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My Journey to Becoming an Ultramarathon Runner

As 2018 was winding down, I started to contemplate my racing plans for 2019. I already had London and Boston lined up for April, but I was trying to figure out what was next. I was ready to train for something that would push me out of my comfort zone, something that I wasn’t positive I would be able to finish. This thought led me to sign up for an ultramarathon.

I had a few friends who agreed to join me for the Silver Rush 50 Run in Leadville, and that event quickly became my challenge. As a training tune up to the Silver Rush in Colorado, I decided to also sign up for the Kettle Moraine 100k (approximately 62 miles) in Wisconsin, as a training race. Even though the mileage for Kettle would be longer than the Silver Rush 50-mile race, I figured the extra mileage would help me on race day, due to the altitude (running 10,000 feet above sea level) and climbing (over 7,000 feet) in Leadville, which would be difficult to replicate during any training I was doing in the Midwest (where the elevation is less than 2,000 feet above sea level). 

After I finished Boston and London, I took 1-2 weeks to let the body recover before I quickly ramped up my mileage in preparation for my ultras. I was not able to do much trail running prior to Boston and London due to travel, injury and being too close to other races, but I immediately fell in love with it. As my ultramarathon training progressed, there were a few key takeaways that stood out to me as being very different from the running I had done previously. 

 

Collage of images from Impi ambassador's Ultramarathon Race


If you’re also looking to venture into ultra running or trail running in general, I hope some of the below tips might be beneficial as you begin your journey: 

Different gear

Most of the road-running apparel you have is totally fine for trail running, however, one major change is with your sock choice. Normally I run in no-show socks, but if you do that on the trails you are likely to find dirt, pebbles and other pieces of nature slipping into your socks. Running in quarter or crew length socks may not keep nature out of your shoe, but it will help keep it out of your socks. I prefer the Balega Blister Resist and recommend the quarter or crew length. Balega also makes a crew length Ultralight sock, if you prefer a lighter weight model. 

My friends were also able to help with suggestions for a running bag/hydration pack and poles. I first ran with a Camelback, but that quickly led to chafing and insufficient hydration. I recommend going to a local running shop, if it’s available. That way, you can try different options to make sure it’s a good fit, so that it’s less likely to cause irritation down the road. I ended up going with a Salomon running pack, which had everything I needed. While I love having pockets for everything in my bag/apparel, I really try to minimize what I carry while running.

Nutrition

After several triathlons, marathons and duathlons, I know how important nutrition is to a successful race. One of the keys to nutrition (and this applies to all endurance events) is to be aggressive in trying different things. Try different flavors, brands and the timing of your nutrition to determine what is working and (equally important) NOT working. I worked with my coach and would put together a report after each run to detail how I felt, when my energy was good and when it was slipping from me. Earlier this year my coach was helping me prepare for the Tokyo Marathon and during a half marathon I got off to a GREAT start for 9 miles and then fell apart. We looked at everything I ate, when I ate it and ultimately realized that I was not consuming enough calories before and during my runs. I increased my breakfast with another 150 calories and added another 100 calories per hour. After my “A” races were all cancelled, I went out to finish my training with a solo half marathon and PR’d by more than 11 minutes. 

Ankle flexibility

This may seem like an odd challenge area, but once you start running on trails on a regular basis you’ll understand. Unless you run road races on roads filled with potholes, you may not have many issues with rolling your ankle. On a normal trail run I would roll my ankle at least a few times. It was rarely a serious injury, but it’s good to get your body prepared for it. 

More miles and more time

Ultra running resulted in running all the time. I thought marathon training was tough, but once I saw my back-to-back weekend runs of 20+ miles each day, it gave me a whole new perspective. I also had fun run-commuting. I work 6-7 miles from home and one of the perks of this was that it forced me to leave my desk in order to make it back home in time for dinner (it would usually only add 15-20 minutes to my commute time by running home, instead of taking the train). The runs home would also help me get used to running later in the day, when my legs might be heavy, and I’d have a little extra weight from the clothes I’d be running home with. 

Slower paces

When you’re running really far and for a really long time, speed no long matters. I was able to just go for casual runs, and wasn’t worrying about my time or speed, which was really refreshing and enjoyable.

The journeys on my ultramarathon race days were incredible. I didn’t set myself time goals for either event, instead my goal was to finish them and enjoy the journey. Looking back on these experiences, I will admit that I still have not nailed down my nutrition. To reiterate an earlier point, I think nutrition is one of the key areas that so many athletes don’t spend enough time figuring out. When it comes to hydration, there’s a saying that if you wait to drink until you are thirsty, it’s too late. I think the same can be said for nutrition. I encourage you to jump on nutrition early and make sure you are paying attention to what’s working. This could result in some disappointing training runs, but the more work you put in early on to identify what you need to have a successful run, the better your results will be on race day.

I still consider myself a bit of a rookie when it comes to running. I’ve seen tremendous strides in both distance and time over the past two years, but I know that even with all of the gains I’ve made, there is still so much I have yet to master. And I guess that’s what makes the journey so enjoyable. The finish line is only the beginning. You cross one finish line and immediately start thinking “what’s next.” I’ve only scratched the surface for what I can accomplish as a runner and that is incredibly exciting to dream about.

 

- Chris Bowles, Balega Impi ambassador