Want to Run an Ultra Marathon? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions First

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Ultra marathons may seem a bit extreme to some people. It is one thing to be crazy enough to run a marathon. It’s entirely different to want to run an ultra marathon. If you tell someone (a non-runner) you are running a marathon, you’ll get the usual “I don’t even like driving that far” or “Wow! That’s amazing!” If you tell that same person you are running an ultra marathon they will most likely be a) speechless or b) their head will explode.  Even many every day runners think ultra running is just too much.

But as crazy as it may be to some, it is cherished by many  long distance runners. Being on the trails for a very, very long time isn’t so bad (arguable pretty freaking nice). The accomplishment of finishing an ultra marathon is a special one. Not to take away from marathons – marathons are difficult and special too. But ultra running, is just that. Taking it to the extreme.

But can you run an ultra marathon? The short answer is a definite YES.  But there are a few things you need to ask yourself first.  However in general, pretty much every runner who wants to run an ultra marathon (and trust me, you really have to want to run it), can run and more importantly, can finish an ultra marathon.

First, let’s just make sure we are all on the same page. An ultra marathon is defined as any race more than a marathon. And no, we aren’t talking about 26.3 miles. Most runners will agree that 50k or 31 miles is the “shortest” ultra marathon distance.  We’ll be talking about what it takes to jump from a marathon to a 50k as well as a marathon to a 50 miler. (Yes, that’s right. You don’t have to do a 50k first.  You can jump right in to a 50 mile race.)

But before you sign up, ask yourself these 5 questions first.

Have you run a marathon before?

This might be the most important question.  If you have run a marathon,  you know what it takes to run for a very long time.  You know how to eat on the run, how many hours it takes to do a long run as well as what to do in order to recover from your runs.   The best way to predict how well you will do with not only the ultra marathon itself, but the training for it, is to have done a good amount of long distance running prior.

Making the jump from a half to a 50k or a half to a 50 miler is just that: a leap of faith. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to truly understand whether or not you can handle such long distances, it’s best to have at least one, preferably two or more marathons under your belt before making the jump.

Now if you are thinking, “A 50k is only 5 more miles? What’s 5 miles when I’ve already run 26.2?” Well, being that most ultra races are run on trails, those 5 miles could be quite a lot actually. Trail running and road running do not translate. If it takes you 4 hours to run a road marathon, it may take you 7 hours to run it on trails. It all depends on the terrain.

The training for a 50k looks pretty similar to training for a marathon.  And surprisingly, training for a 50 miler isn’t considerably more.  The only major difference is the back to back long runs and the terrain.  But with that said, many people who do not have easy access to trails, can train mostly on roads with some trail running, and still do just fine in an ultra marathon.

Can you pace yourself?

For most of us mortals, you are going to walk at some point during an ultra.  And that is a good thing. You’ve got a long way to go. This may mean, walking the up hills and running the flats and downhills or simply walking every mile or so to give your legs a break. Either way, learning to go slow (and I mean slow, slow, slow) is super important. The further the race, the slower you need to go in order to make sure you have plenty of steam for the miles to come.

Do you have the time?

Mid week runs shouldn’t be too much of a problem. But the weekend runs? Hours. You will need hours. Especially when training for a 50 miler, which in that case you need hours on back to back days.

Take a look at a training plan for both a 50k or a 50 miler. Now consider your pace on a typical long trail run.  Once you’ve come up with how long it will take you to do those super long runs on the training plan, ask yourself: Can you schedule the time in? Do you have someone to watch your kids? Are you willing to give up Friday night drinks or sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday?

It should be no surprise that long distance running takes time. And ultra running takes just that much more.  You need to have enough time to get those miles on your feet in order to be prepared.

Are you injured?

This is another really important question. And the answer should be a big old “NO.”  If you are injured, first you need to get yourself back to 100%. Then train.  Even if you have a relatively small issue here or there,  like a knee that hurts after long runs or an achilles tendon that gives you problems sometimes, have it checked out before you dive into training.

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alystria Maurer/Released

Also ask yourself, do you have a tendency to get injured when you train? And be honest. Have you been slacking on your strength training? Jump on it.  Not so good on recovery? Learn how to make your post long run recovery, rest days and recovery runs better.

The longer you run, the better chance for injury. Prevention is best. But if you already have something that is bothering you, make sure its all good before training for your ultra running adventure.

Why do you want to run an ultra?

This is not always easy to answer. And perhaps it has multiple answers. But you need to have some general idea of why you want to run this far.

Are you looking to explore a beautiful place? Are you looking to cross it off your bucket list? Are you wanting to know if you physically can run such a long distance?

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Much like a marathon, having a why is going to help you push through those difficult training runs and the race itself when it gets really tough.  Knowing your why will help you when you are at mile 27 or 44 , find yourself at a terribly low spot and don’t know if you can finish . Ultra running doesn’t have a wall. It has a wall.  Then another one. Then another one. You will need some type of motivation, and a reason to keep pushing to the finish.

But the reward is great. The ultra running community is amazing. And the experience is one you will never, ever forget. And yes, you can run an ultra. And if you want it bad enough, you will.

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