I am not a seasoned runner (this is my second year) let alone an experienced ultra runner. I simply enjoy the act of lacing up my shoes, getting out there and trying to run with a smile on my face.
That said, I am competitive, I am ambitious and I have a huge amount of self-belief (please don’t mistake that for cockiness) – my journey is about challenging myself, getting far outside of my comfort zone in order to see what I can achieve.
Since taking up running late in to 2016 I’ve run a couple of 5 and 10k events, a handful of Half Marathons, and a Marathon. I can write on a post it note the amount I know about running, training techniques and tips.
But, does that mean I can’t lace up and run an ultra-marathon, or 7?
So, what is an ultra?
An ultra-marathon is anything longer than the classic 26.2 miles that makes up your standard marathon.
Ultra’s are growing in popularity (I’m adding to a plethora of “How to run an Ultra” blogs FYI) and vary hugely depending on which event you enter. Most fall in to the 30 to 50 mile bracket and they are, as I think I’ve proved, infinitely more achievable than most people would think.
What does it take to run an ultra?
So, having now run my first ultra and then running a subsequent 6 more I thought I’d try and provide my 7 (see what I’ve done there…) simple tips to running, and running and running.
1. Tarmac hurts and is invariably less fun
I tried, where possible, to make sure that my 7in7 Challenge route went off road, or at least kept away from main roads. Why, well pounding tarmac for hours on end isn’t much fun at the best of times and it’s particularly harsh on the joints – as my shin splints are a testament to.
At one point I was running towards Abingdon along a main A road which had no pavement, I spent a good (or bad) hour running and intermittently having to jump on the verge, stop and wait for a car to pass before going again. A few days later in stark comparison, I was taking in the Thames Path on an gorgeous autumn morning, running across undulating paths decorated by multi coloured leaves. Like the Abingdon A road, an hour or so of running but one that passed infinitely more pleasurably!
2. Putting the right fuel in the engine
Whether you’re running for 7 miles, 7 hours or 7 days, it’s about getting the right calories in to your body. I’ve learnt from my previous cycling challenge in Europe that once you’ve drained your body of those all-important carbohydrate and fat stores, it’s a hard place to come back from.
My challenge wasn’t a race, so in a way fueling was likely different for those situations particularly as I was being mindful of a further 6 days of running ahead. The key for me was ensuring I took on real food, staying away from processed bars or fructose heavy gels.
During the runs I was using a mix of 33Shake chai gels (90 cals), 6 jelly babies (the equivalent carbs – 30g – to a standard energy gel), Soreen malt loaf (95 cals and very handily individually wrapped mini loafs) and squeezy packs of Pip & Nut peanut butter (a whoppingly tasty 188 cals). I struck gold when I found that squeezing peanut butter directly on to the malt loaf produced some kind of ultra snack!
Apart from that, I pretty much ate a whole tuna over the course of the 7 days – favouring a Tuna Sandwich on White during my breaks. Why, well based on what I’ve learnt from Training Food – white bread is a High GI carb so ideal for providing instant energy and therefore good for replenishing energy after / during a run, with the tuna providing a decent protein hit and all in all an impressive 500 calories.
I also switched from drinking coffee at the stopping points to drinking tea. While the coffee provided a welcome boost, I soon found I was either crashing after the caffeine high or it was irritating my stomach.
3. You’re not a camel
I packed a fair amount of kit in to my 13ltr hydration vest (see my Challenge Itinerary) but after arriving in Liverpool on the train I found that I was already considering what I could jettison.
What you carry largely depends on the event, the length of time you’ll be out and whether you’ve got support and/or feed stations along the way.
Being that I was self-supported, staying dry was high on the priority list for me and as such a lightweight rain jacket and spare socks were essential. Apart from that is was portable power and chargers and a wash kit. I actually didn’t toss much out along the way but I did sacrifice the wet wipes – risky, potentially, but a pocket pack of tissues were a lighter, smaller substitute.
Although, I did manage to lose my sunglasses and sharpie (which I had been using to write inspirational messages on my hand!)
4. Make the right in-vest-ments
Talking of carrying equipment, investing in a hydration pack / vest that sits comfortably on the back and shoulders and carries what you need makes the whole eating and drinking thing a lot easier.
My Kalenji pack started off great, but after a long day I found that the buckles were sitting awkwardly on my ribs and rubbing. Similarly being the frequent tightening and loosening broke the stitching and by the penultimate day both straps were one harsh pull away from coming off.
It therefore pays to thoroughly test your gear before heading out, making sure it fits and you can quickly and easily access what you need while on the move.
5. Slow and steady wins the race
My challenge wasn’t a race, although I hadn’t considered Daylight Savings so I ended up desperately trying to get to each hotel before dark. I don’t mind running in the dark at all, it was more about getting through it in the daylight keep the spirits up. Anyway, my initial point was there is something to be said for slowing down. It is hugely beneficial – slow down, appreciate the views and eat, sounds kinda good doesn’t it?
But on a serious note, thinking of normal race situations and the principles of negative splits – starting off slow means there is plenty of time to speed up later, whether because it’s dark or there is an overtaking opportunity.
My only other related top tip on the front is definitely about walking the hills – running up hill takes more energy as you need to power your way up, but running downhill significantly increases the impact on your muscles and joints – particularly your quads. So, to save my legs, particularly towards the ends of the days I found walking hills incredibly beneficial.
6. Yes you need to train, but probably not as much as you’d think
An incredibly dangerous statement I know, but hear me out. Like any running event, training and conditioning your body for the stresses and strains it will be put through is absolutely essential. But does training for an ultra need to be a huge investment?
Based on my research (having never run an ultra) there seems to be an opinion that for the 30-50 mile ultras you can get by on running 30-35 miles a week, with two or three weeks nearer 45-50 miles. Most ultra runners train much as they would for a marathon, but make the long run a little longer, or run some back-to-backs (a longer run, followed by another the next day).
I’ll be honest, I probably wasn’t even there, due in part to the closeness of the 5 Cities cycling challenge. My runs were 20-30 miles per week with a few 15 mile long runs. I will happily admit, had I training more my body would have suffered less as it would have been better conditioned for that kind of mileage.
7. Twice the heart
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you running 30 plus miles is easy and all fun and games – there were lots of sections I hated and frankly just felt miserable. Which is why, in part, these challenges are not about the size of your legs but the size of your heart.
Stood at the start you need to be 100% committed to getting the job done – if you have any doubts the long, tedious and painful sections of the run will draw them out and quitting will seem like such a great option.
So, you have to consciously decide in those moments what you do, whether to make it fun or to make it miserable. Clearly having like minded people around you to chat to helps massively, in the last two days of my challenge I found just having people there, even when we weren’t talking, had a hugely positive effect on my mood. It’s the sense of knowing you’re not suffering alone I think. So thanks to James (Day 6), Joanna (Day 7) and Mark and Andy (Day 7) for coming along.
Being on your own makes it harder, of course, but when it got tough I resorted to music and trying to visual why I was putting myself through it. Having a good reason to suffer pulls you along, it makes is almost impossible to quit.
There is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable, there is so much more to life when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and that’s been the point of this journey for me. To truly see what I am capable of.
Go light, go slow, eat and you can go on and on…running an ultra marathon doesn’t get any simpler than that.
There’s still time to donate and help me to support the amazing work that Make-A-Wish do to help children facing the challenge of a life-threatening illness. So far we’ve raised £4,000 and that is incredible, but can we hit the magic £5,000?
2 thoughts on “How to run an Ultra Marathon”
Very interesting read Guy. The long distance challenges, be the cycling, walking or running arexas much in the mind as the body. For me it is accepting there will be periods of frustration, suffering and monotony and learning to cope with that. Distraction via music, focusing on the reason, the end, the people you love. It all helps. We’ll ride again soon mate. Best wishes. Tony
Forgive the 6:30am typos