Rookie Mistakes to Avoid at your First Ultra

Caitlin running her first ultra at Stumptown Trail Runs 50K

Are you getting ready to run your first ultra? You might be freaking out a bit so we’re sharing some of the common rookie mistakes that you can avoid so that your first ultra is amazing. We’ve produced over 240 races in the last ten years, so we’ve seen it all (or almost all) so take our advice.

Know Thy Course:

Know the course. The best that you can. If you’re running in a new-to-you area, review the course map closely. Conversely, if you are running in an area you run all the time, be sure that’s what the course actually is so you don’t go where you usually do, which may not be the actual race course. If you run with a GPS-enabled watch or use Strava, download the GPX file from the race website and know how to use it to see where you are. If your device lets you upload a course and then navigate it, practice that ahead of time on a route that you know quite well. Intentionally go off course so you can see what your watch or phone does to alert you of this, so you know what is going on during the race if you start hearing dings or feeling vibrations.


Follow the Orange Cone Road:

Follow the course markings, not the person in front of you. There’ve been many instances of multiple runners going off course because they aren’t paying attention and just follow whoever is in front of them. And when that person is doing the same, and the person in front of them, you can see where it gets ugly. This can especially apply when you are on a double-track trail (aka forest road) and are supposed to turn off onto a single-track trail. It’s easy to get into a grove, move faster, and be looking ahead since the corridor is wider and more open and you don’t have to pay as much attention to your foot placement as you do on a narrower trail. Don’t miss those course markings and miss that turn.

We mark our courses with orange agility cones, so that you’ll see them on the ground versus hanging from a tree, since that’s where you’re looking the most. There’s a cone every quarter of a mile; called a confidence marker, to let you know you are still on course. On the turns and at intersections, we’ll lay down several cones closely together to indicate the direction you’ll turn. If you see more than one cone at a time, pay attention because you’re going to do something different. If they are on the right, you’ll turn right; if they are on the left, you’ll turn left. Additionally, we sometimes use orange flagging and/or signs on wooden stakes to get your attention or provide extra markings.


Trust & Don’t Trust Your Watch

Did you know that if you compared everyone’s watch after a race, very few will show the same distance? You’ve probably experienced this when running with a friend or partner and you do the exact same route and end up with different mileage. GPS watches are not completely accurate, especially on a trail. Trees can block the signal, switchbacks and twisty trails can under-record your miles. Different watches ping the satellite at different frequencies, so some people have a more precise recording of their distance since their watch is pinging more often and others have a less accurate number. You can often adjust this setting on your device but understand that more frequent pings use more battery life. All this means, don’t get too focused on the distance on your watch. If you think an aid station is just two miles ahead and your watch says you’re there but there is no aid station, don’t freak out (as long as you were following the course markings). Keep going. But also, if you’ve gone more than a half of a mile and haven’t seen a course marking (at a Go Beyond Racing race), turn around and go back to the last marker. We review the course markings during the pre-race announcements. Other race organizers mark their courses differently, so understand how your race is marked.


Graphs Can Lie:

Pay attention to the elevation gain AND loss of your race. This is something that will take some time to really master but knowing how to read that elevation profile is important. Don’t just look for the net number for elevation gain and loss. For example, if a race is a net downhill (meaning more loss than gain overall), don’t get fooled into thinking the race is all downhill. Our Wy’east Wonder is like that. You’ll lose more elevation than you’ll gain, but there’s still plenty of climbing to do.

The elevation profile image can be deceptive, looking way flatter or a lot stepper than the actual course. Depending on the highest point, and lowest point, and distance, a graph can be created to appear quite different. Look at the Y axis labels. Are the increments 1000’ or are they 200’? Meaning, will you climb 1000 feet over a mile, or 200 feet? That is quite a difference and good to understand so you can pace yourself appropriately. Different races have different increments, so pay attention to that.


The Dreaded Cutoff:

Many races have cutoffs at aid stations. It is important to understand the rules around that cutoff. Is the cutoff time the time you must arrive at the aid station or the time you have to leave?

Speaking of aid stations, don’t linger. Yes, these wonderful oases with friendly, helpful, and sometimes funny people are a place you may want to stay at forever but get moving. Take what you need (which can include sitting down to regroup) and then get out. People can lose a lot of time at aid stations and then you may run up against a cutoff. At the same time, don’t just run past an aid station, especially if you are low on water and/or calories. Many underestimate how they will feel getting to the next aid station or the finish. Taking in some fuel for the last three miles is a very good idea. Eat. Drink.


Read Thy Email (and Website):

It’s crazy how many questions we get via social media and email that the answers are clearly spelled out on the website or especially in your pre-race email. Read what’s available to you.


Ask Your Questions:

If you’ve informed yourself from the communication the race organizer has already provided, but still have a question, ask it. Don’t be shy. Race directors get a lot of pleasure in seeing runners finish their races, especially first-timers, so if there’s something you need to know, ask. But take responsibility to inform yourself first.


Be Early:

Don’t wait until the last 10 minutes of the bib pickup window to show up. You’ll end up in a long line to get your bib, in a long line to go to the bathroom, and in a bad mood. That’s no way to start your race. Arrive when bib pick up starts. You’ll get your stuff, get to drink some coffee, have time to take care of business, and maybe even get some of those nerves out by chatting with other racers.


Scoot Up:

Pay attention to the pre-race announcements. Often first-timers will feel intimidated and stand in the back of the pack at the start. Be sure you can hear what the race directors are saying. This is where any important last-minute information is shared. Don’t be shy. Just scoot up toward the front or nearer the speaker so you can hear. You can always linger after we say go to let people ahead of you if you want.


If You Are Crying, Eat:

Finally, a friend shared this phrase with us, and we love it. If you are crying or want to cry, you probably need to eat. Make sure you have food on you/in your pack throughout the race and eat it. Food fixes a lot of things during an ultra.


There are a lot more things you’ll learn during your first ultra. And your second, and the next, and every single one. It’s a journey for sure, but hopefully these tips and advice will help make that first one special and successful.