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Finishing an ultramarathon – A beautiful state of mind

mindFinishing an ultra is actually pretty easy. Bare with me, it’s true. It does require a change in mindset though, so stick with it.

An ultramarathon is technically any running race that is longer than a marathon. If a race is worthy of the title of “ultramarathon” then you have permission to change your race strategy quite significantly. You can slow down, walk the uphills, eat more food, chat with your fellow competitors and enjoy the scenery. If you do not then you will run out of steam by the end. You can of course go at marathon pace from the start, but when you “hit the wall” or “bonk” then you wont just have 5 or 6 miles to sob through, you will have ten or twenty or even more and it would be almost unbearable.

For experienced runners to finish a marathon it involves an almost all out effort right from the start. It is 2.5 to 6 hours of pushing pushing pushing. That really hurts, and most of us aren’t built to run that way. The human body is an amazing thing though, and if instead you ask it to chug along at a lower intensity for a lot longer then it is very happy to do so.

Runners can learn a lot from Sunday cyclists.

Just look at them. They get up bright and early and toddle around the countryside for miles and miles. Occasionally they have a sprint or push hard up a hill, but most often they are cruising along the flat or tucking in as they roll down a hill. That is some pretty low intensity all-day action right there. They also stop for coffee and cake. How many runners do you see do that? Why not? The reason is that often runners push too hard. When pushing hard not only does the pain become something miserable, but important things, like their digestive systems, stop working properly. Try doing a long run, but think like a cyclist. There is a key difference though. Ultra runners push on through the flats and downhills, they take it easy on the ups. Use an uphill as an excuse to walk, have a chat, eat some food. You are trying to prevent your heart rate from going too high, so you don’t burn out early. Look around at the view, talk to a sheep. You know you want to.

Roads vs Trails

Roads. Yuck. They are OK for a mid week training session, or for a little bit of speed work, but to prevent your body from breaking down from repetitive stress then you really need to hit the trails for your long runs. They don’t have to be muddy or hilly if you don’t want them to, but I’d recommend factoring in a hill or three to give yourself that chance of a walk. It breaks the run up a bit and you will be glad of the (uphill) break. The first time you incorporate trails they will likely tire you out a bit as they use a lot more muscle groups, but they will build your core, improve your proprioception, build your durability, and INCREASE your overall performance. You may even learn to like the muddy/boggy/rocky sections as they add variety and spice up the route.

Food and ultras

If running a shorter ultra, perhaps sub 40 miles, then you will probably get away with marathon style nutrition. You could try adding a bit of variety though, perhaps a packet of crisps or two, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich. At an ultra pace you can digest these easily enough. If you can’t eat them then you aren’t going at ultra pace. For longer races you will switch more and more onto savouries as the race progresses as that is what your body will crave.

Taking it seriously

Why would you want to do that? Who on earth would want to push so hard in a race that they either don’t enjoy it or are so fatigued afterwards that they can’t race again for months afterwards. This isn’t about peak performance, or setting a record. This is about finishing the course, having fun and encompassing running, staying fit, and eating huge amounts of food guilt free. It is about making running a fun part of your life.

Choosing a race

If you are new to ultras then choose a race that will challenge you, but not one that is so tough that you wont be able to finish it. Save that for later. Find one with a course profile that you like, at a distance you can manage, and of course one with amazing scenery. Twenty four hour trail races like Hope 24 and Equinox 24 are worth a look thanks to their low pressure, newbie friendly environments.  Once you’ve figured out what you like and discovered you can run further than you may have thought, and that your body will recover quicker than you ever imagined, then you can push up the bar and look to the tougher events if that is what you want. Races like The Oner with its tight time cutoffs, or multi day races, or one of the 100 milers. You don’t have to though. You could stick to cruising around beautiful 30 milers at coffee and cake speeds, soaking up the views and the atmosphere.

Intervals, HIT and Fartleks

High Intensity Training or HIT as it is known is not fun. This is effectively reducing your training down to extremely short and painful interval sessions to try and get the most training into the shortest time possible. You have to push so hard that you are practically sick by the end of it to see a decent benefit. It really isn’t worth it unless you are looking to win races. It takes the fun out of training and massively ramps up the pain. Just ask Chris Hoy….

Have you tried Strava? Instead of doing your usual speed session go on Strava and look up some segments in your area. These are sections of road and trail that folks have set times on. Figure out where they are and use them for your speed work. Run easily to the first one, give it some welly, and then cruise along to the next. When you get home upload your GPS data and see how well you did. You can then work out how you can beat it and climb the league table. Its like interval training, but more fun.

Running ultras for most folk is learning that:

  • Going slower allows you to go a lot further
  • Accepting that you will be on your feet all day (and sometimes all night and all day and all night again….) 🙂
  • Running on trails hurts your body a lot less, plus finishing a run covered in mud is extremely satisfying
  • You can eat real food while running
  • A lot of hills are rest breaks and a welcome change of pace. Oh, and a good time to look at the view
  • If your stomach wont allow you to eat then you are running too fast
  • Running is NOT all about pain
  • Enjoying running is not all about High Intensity Training (HIT)
  • You don’t have to continuously run massive high mileage weeks to be able to finish most ultras
  • Ultras often have awesome medals
  • Ultras may have fewer spectators but boy are they the best and most supportive of spectators 🙂
  • Walking is not evil

A beautiful state of mind

It takes a little while to figure all this out as it is very different to the way that runners normally treat running. Clubs are often speed/performance focussed. Many are just trying to hit their first marathon, not realising that actually doing their first ultra is likely to be a lot more fun, but only if you treat it like an ultra and not like a marathon.

When you do get there though it is wonderful. When you get your pace right then everything falls into place. The miles tick by, the views come and go. The sun rises, falls and sets. You turn your head torch on and catch fleeting glimpses of animals in the dark. You pause, turn your head torch off and gaze at the stars for a minute, listening to the sea or the wind in the trees. You watch the sun rise above the cliff tops, while eating a bizarre breakfast of cold sausage rolls, crisps and perhaps a jam tart. Why not? You run along a beach, the water cooling your sore feet, and eventually you see the finish. The cheer of spectators makes you well up. You are both glad and sad that it is almost over. It has been an amazing experience, with both highs and lows, and unlike many marathon runners you aren’t thinking “never again.”


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