When am I ready to take the ultra marathon leap?

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I recently got an email from someone that said:

“Dear Kenzie,

I wanted to ask your advice.  I have been running fairly regularly for the last 7 years.  Last year I completed my 5th marathon and was very happy with my progress.  I am thinking that I am ready to take the next step and dive into a 50k distance race but am not sure I am ready.  What advice could you give me to help me decide if this is a good idea?”

The email continued on with a little more detail about her running background and family situation.  I get emails like this fairly often so I thought I’d post some thoughts.

“How do I know when I am ready to make the ultra marathon leap?”

Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask you if you enjoy crapping your pants and vomiting on bushes.  “Gee, that sounds swell Kenzie”  Perfect, let’s do this.  Alright, jokes aside most people seek out the ultimate challenge because they are looking for just that – an ultimate challenge (and let me insert here that I have yet to crap my pants or vomit #winning).  So the real question is: are you ready to dig deep inside yourself and find out what you’re made of?  I think you’ll like what you find along the journey.

The truth is, there is no real set answer to this – no box of prerequisites I could list to check off.  If you took a random slice of the ultra running community and looked into their journey to their first ultra distance race, you would see such a wide variety of demographics and differing amounts of previous races under their belts that it would be difficult to find a prevailing common thread.  I know people that have never run a full marathon before running their first 50k.  I know people that have run 30 plus marathons before they ran their first 50k.  I also know a handful of people that have run a 100 mile race but never any other distance.

While my journey may be different than yours, mine is not better or worse than yours.  It’s simply mine.  Everyone that considers the leap has their own unique reasons.  It would be nearly impossible for me to make a generalized blog post telling you a one size fits all answer.

“So thanks but no thanks for the non-informative post Kenzie”.  My pleasure.  Before I leave you thinking I’m a waste of cyber space, let me give you a few points to consider:

1) Like I said before, most ultras are on trails.  If you aren’t comfortable or familiar with running on trails, you need to learn to be.  Everyone starts somewhere.

2) Do you have the time to dedicate to the training?  While training for a 50k really isn’t that much more than an advanced marathon training plan, you need to consider whether you not only have the time to log the miles but DRIVE TO the trails to log the miles.

3) Is your family life supportive of your time commitments?  I run with a girl that is an amazingly talented runner.  She leaves me in her dust on almost every run.  We have talked about her debate on whether she should sign up for the Speedgoat 50k.  While I have zero reservations that she is physically and mentally strong enough (if I can do it, she most certainly can), she has little kids at home making it difficult to get out on the trails more than she does already.  She can manage training for marathons by making up for some miles on her treadmill but getting out onto the more technical trails in order to make a race like Speedgoat doable would be nearly impossible for the next few years.  Family comes first.

4) While a 50k is only 5 more miles than a marathon, the time on your feet significantly increases.  This is due to the fact that you are now dealing with the elevation gains and losses on trail and technical terrain.  And let’s be honest, 5 miles at the end of 26.2 feels more like another marathon to most of us.  My PR on a marathon is currently 3:42 (improving that come April) and my PR on a 50k is 5:45.  That 50k was considered “fairly runnable” with minimal elevation gain for a 50k and very groomed trails.  Now contrast that with Speedgoat 50k which took me 10 hours because it had about 4 times the elevation gain as the previously mentioned 50k and very technical trails.  So even with my fastest 50k, I was on my feet 2 hours longer for only 5 miles.  Party time.  Still sound appealing?  Awesome, let’s continue.

Note that none of my points to consider had anything to do with how many races you have done, what your PR on a marathon is, how many miles per week you have logged over the last 5 years or how big your beard is.  While all of these things can definitely help in a lot of aspects, I don’t think they are absolutely necessary.  Would I recommend a marathon first?  Depends on the person.  Would I recommend that you have at least a year of trail experience first?  Depends on the person.  I don’t go around telling everyone that they should just go ahead and sign up for a race right away.  The benefit of hiring a running coach is that we know how to get you from whatever your point A is to your goal in the most efficient and effective way possible and in a time line that keeps you healthy and interested.

“So am I ready to take the ultra marathon leap?”

If you are to the point that an ultra distance race even sounds appealing, congratulations – you are 75% there.  If after reading the points to consider you feel like this may be the gig for you, feel free to contact me and we can discuss your goals.  I’ll give you a cyber high five and perhaps recite a motivational sonnet because I can relate to the seduction of the trails.

Happy Running!