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The three stages of an ultramarathon

The 3 ultramarathon stages

Generally when I run an ultramarathon I find that I go through three distinct stages. This will be different for everyone, and ideally my race would be a little more balanced, so this isn’t something you should be aiming for. If I was perfect then I guess there would be no stage 1, and I could get into survival mode right from the start. Easy to say, but much harder to do.

Stage 1 – The start

The startYour adrenaline is pumping and your heart rate is raised. You set off too fast. You slow your pace, but you know it is still too fast. Your thoughts spiral around “can I do this?” “This is going to be too hard!” “This is going to hurt.”

Time paces randomly, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, flowing with your emotions.

You don’t drink enough. You don’t start eating soon enough.

You don’t know if you can finish. You don’t know what is going to happen.

Depending on the race you might be going through this for 2-3 hours. It is my least favourite part of the race. Phantom niggles come and go.

Stage 2 – The middle/slog/survival

The middleThis is the longest part of the race and you will spend much of your time here.

The pain has started to become consistent and your high pace, and lack of attention to nutrition has caught up to you. Your pace slows.

The first part of this stage is crucial. If you get it wrong you absolutely wont finish. Thought processes change from that of speed and worrying about the future to focusing on the now. What is your body doing? What does it need? You have to dig in, make up for the mistakes you made earlier and focus purely on looking after yourself. Time slows until you settle in, and it is easy for thoughts to get out of control. Once you’ve started to look after your body properly though time vanishes in big chunks. Check points come and go, as do conversations with other racers.

A few people will overtake you when you first hit this phase, but worry not. If you get it right then after the initial slow your consistency will claw them back over the subsequent hours and miles. You will see them again.

Stage 3 – The finish

The finish

This is my favourite stage, but it is also the hardest. It only happens if you looked after yourself in stage 2. If you didn’t then you either haven’t got this far or are so knackered that you can barely walk and it takes forever. If you’ve got stage 2 right though this bit is glorious. This is where the emotional pay off for the earlier hard work starts. And it is characterised by new thoughts and actions.

This stage, for me, begins when my subconscious brain sneaks in a thought: “You can do this.” All of a sudden it is like dawn has come, and sometimes it literally has. My body is hurting, but my form squares up. Further positive thoughts start to enter my brain, and a half crazed smile usually appears on my face. My pace starts to pick up, and I might change my nutrition, switching to more sugar based products to boost my emotions further and help me charge to the finish.

If I’ve done stage 2 right then my stomach can take the food, and I start to put time into the other racers. There is still a battle with time, which slows further and further in the final kilometres. You have to push that away though. Focus on form and making each step count. Keep sipping on your drink. Keep pushing in the high energy carbs. Keep pushing until someone tells you to stop, and hangs a medal around your neck.

Crossing the finish line feels good, but it feels even better if you managed yourself properly in stage 2 and got to stage 3. The emotional reward for getting all this right is the best feeling you can possibly imagine, and will soon have you lining up the next race, the next challenge.

If you ever see me race then you will know if I’ve got it right because, even though I’ve been running all day, when I come into sight at the finish I will be at an inexplicable sprint with emotions crazily high. When the medal goes on though the energy is gone and the weight of it will almost drag me to the floor. When I lift myself up and hobble off to the car that crazy half-grin will still be there though.

See you on the trails 🙂

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