There are 1,727 different ultras in North America according to UltraRunning Magazine. These races range in distance from 50k to over 200 miles and can be found pretty much anywhere you want to run. There are races on roads, trails, or both from the mountains to the beaches. They come in single loop, multiple loop, point-to-point, or out-and-back formats. We’re talking about a ridiculous amount of variety. Running these races requires a significant time commitment both from training and also travel/participation standpoint. You’re out an entire day at a minimum if not a whole weekend if you decide to compete in one. With these two dynamics at play, I suggest you pick races that closely align with what you want to get out of a race day(s) experience.
Historical case in point. High altitude races are not within my capabilities right now so I’m not going to sign up for any more. At least not until I can devote 7-10 days to acclimate to the altitude before doing them. This means no more of these races until I can retire (i.e. well into the future). This is not my ideal state because all of the cool races seem to be way up in the mountains (Bighorn, Hardrock). Sigh.
A more recent example for me is JFK 50 Miler. This was on my schedule for a fall race this year because it’s an historic ultra (oldest continuous ultramarathon in US) that’s located within a couple hours drive. It’s taken me 5 years to get around to running something this close because its a big race. I’m not talking about a big race as in important, but starting field size. And I’m not talking about a large race compared to other ultras, but a big race in general at almost 1,000 runners. I got completely turned off of big races running my first half marathon in Philly. A lot of people love the big race vibe with all the spectators cheering you on, however the run was not enjoyable for me as I spent the first 11 miles weaving in and out of people. It probably ended up being the longest recorded half marathon ever.
So even though I had sworn off large races (500+), I talked myself into doing JFK because it was capital H Historic. As I’m looking over their website, I noticed they have a fairly strict no earbuds policy. Strike 2 didn’t put me completely off though because . . . Historic. It wasn’t until I checked out the registration page and saw the $200 cost that I finally realized my pending mistake. I don’t mind spending that for a hundred, however I’ve gotten spoiled with a lot of my low-cost ultras and I just couldn’t pull the trigger. This was just too much money to spend on a crowded race where I couldn’t listen to my tunes.
The moral of this post is to know what you want. These races are too hard to settle for anything less than exactly what you want to get out of the experience. By being a little choosy with your races, you’ll be more excited for the ones you sign up for, which will make the 5am alarm (slightly) more palatable. It will also make the event more enjoyable so you’re likely to keep coming back for more. So for your next (or first) ultra, choose wisely.