When conversation turns to Ultra marathons with friends and other runners of shorter distances, inevitably I will hear something along the lines of "I could never run that far..."
Well, to backtrack a bit, in 2006 I ran the London Marathon. 3 months before the race day, I hadn’t run further than for the bus. At least since school anyway. Running was always the punishment for not playing other sports well, not a form of exercise or enjoyment in its own right. I only ran London because my friends laughed at me in the pub when I said I could do that. Combined with the £200 laid that I would be dead before Cutty Sark, I started to run. I finished it too. And then didn’t run for a further five years. I had finished the London Marathon- there wasn’t anything bigger than that, right?
In 2010, my son was born and I decided I would run London again in 2011 as a tribute to his life and start him off with a medal. Later that year my daughter was born. Damn it. I had to run London again! And it was a few months after that, I came across a man who ran 100 miles in mountains for fun and that is when everything changed.
I find ultras easier than a half marathon. Seriously. Yes, you are going for longer, but you are also going a lot slower and usually in beautiful surroundings. One of the best descriptions I have heard of an ultra is from James Adams, author of 'Running and Stuff'. He describes ultras as "just one long moving picnic" and in essence, this is exactly what they are.
Very few ultrarunners have an exact time goal in mind, but enter knowing that a lot can and will go wrong and to be able to roll with it on the day. They are a test of resilience as opposed to speed, resourcefulness over splits. I have found this resilience has carried over into my professional and personal life and as a consequence I deal with problems a lot better than in the past.
Choosing your first ultra / how to get started
My first ultra was the North Downs Way 50 mile race in 2012. I chose this as it was a qualifier for Western States at the time, as long as you finished in under 11 hours. I finished in 11:41 utterly broken. Never, ever again. Until a year later when I did it in 10:11 and qualified. It is organised by www.centurionrunning.com and one of their 50 milers is a great starting point. The best organised and friendliest in the UK.
Ultras are now run all year long, but I suggest trying your first one in Spring or Autumn when it’s not too hot, but not too cold either.
The different ultra marathon distances
Ultras typically take on two different forms- running a distance and running a time. The former vary from 50k through to upwards of 200 miles, but the most common distances are 50 miles and 100 miles. Again, these vary in terms of terrain- you have flat, road based 100k races right through to extreme mountain 100 mile races, that often consist of scrambling and climbing as well as running. One example is the fabled UTMB which is 103 miles in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps and involves the equivalent of climbing to a jumbo jets cruising altitude and back down again!
The latter are time based races and these are often 6, 12 or 24 hour races, typically on a track or on a small 1 mile course where you run loop after loop, where you see how far you can go in that time. These are as much a mental game as a physical one and not something I have relished to date! My suggestion for those interested is to look up 'social ultra' on Facebook, join the group and go for a 'fun run' with some likeminded people on there. If you enjoy that, enter a smaller distance race and build up slowly.
There is a saying in ultra running of 'it never always gets worse'.
Usually you need at least a marathon finish. To enter a 100 miler, it is usually a 50 mile finish. All races vary so do check before you fish out the credit card.
What kit to wear
Typically you have to take mandatory kit for most UK and European races, but some in the US you only need to carry a water bottle. On top of essentials such as a high quality waterproof jacket, map, space blanket, first aid kit, etc (does he want to mention anything about shoes he wears??)I recommend two things:
- Firstly vaseline or a similar lubricant - Body Glide is popular. On such long distances the body swells and areas that don't chafe usually can become extremely uncomfortable so it is always worth the extra small amount of weight. This can be especially worse if you haven't trained extensively wearing your race vest/ backpack.
- Secondly, a fresh t-shirt can do wonders in a longer race. Removing a soaked shirt, especially as it cools off later in the day, can make you feel like a new person and is a great trick I learned early on.
You also need decent clothing and my favourites from Iffley Road that I recently ran The Green Man ultra in are the Thorpe long-sleeved contours man top and Cambrian fell green running -tshirt as a base layer- perfect for an early spring day.
Credit: Mick Ward
One of my biggest issues during races is nutrition. At UTMB last August, running at altitude and in 34 degree heat, I was throwing up from 30 miles in. Combined with a slower than expected pace, I was drinking unsanitary water from streams which made the situation even worse and I eventually had to call it a day at the 100k point. I am experimenting now with something called Tailwind, which is powdered calories that you add to water and is a lifesaver if you feel nauseous and can't stomach the thought of 'real food'. Some people suffer no stomach issues, but for those who do- gels and meal replacements- even baby food, can be the difference between a finish and a trip on the 'loser bus'!
There is a saying in ultra running of 'it never always gets worse'. essentially, no matter how bad you feel you can suddenly feel a million dollars a mile later on. The same applies to feeling good, it’s called 'wait a while'. That is one of the beauties of ultras, that no matter how physically fit you are, if your head leaves you during a race, it is all over. At mile 60 of the Thames Path 100 in 2016, I was very ill but as soon as it was out of my system, I ran the best 3 miles of my life after that. From zero to hero in ten minutes. I use what I call a 'system check'. I think about all the things that are working as opposed to what hurts and by the time I have run through this check, I realise that most things are working so there is no excuse to stop because one small aspect hurts. That’s not to say I carry on regardless of risk. If I feel there is something serious or it would damage me long term to continue, I know when I need to draw the line. It is all about awareness and monitoring- essentially a form of mindfulness, built into the running scenario, and I have never known my body better since starting running ultras.
In many respects, ultras are more akin to soldiers on a long distance march than a conventional running race. Weather and conditions underfoot play a huge part and physical fitness is far outweighed by mental strength. On the 4th March I completed The Green Man ultra for the second time, which is a 45 mile mudfest as a single loop of the Community Forrest Path around Bristol. As I ran, with this blogpost in mind, I realised that most of us look less like runners than people would imagine. We aren’t superhuman by any means, but we are mentally strong so if you are stubborn and if you are a problem solver, then you have the ability to be an ultrarunner.
Tops tips for getting started
- Start off with a distance you know you can do and simply add 10% to your long run each week.
- Get in your weekday miles but then up them by 10% a week too. 40 miles to 44 miles a week, as an example, isn’t a huge increase but it makes your body work harder than it is used to and this incremental increase pays off.
- Adapt to the route and hike hills, jog flats and bomb the downs. Vary tarmac and trail and very soon you will be stronger, sharper and more alert
Note: Always consult your doctor before any significant change in exercise.