How (Not) To Train for an Ultra Marathon

Going into my 50K two weeks ago, one of my only goals was to merely finish the race — and honestly I wasn’t completely confident I could.  This wasn’t just first-timer nerves or a lack of self-confidence, because I had a good reason to be somewhat anxious; according to everything I knew about ultra-running, I was woefully under-trained, which seemed like a pretty bad position to be in for one’s first ultra.

In fact, I specifically didn’t write about my training here, and avoided talking about it in general, because I was almost afraid I’d jinx myself if I told anyone how little I was doing anything that resembled “training.”  I figured if I DNF-ed I would learn a valuable lesson and could share it with all of you here, but if I succeeded, I could chalk it up to an “un-training program,” like what Jason Robillard did before finishing Western States in under 24 hours.

Since I not only finished but had a great race, I can safely tell you how not to train for a 50K.  Or rather, how to not train for one.

***

There are pretty much four rules to training for an ultra-marathon:

  1. You need to follow a long training program for at least 16 weeks.
  2. You need to do lots of long runs (12-20 miles)
  3. You need a number of back-to-back long runs on the weekends.
  4. You need to train on terrain similar to what you’ll be racing on.

I didn’t follow a single one of these rules.  That’s why I was nervous.  Breaking one or two would be a bit maverick.  Not doing ANY of them?  I was worried I was being over-confident or at least naive.  Because I wasn’t just breaking them — I was utterly ignoring them.  Let’s recap.

  1. You need to follow a long training program for at least 16 weeks.  When I was training for the 50K back in January, before our housing debacle caused me to miss it, I had a 16 week training schedule.  I had a calendar taped to my wall at work, with runs during the week and long runs scheduled on the weekends, including a marathon in November.  After I decided I’d run Bear Mountain, I initially set up a truncated 12-week training program, but I quickly realized there was no way I was going to follow it.  With the new house, kids, school, and A applying for her job, I couldn’t commit to any long-term plan.  So I just ran when I could.
  2. You need to do lots of long runs (15-20 miles).  Not only did I not do “lots” of long runs, I really only did one, and that was only barely a long run.  Looking back at my training log, I did a 15 mile run January 30th, nothing over 7 miles during February, nothing over 5 miles during March, 13 miles on April 28th, and then 50K on May 5th.  My total milage wasn’t even up with my average: 70 miles in January, 106 miles in February, 112 miles in March, and 68 miles in April.  This isn’t a fraction of training for a road marathon, let alone an trail ultra.
  3. You need a number of back-to-back long runs.  Since I didn’t do any long-runs, I obviously didn’t do any back-to-back long runs.  And this is supposed to be the key-stone of any ultra-training program.  Oops.
  4. You need to train on terrain similar to what you’ll be racing on.  This was actually what had me most worried.  Running on trails is very different from running on roads — the hills work different muscle sets, as does the uneven terrain.  You have to pick up your feet to get over rocks and logs, move sideways and watch your footing.  Everything I read and everyone I talked to said I should do most of my training on trails, or at least some major runs on trails, and I did . . . none.  At all.  The last time I rain on a trail was April 30th, 2011, over year ago.  I did all my running — all my short runs — on the roads of Brooklyn.  And I was planning on running a trail ultra in the mountains.

****

Common sense would have had me DNF-ing half-way through the race.  So why wasn’t my race a disaster?  I don’t have a good answer.  I assume part of it is that I have a pretty good base-level of running fitness.  I’m not as hard-core as a lot of marathoners and ultra-runners, but I commute to work 5 days a week on foot.  That’s a lot of slow, steady running under all conditions: early (when I’m tired), at the end of the day (when I’m tired again), in the rain, wearing a pack.  It’s just a theory, but I think my minimalist running helped a lot, too.  Running in zero-drop, non-supportive shoes works out different muscle groups and strengthens your legs, so I think I had stronger muscles than my road-running would suggest.  Bare-foot running form also gets you off your heels and makes you lighter on your feet, with a quicker cadence and a higher step.  There was very little adjustment needed when I got on the trails, as my legs and feet were used to the motions needed to navigate the rocky paths.

I’d like to say the rest was stubbornness, but I never thought of quitting.  Which is why it was such a success: it was hard, yes, but not unreasonably so.  I don’t know how it went so well with so little training, but it did.  It’s funny to look back at how uncertain I was when I signed up for the race months ago, but that uncertainty made sense.  Now I can join the rest of my crazy ultra-friends in encouraging others to sign up for ridiculously long races they aren’t at all prepared for.  Hey, it worked for me.

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About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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5 Responses to How (Not) To Train for an Ultra Marathon

  1. Sally says:

    AWESOME!! Tha gives me such hope!! I am striving to run a trail ultra in northern Mn if/when my achilles heals-but-a big BUT-I have NO similar terrain here-mostly road running and gravel roads.I was worrying about the same thing.Also I prob won’t have enough time to get any extreme mileage in either.So you have given me hope.Of course you are about / a century younger than me-so ya knwo I may be dreamin!! But at least I have hope.Actually for me-piling on the mileage for weeks seems to injure me anyway.I think the key to your success is totally your runs to work.Ho wmany miles is it? Great writing as always!!

  2. Sally says:

    ok a 1/2 century younger

  3. runariran says:

    I think that’s great! I agree with you that your minimalist running could have some to do with it. Although I don’t run consistently in minimalist shoes, when I do run in them, I notice that my legs feel stronger. Well done!

  4. PPC says:

    Hi,
    I jut found your blog in the course of googling baby performance double review – I came upon the excellent review you wrote in February when you had first acquired your Baby Jogger double (for $60 no less… the bargain of a LIFETIME!!). I am a serious, fairly fast runner willing to invest some $ to get something I will really use but of course it is hard to find a place that actually carries stock so that I can test drive first. I was wondering two things: 1) now that you have had it 4 more months, do you still like it? 2) What do you think about the feasibility of folding it up everyday to store in a not-large storage area at the kids’ daycare?? I appreciate any insight, If easier you could e-mail me at piccolapinecone-at-gmail-dot-com or leave a comment on my running blog or else I will check back here. Thanks so much!!

  5. PPC says:

    Thanks a ton for the info you left on my blog. Strangely I found a used Baby Jogger Performance Double today for $300 (5X what you paid!) but the seat did not recline so I didn’t buy. Upon further reading and thinking, I think I will go for the Bob Dualie. Thanks again!
    p.s. how low does a person have to be to STEAL a double baby jogger???

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