Jackson’s 11 Hints and Tips for a First Ultra

July 24, 2009 · Written by · Filed Under Articles, Beginners 
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Ean JacksonYour have signed up for your first 100 miler and have been training more than anyone else for the coming up big event. It’s time now for those tips from experienced runners which can make the big difference on the race day. Ean Jackson has written a great list of hints and tips to tackle a first ultra race that I’m re-publishing here. Ean is a certified running coach and was the founding manager of the Canadian National 100K running team. Member of the Clubfatass‘ board, this summer will run his 100th ultra race (let us know what it feels like Ean, I’ll never get there!)

I was out for a run on the Baden Powell Trail with a pal the other day. This friend was a bit nervous about competing in his first Knee Knacker 50K. We got chatting about hints and tips. In case you are also looking at doing your first ultra, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here. If you’ve done a few long running races, please share your thoughts on my hints and add a few of your own:

1. Bank Your Training Hours

I know people who can run 100-miles at the drop of a hat. But there’s not much chance you can. The difference is that these superhumans have trained and raced at a high level for years. Work up to the ultra distance by running a few 1/2 marathons and at least one marathon. If you put training hours into the bank, you will have something to draw from on race day.

2. Expect the Best. Prepare for the Worst

You’ve done a decent job of training. You’re stoked. Visualize yourself crossing the finish with a big smile and lots left in the tank. With that positive image in mind, there’s still a lot you can do to improve your chances of success by thinking through how you will address common challenges you will face on race day. What if you bonk? Cramp up? Throw up? Run out of water? Run these potential hiccups over in your mind during those long training runs, not at midnight the night before your big event!

3. Organize your Drop Bags Well in Advance

Most ultras will allow you to put some stuff in bags that you will have access to at one or more points during the race. Most runners leave packing their drop bags to the very last minute. It’s then a mad panic to pack them and, as often as not, a night of little or no sleep before the race.

Better to think about what you might put in those drop bags weeks before your run. I actually start writing down exactly what I will have in my drop bags as soon as I sign up for a race. That gives me plenty of time to refine my list in the months before the race. When it comes time to pack, it takes all of 2 minutes and I never lose sleep worrying about “what-ifs”.

4. Complete Before you Compete

It’s a race, so of course you want to get the fastest time you can. If it’s your first 50K, however, you might want to focus on completing the distance and leave kicking your buddy’s butt until the next one when you’re older and wiser.

Think about it. Why are you doing this? If it’s your first ultra, there’s slim chance you will win. In the end, your Mom really doesn’t care what your time is… but she does want you to achieve your goal of completing your first ultra. So, why not chill out, go a bit slower and dramatically increase the probability that you will finish? There are lots of other races and you can always come back to win this one next year.

5. Have a Plan

Think about the course and your pace. Calculate roughly when you should be at key aid stations along the race course. That way, you know if you have to speed up or slow down on race day. I often write the split times on my arm in ink because paper can turn to mush if you sweat on it.

6. Live Off the Land

Most 50Ks have aid stations at key points along the course where food and fluids are provided for runners. Check with the race director well before the race to get an idea of what the event will provide at each aid station. Assuming you have paid big bucks for your race fee, you can usually assume the aid stations will have water, electrolyte drink and defizzed cola, sports bars/gels and other goodies like salty potato chips and baked potatoes with salt.

7. Have a Food & Fluids Contingency

Sometimes aid stations run out. Or you get lost. Or, if you are really, really fast, you get to the aid station before they get set up. Anything can happen, so don’t let whatever happens ruin your race. Make sure you have an extra gel or 2 with you at all times and always fill your water bottles at an aid station.

8. Eat and Drink like a Piggy During the First Half

Don’t want to bonk? Drink when you’re not thirsty and eat when you’re not hungry. Chances are, you won’t feel like eating in the later part of the race. Even if you don’t feel like drinking, make sure you do just the same. You should pee often and your pee should be clear and copious at all times.

9. Don’t get too Excited in the First Half

Who cares if your training buddy beats you to the half-way point? Let me count the times pals have made fun of me as they hammered past during the first half of a race. I just smile and give them a little pat on the bottom as I pass them later.

10. Wear Shoes that are 1/2 Size Too Big

While the shoe may fit properly during training, your feet tend to swell in a long race. This is especially bad if the course has a lot of steep downhills because the constantly bashing of your toes will give you very painful black toenails.

11. Have fun!

I’ve run a lot of races. The ones I remember are the ones where I met interesting people or did interesting things during the event. Stopping for a beer during the Swiss Alpine Marathon. Going to a garage sale during the KneeKnacker. Running with the Cow Man and skinny dipping in a creek during the Western States 100-mile run. Giving the high-5 to a classroom of Japanese kids during the 100K Worlds.

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