Ever wish someone had just warned you ahead of time?

Stopped you in your tracks and said, “Hey! There are a few things you should really know…”

I feel that way about ultrarunning.

Running, especially ultrarunning, has always been about exploring. Both the trails and myself. It’s about discovering who I really am, and trying to better that person.

But that doesn’t mean a few warnings about the big stuff wouldn’t have helped make this adventure a little easier.

In a recent episode of No Meat Athlete Radio, Matt Frazier and I discuss 14 things we wish we had known before going vegan. It turned into such a good conversation that I naturally started thinking about ultrarunning.

Were there things I wish I had known ahead of time? Yes. Would I have ever taken the leap from marathon to ultra if I had? You’ll have to wait and see.

If you’ve considering your first ultramarathon, listen up. You want to hear these now…trust me.

What to Know Before Running an Ultramarathon

1) There’s an ultrarunning fashion.

Don’t believe me? Just watch a few ultrarunning videos, or attend any trail race, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. We all feature some variation on a certain style.

I call it the “you know I’m an outdoor adventurer even when I’m sitting indoors” look, and I’m not ashamed to embrace it wholeheartedly.

We have our dirtbags, and our long hair and beards. Plaid, trucker hats, and Buffs? Yeah, we’ve got those too.

It’s different that the road runner look. Get ready.

2) Other ultrarunners love hating on the ultrarunning fashion.

But of course there are those who love to hate on ultrarunning fashion and trends. They belittle it and poke fun.

If you find yourself on the other end of someone questioning your clothes, or training style, or what gear you packed, don’t let it get to you.

We’re all equals on the trail. You be you.

3) You don’t need to train as much as you think you do.

To be fair, I was warned about this. I just didn’t listen. Most people don’t.

The leap from marathon to ultramarathon feels like it will require an ultra-increase in mileage, when in reality the two can look remarkably the similar.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are major shifts that need to take place, including key long runs and less speed work. But through smart and effective training, and you can train for most ultras with similar weekly mileage and effort as you would a marathon.

4) You will chafe everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

I used to think that chafing was an issue when running a half or full marathon. I had no idea what kind of issue it would become during 50, 60, 100 miles.

What I’ve learned these days is to lube up everywhere, and reapply as frequently as possible.

5) Black toenails are no big deal.

Do you remember your first black toenail? I do. It was after my first 50k.

I was embarrassed to show anyone, and freaked out when it started to fall off. For a few months after that race my wife kept asking me if my feet were cold when I walked around the house barefoot. It took me weeks to figure out she just didn’t want to look at my toes.

Now we’ve both grown accustomed to the sight. Another race means the possibility of more black toenails.

Just remember, they’ll always grow back. And between proper foot care a good pair of trail shoes, your chances of coming out without battered toes will significantly increase.

6) The trail and ultrarunning community is amazing.

Hands down one of the best parts about running ultramarathons are the people you do it with.

The community is welcoming and supportive. Race leaders relay words of encouragement as they pass a mid-packer. Race directors take the time to talk with you before a race.

And once the race is over, you’re bonded with your fellow runners for life.

7) People will never quit asking you what you think about.

“What do you think about when you’re out there running for so long?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that question, and it usually drives me nuts. Not because it’s a bad question, but because I don’t have an answer. I bet most of you don’t either.

When you run long distances, you think about a lot of things: Dinner, work, childhood memories, your cat. Sometimes you solve major life issues. Sometimes you have a great idea for a new project, blog post, or business.

And sometimes you think about nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. Breathing.

People love to ask that question because most are never in a situation like that. I’m not talking about the running, I’m talking about being alone with your thoughts for an extended amount of time. They block out would-be thoughts with a phone, radio, or TV show.

Being out on the trail for hours at a time presents this uninterrupted time to think — something we all benefit from — but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re thinking about anything at all.

8) Puking isn’t the end of the world.

I used to fear vomiting during a run. I thought it meant my run would be over, with no way to keep going.

I don’t puke very often, but when I do, it usually turns out to be a major relief. You should always practice your nutrition strategy during training, but if things don’t go right during the race, don’t panic.

Step off the trail and embrace it. Then replenish as quickly as possible.

9) The lows will be lower than you expect, and the highs higher.

There’s simply no way to prepare mentally for the lows you’ll experience during a tough ultramarathon without doing it firsthand. You’ll question every decision you ever made. You’ll hate the course, the mud, dirt, and roots, and maybe even yourself.

But — and listen closely here, this is important — you will come out of it.

At the other end of all those tough miles is often something great. Late in an ultramarathons you may feel like you’re flying, when just 30 minutes prior you felt like death. The lows will be low, but the highs will send you to outer space.

10) You’re capable of much more than you think you are.

Before I ran my first ultramarathon, 100 miles sounded impossible. Hell, 31 miles felt nearly impossible. But with each race comes a little more confidence.

It’s amazing what you can do. Yes, you.

I’m no super athlete. Not that long ago I could barely run 5 miles. But I continue to push myself, and with each run I push that limit a little further.

It doesn’t matter where you are now, or where you think your limits end. Go after them. Keep bumping your boundaries. You’ll be surprised where they take you.

Now You Know

There are things I wish I knew before running my first ultramarathon, but the truth is that no matter what people tell you, you just have to experience it for yourself.

Be adventurous. Explore. Don’t let the unknown hold you back.

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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6 thoughts on “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Running Ultramarathons

  1. HI Doug, I enjoyed this article, and I enjoyed listening to the podcast with Matt Frazier about being Vegan.
    You never know some things until you try.

  2. Hi,
    thanks for sharing this with us. I’m preparing for my first mountainous 50k and a lot of this crossed my mind in the last weeks. So I’m glad to hear that whatever I do to be prepared things may come or not and I definitively can handle them… somehow
    Thank you, Wolf

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