Becoming an Ultramarathoner: Transitioning from road to trails

Why I got into trail running:

Last year, sometime during the smoldering heat of summer, I decided racing on the roads was no longer giving me the same joy it once did. Looking back, I'm sure it was in part due to how miserable the humidity was and the defeating feeling of adjusting workouts to accommodate for altitude-like conditions. It wasn't until I ran a miserable 5k in August that left me totally spent and tired of constantly monitoring interval splits and tempo runs, that I decided I needed a break from road racing. It also worked out that my husband was returning to school that same month, and I became official "runner of the dogs" since his time would be limited due to classes. (We have 2 awesome large-breed dogs that require around an hour of exercise daily). It just made sense for me to start running more on trails. I could ditch my watch and run by effort without much of an agenda, and the dogs could tag along. Initially, that was my why and what got me started.

download (4).png

What it felt like:


Even though I was struggling with running on the roads, exploring the trails was love at first step. Like a kid in a candy store, I couldn't get enough of that cathartic high from being surrounded by nature and away from society. Also, with it being so hot, I so enjoyed the shade and cooling the trees provided. It was healing in a lot of ways; I felt such a freedom from no longer having to pay attention to my splits during workouts. Also, this will make sense to some of you. I'm a 3 on the enneagram, which means I definitely struggle with fear of failure, so because it was all new, I had no way of comparing myself or judging my times based on previous personal bests. (That's something I'm really trying to work on.) As I imagined myself going faster and running farther, I began to dream about my first race on the trails. 

Planning for my first ultra:

Typically, I have been a pretty low mileage runner. Even during college when I ran cross country at the division 2 level, I averaged no more than 40 miles per week. This has always worked fine for me, and I've been able to continually improve off of a "less is more" approach. Moving into the trail and ultra world, though, when I started working with Meridith (@runninggwithcadence on instagram), we decided it would be beneficial for me to use fall of 2017 to build a really strong base, with lots of easy miles and a few unstructured workouts just to keep my wheels moving, but not many crazy hard workouts. Basically a lot of miles ;) This sounded fun! I dove straight in, and oh, picked out my goal race! 

You can see from Strava the consistency of the fall compared with last spring and summer. Building miles and loving it!

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 8.17.54 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 8.18.09 PM.png

I decided on the Bell Ringer 50k just outside of Nashville, TN on December 9, 2017. About 3,500 feet of elevation gain over 50k (~31 miles), which is pretty reasonable for most ultras. Sounded challenging but doable! Bring it on! 

What my training looked like:

I'll show you a typical week during my build up, then I'll go into details: 

download (1).png

Monday: easy stroller run; around 6 miles; finish with strides

Tuesday: 1 hour strength training in AM; 30 min-1 hour incline "hike" on the treadmill during heavy weeks at night after Emerson went to bed; 1 hour easy trail run during mothers day out

Wednesday: yoga in AM; workout of generally a fartlek or longer intervals with the stroller if I slept in

Thursday: 1 hour strength training in AM; 1 hour easy trail run during mothers day out

Friday: off or easy elliptigo ride in the wee morning hours

Saturday: long run between 15-26 miles on the trails or some road/some trails early in the AM

Sunday: easy 6 mile stroller run 

The difference between road training vs trail training

The main differences I've experienced are the additional "hikes" Meridith added into my schedule as well as more time on the trails of course. The hikes have been really great for helping develop my glutes for climbing (helloooo burning bum!!). I would bring a good book or podcast to listen to, put the incline at 12-15%, and I would walk at around a 15-17 min pace/mile while carrying a backpack full of books or water. Ha it sounds intense, and it was. But also I really enjoyed these! They were a nice change of pace, and I can't generally read while running on the treadmill, but I could read while walking, so that was fun. These really helped give me confidence in my climbing and hiking abilities, too!  

The other obvious difference in training were the long trail runs. Running 20 miles on the road takes a lot less time than 20 miles on the trails. Really, it comes down to time on your feet, but I liked knowing I had "hit" a certain number of miles, so I generally went by miles, but sometimes would cut it short if I had been out there for a long time and family came first, so I was fine doing this. Training on the trails takes more time, period. Gathering your pack, loading up your gear and fuel, driving to the trail (generally at least 20 min away), and driving back home. I tried to be really strategic with these long runs. Oftentimes I would start very very early (leave my house at 4:30 to be on the trail by 5 with a headlamp), and to be honest, I'm still not comfortable running solo by headlamp on the trails. It just freaks me out lol. But sometimes I would meet friends out there and that was fun! Other times, I would split my long run up, doing part on the trail, part later in the day during my daughter's nap time. To me, time on my feet was most important, so I didn't stress about my training being perfect. Besides, I started trail running because I wanted some flexibility in my training anyway! Why stress? 

My favorite training gear: 

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 6.03.41 AM.png

Salomon Sense Marin. I trained and raced exclusively in these guys and loved them so much!! 

Ultimate Direction Jenny Pack. Great vest!! I've gotten tons of miles out of this. (i'm wearing it in the photo above)

Clif Bar mocha gels (I trained only with this fuel and I loved it but now I'm very tired of the flavor lol)

Oiselle Toolbelt Roga shorts. Love all the pockets! No chafing ever. 

Next post I'll write about my first ultra race and all the details! 

Katie Taylor