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Getting Into Ultra Running: Are You Crazy?

Wanting to run more than ten miles over rocks and mountains cannot be called a sane wish. Not that I’m trying to call you crazy. But you are crazy.

It’s okay. So am I. Anyone even considering dipping their toes into a sport called ultra-running had better be crazy—running 12, 15, 25 miles at high altitudes over steep, rocky trails under the burning summer sun is exactly as difficult as it sounds. And then some.

This is the point where most people will try to tell you all about how long-distance trail running is a mental game. How if you can just overcome your brain’s insecurities and limitations you will be free to run any distance you dream of. Visualize it, and it will happen! Sorry, but no. Think about it all you want; it’s your legs that are doing the work. So, it looks like you’re going to have to do this the old fashioned way. Hard work, with a heaping side of brain-deadening effort.

First of all, you’ll need to up your mileage. Upping your mileage is as simple as, well, upping your mileage. Try adding on a mile a week. Too much? Try a half a mile. Weekly mileage is at least as important as miles per day. Run long, but run often, too.

The second change you need to make is letting go of minimalism. Running in just your shorts, shirt, and shoes may feel purer, but if you want to tackle serious double-digits on trails, you’re going to need to bring a few things with you. Not much, mind you, but at least the bare essentials: water and food. Both can be carried with any number of high-tech devices, from pro-level racing vests to less-than-hip hip packs (don’t call them fanny packs!), but I do recommend keeping it small. Even a half a liter of water and a pouch of energy gel can help make the difference between bonking and breaking a personal record, so don’t lose all your minimalist idealism. Just temper it with the very real realization that in order to conquer double-digit distances, you’re going to need a little food and water.

The third big change you need to make is pacing. There’s nothing quite so exhilarating and challenging as trying to maintain a 5k pace up and down a mountainside, king-of-the-mountain style, but running for distance isn’t about top speed. It’s about maintaining speed. Too fast and you’ll burn yourself out before the first ridgeline, too slow and you might as well walk. Somewhere around nine minutes per miles you’ll find a sweet spot. A spot that lets you put your legs on autopilot and just cruise. Work on your pace. Cultivate it. A good pace should be able to take you anywhere from 10 to 20 miles. Any farther, and you’ll likely have to find a lower gear to grind. But that’s a tip for another time.

To be sure, making the move to long-distance trail running isn’t easy, but with plenty of positive thinking and daily self-affirmation, you can achieve anything.

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