So You Want to Run Ultra's


Experience From - Shawn McDonald , Karl King , Paul Schmidt, Exercise Physiologist, M.S. , Larry Gassen ,

Shawn McDonald

I've been in ultrarunning now for 9 years, which is pretty much mid-pack in terms of longevity. There are a few things I would say in my experience as a runner and coach of ultrarunners that are true for MOST runners:

We each are an experiment of one, each finding the way to keep moving towards the finish as best we can. Some do best with frequent long runs or with regular pace work, or doing lots of hiking/walking. Some will get stronger and faster with regular racing, others will break down. Each runner has strengths and weaknesses. These can change over time and with the training you do, and as you become more experienced in ultrarunning. Have fun each day in the journey. Be consistent, persevere, and share with each other the fruits of your finishes.

Karl King

There is much that is known about about running. For example, see the Lore of Running by Dr. Tim Noakes, or Training Distance Runners by Coe and Martin.

There is much that is unknown and remains to be discovered. That can include the specific information that applies to "you".

There is much misinformation that gets repeated by popular running magazines, and oral tradition. In any given year you can see magazine articles on:

The same canned format and information is presented with little examination of the facts or what new information might be available. The repetition and lack of critical examination result in a "conventional wisdom" that often has to be unlearned when runners become serious about pursuit of achieving their potential.

I'm Still learning!

Paul Schmidt, Exercise Physiologist, M.S.

Subject: Specificity of Training

One of the basic paradigms of exercise physiology is the "specificity" of exercise training. For example, we have learned that a sprinter needs to prepare for competition by performing lots of high intensity short, fast running (intervals). Swimming may help contribute to the sprinters cardiovascular fitness, but it does little to improve their ability to run fast. This is a lesson that is often clouded by ones talent or ability to tolerate differences in training. The most significant factor for sports performance is probably genetics. Self-selection often occurs, where we may chose to participate in a sport that we are most genetically suited to become successful in. If you are a great sprinter, you are probably in the wrong sport for optimal performance (personal enjoyment aside).

Running a 100 mile race under the inconsequential 24 hour mark requires an average pace just under 15 minutes per mile. Optimal training for this accomplished should therefore include a lot of long slow running. Although many ultra runners include some interval and hill training sessions in their weekly training program. While others cross-train by swimming or cycling. Interval training will increase ones aerobic capacity, anaerobic threshold, and ability to run fast. Increasing your aerobic capacity may help you when running at altitude, where aerobic capacity is reduced about 2 % per 1000 ft. of ascent above 5000 ft. Hill repeats will increase aerobic capacity, give you stronger leg muscles, and increase your efficiency at running hills. The performance of either of these training activities is time efficient, but often comes at a price (INJURY).

A training program that includes weight training, swimming, cycling, etc. will help provide you with a more balanced fitness, but is not as effective as running slowly on trails for extended periods of time (to reach the goal of running a PR in a 100 mile trail race). Each of us have different abilities, skills, life-responsibilities, and training environments. An ultra runner living in Florida may have to spend a lot of time training on a stair-stepper or running stadium steps to simulate hill training. While someone living in Alaska may have to "heat train" before running in a hot race (Western States or Vermont). Typically, it is usually the local runners who train on the race course who have the best performances on race day. It is not just due familiarity with the course, this is a true example of specificity of training.

Additionally, some may thrive on running 100+ miles per week, while others may brake down with more than 40 miles/week. Those few talented runners who can tolerate running lots of miles without injury (or personal strife) often excel in our sport.

My two cents on pacing: I have completed somewhere around twenty-five 100 milers. I have had pacers in about one-third of them for different distances. Some of my pacers were friends who wanted to get in a workout, see the course, or just be a part of a cool event. Others have been new comers who wanted to get some experience. I don't think it makes a darn bit of difference, each of us runs the race the best we can, covering the whole distance on our own two feet! Maybe, if I was a competitive runner I might take exception to the elite group getting preferential treatment at aid stations etc., but who really cares! Do any of your none-runner friends judge you on your finish timeS? No, they probably just think that you are a compulsive running nut! For the purist out there, if you want to carry your own food, water, clothing, flashlights, etc. for a 100 miler, good for you! That's your bag, baby! I guess, if you run enough of these things, you may need a little help from your friends and you will be real happy to get it.

Larry Gassen

Subject: 12 Advice Nuggets for Newbies & Others

Recently there have been a spate of anguished "drops" from the UltraList regarding content, tone, and suitability of the message, if not the messenger. Inasmuch as the majority of these messages appear to be from relative newcomers to the sport, or the List, some clarifications are necessary.

I want to thank Suzi Shearer and Laurie Staton for their historical reviews of basic Ultra Facts, such as "Grand Slam" info and other epistolary nuggets they kindly shared out amongst all of us. Be glad they paid attention to your requests...they are wonderful people with busy lives of their own.

Also: The List is not a 7-11 One-Stop Info-Dump Carry-Out designed to get Newbies thru "Baby's First Ultra". It is a bulletin board. Most of the posts are superfluous and meaningless. Some are even pretty funny, intentional or not. Like it or not, they will get you a feel of what the sport can be about. You'll get your "mountain money's" worth.

Remember also that this sport is much more a sport of giving than taking. Look who's giving and look who's taking. See what sort of debris trail forms behind either 'modality'. Draw your own conclusions.

Now, I will make this as easy to comprehend as possible.

"Put the kiddies to bed...PG time is over" --Tupac Shakur speaking on "Sons of the P", by Digital Underground

  1. Your first year in ultras is the worst possible standard to judge your competence and capabilities. The next worse year is your second, and so on.

  2. This information is not tailored to your preconceived notions.If this is what you truly want, go to an amusement park.

  3. Comfort is proportional to your experience.

  4. Your ability to separate wheat from chaff is proportional to your experience.

  5. You are solely responsible for your own actions. This means if you eat yellow snow or acquire dubious coaching advice, it is your problem. Admit you made a mistake and move up the food chain. Leave the offending problem in your wake, and perhaps warn oncoming traffic.

  6. Behave like an idiot, and time is always against you. Ultras are not sports of this race, this season or even this year. This is a sport of meta-cycles, and this means delayed reaction times with consequences not visible for years. Try it, you'll like it.

  7. Don't make your problem my problem.

  8. Instant feedback does not mean instant wisdom. Not too long ago, ultra advice had to be acquired in analog 4D time & space. Information was slow, but it still out paced the body's capacity to process that information. Now an entire spectrum of advice and information is available at your fingertips...but the time to process that is still gloriously primitive.

  9. Sports Highlights and You. We live in a sports highlight world, 24/7. You can see a blizzard of sports/entertainment/etc. figures as perpetual highlights. The camera is never there when they are resting/injured/reconsidering their options/pondering medical procedures as a result of over training/over-racing. The camera also does not dwell lovingly on whether or not that person is a complete one-dimensional zero as a result of their fixations.

  10. Instant recognition does not constitute Instant Mastery. When I ran my first ultra [Baldy Peaks 50k, '89...thank you John Davis] I eagerly looked up my name in UR. I saw it, a full 9pts tall. No fanfares of trumpets, no phones ringing off the hook. Some of you should be so lucky. I got to labor in obscurity for years, and make some spectacular mistakes entirely on my own.

  11. Pogey Bait. Don't know the meaning of this phrase? Now's a good time to look it up. If you are being coached, or are considering being coached by someone who promises ribbons, trinkets and gee-gaws as the sole affirmation of the experience, you might do well to reconsider. What's in it for you...and them?

  12. Fun. Is this sport turning into a full-time job? Get out before you burn out. Rust may never sleep, but Neil Young doesn't know shit about the miracles of an extended sabbatical.

Remember one thing, although I am certain that 99% of the readership will forget: Running ultras is ultimately about the "freedom of the hills", the ability to move through the land for 25, 40, 100, 200mi at a pop, and enjoy the experience.