How to choose your first ultramarathon

Six key factors to consider when choosing your first ultra race

When to run

It’s a fine balance giving yourself enough time to train while also choosing an ultramarathon close enough in the calendar that you’ll get giddy with excitement and terrified enough to actually get out and get the training done.

The reality is that there is no ideal length of time to train as it all depends on your personal circumstances and your own level of fitness. Your ultramarathon can happen in two months time or in six months time, the important thing is to map out a process that will see you at that start line ready to go.

While it is true that a jump from marathons (or any distance under that) to ultramarathons will see an increase on your mileage when training, it’s important to remember that you don’t actually need to run a whole lot more when training for an ultra. You certainly don’t need to get anywhere near 100km in a training run when you’re training for a 100km race. Focus on time on feet and consistency in your training. Commit to a few short runs and one long run every week and be mindful of what your body shows it can do.

Ultra runners have a ‘time on feet’ motto. Simply spending time on your feet is good training for an ultramarathon. So too is being outdoors. Sitting in an air-conditioned office is not going to help with training – but if you can get outside and mow the lawns (assuming you are not using a ride-own mower), plant the vege garden or carrying a baby around the house – it all helps.

When it comes to the question of “when” to do your first ultra, the season is also an important consideration. Heat and cold weather are important factors that affect any race so, for your first ultra, choose the one you’re most comfortable running in – but also be prepared for the fact that the weather could be completely different to what’s expected for that time of the year.

Whether you have two or six months to train, there are a ton of online resources and training plans to get you ready for your first ultra so find a plan that suits your lifestyle and get cracking as soon as you finish reading this article.

Finishing an ultramarathon race

Where to run

The terrain and difficulty level of your first ultra is an important consideration to keep in mind.

It’s easy to get severe wanderlust from all the YouTube clips of people running on some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth but it’s also important to treat your first ultra as a stepping stone to bigger goals. In other words, don’t get overly excited and bite more than you can chew.

Choose an ultra that feels like a natural progression from the races you’ve done before. If you’re used to running up and down mountains, go forth and sign up for that hilly ultra without fear. If, however, you are more used to flatter trails or are new into trail running from road races, we suggest starting out with a trail that isn’t too mountainous.

Also, choose a course that you can emulate during your training. You don’t want to be stuck training on flat roads if you signed up for a mountain ultra so, whatever race you choose, ensure your training matches what you’re training for.

How far to run

In general terms, anything over a marathon distance is an ultramarathon. However, not all ultras are born equal. 50km, 75k, 100k, 100 miler… there’s a whole lot of distances to choose from so we suggest you study them well before deciding which one to bite first (let’s face it, it may be your first one but you’ll be hooked and it won’t be your last).

We suggest starting with a “shorter” of the ultra distances and build it up over the years. This will increase your chances of succeeding and boost your confidence for the next race.

Research, research, research and then research some more

There are more than 12,000 trail running races across the globe, so you have some choice. If you’ve narrowed it down to an ultra that you think you’d like to run, read every race report you can find about it, preferably from different years (as different weather conditions make for different races). Join Facebook groups with people running the same race and get tips and advice from those on the same boat as you.

Ultramarathons are much better shared with a friend

Embrace the challenge

Whatever race you choose, it is going to change your life. Few things we do in our life get to define us the way an ultramarathon does. Make sure you choose a race you feel is worthy of your first ultra-distance run. The day after your first ultra, you wake up an ultramarathon and that is a label that will never leave you, a badge of honour to wear with pride. Choose a race that you will be happy to look back on as your first ultra (and one you’ll hopefully be happy to return to over the following years).


Hold onto that moment

In the minutes, hours and days after you’ve completed your first ultramarathon, you’ll feel 10-feet tall and utterly invincible. The feeling will fade with time (unfortunately), but you should be very conscious of embracing the moment. Dream up new challenges, set some audacious goals, work hard and achieve them. You’ve just completed something that 99.99% of Kiwis never will. That makes you pretty darn special.

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