There are a lot of questions you have to take into account when picking your first ultra marathon. With the primary being, will you survive? Besides that, there are a few things you can do to guarantee your first race will be an enjoyable experience. And thankfully I have made all the mistakes for you, so you don’t have to. These includes things like setting a budget and what you should know about the course before signing up. To save you a lot of trouble I’ve put together a list of tips for picking your first ultra marathon!
You also may be interested in 5 Things I Wish Someone Told me Before my First Ultra.
Tips for Picking Your First Ultra Marathon
Where to Look
When looking for an ultra you really only need to look at one place, UltraSignup.com. The unquestioned king of ultra races, UltraSignup will also keep your race history and is used by a lot of the tougher races to verify are qualified. So start building your UltraSignup history early!
Set Your Budget
Races have gotten expensive in the last few years. With 50k prices ranging anywhere from $50-$150 based on who is putting on the event. There can be a lot of benefits to higher end races. Including better swag, finisher medals, aid station, and post race food. While cheaper races will often be very minimalistic. Including being self supported (ie bring your own food/no aid stations). So just have in mind what you want to spend and understand the benefits that come with the price tag.
Find an Established Race
I have nothing against new races. But for your first race it’s best to find a race that has been around for a few years. This just means they will have the bugs worked out and will typically lead to a smoother race experience for the runners. From parking and check in to course marking and aid station placement. These are all things that play a part in a great race day experience.
Fun fact about ultra running, most 50ks are not actually 50k. Based on the course, they are often a couple miles shorter or longer. I’ve run 36 mile (58km) 50k before. This is another reason to choose an established event. Do your research beforehand and make sure you are ready for what you are getting yourself into. Most races will include an elevation/distance profile or gpx you can load to see the distance.
Course Elevation Profile
Not all ultra races are created equal when it comes to difficulty. There can be a huge difference in elevation gain/loss between events. And depending on your comfort level and what you’re looking for in a race, this really makes a difference. Flatter races will be faster with more running. Big elevation will mean more power hiking and brutal down hills. One more thing to research before signing up!
Actual Elevation of Course
Different from the elevation profile of the race is the elevation the race is being run at. For example one of the most famous 100 milers in the Leadville 100. While the course and elevation of the profile are not extremely challenging, the race hits elevations of over 12,000ft. This in itself can create issues for people. Especially if they are coming from lower elevations and have not had time to acclimate. Higher elevation races will be tougher than lower elevation races.
Time of Year / Weather
The time of year a race is held can have a huge effect on how the race is run and the potential weather you may face during the race. Running in the summer is going to be different than running in the fall. Cooler weather is going to make for an easier overall race day experience. So if you’re looking to perform your best at your first ultra, look for a race in the early spring or fall months. These also tend to be the times of year the majority of races are held, so you should have your choice of events.
Aid stations are one the best perks of running an organized ultra marathon. And how a course is laid out and the number of aid stations can also make for a much more enjoyable ultra experience. Ideally you would like to see an aid station every 6-7 miles. Near the top or button of any major climbs. And you should always expect a few of the typical aid station standards like water, gatorade (or similar), coke, chips, pickles, M&Ms, etc.
Note: If you have dietary restrictions you should plan on bringing your required food. But also feel free to contact the race director in advance to ask for an aid station food list.
If you can think of anything I’ve left off, let me know in the comments below. And I’ll add it to the list!