Training for First Ultra



I decided last Fall that I'd like to attempt my first ultra marathon this year. Through November and December, I upped both my mileage and hill running to build up a base for what for me was going to be a lot of uncharted territory. My longest run ever was a little over 14 miles and the race I'm training for is 31! Similarly, my highest elevation gain was around 1,000 feet and the race is around 2,300. It's at once exciting and scary.

I'm essentially “skipping” the marathon distance as it doesn't have a strong appeal to me. I strongly dislike crowded races (and possibly paying a lot and traveling far for the privilege). As luck would have it, the running club I'm a member of has a local 50k which costs about as much as your typical 10k. It's also during the Spring, and any race outside of possible 80+ degrees F gets a bonus point in my book. I also wanted to concentrate on finishing, rather than targeting a specific time and upping the risk of a DNF. I can always target a marathon down the line, and if nothing else have in mind that I can handle the distance with proper training and nutrition.

The Plan

I decided to follow a 16 week training program geared towards first time 50k runners. It includes 5 running days a week. Two days mid-week include an hour or so easy run along with a core workout. In between is a hill workout (generally an hour or so hilly run or hill repeats that increase over time). The weekends include the inevitable long run followed by a medium paced hour or so run.

The Reality

Unfortunately, that plan lasted only a couple weeks. During the third week my left big toe was hurting; initially I ran through it, hoping it'd go away. It didn't, and the more I read up the more I realized I needed to change plans. I either had to more or less give up for two+ weeks, or try to work through it. I went with the latter. I did take 7 days off from running, which helped but didn't remove the issue. I tried to keep doing core workouts (to varying degrees of success; turns out a lot of things I'd normally do stress the toe so I avoided those as well).

My first run after restarting was a long run of 16 miles, my first distance PR of the year. I limited myself to two or three runs per week, eventually skipping the next-day run after my long runs to help recovery. I can hear the head shaking from ultra runners, as the first point of advice I've generally had from them was to make sure to do back-to-back long runs. Ahwell. My creaky toe says otherwise.

I still followed the recommended distance for my long runs, so I progressed weekly to 18 and then 20. For all runs I was trying to avoid hills, which isn't particularly easy where I live (I literally can't go in any direction without changing elevation, and anything over a mile means at least a few hundred feet). Generally the last few miles of each run were a struggle and I was more or less confined to my couch for the next day.

After hitting 20 for the first time, the plan alternated between another +2 miles and “only” 16 miles. Last week was my first time back at 16 and it was a lovely day in the high 60s, which is totally normal for February in NY state. Um. I managed to keep my pace under 10 minute miles, which was nice. This past weekend was supposed to be 22 miles, but the weather reverted form and my legs were not having it (a bad combination). I struggled to finish 20 miles at a pace that would round to 11 minutes. It was in the 20s with a pretty steady wind that was gusting 30-40 mph, so I had that going for me (or against me, depending on what direction I was running). In my defense I didn't see a single other runner over 20 miles and only a couple of cyclists.

The Future

I'm really hoping my toe is 100% soon so that I can at least get out there 4-5 times a week, even if I avoid hill repeats for the next few months. There have been a few times where the day was nice and I was really itching to run, but stopped myself with the hope that another day off from running would help heal the sucker. We'll see. I have four more weeks of long runs, and then a few weeks of tapering before the race itself.

The Gear

As my long runs increased in mileage, I realized my GPS watch didn't have the battery life to last an ultra (at best 5 hours, but in reality less than that). I did some research and reached out to friends for recommendations, eventually settling on a refurbished Garmin Fenix 2. It has more than enough battery life, plus if I want to geek out it has a lot of features/functionality that make it useful in non-running activities (skiing, hiking, etc). While it is bulky and heavier than my old watch (which I still use for shorter runs), I don't really notice the added weight while running. It also has a built in barometric altimeter, which is fun because 1) I can see a guestimate of elevation gain mid-run and 2) after the fact I can see storm fronts rolling through the area because it'll give a generally increasing/decreasing altitude for the same GPS locations. It's either fun or annoying, depending on how much you need accurate information.

Aside from that, my only new-to-me purchase was a new vest for holding water bottles + food for long runs. In the past I'd just carry a water bottle, but after my hands cramping up I decided to finally break down and get something so I could be hands-free.

Other things I've gotten are simply to add to my current inventory of running socks, technical shirts, etc. They don't last forever, so I periodically get new ones to offset losses. Lowering the frequency of trips to do laundry are a bonus.

The Self-Reflection

Last but not least, for my long runs I have my phone with my in case things go south… so of course I periodically stop to take selfies. I mean, how else will people get to compliment me on my impeccable style? What do you mean I look silly? Some people have no taste. My instagram feed includes some of these along with some scenery pics. At some point I'll probably do a gallery here of those as well.

Related Posts