The holidays are behind us, the darkest days of winter are now over, and if you’re like most runners, you’re likely thinking about your first race of the year.

It’s typical to take some time off after a busy fall race schedule to relax and recover, and that first race back is always full of excitement and nerves.

For me, my first race of the year fell a few weeks ago at the South Mountains Marathon, a trail marathon in the mountains of North Carolina. While early in the year, it had actually been over six months since my last big race, and gearing up for this race brought on a flood of emotions — both good, and well, some not so good.

During the first few miles, I actually found myself feeling scared.

Confidence-wise, ahead of a few big races this spring, a lot was riding on the race.

To calm my nerves, I began to think through best practices for race day. It had been long enough that I needed the reminder.

Sometimes, we can all use a good reminder.

So today I’m sharing my Dos and Don’ts of running an ultramarathon. There are 52, each important in their own way.

Let’s get to it:

  1. Do study the course ahead of time.
  2. Don’t ruin the excitement of the race experience.
  3. Do read race reports.
  4. Don’t let those race reports cloud your experience.
  5. Do rely on support and crew when you can (and thank them every chance you get).
  6. Don’t be so dependent on them that you can’t fend for yourself.
  7. Do trust your training. If you’ve put in the work, lean on that work.
  8. Don’t over stress the days leading up to the race. Stay focused, positive. You can do it!
  9. Do stay positive during the race as well — high-five other runners and smile.
  10. Don’t let negative thoughts spiral you into a terrible low spot.
  11. Do know that hard times will come, but you will get out of them.
  12. Don’t let yourself DNF without at least first going for one more aid station (unless it’s a bad injury, of course), and even then, you better have a damn good excuse.
  13. Do enjoy the plethora of food available to you at an aid station.
  14. Don’t scarf down a ton of cookies and chips, only to puke it up a few miles later.
  15. Do hike the hills. If you’re debating on whether to run or hike, hike.
  16. Don’t be afraid to push a bit towards the end of the race. If you have something left in the tank, step on the gas.
  17. Do let out an epic howl as you bomb down a hill if the desire washes over you.
  18. Don’t tense up your shoulders and upper body throughout the race. Shake out those arms!
  19. Do take the time to listen to a veteran runner, if they’re willing to share stories.
  20. Don’t think you know everything about running. Even the best blow up, over-train, go out too hard, and neglect their fueling.
  21. Do believe in yourself. You are capable of more than you think.
  22. Don’t compare yourself to other runners during the race. Just because they’re moving at a certain pace doesn’t mean you need to.
  23. Do lube up liberally.
  24. Don’t forget to lube in between your butt. (I hear most people don’t have the ‘ol inner butt problem area. I’m not one of those people. Better safe than sorry…)
  25. Do make a race plan before race day.
  26. Don’t get so caught up in the moment you throw that plan out the window as soon as the gun goes off.
  27. And don’t let yourself get upset if that race plan unravels.
  28. Do push yourself. It is a race, after all.
  29. Don’t get so caught up in the race that you forget to enjoy the trail.
  30. Do bring backup headlamp batteries.
  31. Don’t overpack and carry too much gear.
  32. Do wear earbuds (one), carry poles, or do whatever it is you need to get through the race (assume it’s allowed per race rules).
  33. Don’t let any of those things keep runners from passing you or get in the way of their experience.
  34. Do let runners know when you’re about to pass. “I’m going to squeeze by you on the right!”
  35. Don’t rush the pass on a section of trail that doesn’t allow for passing. Let them find a spot to pull off the trail.
  36. Do pack your gear ahead of time. I like to pack up gear a full day or more before the race, and then double check everything the night before.
  37. Don’t be the guy stressing out because they can’t find their bottle five minutes before the race. Stay organized and be prepared.
  38. Do be friendly and chat with other runners.
  39. Don’t feel obligated to speak with someone if you’re head-down, deep into the race.
  40. Do thank the race volunteers and aid station workers.
  41. Don’t get pissed if they’re behind on sandwiches or orange slices.
  42. And whatever you do, don’t throw your cup or trash on the ground.
  43. Do stop for a photo at an overlook if you’d like to.
  44. Don’t, for the love of all things holy, block another runner from passing because you stopped at that overlook.
  45. Do swap out shoes if you have the option and need.
  46. Don’t waste time taking off your shoes or putting your feet in plastic bags to cross a creek. Just get them wet.
  47. Do be swift through the aid stations and not waste time.
  48. Don’t rush through too quickly and forget what you need.
  49. Do take the time to get debris out of your shoe before it becomes a problem.
  50. Don’t neglect a rubbing spot to the point that it becomes a bad blister or chafing.
  51. Do soak in the experience. You’re running a freaking ultramarathon!
  52. Don’t forget to have fun.

But there are as many experiences are there are miles to run, and as I said in rule 20, none of us can assume we know everything about running an ultra.

What are your rules for a successful race day?

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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5 thoughts on “52 Dos and Don’ts of Running an Ultramarathon

  1. the darkest days of winter are now over ……. You might want to clarify that for some, the darkest days of winter are now over. Those of us in the north are still in the deep freeze and still running which means tip # 53 comes to play: “there is no bad weather for running, just bad clothing choices”

    1. I meant that literally. The days are getting longer for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, even if the cold is still brutal. But you’re absolutely right about the tip, and I love that phrasing. No bad weather, just back clothing choices! Ha!

      Stay tough (and warm)! I don’t envy those brutal days of winter so many runners have to deal with!

  2. Hey, so how are we supposed to deal with wet feet, per your #46 above? I’ve run a marathon in the rain, but 50 miles with wet feet? especially after you soak them crossing some flooded out area or a shallow river? Any tips on handling this?

    1. It’s tough, but it’s going to happen. You can “train” your feet to an extent, but good socks, shoes that drain, and lubing potential blister spots is your best bet. And swapping your shoes and socks out when it makes sense (from drop bags or crews).

      If there’s a long stretch of dry trail and you can swap out your shoes, do it.

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