How do I get started in ultrarunning? A question often asked.
For us, Ultramarathons just kind of happened; although Danny and I came from different directions (him running, me cycling, both being ‘outdoors types’) we ended largely at the same place, physically and figuratively! I guess ultras were just the next natural progression in our fitness goals.
And that’s the real point for getting started, there is no ‘right way’, no ‘one way’… there’s just your way. You don’t have to pass an entry exam, or a physical, or have met a fictional entry standard… you’ve just got to have that commitment to really want to run an Ultra(!).
So where do you start? I mean, running an Ultra sounds like a good idea… fitness, fresh air, great views, great people (& possibly new kit ? but that’s a whole other blog)…
It’s the commitment that’s critical; so like many you could just get your name on a start list and figure it out later.
Or, OK, wait, just a second before you do… let’s just consider some of the reality, so you know what you are really letting yourself in for. And if you’ve already committed, great (well done) – but here’s some things you may not have considered.
So, the reality…
Training for an ultra (properly!) is going to be a big commitment in time. Yes we have all heard of someone who just turned up and completed an ultra without training but let’s be realistic it probably isn’t you (if it was, you probably wouldn’t be here!). Before you get started, consider the time commitment. It isn’t just about time on your feet, you have to work just as hard (if not harder) at ensuring you have adequate time to rest and recover. In an average week you will probably have to commit to 8-10 hours running, 3-5 hours cross training (but that could include regular walking), and 8+hours a day to sleep. Then you need to factor in at least one recce/rehearsal weekend.
Oh and training for an Ultra is going to take 3-6 months (at least). That’s a lot of weekends, early mornings and late evenings to plan in.
There are many financial costs to consider before you commit to your Ultra, including:
Although entry costs vary from reasonable to eye-watering, they are the obvious up front cost so are easy to quantify. Sadly, this often tends to be the only cost that people consider.
Travel costs will obviously vary depending on where you plan to run your first ultra. Massive mountains and phenomenal terrain in a glamorous overseas location are very (very) tempting but it may be wiser to stay local for your first Ultra and make sure it’s something you are going to stick at before spending big money. Conversely for some there is nothing more motivating than sunk costs.
If you are travelling to an event you will need to be there the night before; registration is often the day before and most ultras start early. And if it’s a long one you’ll definitely not want to drive back immediately meaning another night away (so 2 nights total). If you have a family this is a fantastic option for a weekend away – for summer events camping on site or very near is often available and a cheaper option (but make sure they have a good hot shower for after!). And every event we’ve done has a great atmosphere for families and locations tend to have options for the non-runners.
Let’s be honest minimum mandatory kit for an Ultra can be very expensive. And we see a lot of ‘carried once or twice’ high end kit going cheap on eBay! So kit costs have got to be factored in. And you will get some of your kit choices wrong. Buy a pack that’s too small, or shoes that are too tight, or a head torch that isn’t comfortable, or kit you don’t end up using…these are all expensive mistakes (and we’ve made them all, and more!). Equally, becoming weight obsessed is easy to do…but do you really need to spend all that extra money to save the weight of a gel!? To be clear UTC is NOT a kit review site, but we have used a lot, and read a lot of reviews. Prices and quality vary wildly and some of our best tips can be found in our separate blog – Kit Basics.
So buy second hand, borrow kit from friends, try before you buy if you can, but still factor in at least £200 for kit.
Let’s be honest that’s why we are here, and hopefully why you are to. Yes you can download a standard training plan for an Ultra; but does it fully prepare you for the mental challenges ahead? And will it take the holistic approach we know is critical to increasing your chances of success? A bespoke training plan that caters for every aspect of your busy life with a caring coach accessible 24/7 is fantastic and will do that for you. But at anything from £120 to £250+ a month is it something you really need? Bridging the gap between generic and bespoke and giving you an option that is tailored, holistic, yet affordable is why we exist.
Why are you here? This is not an existential question! But why Ultra, and what is driving you on this journey? Being clear why (see Simon Sinek) will be the one, and only, thing that will drag you out of the other side of the inevitable lows on your ultra journey. Why you chose to do an Ultra is very personal; we know people for whom it’s all about the social media kudos and not wanting to lose face. And if that works, awesome. For others it’s about charity, or family, or personal discovery. Whatever your reason make sure it is clear enough to focus on when the going gets really tough.
But, let’s not get too serious! Ultrarunning is about fun, community and enjoyment. It’s about experiences, adventure, discovery and fulfilment. There are so many positives: you will be physically and mentally fitter; you will have a much greater appreciation of the environment and the countryside; and you will join a diverse, welcoming and global community of people who call themselves Ultrarunners.
A bit of honesty, Social Media (even ours) doesn’t give a full picture of the Ultra ‘experience’…it won’t show the miserable, cold, wet training runs. The hours of slogging through mud, rain and snow to build fitness for a summer Ultra. It won’t show the early starts, late finishes and domestic arguments (you will need an understanding family to be an Ultra runner). And rarely will you see the bruises, blisters, lost toenails, and blood.
Nor does it ever discuss the bodily functions…can you truly be an ultrarunner until you have rapidly discovered a particular food type doesn’t agree with you? – learning to vomit and run is such a niche skill. All those long runs, trying different foods, and potentially drinking from streams means it’s inevitable that you will use your trowel and compostable toilet roll in anger (assuming you have them, if not many a buff has been sacrificed I’m sure…)!
This is the reality, an Ultra without discomfort and a little bit of suffering really isn’t that much fun anyway! But the high of achievement is amazing, and it is one that lasts, that repeats everytime you respond when someone asks “did you finish?”
Of course you did, you committed, prepared well, and fulfilled your goal.
Once you’ve finished your run you will always be ‘an Ultrarunner’. Regardless of why or how you got started in ultrarunning.
Taking on an ultra – why you really should