Hal Koerner’s Guide to Getting Started in Ultrarunning

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This excerpt comes from Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning, a comprehensive handbook to running 30 to 100 miles and beyond, written by Hal Koerner, one of the most experienced and recognized athletes in the ultrarunning.

Ch 1: Getting Started

“Ultra,” by one definition, means “extreme.” And so it is perhaps not surprising that when people first hear the term applied to a running race, they imagine that event must be 100 grueling miles or more. While it is true that some ultras are 100 miles, and certainly some are also quite grueling, the fact is, an ultramarathon is simply any distance beyond the marathon distance, or 26.2 miles. On the flip side, sometimes runners joke about having done an ultra because they ran to the start line of a marathon from their car or hotel, adding a mile, or ran to the bathroom when the marathon was over, adding 0.2 miles to their race. So for the jokesters out there, let’s be clear that by “ultra,” I am referring to the actual race distance. The most common ultramarathon distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and multiday runs.

Why Run an Ultra?

Everyone has his or her own reasons, which are as wildly varied and unique as the people who run ultras. For me, part of the appeal has been the way in which ultrarunning takes me to places—both within and without—that I didn’t know existed. I have had the privilege of running in some the most beautiful places on earth, from the southeastern Idaho wilderness and the stunning San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the pristine Alaskan interior, the majestic mountains of Europe, and beyond. Ultras have been my excuse to explore places I’ve never seen and may never have had the chance to see if it weren’t for running.

Mentally, ultras have the power to transport me to yet a different kind of unique place, one where I feel totally in the present and everything else sort of fades away. That can be hard to do in our daily lives. I always look forward to that feeling and cherish it when it comes.

Another appeal for me is the tremendous satisfaction of doing something that pushes me to my very limits. Generally speaking, life is pretty well managed for many of us, often even dictated to us. We get up in the morning, drive the same road to work, and do our jobs, and things are overall pretty safe, planned, and secure. We know what life looks like; it’s predictable. Similarly, we have devices to do many things for us now. But ultras are far, far less predictable, and they are all you: your faculties, your body, your strength, you on the line. There is no faking it. Thus, finishing an ultra brings an enormous feeling of accomplishment.

Then there is the joy of sharing the miles and the journey with like-minded people. Indeed, it was the community I found in ultrarunning that drew me to the sport in the first place. It is one of the few sports where you can toe the line right beside the best, and often have the opportunity to chat with the top competitors. The ultra community is growing, yes, but it still has the soul of a small town and is not impersonal, something that other aspects of life can often be. Many ultra races are sprung from the grass roots and have a laid-back feel that is unique in the sport of running. At the end of a race, for example, you may well sit down in the grass and hear someone playing a guitar as you eat fresh-cooked hamburgers or veggie burgers. Runners and supporters will often stick around for hours after the race, even well into the night. The welcoming atmosphere of the ultra extends far beyond the race itself.

Finally, unlike running down a four-lane road in a marathon, with little space and lots of people, in an ultra race you may not see many other people for miles, and those you do see, you get to know pretty well. The trail and the hardships and triumphs of an ultra have a way of fostering relationships. The trail brings you close. In fact, that is how I have made and maintained most of my relationships to this day, even though those friends have also been my direct competition. When you have 20 hours to run with someone, you end up sharing a lot.

Who Can Do an Ultra?

You can. Ultras are open for all. You have to train to achieve at least a base level of fitness, and you have to have the desire, but don’t let the distance intimidate you. It doesn’t take as much as you may think to go from running a few miles to running many. With passion, drive, and smart training, almost anyone can do an ultra. It helps if you have a network of support from folks around you, but the motivation and determination all have to come from you.

Are some people dealt a better hand for executing ultras? Sure. They may have gifts from birth that provide a jump start, physically or mentally. However, that doesn’t exclude others. At the highest level of any sport or effort, there are some who are freakishly suited to it, but that certainly should not prohibit anyone else from trying and succeeding.

Tackling the Distance—50K, 50 Miles to 100K, and 100 Miles

As just mentioned, ultra distances are anything over 26.2 miles, and you have several popular distances to choose from. Most people tackling an ultra distance have a marathon or two under their belt, and I would certainly advise it. Is it possible to go from couch to ultra? Well, let’s just say I’ve seen it done but would not recommend it.

The good news is that the base mileage you need when you prepare for a marathon is nearly the amount you’d need for one of the lesser ultra distances. Preparing for an ultra is not so much about miles; it is more mental, deciding which distance you’ll tackle and committing to it.

A common path to an ultra looks like this: You do a marathon and then begin to plan out a period of time, say a year, in which you will take logical stepping-stones up in distance, from 50K to 50 miles to 100K and ultimately to 100 miles.

Whichever distance you choose, you will need to commit to at least 5 days a week of consistent training for a minimum of 14 weeks. Add in a reasonable 2-week taper, and thus a 16-week training plan can begin any ultra training. Even the shortest ultra is long and taxing, so if you want to finish it and finish it well, you have to put the work in.

50K—Steps to Increase the 26.2-Mile Threshold

This distance, which is only 5 miles longer than the marathon distance, demands a similar base mileage. You can successfully prepare for a marathon doing 50 to 90 miles a week. The same is true for a 50K race. So, if you have done a marathon, you will find that training for a 50K demands something similar to what you are used to. However, as you will see in the training plan, the long run may be longer than what you are used to. Thus, perhaps you will be dealing with a less-familiar feeling of being very run-down or of pushing yourself when you have nothing left.

Not only are 50Ks great building blocks for those ultimately shooting for a 100K or 100-mile ultra, but they also serve as “speed training” for seasoned ultrarunners who want to work on faster turnover and run hard throughout the entire distance. And, because the distance is normally covered entirely during the daylight hours, some ultrarunners seek out highly technical, hilly, or otherwise challenging 50K courses.

50 Miles to 100K (62 Miles)—Time on Feet Becomes Crucial

These races are gateways to the 100-mile ultra, but the 50-miler and 100K are robust runs in and of themselves, and there is no faking the passion and desire for these distances. They will ask for all that you’ve got, and then some.

The 50-miler creates a real separation from the 50K in terms of both mileage and ultra distinction. You are doubling the marathon distance and, perhaps more significantly, often taking a mental leap into the unknown. This is the distance of most of my favorite races. Where the 100K and 100-miler may loop, double back, or make a patchwork quilt to gather miles, the 50-miler is often a single loop or a point-to-point route, and many runners who are new to ultrarunning find the distance manageable. The runner is rewarded with a challenge that is as stimulating mentally as it is physically. That sometimes makes all the difference between competing and a DNF.

While the 50-mile race is common in the United States, the 100K is less so (although participation is increasing now that qualification standards for some of the more popular 100-milers dictate that runners complete a 100K with a qualifying time in order to be eligible to register). However, the 100K is the international standard for the world championship and is a common distance across Europe and in Asia. If you are a runner who loves a destination race, this might be your distance, but be prepared to run some road miles for the effort.

Oddly enough, my very first ultra was a 100K in Washington State. Better-known races such Night of Flanders in Belgium and Trailwalker in Hong Kong were my first experiences with this distance internationally. However, my breakthrough race in 2001 was the Catalina 100K, and I have been trying to duplicate that performance year after year at the Miwok 100K, an American standard.

I’ve found that the 100K rides in the slipstream of the 100-miler. At the equivalent of 62 miles, it pushes you much closer to the 100-mile mark and comes with its own set of difficulties and realities. As you move up from the 50K distance, those 31 additional miles offer a chance for you to experiment with what you are capable of and where your boundaries are. Ironically, while your body will experience more stress than in the 50K and some probable low points, the extra mileage has the benefit of allowing it enough time to actually come back around again and recharge. This can be a very cool feeling, like coming full circle.

In many ways, the 100K is like a tease for the 100-mile distance. And it is more closely related to a 100-mile race than to a 50-miler. Even with a consistent pace, and if things are going well, your 100K race will be 2 to 3 hours longer than your 50-miler, making it a totally different experience. Twelve miles may not sound like much, but at that point in the race, it is long. As far as time, it is another marathon for some runners!

Where a 50-mile race may request it more politely, the 100K will absolutely demand that you learn the ins and outs of your body, and about nutrition for that distance and time, all things being relative (the course, altitude, and weather).

Finally, the 100K race is fantastic training for a 100-miler. But, remember, it takes about 4 to 8 weeks to recover from the effort, so if you are using it as training for a 100-mile race, be sure to factor the recovery time into your calendar.

In terms of base mileage, you will need to bump the weekly total up by adding about 10 miles to both top and bottom, or 60 to 100 miles per week. As you will see in the training plans, I don’t advise going crazy with lots of mileage. It’s overkill, you run the risk of injury if you bump things up too quickly, and it’s hard to recover from high-mileage weeks. I’ve run a great 100K on 90-mile training weeks. The key is to stay healthy, strong, and consistent. Your long runs need to be run well and after full recovery from the previous long effort.

100 Miles—Putting It All Together

Preparing for a 100-mile race means a weekly base of 80 to 110 miles, with a long run of 50 miles. In my own training, my longest training run might be only 30 to 40 miles, however, because I race a lot of 50-mile and longer races in between my 100-milers. And I’d encourage you, too, to put a 50-mile race in your own 100-mile training plan. Besides providing the miles, a race environment offers you experience working through nerves, testing your nutrition, pushing yourself harder than you would otherwise, and encountering and getting through the kinks that present themselves along the way. You will want to place this race strategically within your training. The training plan in this book will indicate where a 50-mile race might fit in nicely.

If you can’t find a race that works for you, then you will need to do a 50-miler on your own, not to mention 25-, 30-, and 35-mile runs. Keep in mind that you may need to travel to do really effective distance runs. If you’re going to do all the training and work, but not even come close to replicating the race itself, then you aren’t doing yourself a lot of favors. If, for example, your race has a huge climb, it would be highly beneficial to have done one during a long training run. Likewise, if you envision racing in the heat of the summer in a hot climate or in the wintry wilds of Alaska, then you should be adding those conditions into your training by some means. I would go so far as to say that the requirements of the course should be on your mind daily.

Running at night should be something with which you become very familiar. This is a great time to grab your pacers and pull them into the fold because they will more than likely join you through the nocturnal stage of the race. Getting out the door for a night run when you are dead tired and searching for that second wind will be instrumental in hardening your mind as well as your body. And night running will become more of a routine than a novelty as the mileage increases.

Preparing for a 100-mile race also means practicing even more continual time on your feet, regardless of the miles. Ten to 12 hours on your feet is something you should practice at least once. This will be invaluable to your recovery and endurance strength as well. The long runs in this training plan will give you that ever-so-valuable time on your feet.

Choosing Your First Race

When you are registering for a race, many factors will influence your decision to stay committed to the plan. The preceding section gave you a very broad idea of the time constraints and commitment necessary to pull off an ultra. Take that time element into account as you consider which ultra is best.

For your first ultra, consider finding an event close to home where you can account for most or all of the variables of the course and take advantage of the specificity of your training. Weather, climate, and altitude are all very hard to replicate. For a flatlander living in Iowa, training for the Wasatch 100 may be a lot to bite off. By contrast, if you are a Colorado runner, running trails and scaling mountains, this type of training, while awesome, may not translate into the efficiency demanded by the Comrades Marathon, which is 56 miles of rolling pavement in South Africa.

Remember, the learning curve may be a bit steep on the first ultra race you run, and so being able to cope and train in familiar surroundings will go a long way toward helping you finish the endeavor. Minimizing extraneous circumstances that have the tendency to trip up the beginning ultrarunner may be the best favor you do for yourself.

If, however, you are set on a race that is much farther afield, so be it. After all, the unknown is part of the adventure, right? But when it comes to training, just know that you will want to get creative and replicate your upcoming race conditions as best you can. The good news is that this creativity can be invigorating and stave off redundancy in your weeks of training. Living in Seattle and training for the Trailwalker 100K in Hong Kong, I incorporated all the steps I could find into my weekly runs in order to syncopate my pace for the rigors of the course’s route. While my time was well spent on stairs, I neglected to train for the difference in weather and fell ill to the effects of running in 90-degree temperatures and 100 percent humidity. By mile 20 I was lying perpendicular across the trail like a zombie. As it turned out, perhaps practicing rolling down stairs would have served my training better.

Setting a Goal

Think about either target pace or target time. Look to a friend who has done the distance and whose running you are familiar with for an idea of how fast you can go or how long it might take you. Another idea is to review race results from previous years and choose a midrange finishing time to shoot for. Or, if you are attempting to use the race to qualify for something else, setting a target has already been done for you by the race organization.

While it is important to have a finishing time in mind when you train for a race, it is probably even more important to be flexible about that objective. You will need to adjust it on the fly, especially if the weather or trail conditions are less than ideal for running your goal pace. Even if you start out on track to achieve your desired finish, circumstances change quickly during an ultra, and you can suddenly find yourself switching from “I’m going to finish well under my goal!” to “I’ll be lucky to even crawl over the finish line.” Ultras are lessons in life, and many of the most powerful teaching experiences are gained by dealing well with adversity.

Get a jump on training for an ultramarathon with Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning, a comprehensive handbook to running 30 to 100 miles and beyond, written by one of the most experienced and recognized athletes in the sport.