Picking Your First Ultra

It used to be that the ultra world was super small, with only a very limited number of races to choose from. That is no longer the case. With over 1,800 races listed on RunUltra now, there is a staggering array to choose from with distances from 50Ks to multi-day events over hundreds of miles, all over the UK and worldwide. There are lapped events, out-and-backs, road races, mountain races, fell races, races that pamper you with beautifully-stocked aid stations, and races which are totally self-supported.

If you know you want to run an ultra, how are you meant to choose from this huge range of different races? Should you just plump for one which is local, or which sounds ‘easy’? A lot of people recommend a jump from marathon to 50K as the way to first dip your toe into the world of ultra-running. I’m not so sure.

Bear in mind that when you’re training for an ultra, the mere fact that it is an ultra is often not enough to keep you motivated through your training. Sure, it’s cool to tell people that you’re ‘training for an ultra’, but the novelty wears off after a while and you may need some extra motivation to get you through your training plan. You’ll be devoting a lot of time to this, so make sure it’s something that really inspires you. For me, at least, running laps of a car park just doesn’t cut it.

Was it easy? NO. Was it motivating? Oh HELL yeah!

The first race I booked was on the Jurassic Coast. The coastal path does not make for an easy run. It’s steep, technical, and just doesn’t let up. The race was 82 miles long, had a 24-hour cut off, and a DNF rate of around 50% of the field. Not a ‘typical’ first ultra.

But it worked for me. I love the Jurassic Coast. It’s absolutely stunning, and being a dinosaur- and fossil-nerd I love the history of this part of the country. I love running by the sea, and the thought of being able to see (or hear) the sea most of the way through the race was really motivating to me. I also wanted to recce the route, not only because it was sensible, but also because I like spending time on the coastal path. The DNF rate and harsh cut-offs for the race actually acted as a spur for me to train hard, to prove to myself that I could make it through.

Now that’s a view to train for.

So what factors should you think about when booking your first ultra? Have a think whether there is a part of the country you think you’d be really motivated to run in. Does the Jurassic Coast float your boat? Maybe you’re drawn to the wild beauty of Dartmoor or the North Yorkshire Moors?  The Peak District? The Pennines? The Lakes? The Fens? The Brecon Beacons? (God help you!) There is beautiful scenery all over the UK and beyond to run in, which will make for an awe-inspiring first race that you’re motivated to train for and run.

Maybe you have a group of running pals who might want to sign up for a race all together. Why not chat to them about signing up for an ultra, find out if there’s an area of the country where you’d all like to run, and look for races there? That way a recce can become a really fun pals’ holiday, and you’ll be motivated to get out for training runs as a group.

If you’re a nervous runner and a bit apprehensive about a first ultra, why not go onto running groups on Facebook like Trail and Ultra Running, Trail and Ultra Running UK, Ultrarunning Community, Ultra Running Mums etc and ask for advice on races which are really well supported. These groups are great places to get race advice generally, and you’ll end up with a massive slew of race recommendations that you can check out and pick from. It’s also a big boost, if you are nervous, to hear from others who have completed the race, and you can ask for kit/shoe advice while you’re at it. Race reports are also great to read so you know what to expect.

If you’re a bit more gung-ho, like me, maybe look at races which have in-built challenges that will spur you on to train hard and build up your mental and emotional resilience. Is the terrain quite tricky? Is there a high attrition rate? Is the race a massive step-up in distance from what you’ve done previously? Just make sure if you take this approach that you work on identifying skillsets that you need for the race which require work, and then work on them. I ended up getting lost, despite knowing that map-and-compass navigation wasn’t my strong suit, and having been told that the race was tricky to navigate at night. Reader, don’t do this. It probably cost me an hour of my race, and meant I had to absolutely gun it to make the race cut-off. If you need to work on navigation, hiking strength, running while fatigued etc. then make sure you actually do work on these things before race day!

And that’s it! Choose a race that inspires and motivates you, in a lovely place where you actually want to run. Plan to run with friends if you fancy. Choose a really well supported race that other people love if you’re nervous, or a tough-sounding race that will take you rocketing out of your comfort zone if you want a huge challenge. Most of all, choose a race that sounds fun. You’re going to be training for this a lot. Make your race worth it.


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