Your First Ultra: What to Expect

Written by 2019 DBR Ambassador Steve Clark In the words of George Costanza, ‘The sea was angry that day, my friends.’ Whenever I’ve heard people…


Written by 2019 DBR Ambassador Steve Clark

In the words of George Costanza, ‘The sea was angry that day, my friends.’ Whenever I’ve heard people recount their very first ultra, it normally begins with a scene-setting line with equal parts pride, passion and pain.

My first ultra was the beautiful Traversee route of the Trail Verbier St-Bernard. Since that day, I’ve been fortunate enough to run some of Europe’s most stunning races, but that first one remains different in so many ways.

While I’ve categorized the below into two distinct buckets, it’s possible (and very probable) that they can each come at any time during your ultra, in no logical order, sometimes multiple times and most often completely without warning. But that’s all part of the mobile circus that you and thousands of others sign up for each year.

The Pain

The Nervous Nellies

On the way to your first start line, you can bet there will be nerves. What’s even better is that yours will be compounded by everyone else’s upon arriving at the event. There’ll be the quiet nerves, the loud nerves, the giggly nerves and maybe even the crying nerves. All of this rolls up into panic when surrounded by 50 fellow twitchy, (likely) overhydrated runners searching for a toilet. Plan ahead, friends!

The Self-Doubt

Basically, you’ll bring everything into question and you won’t get any answers at all. The best part? You’ll turn yourself inside-out with never ending cycles like:

  • Did I train enough in the last six months? Did I over train?!
  • Did I eat enough at that aid station? Did I eat too much?!
  • Am I peeing enough? Am I peeing too much?

You can insert almost any verb into that structure and chances are it’ll be a question that goes through your mind before (and during) the race.

Did I pack too much? Did I pack enough?

The Human Bowel Movement

The punches you’ll likely need to roll with on this one are many and often furious. How you’re doing on the points above will often determine how much hurt you’re in for here on the big day. There’s a reason you should get your nutrition and hydration dialed in before a race, but there’s no explaining why you just panic ate a jar of olives, a carving of Swiss cheese and two whole apples at that last aid station. Your stomach would turn simply sitting on the couch after eating all of that together. The ramifications on the trail are going to be far more… Explosive.

Emotions – The Lows

It’s difficult to describe just how many roads you’ll emotionally venture down on your first ultra. There are the superficial moments of random anger and disappointment, like when the guy you’ve been playing lead-tango with the entire day passes you for the twelfth time (while walking). Then there are the more existential crises that you’ll put yourself through, like the spiral of mid-race depression that starts with the question, ‘What must be wrong with me that I’m doing this to myself?’

Surprise Sniper Attacks

Depending on your preparations, you might get about 50% of the way through your first ultra before the first one hits. You’ll be feeling perfectly fine, moving at a good speed, and confident in your plan when suddenly there’ll be a sharp contraction in the middle of your hamstring, your calf, your quad, or maybe your toe. You’ll cramp without warning and in ways you never imagined, with an intensity only Lego landmine can rival. Normally, it will have disappeared within a few minutes and you’ll be on your merry way, but from that point forward the sniper will be with you. Waiting.

It’ll get your toenails too

False Summits, False Timing, False Measurement (One Big Wicked Web of Lies)

You have your map. You have your GPS watch. You have the distance, the altitude, the total ascent, the split from the last aid station, the sight of the next summit, the expected finish time. All of these will be wrong. Why? Because you’re running 50-plus kilometers through mountains with poor GPS signal while following a cartoon map of a route the race director probably drew at 3am one night while 10 beers deep. So, if you don’t laugh at the continued feeling of deflated anticipation and anticlimax, you will most certainly cry at some point.

The Gain

Peak Fitness

I would say that I’ve been a relatively active person since taking some first steps many years ago. But getting into gear for my first ultra required something on the next level. You’ll pay more attention to your diet (as much as raging, animalistic hunger can be called a diet). You’ll research training models like it was a PhD thesis topic. You’ll listen to the aches and pains of your body like you were a war-time code breaker and you’ll experiment with things you didn’t even know were relevant (e.g. full body lubricant). The result will be getting to the start line of your first ultra in the best shape of your life (probably lubricated in some way).

Emotions – The Highs

Just as the lows are there to bring your entire world crashing down, the highs are there to piece it all back together. Note that in no way will these highs be contained to only race-relevant topics. You’ll find enormous love for your family, friends and partners. You’ll create a fulfilling career plan. You’ll solve world hunger. You’ll remember where you lost the remote in the forgotten house party of 2004. At extreme points of exhaustion throughout the race, you will have moments of pure happiness and clarity that rival any Zen master’s teachings. My only advice is to drink them in.

The Internal Monologue

It takes mental strength to start, push through and finish an ultra. At any moment, you will need to tell yourself to get into a gear, ignore some distraction, focus on the next goal or reinforce the desire you had many hours earlier at the start line. If you didn’t know beforehand, you’ll quickly realize you have an inner voice that will keep you moving forward and drive you all the way to the finish line. If you need a more visual reminder to keep that monologue rolling, write a message on the top of your shoes, or inside of your forearm. The louder that voice is, the better.

The external monologue

Empathy and Compassion (From Others)

You could be running your first ultra anywhere in the world, and you’ll still experience an incredible feeling of support from everyone around you. There will be volunteers at aid stations who want (want!) to touch your sweat-soaked legs to massage away that lactic acid. There will be random strangers drunkenly playing trumpets in the forest at 3am to keep you awake and moving. There will be fellow runners who offer you their last gels, salt pills, water and anything else you might need because they see in your face that you need it. You will see the community that you so often hear about – and you’ll become a part of it.

Empathy and Compassion (Towards Others)

Just as people will be offering you help throughout your first ultra, you will become your own version of the ‘race whisperer.’ You will take one look at another runner and immediately empathize with the look of pure exhaustion or pain on their face. You will see a guy walking slowly down the trail like a cowboy because of the chafe he has between his legs, and give him a look of understanding and acknowledgement that puts a smile on his face (even if you don’t have testicles). That’s empathy.

Overwhelming Sense of Achievement

As Sir Isaac Newton discovered, what goes up must come down. Which means that in most mountain ultras, you’ll have already done a hell of a lot of climbing in the race before reaching some sort of final descent to that magnificent finish line. While you will likely not look it on the outside (with the crusted sweat, dried blood and probably some tear stains through the petrified mud on your face), that descent will feel heavenly. You’ll forget the pain in your legs, the rash in various places of your body, and the overwhelming desire to throw up. You’ll smile. You’ll smile like the big, beautiful idiot you are for breaking your body down to its core over the last ten (or more) hours and coming through to the other side alive.

A Vow to Never Do This Again

There’s one final piece to your first ultra that is a true certainty. You will, over and over again, tell yourself, ‘never again, NEVER AGAIN!’ You will never again think of this as a good idea. You can’t even remember why you thought it was a good idea to start with. You’ll be thankful you did it. ‘Better for the experience,’ you’ll say. But that chapter is closed. You’ll start thinking about your new hobby; the book you want to read. The beach you want to vacation on. The reclining chair you never want to leave. You’ll vow never to register for another ultra as this was the one and only pain train you’ll ever ride. Until tomorrow.

Run strong, Dirtbags.

It’s all over: Life is getting bright again.

This is Steve’s first article with Dirtbag Runners. Check out the blog for tons more!