You’ve taken the plunge and decided to run your first ultramarathon. I promise, you won’t regret it, but more likely will become addicted like the rest of us in the ultra running community. We can’t wait to welcome you to the club!
In this article, I am going to guide you through the process of choosing your first ultramarathon!
So let’s get started!
No matter what, your first ultramarathon is going to be a challenge, so when choosing which to tackle, it’s important to take every little detail into consideration so you will have the best chance of enjoying the experience to the max.
You want to finish your first ultra wanting more, not fed up and broken, swearing that you will never run one again. Our goal is for you to have a positive first experience and keep coming back for more!
What is an Ultramarathon?
According to Merriam-Webster, an ultramarathon is “a footrace longer than a marathon”, therefore anything over 42.195 kilometers, or 26.2 miles is considered an ultramarathon.
There are currently so many races out there that it can be overwhelming to know where to start, so my goal is to help you whittle it down, and choose your first ultramarathon wisely.
#1 Choose Your Distance
Reflect on your training and race history up to this point and then choose your distance accordingly.
If you have been running marathons for years, a 50k is just a baby step away, so for your first ultra, you may want to look into a 50 mile (80 kilometer) race. If you have less experience running long distances and have focused more on half marathons, a 50k is going to be a great challenge for you.
I may err on the more conservative side as a coach, but I wouldn’t push one of my runners into a 100k or 100 miler if they haven’t gone through the training process progressively.
I believe in dominating a distance before moving on to the next one.
This way, you show up to your next race well-prepared and have a better chance of crossing the finish line safe, sound, and happy.
Now that you’ve chosen your distance, let’s look at where to go.
#2 Location Location Location
First, decide whether you want to race locally or make a vacation out of it and go somewhere new. There are great advantages to both choices.
Run Local . . .
If you choose a race close to where you live, you are sure to have plenty of people who will want to come and help you out.
Having your own personal cheerleaders giving you words of encouragement is also a great bonus!
While you’re going through those likely lows of an ultramarathon,
it’s very comforting to know you will see familiar faces en route. Just the thought will cheer you up immediately and motivate you to get to that next point.
. . .Or Take a Vacation
You may not have as much crew support if you decide to travel for your big race, but how cool would it be to make a big trip out of your first ultra?
Choose somewhere you have always been dying to go and see what races are available in that area. I suggest arriving a few days before your big race so potential travel delays don’t become an issue, and you can get yourself settled.
After your big race, you can spend the rest of your vacation celebrating your massive achievement by touring around, eating delicious new cuisine, and getting your rest where you can.
#3 Do Your Research
A lot of what you need to take into consideration when choosing your first ultra has to do with the specifics of the race.
The longer the race is, the more factors there are that can get out of our control.
Therefore, it is important for us to make decisions that will help us control as much as possible. We can start by choosing a race that is advantageous to us.
Take into consideration where you live and look for a race that you could simulate during your long runs.
If you live at sea level and in a tropical climate you’ll want to avoid choosing your first ultramarathon at 3,000 meters of elevation and an average temperature of 0 degrees celsius.
I already know you love a challenge because you are reading up on how to choose your first ultramarathon, but let’s save extreme conditions for your second or third.
#4 Choose a Comfortable Climate
Take a look at the typical weather during the time of year the race takes place.
Is there a possibility that there could be either extremely hot or cold weather that could affect your race substantially?
You’ll still need to prepare for the weather, but choosing a nice climate will minimize risk and provide a more enjoyable experience overall.
#5 Choose Your Total Vertical Gain
For this first ultra, focus on your strengths as a runner.
If you are an excellent climber, then you want to look for a race that has an ample amount of vertical gain. If you are more of a road runner, look for races that are on the flatter side, or that have rolling hills as opposed to steep climbs.
Stay in your comfort zone, because no matter what, you’ll be taken out of it at some point during the race.
#6 Choose Your Terrain
Take a look at the percentages of asphalt, gravel, single track trail, river crossings, coastline, or any other type of possible terrain type that you’ll run into during the race.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with those types of terrain, or if not, do you have trails with similar types of terrain close by where you can train?
Choose something you’re comfortable with, so you will feel confident on race day.
And never forget: running in sand is about half as enjoyable as regular running.
#7 Choose Your Course Type
There are a variety of different course setups in ultramarathons:
- point to point
- out and back
- single loop
- multiple loops
I would suggest choosing either a point-to-point or single-loop race as your first.
Multiple loop and out and back races tend to be a bit monotonous as you are running over the same course multiple times.
In multiple loop courses you run by the start/finish line over and over again, which can be a risky thing to do during your first ultra. You may be tempted to call it quits before finishing the race because it’s just so easy to stop.
When you run from point A to point B, or just one long loop, you will constantly travel over new terrain, see new sights, and be more inclined to continue as you feel each aid station is a sense of accomplishment as you cross it off your list.
As for more insight into the difficulty of a race, you can also take a peek at the previous race results posted on the event’s website.
There you can get an idea of the range of finishing times over the past years. It’s always difficult to estimate how long we will take when running an ultra as opposed to a road marathon because of the different variables, however, it allows you to get a vague idea of what the pro, amateur, and back of the pack runners have done in the past.
#8 Get a Pacer
A lot of 80k races allow participants to pick up pacers for the last leg of the race, so choose an ultramarathon where pacers are allowed.
A pacer is someone who accompanies you for an allotted distance during the race, usually from the second half on. Pacers can be people you know or volunteers who have signed up through the organization to help the runners out.
It’s quite a responsibility to take on the job of a pacer, but a very rewarding experience. So either ask a buddy to help you out, or ask the organization if they provide pacers.
You’ll be thrilled to have someone help push you through those last sections of the race when you’re tired and dying to cross the finish line.
- Related: How To Crew An Ultra
Let’s do this!
I hope I have been able to give you the guidance you need to go on your hunt for the perfect race.
Taking these points into consideration when choosing your first ultramarathon will improve your odds of having the best possible first experience, and have you coming back for more.
Good luck with that first ultra!
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