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Tips for your first Ultra

With a lot of us looking towards 2024 goals and races, I thought I’d put this piece together for anyone thinking of doing their first ultra. I’m no expert, but I wanted to share a few tips and pointers that I used on my first ultra that have stuck with me ever since.

Mindset is everything

You need to have a decent level of fitness to run an ultra (and this will be built up during your training), but just as important is to have a strong mindset. You need to be both physically and mentally prepared for it.

Personally, I found that having a positive mindset was almost as important as the physical fitness. 

You could be out on your own for hours. It could be cold, wet and dark. There could well be times that it’s going to suck and you’re seriously questioning your life choices…there could be occasions when all these things are happening at the same time, and this is when that positive mindset is required. 

Try not to let any negativity manifest otherwise it’ll start turning into doubt. When the going gets tough think about the things that make you laugh and smile. I always think about my family…. or all the food I’m going to enjoy when I make it to the end….

Work smart, not harder (but it’s still going to be hard!)

I don’t run at a competitive level so for me personally, a good result is just making it to the end. I always use the below ‘pointers’ to try and make the whole journey a little easier.

  • Don’t look at the whole distance, break it up into smaller bits instead. I never look beyond the next checkpoint/aid station. So, I’ll make my way to the first checkpoint. Take a couple of minutes to do my “admin” (refill water, refuel, sort kit etc), then get my head down and make my way to the next one and just keep repeating that process.
  • Act before you need to – don’t wait until you’re absolutely spent before having a rest. If you feel like you could do with a rest soon, just dial it back and take the rest now. Any energy you save will be 100% be needed in the latter stages. Honestly, no one cares if you’re walking!
  • Take on Fuel early. I usually start fuelling after 45 mins and then take on between 30-60g of carbs every hour, as well as a couple of salt sticks to prevent cramp. I also take regular sips of water instead of waiting until I’m thirsty. The steady/consistent fuelling will keep you going and you can also top up with any aid station treats. 
  • Where applicable make use of any drop bag. When I did the Isle of Wight 100km I could access my drop bag at the halfway point, so I split out all the kit I needed for the event into 2 (instead of carrying the full kit for the duration). I packed enough fuel for the first 50km, and then picked up the rest of the fuel and kit for the 2nd half from my drop bag.
  • Make full use of the aid station snacks and take some with you, even if you’re not hungry. That chocolate bar, bag of sweets or piece of fruit that you picked up 10 miles earlier can be a real morale booster.

Take your mind off the distance

If you run with a GPS watch, set the screen to the clock face instead of the distance stats. This always helps me shift the focus away from how far I’ve got left to run. There’s nothing worse than feeling tired and knowing you got another 20 miles left to run. For me it’s just one less ‘mental burden’ to worry about during the race

DNF = Did Not FAIL!

For me this could be one of the most important points, especially if it’s your first ultra. If you need to pull out of the race for whatever reason, then do not consider it a failure! The fact that you put yourself through the weeks and months of training and got yourself ready and onto that start line is a massive WIN. If you need to stop, then learn from the experience and come back stronger and wiser. There is absolutely no shame in it whatsoever. If it’s not your day, then it’s not your day. 

All the above are thoughts from a non-competitive point of view. I’m very much a part of the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ camp and I’d really encourage anyone who is thinking of entering their first ultra to take the plunge.

I’m still a new to the world of ultra-running and it is hard work, but I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding.

I mentioned earlier that I’m no expert, and I stand by that. I know this may sound cliché but if I can do it, then anyone can.

Good luck & happy running.

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