“I wish you much grit. Because you don’t need luck in life. You need grit”.
A girl shouted those words at me after I told her I was nearing the end of a 100-mile race. It was a warm August summer night, and the streets of Berlin were filled with people.
While they partied and used alcohol and drugs to escape the mundane of modern-day living, I struggled to move forward and cover the last 2 kilometers of my first 100-mile ultramarathon. I finished the race in 22:07 hours.
I had finally done it. I completed the race that first caught my attention 13 years ago.
Back then, I was still running 3-4 times a week and dreamed of doing one of those crazy ultramarathons one day.
However, life happened, and frequent injuries kept me from progressing with my running. Eventually, I quit after my first and last official marathon in 2013.
However, one day in 2020, I decided to try again. I had just experienced one of the worst heartaches of my life, and I was unhappy in my career and social life. And when I sat down to write out my “perfect day,” I acknowledged that small voice within that said, “I head out for my morning run.”
In 2021, I laced up my running shoes again.
I was determined to find out if I had what it took to become an ultramarathon runner.
I binge-re-read my old running and ultrarunning books. I listened to podcasts when I cleaned my flat or did errands. I even got certified as an ultrarunning coach by the United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy.
And I put what I had learned in theory into practice.
I finished my first ultramarathon as the 3rd fastest woman just eight months after I had started running again. In 2022, my second year, I placed 2nd in my age group (35) in the German 24-hour championships and completed my first 100-mile race in under 24 hours.
I haven’t been injured once.
However, even though I consider my start in the world of ultrarunning a success, I wish I had made fewer rookie mistakes (like not eating enough) and wouldn’t have worried so much about my lack of running experience.
I wish I had an in-depth guide long enough to cover what is truly important to know as a newbie ultrarunner.
And since I have yet to find one, I decided to write one myself.
This guide is for all of you who play with the idea of signing up for your first ultra but don’t have the time and energy to read numerous books and forums to piece together the information you need.
What Is an Ultramarathon?
An ultramarathon is easy to define. It is any running event longer than the marathon distance, which is 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers.
However, this is the only common denominator.
Ultramarathon events are as diverse as the people participating in them. The two main types of events are timed events and fixed-distance events.
Timed events are usually held on a race track or short road course, ranging from 6 to 12, 24 to 48 hours. Some are even longer (6 and 10-day events).
Fixed distance events can be point-to-point routes, out-and-back routes, or loops. And the terrain varies wildly. From flat urban ultramarathons, like the Berlin Wall Trail (my first hundred miler), to mountainous trail ultramarathons and races in the desert and Antarctica, there is a race for every type of ultrarunner.
And then there is the Backyard Ultra. A race format that tests your mental fortitude by not having a defined endpoint. Instead of having a predetermined time or distance as a goal to work towards, a backyard ultra is run on a looped course and over when only one person is left in the race.
Because of the diversity of races, “ultramarathon” is just a broad category.
Compare that to shorter distances. When you say you will be running a marathon, most runners understand the basic format of the race you will participate in.
However, when you say you will be running an ultramarathon, you must explain much more to give someone an idea about the race.
Do You Need to Be an Experienced Runner to Train for an Ultramarathon?
Newbie ultrarunners generally fall into two categories.
The first one is runners with plenty of experience under their belt. They have been running for several years, and many have participated in shorter events like a half-marathon or marathon.
The second category is new runners or runners returning to running after a long break.
Most running coaches advise those just starting out (again) to take a chill pill and get some running experience before setting their sights on finishing an ultramarathon.
I believe this is a mistake for several reasons.
First of all, not everyone is motivated to run shorter-distance events. Road marathons simply don’t appeal to all runners. It would be counterproductive and highly demotivating to tell them that they need to wait and “earn their right” to step up to the ultramarathon distance.
You don’t need to ask yourself how many years of running experience you need, how many marathons you must have finished, and how fast you are.
The real question you need to ask yourself is if your body can withstand the training required to complete the event you want to participate in.
Do you have the strength and mobility to endure the training without injuring yourself? And do you have the time to train?
These two questions are far more important than how many years you have been running or your personal best in the marathon.
How to Prepare Your Body for an Ultramarathon.
Despite what many runners, and sadly even some running coaches, think, ultramarathons are not just longer marathons.
Yes, you can successfully train for a 50 K using a marathon training plan.
But suggesting that a 100 km or 100-mile race is just a longer marathon is like saying that a marathon is just a longer 400 m race.
Even though these events involve “running,” the training, race planning, and race execution are fundamentally different.
The most apparent difference between training for a marathon and training for an ultramarathon is the time commitment.
The longer the distance you want to tackle, the more time and energy you need to invest in your training. And this includes more than just the hours you spend running.
An increased training load also comes with an increased need for recovery (usually).
I am also evangelical about strength training for injury prevention and overall health. Unfortunately, too many ultrarunners neglect this vital training component.
The second aspect is the structure of the training program.
While training programs for shorter races usually increase as competition day approaches, in ultramarathon training, intensity decreases, and overall volume increases. If you have already established a base level of fitness, you will follow this approach.
Most training programs for shorter events are structured the opposite way.
They start with low-intensity workouts (base training) and increase in intensity as race day approaches. Why? Because intensity is critical for these shorter events (even a marathon). For ultramarathons, less so.
However, if you have no base level of fitness, you first need to get some base training under your belt.
For example, I haven’t done high-intensity workouts in my first year of running because my focus was building up volume while staying injury-free. I did some strides every now and then or a fartlek when I felt good, but I didn’t do a single tempo run, threshold run, or interval session.
How to Prepare Your Mind for an Ultramarathon.
Ultramarathons are tough. Unfavorable weather conditions, aching muscles and joints, stomach cramps, blisters, and chafing are just some of the issues you will encounter.
Often long before the race is over.
Your ability to keep moving forward under pain and exhaustion will determine whether you will finish your race or drop out. Unless you are experiencing an injury or other threats to your health (like hyperthermia or dehydration), you can almost always continue.
However, many runners quit before the finish line even though they could have kept going.
A lack of mental toughness.
They might have trained their bodies but didn’t train their mind enough to endure the pain.
Contrary to what many people believe, mental toughness is not a fixed trait. Instead, you can develop it.
Start by adhering to your training plan, even if it gets difficult. You need to push yourself in training to be able to push yourself during a race. That means running when it’s dark, running when it’s raining, and running when it’s cold.
That also means completing a workout, even though you feel flat because you didn’t sleep well.
And it means completing interval workouts, hill sprints, and other hard training sessions you don’t like.
A positive outlook is the second and often overlooked component of mental toughness.
During an ultra, things will go wrong. You will hurt. When you are halfway through your 100-mile race and telling yourself that you can’t take the pain any longer and don’t know how to survive this race, you are only making it harder on yourself.
When you spiral into negativity, your performance suffers. And you risk not completing the race because you convince yourself you can not take the pain any longer.
Since our brains are wired to focus on the negative, you must actively train your mind to focus on the positive.
Adopt a gratitude practice outside of running, and you will be better able to practice gratitude during your runs.
I have been keeping a gratitude journal for over ten years and frequently remind myself to practice gratitude throughout the day. When I run, I use reframing strategies I have learned in my “everyday life.”
Know Your Why.
During an ultra, you will be in pain. Sometimes for a very long time. When it’s 4 am, raining, you are cold and alone and want nothing more than the pain to be over, you will ask yourself why.
Why are you doing this to yourself?
Why are you putting yourself through this pain?
Why don’t you just stop?
Neither your life nor your livelihood depends on you finishing that race.
When you are asking yourself these questions, you better have an answer.
Your “Why” must be big enough to push through the physical and mental exhaustion you will experience.
You may be raising money for a charity close to your heart. Maybe you are racing to honor a friend who has died too soon. And perhaps you signed up for that race to fulfill a dream you have harbored for decades.
Whatever it is, you need a “Why” that motivates you enough to endure harsh training sessions, lifestyle sacrifices you must make to train, and of course, the low and dark moments during the race.
No one can tell you what your “Why” should be.
You could be fueled by love or anger.
You could want to prove someone wrong or to prove yourself right.
You could want to be a role model for your kids, family, or community.
You could be celebrating your 5th year in sobriety.
Your why is uniquely yours. You only need to ensure it matters enough to get you through your darkest times during the race.