Ultra Running isn’t that big a step up from a marathon, really

At a hotel on the South Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, a gentleman soaking in the hot tub asks a thirty-something woman next to him which trail she’d hiked that day. “Down to Phantom Ranch,” she says vaguely. He says he’s hiked there before and asks which route she took down “Well, actually I ran to the North Rim and back,” she says. That would be a distance of 42 miles on steep trails that traverse thousands of vertical feet.

“That’s impossible,” the man says, looking at her. The woman gently insists that, yes, she did indeed run it, but the gentleman knowingly repeats that it is quite simply impossible to run that route in one day. After all, it had taken him three days to hike the same trip. The woman climbs out of the hot tub and says, finally, pointedly, “Impossible for you, but that’s what I did today.”

That’s a true tale from one ultrarunner. Ultra runs might at first appear unthinkably hard, but the transition from pavement to dirt, from a road marathon to a longer trail event, certainly isn’t impossible. And it’s simpler than you might think.

A good endurance base is a key to an ultra race. If you’ve already been training for a 10K or marathon, you’re at the stepping-off point for turning a once unthinkable distance into an incredible run.

Because most ultrarunners are held on hilly, rocky terrain at high altitude, you want to simulate those conditions in your training. And when you do, be prepared to relax. Going off-road means your pace will likely be much slower than what you’re used to. So don’t expect to break your marathon personal best even after putting in long hours on the trails.

Expect to run eight- to 20,minute miles–yes, 20–depending on conditions like mud, snow, hills and altitude. “You slow down on the trails, but to make up for that you get great strength training,” says Ann Trason of Berkeley, California. Treason, 36, has won the Leadville Trail 100 three times and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run eight times, and last year she set the course record for the 54-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Even a marathon race on the trails can take several hours more than usual. Beware, the cutoff times set for certain mileage points might sound easy until you realize that even Reason averages 12-minute miles at Leadville, a race of 100 miles at 10,000 feet and above.

“You have to take training for an ultra more seriously than a 10K because you have to put in more mileage,” Trason says. But that’s one of the beauties of the sport , she explains. A great sense of camaraderie builds among ultrarunners because everyone, from the first-place finisher to the last, knows what it’s like to commit to that kind of training.

To begin training for an ultra race , take to the trails first by doing long hikes. That means switching gears, and muscles, from running to walking or power hiking. A two-hour hike is a great start if you’re used to running for an hour. The idea is to get familiar with the rocks, roots, mud, streams, snakes and storms you’ll find on the trails, to get used to carrying your own food, water and clothes and to get your body and mind used to be out longer.

Danelle Ballengee, a member of the USA Mountain Running Team, the three-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon and winner of the Mount Everest Sky and Mosquito marathons, says she enjoys the variation of the trails as opposed to the constant speed of the roads. “Once you get used to it mentally, trail running is easier. It’s peaceful out there. The terrain is constantly changing and there’s no time to think about how long you’ve been out,” says Ballengee, also the winner of several road marathons.

However, the steepness and unevenness of trails require different muscles–calves and quads especially–so even a hike may make you stiff at first. And it’s easy when you’re cruising along in the midst of spectacular scenery to get suckered into more miles than you planned.

As with any type of training, every runner adapts differently, in this case to the trails, the altitude and the increase in mileage. Reason suggests training for six months to run a 50-mile race and running a trail marathon after three or four months of that training to keep from burning out. Ballengee agrees that a 10K runner needs at least four months on the trails prior to the marathon. “Expect to finish it and experience it, not to win it,” Ballengee says. “Anyone can run a trail race, but you have to want to.”

If you’re dreaming of running a 100K or a 100-mile race , you may need to spend up to nine months building an endurance base. And the longer the race you’re planning, the longer your longest training run needs to be. But that doesn’t mean putting in regular 100-milers. The last few months of training, you should be consistent–two to three times a month–logging long runs of 20-25 miles. The goal is to build enough of a base so that you are comfortable for the duration of the race.

To get used to the feeling of running on tired legs, Treason includes back-to-back long runs on consecutive days that equal the distance of the race. Less-experienced runners can use the same idea but scale it back–for example, running back-to-back 15-milers. This will give the tired-leg effect without increasing the risk of injury.

More mileage also means more rest is required. Some ultrarunners add an extra rest day to their schedule and plan long recovery periods after a race.

But ultimately, a typical training schedule looks much like a road marathon schedule, with a few more long runs and some changes in interval sessions. Ultrarunners still do tempo runs on the trails, and some do track intervals of 600 to 1,600 meters, but hill training is the real key to the ultrarunner’s regime.

“A trail marathon is amazingly different from a road marathon,” says Ballengee. “You encounter so many more hills. A hill like Heartbreak Hill [at the Boston Marathon] is like a speed bump to trail runners.” Some runners do hill repeats or bound up steep hills to build power, while some practice racing downhill.

Cross-training can help add “mileage” to your schedule without the stress of more running. Ballengee uses cross-training to balance her schedule and train different muscle groups. From her home in Evergreen, Colorado, she bicycles, competes in biathlons and defends her national snowshoe title in the winter.

“Cross-training really helps because it’s a great way to get conditioning and to learn what the demands on the body will be like during an endurance event,” she says. Ballengee suggests training by time rather than distance when switching disciplines. For example, she equates a four-hour bike ride with a two-hour run.

Even with careful and varied preparation, however, there is no way to be perfectly conditioned for a race. It may suddenly snow in July or 50-mile-per-hour winds may roar at 13,000 feet. Or just imagine simulating that Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim dandy. The point is, be prepared, and then expect the unexpected.

Whatever your ultra goals are, this is a great month to start training. Conditions are close to perfect for long training runs. The trails are drying up, the wildflowers are blooming–and most of the great ultra races are held in October and November. You should be ready just in time.


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