I love that Pete Kostelnick got up at 3 a.m. and averaged 70+ miles/day at a sub-9-minute pace when he set the world record for the fastest run across the USA. But that’s not me. My only “superpowers” are persistence and determination.
So I’m writing this post to help others like me figure out their own strategy for running extreme ultra distances.
While running a marathon is mostly about speed work, tempo runs and the like, running super-ultra distance is about everything but running. You can’t blast out the door, slam down running gels, grit your teeth, and push through discomfort, confident in the knowledge that it’ll all be over in just a few hours.
Run like an ultrarunner
Most ultrarunners don’t cover vast distances at a marathon pace. I sure don’t. They adapt their running style and train to endure weeks or months of longer daily distance without breaking down.
- Dial back your pace. You’re going to be running all day. Save some energy for the second half of your day, and run the best pace you can actually sustain.
- Shorten your stride. At first it feels wrong, but shorter strides reduce impact on the balls of your feet and stave off pain and injury.
- Keep your back straight. Keeping your back straight helps prevent back pain and fatigue, and lessens the weight that lands on your forefoot. If you don’t want to go all in on Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running, just pretend you’re running while holding an invisible coffee table: arms back, with the top of the invisible table against your chest and the edge resting on your knees. You’ll last longer.
- Work on your “ultra shuffle.” If you watch ultrarunners, you’ll notice their pace is unique: faster than walking, slower than an all-out run. They’re not fully extending their hamstring or pumping their legs as high as marathoners. Why? Because extension and pumping are about speed. Runners like us can run hard and fast for a short time, or slower for much longer. You can’t do both.
- Walk when you can’t run. Terrain, road conditions, or hot weather may make it impossible to keep running or even shuffling. Walking fast is an important skill that you train specifically for. Google “power walking” and “speed walking.” Your goal is as much speed as you can manage without encouraging blisters. If your feet start to rub or feel hot, it’s too fast.
- Sit when you can’t walk. Perch on guardrails, lean on cable boxes, massage your feet, clean crud out of your shoes or grab a drink or snack. Give your feet a break, then work your way back to a running pace you can sustain.
Care for your feet like an ultrarunner
It is the rare and lucky ultrarunner who never encounters blisters. Having covered 50 miles of my first “official” 100-mile race with huge, very painful broken blisters that stretched across my soles, dialing in your blister prevention strategy is hugely important. I knew a little then. I know a lot more now.
- Swollen is not so swell. Your feet will get bigger as the miles accumulate, so find a half-size larger shoe now, with a bigger toe box, thicker sole, more padding, and better arch support. Switch to it as your miles accumulate.
- If it rubs now, it will blister later. Friction happens anywhere two surfaces meet, and friction is what causes blisters. There are lots of these interfaces: shoe insole/sock, sock/foot, big toe/adjacent toe, etc. Lace-lock your shoes so your feet don’t slip. Put anti-friction Engo patches on your shoe insoles where the balls of your feet land. If you’re prone to blisters on the back of your ankles or sides of your feet, put smaller Engo patches there, too. Lube your feet with silicone-based SportShield. Use double-layer blister-prevention socks like Wrightsocks.
- Tape your feet preventively, before you feel the sting that announces an emerging blister. Hot spots are not a sign that it’s time to tape. They’re a sign that you already have a problem. I use StrengthTape dabbed with Skin-Tac; then lube my taped toes and sole with SportShield.
- The only thing in your shoes should be your feet. I’m a big fan of gaiters to keep debris and cockleburs out of your shoes.
- Consult the experts. I highly recommend John Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet book for blister prevention and treatment plus other foot issues, as well as Dr. Rebecca Rushton’s blisterprevention.au specifically for blister prevention and treatment.
Protect your joints like an ultrarunner
Your USA or multi-state run will probably be on crappy, forgotten roads in the middle of nowhere that feel like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. You’ll be dodging an obstacle course of tire retreads, rocks and concrete chunks, potholes and crumbling asphalt, dead animals and trash of all kinds, cambered roads, drop-offs, and crazy drivers plus regional hazards like fire ant mounds and snakes, just trying to stay upright.
Your ankles, knees and back will take a beating. You’ll call on muscles and instincts you didn’t know you had.
Protecting your body and avoiding injury means being strong and nimble on the terrain you’ll be stuck with. My run training includes strength, flexibility, agility and balance workouts. Here’s some of what works for me:
- BOSU balance ball variations with eyes first open, then closed, one-legged and two-legged stances, with and without free weights
- Single-leg balance exercises with and without free weights
- Wobble board exercises
- Yoga poses that emphasize balance and flexibility in awkward or extended positions, like tree, eagle, and warrior
- Yoga poses like cat-cow, sphinx, cobra for back, leg and hip flexibility
- Superman pose
- Joe Uhan’s Miracle Butt Stretch, which helped me enormously after injuries caused by running on cambered roads
- 100-up, also from Joe Uhan
- Various ankle inversion and eversion moves and tippy-toe walking
- Standing heel raises for strength and flexibility
- Piriformis stretch, AKA “number 4s” because of the shape made with your knee
- Farmer’s carry with weights
- Planks for core and full-body strength
- One-legged and alternate-leg jumping jacks for agility
- Uneven surface running for agility and balance
Weather the weather like an ultrarunner
If you’re running across a continent, daily weather is almost irrelevant. You can’t avoid what you don’t like without rearranging your schedule or dealing with expensive delays. You’re stuck with it.
So, given how long it takes most of us to cover hundreds and thousands of miles, you’ll likely need to prepare for bits and pieces of as many as three different seasons.
My pre-COVID US run schedule started in southern California with 70-degree February temps that dipped into the teens and twenties in Arizona and shot up into the mid-90s in humid Florida in May. Here’s what I did:
- Train in the sun and heat. As hot as you can stand it, and use my heat training tips for ultrarunners to build some ability to either walk or run some decent mileage in the heat. No matter what the specific route, if you’re in North America there will almost certainly some be hot, sunny afternoons during your super-long run.
- Train in the cold. This one is hard for me because we don’t have much genuinely cold weather in Texas, and when we do, I don’t like to run in it. But doing it anyway has been important. There is nothing like running 30-40 miles in wildly inadequate gear to realize you aren’t prepared. For example, I realized I had to rethink my whole glove/mitten lineup to avoid triggering my Reynaud’s symptoms in my hands.
- Train in the rain. I like this even less than cold, and I don’t run in thunderstorms. But if you skip rainy days as a matter of principle, you’ll end up skipping days, potentially weeks, of your Big Run.
- Train in gusty wind. You’ll encounter strong headwinds and blowing sand or rain at some point, and it’s character-building. This is also when you realize that if you run day after day in bitter wind without a plan, your lips will crack and bleed, which makes it hard to eat even when you must and greatly increases your general misery.
- Train at all times of day. Depending on the season, you’re going to have some days that are long on hours but short on daylight. You’ll want to push daylight to get to your planned stop, or make up lost time from yesterday. There is no substitute for learning how to run in the dark safely, especially at 3 AM when your thoughts are darkest, you can’t see very far, and you can’t think straight. Better the devil you know.
Understanding each season’s challenges is also crucial for the next topic: gearing up for your Big Run.
Gear up like an ultrarunner
If you’ve ever dodged cars after dark or run until you were lost, soaked, and shivering, you’ll understand why the right gear is so important.
It’s not so much about brands as it is about safety and functionality. If it’s no use, don’t take it. If you need it, get used to carrying it and running with it on.
- Headlamp—One that lasts a long time, not just two hours. You have to get used to the weight and the hypnotizing tunnel of light in front of you, and you may want to experiment with wide vs narrow beams.
- Desert hat and shirt—If you’re running in direct sun day after day, especially in summer, you’ll pretty quickly want the sun off your neck and arms.
- Arm sleeves and leggings or calf sleeves—These reflect heat and shield you from windblown sand and dirt which is a big deal in the western half of the U.S. Leggings also make roadside restroom breaks faster.
- Winter gear—Warm hat, earband, gloves or mittens, fleece Buff, HotHands, jacket or vest, arm warmers, running tights, etc.
- Hi-visibility gear for sunny days, foggy days, rainy days, and night. After noticing that high-vis yellow is not that high-vis against a backdrop of springtime meadows, pastures and trees, I’ve switched to blaze orange for my hat, shirts and shorts. I have an LED LightVest plus extra reflective stuff for foggy and dark conditions.
- GPS locator beacon—Essential if you’re attempting to set FKTs or other records, for showing progress online, and helping your crew find you if you get separated. Cellphone trackers aren’t nearly reliable enough and you’ll almost certainly run through some areas with no coverage.
- Shoe gaiters—Unequalled for stopping cockleburs, gravel, sand, and dew.
- ID, cell phone, MedicAlert–If you’re running on a highway, I would not go light on the ID unless all the EMTs know you already on a first-name basis. Make sure you have a secure place to stash this stuff on your person. Don’t assume your crew will be immediately available…stuff happens. Pete Kostelnick’s crew van was hit by another vehicle and destroyed. You need a MedicAlert necklace if you have significant medical concerns or medications that might affect your care in an emergency.
- Buff-type neck gaiter—Especially in the middle of a pandemic when folded several times, at least if you want to visit a convenience store. They also do a great job of keeping the sun off your face and the side of your neck, which many hats don’t.
- Hydration vest, water, electrolytes—I hate hydration vests with bladders. The water gets skunky, warm, and the plastic bladder makes my back sweat, which is why I use Orange Mud‘s Hydraquiver setup. Whatever you choose, make sure you train in it before packing it for your Big Run. That Ultimate Direction vest may be perfect for someone’s 100-miler but not for your adventure.
- Food—At least enough to get you to the next gas station or crew meetup.
- Hygiene products—Such as Wet Wipes or a few sheets of toilet paper tucked into a baggie. If you see that elusive Portalet, be ready!
Base what you carry on your own experience and needs. Ignore unasked-for opinions from people who question your decisions. You’re doing something they haven’t even attempted. No one knows what you need to succeed better than you do.
Eat & drink like an ultrarunner
Running writer Chris McDougall once said that “ultramarathons are just an eating and drinking contest with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” He wasn’t wrong.
On a typical cross-state or transcontinental run, you’re doing all-day or dawn-to-dusk runs and covering at least 35-40 miles each day. That adds up to 4000+ calories a day.
Your body will do everything it can to find those calories, including breaking down muscle. That’s why your biggest challenge has little to do with your lactate threshold or VO2 max and everything to do with replacing calories.
Forget UCAN, carb-loading, fasted, & fat-adapted running
In fact, forget any narrow dietary strategy. You’re not trying to lose weight, force ketosis or gluconeogenesis, or become efficient using a single fuel source. You are placing an unequalled demand on your body for days on end. If you don’t feed it the protein, carbs, and fat it needs—and it really does need all three—you’ll become irritable, injury-prone, fatigued, or ill.
- Protein repairs and rebuilds muscle, important when you’re running every single day
- Carbs replenish muscle glycogen and fuel virtually every major organ in your body, including your brain
- Fat helps you absorb nutrients and provides a basal level of calories that helps keep you going all day
Figure out during training what foods you can handle and how much. Track your weight, your speed, muscle strength, and how your body feels over several weeks of training.
(And if you’re Type 1 diabetic like me, pay close attention to insulin sensitivity; you’ll probably need to make adjustments. For instance, my blood sugar during a marathon behaves very differently from my blood sugar during a multi-week/month run.)
Eat lots of protein. No, more than that.
I aim for 175 g of protein per day based on McMaster University research (2.4 g/kg of bodyweight) and get pretty close with a combination of real food and whey protein shakes. My wife Leslie, who crews my runs, uses the Cronometer app to keep tabs on it when we’re out there.
Nothing beats real food.
If all you’re counting is calories and macronutrients, you’re still missing something. The best mood enhancer I’ve found is real food.
Burgers, tacos and pizza are widely available even in pretty remote areas, and conveniently full of calories, fat, carbs and protein. It’s fast, low-prep, and amazingly restorative even if you normally avoid it. But you do you.
If you’re plant-only or have other dietary requirements, make sure you have a plan for real food, not just nutrients, that works when grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants are scarce or offer limited choices.
Rest like an ultrarunner
If you go longer than about 72 hours without sleep, most folks will hallucinate, zone out, and snap back just in time to avoid oncoming cars. So:
- Practice sleeping when you can. That may mean a siesta at 3-5 PM when the sun is hottest and your pace is crap anyway. Or a short sleep break during the wee hours of the morning. Fit some of your training runs around that schedule.
- Practice sleeping as much as you can. If your run is long enough to warrant rest days, you’ll need to be able to nod off after a solid meal even when you just woke up 3 hours ago.
- When you can’t sleep, take a rest and elevate your feet; or at least slow down and walk, with sit-down breaks included.
- Decide how often you need to take a rest day. World-class transcontinental runners like Pete Kostelnick and Marshall Ulrich may power through without days off, but we’re not them. For me at least, I need a rest day about every 10 days or 300 miles.
- Don’t skip rest days. Muscles and joints take a toll from daily wear and tear, and you’ll regret not stopping.
“Pushing past” fatigue is a myth. Too long without sleep in heat, cold, wind and rain and you’re asking for trouble. Best case, you make poor decisions, waste time, snap at people who mean well, or burst into tears. Worst case, you stumble into traffic, off a drop-off, or make irretrievably poor decisions.
If you’re actually exhausted, STOP for the day. This is not about being a quitter; it’s about about living to fight again tomorrow.
Think like an ultrarunner
Expand your mind
The best way I know to appreciate the scope of a multistate or transcontinental run is to train for and complete at least a couple of 100- to 200-miler events. 300+ miles would be even better.
If you’ve never run more than a marathon or a 50-miler, sustaining forward progress for 100+ miles is a great reality check.
It’s a preview of everything you’ll have to consider during your Big Race—rest, fueling, foot issues, and so on. Whether it’s DIY, a fat ass run or a formal race with medals, you’ll learn so much that will help you on longer events.
Look for the thalweg
This German word translates loosely as “the way of the valley,” and it’s the path a river follows. The thalweg is literally the path of least resistance.
It’s the flattest section of a cambered shoulder, the least thorny route through knee-high weeds, or the quietest alternative to a busy highway.
Like running the tangents on shorter distances, train yourself to constantly assess the road ahead and instinctively choose the safest, least physically demanding route forward.
The thalweg concept also applies to non-running stuff:
- Streamline breaks. Take them faster. Don’t waste time checking social. Don’t spend time on stuff you didn’t plan to do. Eat while you walk. Get calories from liquids.
- Announce your needs in advance. Tell your crew at Stop A what you need ready at Stop B. Don’t waste time waiting for it at Stop A.
- Tape your feet before you start running. It beats having to stop, clean, dry and tape your feet while keeping your supplies from blowing away as huge trucks zoom past.
- Plan and if possible, drive your route before you run it. I’ve seen transconners who relied only on Google Maps and ended up making 100-mile detours. At least drive it with Google Street View.
- Set realistic margins for error, and optimize everything, including contingency plans. During my USA run, I had to correct a routing mistake that took us into tribal lands on the spot. I hated the 4 hours of re-planning that resulted in 70 miles and 1.5 days of additional running, but at least we had studied alternative routes.
Keep your head in the game
Pushing through the mental grind is like realizing you have a snake in your car. Freak out, and you crash the car. Pretend it isn’t there, the snake bites you when you idly reach for a snack.
Prepare yourself for deep fatigue and emotional volatility and make sure your head stays in the game:
- If you’re getting irritated at little things, nonsense, or good friends, it’s time to rest and recharge. Even if that’s just a water break, recognize that just like in horror movies, “the call is coming from inside the house.”
- If you’re zoning out over and over as cars whiz past or you pick your way through perilous trail conditions, it’s a good time to take a break. Get something to eat and drink, change shoes, and talk with someone for a little while to wake yourself back up. If you need a nap, take a nap.
- If you can’t carry on even a simple coherent conversation, it’s time to sit down and rest.
- Again, get enough sleep. You’ll end up sleeping eventually anyway. It’s better to do that when you’re not running near tons of metal moving at 80 mph.
Practice deescalating your stress response
Running against traffic for hours at a time takes a toll on the sympathetic nervous system, which handles attention and possible danger. Add that to extreme physical fatigue, and at some point in your Big Run, you’re guaranteed to feel impatient, lonely, disappointed, frustrated, angry, defeated, self-doubting, disillusioned, and spent—possibly in a single day!
That’s why you should train on ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the part that calms you down and lets you reflect, rethink, and re-plan.
- Practice persistence. This is not about pushing through, but about learning, adapting, still getting things done when you feel like you are failing the test. Diligence is nothing without purpose and learning.
- Practice emotional resilience. Find something positive in the now, and do what brings happiness. Walk. Eat. Drink. Massage your feet. Hug your crew. You’ll feel better and so will they.
- Practice patience. During training, take up a hobby that requires you to act, then wait. For me, that’s growing apple trees from seed.
- Practice calmness and centering. This is about controlling your thoughts and not letting them control you.
- Meditation, which means focusing on something as an observer rather than an air traffic controller, can teach calmness.
- Slow breathing is sometimes employed by special forces, so you macho guys can do that if you can’t cop some Zen. You can do it while running (see Danny Dreyer’s book Chi Running), it can de-stress you, and it is amazing at making your run seem shorter.
- Yogic meditation and breathing techniques can be very helpful.
- Open water swimming forces you to think rationally when you are faced with panic-inducing challenges, and can make you more confident in dealing with minor crises.
- Learn acceptance. Whether it’s injury or something else, it happened. Can I adapt and live with it without dwelling on it? If it’s time to stop for the day, how can I frame any progress as success rather than a shortfall?
You must train to believe that your best is sufficient, and that what you have accomplished and learned is of value. You’ll start to recognize when your stressed and exhausted brain is lying to you and telling you that you’re failing and should give up, when the truth is that you’re still making progress and simply need to keep going, maybe with just a few tweaks to your original plan.
In time, you’ll discover a reservoir of calm, tenacity, resilience and mental strength.
Plan like an ultrarunner
This starts with planning around what you know you can do and what you know you need, not what you wish you could do or wish you had.
I’ve never done a multi-day/week/month run without a plan. But learning to stick to it has been a work in progress. I knew I had turned a corner when I was running across Iowa and had the discipline to sleep my planned hours instead of running through the night to make up time lost to thunderstorms and tornados.
I’m also convinced that sticking to my planned protein intake and dedication to sleep, plus my balance and flexibility training, made a huge difference on my U.S. run in keeping me mostly free of the usual aches, pains and minor yet omnipresent injuries that add up over super long distances.
Run within yourself
I know why I was able to finish a full Ironman in just over 15 hours: I’m clear-eyed about my abilities and my limitations. I’m consistent but not fast, and while I don’t want to claim a high pain tolerance, I’m willing and able to be physically uncomfortable for quite awhile. Maybe it comes from 40+ years of needle sticks, I don’t know.
I didn’t waste time on unrealistic fantasies about summoning some burst of magical speed. Instead, I tried to anticipate and train or otherwise prepare for everything I could possibly screw up and everything that could go wrong, even the little stuff that a better athlete would ignore:
- Streamlining transitions to buy time to test my blood sugar and fuel. This involved using a single change of clothes and dumping my supply bag on the uncrowded ground outside the tent in order to load what I needed for the bike and run.
- Training way more on the bike than the run, because I knew the bike was my weakest sport and strategically critical in Ironman events.
- Practicing what I’d do if my swim googles got knocked off.
- Practicing eating a gel in the water in case I went low during the swim.
- Experimenting with what I could eat quickly without littering (dried pineapple slices).
- Taking a class on flat-fixing, adding a can of fix-a-flat in my bike pack, and switching to tires that I could slime and air up way faster than I could fix or replace a tube.
Along the way, some people told me I needed a carbon fiber bike, clipless pedals, sprint training, and laughed at my beltpack. I embraced the reality that I was risk-averse and more turtle than rabbit. I did everything I could to optimize processes, limit risks, and reduce anxiety. If success was coming for me, it would take that path.
Those same assets have served me well as an ultrarunner. I know what my running pace is and isn’t. I understand my own fueling and rest needs, even if someone else can get by with less. I know what really scares me (low blood sugar), and I know what just annoys the hell out of me (drivers).
Part of your journey will be to earn insight into your own strengths and limitations, so that they can inform your planning, training and performance as you tackle your own Big Run.
Epic is for everyone
A lot of folks seem amazed that I’ve done these crazy long runs with Type 1 diabetes, a serious and incurable autoimmune disease that requires minute-to-minute decisions 24/7 and can kill you if the cards don’t fall right on any given day.
Epic is not out of reach for folks with serious health issues. But it’s harder, sometimes riskier, and definitely takes more planning and training.
The fact that it’s a longer road for us can leave us feeling defeated. Yet, most of us can find a way to do the hard stuff if we’re determined, persistent, adaptable enough, and take a problem-solving approach to training.
Training with a chronic health issue will become a “shadow sport” to the other sports you undertake. You’ll have to master the running, the swimming, the climbing or whatever—and you’ll have to master doing it in the context of your health issues.
The fact that I or anyone like me can do epic stuff with “one hand tied behind my back testing my sugar” just makes success despite the challenge that much sweeter. It’s like winning an extra medal.
You’re not the first person with serious health issues to dream big, so look for a community of like-minded people who have the same or related health issues, and work from there. Bounce ideas off them. “Cheat” from their experience, keeping in mind that your results may vary from theirs.
I’m 100% sure they’ll jump to your side and help you figure it out, just as my Type 1 community has helped me figure things out over and over and over. One day, it may surprise you to find that someone else is looking to you for advice. When that day comes, you’ll discover that being able to help someone like your younger self is the best victory of all.
And when you slam into obstacles, which you will, remember: there’s only one difference between the person who dreams of running 3000 miles and the person who actually does it.