Getting to Know a Trail Ultramarathon Course

How to get to know a trail ultramarathon course before racing it.

By on April 13, 2022 | Comments

Yes, one can prepare for and run a trail ultramarathon with a minimum of knowledge. Training for general fitness and taking the course naively on race day can be done. Heck, it can be downright exciting.

That said, you can set yourself up for more enjoyment and more success, which often arrive in tandem, with various levels of commitment in getting up to speed on a route. Concentrating these steps to their simplest, they are:

  • Read,
  • Talk, and
  • See.

I’ll walk through them in the context of the Patagonia Run 70k, which was a fun training race that I just ran, and the High Lonesome 100 Mile, which is my season’s focus race in July.

2022 Patagonia Run 70k - El Bosque Patigonico

What the course description couldn’t share with me about the Patagonia Run 70k! All photos: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Read About the Course

Reading about a trail ultramarathon course can provide great insight into what race day might look like.

This past weekend I ran the Patagonia Run 70k, a 45-plus-mile trail run with more than 12,000 feet of climbing. I got that key information in a 30-second skim of the event’s runner’s guide for the “70,” which clearly stated the race was 74 kilometers (46.0 miles) long with 4,220 meters (13,850 feet) of climbing.

The same glance at the included elevation profile told me that the majority of ascent and descent came from two major summits with one smaller, but still significant, climb between them. The same quick look showed me that the last 30k would be largely downhill with lots of very gradual descending over the last 25k. So, I should aim to have my energy high and legs feeling good for the final few hours of the race.

A longer read of the runner’s guide shared lots of other great information. I learned the frequency and content of the aid stations. I didn’t need to know them, but it confirmed how frequently I’d have access to water, sports drink, and food, as well as that I’d have access to the same drop bag at roughly 25k and 55k.

The runner’s guide also confirmed that the race was almost entirely off-road and that my feet would be wet for most of the race. The guide went so far as to suggest not changing shoes as they’d soon be wet again anyway. This last piece serves as a small warning that reading a race guide or website won’t give you perfectly nuanced information.

Yes, I wouldn’t have needed or wanted to change shoes in the race, but small gravel from the stream crossings and mud from all over the course meant that changing my socks once or twice would have been really nice. Because of the guide’s shoe recommendation, I wrongly inferred that I shouldn’t change socks, so I didn’t put any in my drop bag.

Normally, I would also consult a course map in detail. The Patagonia Run doesn’t provide maps or GPS files of its various race routes out of respect for the many private lands that the event crosses. However, a little work got me to a Strava file of a past Patagonia Run 70k, and I was able to see that the route traveled counterclockwise in a roughly figure-eight pattern.

Talk About the Course

Touching base with friends or others who’ve run a particular race is a great way to learn about it.

As primarily a training and tourism race, I didn’t care to overdo my research on the Patagonia Run course. In only reading about it, I felt comfortable enough taking the details as they came — with one exception. I wanted some reassurance on what footing was like on the course. Was it suitable for moderately lugged trail shoes or would a rainy day leave such shoes sliding around?

To find the answer, I messaged a friend from the area. However, if I didn’t know anyone who knew the race, I would have written the race or a local running group on social media or, if far enough in advance of the race (so as not to impose in the busiest days before the race), the race itself with my question.

When I’ve got a single focus race for a whole season, I’ll generally talk with folks who’ve run that race a whole lot more than I did for the Patagonia Run. This habit is probably born out of a tremendous briefing from Scotty Mills and other Virginia Happy Trails Running Club members a few months before the 2004 Western States 100, where a handful of us debuted at the race.

That day, many-time race veterans gave us newer runners a broad overview of the course as well as a blow-by-blow walk-through description of it. Their comments allowed me to tailor my training to the course (prepare your quads, and be able to run late). They also taught me which sections of the course where I’d want an extra water bottle, where I’d find streams to cool off in, and what climbs would be 100% walkers and on which I’d be able to mix in some running.

That tradition of an in-depth walk-through discussion with a race veteran has stuck with me to this day. I still do the upfront work of studying the elevation profile, course map, and course description, but nothing can beat getting another runner’s impression of the race nor being able to ask questions where the printed word can’t fill in all the details.

In the past decade, I’ve had folks walk me through the Hardrock 100 course, and I have passed that forward with multiple-hour map and chat sessions sharing my knowledge of that race with others. These sessions are times to share where there’ll be a million stream crossings, where the streams are dried up, which valley will be the coldest and which climb the warmest, as well as where you’ll find pierogis and where you’ll find watermelon. Some of the information may turn out to be crucial while other info merely provides fun context. I appreciate both.

After securing a spot in this year’s High Lonesome 100 Mile, I set up a call with my friend Paul Terranova who’d run the race well in 2021 to talk through the course in detail. While I can only hope to run as well as Paul, I chose to chat with him as he’d recently run the race, I respect his approach to racing, and on my very best day, I could maybe be within a few hours of his run, such that chatting about, “Did you walk or run this section?” might better translate than talking to a course-record holder or someone pushing the cutoffs from the start.

In roughly an hour late in December, Paul was kind enough to talk me through the course. I’d already spent a good amount of time looking at the course profile and map, such that I could follow along and ask the questions I was left with after studying up on my own.

During that walk-through, I filled an entire page with notes on 16 different segments of the course. I was left with a much better sense of how trail grades, elevation, footing, and possible weather might interact with my effort on race day.

After chatting through the details of the course, Paul answered my broader questions on training for the race, recceing the course, and approaching the race itself. All of this knowledge will help me on race day, but it also allowed me to prioritize my full season of training.

If things go very well, I now know that the last third of the High Lonesome course could be quite runnable. I’ll tailor my training and plan my racing such that I can try to increase my chances of covering much of that ground at four miles per hour rather than walking along at two miles an hour. (That difference really adds up!)

I’ll also rest assured that I can get my mountain climbing and descending legs in shape in the two or three months following the long winter here in Silverton, Colorado, where I live. No need to worry about this aspect over the winter. (Thanks, Paul!)

2020 - Near the High Lonesome course

Good memories from running very near the High Lonesome 100 course in 2020.

See the Course

While not always possible, I highly recommend seeing at least some of the course of any focus race you plan to run.

If I can, I love to see a course a year prior to racing it. Seeing a course’s grades, footing, terrain, and weather allows me to more closely match my overall training ahead of the race and attempt to be as specific as possible in matching those conditions in my training.

Getting onto the course the months before a focus race can be a huge advantage. Such runs allow for highly specific training. They give you intimate course knowledge. They give you reasonable time estimates for various sections and between aid stations. They help you visualize a strong performance as well as identify possible problems and ways to work through them. Whether it’s a long week, a whole week, or something more, I can’t recommend this enough.

I don’t know if this year’s snowmelt and my own work schedule will allow it, but I hope I’ll be able to spend a few days on and near the High Lonesome course as spring turns to summer. The few folks I’ve chatted with have suggested focusing on the course’s biggest climbs and the high country, should I get the chance. I sure hope to do that.

That said, I also hope to run much of the final 30 miles, which aren’t the most highly regarded on the course. I’m fine with that. I want to know and have a feeling for a long section that’ll not only be physically difficult, but also certainly mentally difficult. While I don’t do any sort of formal visualizing, I’ll make note of this section, create landmarks, and see myself making relentless forward progress late in the race.

As valuable as seeing a course can be, a word of caution. For at least some people, seeing too much of the course can be a bad thing. There are those who function really well at routine and who love familiarity. Such folks would probably do well soaking up as much of the course as possible ahead of the race. If they live in the area, repeating the course ad infinitum might work.

However, that doesn’t work for everyone. Even if I don’t mind running the same routes quite frequently, I do enjoy freshness and wonder, as well. Living in Silverton, Colorado, where the Hardrock 100 starts and finishes, I purposely won’t run the entire course if I get into the race again. I’m confident in having some baseline knowledge of the entire course, but I very much enjoy seeing some places as if they are new. I like that sense of wonder and specialness.

I’ll keep this in mind if I’m able to visit the High Lonesome course in the coming months. I’ll be sure to cover some key sections, but will also leave some spots as blank places on my mental map and enjoy them as they come along.

Call for Comments

How do you like to learn about a course before a race?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.