The once counter-culture sport of ultrarunning has seen significant gains in popularity in the past two decades. Between the 2009 best-selling novel Born to Run, the mainstream acclaim for celeb ultrarun icons Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek, and the growing trend for the “average” Joe or Jane to tackle an endurance sports event as a marker of personal accomplishment, it’s no surprise that ultrarunning has emerged from the shadows. Just consider the fact that the Leadville Trail 100 Run and other big name races now use a lottery system to award coveted bib numbers. In fact, the number of ultrarun finishers in the U.S. more than quadrupled from 1998 (~15k) to 2013 (~69k), and has since surely passed the 70k mark.
Endurance athletes always long for that next challenge—and likewise, as a race director, maybe you long to tap into the ultrarunning boom and tackle something new. So you want to plan an ultrarun—but where do you start? While many of the skills and know-how that a race director needs—marketing, budgeting, securing sponsors, recruiting staff and volunteers, etc.—are similar when producing any event, an ultrarun presents several unique challenges that must be addressed.
Not Just a Long Marathon
An ultrarun isn’t just an extra-long marathon. Technically, it’s any running event that goes beyond the 26.2 mark. But oftentimes, ultraruns are 50 or 100 miles, or even multi-day stage races, and with that extended mileage comes exponentially greater needs in terms of aid station supplies, medical support, and experienced volunteers. Plus, ultrarun events frequently take place in destination locations known for extreme beauty—but also extremes of heat, altitude, and challenging terrain. As an ultrarun race director, you’ll want to be well prepared for the needs of your runners and whatever Mother Nature throws their way.
Safety and medical preparedness are paramount in ultrarunning, where athletes have been known to suffer from dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, chest pain, altitude sickness, bites and stings, severe blisters and chafing, injuries sustained in falls, and even concussion. The exact medical staffing and supply needs will vary from race to race, depending on the race distance, course, terrain, weather, size of the field, and other factors. But for every ultrarun, here are a few important points to keep in mind:
- Ideally, work with a professional medical director who has experience with ultrarunning athletes and events.
- Plan for plenty of trained medical staff on course—not only at the finish line, but also at each aid station to perform mandatory medical checks and offer any necessary treatment.
- More often than not, ultraruns take place in remote venues spread over a large geographic area with poor cell service and limited emergency access. It’s important to be aware—and communicate to your athletes in advance—that communications and EMS response times may be delayed.
- Pre, mid, and post-race medical checks are commonplace and often required in ultraruns. A participant’s weight is recorded on their arm with a Sharpie pen at the start, then checked throughout the race at predetermined aid stations; if the runner doesn’t “make weight” at each checkpoint, they’re pulled from the course.
- In advance of the race, rehearse and plan for potential emergency scenarios. Depending on your event, you may need to have medical staff that are prepared and equipped to hike in and out with a stretcher, if necessary.
- In conjunction with registration, require that all athletes complete a pre-race medical questionnaire. You may even require that they have a physician’s approval to participate.
- Provide pre-race education for your athletes regarding the unique medical concerns and nutrition and hydration needs during an ultrarun.
- And of course, always require a liability waiver.
Terrain & Venue
A majority of ultraruns take place on tough terrain or in challenging venues—whether technical trails, formidable climbs and descents, lung-busting altitude, or scorching desert. But there’s no prerequisite for the level of difficulty of an ultrarun course. The distance alone is intimidating enough! Some ultraruns opt to use a shorter circuit course (laps of a local 10K course, or even laps around a track). And before you write off the idea of running numerous laps as boring, consider how a circuit course can add a social aspect that many ultraruns lack, and many runners enjoy. Passing one another and encouraging one another on the course can make the miles fly by a lot faster—not to mention how a shorter course and smaller venue can ease your job as a race director (think emergency medical access, the permitting process, etc.)
Whatever venue you choose, make sure that your course is exceptionally well marked. Course marking is important in any race, but even more so in an ultrarun, where you may not have volunteers staffing every turn, and athletes may be running alone and in the dark.
If your race goes through the night, or if it starts in the wee hours of the morning, you’ll need to require that your athletes run with headlamps (state this clearly in your race rules). Encourage athletes to practice with their lights (as well as any other race gear), to become comfortable running in the dark.
Aid Station Supplies
An aid station in an ultrarun is truly a welcome oasis—far beyond the standard fare of most race pit stops. Often, a runner uses the allure of the comforts offered at the next aid station to motivate their efforts on the course. The supplies and services in your aid station plan should include:
- Plenty of both salty and sweet foods and fluids. The spread at an ultrarun aid station often consists of water, sports drinks, soft drinks, energy bars, fruit, cookies, hard candy, pretzels, potato chips, soup, cooked potatoes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey and cheese sandwiches, breakfast burritos, and bowls of salt for dipping chunks of food.
- Ice is essential—for keeping drinks cold and for filling hats and bandanas to keep runners from overheating on the trail.
- First aid supplies and medical staff.
- Experienced volunteers—ideally some of whom are ultrarunners themselves, and therefore able to address the specific needs of your athletes (managing blisters and chafing, making adjustments to clothing, providing information about the next section of the run, and offering much-needed moral support).
- Some aid stations double as drop bag sites where athletes have access to personal supplies, prepared in advance (things like personal nutrition, spare shoes and socks, layers of clothing, Body Glide, sunscreen, and headlamps and batteries).
- Aid stations can also serve as crew stations, where athletes meet their crew and pick up pacers.
- More toilet paper than you can imagine.
Pacers, Crew, & Safety Runners
Very often, ultraruns allow (or even require) athletes to supply their own crew and pacers, especially for nighttime laps. For runners, these crew members are a critical element of the experience, offering mental and emotional support throughout the race, helping to keep them moving along during the most difficult stretches of the course, and even helping to keep them awake and alert while running in the dark. As a race director, you’ll need to account for the extra volume of people on course, and be sure they have access to prearranged crew stations.
In addition to sweep runners at the end of your race (who make sure every last athlete is accounted for), some events provide volunteer safety runners. These people run or hike backwards on the course to make sure everyone is OK (sort of the human version of a sag vehicle).
Cutoff Times & Clock Synchronization
Another consideration for an ultrarun is the need for cutoff times and clock synchronization. Cutoff times are whatever predetermined times runners must pass through given checkpoints in order to realistically and safely complete the course (those not making the cutoff are pulled from the race; this information should be clearly communicated in the race rules). The need to synchronize watches for all race staff is a potentially overlooked detail of the utmost importance. Even a one-minute discrepancy, when a runner is told they cannot continue, can be devastating to an athlete—especially if their watch (synced to the start time) reads 11:59 and the staff manning the cutoff station believes the time is 12:01. Be sure that all official times are precisely coordinated, and that all runners are aware of this synchronization.
As with any type and distance event, if you’re able, participate in an ultrarun first to gain insight and understanding of athlete needs. If running an ultra is not in the cards for you personally, create a focus group of experienced ultrarunning athletes to advise your event planning and ensure the best possible success for your race.
If you have questions, feel free to give us a call at 855-709-4555. Now what are you waiting for? Get out there and get planning the next great ultrarun!