In 11 days I will be embarking on my second 100 mile ultramarathon (and 12th ultra distance). Gulp. I've been writing my - ahem - detailed nutrition plan, crewing description and other ultra descriptions. While ultra vocabulary is second nature to me, in talking with my roommate (Kelli) I realize it's not. So I thought it would be fun to do a little "ultra talk." Enjoy! Oh and before we go any further, I'm running 100 miles to help get 100 children sponsored in Africa with World Vision. Would you consider sponsoring a child with me?
Ultramarathon Definition First of all, an ultra is technically classified as anything over a marathon (26.2 miles). But running 26.3 miles isn't quite what an ultra is. Sorry, nice try. The four classic ultra distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K and 100 miles.
Crew Crew is typically used for 50 miles, 100K or 100 miles. Crew is your own personal support team. Sherpas. Moral support. Sock changers. You get the idea. Your crew can be 1 or 10. The crew meets you at the designated race aid stations. While the aid station (AS) are fully stocked with provisions and friendly faces, it is really nice to know that you have a team eagerly awaiting your arrival. The crew's job is to get you in and out of the AS as quickly as possible. The clock is ticking! They will make sure you have the food you want/need, refill water bottle, pull your shoes off, change socks, bandage your feet if you have blisters, give hugs, pep talks.... Pretty much whatever you need. You might only see them for only five minutes in 90 minute or four hour stretch, but just that little bit of interaction is awesome. When you are out running in the big, spooky, dark forest, YOU CAN'T WAIT TO SEE THEM. It gives you something to look forward too. Crew is awesome. Side note: if you ever have the chance to crew or volunteer at an ultra (particularly a 100 miler), do it. The experience is life-changing.
Pacers Pacers are typically used for the longer ultra distances (100 miles). Pacers are other runners who will run WITH you, give you moral support, make sure you don't wander off to see the teddy bears and encourage you. They are not mules (meaning they don't carry any of your nutritional supplies or other). They simply run with you.
Ultra Environment Ultra races are primarily run on trails. Cross country. Translation = hard, challenging, not for the faint-of-heart. And if it's an ultra, you can bet that the course will be unusually tough. From rocks to boulders to crazy elevation gain to LONG climbs to nasty weather (either freezing cold or really HOT)... Yeah, ultras are pretty hardcore if I do say so myself!
Aid Stations (AS) Aid stations are little pieces of heaven in the middle of hell (oops, was that too negative?!) AS are part of the race and as an ultra runner, we really look forward to them. Personally, I use each AS as incentive to get to the next one. While most of AS have a lot of junk food, my go-to food is cold, boiled potatoes dipped in salt, oranges, red grapes, watermelon ... I don't eat grains/dairy/processed sugar so my options are usually pretty limited. This is where crew comes in handy. The volunteers are always friendly, helpful and some have themed AS. Aid Stations are always a highlight of my race day! Not all AS let you have access to your crew, so you make the most of what you have.
Drop Bags Drop bags are small bags (not a giant suitcase) you've pre-filled with what you think you'll need. If an AS doesn't allow your crew in, a drop bag can be handy. Depending on the ultra distance, you might include shoes, socks, your special fuel/nutrition that you use, etc. Drop bags are at certain AS- not all of them.
Ultra Times If you have run marathons and are looking to run an ultra, first of all, congratulations! Second, throw your marathon times out the window. Marathon times mean nothing when it comes to ultra running. Remember previous definition of ultra surface? Cross country is hard. Fun, but hard. Running an ultra is more about enjoying the forest and challenging yourself vs time. By all means, have a goal time, but be realistic. For a 50k, you can add anywhere from two to four hours to your marathon time. 50 miles, double your marathon and then some. For 100 miles, survive :).
Cutoffs. Cutoffs are time limits. You have to make it to aid stations by a certain cutoff time. Make the cutoff!
Ultra Conditions I touched on this briefly above. Ultra race conditions are usually pretty challenging (as if running 100 miles wasn't hard enough!) Depending on location and month of ultra you can expect snow, rain, hail, lighting, bears, cougars, bobcats, snakes, steep climbs, mud, leaves, slippery leaves, roots, hidden roots, rocks, hidden rocks, beautiful scenery, boulders, crazy elevation (Leadville or Hardrock anyone?)... having fun yet? When you run an ultra be prepared for ANYTHING. While they are fun, they aren't easy.
Have I whetted your ultramarathon appetite? I hope so! They are thrilling, exciting and will challenge every part of your being. If you are looking to run a ultramarathon, let me know!
Peace, sweat, love, life.
Photo of shoes after finishing Vermont 50 Mile Ultramarathon