I have a few friends that are beginning to dabble in ultras, and are going through the process of choosing a race. In some cases, it is their first ultra. In other cases, they’re looking for a longer ultra after successfully completing a shorter ultra. At any rate, here’s a quick guide to choosing a race.
Step one: Assess your abilities. Specifically, what are your strengths and weaknesses? Do you prefer flat courses or hilly courses? Are you better in hot weather or cold weather? What about humidity? Do you prefer technical trails with lots of rocks and roots, or do you prefer asphalt-flat surfaces? Do you need a race that offers a lot of support or crew access? How about a pacer? What about elevation? If you live at sea level, an ultra in the mountains may be difficult.
The key to this stage is to play to your strengths. Personally, I prefer a course with technical trails and a lot of climbing. I’m not a very good on flat courses. I also prefer heat over cold. I prefer a course that offers good crew access, but am at a point where it’s not necessary.
Step two: Check out races. The best calendar can be found on Ultrarunning Magazine’s website. They use a ranking system to assess the terrain (elevation) and surface, which can be used to match a course to your abilities. This is their system:
1 = flat or nearly flat
2 = rolling, total climb up to 50 feet per mile (2500 feet in 50 miles)
3 = hilly, total climb between 50 and 150 feet per mile (2500 – 7500 feet in 50 miles)
4 = very hilly, total climb between 150-250 feet per mile (7500-12,500 feet in 50 miles)
5 = mountainous, total climb more than 250 feet per mile
1 = paved or very smooth surface
2 = mostly groomed trail or dirt roads
3 = trail or dirt road with some rocks, root, and/or ruts
4 = trail or dirt road with substantial rocks, roots and/or ruts
5 = very rough trail
Hardrock, one of the toughest 100 milers, is a “5-5.” Western States is a “4-3.” Hallucination 100 is a “2-3.”
If you like flat courses, stick to courses with a 1 or 2 ranking. If you like elevation changes, choose 4 or 5. For surfaces, if you like smooth, easy trails, choose a 1 or 2. If you like gnarly trails, pick a 4 or 5.
Another great tool is Gary Wang’s realendurance.com “Relative Race Finish Time” tool. It can be found in red lettering on the left side of the home page. It compares finish times of all individuals that run various races to create a relative ranking system. Western States is the benchmark race, which is scored a 100%. Easier races are less than 100, more difficult races are more than 100. The tool ranks most ultras, not just 100 milers. In almost all cases, faster finish times equates to flatter, less technical courses. Most people would find these races easier.
Pick a handful of races that are within an appropriate time frame and geographic location.
Step three: Read race reports. A race report is an account of the race from the perspective of a runner, crew member, or pacer. These first-hand stories are tremendous tools for learning about the nuances of specific courses. One single report can be useful, but sever can be invaluable. They will give you a good feel for the nature of the race, both good and bad. This info can be used to decide if a specific race fits your abilities and preferences.
Race reports can be found in a wide variety of places, including blogs and ultrarunning forums. The best way to search is Google- search “[name of race] race report.”
Step four: Sign up! If you’re balking, try drinking copious amounts of beer or wine. Once you sign up, tell anyone and everyone you know. That will add to the pressure to train and not back out at the last minute.
There you have it- four steps to picking the ideal ultra. Have fun!