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Ever Thought of Doing an Ultra-Marathon?

A decade ago if you told people you were running an ultra-marathon the most common response was “What’s that?” closely followed by with a bemused “Why?”. Today it’s much more likely to be “Oh yeah, which one?” occasionally followed by “Uh-huh, I think my great-aunt did that one last year”.

But, in spite of the growth in the popularity of the sport, going for the occasional jog and being an ‘ultra-runner’ are still perceived as two fundamentally different activities by some - the former being what normal people do to keep in shape while the latter is some sort of extreme activity requiring innate natural abilities and a degree of mental imbalance.

In fact, increasing distance is often much easier than people imagine and 26.2 miles exists only as a psychological barrier and a semantic distinction. The journey for a non-runner to the first 5km is often a bigger challenge than going from there to 50km.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few reasons why anyone who runs can probably run an ultramarathon (and might like to try)...

You’re allowed to walk

Arguably ultra-marathon runners’ best kept secret. Even the pros walk up some of the steeper hills (although admittedly it tends to be more of a power-march) and further back in the field strolling is a common feature.  At a recent 50 mile race along the South Downs organised by Centurion I would be surprised if more than five out of 500 competitors ran every step of the way.

This is by no means meant to undermine the challenges involved, merely to reassure that you can walk with impunity.

 Running down Annapurna, NepalRunning down Annapurna, Nepal

You get to eat real food

 Unsurprisingly food plays a big part in ultra-marathons. Not only is it consumed in vast quantities but it is also much more appetising than the viscous substances that marathon runners often survive on.

 At checkpoints I have been served everything from paella to pecan pie. The American runner Joe Fejes reports eating sushi and buckets of fried chicken in his six-day races while the great Scott Jurek has even published his own vegan cookbook (he does concede that his attempt to run on a raw food diet was tricky due to the energy required for chewing).

 Many race organisers now seem to compete for who can offer the best spread with the results rivalling the best children’s parties. So if you miss dining out on Pringles and Pepperami then this is the sport for you.

The conversation isn’t bad either

Another advantage of running slowly for a long time is that you can hold a real conversation. Meeting interesting and entertaining people is a great part of the close-knit ultra-running community and a good way of distracting oneself from the pain.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that ultra-running has produced some notable literature from the Greek poems of the legendary Yanis Kouros to the musings of Murakami.

Alfie Dragon's Back Race 2017

Wearing Iffley Road Kit, Dragon's Back Race, Wales, 2017

Feeling fresh in the early stages of an ultra Feeling fresh in the early stages of an ultra

Age is no obstacle

Take a look at any ultra-marathon starting line and you will see that age (and body shape) is no obstacle. Those in their 50s often outnumber those in their 20s and one even finds the occasional septuagenarian.

Older runners aren’t just there to make up the numbers either. Because ultra-running is often as much a mental as a physical challenge many elite runners remain competitive well into their fifties and races have been won by people as old as 77.

Coupled with the fact that the gender gap tends to narrow as distance increases, ultra-marathon running really is an equal opportunities sport. A study done by academics in California even found that older ultra-runners tend to suffer fewer injuries than younger and shorter-distance runners.

 Bush running in NigeriaBush running in Nigeria

You don’t have to train that hard

My own foray into ultra-marathon running came when I realised that getting faster over the marathon distance would require a more serious approach to training and probably some lifestyle adjustments. Running farther however seemed an easier option for a new challenge.

Given the amount of time that the typical triathlete spends training (and faffing over kit), ultra-running really is an economical endurance hobby.

So if you like the idea of an inexpensive, relaxed, sociable, equal-opportunities gastro-hobby then it might just be time to step up the distance and become an ultra-marathon runner. It really is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

 Getting lost in the Gobi Getting lost in the Gobi

Some top tips to get you started:

  • Just sign up. There’s nothing better to get you motivated than signing up and telling your friends about it. After that there’s no way out.
  • Find an ‘easy’ ultra. Ultra-marathons cover everything from 26.3 miles upwards so you might want to start with one of the shorter options. Endurance Life offers a great selection of 30-35 mile coastal races all over the UK.
  • Build up the miles slowly. Trading speed for distance is key to ultramarathon training. Short, fast runs are still important but on the longer runs.
  • Focus on the smaller picture. The longer the run the more important it is to break it up into mental stages – considering an ultra in its entirety can be a daunting prospect.
  • Find some fellow runners. With the increase in popularity it’s increasingly easy to find fellow runners. The Tribe running club in East London host regular meetings and weekend outings.
  • Download some podcasts. For when you run out of energy to make conversation.
  • Upgrade your kit. If you’re going to be running for hours and hours it’s important to be comfortable (and look your best). 

Alfie Pearce Higgins

Runner, Adventurer, Occasional Writer

Alfie is a (slow) runner, (accident-prone) adventurer and (occasional) writer. From Land Rovers in Africa to bicycles in Nepal to footraces in China he spends his time proving that enthusiasm and stubbornness make up for preparation and expertise.