• Abby Heffern

Stupid Mistakes I Made During My First Ultramarathon

Your first ultramarathon is not an easy thing to prepare for. There are a lot of unknowns, and unlike a 5K, 10K, or even a half marathon, it's not like you can run 50 miles in training before you run 50 miles on race day. There's a finesse in preparing your body to run 50 miles without actually covering the distance, as well as a finesse on race day with your strategy and nutrition. Well-known ultrarunner Rob Krar once told me, "The farther you run, the less of a science it is and the more of an art it becomes."

If ultrarunning is an art, then my first ultra (which I ran in 2019) was a first grader's coloring book. I made A LOT of mistakes along the way, and learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Hopefully in sharing my mistakes and takeaways, you'll be able to run your first ultra a little smarter than I did.

I Ran Uphill: The course was a 12 mile out and back over dunes (welcome to trails in Florida) and I ran the entire first 12 miles, INCLUDING UP all of the sand dunes. Talk about a rookie move. At the time I was brand new to ultra trail running from road running and was still in the mindset of continuing to run no matter what and that it was “bad” to walk. I’ve since learned that fast hiking, especially uphill, is a really important piece to being a good ultrarunner. In an ultra it will always get to the point when trying to run uphill under such intense amounts of fatigue is usually about as slow as a fast walk- so you might as well save your energy and fast hike up the hills anyway. It’s also important to do this from the beginning- because as I learned watching two smarter women eventually overtake me later on in the race- being a hero for the first ½ marathon when you have 50 miles or more to run is pretty much pointless. Start with the pace and strategy you can envision yourself finishing with.

I Force Fed Myself in Hot Weather: I had always read how important it is to stay fueled and consume as many calories as your body will allow. I didn’t take into account how hot weather affects your digestive system- when it gets really hot your body starts to send all of your blood flow to the surface of your skin in an attempt to get rid of some of that heat. Therefore, very little blood flow is going to your digestive system- which is why we tend to lose our appetites when we exercise in the heat. Despite the fact that I wasn’t craving food, I spent the first few hours of my race crushing gels and chews anyway - and promptly started dealing with stomach issues. I’ve since learned that though you should try to consume whatever food you can- force feeding usually back fires. Now, I tend to rely on liquid calories instead which allows me to keep my body fueled while being easy on my stomach- and I consume foods that typically go well with hot weather- like cold avocados- intermittently throughout when I feel like my stomach is up to it. It should be noted that in colder weather I am most definitely able to spend more time eating solid foods.

I Spent 30 Minutes at an Aid Station: I can’t really be mad at myself for this one because I was absolutely WRECKED at that point in the race. But it’s always better to at least continue slow walking to cover SOME ground than get sucked in to sitting at an aid station. I got very close to not finishing under the cut-off and definitely wished I had at least continued moving in some capacity to save myself some of that stress later.

I Didn't Have Enough Miles Under My Belt: I am a BIG proponent of showing up slightly undertrained and healthy than overtrained and injured. But this was the beginning of my ultrarunning journey and I had done a lot of things wrong in preparation (jumping up in mileage too quickly, not running any consistent mileage, running too fast) that led to injuries and inconsistent training going into the race- so that I showed up undertrained and coming off an injury. I’m still happy I did it and I’m proud of myself for finishing- but it’s crazy to think how little I knew then about how to prepare and what the body really needs to be able to run that far. I have a completely different training methodology now than I did when I was getting ready for that first ultra almost two years ago- part of it comes from just knowing my body better, part of it comes from continuing to be around other ultrarunners who have spent more years in the sport than me, and part of it comes from just a better understanding of the training required to produce a body adapted to running 50 miles- without actually being able to run 50 miles before the race.

I may call these things “stupid mistakes” now, but they were necessary mistakes to be able to learn and grow within the sport. At the end of the day you never know what’s going to happen over 50 miles, no matter how prepared you are, which makes each race an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your body that you can use to improve down the line.

You can plan, strategize, and think about running 50 miles all you want- but it’s not until you get out there and DO IT that your journey in the sport will truly begin.

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