Your First Ultra: Race Prep

Community Contributor: Sho Gray, Pro Ultra Runner, Knoxville, TN

Sho Gray, Pro Ultra Runner

My first ultra was a 50 miler in Atlanta.  I had 2 months to train for it, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I came into the race expecting to run with a handheld and had a crew member waiting for me at the turn-around point.  It was simple. I would run from aid station to aid station and make sure to drink and eat whatever til I got half way, and then I would do the same thing back.  

What actually happened was I ran out of liquids between each aid station because I needed more than my handheld could give me, by the time I got to the halfway point, I was ravenously hungry and exhausted and definitely dehydrated.  On the way back, at mile 35, my legs both screamed at me as I found out I was unable to run another step and was forced to do the death march for the last 15 miles with a few attempts at getting back into running form.

So here are a few things I learned from my races when I first started running ultras.

  1. Embrace the walk.  It’s a long race, and it’s okay to walk… in fact, PLEASE walk every chance you get!  Except for the professional athletes (and they would walk when it gets too tough), walking is an important part of ultra racing.  The goal is to finish as fast as possible, NOT burn out with 15 miles left to go. Every uphill is an opportunity to recover so take it.  Once you’re at the end of the race, then it’s perfectly acceptable to begin running more often IF you still have the energy to do so. What I like to do is schedule my walking time for a flat race, or for a hilly course, identify what angle of steepness I would begin hiking instead of running.
  2. Hydrate and Consume Energy.  Make sure you are constantly hydrating with water/electrolytes and constantly take in energy.  One reason I was unable to continue past 35 miles was because I ran out of all three at one point (or all at the same time).  Your body can only digest a limited amount during the race so it’s important that you plan out your meals. What I like to do is take a swig of SWORD every 10 minutes and every 20 minutes, I would eat two peanut butter crackers.  At every aid station, I would drink coca-cola and if I’m still hungry (or if it’s a meal time) I would eat whatever I wanted to eat as our bodies ‘know’ what we want to eat.
  3. Enjoy the journey.  It’s going to be a tough day.  You’re going to put your body through so much stress… so why not enjoy as much as you can?  Having fun is what it’s all about and focusing on the mile you’re running is what you need to be doing.  It’s pointless to carry 50 miles worth of stress on the first mile and then 49 miles worth of stress on the 2nd mile and so on… you’re carrying way too much!  Instead, focus on the mile you’re on and enjoy it as much as you can. What I enjoy doing is encouraging other people and enjoy the mile I’m on with those around me.  It definitely makes the race easier for me AND the people around me.

Obviously, there are many things that make up a successful race, but I hope these three things will help you finish your first ultramarathon!  Stay strong and keep putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you do that, you’ll get to the finish line. 

Sho Gray is a local ultra runner in Knoxville, TN. He is the current state record holder for 100 mi with a time of 15:24:56! Follow him on Instagram: @shogray for running inspiration.

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