I did a bit of as well. In the last three years I’ve covered about 4500 miles, not excessive by any standards but a lot of those miles are on trails which brings me onto my next point.

Train Terrain; in other words train where you’ll be racing. It’s no good training on the beach path if you’re running through the hills. Be as specific as you can, and at least try and train on trails, this will help (a) build up all those little stabilizer muscles that get neglected on the streets and (b) will give you a better understanding of what is achievable on the trails in terms of how quickly you can cover distances.

Walk the Walk; chances are that for part of race day you’ll be walking some of the course. The purpose of walking is to simply not burn you out, that being said there is more to walking than simply shuffling up the side of a hill. Practice power walking uphill and make walking part of your training.

Gravity Bites; on the flipside of walking is running downhill, strange as this may seem you need to practice this as well. While running is a propellant activity; that is you use your hamstrings to push you forward, running downhill places a lot of emphasis on your quads so spending some time running, in fact the best way to describe it is to actually call it a controlled falling, down a hill will really help out on those long descents.

GIGO/NINO; good input good output, no input…well you can figure out the rest. Much like any endurance activity you need to dial in your nutrition and hydration. The only difference here is the duration. You may have read in my race reports about me eating PN&J, chips, boiled potatos and the like, there comes a point when gels just lose their appeal so be prepared to try real food, obviously don’t try it on race day for the first time, practice on your long runs.

The Ultra Brick; much like a triathlete will have their swim/bike or bike/run bricks, ultra runners have their back-to-back runs. Usually a Saturday/Sunday affair the idea is to run again on tired legs to simulate the longer distances. These are made all the better if you can do both days on the trail.

Time Not Miles; time on your feet is crucial, getting your body used to being upright and moving for 6, 12, 24 hours is something you have to teach it and practice.

MPH not MPM; you can pretty much forget about keeping a steady pace, there will be an average but it’s a figure that represents nothing. Thinking miles per hour allows you to be concerned in covering the distance and in bigger chunks and means you don’t have to focus on every step. Got a Garmin, change one field to MPH and you’re set.

Remember to smile; you choose to get up and drive to the trailhead so enjoy the experience, yeah it’s probably goin to hurt and yeah halfway up (or down) that friggin’ big hill you probably wondering or even vocalizing WTF am I doing here, but I have never seen bigger grins than those from runners who just finished their first or longest ultra.

There are probably a few more but they mostly focus on kit; shoes, backpack, handhelds etc but these are all personal choices. And remember I am no expert. Above all running trails is a different animal from the roads, you become more at one with not only the world but with yourself and you’ll see sights and experience things that only a few ever will.

Remember they say it’s one tenth of one percent of the world’s population that have run a marathon, going longer than that only decreases that ratio…so allow me to welcome you to the thin end of the wedge; it’s a good place to be!


  1. your post makes me reall want to attempt a 50. I have toyed with the idea since my sister ran 2 this past Spring. Not sure I want to train alone or run the race alone. I am looking at Pocetello this next May. My Brother lives there and my sister is planning on running. We shall see.

  2. Comprehensive review of the most important factors in off-road ultra running. Well put together.



  3. Fantastic post. I also am temped to go long on the trails.

  4. I cant think of anything to add. Well done

  5. I admire the dedication it takes to be an ultra runner, but I know I don't have it in me to go that long!

  6. being a trail racing novice if not a newbie i love to have it confirmed by more experienced trail peeps that walking is a good thing :) though i am not sure my hunched over power walking/trying to inhale air posture is good form...

  7. Thanks for the post . . . I'm *thinking* about going long, but figure I've gotta do the marathon first, and that's in May. It's nice to have such a concise little bit of thinking to lead me into longer distances.

  8. Very interesting. Lots of little things in there I never would have thought of (like MPH instead of MPM).

    Thanks as always!

  9. Nice framework on how to approach off road ultras. The point on training on the right terrain is key. I'm primarily a road runner, but the times I've been on the trails - it is certainly a different experience!

  10. Very wise and timely information. My friends that only run road races, have a hard time understanding anything other than pace (minutes per mile), let alone walk breaks. Just getting out is a great feeling - I always smile when I pass 26.2 miles. I need to save this one as a reminder.

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