How to start running ultramarathons
With tips and insight from Maggie Guterl
Let’s face it, ultras are popular because they are badass. Who wouldn’t want to try running 100 kilometres or even 200 on the weekend in some scenic location with a crew of like-minded pain-enduring compatriots, pushing your body to its limits and maybe even beyond!
Ultras are popping up everywhere and they are getting longer and longer. A 100-miler used to be the high-water mark for endurance running; now, it’s 200 or more.
Last week saw the inaugural running of the Cocodona 250, a massive race distance in searing Arizona heat no less. Recently, one of the most well-known ultras on the planet, the Barkley Marathons, was run and had no finishes once again. The last runner to finish was John Kelly in 2017.
But how does one get from a 10K to a 100K? We asked ultrarunning star Maggie Guterl for a little advice.
For Guterl, winner of the Cocodona 250 and the 2019 Big’s Backyard Ultra, it wasn’t so much a burning desire to run an ultra, but more a progression.
“I am not sure it was a conscious decision but I just kept getting drawn to longer and longer distances,” Guterl says. “In 2013 I think I ran over 30 marathons and then the marathon registrations began to dwindle and were replaced by 50-milers, 100Ks, and 24-hour races.”
She says, with ultras, it’s important to listen to your heart and your gut.
“If it speaks to you, go for it,” she says. “It's ok to be scared or nervous about it but don't let anyone talk you out of it if that is what you want to go for. I was sick to my stomach heading to the start of my first 10-mile race ever and now I find that hilarious. It's a natural feeling and all part of the journey.”
Like most who dabble in endurance sports, it was the test that hooked Guterl.
“I just love the challenges they offer and they pique my curiosity to go farther and farther and see what it is like,” she says.
Guterl says training for an ultra is similar to any other running event, just more.
“The training isn't too much different although now any shorter trail or road runs I do are just training for the longer stuff,” she says. “When we lived in PA there were ample road and trail races to choose from every weekend of varying distances but since moving to Durango, CO those are not so common so it is more of a create your own challenge or adventure.”
Guterl says the elements of training for shorter, faster races are still important for ultras.
“Scaling the workouts appropriately may be necessary but keeping speed and strength is important for any distance,” Guterl says. “Also, speed work is a great way to get the most bang for your buck when you are short on time. My coach Michele Yates was the first person to introduce me to speed work. I thought that was not a necessary part of training for an ultra. When I added it in, that's when things began to change for me and I began to realize I could do more than just finish."
A coach or a well-developed training plan is recommended. Guterl says she is always moving forward, adjusting, taking it all in.
“I am still learning to this day,” she adds. “‘Never stop learning. You can learn from the front. middle and back of the pack.”
Essential gear is also key, including a good running pack or vest with a water reservoir, rain jacket, and headlamp as invariably ultras involve running in the dark.
So when does one know they are ready for an ultra? Guterl doesn’t think there is any sort of formula anyone should follow. And she is speaking from experience.
Guterl’s first ultra didn’t go quite as planned, she says.
“I did my first ultra as a 24-hour on an eight-mile loop in the middle of July in Philadelphia,” Guterl says. “It was a disaster during and after I was in so much pain my legs felt like there were tourniquets all over them and I passed out cold in the bathroom that night after the race and woke up in a pool of sweat (I had lost over 12 pounds during the race and couldn't eat or drink after without throwing up).”
It is recommended to not just jump to a 100-miler or longer. Ultra distances begin at 50 kilometres. Perhaps Guterl would have benefitted from some prep races and a more gradual distance gain, but who knows? Sometimes you just have to go for it.
“Would that have been a good idea? Yeah, probably. But I survived and it's a good story. I say go for it whatever distance you want. I will say though that I put in six months of training beforehand and was running consistently for two years before I signed up for this,” she says. “That’s relatively new to running but if you are not a consistent runner maybe 50K or something shorter is a better option unless you want to totally wreck yourself and love suffering from start to finish — like I did I guess.”
In essence, running an ultra is a personal decision and requires at least a bit of moxie, but the rewards are worth it, for those who have taken the plunge.
“Anyone can do it if you want to. Does everyone want to? No! We are nuts mostly and a small majority of this vast running community,” Guterl says. “But the community is a rad one and the rewards far outweigh the struggle to get to the finish line. But would we do this without the struggle? Heck no! We do it because it is hard. You will surprise yourself by what you can accomplish so just go ahead and find out what you are made of.”