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How to Train for (and Run) an Ultra Marathon

by Dustin Johnson May 21, 2013
Teacher and coach Dustin Johnson recently completed his first ultra marathon and is training for the September 2013 100-mile Pine to Palm endurance run.

An ultra marathon (“ultra,” for short) is technically anything beyond the marathon length of 26.2 miles. A respectable ultra is on rough and uneven terrain and is 50 miles or more…so I am still in the minor leagues so to speak, having just completed a 31.1 ultra. But I have a 100-mile race through the Cascade Mountains in my cross hairs.

Lord Hill Regional Park, Snohomish, WA – It’s noon on February 24th and I’m three hours into a 31-mile race, the first Evergreen Trail race of the 2013 season. I run to the aid station and fill my water bottle, grab a salt tablet, take a banana muffin, a handful of gummy bears, and a GU packet…vanilla flavored.

Stuffing the GU packet in my pocket, I cram the gummy bears in my mouth with the salt tablet, holster my water bottle, and fist the muffin in after the gummies as I take off running, black and yellow New Balance 1010 trail shoes spitting up mud behind me.

Get a gym.

I started my training at the tail end of August 2012. On my July road trip across the US with my grandfather Ben, I ran short distances as we stopped along the way. I ran in the Badlands of South Dakota, on the beaches of North Carolina, with the fireflies of Mammoth, Kentucky, along the muggy streets of Mississippi, and in the desert canyons of the Southwest — all in one month.

My gym is Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, WA. Built in 1897, Fort Worden is flanked on two sides by stony beaches skirting large unstable cliffs. The park has large wild grass fields, surf-battered beaches, and a central bulge rising above the surrounding landscape. On this heavily forested hill are dozens of old concrete bunkers and long-since dismantled large artillery batteries. The whole park is probably four or five square miles and webbed with trails. The fort, strategically placed on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was part of a three-fort system that was the first line of defense at the entrance of the vast Puget Sound, my home, my living gym, and my perfect training ground.

Mile 21. At a slow pace I approach “Oh Lord Hill,” the highest point in the race, for the third time today. I’m on my third lap of the 10-mile loop course, my final time up “Oh Lord.” Beyond the muddy hill, my legs registering full objection, I’m 23 miles in and stepping into terra incognita — I have never run this far before.

Eat and run.

It’s 8:15pm and raining. There are two choices:

  1. Take the eggplant and pesto pizza out of the oven, let it cool a bit, cut into six sections, pour a generous glass of wine, and sit down for my dinner.
  2. Fold the pizza in half to make a pesto-pizza-taco-thingy, put on my running shoes, zip up my raincoat, and go running while I eat my dinner.

I did ¼-mile hill repeats for 45 minutes whilst eating my pizza-pie taco. Every step sent a drip of pesto down my wrist; these I lapped up like a dog. The ol’ “fold the pizza and run” technique is one I borrowed from Dean Karnazes, the most famous ultra-endurance runner of our time. Such measures are necessary when running nonstop distances of 35, 50, 75, or 100+ miles. But I learned fast that it takes more than a squished pizza to fuel such feats of endurance.

My right side is cramping from heel to butt, scolding my left side for still running so smoothly and setting the pace for my whole body. Calf muscles protest as I devour the banana muffin. My lungs are happy but can’t find a song to sing like they did on laps 1 and 2.

“If you run on the Earth and with the Earth, you can run forever.” This is a Tarahumara saying and my mantra, and I repeat it dozens of times.

A runner with fluffy golden hair and a bright green shirt paces past me. I passed him about 10 miles back. We exchange a salutation of “nice work”… “you too”…. Should I try to keep up with him?

Get a routine.

This year I started coaching middle-school cross country with a brand new team of rookie runners. I adapted my eight years of track & field coaching (sprints, hurdles, and jumps) to fit the cross-country trails and longer races, but most importantly, I ran with the kids every day. A typical week of cross-country training meant:

  • Monday: Run 3-4 miles at a tiring pace.
  • Tuesday: Heavy yoga workouts paired with running form and breathing technique work.
  • Wednesday: Cross-country race days.
  • Thursday: Light-jog day for 30-40 minutes. For these “light” days, we would take our shoes and socks off and run in the grass of the soccer and football field. This would increase our foot strength and improve the speed at which our feet struck and accelerated from the ground (foot speed).
  • Friday: Heavy workout day. Either tons of hill sprints or beach sprints in the sand and gravel.
  • Saturday and Sunday I would go hiking or walking with my girlfriend and occasionally running.
Fuel your body.

Begin eating with purpose.

I started making my own fresh juice — apples, oranges, bok choy, kale, carrots, and a squeeze of lime. I all but stopped eating red meat, which is horrible for the digestive tract and packed with naughty cholesterol. By November I had also released chicken from my diet and replaced it with fish, a far healthier and infinitely diverse protein. I also filled my fridge with bottles of coconut water, a delicious drink packed with minerals with natural anti-inflammatory agents. I made my own oatmeal laced with seeds, nuts, dried fruit, and cocoa powder.

I eat all the time but keep the food fresh, nutrient dense, and usually homemade.

I look behind me, no one in sight. In front, the same. I won’t be passed by anyone else in the next two miles. I back off the throttle for the last big hill. Coming down the other side, winding through steep switchbacks, I pass a hollering spectator.

I can see the road to the finish. I pick up my foot speed and turnover. A handful of people line the road. My 30 miles are nearly complete. I round the last corner to the finish and the race director yells, “This guy is smiling!” I am smiling.

Go for time.

All in all I was running about 15-20 miles per week in September and October. Not much, but it was a start.

In November I raised the training bar significantly. Wrestling season began (I’ve also coached wrestling for nine years), and I would run line sprints with the high-school kids everyday. I would jog to Fort Worden and run ½-mile hill repeats 5-10 at a time, sometimes at 9, 10, or 11 at night. Alone at the fort in the middle of the night, I would shout and yell and sing and write silly poems in my head.

By mid-December, my weekly mileage was 25-35. By January, 40+ miles per week. Then I stopped measuring miles and began to measure time elapsed. Instead of going out for a run of 10-20 miles, I would go for a run of 2.5-3.5 hours.

My legs feel like fence posts but I’m enjoying the last few moments of running in the forests of Snohomish, Washington. The race, part of the Evergreen Trail Run series, is 31.1 miles because that’s what 50 kilometers translates to…kind of silly really.

The final loop, or “victory lap,” is one last grueling, gradual hill up and then back down, across two creeks, and slip-n-slop through some mud a few times. I pass the same hollering spectator from 10 minutes before: “YEAH BABY!” he yells, “YOU GOT THIS BUDDY, YEEEHAH!”

Tend your wounds.

My overuse injuries came and went: right hip, left ankle, left knee, right IT band, right sciatic nerve bundle…. They never lingered. I attribute their fleetingness to my icing and stretching routine after heavy runs, my healthy diet, my usage of arnica ointment on sore spots, and my no-self-pity attitude. I lost weight from my already slim 141lbs down to a lean and toned 136 (I’m 5’7″).

Gear up and run a mountain.

I had three different pairs of running shoes for different distances and surface conditions — all of them New Balance, all of them very loved. I took my training to Mt. Si, outside North Bend, Washington. Situated on the skirt of the Cascade Mountain Range, Mt. Si is a training ground for mountaineers, hikers, and endurance runners. Ultra marathon legend Scott Jurek used the steep climbs of Mt. Si to prepare for some of the world’s toughest races.

Running up the mountain, I was periodically cheered on by passing hikers — some smiled, some shook their heads, some I think understood what I was doing. Keeping pace about five minutes behind me was a long-haired, white-bearded runner, probably over 60 years old. Endurance running, unlike most other sports in the world, is not dominated by people in their 20s.

The week before my ultra, I tapered off my training to focus on hydrating, stretching, and packing as much glycogen into my muscles and liver as possible.

I feel proud of my cramps and sore joints. My toes are creaking and my lips are cracked.

There is little glory and no glitz at the finish line of these long races, only respectful nods and high-fives from your muddy and haggard comrades. The smiles of race volunteers serving you a bowl of chili, and a pat on the back from the race director.

I want to lie in the wet grass and eat my chili and write a haiku about lactic acid buildup. Carin holds my arm and listens to my grunts and moans. “You ready to go?” she asks.

Final time: 5 hours and 16 minutes. Placing – 10th out of 65.

5 keys for the novice endurance athlete
  1. Slow down – Slow down your running pace and don’t try to rush your training.
  2. Strengthen your feet – To prevent a myriad of injuries and to improve your running form, take the shoes off from time to time.
  3. Reinforce your core – Strong hips, abs, and lower back will help you maintain efficient form when you’re tired and will aid your breathing.
  4. Mix it up – Run on trails, in the mud, on the beach, up stairs, in the snow, on roads, on grass, etc. This is what makes training fun (and effective!).
  5. Make it your instinct – Most trainers and coaches will tell you to “make it a habit” — I say make it your instinct! Running is so natural an activity it shouldn’t be a chore. (I will run to the grocery store with a backpack and then walk back, or I’ll jog to a bar to get a beer with my friends, for example.) It may seem silly at first, but you quickly realize it’s more of a chore to drive or take a cab.

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