A Back-Of-The-Pack Runner’s Notes On Ultra Running

I find it frustrating that running tips/advice/race reports are so often from people who are natural athletes or fast runners. People who casually reference 12-minute milers like that’s the slowest you can be. (Trust me fast people, YOU CAN BE MUCH SLOWER.) People like my husband who could not understand that I stopped to sing along with Hamilton when a friend was playing it at his spectating point on my race. “Wait. You stopped? TO SING?” Of course I did. Don’t you know me?

So, these are notes from someone like me…who stops and sings when she hears her favorite song.

There is only 5 miles between a marathon and 50K yet some people who are more than happy to do a marathon, have NO desire to do a 50K. There’s only 5 miles! Most 50Ks are on trails and so that is sometimes a deterrent. To me a 12-hour race is even easier than a 50K because the finish-line comes to you! And most of the time (because the point is to get as many miles in the time limit as possible) they’re on flat, soft, 1-mile’ish loops. I’m here to point out all of the amazing things you’re missing out on at these types of races so that if you make the marathon leap, maybe you’ll make the next one. I promise I won’t push you any farther than that. I just learned this weekend I’m not cut out for races in the nighttime. But I’m certain if you can do a marathon, you can do a 50K or a 12-hour race. No problem.

  • Trail running is not how you picture it. You don’t just jump into running your road-pace on stretches of trails littered with roots and rocks. I rarely hit my slowest road pace anywhere, and most often if I do it’s because it’s a section of trail I know so well I could map it out with my eyes closed. Picture hiking + jogging when you picture someone like me trail running. If it’s technical and I don’t know it? I’m barely jogging. If it’s an uphill? I’m walking. Almost always. It saves my legs for the distance if I walk the uphills. I do get to the point where I can kill some treacherous downhills, but only on MY mountain where I know where almost every rock is. You don’t have to do that. I don’t on a lot of races. If you can hike tough trails and run a marathon? You can trail run.
  • Falling isn’t as bad as you think it is. It sucks, don’t get me wrong. But out of the 50+ falls I’ve had only 2 were bad enough where I was worried I was injured. And I was not injured! I think partly because since I run slower I fall easier, but also I’m a klutz so I think my instincts are good when I fall.
  • KEEP GOING AFTER YOU ROLL YOUR ANKLE. I’m so glad someone told me this early on. I roll my ankles constantly, like an average of once every 5 miles probably. And sometimes it hurts so bad it brings tears to my eyes, but I keep moving and somehow that keeps the blood flowing and as long as no damage is done, the pain subsides. I rolled my ankle “bad” once and wore a brace for the rest of the season but it didn’t stop me, so it obviously wasn’t that bad. It just made my ankle weak so I wanted extra support from a brace.
  • Once you get past the marathon distance and into timed races or 50Ks or more, you have epic food selection. I’ve done marathons where I maybe get some chips or some oranges but at 50Ks or timed races there is often PIZZA and maybe DONUTS. I did a race once where they had those chocolate drizzle rice crispy treats and I nearly DIED it was so heavenly.
  • You are also more likely to find aid stations or runners stocked with a medicine cabinet. Excederin? Pepto? Immodium? Yes. Yes. and Yes. If you need something? Ask around. Chances are an aid station has it or someone running near you does and if you’re a back-of-the-packer like me? Go ahead and ask. (I don’t recommend asking the guys up front, they don’t carry much with them.)
  • You get to know fast runners at timed races. I love that about a good 12-hour race, you are constantly getting passed by people you would never see otherwise and it gives you the feeling of camaraderie and it feels great to be on the same page (although no where near the same mile) as a fast runner.
  • Everyone gets silly. I don’t know about the front of the pack people, but in the back? We all lose our minds as we get closer to the finish and it’s fantastic. You’re walking a lot more, just trying to survive, so you get goofy and it’s like being drunk without actually drinking. It’s great.
  • Fast and Slow is not reflective in body type. You’ll see someone 50lbs heavier but loads faster and someone 20lbs lighter and loads slower. If you don’t have a typical runner body, you’ll be amazed by how many people with your body are out there. Ultras aren’t usually about speed, they’re about endurance, so people aren’t stressing out so much about being lean as they would be if they were trying to hold 6-minute miles for 3 hours.
  • There’s often (always?) beer. Sometimes it’s secret beer due to regulations of the location of the race, but if you keep your eyes and ears open you will often find that people have beers at the finish line (sometimes the race is sponsored by a beer WHICH IS THE BEST) or sometimes you’ll do a timed run and find that people are drinking beers DURING THE RACE and that’s when you’ll think, “Yes. I found my people.”
  • Ultra runners are just fun. I feel like the start lines and finish lines of an ultra are usually so much more lighthearted. Everyone recognizes the “crazy” factor in what they’re doing and it makes even the most serious of person a bit goofy. They’re also encouraging. They’ll share tips. The start line of a road marathon often feels tense, but of an ultra? At least at the ones I do? There’s a lot more laughing than I would expect. “WE CRAZY!” type of comments and laughter.

I’m trying to get out of my 100-miler because I learned my limits this weekend, but I still believe if I can run a 50K or a 12-hour race? Anyone who can do a marathon can. The only thing that makes it easier for me than it might be for you is I have this epic community around me. I’d like to think there’s one hidden in your town too, but I don’t know. Some days I feel like we have something unique and special here, but at the race in TN this weekend there seemed to be a “regular” crowd of people who looked just as fun and supportive as our group is. So maybe there’s one where you are too, you just have to find them.

6 thoughts on “A Back-Of-The-Pack Runner’s Notes On Ultra Running”

  1. Do you ever have problems with ticks on trails? I’d love to get into trail racing but we have a huge tick problem (and an increase in lyme disease cases) so that’s really what’s holding me back.

  2. So I won’t ever do a road marathon because it would wreak havoc on my knees from which I have no idea how long or if I would recover (and I’ve consulted several people about this b/c ideally I would love to do RCM just one time…. )
    The trails are friends to my knees and reading your notes….now I want to maybe try to get to some longer distances. I think I am going to try my first marathon ever….on the trails…..at Wade Mountain! I have almost been persuaded.

  3. Thanks for the kick in the pants. Been wanting to do an Ultra, and now with the ultimate Ultra in my sight for 2018, I need to make the step up. Based on your experiences, what Ultra would you recommend this fall/winter as my 1st. Need to get through Chicago 1st and can’t interfere with Alabama football schedule.

  4. You Fall and don’t get injured. I fall and get injured when walking. I suspect that is because you are a lot closer to the ground than I am to begin with

  5. Dizzy 50s was my first which I love because it’s local, and local races are the best because you’re doing them around familiar faces. BUT! You also loop back to your own aid station so you can have your medicine, foam roller, food, etc – everything you MIGHT need which is such a huge worry at an ultra. The “what if” you have covered because you don’t have to carry anything with you! It gets to be a bit of a long slog on certain “boring” parts but I still love it and will do it again this year!

  6. Thanks for the info. Will certainly give it high consideration. I think a local race would be best for my 1st, as would loops. Seeing local friends, even better!

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