How to Nail Race Day: 4 Keys to a Successful First Ultramarathon

Sunrise trail run

Five months ago, my wife Katie gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Let’s call her Eliza (that is her name, after all).

For months leading up to Eliza’s birth, Katie and I attended birthing classes, read books on having a healthy pregnancy, and wrote birthing plans, all with the focus on getting that baby out of Katie as easily and naturally as possible.

And it went great. Two days later, we pull into our driveway from the hospital with a tiny, wrinkly, healthy, baby Eliza.

Exhausted, Katie immediately gets in bed for a nap while I grab Eliza and snuggle up on the couch.

That’s when it hits me.

“Holy shit. Now what?!”

We had spent so much energy trying to successfully get through the pregnancy and birth that we didn’t focus on how to actually raise this child — an actual human, I might add — for which we are responsible.

Over and over, I see runners doing the same thing during their first ultramarathons. They pour an enormous amount of energy into getting through the training, and they neglect the race — an actual ultramarathon — for which they set a goal to accomplish.

Even the best-trained runners can blow it on race day, because training is only the first step.

The real work begins after you cross the starting line.

4 Rules to Executing a Successful First Ultramarathon

Training for your first ultramarathon is a big deal.

It means running farther than you’ve ever run before, getting comfortable running trails, and testing your mental and physical limits.

Like I said … it’s a big deal.

But it’s not the training you set out to accomplish. It’s the race.

For the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of coaching runners through their first ultra-distance races. After witnessing what works on race day and how runners struggle, I’ve developed a set of hard and fast rules all new (and experienced) ultrarunners should follow.

These aren’t rules for how to train, but rather how to prepare for whatever race day throws your way and attack those challenges head on.

And it all starts with avoiding that “Holy sh*t! What now?” moment …

Rule #1 — Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

A few weeks ago, at the finish line of the Mendocino Coast 50K, I started chatting with a runner (and NMA Radio listener) who ran the race as his first ultramarathon. He loved it, but crossed the finish line a full hour and a half later than expected.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I just had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he told me. It didn’t surprise me.

With road marathons, variation between courses is limited unless a race specifically promotes a unique challenge. It’s generally safe to assume that city marathons are city marathons, and a traditional marathon training plan will suffice.

Ultramarathons, on the other hand, can vary wildly depending on the location. It’s not just the extra five miles you need to train for, but the terrain as well.

And knowing what you’re getting yourself into is key to optimizing your training.

How to do your research:

  • Study the course map and elevation profile to evaluate the amount of elevation gain and descent.
  • Read previous years’ race reports and look for videos of the course to learn about the terrain.
  • Prepare for typical weather conditions in that area on race day, which could be a lot different than what you’re running in at the start of training.
  • If the course is known to be muddy or wet, train your feet (and mind) to handle those conditions.
Rule #2 — Have a Plan

Ultramarathons take a long time to complete. Seems obvious, I know (go ahead, roll those eyes), but it’s so obvious a lot of runners neglect to think it through. A 50K could take six, eight, ten hours to complete.

That’s a long time to be on your feet, outside, in the elements, running.

Which means, you need a plan for just about everything:

  • Have a nutrition plan — Think 250-300 calories per hour either through gels, sports drink, or real food. Know ahead of time how much you need to carry, and what you can collect throughout the race at aid stations or from your crew.
  • Have a gear plan — Weather, terrain, and distance between aid stations will dictate your gear. Always have options and backup layers available.
  • Have a plan for your crew — If you’re lucky enough to have a crew supporting you on race day, treat them right. Make a plan so they don’t have to guess. Tell them ahead of time where to meet you, what to have available, and what you expect from them.
Rule #3 — Lock In Your All-Day Pace

I’m not sure where I first heard the term “all-day pace,” (I wish I did so I could give them credit) but it has stuck with me ever since.

Your all-day pace is the magical sweet spot where it’s just fast enough that you feel like you’re racing, but comfortable enough that you can maintain it hour after hour. I’m not going to lie, the concept is a little hard to wrap your head around in front of a computer, so go out and practice during your long runs.

You’ll know once you’ve hit it.

Consider this:

Pace is a misleading term in this situation. Unlike a road race, where mere seconds per mile count, ultrarunners run more often by effort than splits. As you approach a hill, slow down to maintain a consistent effort — which can be monitored by breath, heart rate, or general perception — and as the terrain levels out or drops downhill, speed up.

You’re aiming for a consistent, manageable effort level, maintainable throughout the race.

How to monitor your pace on race day:

  • With every new hill, trail, or surge of energy, check-in with yourself and your effort.
  • If it feels like you’re working too hard, you almost certainly are. Slow down.
  • When it feels too easy, trust yourself and put your training into practice.
Rule #4 — Stay Positive

I consider running an ultramarathon a microcosm of life …

… You face big highs, and major lows.

… You make friends, and encounter miles of solitude.

… You rely on others, but ultimately it’s up to you to do the work.

And just like in life, your outlook will dictate the result.

Positive thinking can boost energy and confidence, both of which could completely turn around a race once you’ve hit a rough spot.

How to stay positive:

  • Focus on a short, inspiring mantra.
  • Distract yourself by chatting with others.
  • Smile and cheer on other runners … even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Take deep breathes to keep anxiety down.
  • Use each aid station as a reset button.

These Rules Aren’t Meant to be Broken

I love a good rule-breaking rebel, and the ultrarunning community is known for its off-the-beaten-path (figuratively and literally) attitude, but there are times when falling in line pays off.

This is one of those times.

You just poured countless hours and miles into training for this race. Now all that’s left is a smart execution and crossing that finish line.

And maybe a beer.

About the Author: Doug is an ultrarunner, coach, and the co-host of NMA Radio. Pick up his free eBook, Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner (And How to Become One).



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  1. Ian Davey says:

    Though my next race is a 42k it looks like an Ultra to me, this post could have been written just for me and my run around that volcano in East Java. Thanks guys.

  2. This was very helpful, thank you. I’m doing my first 50-miler in December and your tips are straightforward and make sense. I hope to hear more about ultra running and training!

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