When I signed up for my first 50K trail race—that’s 31 miles for us American runners who understand mileage a lot better than the metric distances—I had no idea what to expect. That first race was a serious learning experience for me: As an endurance athlete for the last 10 years, I anticipated the mileage hurting, but not being that different from, say, a road marathon. I had done Ironman, for crying out loud! So how hard could doing a few extra miles on trails be? It turns out, racing ultras on trail is a completely different animal. Here are 12 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first (painful) attempt to my fifth race a year later.
50 kilometers is much longer than a marathon
It turns out, 50 kilometers sounds like it’s not that much more than a marathon, but when you factor in trails versus roads and realize it is an extra six miles, it’s a totally different animal. First of all, even assuming you’re running 10-minute miles (not safe to assume on trails!), that’s a full extra hour of running. A marathon sounds so huge that tackling a measly six miles seems like a minor afterthought … Which is what I was still telling myself when I was in the final miles of my most recent 50K, that finished on a rail trail segment six miles long after undulating trails all day. Six miles of rail trail? I thought to myself. Piece of cake. It was not. Those six miles were the most physically and mentally taxing of the day, despite being the “easiest.” You’re not done until you hit that finish line.
No course is created equal
In fact, don’t be shocked if your 50K trail time is nearly double your road marathon time, especially on courses labeled as ‘mountain runs’ or even just billed as ‘challenging’ or ‘hilly’ terrain. My first race, the Under Armour Mountain Run in Killington, Vermont, featured over 3,000 meters of climbing throughout the day, and driving rains the day prior meant mud that squished into your shoes and up your calves from mile one. Compared to that, a 50K trail run in New Jersey that featured three 10-mile loops, 1,000 meters of elevation, and some road and doubletrack sections on a sunny, dry day felt like a jog in the park versus a slog up a mountain.
Forget about pace
Because no course will be the same, the most frustrating question to field as a trail runner is ‘what pace did you run?’ We all know our rough goal marathon pace—it’s a fairly simple calculation. But in the trail races I’ve done, my average pace has waffled from 13-minute miles to 8:40 pace, and while some of that is due to fitness and getting better at trail running, a large part is due to the disparity in courses. If you’re trying to figure out how long you’ll take for the race or deciding on your goal pace, don’t base it off your marathon PR. Look at the race results from the past couple of years (at least two years, since weather can change a course drastically, or competition can be totally different) and try to find runners of similar ages/ability levels to see what pace they ran. But your best bet, ultimately, is to forget pace altogether and focus on perceived exertion throughout the day.
Your gear has to fit like a glove
A bouncing hydration pack may get you through an hour-long run, but after four, you’re chafed, raw, and ready to chuck it in the trash at the next aid station. This was a lesson I learned in my first race and never want to repeat: A racerback tank top and a bouncing hydration pack meant that for almost seven hours, every step sent the pack up and down on my bare back, while a strap dug into my rib cage and the front clasp competed with my bra strap for compression. I could feel blisters starting to form and immediately get popped (gross, I know). And while that was happening, my feet were in agony as well: My shoes had been just fine for slow training runs, but the mud oozing into them created friction between my toes, making blisters flare up within an hour of the starting gun going off. Gear doesn’t have to be pricey: From head to toe, my race kit now is around $350 including shoes and a hydration pack, but everything fits beautifully. Blisters will always be an issue, but you can lessen issues by being pickier about fit.
The competition will vary
One thing is almost certain: In an ultra, you will spend some time solo on the course. Even at the North Face Endurance Challenge, which boasted over a thousand runners over the course of the day, there were times on the course where I couldn’t see a single person. And in smaller, local events, you’re probably going to spend most of your time alone in the woods versus surrounded by runners. This can make staying competitive hard, if you don’t know where your competition is! It can also be a little freaky to line up in a tiny field: I thought bigger races would feel scarier, but in a field of 30 runners (with only eight women) there’s nowhere to hide in a pack. Especially for someone like me—noncompetitive until the gun goes off—it’s actually a lot more mentally challenging when you have a 1-in-30 chance of winning. When it’s a field of 500, I’ve found it’s easier to stay less attached to the overall result.
You need speed, too
Training for your first ultra? It’s super tempting to just start doing long, slow miles. And that’s important, especially if you’re new to longer distance running in general. But after training for my first race doing just that, I started working with an amazing coach who immediately dropped my mileage and added in strides and intervals. I hated it. I wanted to race ultras because I love long, slow distance. But the more fast running I did, the stronger I felt during my weekly long runs, and I grudgingly accepted that longer isn’t always better. Even some of the top ultra-runners—like Clare Gallagher, who won the Western States 100-miler this year—keep mileage low: she’s said that most of her weeks wouldn’t go much over 75 miles total, and that’s for a race that’s triple the length of a 50K!
Your skin will rebel
Unless you’re one of the lucky few with thick, non-sensitive skin, expect some issues to arise over the course of the day. Blisters are super-common, especially on wet courses. But just as common is chafing in places you wouldn’t normally chafe. You might get through a three-hour run with no problems, but add trails and extend the time, and suddenly, your upper thighs feel like sandpaper, your underarms are starting to burn, and your back where your pack/sports bra/shorts hit your skin will feel raw to the touch. You can prep for this—after my first race, I swapped a racerback tank for a long sleeved top that instantly solved my back and underarm-chafing issues. I also switched shorts, looking for a pair that wouldn’t have a chunky seam at the bottom. (Tracksmith’s Summit Shorts have a very flat, silky seam that doesn’t rub for me.) I also started using Body Glide leftover from my Ironman days on my inner thighs and the backs of my ankles.
… So will your stomach
Until you’ve done a few of these races, it’s hard to know how your stomach will react to certain foods and drinks, even ones that have fueled you just fine on your long runs. I highly recommend carrying enough to get you through the whole race if you have a sensitive stomach: The best thing I did in my first race that I continue to do is carry 1.5 liters of unflavored Tailwind and two caffeinated gels. I know some women who run with just a small handheld water bottle, but that only works if you have an iron stomach that can handle anything that an aid station has on hand.
… And your mind
No matter how fast you race a 50K, whether you’re in the front of the pack or the back, you will have a moment when your brain screams ‘No more!’ Marathoners talk about the wall coming at around mile 20, and you’ll likely hit that. But you’ll also likely hit a wall right around mile 26.2, when your marathon distance is done. For most of us, especially those new to the ultra world, hitting the marathon distance feels like the finish line because that’s all we know. Those dark moments will happen, so be prepared for it by pre-thinking of a race day mantra (my most recent: “Quiet determination”) and a few non-race-related topics you want to mull over (“How I’m going to re-arrange our furniture in the apartment”). It sounds like a strange practice, especially thinking of topics unrelated to the race, but sometimes, your brain just needs to get the hell away from the current situation.
Do not quit
I don’t just mean ‘don’t quit the race.’ I also mean that in ultras, the race isn’t over until it’s over. In my first, I watched the lead group of women truck up a climb at mile five and sadly thought, “There goes the podium.” At mile 23, I spotted third place—she had slowed to a walk, and I was able to pass her. Just because someone gets ahead of you in the start of the race doesn’t mean she’ll stay ahead of you. Always keep fighting—your next victim might be a switchback away.
Smile and chat
OK, I did just call a competitor a victim. But actually, almost every man and woman I’ve encountered on a trail race course has been absolutely amazing. You’re sharing this experience of suffering, and that forms an instant connection. Not everyone will be uber-chatty on the trail, of course, but I find that a smile and a brief conversation can do wonders for your mood and make the race feel instantly more tolerable. Added to that, the ability to have a quick exchange is a good way to gauge your effort level: If spitting out a sentence or two feels like a lot of effort, you may want to dial back a bit.
It’s totally worth it
In 2018, I foolishly assumed that I would do the 50K race and, like I had with most endurance events, be done with it. I’d return to cyclocross, triathlon, or even hit a road marathon again. Instead, I crossed the finish line with bleeding, raw skin, oozing blisters, mud-soaked clothes, and a massive grin on my face. I burst into tears as I crossed the line. I instantly signed up for another. Five races later, I still get choked up when I hit the finish line. Compared to any event I’ve done, the raw emotion of battling out 50 kilometers of trail with your fellow competitors, but more importantly, yourself, is just so much deeper and greater.