Your first ultra will be hard, but picking the right race will make it easier
Runners move along desert slickrock in Moab’s Red Hot 55K. Photo by Chris Hunter / Hunter Imagery.
Running an ultramarathon is a huge physical challenge.
Such a race is, by definition, longer than a 26.2-mile marathon, itself considered a challenge and an enormous athletic feat. The undulation of unforgiving trails can tire your legs and will guarantee you move slower, taking longer to finish. The prospect of it all can be intimidating.
Running your first ultra is tough, but if you approach it right, you can make it a little easier. Here are some tips from star ultrarunners and coaches on considering whether you are ready, and if you are, which races will make for the best “rookie” experience.
Ultramarathons are technically any footrace longer than 26.2 miles, though 50K (31 miles) is commonly accepted as the shortest ultra distance. Ultras can be run on roads, but the majority of them, including the ones you read about here are run on trails.
Who can run an ultra?
A marathon is not a prerequisite to trying a longer distance, though it helps, according to Nike Trail Elite team member Chris Vargo, who recently won the USA Track & Field 50 Mile Trail championship and coaches runners of varied abilities at VargoRunning.com. “I like to have my athletes run at least one marathon before jumping up to the 50K distance, whether on the roads or on the trails,” he says.
Vargo also emphasizes the difference between trail and roads, which require different concepts of pace and stride length, and encourages athletes to run some shorter trail races first. “As for shorter distance trail races, I encourage everyone to get out there and give them a shot,” he says. “Most people fall in love with the trail community very quickly!”
Sage Canaday, whose resume most recently includes a course-record win at Utah’s Speedgoat 50K and who coaches through his website, takes a different approach. “Anyone who is capable of spending most of a day outside moving on their feet [can run an ultra],” he says. “While it certainly is valuable to have marathon racing and training experience as a background, I wouldn’t say it’s a prerequisite. What is more important is that a runner has trained to have done some longer runs of several hours or more.”
What distance is best to try first?
As the shortest ultra distance, a 50K might seem like the most logical choice for a first ultra, but it is not out of the question to jump up in distance to a 50-mile or 100K race with proper preparation. “[50K is] a really manageable distance and as long as the course isn’t too extreme with a vertical profile, it feels a lot like a marathon,” says Canaday, who notes his girlfriend, Sandi Nypaver, ran a 100-miler for her first ultra. “Those that have raced at least a marathon or have spent considerable time outdoors hiking or in the mountains could probably pull off a 50-mile or 100K as an ultra debut, but it really depends on the course profile and what the duration of the event might be.”
Vargo concurs that a 50-mile race or longer is doable for a rookie, though he says proper training for such a distance will require at least one run approaching 50K anyway. “I almost always have my athletes run a 50K at least five to six weeks out from their first 50-miler,” he says. “Even if they are veteran runners, it is good to knock out a shorter race as a warm-up for a goal race.”
The nature of the course might be a more important consideration than the distance itself. For example, a flat, runnable 50-mile race might be more manageable for a debut ultramarathoner than a rugged, technical 50K in the mountains. “When going into uncharted territory it helps to have a little safety net of not having to deal with mountain weather changes and extreme elevation change,” says Inov-8 athlete Yassine Diboun, who coaches though Animal Athletics in Portland, Oregon. “Once you complete the distance and gain confidence and experience you can push the envelope a little and venture to more challenging adventures and races.”
Picking the right race
A lot of factors go into picking the race that will ultimately be your first impression of ultrarunning.
A manageable course is one of those, but so are good race organization, good course markings and easy navigation, and good support and aid stations. It can be beneficial to pick a race with scenery and adventure sufficient enough to keep you wanting more … after your quads recover.
“For my new athletes, I recommend they run races that have a good reputation within the trail-running community,” says Vargo. “ I want them to have a great first impression of the sport!”
“Great organization, helpful volunteers, well stocked aid stations, and great post-race entertainment are a must,” he adds. “Obviously, it helps if the course is beautiful, too.”
Vargo, Canaday and Diboun all recommend a course relatively close to home, whether to minimize travel expenses or for the opportunity to train on the course.
“Having a local event that is close enough to train and prepare on is a huge advantage,” says Canaday. “Just knowing the course and having friends involved usually makes it a fun experience as well. That being said, using a race to explore a new area as a travel destination is also a blast.”
With that in mind, we asked each of these coaches which races they would recommend for a first-time ultrarunner. What follows is a list of 20 beginner-friendly ultras across North America, organized by region.
This 50K is run near sea level, with a maximum elevation of just over 1,800 feet. It boasts a challenging-enough but easy-enough net elevation change of 4,851 feet of ascent and an equal amount of descending. It’s also in March, plenty early in the year to serve as a launching pad for longer races in the summer.
Runners leaving the start of the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile. Photo by Alex Alcantar
Like Way Too Cool, this west-coast race is early in the year for athletes who want to use it as a training run for a longer race. It also has multiple distances, which allow runners to return in later years to attempt longer distances on a course with which they are already familiar.
“This race has a great race director [Keira Henninger], awesome support, and beautiful trails,” says Vargo, who competed in the 50 Mile in 2014.
San Francisco, California
This race is always a huge draw for the pros, but it boasts great organization and support that keeps not only the top talent, but also mid- and back-of-the-pack runners, coming back year after year. If you want a race with excellent aid stations and superb course markings alongside views of the ocean and the golden California hills, this race is for you.
Bonus: the race features several distances, so, like Sean O’Brien, you can complete a shorter distance one year then return to tackle a longer race on a course you already know.
Even in mid-March, the Chuckanut 50K is teeming with Pacific Northwest greenery. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Canaday actually made his ultra debut in this race, which features challenging-but-runnable terrain and lush, green, misty Northwestern wilderness beauty. And the organization is great. “Krissy Moehl is one of the best race directors out there,” says Vargo. “Plus, she is incredibly cool.”
Clackamas Historic Compound, outside Portland, Oregon
Diboun recommends this race, which runs on the Pacific Crest Trail in the shadow of the iconic Mount Hood, as an idea first 50-miler because it features two separate out-and-back sections from the start/finish area. “It’s comforting to know that you can break the run up into smaller, more digestible chunks and have well stocked and supported aid stations along the way,” he says. “It’s also not too much climbing and is nestled in the forests for most of the race.”
The 40-mile distance offers a challenge that goes beyond the “long marathon” of a 50K but won’t stretch newcomers to ultrarunning as badly as longer races. Besides that, Diboun recommends this one for the laid-back, community feeling that emanates from the post-race festivities. It’s also, notably, a dog-friendly event.
“The whole event, with all the dogs, the family vibe, and so on is so fun and supportive,” says Diboun.
This might not be the easiest first ultra – the course features lots of elevation gain and loss and peaks out near 9,500 feet – but there is something to be said about jumping in with both feet. Besides, the scenery on Colorado’s front range is hard to beat, and the race is very well-organized.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Quad Rock won’t be the easiest ultra for a first-timer, but it offers a true mountain ultra experience. Photo by Erin Bibeau
Directed by legendary tough-guy Nick Clark, this race is also not the easiest out there. But for those looking for a true taste of mountain ultras, this one is easy to get to and is as well-organized as races come.
“Quad Rock is the perfect race for lovers of long climbs and descents, and beautiful Colorado singletrack,” says Clark. “But it’s not all about the running at Quad Rock. We also celebrate the trail-running community at our after-party, featuring local brewers, live music, an awesome barbecue, a kids’ race and tons of fun giveaways.”
Boulder City, Nevada
For mountain views with a touch less climbing, Bootlegger offers a runnable course with just 4,400 feet of gain (compared to Quad Rock, which in 50 miles features over 11,000 feet). The two-loop course makes it easy to break the race into manageable chunks, and you can head to nearby Las Vegas to celebrate afterward.
Race terrain varies and offers something for everyone, from technical slickrock to wide, smooth service roads. Excellent organization and an after-party that merits its own section on the course website make excellent complements to this gorgeous trip through the red rocks of the southwest.
Bonus: the 2015 edition takes place on Valentine’s Day. Avoid accusations of selfishness from your better half as you devote endless hours to training by proposing that you run it, and train for it, together.
Cave Creek, Arizona
Or really, any race by Aravaipa Running, the prolific and highly-regarded race-directing service owned by the very speedy Coury brothers, Nick and Jamil. If it’s the weekend in Arizona or the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, chances are there is an Aravaipa race going on, and runners flock to them for their spectacular courses and superior organization.
Photo by Rick Mayo/Mile 90 Photography
This race, put on by the Kansas-City-based club Trail Nerds, features a 20-plus mile loop course in Clinton Lake State Park in nearby Lawrence. Don’t be fooled by your flat, yawn-inducing vision of a standard Kansas landscape; the race website warns that the mostly singletrack trails are rockier and hillier than you might expect. Come for the great race organization and stay for the after-party, which features vegan food options.
Kettle Moraine State Forest, Wisconsin
The Ice Age Trail features rolling, smooth singletrack that will challenge runners without breaking them. A supremely runnable course, first-timers looking for a relatively fast time, or unsure about being on their feet, all day, might find Ice Age and its multiple distance offerings a suitable challenge. Its presence on the Montrail Ultra Cup ensures excellent race organization, too.
Afton State Park, Minnesota
The two-loop 50K features well-stocked – and well-staffed – aid stations, and the excellent course markings are another hallmark of Rocksteady Running’s excellent race organization. For a taste of rocky and rooty climbs and descents that allow you to breathe on flat sections in between, Afton is an excellent option for a first 50K. Run the 25K the year before to get a good preview.
Ithaca, New York
Waterfalls are standard fare along the gorges of Ithaca’s Cayuga Trails 50. Photo by Joe Viger
Vargo, Canaday and Diboun have all raced this 50-miler – Vargo won it in 2014, as did Canaday in 2013 – and both Canaday and Diboun used to call “gorges” Ithaca home. Cayuga features plenty of challenging climbs and descents, but they are reasonably-sized and the spectacular waterfall views are worth it. For excellent organization, just the right amount of challenge, an unbeatable natural setting, and a reputation that draws elites and beginners alike, this race is one that will get you hooked on ultrarunning.
Hector, New York
The Finger Lakes 50K was Diboun’s first ultra, and he says the multi-loop nature of the course was key as he grappled with an unprecedented distance. “It was two 25K loops on a rolling, pretty easy course,” he says. “It was comforting to know that I’d be coming through that start/finish area halfway so I felt like I wasn’t way out in the middle of nowhere in case things went awry.” This race is also one of the best-organized out there – any race that has been around for 27 years knows what it is doing.
For those willing to try a 50-miler on their first go, the JFK 50 might be one of the more easily-runnable. Early goings on the Appalachian Trail give runners a taste of true trail grit, but the route soon takes you onto the C&O towpath, a gently rolling surface that takes you to a brief paved section before the finish. For a taste of ultrarunning history, and organization that keeps elite runners coming back despite a relatively small cash purse, check out this storied race.
Sylamore’s course is plenty challenging, with undulating trails and unpredictable weather, which in February in Arkansas can range from the 70s to below freezing. But the climbs aren’t huge, with the highest sections topping out around 830 feet above sea level. The out-and-back course on a well-traveled trail makes navigation a cinch for even the most directionally-challenged runners.
Steel Creek Park, near Morgantown, North Carolina
The views from the top of Table Rock will get you hooked on ultrarunning. Photo by Eric Loomis
The Table Rock 50K is not on the tamest course – it features around 7,000 feet of elevation gain – but it entails spectacular views of (and from) the towering Table Rock itself, considered one of the best climbs in the southeastern U.S. Well-stocked aid stations fuel runners through a variety of terrain, from technical singletrack to service roads, that will keep you engaged all day. It also runs in mid-October, adding the promise of fall foliage to an already beautiful course.
North Augusta, South Carolina
This race features a series of four loops along the FATS – Forks Area Trail System – in Sumter National Forest. Rolling, smooth, and runnable, the trails are almost exclusively singletrack, and they feature excellent course markings and plenty of well-stocked aid stations. The best part for beginners, wary of their ability to tackle this distance? There is no cutoff time.
Which races would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.