Aravaipa Running’s Nick Coury on Trail and Ultra Running
The sport of running has been growing steadily over the past few decades, as many seek to stay in shape, challenge themselves, and enjoy an active lifestyle. Marathons get a lot of press as the ultimate goal for celebrities and average Joes, but the subcultures of trail running and ultrarunning are quickly making converts as runners look to move off the roads and experience running in new ways. I’ll share my experiences with these two types of running, and offer some advice for those looking to try it.
I’ve been running for the better part of 9 years, trail and ultrarunning for the past 6. I was initiated into the sport through the high school cross country program, running for the challenge but not overly enjoying it. My senior year of high school, my brothers and I signed up for a free all-night run, thinking it would be a different kind of adventure. Between our sprint, walk, eat, sprint some more pacing strategy and the NASA engineer from Texas chatting off movie quotes all night in his Napoleon Dynamite boxers, it certainly was a trip for us. Quadrupling my previous longest distance, I found my 12 hour total over 50 miles and the world of ultrarunning captured me.
The more I experienced trail running and ultrarunning, the more I enjoyed it. In 5Ks, I could show up, run, and go home without speaking to a soul; most of the other runners were more concerned with beating me than talking to me. Trail and ultra runs were refreshing in that even the front runners were more concerned with helping each other finish than beating each other, and spending so much time together meant you couldn’t help but make a handful of new friends at each race.
Fast forward to the present and I’ve completed over 25 ultras including eight of 100 miles or more, on courses ranging from flat 500 meter loops to courses climbing snow-capped Colorado 14ers without a level piece of ground to be found. I organize a dozen trail and ultra runs a year with my brother Jamil, and couldn’t imagine anything better.
Trail Running Basics
Let’s face it: concrete is hard. One of the biggest appeals of trail running is the soft, injury-preventing dirt that works the body in varying ways and keeps the legs from feeling quite so pounded. It also provides an escape from the jeers and honks of cars, not to mention the momentum-breaking stop lights. But my personal preference for trails comes from the new opportunities it provides. For an hour or two a day, I escape the business of the city and find myself face to face with nature. I feel a primal adrenaline rush as I locomote through deep valleys and across ridge lines. It is the perfect way to escape everyday life and experience the serene beauty of a sunset from a thousand feet up.
The best way to get into trail running is to jump in and try it. There are dozens of trail systems near most cities, and there’s bound to be one within a short drive. Most will provide detailed trail maps that list difficulty, so pick an easy trail and start cruising for a few miles. The basic technique of trail running is to stay light on your feet. Adapting to the trail conditions are a necessity. It’s best to start out slow, and increase speed as you feel comfortable. The best part about learning to trail run is that you will intuitively figure it out as you go. As long as you are focused, your legs will automatically keep you upright and and stable (they have a vested interest in it!)
As you become more experienced and seek out longer runs, you’ll quickly find that trail running requires different equipment and planning than road running. First, many trail runners prefer a trail-specific shoe that provides rock protection, more traction, and a lower-to-the-ground build for stability. Still, many road shoes will work for trails, and you’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t. Food and water can become an issue when trails stretch far into isolated areas. It’s a good idea to carry hand bottles or a hydration pack with more calories and fluid than you plan to use (just in case). It’s not a bad idea to have a trail map too, especially if you’re exploring new areas. One of the appeals of trail running is the refreshing adventure. Don’t be afraid to walk the uphills, bring friends, pause to soak in the scenery, and leave the headphones at home to enjoy nature’s soundtrack!
There is a certain appeal to explore the realm of human capability. Ultrarunning falls into this realm. For the uninitiated, an ultramarathon is anything further than a marathon, and frequently appears in distances of 50km (31 miles), 50 miles, and 100 miles. Many start running these distances for the sheer challenge, to break themselves down and discover what they are made of. Others enjoy the casual pace, good company, and great food at the events. I enjoy the realization that I’ve covered entire mountain ranges, lengths beyond the horizon, and distances most tire of driving, all on my own two feet.
The key to completing an ultramarathon is the desire and determination to finish, stopping at nothing to make it happen. Training is an essential prerequisite, but the key to finishing an ultra is ultimately of the spirit. Running races up to the marathon is about making sure everything goes right; ultras are about knowing things will go wrong and yet overcoming them.
Training for a 50k is actually very similar to training for a marathon. The biggest difference will be in taking a few more calories during the race. It’s also a good idea to train on the surface of the race, especially if it is a trail run. At the 50 mile level, I recommend making long runs a higher percentage of total weekly mileage, but at a slower pace. This might come in the form of several 15-20 mile runs each week, or back to back long runs on the weekend. The slower pace helps with relaxing early in a race, to keep the legs strong at the end. Taking in calories also becomes more critical, and it is a good idea to practice fueling on training runs. Training for a 100 mile is another beast entirely, and it is essential to prepare for all aspects of the race. You should be prepared for night running, swings in weather and temperature, blisters, extensive hydration and fueling, and sleepiness. To know the reward for all of this, it’s best to ask someone who has done it. They’ll tell you the pride and accomplishment at the finish line is unsurpassed; in that moment, you are capable of anything.
I am often asked about specific food strategies I use. Before a race I keep it simple with fruit or some pasta. It’s generally advisable to find mild foods that sit well (lay off the hot sauce!). During races, I use everything from gels and sports drinks to fruit, cookies, and even gummy worms (they’re tasty and fun!) I try to stick with liquids and gels when the races are shorter, but find I need more “real” food as the race distance gets longer. At some point, you are likely to get sick of one kind of food, so take advantage of the variety at aid stations. Often times I hit mile 80 and crave nothing more than a hot piece of pizza or a big slice of pumpkin pie!
Joining the Community
One of the best ways to start trail and ultrarunning is to get involved in the community. Volunteering at a race is a great way to see what it is all about, meet some training partners, and learn from seasoned veterans. There are so many trail running groups (many members of which run ultras) and now they can easily be found in one spot on this site.
Races are another superb place to meet others interested in trails and ultras. Jamil and I organize a number of races through Aravaipa Running. The Desert Runner Trail Series consists of six races, one a month from October to March, with distances ranging from 5k to 50k allowing new trail runners and veterans alike to find a distance that suits them. The Javelina Jundred is our 100 mile Halloween party, featuring a costume contest and easy crewing and viewing for family and friends. Across The Years is a fixed-time event, allowing runners to do as much or little as they please in 24, 48, or 72 hours. The go-as-you-please style is very social, and the New Years running celebration is an annual event for many. Not to forget the great work of other race directors as some of my personal favorites are Hardrock, Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, and Umstead.
I’d love to answer any questions in the comments. Otherwise, I hope to see you on the trails!
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