When running a distance over 26.2 miles, anything can go wrong. Ultras appeal to runners because ultimately they will push people to their physical and mental limits. Parts of the race can go sideways, and the ability to problem solve is a necessary tool to have. Whether adjustments can be made or not, eventually failure is inevitable in an ultramarathon.
Yeah, maybe you finished the race but there can still be missteps along the way that greatly affect the result or overall experience of the race. A DNF (Do Not Finish) is not the only indicator of failure. The good thing is that everyone fails, and it only makes your better and more experienced as a runner.
Over the past year I have advanced as a runner because of the many failures I have made. Each time I have stumbled across an issue, I have problem solved and adjusted.
The following points have lead me to fail in ultramarathons…
1. Inconsistent Training
When running any distance up to a 50k, you can probably get by with inconsistent training. Everyone has that one reason why they either skip a training day or end their run short. “I am tired,” or wanting to spend time with my family are my common excuses for not running.
Getting by with doing the minimum worked until I ran a 50 miler. I finished, but it was not pretty. Training does not just prepare you physically but also mentally. If you are “too tired” to run one day, guess what? You will probably be tired at some point in an ultramarathon. Are you just going to quit and sit on a couch instead? Probably not during a race. Pushing yourself mentally to do the work is invaluable for an ultra.
Not to mention, physically your legs need to be prepared. Cramps and soreness are usually the result from lack of regular training. Being consistent and putting in the time and effort will not necessarily make your race day pain free, but it will make your more prepared and ready for when discomfort and missteps come your way.
2. Not Practicing Nutrition
Ultramarathons are not just a competition of who can run faster, but who can eat while running faster. As a novice, I was excited because naturally I assumed I could eat whatever I wanted. My hydration pack would always be filled with Double Stuffed Vanilla Oreos and my favorite flavors of protein bars.
Two ultramarathons later and I finally came to the realization that the protein bars I was consuming were the reason for my constant intake of Imodium.
Long runs are not only there to get you ready to be on your feet for long hours but they also are the perfect time to practice your race day nutrition. Eating is such a major part to ultra races. Figuring out what your body likes and dislikes is important. Once you figure out what your body can eat, you should continue to practice your nutrition.
Understanding when and what your body can handle takes time. Of course your nutrition plan can change over time, so check in with your plan. Not only should you alter and modify race day nutrition but you should also pay attention to your every day diet.
Remember to not get caught up in what everyone else is eating. What works for one person could not work for the other. I made the switch from junk food to gels because that was what I heard the “elite” were using. I ate every 30 minutes because that was what the articles online recommended. That plan did not work for me.
Finally I have been able to come up with a better plan after experimenting with different foods and sports gels. Since I have made adjustments and practiced, my GI problems have been nonexistent. Nutrition is so crucial.
3. Choosing The Wrong Shoes
The amount of shoe brands and types of shoes within those brands can be overwhelming when you first get into trail running. Then when you ask people what to wear, you get a million different answers. Honestly, when I found out that there were certain “trail” shoes I just went and bought a pair that were on sale at REI.
Shoes are the one equipment you need for running. Wouldn’t you think I would get the right ones for my stride and size feet? Well after a year of knee pain and shin splints, I finally asked for some advice from my local running group. Every single person suggested it was probably in my best interest to invest in a new pair of shoes.
Finding the right pair of shoes based of your gait is so important. I finally switched shoes that were the correct size and right fit and in turn I was able to fine-tune my stride. Since then, there has been no issue with my knee or shins. Initially I assumed the pain I was getting was usual for runners. I now know that the right shoes and correcting my form has made running more comfortable.
Go support your local running store, and get fitted for some shoes if you have not already. They will analyze your gait, and it will make a world of difference. Remember, shoes are the one gear that you need for ultramarathons/running. Invest in the right ones.
4. Resting Without Intent
Once introduced to the ultramarathon world, it is easy to get addicted to the sport. So much that training plans are created and schedules must be followed. There is a difference between pushing the limits and being stupid.
When the excuse “I’m tired,” comes up, you should probably still train that day. If there is a sharp pain in your ankle or you’re having an asthma attack, you are much better off taking the day to rest. We, as ultramarathoners, like to follow our schedule and push ourselves, but it can be very easy to ignore warning signs of an injury.
Resting will not hurt you. When I first had shin splints, I thought it would go away. Instead of resting, I made the pain worse. That caused me to take two weeks off rather than a simple two days. Rest. Rest. Rest. Can I say it more?
On easy days, take it easy. On rest days, rest with intent. My rule is to simply spend the same amount of time that I would have trained and just relax. For me that is either reading a book or throwing on some trashy television. It can be anything. Do not try to pack your day with chores and everything else that is on your list to do because you are not running.
Training at such high mileage is very hard on your body, and it needs those days to rest and recover. Usually you will come back as an even stronger runner. You are way better off being well rested than someone that is worn out and over trained.
5. Not Knowing Your “Why?”
Knowing your “Why?” has circulated around the ultra community for a while now. Honestly I thought I knew my “Why?” until I was depressed after winning a race. The pressure got to me. “I want to win,” or “I want to push myself to see how far I can go,” was my usual response to why I ran ultras. Except after the win, running became another task on my checklist. Going out for a run became a chore.
While reading the book The Happy Runner by David and Megan Roche, I was inspired to actually spend time thinking about, “Why I wanted to run 100 miles.” Of course my generic answers quickly popped into my head. Instead I started to focus on why I ran in the first place. After having my son running was my time for myself. Being on the trails was my time not to think. I get energized mentally after going out on a jog.
My “Why?” is always changing day to day, but I still love running for those three reasons. Reminding myself of these reasons helped me get back on track. When I have a slump, going back to the “Why?” motivates me.
Running an ultramarathon is mostly mental, and if you do not have a reason to tell your brain to keep going then all the reasons why you should quit will win. Having a reason why you are out on the trails is something you can go back to when you are on the verge of a mental breakdown or you simply do not want to train that day.
You will fail at some point when training or racing in an ultramarathon. Failing is a great thing because it will make you a better runner. If you love the ultra community and want to continue it for the long term, solving problems that arise is crucial. So my best advice is, “Go out there, run, and fail!”
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Maddie is an avid backpacker, climber, and trail runner. When she is not out on the trails training for ultramarathons, she is exploring with her husband and son in their 1996 F350 and camper. If you cannot find her outdoors she is probably at a brewery drinking a sour.
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