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Lessons Learned from My First Ultramarathon

And Yes, I Will Run More

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”

Dean Karnazes

On November 10, 2018, at 46, I ran my first ultramarathon. I had many reasons why I wanted to run one, and I wrote about it in this article. But I kind of went about it a little backward—I hadn’t run a marathon yet. While I had a good base, my longest race prior to my first ultramarathon was a half-marathon. So I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. 

If you listen to all the advice about running and progressing to longer distances, you will not find much on jumping from a half-marathon to an ultra. You also won’t find much on only taking four months to train for your first ultramarathon. But that’s what I did. And everything turned out fine. 

Could I have gotten a better time if I trained for longer? Would I have been less fatigued and in less pain if I ran a marathon first? Yes and yes. But could have and would have are irrelevant because it’s over, and I accomplished my goal which was to finish. I don’t dwell on what-ifs anymore and neither should you. 

Too many of us worry about getting things perfect when it comes to running instead of just enjoying the race and those around us. We have to strive for beating our previous times and beat ourselves up if we don’t get a personal best. And we end up not enjoying the experience as much. 

This is one of the reasons I signed up for an ultra. I knew I would have to slow down, pay attention to my surroundings, and take in the experience of running. I had to be present. And I’ve learned being present in the current moment is one of the best ways I could improve my life. 

So while my race was not perfect in terms of my pre-race goals, it was what I needed. That’s because I learned a few lessons along the way, and instead of looking at my not meeting the goals as a failure, I see it as a positive. I see it as something which can only make me stronger for the next ultra. Because I will run more. 

first ultramarathon
Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

“Pain and suffering are often the catalysts for life’s most profound lessons.”

Dean Karnazes

I started running seriously in April 2016 so I am not what you would consider an experienced runner. And if you would have told me back then I would run my first ultramarathon two-and-a-half years later, I would have laughed at you. I didn’t plan on running long distances when I started, I needed something to help regain control of my life. So I turned to running, and it has changed me in ways I hadn’t thought possible. It wasn’t the only change I made, but running has had the most impact. 

Some lessons I learned from my first ultramarathon also apply to life. It’s not limited to that experience. It carries over into everything I do. It makes me a better person, and it lets me know I can achieve anything if I’m willing to put in the work and suffer a little. Because suffering is a part of life. And the better we become at learning to handle that suffering, the easier it is to come out ahead. 

So I will use these lessons not only in my next ultra but everywhere else. And I hope they can help you too. These may not apply to you as everyone is different, and I am only an expert in myself. 

In no particular order, here are the lessons I learned from my first ultramarathon:

Allow enough time for training—when I signed up for the race, I had about 4 months until the start date. And while I had a good base, it wasn’t enough time to get acclimated to that distance for me. Plus, it didn’t allow a buffer time for the chance of injury which is what happened. I spent about a month trying to nurse an injury and didn’t get in the training I needed. I recommend at least 6 months to train for your first ultramarathon. If you have an injury which re-occurs, make sure you are doing exercises during training to prevent any problems with that specific issue—even if it’s not bothering you at the time. Looking at you, IT band. 

I carried way too much stuff on the run—while I had to carry enough water and nutrition for training runs, I didn’t need all of it for the race. My thought was to spend as little time at the aid stations and just carry what I needed but it was mostly extra weight I didn’t need to carry. If I had known, I would have only had a few items including some collapsible water bottles and some gels/gummies I trained with. I’m not sure whether it slowed me down but carrying the water and all the nutrition I did added to the stress on my body over that long of a distance. 

Learn the aid station locations—piggy-backing off the above, most ultramarathons will have well-stocked aid stations eliminating the need to carry all your nutrition or water. They are also usually near enough to each other given the length of the race. In the race I did, the aid stations were about every 6 miles so I didn’t need to carry everything in my pack. The volunteers and/or your crew can fill up your water bottles and re-stock your nutrition if needed so it shouldn’t take long to get in and out. Figure out during your training when you need the calories and base what you carry off of that. Also, learn what type of nutrition/foods will be at the aid stations. (Potatoes and salt are incredible!)

It is entirely possible to run your first ultramarathon without having run a marathon prior—as I stated earlier, I hadn’t run anything longer than a half-marathon except in training. And even then, it wasn’t much further. But you don’t have to progress through the distances as everyone else does. If you want to run an ultramarathon, do it. Just make sure you have a good base and put in the training. I would not recommend starting from the couch and jumping to your first ultramarathon, but if you’ve been running for some time and have completed a few races at longer distances, go for it! 

Don’t worry about time—this was the hardest for me, and to be honest, I don’t know if I will ever learn this lesson. I had a goal time I wanted to achieve and I found myself thinking about it a lot during the race. I pushed myself to get that time and was reckless in trying to keep up with others. Run your own race at your own pace. Completing your first ultramarathon is more important than running it in record pace. 

first ultramarathon
Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

Study the elevation guide—I was fortunate enough to live about 10 minutes away from the location of my race so I could run the same trail in training. However, what I failed to do was look at the whole course. There were several sections I hadn’t run prior, and the elevation change was more significant than I knew. These were the sections where I became a little demoralized. If I had known, I would have been better prepared, both physically and mentally. I would have run those sections in training had I looked at the elevation profiles in depth. 

Running an ultramarathon is a lot like life—there will be times during the run where you will want to quit and give up. There will also be times when you are feeling on top of the world and your confidence is soaring. There are ups and downs, twists and turns. Literally. You will feel like hell one minute and feel great 5 minutes later. And it’s a long race so remember a setback now doesn’t mean you can’t go on to finish what you started. It takes time, but every step forward gets you closer to your goal. So keep moving forward no matter what you encounter. Persist and have patience—everything will work out. 

Have someone you care about to celebrate with at the finish–completing an ultramarathon is an incredible accomplishment, and it’s even better when you can share that with someone. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner and am definitely an introvert, so my normal would have been to run the race, finish by myself, and go home. However, I realized events in my life which mean a lot are so much better when shared with people who you deeply care about and who also care about you. Because things which are important to you are also important to them. So ask someone who means a lot to you to be there. 

Have fun–this is my lesson for everything. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. Whether you are running your first ultramarathon, a 5k, or just going out for a leisurely jog, have fun. Be thankful you get to do all those things because many people can’t. Remember how blessed you are that you get to run. Enjoy the moment you are in. Chat with your fellow runners on the course and get to know those around you. I met several people over the length of the race from all over the country. And while we certainly can learn about ourselves over the course of an ultramarathon, we can also learn a lot from others. Stop and take some pictures along the way. Look at your surroundings and take in the beauty of the scenery and the moment. Have fun and enjoy the process. It’s an experience unlike no other. 

Bonus Lesson–wait at least a week until deciding whether you want to run another one. Your body will be sore and you will probably feel like crap for a few days. However, I will definitely run more. It’s addicting. I’d equate it to getting a tattoo or eating Pringles. One isn’t satisfying enough so you have to have more—and I’m not sure if the craving will ever be satisfied. But I will do my best to find out. 

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