A Marathoner's Experience as an Ultramarathon Coach

Elyses Closet“What is your favorite 50 miler and what inspires you to keep doing them?” This was a question that I was asked on the pre-race panel at the North Face Endurance Challenge, just outside of Washington, DC. As a newbie to the ultra-scene, I had never raced anything above a marathon (and still haven’t). I responded that I had never felt so “not hardcore saying that I was only a marathon runner.”

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mileYou are probably wondering what on earth I was doing on this panel. I was the coach of the North Face Endurance Challenge program in Washington, DC. I coached the 10k, half marathon, 50k, and 50-mile programs on behalf of The North Face. Being a competitive marathon runner and former cross country runner, the 10k through the 50k was like second nature to me, but the 50-mile race, that was a new beast entirely.

I had a committed, all male group attempting the 50 miler. Many of the runners were fairly new to the running scene, and none had ever completed a 50 miler before. Thus, not only did they have to train to be able to complete the race, but they had to learn to run while carry hydration packs, absorb new information about nutrition, and learn to run on challenging, technical terrain as would be the terrain on the race course. The athletes took this on with an abundant amount of enthusiasm, and luckily with the support of ultra runners Michael Wardian and George Banker who made themselves open to supporting the team. Hence, the athletes had access to the best resources, and made use of them.

Arriving on race morning at 4 a.m., I was struck by how relaxed everyone seemed. It was a stark contrast to the road marathons that I am used to racing in. Fifteen minutes before race start when the announcements started, participants were still milling around and catching-up with each other, whereas in a road race, people would have been lined up for half an hour already. The gun went off and the athletes started. I was touched by the amount of camaraderie during the race, with athletes working together and helping each other through the hard miles.

I think what struck me the most was the finish. Almost everyone came through smiling, even after 50 miles of racing. This is something that I rarely see at a road race. I learned that ultra-running is more than just a race. It is about building a community and connecting with the other athletes out on the trail. It is more than just about you and your race, but how you can leverage the relationships built on the trails to help you finish. I was happy to see that my athletes made new friends while racing, and had a truly great time completing the race.

The North Face Elyse BranerMy 50k runners and me on race morning

All of my athletes finished with smiles on their faces and had completed what they set out to accomplish, which was to get their first ultra-marathon under their belts. I think they absorbed and embraced ultra-culture full heartily and are looking forward to running another one. As for me, I think an ultra-marathon is definitely in my future, but first, I need to accomplish what I need to accomplish my marathon and shorter race distance goals, because from what I observed on race day, once you become an ultra-runner, there is no turning back.

  • What struck you most when you were first introduced to trail running or ultramarathons and the communities that surround them?
  • How have you felt if and when you have guided others into trail running or ultrarunning?

There are 7 comments

  1. Mark Lundblad

    When I made the transition from road marathons to ultra running what struck me most was the relaxed and friendly atmosphere before, during and after an ultra race. There is a camaraderie amongst ultra runners from the elites to the back of the packers unlike other running distances. One of many reasons in explaining this is everyone knows an ultra distance is a process where you don't start out in oxygen debt. The day will be long, longer for some than others and being too intense from the gun can often not only get you into trouble with pacing but also mentally fry you out as there are so many highs and lows throughout an ultra distance. The longer the ultra race the more this plays out to be true. I think there is a special bond amongst most ultra runners who know that they are in an even more elite crowd who have finished a race longer than the marathon distance. I see a lot of the same ultra runners whether I run a local race or fly across the country and most all of them are super friendly. I have been able to talk a few folks into stepping up to an ultra distance and I do not think a one has regretted this choice. You are right in that once you start doing ultras you'll get hooked but it is still fun for me and my wife to revisit the shorter distances and still have our weekend left..ha! Great job coaching these athletes at the NF Endurance Challenge.

  2. trudginalong

    When I transitioned into racing ultras from just running trails I was expecting there to be the similar road race feel as described above, and similarly I was shocked at how much comradarie there was. In fact, my second ultra was the Sageburner 50K in Gunnison, CO. Small race in it's second year so I emailed the RD to ask if they had an elevation profile. He wrote back saying they'd get one up soon but in the meantime I should email Duncan Callahan personally for info on the course. I did, rather nervously, and got a super encouraging email back. He was stoked, for running in general or for someone who shared his interests, either way, I was surprised a bit in the best way. I briefly spoke with him after the race and all he asked about was how my race was, how I felt, ect. No ego, just a genuine nice guy. That's why I love running ultras and interacting with the community, it's a family, from the elites, to the slow guys, and even to new guys like me.

  3. TrailClown

    For me, the difference between a marathon and a trail ultra is like night and day, even if you are only comparing a 26.2 mile race and a 31 mile race (50K). In a marathon, my mind prepares me for a battle, while ultras prepare my mind for a shared adventure. That's not to say there's no competition, but usually when you sign up for an ultra (especially longer distances), you are committing yourself to a good part of the day (as Mark L. said), and this makes you want to "enjoy" the experience. For me, marathons are always events to fit in to a weekend schedule, whereas ultras are the main focus. And so this leads me to run more like the author of "Born To Run" describes, as if I am trying to adapt my bodily rhythms to the day's rhythms, rather than pounding the pavement without even thinking about it.

  4. jeff

    the community is the biggest shock. that there IS community, mostly. with most road races, and training for them, it can be a very solitary experience. to hit target paces, you spend miles and miles alone. racing means showing up close to race start, amped up to run and then heading straight home to recover once the race is done.the ultra/trail scene is the complete opposite. most miles are spent in the company of like minded group of people [spanning the entire social spectrum]. races are a festival and celebration where finishers will hang out hours after the event just to socialize and cheer on all the runners. it is not a solitary sport.as you probably saw on the news a couple weeks ago, one of the members of our trail club went missing on run in the cleveland national forest. the rally and support of the members of our club was fierce and shocking. shocking, especially in a day and age when community is all but non-existent. we, as a nation, are so comfortable pulling our car into the garage and retiring to the couch after a long day of work that we've forgotten what true community is.the ultra/trail scene is a bizarrely diverse group of people that are fiercely supportive of each other and motivating [to a fault!]. and, a very welcome family after years of being solo on the road.

  5. John Price

    Almost all the post above equate Ultra with Trail Runs…. I love running trails but ultra's encompass so much more with both road and track events…All though the road events tend to be a bit more intense they still harbor a lot of the same comraderie.I compete in distances from a mile to multiday racing and they all have there place… Congrats to your team, it's great to see you take on the challenge of coaching these athletes even though you have yet to experience the event yourself.Thanks

  6. St. Croix Scenic 50

    Ultra distance running is definitely a "special" sub-culture. I fell in love with ultrarunning and then moved to an island in the US Virgin Islands that didn't have an ultramarathon, so I had to start my own race. I hope to expand the community of ultrarunners to St. Croix, USVI with the St. Croix Scenic 50 mile run on January 24, 2010.What better way to see this gem of the Caribbean than to run over a good portion of its rugged mountains and along its stunning shoreline? The course promises to be as challenging as it is beautiful. Historic sugar mills and two centuries old forts lie along this spectacular course. On clear days you can see 40 miles north to St. Thomas, St. John and the BVI’s. The St. Croix Ironman 70.3 has earned a reputation because of the Beast, and this course runs the whole spine of the Beast. It’s hot, even in January, so be prepared if you want to take on the St. Croix Scenic 50. Go to the race page at http://www.stcroix50.com – Hope to see you there!

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