Thinking about running your first trail ultra marathon? Or maybe your first trail race in general? I truly believe the best way to learn about racing on trails is to sign up and go experience it. Unlike many other runners, I seldom read course descriptions or look at race pictures because I enjoy the uncertainty going into the race (I do take a peek at the elevation chart! Ha). On the other hand, some runners plan their fuel and pace strategy mile by mile, minute by minute, incline by descent. We all race differently and for all different reasons. That’s the beauty in ultra running. But it’s never a bad idea for someone to gather new knowledge and insights beforehand.
I will never forget the day of my first trail race, it was not just my first trail ultra marathon, but it was the first time I ran on a trail EVER. There were a lot of lessons learned and a lot of lessons earned. The following year, in 2015, I ran the same race, PRed my 50 mile time, crossed the finish line with my son in my arms, and received a 1st place trophy for my age group. In this post I will discuss my experiences from my first trail ultra in 2014 and what I learned. Hopefully my experiences will give you some help on race day or possibly ignite your thought process to spark some of your own ideas. So please read, enjoy, and most importantly: Keep It Moving!
If you look up, you are going down!
After reading many different articles online there seemed to be one consistent recommendation: “Before your first trail ultra marathon you should train on a trail”. I could see the logic in this strategy; however, I did not decide to run ultras for logical reasons. Even when I first started running I decided to train immediately for a full marathon. I ran 20 miles on a track, took the plunge, and signed up. The thought process was to just get to the island and burn the boats. If you set big goals you get big results. So what did I learn from my first trail? One major adjustment I learned from converting from the street to the trails is to pick up your feet and to keep your head down. Trails are full of rocks, sticks, and other hidden objects. On the other side of the spectrum, roads are empty and smooth. On a road you don’t have to lift your feet over any objects and you naturally keep your head facing forward to look for cars, people, etc. When running trails, you quickly learn that if you look up then you’re going down! The day of my race I wiped out 3 times, stubbed my toes 30 times on 30 different rocks, took a mouth full of mud water, and had a sports drink shower. Yes, a sports drink shower. Nothing like wiping out down a descent head first on top of your water bottle, forcing the cap to shoot full force into your eye followed by a fire hose blast of a sugary sports drink in the face. Not to mention I lost all my fluids roughly 5 miles out from the next aid station. Please note, this was before I converted to fueling with coconut water (not that the shower would have been any more pleasant! Ha). Also, stubbing my toe 30 plus times did not exactly feel great. It seemed the pain would get worse each time I kicked a rock or root. It went from a quiet “ouch” to a full-fledged shadowbox match complete with air punches and flying kicks in the wind. This was the last day I ever had an even ratio of fingernails to toenails. I’ve actually heard of a few professionals who said to heck with it and had their toenails surgically removed. Hats off to them. With all the bumps and bruises the trail had to offer you know what the craziest part of all was? I loved it! In trail races I learned that a runner earns every single step of the way. What an incredible concept!
Different trails bring different animals. During this race in particular a pitbull charged at me full speed, I ran alongside a group horses, and two gooses chased me with their necks out and beaks harpooning for my backside. Not a bad way to increase your race day pace. In other races I’ve found myself soaring down a trail tailing deer and even had a dog jump up and take a chomp of my arm ripping my new North Face winter raincoat. Sometimes, on really hot days, it seems like the hawks fly a little slower and a little lower as your body struggles to make it to the finish. To top it all off, during a 100 mile race I encountered a mountain lion face to face! But I have run plenty of races where I’ve seen only a squirrel or two. My point is, I learned to expect the unexpected and to just KEEP IT MOVING forward no matter what.
GEAR You in The Right Direction
What gear did I find useful for my first trail ultra marathon? Most importantly, I took advice from one article and picked up a pair of gaiters. They are a lifesaver and act as a shield to prevent any type of rocks or dirt from entering your shoe. I highly recommend picking up a pair. When running an ultra marathon a small pebble in the beginning of the race eventually feels like a jagged boulder by the end of the race. Another useful piece of gear I used then and still use now is a handheld water bottle. I prefer handhelds over hydration packs because of the weight, plus I train minimalist so I tend not to need water as frequently and have trained to get through some tough miles in a dehydrated state. Everyone’s different, though, so use what’s best for you. If aid stations are far apart, you may want to consider a hydration vest or pack. If you do go with the handheld you may want to consider using an hydration belt to carry more fuel. Also, for my first trail race I decided to wear an ankle brace on each foot. This was recommended to me by a fellow runner. Going into the race I knew my ligaments, bones, and muscles would not be conditioned for this type of terrain. The consistent direction change and unleveled ground was not a pleasant surprise for the current build of my street-trained legs. I decided to take the advice to be proactive and give my ankles some extra support. This strategy worked out pretty well; however, I have not used them since. Lastly, one great advantage to trails is they are usually shaded by the trees but there are typically stretches with no shade. The beating sun can weigh heavy on you, forcing the body to use more of its reserved energy in an attempt to keep your body temperature down. A sun hat was a big help to keep cool.
Overall, my first trail ultra marathon was the first of many. Furthermore, I believe the advice to train for a trail on trails is a good idea but certainly not the ultimate rule to follow. When I first got into ultra running I asked myself, “Who said 26.2 miles was the limit? Who made this standard? And why was it followed?” Ultra running can be just about that—deciding you can accomplish any goal you choose to at any time. To challenge the “standard” limitations in life and surpass what you once thought was “impossible”. So thank you for reading, KEEP IT MOVING to race day, and happy trails!
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