Make sure you keep your stabilizers on
I think a lot of people taking on their first ultra set unrealistic expectations, mainly due to the communities they are involved with online and the expectations set within them. The ‘sub 24 hours’ time for a 100 mile race is like the ‘sub 4’ in marathon running. People think that’s what you SHOULD do. Ignore what other people are saying you should aim for, the aim for your first one is to finish the thing happy, healthy and within the cut off. Be realistic on what you can manage and choose your race accordingly. Once you have a few finishes under your belt, it’s then that you can take the stabilizers off and get faster.
Choose your race wisely
I know a few people that have chosen unsupported, ‘difficult’ and often cheap ultras as their first races, mainly because of price point and peer pressure. Don’t do this. It doesn’t make you look well hard. It makes you look like an idiot. You need to go with a company that will 100% support you and who WANT you to finish, with great aid stations and amazing volunteer support. Your first ultra is a test. If you can, pick a race that allows crew and pacers – they are invaluable in the later stages. Centurion are the UK kings of the 50 and 100-mile ultras. I’ll put a list of my recommended ultra-race companies and first time races at the end of this blog. They’re my recommended ones because I’ve tried and tested them all a number of times.
Learn to eat and run
When I first started running, I remember reading that should eat at least an hour BEFORE you went out or else you would die. Or something like that. Absolute LOLs. I always compare running an ultra to being on a really long car journey – you wouldn’t not stop for petrol right? You fill up on the go. You also wouldn’t fill up your car with just water and sugar would you? No. You need the right fuel. If you run out of fuel, you’re not going to get to the end. You need to learn to eat a sandwich and a bag of crisps literally ON the run. It’s easier than you think. And don’t think you can fuel your first 50-mile race with just gels. A marathon you can, and ultra you probably can’t. Would you take your family out for a 12 hour walk without packing a picnic? Nope. So don’t do that to yourself. The majority of people need to eat real, proper food to get through a 50-mile run. And they need to eat it little and often. As you get better at running long distances, you can test out different ways of fuelling and maybe just gels IS the thing for you, but that’s something you will be able to discover later down the line. The aim of your first ultra is to finish it, not to DNF or end up throwing up sugar at 45 miles. Be sensible. Fuel well.
Make your plan A, B and C and learn them
I fine this helps massively on race day when you get to the point that the whole world is falling down around you and you want to stop. Plan A should be what in an ideal world you would WANT to do. For example, maybe you are looking at your first 100 miler after doing a few 50’s and you want to do sub 24. Great. That is plan A – set out a pace plan and nutrition plan to achieve that. Then Plan B – you can defer to plan B if you find yourself off pace, have GI issues, the weather is awful or you’re just not as fast as Jeff in accounts. You defo shouldn’t have listened to Jeff in accounts. You’re still in the game though. Plan B should be your first fallback. If things fail to improve, go to Plan C and then if all else fails Plan D. Plan D is to finish within the cut off. I’m always happy to help people write these plans and believe me they have helped me through some mega ultra-strops.
Find your why and get to know yourself.
Your ‘why’ is going to help you through this more than your physical training is. Why are you doing it? Be honest with yourself and write down all the reasons to want to achieve this goal you have set yourself. It will help you get through the training and the event. There will be a ‘trigger’ why in there, the thing that ultimately, above all, keeps you going. It could be a personal reasons, a picture of your dog, maybe you are running for charity, maybe you’re running to prove to that kid in school that bullied you that you can. Find it, write it down and keep it with you for the whole race, there are lots of reasons people DNF, most of them mental. There’s a difference between overcoming our brain and having to stop because you’ve rolled you ankle or can’t stop throwing up. You have to be extremely honest with yourself to find the real why – but once you’ve found it you are unstoppable – in running and in life in general.
Recommended first Ultras
Centurion 50 & 200 mile races.
My first 100-mile race was Autumn 100 – out and back course with a central hub that you come back to every 25 miles. Very achieveable cut offs, amazing volunteers, pacers allowed (no crew) and reasonably flat course. All of Centurion’s races are extremely well supported and they have a criteria for people entering them, so you need to have done 100km before you can register for a 100 miler. If you’re new to the game I would do one of their 50’s first and work up to the mighty 100. Believe me it’s worth it. Have a look at what they do here.
Rat Race Ultra Tours and the Wall.
Rat Race celebrate the finish and not the win – their cut offs are very generous and they will do everything they can to get you to the end. The Wall can be done over one or two days and the multi day Ultra Tours of Arran and Jersey are amazing. Then once you’ve done a few of them it’s Bucket List time – multi days in Namibia, Mongolia and Panama plus a few more amazing events closer to home including the Outer Hebrides, Spain and Malta. Go and have a look at what they do here. See the world on your feet. That’s what it’s all about.
White Star Running Frolics and the Ox Weekend
My first ever ultra was The Ox – back then it was 36 miles. Nowadays, they do a whole weekend of running, with the main event being the Ox 50 (miles) or the Ox frolic (12 hour timed race). Both the 50 and the frolic are run on a looped course on the Rushmore estate which is completely stunning, and for some reason never gets boring. It’s hilly, it’s hard and it’s brilliant. You run through the event village every lap so you get access to drop bags and friends and family. The idea of the Frolic is to run as many laps as you can in 12 hours – doesn’t matter how fast so you can walk some of the way if you want – and doing this type of thing really surprises most people – they often manage a lot more than they are capable of. Because of the lack of competition and the laid-back nature of it, these events are great for training, learning to eat and meeting your fellow ultra-runners. And you get amazing medals. WSR do a number of different frolics throughout the year, not just limited to the Ox. You can see what they do here.
Allie is an Ultra Runner and is Chief Test Pilot for Rat Race Adventure Sports Bucket List events. She also heads up the Ultra Awesome community – a group of like-minded people interested in getting into ultras, pushing the distance, looking after their mental health and having a nice time doing it.
Allie is also a co-presenter on the Bad Boy Running podcast and presents The Ultra Zone at The National Running Show in Birmingham.
Image credit: Leo Francis Photography