8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Running My First Ultra Marathon

Your legs are burning and your pace slows to a walk. You just finished the first training run of the season. Your goal to run an ultra is starting to seem a little absurd. Dirty shoes and socks are left by the door as you toss your tired body onto the couch. You try to imagine the effort it will take to finish your race this spring.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Beta, ultra-runner Jason Thienel reminisces on his first ultra and provides tips to keep a smile on your face throughout your first ultra. After all, running is supposed to be fun. Right?

Exploring Antelope Island.
Exploring Antelope Island.

I think most kids have a strong desire to explore. Growing up, the things I was interested in were fueled by my strong connection with exploration. When I became an adult, these desires continued to grow. I began rock climbing because I wanted to see the river carve a path through the dense forest; a view that could only be achieved by the belay stance on the third pitch. I planned a backpacking trip so I could see if the color of the alpine lake was as blue as it was in pictures I had seen.

Exploration was the goal; the activity was just the vehicle.

I will always love rock climbing and backpacking, but my favorite vehicle for exploration is trail running. Specifically running the ultra-distances (anything that is more than a marathon 26.2 miles). Ultra trail running lets me explore the most amount of ground in one day or even multiple days. Over the last six years, I have acquired quite a bit of medals from racing as well as explored trails in seven states and four countries.

Enjoying the mountains in Italy.
Enjoying the mountains in Italy.

When I ran my first ultra, there weren’t a lot of resources on the internet to help me out. I had to figure out many things on my own, and most of what I will tell I figured out the hard way. The day of my first 50k, I was extremely nervous and my only goal was to drag myself across the finish line. This list of tips and tricks should make your first ultra a bit more enjoyable.

Train as much as you can on similar terrain to the race.                                                                      

Check out the elevation profile of the race and try to mimic it in your training. Depending on where you live this may be a challenge.  In a particularly hard mountain race, I ran a handful of miles with a guy from Chicago.  I asked him about his training and if he ran stairs to train for the elevation gain. He said, “Nope, but that would have been a really good idea.” I could tell that he was kicking himself for not thinking of that strategy. Sometimes you have to get creative in your training to match race conditions.

Don’t try new things on race day.                                                                                                                    

Get your system dialed in training and stick with that system on race day. In my first ultra, I filled up my water bottle with Heed (a complex carb drink mix) at an aid station. I had never had it before, but figured I could use the extra calories. I took a drink and spit it out. It was awful. I tried another sip because I knew I needed to hydrate. Same thing, so gross! I couldn’t get it down, so I poured it out, and had to do without water until the next aid station which was 7 miles away.  I also wore a pair of shorts with GU pockets in the front. On race day I needed to carry more GU than I was used to, so I had to utilize the front pockets. I hadn’t done this while training and the GU packets created blisters on my waistband.

Snow Patches in Utah
Snow Patches in Utah

Get a good night’s sleep the night before and after racing.                                                                  

Many of the races or unsupported runs I do are in remote places where camping is the best option. I have found that if I sleep on a NeoAir with a good pillow, I sleep just as well as I do in my own bed.  If it’s your first ultra you might want to splurge on a cabin or hotel room. Sleeping in a warm bed and getting a warm shower after the race is worth every penny.

Scope out the starting line of the race.                                                                                                          

I ran a 50 mile race in British Columbia. Our hotel was close to the starting line, so we decided to walk there the morning of the race. We set out towards the starting line thinking we had plenty of time. Ten minutes went by and no sight of the race start. I began to panic and sweat a little bit. Finally, I started to see other runners and I got to the starting line seconds before the start. Not a good way to start your first 50 mile race. It killed my confidence for the first half of the run. If the race is out of town or you are unfamiliar with the start, check it out beforehand. Make sure you know how far away it is from where you are staying and even where you will park. The morning of a race can be stressful enough; you don’t want to add to that stress by getting lost or being late.

Body Glide!                                                                                                                                                              

My first ultra I didn’t know about body glide. By the time I got to the finish line, I was chafed so badly that I was bleeding. I can’t stress the importance of using anti-chafe products enough. There are many brands on the market. Find one you like and even considering carrying some with you to re-apply.  Usually if the weather is warm and I am running more than 10 miles, I will put a small stick in my running vest.

My reaction upon learning my crew had no body glide.
My reaction upon learning my crew had no body glide.

Get hydrated the day before the race.                                                                                                          

Drink plenty of water throughout the day, even the week before. The water you drink the morning of the race won’t do much for hydration. Try and have a good balance the couple days before the race. Don’t eat too much sodium and take it easy on the alcohol. A couple of beers are okay, just make sure you match it with water.


Stay hydrated!
Stay hydrated!

Keep eating and drinking even near the end of the race.                                                            

Usually by the end of an ultra you are tired of the food you brought and don’t want to eat anymore. You can be tempted to stop eating because you are close to the finish. Don’t!  The last thing you want is to bonk with only a handful of miles to go. Finish the race strong with a smile on your face, it will make your victory beer taste that much better.

Don’t do what most people do.                                                                                                                        

When asking questions about ultra running, the answers may start with “well most people do this.”  The most important thing to remember is that you have to do what works for YOU. Most people may have run a half marathon, marathon, and then 50k. You don’t have to be most people.

Crossing the finish line.
Crossing the finish line.

Racing is really fun, but it all comes back to exploration for me. I love the vibe of race culture and the aid stations stocked with food are pretty rad. However, the real connection I have with ultra running is the exploration.

Last Spring, I ran the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim unsupported, a goal I had made when I first started trail running. Then in the summer my wife and I circumnavigated Mont Blanc in France. Sliding down alpine patches of snow and cruising single track into Chapieux are memories that I will have with me for the rest of my life.

Racing taught me the limits of my body and how to be strong in these non-racing experiences. Trail running is relatively simple. All you need is running shoes and some dirt. I use trail running as a vehicle for exploration and I love seeing the ways that other interact with the sport I love. It will keep you fit for other adventures and you will meet incredible and inspiring people along the way. Good luck with your race and don’t forget that body glide.


Author: When Jason Thienel isn’t managing the best outdoor retail staff in Nashville, he’s enduring long distance trail runs, cragging hard on southern sandstone, or sleeping under the stars. You can also find him sipping Mexican Coke with espresso at the local coffee shop or taking naps with his dog Esteban.

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