Last Updated on June 18, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
When I dove head first into the world of ultra running, I didn’t have much to go on, never mind anyone to warn me about what I was getting myself into. It was 2015, I was an established road runner, and had spent the last handful of years frolicking around in the mud as an obstacle course racing athlete. I assumed that ultramarathons would be a combination of the two, miles + dirt…with a bit more miles tacked on for good measure. So I blindly signed up for my first ultra.
In retrospect, it’s kind of hilarious how naive I was to the ways of the ultra world. I had no idea that I would take stupid risks, turn into a disgusting dirtbag, and meet some of the most incredible people in the world. Yet, I wouldn’t change my introduction to this sport for anything. Nevertheless, I thought I’d put together a post for you, full of the things no one ever warned me about when it comes to ultra running.
1. You can blister between your butt cheeks
Yep. I’m going to set the tone for this post by starting out with this fun fact: when you run far enough, your butt cheeks chafe. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…until it happened to me, mid 100K. And it’s really, really painful. So, my friends: lube up. Anywhere skin can rub against other skin, you’re going to want to liberally apply anti-chafing product. Trust me.
2. People will ask you “but why?” a million times.
When you mention to someone that you’re running an ultramarathon – and then explain to them exactly how far that is – they’ll probably ask something along the lines of “what’s wrong with you?” You’d think that after years in the sport you’ll develop a witty or even well thought out response. But more than likely you’ll just reply “I don’t know” and leave them extra confused.
They’ll also say things like “I don’t even like to drive that far“, which is the ultramarathon equivalent of “run forest!” that the rest of the running community often hears.
3. You’ll go through a ton of shoes
Running 50-60+ mile training weeks will have you blow through a pair of running shoes in 2-3 months. So, warn your bank account and put your local running shop on speed dial. This “free” sport gets mighty expensive.
4. Miles are Approximate
In the road running world, courses are often USATF certified, meaning the race director will measure, double check, and certify the distance for accuracy. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear road runners grumble if a course is a tenth of a mile too long.
Ultramarathon RD’s? More often than not, they subscribe to the philosophy of “ish”. Your race will be “50-ish” miles. 101, 102, 103 miles? Does it matter at that point (my legs certainly say it does!) ? Of course, part of the reason behind the “ish” is because ultramarathons are more often than not held on trails that aren’t “even” distances to begin with. You can’t just stop when your GPS watch says 50K…you’ve got to get to the finish line (which is usually a trailhead…and usually a solid half mile further from where you wish it was).
So, as one of my favorite race directors likes to say: “Deal with the ish.”
5. Ultrarunners share EVERYTHING.
I mean, EVERYTHING. Chafing between your thighs? Don’t worry, some complete stranger whose crew is set up next to yours will offer up their anti-chafe stick, and you’ll use it without second thought – germs be damned. But do try to avoid thinking about chafing butt cheeks – you don’t want to know where that stick has been.
6. Ultramarathons will break you.
You want to see what you are made of? Where your limits are? Go run a race that starts one day and finishes the next. You’ll find out.
Don’t get me wrong: marathons, half marathons, hell – even 5K’s – are an amazing accomplishment.
But a 100 miler (etc) will crack you open, chew you up, and spit you back out, leaving you to put the pieces back together as best you can. Like a bad breakup or divorce, you’ll be forced to deal with a version of “you” that you may not see very often. It’s a miserable, amazing, heartbreaking, and rewarding experience that will leave you a better person than you were before.
7. You’ll learn to become a pack mule
I remember, back in my innocent road running days, where I stressed for DAYS over buying the 16 oz handheld water bottle versus the 20 oz handheld water bottle. What if the 16 wasn’t big enough, but the 20 was too heavy?
WHAT IF IT SLOWED ME DOWN?
And then I started ultrarunning, and realized that more often than not, I’d have to carry enough equipment, food, water, and clothing to fend for myself on the side of a mountain for multiple hours on end. AND still carry a freaking handheld water bottle.
8. The Ultramarathon Community is One Big Family
In case you didn’t gather this from the above “we share everything!” statement: the ultra community is a family.
During my very first ultra, I was absolutely dumbfounded when the guy in the lead, winning the entire 100 mile race, stopped in the middle of the trail to have a solid 2 minute conversation with Geoff and I. He knew it was our first attempt at an ultramarathon, and he wanted to make sure we were having a good time.
Coming from a road running background, I was used to the competitiveness, the cliques, the cold shoulders. That’s not to say that the road running world isn’t awesome in it’s own right – it is. But the Ultra community? It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Of course, it only makes sense: you certainly form a bond while suffering through endless hours and miles together.
Plus – it’s a much smaller community. Don’t be surprised to see the same group of people at races, even when you travel 10-12 hours to get to them!
9. You’ll find normally disgusting foods absolutely appealing
Have you ever seen boiled potatoes in a can? If you haven’t, let me paint a picture. They’re cold. They’re oddly small, and haphazardly peeled. And they have been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long, just floating away in their slimy potato juice.
Simply put, they don’t look good.
But when you come across a can or bowl of boiled potatoes, 12+ hours into a race, they will be the BEST THING you’ve ever tasted. Slimy potato juice be damned.
Pro tip: dip them in salt first. That’s some 5 star aid station dining right there!
10. You’ll walk – a lot.
When I was a newer runner, I remember lamenting to a fellow runner about how I didn’t feel like a “real” runner – because I took a walk break in the middle of a half marathon. I felt that until I could complete these distances without nary a break in my gait, I wasn’t worthy.
And then I started ultrarunning.
Yes, there are some amazing athletes out there who can quite literally RUN 100 miles or more without stopping. But most of us mere mortals? We walk. It’s completely acceptable, and more often than not, encouraged…if you want to make it to the finish line.
11. Aid Stations are Black Holes
You may think that you’ll loose a lot of time taking bathroom breaks, or perhaps climbing gnarly peaks. But I’m here to tell you that the biggest black hole time suck of all in an ultramarathon…is the aid station.
Aid stations are like an oasis of happiness. Race directors somehow manage to get the cheeriest volunteers ever, who practically welcome you to their station with open arms. They feed you! They tie your shoes for you! They’ll do whatever they can to make your stay at their aid station feel so wonderful…
…that you don’t want to leave. And believe me when I tell you, 30 seconds turns into 15 minutes MIGHTY FAST when you start discussing how delicious grilled cheese sandwiches are with a complete stranger, when you should be tying your shoes and getting the hell out of there.
12. You’ll cry over ridiculous things.
You’ll cry, and not just because ultra running hurts. Low blood sugar and sleep deprivation do crazy things to your emotions. You’ll cry over the most ridiculous, irrational stuff – to the point that hopefully you’ll laugh at yourself crying.
You’ll cry because you’re convinced your shoelace that keeps untying has a personal vendetta against you. Perhaps you’ll remember something a friend said to you when you were twelve years old, and you’ll cry about it. You’ll cry because the sun isn’t coming up fast enough (it’s definitely something you did wrong, obviously). You’ll cry because there’s only orange popsicles left, and you’re convinced a red one would help you feel better.
You get the idea. The good news is this: blubbering, incoherent fools are not uncommon in longer distance ultramarathons.
12 A. You’ll likely also get really, irrationally mad at the people closest to you, just because.
You’ll snap at your spouse. Roll your eyes at your best friend. Shout “I DON’T WANT ANYMORE TAILWIND THANK YOU VERY MUCH” at your sister in your most sarcastic voice ever. Warn them ahead of time that it’s not you talking, it’s the distance. Then shove some calories in your mouth, and quit being an asshole.
13. You might hallucinate
I always associated hallucinations with terrifying visions. Creepy clowns hiding behind trees, or even trees trying to kill me. But the first time I hallucinated? I saw my car in the middle of the woods. Yep, that was it. My trusty Scion XB box car was just hanging out in the forest on the side of the race course, and at the time, I thought it was completely normal.
14. You’ll have no shame
“Hi new friend I just met on the trail! I’m not sure I can even remember your name right now, but hold on a second while I squat behind this bush and pee.”
Seriously, I thought childbirth was the ultimate test how shameless I can be, but ultra running brought it to another level. You’ll talk about the color of your pee and the frequency (and consistency) of your bowels with your crew. You’ll strip naked in a tent without bothering to make sure the door is closed (too much effort). And in case I haven’t mentioned chafing of the nether regions enough in this post: you’ll reach right up your shorts in front of everyone to reapply your anti-chaffing lube.
15. Ultrarunners are gross.
Actually, no, let me extrapolate. At the end of an ultramarathon, a runner may be covered in:
- questionable mud (why does it smell like a cow field?)
- sticky remnants of …is that tailwind? Or melted sour patch kids?
- sweat and/or crystallized salt
- whatever went on in the port-a-potty (use your imagination)
- bug spray
- so much body glide
- pickle juice
- bug bites
- poison ivy/oak/sumac
- the beer someone gave them at mile 97 that they took a few sips of but mostly spilled on themselves
AND THEY’LL STILL get in the front seat of your car as you drive them back to the hotel.
16. You’ll break up with ultras time and time again.
“That was the worst thing ever, I’m NEVER doing that again. Seriously, that was stupid. I’m done.”
24 hours to 6 months later “let me just take a peak at ultrasignup.com…”
17. Your life will never be the same
I promise. But I won’t tell you more than that. You’re going to have to find out for yourself.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.