How to Transition from Marathons to Ultras

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When Carrie Satterfield crossed the finish line after a November marathon in Wynne, Arkansas, she felt a longing. By all measures, the race had gone extremely well for her—Satterfield’s time was a personal best and she placed third in her age group. None of that mattered, however; she wanted more.

“I knew immediately, ‘I think I’m ready for a 50K.’ It’s not time I’m chasing, it’s distance,” said Satterfield, a resident of Conway, Arkansas. She spent her first hours back at home searching for an ultramarathon. She settled on the War Eagle Trail Running Festival, which takes place every June near Rogers, Arkansas.

But making a transition between a marathon and an ultramarathon comes with a fresh set of challenges, which she worked to prepare herself for during the seven months between races. Just how does someone know they are ready to take on those five extra miles (or more)?

“It’s about people who are determined to do something special,” said Shannon McFarland, who has completed more than 100 races of marathon distance or greater since running his first 50K in early 2010. Among the races he’s completed is the notorious 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in California.

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For McFarland, readiness came when he couldn’t fight off the peer pressure of a group of ultrarunning friends. They asked him to run a 50K, and he decided to give it a try. In retrospect, he believes he successfully transitioned into ultras because he had two things—discretionary time and some disposable income.

“I’m a firm believer in a regimented training plan,” said McFarland, who lives outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The major difference between a marathon training plan and one designed to prepare a runner for an ultra is the addition of a second weekend long run. The goal is to run on tired legs to simulate the conditions that manifest at the end of an ultra, McFarland said.

Stormy Phillips, a Road Runners Club of America-certified coach based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, agrees. “You need to get used to running when you’re out of energy,” Phillips said. He also advocates for his trainees to judge their weekends in terms of time spent running instead of distance, which discourages someone from trying to speed through a run and diminish the quality of the one that follows the next day.

He also encourages would be ultrarunners to watch a race before they attempt the distance. Understanding the mindset of successful ultrarunners, and the common pitfalls that force them to get a DNF, can be helpful. It’s almost never because a runner’s legs give out. The more likely culprits are hydration, nutrition or problems caused by the way a runner’s gear or clothes are cooperating with their body.

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“If you can control chafing and your stomach, you can run forever,” Phillips said. With that in mind, he suggests potential ultrarunners switch away from energy gels during training and focus on solid foods, which is also more in line with what is provided at ultramarathon aid stations. As for gear, no one should be running in a pair of shoes or a hydration vest they don’t already know well. “If it doesn’t feel great right away, it’s not going to feel better on a long run,” he said.

Before her race, Satterfield pieced together a training plan based on what she knew was successful for her recent marathon. She added a second long run to her plan. She peaked at a 56-mile week, and used a 10K and a 15K race to help her get in miles when she might not have found the motivation otherwise.

The morning of the 50K, her hydration pack broke, so she went without one, instead of relying on aid stations to keep her cool in temperatures that approached 90 degrees. The volunteers often knew what she needed before she did, she said. She finished the race, coming in as the fifth-overall female.

She turned around, drove home, spent the night with her family and immediately started looking for another race. “I liked it. I loved it. It gave me the feeling I wanted,” she said.

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