A man runs in the forest

Going the Distance

A beginner’s guide to ultrarunning in central Ohio.

Maybe it was pandemic cabin fever that helped ultrarunning become so popular; the sport has gained participation in recent years as 5K participation has leveled off. Or, maybe it’s something else: the beautiful terrain, the camaraderie, the challenge. Ultras, or ultramarathon-distance trail runs, are like an attainable Mount Everest—put in the time and training, be willing to suffer, and then achieve a goal you’ll casually mention at parties every chance you get.

“I like to joke it’s hiking for the impatient,” says Laura Mason, chapter leader of Trail Sisters Columbus, a group that aims to increase and diversify trail running participation for women and non-binary people. Mason likes to use trail running as a way to explore parks around central Ohio. Although she has been a runner since middle school, Mason had to work up to an ultra just like everybody else, clocking her first 50-miler in 2021. “It doesn’t matter your size, it doesn’t matter your background,” says Mason. “If you can run, you can be a runner. And if you can be a runner, you can be an ultrarunner.”

Public Lands caught up with Mason to glean tips about getting into ultrarunning, or simply extending your trail running miles, in and around central Ohio. 

Buy the right shoe

Ultrarunning starts with the right shoe. Mason recommends getting fitted by a professional. “Crappy shoes or shoes that don’t fit you right, you might get hurt,” she says. “And then you’ll hate running because you got shin splints training for your first 5K.” Mason concedes that running shoes can be a barrier to entry—the cheapest HOKA comes in at nearly $150—but once that investment is made, trail running is basically free. Other key clothing items include wool socks (especially good if your feet get wet) and non-cotton, quick-dry shirts and shorts. Layer up as needed; this is Ohio after all.

Hydrate and eat correctly

For a short run, you can carry a water bottle. After you start adding mileage, a small pack with a water bladder plus pockets for snacks will be necessary. As for food, Mason prefers Honey Stinger waffles and GU energy gels. But you don’t have to get fancy. PB&J, fruit, chips and pickles work well.

Join a group

Ultrarunning doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor. “I’m super fortunate that I’ve had a running buddy,” says Mason, who trains and enters ultras together with a friend. “That has really benefited me.” Trail Sisters is a great group to help women and nonbinary runners get into trail running and to train for ultras. Other Columbus group runs happen through the Rocks and Roots Trail Association and other running clubs of all types

Hit the trails

Whatever distance you’re starting with, you’ll want to put in increasing miles on the trail. Mason likes to visit parks with a lot of mileage in order to enjoy new scenery and to avoid running lots of laps. Her favorites not too far from Columbus include Clear Creek Metro Park, Great Seal State Park, Mohican State Park and Forest and the Zaleski State Forest Backpacking Trail. Locally, city parks and metroparks have shorter-distance trails, and Columbus bike paths (though paved) provide good mileage for training.

Follow a plan

“If you’re running fairly consistently, you can train for a 50K in about 16 weeks,” Mason says. Go online to find a training plan, like Strava or Podium. If you join a local running club, you can likely get in on a group training regimen. And don’t get discouraged if you miss a day or two. “Just listen to your body…so you don’t get hurt,” Mason advises.

Stay safe

The chances of something going horribly wrong on the trail are very slim, but there are some common-sense precautions to take any time you go out for a long run. Go with one or more other people, if possible. Take enough water and food so that you don’t bonk. Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Hide your wallet under your car seat. Be sure to know where you’re going so you don’t get lost. Mason suggests bringing a printed trail map in a zip-locking bag, along with toilet paper and your car key, but not a key fob (it can get damaged by water). And be aware that deer hunting season for rifles generally takes place at the end of November and beginning of December. It’s best to avoid the trails then.

Sign up and enter your ultra

Signing up for an ultramarathon race is a great motivator for your training plans. And the race itself is one of the best challenges you’ll ever face. Locally, the Rocks and Roots Trail Runners Association hosts a series of events, including ultras. Going farther afield and just plain farther—50 to 100 miles—check out the Burning River Endurance Run and Relay, which goes through Cuyahoga Valley National Park and adjacent Cleveland metroparks. In the southern part of the state, check out the Shawnee Trail Runs (50K and 50 miles) in Shawnee State Forest, accurately touted as the most challenging ultra in the state due to terrain that’s much more rugged than central or northeast Ohio. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.