Your First Ultramarathon - Answers to 3 Big Questions!

I was once a doe-eyed newbie, full of questions and fascination about this mysterious thing called an ultramarathon.

Sophia Walker at Nelson Lakes National Park

The thought of running 50, 80, or 160 kilometres (over mountains and through the backcountry no less) seemed absurd, impossible, terrifying and amazing.

Lucky for me, I was adopted into a group of super-friendly, ultra-rad ladies with years and years of experience crushing it in the outdoors. I learned from them and since then filled in the gaps with my own years of trial and error, racing ultras and adventuring in the mountains. Now it seems I’m the grizzled ultra-goat with a few tips to share, with some hard-earned lessons from countless mistakes and a few lucky breaks. Here are a few of the questions about ultrarunning I’m asked most frequently.

Q: Do you stop? Do you run the whole time?

A: Yes and no. Most ultras have aid stations at key points on the course, usually every 10-15 km. These are stocked with food, water, medical/safety supplies, and support crew. While it’s tempting to take a seat, put your feet up and recover, aid stations are best treated as micro-breaks – a chance to grab some food for the road, refill your water bottles, tend to anything that needs attention (like a blister or the need for a cuddle), thank the volunteers, and bounce.

The phrase “beware the chair” should be burned into your mind. Sitting down might seem like the best possible thing, but the longer you sit, the harder it is to get up again. And the cramps. When you stop moving and your muscles cool off, the more they revolt and protest by cramping and screaming once you get going again. Keep them warm and moving.

Wasatch 100 ultra course scoping with Sophia Walker

Most ultras also have quite a bit of elevation change and variation in the terrain. This breaks up the course and means that you’ll be combining actual running with jogging and power hiking. Everyone but Kilian Jornet (and a few vert-hungry beasts) will power-hike the steepest climbs. This uses different muscles than running, and while it’s still challenging, can feel like a break of sorts. For me, a downhiller at heart, the down always feels like a welcome break as well – “free miles” so to speak, assisted by gravity, giving the heart and lungs a breather.

Q: Do you eat?

A: Yes, constantly. A good rule of thumb is to eat 100 calories an hour minimum. I have no idea whether this is based on science. A friend told me years ago, it stuck, and seems to work for me. But we all have different calorie requirements, and you might need to eat more or less. The most important thing is that you keep taking in calories while running and find what foods work for you.

What you eat depends on how fast you’re moving. If you’re racing a smooth runnable 50 km, easily digestible food like gels and chews will go down nicely. If you’re on a grunty backcountry course, you’ll probably need something more substantial. Many ultramarathon aid stations stock hot soup, pies, cooked potatoes, sandwiches, and other hearty fare. One of the most important things to remember in planning what you eat is to include salt, lots of salt. All that sweat has to be replaced somehow, and your body will stop co-operating with you if you don’t – a lesson I’ve learned the hard way more than a few times.

Q: How do you train for an ultra?

A: Get out and run, hard and far. But be gentle and patient with your body at the same time, increasing mileage gradually. If you’re training for your first ultra, look into hiring a coach or find a running group with a few veterans you can learn from. But don’t compare yourself!! Remember that what, and how far, other people run could be the result of years of hard-earned experience. Don’t jump ahead! Put in the work, consistently and wholeheartedly, and the magic will happen.

Sophia Walker ultramarathon race

The training can seem daunting and monotonous, but there are many ways to have fun with it – explore new areas, bring a friend (whether human or canine), and devise an elaborate reward system to keep you motivated (ie a cold beer at the end of a run, or a new pair of kicks after reaching a new benchmark). The training is tough, but always worth it in the end, especially if you find ways to enjoy the journey.