It’s hard to believe I ran my first ultramarathon two years ago this month. I’ll never forget everything that went into my first race. It will always be one of my most treasured memories, because it set me on a completely new course in life.
Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot about the sport and how to improve in it. I’ve also had more than my share of frustrations, injuries and setbacks, but those are all part of the learning experience. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons I love the sport so much. You’re constantly building upon what you know to become a better you.
While I am by no means an expert, I wanted to share a handful of “Lessons Learned” from my first two years of running ultras. It should be noted that these lessons are geared toward having longevity in the sport, something I think most of us are after.
Without further ado:
Set Clear Goals
Setting clear, defined goals is essential. For me, my main goal in 2015 was to finish my first 100-miler. Having this one big goal to focus on throughout the year really helped me stay on track. While I did have other “mini goals” throughout the year, getting my first buckle was the priority, and by keeping it top of mind I was able to do just that.
Recommendation: Set one incredibly big, challenging goal for the year. Make it so big that reaching it is going to require you to stretch way outside of your comfort zone. By doing so, you’ll not only grow as a runner, but as a person as well.
Understand what types of races excite you
At first, any event that was listed as an “ultra” excited me. I (thought) I loved the idea of always running far, regardless of what the course was like. Over the past two years, I’ve come to learn that where I’m running is equally—if not more—important than how far. For me, that means running in as scenic-a-place as I can find, on a course that isn’t filled with loops or out and backs.
I ran some of my most memorable races in 2015. Because I clearly defined what elements of a race were important to me ahead of time.
Recommendation: Take some time to ask yourself what type of race really excites you. Is a breathtaking mountain 100 with tons of elevation gain? Is it a fast, flat course where you can shoot for a PR? Whatever it is, being truly excited about your race is going to pay huge dividends.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, but do it at the right time
A race is not the time to try out a new nutrition strategy or test out those new shorts you picked up because they were on sale. When you’re going into a race, make sure everything you’ve got lined up—from nutrition to apparel—has been tried and tested. Training is the time to experiment and find out what works best for you.
Recommendation: Don’t be afraid to mix it up during training. Trying new things has allowed me to broaden my options when it comes to finding apparel that’s comfortable and fuel that my body will agree with for the long-haul. On your long runs, focus on keeping things as similar to race day as possible.
Take care of yourself
Stretch, yoga, foam roll, massage. Enough said.
Recommendation: Do the above.
Work on improving off the trails
There is so much more to running well than just logging miles. There’s ensuring you’re getting enough sleep, minimizing stress in other areas of your life, dialing in your nutrition, building strength and more. Though I’ve only recently started paying real attention to these things, I will say the benefits have been plentiful and immediate – both in my running and in my life as a whole.
Recommendation: Do a quick ‘life audit’ and see what areas of your life are affecting your running, then commit to improving an area that is having a negative impact on your running. Do so the same way you do with your running, by making small measurable goals to monitor your progress. Review often.
Give back to those who have helped you
Ultrarunners rarely get to the finish line on their own. Even if a runner didn’t use a crew or a pacer, there were people in their life that allowed that dream of a finish to become a reality. Maybe it’s the wife who understands what this means to her husband, and supports his passion by watching the kids all Saturday morning, or maybe it’s the pacer and crew that literally helped you cross the line. Regardless of who it was, make sure you show them how much their support meant.
Recommendation: It’s easy to thank “those that made it happen” when you’re all caught up in the moment after crossing the finish line. Make it a point to show these people how much you appreciate their support by doing something thoughtful for them after the race is over. You reached your goal because of their support of it. Don’t lose sight of that.
There can be too much of a good thing
I’ll admit it, in my first two years of ultrarunning I’ve raced too much – and ran too little. I got caught up in making sure I was at this event or that event, and before I knew it, I was running races year-round and not improving much. I fell into the habit of saying “Well, I can take it easy at this race and use it as a training run for the next big event.” I still need to do a better job of not doing this.
Recommendation: Think of ultrarunning as sport with a season that has definitive start and end dates based on your goals for the year. Pick select races that align with your large goal and limit them. Once the season ends and you’ve reached your goal, take some time completely off from running to recharge and refocus. Stay involved in the sport in other ways during downtime (work an aid station, help with marking courses, do some trail work, etc.)
Keep it all in perspective
It’s easy to associate you self-worth with your ultrarunning results because the sport demands so much from you. You put in so much time, effort and energy into your training that when things don’t go right—be it an injury or a blown up race—you fall apart and become hypercritical of yourself. This is the exact opposite of what ultrarunning is all about.
Recommendation: Make sure you have other interests outside of running that you stay engaged with. You need to keep running in perspective and know that while running is undoubtedly a large part of what you do, it is not entirely who you are.