How to Run Your First Ultra Marathon


 

Hello, I’m Brie and I’m an ultra runner. Whoa, that still feels weird to say! I remember not so long ago even hesitating to call myself a runner. Running was, and still is, a struggle for me. I'm almost 29 years old, 5'7, and athletic build. At face value, people might mistake me as reasonably fast based on appearance alone but truth is I'm not. To say I'm a mid-packer would be generous. I'd categorize myself as a mid-back of the packer, which can be its own challenge.

Like most of the things I’ve done, my journey to become an ultra runner was a serendipitous chain of events fueled by random chance, an open mind, and most of all, amazing influences in my life. It all began on May 29, 2013, when I watched my husband cross a half marathon finish line and thought to myself, “I’d like to do that too.”

Over the next three years I would run three full marathons, my first 50 km trail race, an epic 80 km adventure across the Grand Canyon (and back), and most recently, my first 100 km trail race.

Let Me Start At The Beginning …

 

Inspired to run a half, I found a training plan online and registered for a race that September. I began reading books on running since I knew practically nothing about the sport. I learned that the key to training is injury prevention and read inspiring stories of people who went from couch potato to running marathons. By the time my race rolled around, I already had my set my sights on a full marathon because if not now then when? That became my motto going forward. I was in the best shape of my life and I knew that if I didn’t set goals and challenge myself now, I might never accomplish them.

My husband gave me some great advice when I hesitated briefly as I typed my information into the online registration for the BMO Vancouver Marathon. He said, “What’s the worst that could happen? You will run a lot.” He was right and those words have stuck with me since. Even if I didn’t make it to the finish, or even the start line, registering for the race meant that I would be motivated to run more mileage.

Marathons were serious business and I was in the big leagues now. I knew I couldn’t do it alone so I convinced my friend Becky to do it with me. We joined a marathon clinic through the Running Room which taught us how to running a marathon, and in addition, opened the door to the running community and led to a lot of friendships.

We completed our first marathon in May 2014, and boy was it tough! Becky dragged me through the last 15 or so kilometers by telling me stories to keep my spirits up and my mind off how exhausted my body was feeling. But nothing makes you forget the hours of self-inflicted suffering quite like a finish line! The inevitable question gets asked … “Are you going to do another?” Yes.

My friend Chris, who I had met through the Running Room clinic, finally convinced me to try trail running during the fall of 2014. It was a whole new ball game with mountains, wilderness, and an excuse to buy new gear. I picked up a pair of trail runners and a hydration pack, which is far superior to its awkward cousin, the hydration belt. I soon met Dayna, Kyle, and Courtney and many other amazing people and became part of an incredibly supportive group we call our “trail family.”

By the end of the year I had registered for my first ultra marathon, the infamous Squamish50 held in August 2015. The 50 km race boasts technical trails and 2500 m (8500 ft) of elevation gain including a 2500 ft climb aptly named "Galactic Scheisse." There is also a 50 mile distance and, for the clinically insane, the option to do both - 50 mile on the Saturday and 50 km on the Sunday. A few of my crazy friends, of course, chose to do this challenge, called the 50/50.

My First Ultra!

 

Like everything else I had done up to this point, I was nervous and excited to run my first 50 km race. There was an electric energy to be at the start line with hordes of other trail runners around you. It’s too late to worry about the weather or your gear or all the things that could go wrong. At that point all you can do is trust in your training, run smart, and keep moving.

It took everything I had but I eventually made it across that finish line. I got my medal and a beer and then sat on the grass, kicked off my shoes, and celebrated with my husband, friends, and family. I was now an ultra runner and that was an amazing feeling.

I Think I Might Be Hooked:

 

Before even completing my first ultra, my friends had already planned a trip to traverse the Rim2Rim2Rim in the Grand Canyon – an 80 km journey from the south rim to the north rim and back again in one day. It isn’t an organized event – it is just a famed route among the trail community. Somehow they had talked me into going with them only a month and a half after my first ultra.

But first I had a few things to do. I got married, went on a 2-week honeymoon, and ran from a burning building. Wait, what? Well, it was more of a brisk walk. Our building had a huge fire which resulted in substantial water damage to the apartment we rented. Due to the extent of the fire, the whole building was forced to move out and to this day it’s still being reconstructed. Luckily, I got my passport and necessary gear from our evacuated building in time for our whirlwind trip to the Grand Canyon. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. 

We descended into the canyon at 5am as we watched the stars fade away and the sun rise illuminating our surroundings. It’s weird that I had never seen the Grand Canyon in person until I was several kilometers into it. Holy sh*t, this is amazing. THIS is why I run ultras – for moments like this that very few get to experience. I would have never been here or seen this if I hadn’t left behind all my doubts, left my comfort zone, and challenged myself to try something new and terrifying.

This was different than a race in many ways but most of all, there was no option to quit, no aid station volunteers that would drive you to the finish, heck, there weren’t even aid stations! There were, however, water taps that were likely (but not guaranteed) to be working, a camp by the river, a surprising amount of toilets (including one flush toilet!?), and a couple emergency phones.

Along with the emotional highs, there were definitely some emotional lows. By the time we had descended the south rim, climbed and descended the north rim, and started our final climb up the south rim, things were getting real. It was late and dark out. We still had about 5,500 feet of climbing to do and we were exhausted. Our packs were getting lighter because we had eaten most of our food.

Eventually we made it out. It was arguably the hardest thing any of us had done.

I Still Hadn’t Found My Limits:

 

Coming off the high of running the Grand Canyon, I decided to register for the Gorge 100k. I was so sold on ultra running that I didn’t even need to be talked into this one. Two of my friends registered too, including Chris who ran it with me.

It wasn’t long after that I realized the 12,000 ft elevation gain and 17 hour cut off time meant that I was really going to have to push my pace – something that hadn’t been an issue previously. I am by default a leisurely runner. I like to walk the hills, take lots of photos, chat, and enjoy myself (yes, even during races). This means I can easily take twice as long as the elite runners.

After five months of back-to-back weekend long runs and increased weekly mileage, I ran the Gorge 100k. I could feel the field slowly dwindling behind me as runners dropped or missed cut offs. But I was maintaining pace and making each aid station cut off with 20-30 minutes to spare. As I hit the last cut off, I knew that there were very few runners behind me but that I would make it to the finish line.

Technically I finished 15 minutes after the 17-hour cut off but I still received an official time on the results site!

What’s Next:

 

In September I will be traveling to Europe with seven friends to undertake a seven-day stage race called the TransApline Run. It traverses from Germany to Italy for a total of 250 km through the Alps and epic amounts of elevation. It will be my biggest challenge yet, and like everything else I’ve done, I’m incredibly excited and terrified!

How to Become a Runner or Ultra Runner: 

  1. Join a local trail or road running club or clinic. Then find friends with similar interests and glean knowledge from experienced runners.
  2. Read books about running. Here are a few recommendations:
  • Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training by Amby Burfoot, Bart Yasso, Jennifer Van Allen, and Pam Nisevich Bede
  • Marathon – The Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon
  • Hansons Marathon Method by Luke Humphrey and Keith Hanson
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
  • Eat & Run by Scott Jurek
  • Running Your First Ultra by Krissy Moehl
  1. Set a goal and find a training plan. Then stick with it.
  2. Run a lot – and don’t forget to enjoy every moment of it! 

Follow Brie on her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.