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How to Choose Your First 100 Miler (Or Any Other Ultra Distance)

Posted by on Jul 10, 2012 | 9 Comments

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 “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!






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  1. Adam Lawrence
    July 11, 2012

    The idea of self-sustaining ultras is brilliant. Basically, it would take ultralight backpacking to a whole new level (although the weight of a shelter, ground pad, and sleeping bag would be eliminated). People could carry filters or iodine tablets and water up at river crossings. Those w/ serious upper-body strength (and therefore the ability to carry more on their back farther and faster) would have the edge in a running event for the first time in modern history.

  2. Glenn
    July 10, 2012

    What are some psychology barriers you ultrarunners face? I am far cry from running an ultra, but I do try to push myself, so I am assuming I can apply those principles to my own training. Basically, what psychological obstacles do you face and how do you overcome them?

  3. Eric
    July 10, 2012

    Would that be 50 kilo kettlebell run or a 50 kilometer kettlebell run? Need to specify which part the “k” refers to. I suppose you could combine them and make it a really killer event.

    • Jason
      July 10, 2012

      I don’t think I could drag a 50 kilo kettlebell behind my car.

      You’d throw the kettlebell as far as possible, run to it, pick it up, then throw again. Repeat for 50k.

  4. Wild Runner
    July 10, 2012

    Another useful guide Jason. I had high hopes of getting into the ultra scene, but then starting throwing kettlebells around and lost the focus.

    Reading some of your posts has definitely got the idea back in my head, I’m gonna look at a realistic distance and start training again……….tomorrow!!!

    Cheers – Steve

    • Jason
      July 10, 2012

      A few of us runners that like to throw shit around have discussed a 50k kettlebell throw/run and/or “burpee up a mountain” adventure.

      Seed planted. 😉

      • Wiglaf
        July 10, 2012

        I would like to see this.

        • Jason
          July 10, 2012

          It would kill me, but it would be a fun death. 🙂

          • Bare Lee
            July 10, 2012

            Jesus, that’s a hellava good idea, and maybe have some javelin throwers who would start later, spotting the kettlebell throwers a certain amount of time or distance, and then try to catch up and pass them and win without anyone getting injured.

            I also like the idea of ultras where people have to carry all their supplies–no aid stations, just first aid stations maybe. That would be more like a messenger back in the day running between two urban centers, to announce the death of a noble or something.