Have marathons run their course for you, so to speak? Are you looking for the next big challenge in endurance running? If so, ultra trail racing may be for you.
It’s not for the faint of heart, with races ranging from 50 kilometers to 100 miles on rustic trails that wind through hills and sometimes mountains. Over the past five years, though, more and more people have jumped on the bandwagon.
“They’re saying that the 100-miler is the new marathon,” Alec Bath, a Chicago-area resident who has been running trail races for 13 years and the ultra variety since 2009, says. “A lot of people run marathons now, and some are looking for the next thing. There’s been a huge spike in popularity [for trail racing]. A lot of the big races fill up much quicker than they used to.”
If you want to make the switch from pavement to trails, do so carefully. Success in trail racing, especially in ultras, hinges on moderating your pace and developing a keen understanding of what your body can and can’t do. In other words, you need to adopt an almost Zen-like approach to running.
“One of the hardest things for road runners to do is slow down and run by feel,” Shelley Cook, an ultrarunner since 2009 and Chicago Athlete’s 2013 Clif Bar Female Athlete of the Year, says. “Number one, don’t worry about your pace. Don’t look at a watch, because you really have to run based on effort. You need to get to know your body before you really can become good at these.”
Adds Michele Hartwig, cofounder of the trail racing organization McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes & Dudettes (MUDD) in Crystal Lake: “Your long runs should be at a slow pace. Just get your heart rate up into that easy zone. The mistake a lot of people make when they’re coming from short-distance to long-distance running is that they start everything at a marathon effort. That’s a little too fast on your training runs for ultras.”
Another important consideration is the ever-changing terrain, which is more difficult to traverse than pavement.
“There are a lot of obstacles, a lot of roots and rocks,” Cook says. “You need to learn how to navigate around them. You can’t look up if you’re trail racing. You can never take your eyes off the ground. It’s very mental.”
Of course, finding long trails on which to train is easier said than done in the Chicago area. Local options include Veterans Acres Park in Crystal Lake and the Palos/Sag Valley Trail System in Palos Park. Otherwise, you’ll have to road trip to trails at, say, Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin. “It’s a luxury for us to go up north and run on the trails,” Cook says.
Though most local trail racers do a fair amount of training on pavement, nothing works better for training than actual trail running.
“If you’re training for an ultra, find time at least once a month to get to a trail to run,” Hartwig says. “It’s a huge difference. Even if you run a very hilly road route, and even if that route is covered in snow, the trail feels different. It’s possible to get ready for an ultra by doing all road running, but it’s very helpful to at least get an idea of what the trail feels like.”
If you don’t have ready access to trails—and even if you do—cross training is a viable way to augment your running. Stair climbing, squats and box jumps will strengthen your quads and prepare you for the rigors of long stretches on hills, while swimming, biking and the rowing machine will help to build your core muscles.
Bath recommends easing into trail racing with 10Ks or half marathons in order to “find your trail legs.” If you then determine that you’re game for an ultra race, he says you should first participate in one from the sidelines.
“The big thing to do is go to a race as a pacer or part of the crew or both,” Bath says. “You want to witness what’s going on. A lot of the 100 milers have a pacer after 60 miles or so. The pacer runs with you, talks to you, makes sure you’re eating properly and hydrating. You’ll get in over a marathon of running just as a pacer.”
After that initiation, you should be ready to join endurance running’s most tightknit community.
“Ultra racing is a challenge to see what you can do and just to push yourself,” Cook says. “We just like being out there in the woods. Everyone in the community respects each other on the racecourse. It’s not like you’re out to get each other. It’s very friendly competition. We kind of take care of each other. It’s a whole different vibe.”
Trail racing is less of a sport and more of a culture.
“It’s about becoming one with the trail and the environment,” Brian Gaines, the founder and director of the local organization New Leaf Ultra Runs, says. “It’s one of the best ways to see any place, and you’re going to see a lot of the same people at most of the races.”
If you’re looking to become part of this community, here are some resources:
Since this is a heavily populated area, there aren’t many long trails from which to choose. The popular Veterans Acres Park in Crystal Lake features plenty of hills and easy access to your car so you can refuel with liquids and food. Palos/Sag Valley Trail System in Palos Park is another viable destination. It is scenic and features enough up-and-down stretches to adequately prepare runners for races. Gander Mountain Forest Preserve, near the Wisconsin border in Lake County, offers good elevation for these parts. The Des Plaines River Trail will work in a pinch, although Chicagoland ultra runner Shelley Cook notes, “We don’t consider that a trail. It’s just a nice little rocky road.”
McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes & Dudettes (MUDD) has been around since 2010 and New Leaf Ultra Runs (www.newleafultra.com) since 2011. Both organizations have grown exponentially as the sport has become more popular—MUDD has about 500 members, New Leaf close to 1,000—and offer weekly group runs as well as a source for trail runners to commiserate. Iron Lung Fitness (www.ironlungfitness.com), operated by ultramarathoner Jeff Lung, provides fitness training for endurance runners.
Michele Hartwig of MUDD organizes the two biggest ultras: the Earth Day 50K in the spring and the Frozen Gnome 50K in the winter. Both races take place at Veterans Acres. Many local ultra runners head up to Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin for the legendary Kettle Moraine 100, which happens June 7–8 this year. For those who aren’t ready to conquer an ultra, there are 5K and 10K trail races throughout the Chicago area all summer long.