Getting to Your First Ultra Finish Line

So, you’ve conquered a few marathons, you’ve spent some time on the trails, and you’re interested in what’s beyond 26.2.  You’re likely conflicted with part of you excited about the distance, while the rational side of your brain is questioning its sanity.  You’ve heard about blisters, bonking, and barfing, and are still interested in what’s out there.

Many of us have been there, and most of probably scoured the internet looking for information, tips, advice, and motivation on what to do next.

The following is what works for me. I ran a 50k before I’d ever run a marathon, so I approached it with the contrarian don’t-tell-me-how-to-do-things attitude that has been a blessing/curse my entire life.

I’m certainly not an expert, not a coach nor a doctor, so please, take everything with a healthy pinch of salt.

Let’s begin.

Before the race:

  • Get mileage in, but don’t stress on maxing out distances. Doing back to back 15 mile runs is far more effective than one thirty miler.  It conditions me to run on sore legs.
  • Choose a race and sign up for it. Make sure of two things: Is it a reputable RD? First timer? Ask around and get details on last years’ events.  Also, what type of course is it? Many 50ks in Northern California are multiple loops. Are you OK with passing through the start/finish (and your car) 4 or 5 times, or would a big loop suit you better? Figure it out, then sign up and commit yourself to it.
  • Work an aid station! Great way to give back to the community and you’ll learn a ton about
    Learn first hand!
    Learn first hand!

    what people eat, how they navigate an aid station, how they handle injuries, cramps, blisters, etc.  You’ll see people barf, pee, and unload soiled TP in the trashcan.  This is all part of what you’re getting into, so get used to it.  You’ll also learn the power of a good attitude.

  • Figure out why you’re running this. Is this for a bucket list? Is it to one-up a friend? Just tired of marathons? Proving to yourself that you can do it? Always wanted to push yourself?  Have an honest conversation with yourself and know why you’re out there.
  • I abstain from alcohol and caffeine a week before a race. Alcohol dries me out, and it also gives me a huge incentive to finish: Beer!  I abstain from caffeine because when I take a cup of Coke at an aid station, I want to feel the effects of it. It’s amazing what a week off from that stuff will do to your tolerance.
  • Night running. If there’s a chance of running in the dark, by all means practice in the dark! Headlamps, footing, and nerves all need to be calibrated and adjusted for this new adventure.
  • Figure out nutrition. Gels? Solid food? Liquid? Are you doubling up by drinking a sports drink as well as taking gels? If so, why? Listen to the podcast with nutritionist Sunny Blende for tons of information and memorize her “what to do when things go wrong” flow chart.
  • What will you carry? If there’s fully-stocked aid station (that you’re paying for!) every 5 miles, do you really need that duct tape, ten gels, bars, your iPhone, a tick removal kit, jacket, 80oz hydration bladder, and blister kit? Weigh it, then realize how much lighter you’ll be not carrying all that junk.  If it’s a normal race with aid stations, I generally carry one bottle tucked into my pants and rely on the aid stations to do the rest.
  • Don’t commit to running with anyone. Your first ultra is a big deal and you should be focusing on yourself, not worrying that you’re running too fast, too slow, not talking enough, talking too much, or “being mean” to someone else. Agree that you’ll meet up at the finish…and that the loser buys beer.
  • Practice running downhill and walking aggressively uphill. Those can be the downfall of an otherwise good race if not executed well.
  • Conditioning is just as important as training. Make sure you’re comfortable running in the heat, in the cold, in the dirt, when tired, when cramped, and when not everything is as you planned it.
  • Prepare your kit. Give your stressed-out self something to do the night before and lay it all out on the bed. Socks, shoes, race bib (for the love of god remember that!), charged electronic devices, hat, glasses, lube, etc. You’ll be too strung out the next morning to think rationally and this will help prepare for the next day.

During your race:

  • Pre-race announcements. Listen up!
    Pre-race announcements. Listen up!

    Listen to the pre-race announcements.  This is where you’ll find your up-to-date information. Are there course changes? Turn arounds for other distances? Weather announcements?

  • Start late. This was advice from one of our guests and it’s great. Instead of getting caught up  with going out too fast, wait til the gun goes off, use the restroom/bushes a final time, then head out. Sure, you’ll blow five minutes (if the race isn’t chip-timed), but you’ll save your pace and you’ll be passing people the entire time which is a huge mental boost.
  • Set incentives for yourself.  If listening to music, don’t plug in until you get to a certain distance.  If using a drop bag, put new socks in there and know that you’ll have fresh feet at that aid station.
  • Speaking of headphones, if wearing them, only have one ear plugged in. Not only does it allow you to hear “passing on your left”, but if someone needs to get your attention (wrong turn, dropped item, etc), you’ll be able to hear them.
  • Eat and drink. Keep drinking and keep eating, but know how the food is affecting you. I drink water the whole way, but will fill up on a sugary sports drink towards the end for that extra boost.
  • Keep things in perspective. When I feel like hell, I think thoughts like “If someone offered to pay off my house if I sped up, could I speed up?”  Well, of course I could. I’d find the energy and get to it.  No one’s going to pay off my mortgage, but it’s just an issue of motivation and perspective and that little mind trick usually kicks my butt into another gear.
  • If problems arise, deal with them. Listen to this interview with Scott Jurek about compartmentalizing pain and moving on.
  • Don’t lollygag at aid stations. Get what you need, then get moving. It’s easy to distract yourself when your body wants to quit. Don’t let it.
  • Embrace gravity.  If it’s flat, you should be running it, and if it’s downhill, you have to be running it. Don’t let gravity go to waste!
  • If you heat up, douse your legs with water. Use a water bottle, a stream, or put a bunch of ice down your shorts and let it drip.  If I’m running with handheld bottles, I’ll make sure one of them is a traditional nipple that I can keep “open”. I’ll allow that to drip/splash water as I run.  The water cools off the muscles and feels great.
  • Have a goal time. Get this silly “I just want to finish” out of your head. Having a goal time–however vague–will help keep you moving in the right direction.
  • Talk with someone. It’ll take your mind off the monotony of running and distract you. Works wonders for me.
  • Have fun!  Yeah, it’s cliche, but it’s also true. You paid to be out there. You trained to be out there. Listen to the Krissy Moehl interview, smile when you come in to the aid stations, and enjoy yourself!


  • Have a drink and get on Everyone RWI’s. It’s part of the cycle.
  • Do a good analysis on what went wrong, what you did right, and how/if you’ll run your next ultra.  Did you like the course? Nutrition? Organization? Fitness? Hills?
  • Run the next day. It’ll hurt like hell, but get a mile or two in to clean out your legs.BTNHOFMaybe
  • Snap some pics of your black toenails and send them in to our Black Toenail Hall of Fame.

Again, after years of employing some painful trial and error methods and having interviewed all sorts of characters from this wacky sports, these are the tricks that work for me.  It’s our goal to help get you to the finish line and hopefully some of these methods will help you along the trail.

Now go out and run.

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