Written by James Young - http://runjames.co.uk
I’ve spent a lot of time learning about running in the last couple of years and there’s one common set of lessons I’d like to share about turning up to your first ultra.
I frequent an active Ultra Running group on Facebook which has been the source of a great deal of help to me but I thought it might be good to share a few tips and lessons I’ve learnt from being a total novice to running ultras.
1. Be bold
Sign up for something now. Often I see people planning on running their first ultra in 12 or 18 months when they’re already capable of running a half or full marathon right now (or at least after following a standard 16 week program). You could look for a 50km race or perhaps a 30-40 mile event somewhere and aim for that as a goal.
Pick a race that suits your existing skills or skills you’re willing to learn in training before turning up. I believe you have a responsibility to yourself and the race organisers to at least have a level of competence in the event you’re signing up for. By this I mean don’t enter a mountain marathon if you’re not able to navigate or learn to do it for the race. There are lots of types of races from fully marked ultras to gnarly mountain marathons so there’s something for everyone and every skillset out there.
There’s no need to scare yourself by looking at the course records on 100 mile mountain ultras just yet although some people do respond to a challenge so just be bold and set yourself a target.
Once you’ve broken through that “ultra marathon” name, the sense of foreboding and fear eases significantly.
2. Training doesn’t need to be complex
A lot of folks think that because an ultra is a long way that they suddenly need to start spending entire weekends on their feet running 50 miles in a single training session. You don’t.
I believe you can get great results in 30-40 mile race by using a standard marathon training plan you can find online with little in the way of modification beyond perhaps doing one longer run of about marathon distance to 30 miles to get a feel for time on your feet and eating over a longer period of time.
If you’re looking for a specific plan, here’s a massive list of training plans for all sorts of distances.
3. Fear management
For many people a big barrier seems to be the fear of the name or that number on the entry form. The reality is that if you’re able to train for and finish a marathon you can almost certainly make the step up to an ultra if you want to.
Quantifying the distances is sometimes overwhelming thought of going another 5, 10 or 15 miles beyond marathon which thanks to big events like London etc are fairly easy to quantify in our brain distance wise.
I found in my first ultra that counting down how many parkruns were left helped break down a daunting task into smaller more manageable chunks and dealing with a small task like “just cover the next parkrun in 30 minutes” in the present is easier than trying to get your head around how you’re going to keep going for 10 more hours if you’re feeling low.
4. Complete vs compete
For many an ultra is a social event as much as a sporting challenge. Once you’ve found one you’re interested in entering, find out if they’ve got a Facebook group, see if people are doing recce runs and arrange to join them.
Unless you’re already an excellent runner, chances are you’re not going to be competing for a win so enjoy the day and experience. Don’t worry about walking (well, power hiking!), nearly everyone will at some point. Walking is a good time to eat, drink and just do a few checks on how you’re coping.
5. Know yourself and your kit
“Nothing new on race day” is a long standing bit of advice that definitely holds true for ultras. You’re about to spend several hours wearing the same shoes, shorts and pack so be confident that the stuff you’re using on your race day is comfortable and works well for you.
Some people carry a massive amount of kit and some travel as light as the rules allow – learn from others what you need but also make your own decisions about what makes you comfortable. If you feel safer and more comfortable carrying a little extra something and you’ve trained with it then go for it.
Pay attention while you’re training to any little niggles or aches. If you’re anything like me you might get phantom injuries during your taper week before the race that tend to materialise but if you’ve been paying attention to your body while training you can ease the worry that a new injury has materialised when in all likelihood it hasn’t.
6. Eating and drinking
Depending on where you are in the race day field, ultras can be a demonstration of how little some racing snakes actually need to eat and drink to cover a great distance or if you’re a bit further back, you can enjoy a nice ice cream (as I did at Hardmoors 60). You don’t get that in a local 10k.
In my experience, food and hydration are specific to individuals and what works for one doesn’t for another so it’s tricky to give specific guidance but I’ve found in most events looking back – I’ve probably over-eaten in some way but usually my rule of thumb in normal UK race temperatures is that I go through about 500ml of water every 8-10 miles and top up with a cup of coke at checkpoints later in races.
As a former fatty who didn’t do any exercise for years, it’s still pretty hard to run past a checkpoint table crammed full of flapjack and sweets but I prefer to try and carry my own gels now and in recent longer training runs and the Ladybower 35 I found I didn’t need as much in the way of nutrition as I used to think I did. Stopping too much and overeating sweets and sugary snacks isn’t always a solid nutrition strategy.
Certainly I can’t chug gels at the rate the manufacturers often suggest! Still, this is something I experimented with long before race day.
7. Pack essentials
Like food and drink, what you carry will be something you learn about in training but I’ve found no matter what the essential kit list, I keep a small plastic bag in my race vest with
- Small pack of travel tissues
- 4 plasters
- £5 note for bus fare
- Folded down foil blanket
It’s hardly an extensive list but I’ve certainly had cause to use the tissues in the past. Don’t get caught without them. If a race asks for you to carry mandatory kit, don’t question it – carry it and know how to use it. The Race Directors are trying to make your day fun and challenging without you being a liability to yourself, fellow runners or marshals and support staff who might have to come rescue you in terrible conditions.
8. Don’t shortcut your training
You’ll no doubt know someone who is capable of turning up to a race and putting in a decent performance or you’ll meet them on the start line. That’s not me. It’s probably not you either.
Don’t try to kid yourself that you have more fitness than you do because you don’t.
There are no shortcuts to running 30, 40, 50 or more miles. It’s a long way. It’s a big challenge whether you walk most of it or you push hard to win. So many magazines and websites push these “smash a marathon with only 10 minutes training” type articles and it’s a shame because they leave people unprepared for a monster effort.
Training builds strength, base fitness and stamina and importantly – experience. When you arrive at the start line, you might not have run an ultra distance yet but you should at least have put in the training to belong at the start line as a runner. You should have spent the preceding months practicing with the kit you’re going to use, the shoes you can trust not to rip up your feet and an idea of what sort of food and drink you can handle and that works for you.
I’ve had to adapt my training to do my weekly long run on a wednesday morning leaving the house at 4:30am. Family and life commitments mean I can’t spend every weekend bashing out multi-hour runs every saturday and sunday and I’m sure many people are the same. If you want to achieve the results though, these are the things you need to do. That long run has to be done so find a way!
9. What could go wrong?
Anything, everything or nothing.
I’ve had great days out on a race, I’ve been doubled over with stomach cramps and had to make use of my emergency toilet supplies (see point 7 above) and I’ve carried on when I’ve been throwing up. You’re going to be pushing yourself further than you thought possible and further than only a tiny percentage of people are capable of but even the best runners can’t be 100% sure that on race day everything will go right.
The most common issue ultra runners tend to face beyond outright fatigue is some sort of stomach distress. Being prepared and aware of what might be happening to your body is something you can do with a simple personal mental checklist you run through every 5 or so miles if it helps
- When did I last eat?
- How much water/energy drink have I had in the last hour?
- Was it too much/too little?
- Am I going too fast?
Being prepared is better than being surprised! Here’s a long list of possible stomach related problems and suggestions from ultra runners on cause and fixes – Some might work for you, some might not. As a rule of thumb I’ve found a lot of my nausea tends to come from me going too fast so slowing down for a spell helps settle my stomach.
10. “It doesn’t always get worse”
I live by this phrase, it sums ultra running in a nutshell. Once you’ve gained confidence that you can push further than you dreamt possible, you also accept that such an endeavour doesn’t come without effort and struggle. I’ve had some massive low points in races both short and long and if you can remember to switch off your mind a little during these dark miles you’ll often find an hour later that you’re happily running along at a good pace again and all is well.
It’s not always the case, sometimes you do feel like shit and you continue to get worse and on those occasions you need to be pragmatic and sensible about whether to gut out a finish or call it a day and move onto the next thing. Some people maintain a “death before DNF” mindset which helps them, personally I don’t mind a DNF if it’s clear targets have gone whooshing by a long time ago and I have other plans on the horizon that would suffer from a punish-fest.
Take some time to consider your decision though. Do it at a checkpoint where you can take a minute to reconsider after a brew or some food and a short rest even if you’ve spent the last 10 miles absolutely sure you’re going to retire.
What are your goals/tips and tricks?
I hope this gives you a bit of motivation and allays some of the common fears about running your first ultra and that you can find something in the challenge of the distance to push your body and mind.
If you’ve got any tips and advice for runners looking to step up their distance feel free to add a comment or link to blog posts you’ve seen or written.
Written by James Adams - http://www.runningandstuff.com/
I wrote this post a while ago and think it's about time I updated it. I've enjoyed (and suffered) a lot of stuff since writing this and thought I'd share. I've tried to organise it in sections but as you may well know I am pretty terrible at organising anything so it may not quite work. Enjoy
Like I said this is what has worked (or not) for me over the years and the greatest thing about ultras is that there is no "correct" way of doing anything. The debates will always rage on by people who want to try try to sell you "solutions" to everything. I say just keep it simple, experiment occasionally and enjoy the unknowing. "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" - Da Vinci
I've also added some links to other blogs and articles I have found very helpful over the years.
- Don't panic if it all feels a bit big and overwhelming, it fells big and overwhelming because it IS big and overwhelming. Everyone else feels the same.
- Don't compare your insides with someone else's outsides. You may line up at the start and look around at the other runners and decide that they have everything sorted out, they all know what they are doing. In most cases you are wrong, they are probably crapping themselves just as much as you are, they just aren't showing it (and you probably are not showing it either).
- Don't seek too many answers or obsess about details. The joy of this sport is finding those out yourself. It's a very personal journey where you'll find that you do things differently to others. It's ok to talk to others and read articles about how to run ultras and you'll hear lots of "answers" to the question of how to do ultra-running. Caffeine is essential vs caffeine is evil, liquid food only vs solid food is vital, cushioned shoes cause injury vs "Barefoot? Are you f****g nuts?", satellite watches vs sundials, run vs walk vs run walk vs run sit walk sit run walk, Man shorts vs Girl Tights. No one has figured it all out yet and I hope that no one does. The day Ultras get solved is the day I'll take up something else. Mountain Pogo?
- And on the same subject, consider this. The Rubic's Cube, you are probably old enough to remember (Excuse the diversion I do this a lot). I never really got into it but millions of people all over the world spend hours of fun (or torture) trying to get all the sides to match. Have a look at this. The puzzle has been solved. Any given starting point there is a series of moves that will guarantee victory. Imagine getting one now as a gift and also getting the solution? What would be the point? Like I said, the day Ultras get "solved" I am taking up something else. Penguin Tossing?
- Therefore there is no "Correct Way" of running Ultras
- And with that in mind feel free to ignore everything I have written hereThe further you run the simpler it gets
- Try not to extrapolate, i.e. thinking "I feel this bad after X miles so I'm going to feel this more worse after Y miles". Long distance running is a roller coaster of ups and downs and the longer you go the bigger the ups and the bigger the downs. You may feel shit now but your body is an amazing thing and a combination of positive thinking, progress and all the chemicals your body will produce may mean you feel ecstatic a few miles later. My first GUCR I could barely walk just after before 100 miles. Later on I ran miles 120-130 like I was gunning a 10k. I can't really explain it but I knowing it could happen helps me through the rough patches. I had a similar experience in the Spartathlon 2010. The first 50 miles I ran 1 hour slower than last year but felt twice as bad? I was a little concerned as I had 100+ miles to go, feeling shitter than last year and 1 hour less to do it. However the next 80 miles (yes EIGHTY) just seemed to fly by, I was cruising. It's important to remember these times as I know I am going to need them in the future. You won't just hit one wall in long ultras, you hit several. But the more you break down the better it feels at the end (and for a long time afterwards).
- Don't take every little set back personally. When you are exhausted it is common to feel paranoid that things are happening because the world is conspiring against you. If a gate is stuck or a stile is wonky or a dog gets in your way. These things will happen and it is important to just shrug or even laugh them off. In the MDS while I was close to collapse and walking over the rocky terrain I kept tripping on the rocks. At some point I got so angry I picked up one of the offending rocks, shouted at it and threw it away. Anger like this is counter-productive. Remember "Mind like Water" - How does the water react when you throw a stone in? With an exactly proportional response to the size of the stone, soon all evidence is gone. Don't make a tidal wave over a little stone.
- Similarly, celebrate a little when these little things go right. Like when someone holds a gate open for you or people spot you and get out of the way, or when a part of the path is not muddy or when the sun goes behind a cloud on a hot day. The more reasons you find to smile the more you will smile and the better you will feel.
- Try to pay attention to your running form at regular intervals. I used to use mile markers in marathons to remind me to check that my head is up and shoulders relaxed etc. Perhaps do it every half an hour or so or every time you see a bridge or regular feature.
- Recently I've been trying drills in long runs. Focus on one part of good technique for a mile or so. It takes your mind off the hurt a little. The fancy term is Proprioceptive Cues that I learned reading "Brain Training for Runners" by Matt Fitzgerald.
- No one is going to judge you for squatting in the bushes. If you need to go then go, don't suffer too long holding it in. Everyone does it. Inevitably one day you are going to be squatting in a secluded place and then get rumbled by a large band of scouts and a brass band marching through. Just nod and smile, you won't ever see them again.
- Try not to stress about the distance that you are covering or what your garmin may be saying. Particularly the really long runs. Sometimes you feel like you have run for miles yet you have barely covered one, sometimes your view of time is distorted by the tiredness, sometimes the distances advertised in the race are wrong.
- Learn to love the 30 minute mile for you may meet a lot of these. It is still a mile just like any other.
- Don't waste too much energy avoiding water and mud in the wet times. If it rains you are going to get wet, accept in, embrace it, love it.
- Smashing it VS pacing it? Sounds obvious that you should pace evenly but ultras are a different thing to 10k or Marathon races. There is something to be said about going faster at the start and "banking miles" early and many of the elites follow this. Check out this great blog post from Stuart Mills on the subject of the best 100 mile times in history. However I know a couple of people who pace quite evenly. Pat Robbins who wins the GUCR every year follows a strict 25/5 run walk regime and never seems to slow down. Early on in the race he is way back but sure enough every year he tears through the field. Ian Sharman recently recorded a fantastic 100 mile time with "almost" even 20 mile laps.I quite like to get the miles in early and think that if you start fast you slow down but if you start slow too you still slow down.
- RFM. It's easy, get a T-Shirt if you keep forgetting.
GENERAL RACE STRATEGY
- BEWARE OF THE CHAIR - The most common warning I see in the really long ultras. Don't sit down at the checkpoints if you can avoid it, you get cold, stiff and sleepy. It can be a real effort to get up and waste energy (not to mention time) getting going again, time and energy you could have spent doing another mile. I sat in a lot of chairs in the GUCR and Spartathlon, believe me you never feel rested more for sitting in a chair for 10 minutes. Winston Churchill said it best - "when going through hell keep going".
- Organise fresh clothes if at all possible. They feel great when put on and the smell of freshly laundered clothes can be uplifting when you have spent hours smelling of sweat, piss and dirt.
- [HIGH HORSE ALERT] Read any running book or article and you'll be told about the importance of having a plan. You must have a plan, with goals and objectives and a strategy and you must plan to reach your goals and targets and they must be SMART and you will never succeed unless you have all your goals and plans and targets defined and blah blah blah. Dunno about you but that sounds like the crap I have to do at work. I run to get away from that sort of thing. Don't turn the hobby that you love into a shitty marketing job.
- My point above is that "Planning" is different for everyone and in some cases (including mine) is actually stressful and counter-productive. We are not all planners. Some of us are wingers. I suspect that there are a disproportionate number of wingers in ultras than in other distances and in life in general. When I first did the GUCR I was unable to even estimate when I would be at the first checkpoints. I just shrugged and said I'll see how it goes. Badwater I just said to my crew to make sure I had water and make sure I don't die. The problem is you get all this PLAN PLAN PLAN shoved at you that you think it's a neccessity and it ends up stressing you more. If you are a planner then plan away. If you are not a planner then don't try. I am running across the USA next year and have already been subjected to the dreaded "Plan" and "Budget" words. Those things just kill the adventure for me. I'll take a credit card and a spare flapjack and see how it goes. What could go wrong?
- When you get really tired concentrate on moving forward rather than your exact position and distance. Ineviably you will slow down but the effort seems the same so it can get frustrating when you feel like you are not moving as fast as you think you are. Then the paranoia kicks in; "The distance markers are wrong", "The course is long", "I'm lost" etc etc. My first GUCR I thought I was at the 100 mile stage and only when I ran on another half a mile I realised that I was only then at 100 miles. What was half a mile out of 145? Well at the time it was massive and started me on a downward spiral that nearly cost me a finish.
- Realistically there is a point where the sensible thing is to drop out. It depends on how far you have to go, how bad a shape you are in and how much the race means to you. "Finishing at any cost" is a silly thing to say if the "cost" is that you can't walk for 6 months. Similarly a race may mean so much that you are willing to rule yourself out of action for a few weeks just to get to the finish. This all gets blurred in the long and drawn out mess of an ultra. Be careful, but don't sell yourself short, the worst thing is sitting around the next day thinking "you know what? I could have finished that". When I was marshalling at the GUCR 2010 I saw some people drop out who looked in proper pain and I thought "yeah they really should have called it a day sooner". But more often I saw someone give up cos it all "got a bit much" or they lacked motivation to finish. In those instances I just knew that those guys were going to be very pissed with themselves tomorrow.
NUTRITION (What I don't know about nutrition can be written on the back of Canada)
- The dangers of OVER eating are feeling a bit sluggish, perhaps some stomach problems, going to the toilet more and if you have a wedding soon not getting into a dress. Relatively trivial. The dangers of UNDER eating are stomach problems, cramp, fainting, exhaustion, anger, depression, muscle damage, organ damage, death and perhaps more importantly there is a greater danger of not finishing. You may have read books about runners who can run 100 miles on a can of coke and an apple but these are likely to be the elites who have done this many times before and have well practiced routines. If you are not at the sharp end and relatively new to this they I would lean on the side of over eating rather than the opposite. You can always change it the next time.
- I hear the phrase "fuelling the Ferrari" used quite a lot when giving advice on nutrition to runners. Well I'm not a Ferrari. More likely I am a rusty old camper van with a big dent in the side and smells funny. The fact is that when running for hours and hours the act of eating can become a struggle. You may not feel hungry or you may have trouble getting stuff down. In these cases ANYTHING is better than nothing.
- In my experience the biggest mistake nutrition wise is not eating the wrong types of food but simply just not eating enough.
- You can use food as a reward. Derive pleasure from it. Don't think "I will eat a Kit Kat because it has 300 calories in it", think "I will eat a Kit-Kat cos I really like Kit-Kats". I love it when checkpoints have savoury stuff like sausage rolls and sandwiches. It gives me something to look forward to when slogging through the mud. Try and make food and the thought of food a positive thing.
- If it's true and "you are what you eat" then I am a pile of shit. Stuff I have consumed in races over the years include pringles, sausages, McDonalds (122 mile point in Badwater), Subway (65 miles into GUCR), enormous amounts of spicy meat and cheese in the UTMB, coke, coffee, Fish n Chips, milkshake, Pot Noodles, sausage rolls, soup.
- Drink early. I learned quite early on that it's easy to jog 15 miles and ignore feelings of thirst because you want to get ahead but then it catches up on you and them some. It's hard to come back from dehydration.
- ELECTROLYTES - I have only recently discovered these (I previously relied on the salt content of crisps). If you are running a long way then take these from the start. There are plenty of easy to carry products out there. IN Badwater I asked my support team to put them in everything I drank. Electrolytes are simply the salts that are cruical for the electrical activity in your muscle movement. If you flush them out with pure water then you risk cramp in the muscles (including those in your heart).My preference is Elete but there are others. Here is a more in depth article on how they work.
- Protein - another one of those "you must take it/you must not take it" debates. I try to eat it as normal on a long run which generally involves protein and fat. From personal experience and lots of others too there has been great feedback for the 4-1 carbs to protien energy drink/powder you can buy. I think you need protien, you need to recover as you go.
- Protien is especially imortant on multi-days. At the end of a run where I am doing the same the next day I try to guzzle some milkshake, beef jerky and nuts within an hour of stopping. If you are doing multi-days this hour after you stop running is perhaps the most important for eating, drinking and stretching. Here is a great article from 1 Vigor on the subject of recovery nutrition. Eat within the first hour and anything is better than nothing.
- Camelpaks and bottle belts are the kit of choice for carrying water but don't rule out a hand held. It's not ideal in terms of running form but if you are prone to not drinking enough and if it's very hot then a hand held bottle could be very useful. I use backpacks where lots of kit is required (UTMB, ONER, Gran-Canaria or general UK ultras), I use a bottle belt where checkpoints are frequent and kit needs are low (Spartathlon, Davos, some UK ultras) and I used a hand held for Badwater.
- Don't get suckered too much into the expensive "science" food. Read the second half on any running magazine and there will be loads of ads claiming to have "unleashed the power of the daisy" and swearing that your running will improve by 23.7% Most of the runners I know get by on stuff you can buy from a regular supermarket.
- When out for a long time and trying to work through the tough times I find it really helps to think in the third person and take yourself out of yourself (if that makes any sense at all). I am quite comfortable thinking about myself in the 3rd person and years of Facebooking has made James very good at this.You can be as ridiculous and as egotistical as you like, if it helps you out of a funk then so what? No one needs to know. Here are a few that I use. There are some that I won't share right now and some that I might never share.
- Imagine your own funeral (ok perhaps it sounds silly to imagine you are dead but hear me out). Hopefully your funeral is years and years away. When it happens people are only going to say what a great person you are and how you touched their lives. Think of the speeches made and the conversations between your old school teacher and training buddy. I've even got the location of mine sorted, hmmmm maybe I should contact the council.
- Think of the stories you can tell about your experiences. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone saying "I entered a race, trained really hard and then got a pb, then I entered another race, trained really hard and got a pb, then I entered another race and I trained really hard and I ... *SLAP*". Remember that you are creating your own stories as you go. The more stuff that is going wrong and the harder you find it the more captivating your story will be in the pub. Try and remember everything so that you can re-tell it when you are nice and dry and warm and full of food with your feet up. Others will appreciate it.
- And try to think of every set back as a funny story for later. Soon you'll be wishing mis-fortune on yourself....
- Imagine you are supporting someone you know in the race you are doing now. This kept me occupied for 10 hard miles in the Spartathlon this year. There are a few people I know who want to do the Spartathlon and I imagined I was here with them supporting them through their run. You can only guess as to the kinds of problems they will run into but your amazing and uplifting words and advice can help them through it. That then makes you feel much better and perhaps even forget for a while that you are actually running that very tough race yourself right now
- Persuading someone else to do the race you are doing. You may not believe it but some people don't like the idea of running 145 miles of canal on a Bank Holiday Weekend. The thought of this is incredible to me but each to their own. Pick someone who you know will say it's crazy. Tell them it's crazy but they still should do it. Argue with them (though not out loud near medics as they might think you have lost it and pull you out).
- Imagine your friends back at home tracking your race.I do lots of Facebooking and texting during long races and tend to get this feedback anyway but in it's absence you could still make it up. Think of a status update and then your friends responses. You know all the people who will say that you are doing awesomely as well as those who say their Gran could run faster.
- I imagine doing speeches at the start of events or to general crowds of ultra-runners. Invent questions and give your answers and pretend that the whole audience are in stitches with your hilarious jokes.Of course they are hilarious cos it's all in your head.
- More and more ultras nowadays have lotteries to enter. The UTMB, Badwater, Western States, MDS, GUCR all have more people wanting to participate than there are places. This leads to disappointment for many as well as headaches for the organisers. When running imagine someone sitting at home who applied to do what you are doing now but did not get in. Don't do him/her a dis-service by bailing out for some wimpy reason. Finish it for the person who could not start.
- Be respectful to other runners feelings. There will be times when you overtake another who looks a mess, try not to look too smug or comfortable as you do. No one likes getting flown past by a runner who looks like they are not even making an effort. It's funny how you can occupy the same part of space and time yet be in completely different places.
- Similarly don't contaminate someone else's race with your own suffering. When you are on a roll you don't want to hear someone moaning about how bad their race is going. Remember you could be having the worst race of your life but be right next to someone who is having their best.
- It's great to find someone to chat to during a race but sometimes people might not be in the mood. It's nothing personal, they just may be struggling. Sometimes a question can feel like someone plunging their fist into your brain and trying to pull somthing out. Don't feel you need to talk all the time and respect others need for mental space.
- SO don't be too afraid of saying "I don't really feel like talking". And don't take it personally if this is said to you. In some of my longer races such as the ONER ot Trans Gran Canaria it was nice to have friends around just up ahead or behind and just seeing them and exchanging a few words and jokes every now and then. I could not imagine jabbering on for 24 hours though. Some people however love this.
- BE NICE to the marshals and the organisers. It can't be much fun standing in the rain for hours only to get abused by a grumpy sweaty beast as he starts crying that there are not enough green jelly babies at the checkpoint. Also, give some slack to the race organisers. I think it's great how many people out there are willing to put themselves on the line and organise these events. They have made my life so much better over the years. Organisers and race directors will make mistakes too, don't beat them up about it.
HOT, COLD, KIT Etc
- There are a lot of great blogs and resources out there to give advice on extremes of temperature. Marshall Ulrich's great blog has some stuff on dealing with both Hot and Cold. Also this is a great little website full of stuff about really hot running
- PROTECT YOUR HEAD. Sun hat when it's hot, fleecy hat when it's cold, hood when it rains. Your head will be going through enough without you beating it up more with the elements. A good UV protection hat for warm and a buff for cold are 2 essentials
- Do not underestimate the slow sapping power that the sun has. I got spanked on both days of the GUCR last year and really suffered. Wear a good hat and sun cream, have some on you if you are doing a very long run.
- Don't ignore thirst ever
- If you are run/walking then run in the sun and walk in the shade, spending as little time as possible exposed and giving you longer to recover where it's cool. I do this in the GUCR when there are trees and on the Spartathlon where there are bridges, spending longer in the shade helps your body cool from the constant stress of overheating.
- IN training for Badwater I did 1 session of Bikram Yoga a week for 10 weeks. This is much less than is recommended and that most people do but it was fine for me. More than anything it made me learn how to deal with the shock of that kind of temperature while working. The first 10 minutes are hell but you adjust and manage it.
- In the cold its layers that are the key. The warmth is generated by your body and kept in by air in the layers of your clothing and so the more layers the warmer you will be rather than the total volume of clothing.
- The more and more I get into ultras the less and less kit I think I need. You sure can buy a load of crap these days. My first ultra I am sure I obsessed about everything I wore, bag, shoes, tights, shirt, shades, GPS etc etc. My most recent Spartathlon I just made sure I had some shoes and shorts and I was sorted. I am sure you've been called an idiot lots of times because of your choice to run a long long way. I'm sure you've learned how to laugh that kind of thing off. However don't actually BE an idiot pay for things that really are not necessary. "It's not about the Bike" as Lance Armstrong famously said. That is totally true of ultras too (apart from the bike bit obviously).
- Having said all that there are a few bits that I use though all of this stuff I will tend to buy when it's on special offers and rarely will buy the really expensive brands
- Make it your life mission to find comfy pants. Men and Women come in all different shapes and sizes in that region so we are likely to all find different answers to this. I've been using compression shorts designed for Rugby players, seem to work. It may take a while to find the perfect pair but once you do stick with them (ok not actually "stick" to them).
- I don't really like head torches, I prefer the little hand torches (you can get them from outdoors shops for a few pound). Head torches make me crane my neck and probably screw my running up. I don't trip over any more in the dark that in the light. Enjoy the moonlight.
- Some sort of hand sanitiser or wet wipes are very useful. Your hands are going to get very dirty. It's easy to forget sometimes that you are stuffing jelly babies into your mouth with the same hand that has just wiped your arse.
- Toothbrush, flannel, take every opportunity you can of washing your hands (and other regions) in the really long stuff
- You probably compare yourself to others all the time. This is one of the best ways possible to make yourself unhappy. Road runners have this thing called "age-grading" where they compare their time for some fixed distance with the fastest person of a similar age over the same distance and then say things like "I am 63.7% the man that Haile is". Depends how you measure it I guess. I am 182% the man that Haile is (in mass). Such comparisons don't really belong in ultra running.
- Don't compare yourself to others in terms of time/volume etc. You will meet all sorts of people at these events all with different backgrounds, different motivations and different levels of ability. Some will have not been running for long and maybe have families and are short on time to do running. Others may have been running for years and get all the time in the world to train. Some are here to win, most are here to finish and enjoy. Have your own measures of success that are completely independent of the performance of others.
- Ignore the cancerous voices that may pop into your head that may talk of disappointment. I get this sometimes, the frowning of letting someone down. You are only doing this for yourself.
- Think back to times when you were suffering as much as you may be now and remember how you got through them. Key moments like this for me were; Jurassic Coast challenge in 2008 - on the third day I could barely walk before the start but managed to run the hilly 30 miles of that day, Rotherham 2008 - The weather was Baltic, everyone around me was suffering from hypothermia and the checkpoints were indoors. It was the hardest thing in the world stepping out of those checkpoints and into the rain. I knew that in 5 minutes time it would be fine again.
- Also, think back to the times when you were not nearly the runner you are now. Everyone started somewhere, perhaps a 4 mile run on a treadmill seemed like an effort a few years back. Keep in mind just how far you have come over the years. I remember when 4 miles on a treadmill would make me weak at the knees, I remember the fear of my first marathon. In Greece I passed the marathon stage of the Spartathlon in 3.47, that was my marathon pb in Berlin just 4 years earlier. The glowing feeling of progress propelled me all the way to 50 miles
- For some reason I find miles 16-22 quite hard in any race, marathon or 150 miles. I don't know why but I've learnt to ignore it.
- I spend a lot of my time in races thinking about even longer and harder races that I want to do. It sounds like a bad idea to be taking yourself into an even harder place when you really should be thinking about fluffy kittens and pillows and candy floss but it seems to get me through it. I spent most of my time in my first ultras thinking about finishing the GUCR. I spent a lot of my time in least years GUCR thinking about the Spartathlon. I spent some of my time in the Spartathlon thinking about Badwater. I don't know. Perhaps the point here is to always have a "next step" to think about. Now I always think about running into New York.
YOUR BRAIN - YOUR WORST ENEMY
- Don't freak out when you hallucinate. It is normal for the brain when tired to see things that are not there. Your brain "sees" not by seeing everything but by looking at only a small area and "filling in" the rest itself. It's how optical illusions work. It is easy for the tired brain to "fill in" your surroundings wrongly, like when I thought a pile of branches were a giraffe or some flowers in the dark were actually small faces with hats or when I thought the canal by night was a huge quarry.
- And don't worry too much about the King of the Mushroom people. He's a pussy.
- Beware of the dangers of over-thinking. You are a long distance runner and hence are likely to be much brighter than the population at large. Hopefully this has worked out well for you in other aspects of your life but it could actually work against you here. Relying on your brain too much can be hazardous. You have probably heard the old cliché of "it's all in the mind" a million times and this has a lot of truth in it, however relying on your brain to make calculations and objective decisions can be futile sometimes. Don't waste considerable energy thinking too much, try to switch off. Forrest Gump never looked in trouble did he?
- My marathon PB is still from a race I did the day after a 24 mile fell race. The point here being that sometimes things just don't make any sense.
- One of the most important things I have learned is that my mind can become useless at any objective thought or decision making. It is hard for someone to admit that they are mentally losing control but it does happen and can be hazardous if you try to "think" your way out of it. This is the point to go with what "feels" right. To quote Homer Simpson - "Shut up brain before I stab you with an ice-pick".
- Write about your experiences, if only for yourself. I love reading back about races I've almost forgotten. I love looking back at how different I was when I started out running distance, when a marathon would terrify me. Put it on a blog and allow others to learn about what you have done, it does not matter if only your Mum reads it.
- Many people will never understand why you would do a thing like this. Don't waste too much effort trying to explain what they will never understand, even in your head. I will never understand why people sit in their living rooms and get excited by z-list celebrities cooking for other z-list celebrities. I suspect I am not missing much
- Imagine a life where every race you did went to plan, where every race was a PB. Where everyone you loved loved you back, where every job you applied for you got, where your football team win every game and the sun always shines. Every test is an A+ and you never once got the flu. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Really? No. I'd kill myself. That would be a miserable existence. The best life experiences are when everything fucks up, when everything falls to pieces but you just about manage to hold onto yourself enough to get through it. Those are the times worth keeping.
- The crippling lows and euphoric highs are why I do this. You have to go a long way to feel at your lowest but in the same race and after that you can feel the greatest you ever have. Every low point you have you can use as a learning experience, a reference point to help you deal with it when it happens again
- As I grow old I'll forget things. I'll forget the least important things first, like what my pin number is or the name of my grand-daughters name, I'll then forget the unimportant things like how fast I could ever run 26.2 miles on a road or how I felt when running some 80% wava race or whatever. But I'll never forget the time I was running through the Canadian forests when 3 hours elapsed in 10 minutes because I was having so much fun. I'll never forget the top of that sand dune in the night in the Sahara when I looked around and could see nothing but stars, that moment I was the only person on Earth. I'll never forget staggering through a crowded street in Sparta to the adulation of runners and people of the town who had no idea who I was but know what I did. And the last thing I'll forget will be the turnaround I enjoyed in my first GUCR, I went from crawling to running, then from running to running quite fast. Then from running quite fast to being all of a sudden overwhelmed and having to hold onto some railings while I burst into tears. I thought at the time that the emotion was due to me realising that I was going to finish the race, but it was more than that. It was the moment in my life where I realised that I could finish anything. Anything is what I intend to do.
- BEWARE of how addictive this all is. I entered my first ultra with the intention of doing more but never thought I'd be looking to do them every week. It takes over, you are always looking for different things to do. Longer, hillier, hotter, more navigation, less sleep or whatever.
Written by James Adams - http://www.runningandstuff.com/
This came along quickly didn’t it? It only feels like yesterday that you signed up for this thing, you promised yourself you’ll run miles and miles of training, gym every day and otherwise turn yourself into a super awesome running machine.
How did that go?
If your answer is “not quite as planned” then don’t worry, you are in the overwhelming majority of runners who feel the same. Two bits of advice I have for the start line;
Don’t compare your insides with someone else’s outsides
Right now you may be looking around at your friends who are running the marathon or perhaps at the start line where everyone just looks in a state of bliss, no nerves or anxiety amongst any of them. Let me tell you something I have learned from speaking to 100s of marathon runners over the years, everyone is chewing up on the inside, everyone is a little bit scared and worried that they have not quite done enough to get to the finish line.
So are you a bit scared? Good. You should be and so is everyone else. You are about to do something that is pretty amazing, probably harder than anything you have done before and these feelings of worry and fear will translate later into feelings of euphoria and achievement.
In my first marathon I was so nervous my node bled for the first 3 miles. I turned up at the start expecting there to be marathon bouncers who would look at you and decide that you are not fit to start. I thought they would just look at me and laugh me away, “Ha ha ha, you’re avin a laugh aren’t you”.
Here follows some practical advice for surviving your first marathon.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE NIGHT BEFORE
You’ll have heard no doubt that sleep is important for many reasons, it allows us to rest, to switch off from the previous day and to regenerate our brains to tackle the next day. Without it we will be unproductive slow zombies.
Don’t panic about not getting much sleep the night before. You are nervous and perhaps paranoid about oversleeping or just can’t stop thinking about the race. I remember in my first marathon I woke up every 20 minutes paranoid that I didn’t have enough safety pins. It’s normal, don’t panic.
It is quite likely that you will not sleep well the night before, this is fine, don’t worry too much about it just try as best you can to relax. You are not an iPhone who will just cease to function when the battery runs out, your battery has much more life than you can ever imagine (those with young children will know this better than most).
For me sleep is a bonus if I can get it the night before but I don’t let it worry me if it doesn’t happen.
It is actually more important to get a good night sleep the night before the night before so try to create the conditions to allow this. Don’t force yourself up by an alarm or commit to too much activity in the morning.
If possible try to avoid any stress in the previous week. You don’t want demons floating around in your head the night before so if you can avoid moving house, getting divorced, dealing with idiots at work or supporting Tottenham in the week before the race that would help massively.
26 miles is a long way. You’ll probably hit the ground about 50 thousand times and it is hard to get all of these things perfect. You are told that putting one foot in front of the other is easy; ask them to do it on running 21 miles. Sometimes getting the feet to lift of the ground is quite hard.
Use the mile markers as “form checks”. Whenever you see them ask yourself “Is my stride good, am I standing tall, how are my feet landing? Am I thirsty, do I need more energy? Am I running too fast? Or too slow?”
Use these to prompt a mental checklist that you will then act on every mile. It is easy to forget these simple things and then run into all sorts of trouble. If you think about them constantly though you might just go insane and miss out on lots of the atmosphere.
“WHEN I WAS THIRSTY – I DRANK”
The best advice came from Forrest Gump when he said “When I was thirsty – I drank”. It really isn’t any more complicated that this.
Your body is a magnificent feat of biological engineering that has been perfected over millions of years to perform endurance exercise in fairly warm conditions. Your sweat processes and heat management is almost unique in the animal kingdom and is potentially a contributing factor to how we have had the time to grow these huge brains that have led to great leaps of science and culture such as quantumn physics, the Mona Lisa and Gogglebox.
It knows when it needs water, better than any textbook. Contrary to a lot of old textbooks if you are thirsty you are NOT “somewhat” dehydrated, you are just thirsty, simple as that.
The two biggest mistakes I have seen in marathons are;
Not drinking when thirsty early on as it is inconvenient to do so and drinking robotically to a schedule, ignoring your bodies opinion on the need for fluid.
People not drinking early when they are thristy and then trying to “catch up” later on by drinking like a fish. Have you ever downed a pint then had to run for the last train? The results will be similar, only with more people watching. And TV cameras.
Simply try to quench your thirst the day before and in the morning and if you are thirsty at mile 3 then don’t say “I’ll just crack out a few more miles before having a drink”, just have a drink then.
But don’t drink robotically to a schedule. Drinks manufacturers have made a lot of money telling us we should be drinking more than we need, ruining many a marathon and charging for the privelidge. Let your body decide. It’s not stupid.
OK maybe a bit... but for other reasons.
Also, drinking DOES NTO cool you down. pouring water on your skin does but if it is a hot day still only drink when thirsty, there is no mechanism whereby putting cold fluid in you cools you down.
PASTA PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999
Pause reading for a moment and answer the questions “What is carb loading?”
I bet 90% of you got it wrong. I bet 90% of the answers were something like “it’s where you scoff down 2 large bowls of pasta and a pizza the night before the race so that you have the energy required to get around a marathon”.
This is wrong. Carb loading is quite a bit more complicated than that, it is actually quite hard to do and it doesn’t always work. I suggest that in your three meals of the day before you just eat a bit more in each.
The day before the race is not the time to discover new foods. In fact it is not the time to deviate from what you normally eat. If you normally eat lots of bread and pasta then eat that the night before, if your diet is more fruit based or rice based then that is fine too. A mistake many people make is to deviate from their usual diet to one that contains lots of wheat and then struggle with stomach problems during the marathon. If you don’t typically eat pasta/bread etc then don’t do so before the race, eat what you usually eat.
Should you abstain from Alcohol? My answer to this is going to be psychological rather than nutritional. A couple of beers/wines will have no nutritional impact on your race so long as you are well hydrated. Ask yourself whether it will help you relax. I think the benefits to be gained by being relaxed far outweight any slight impact a beer might have on your body. Just don’t relax too much. 7 pints is too much relaxing.
VISUALISE YOUR DREAM RACE
There is not much you can do to improve yourself physically now but a hell of a lot you can do mentally.
Olympic cyclists do it, war generals do it and you have probably done it in a presentation at work. You rehearse in your mind the perfect race, the perfect battle, the perfect pitch. You imagine the roar of approval from your colleagues or fans as you execute the perfect manouvers to achieve your goals.
Even just thinking about it gives you great confidence, it excites you, it motivates you. These are all great things and you should spend the few weeks before the marathon thinking in this way. It will get you buzzing on the start line.
But this thinking does something even more profound. Without wanting to scare you this kind of thinking increases your tolerance for suffering. I don’t want to over state it but running a marathon for the first time you are going to suffer. However the more you have visualised succes the more you are willing to suffer to achieve this goal.
By visualing success you are investing more psychologically in the race and will be more likely to pull through the hard times, the more you feel you have to lose. It’s like watching the Matrix trilogy. You watched the first two, the third was absolute crap but there is no way you are going to not finish the job, you feel like the whole thing would be a waste of time if you didn’t.
The wall is both a mental and physical thing. There is little you can do to avoid it but lots you can do to get over it. I will try to explain what I believe the wall is. (Please note I am not a medical professional, a nutro-biologist or a physiopolist).
Your main source of energy for running is glucose. You have about enough to run 15-20 miles on this. When this source runs out your body turns more to fat burning to keep your legs moving. Your body can do this fine however the transition can be uncomfortable.
I’ve heard various descriptions as to what this transition is like. It’s like being hungover, or really angry, or drunk or giving up caffiene cold turkey or like having the flu or all of the above. These are all real feelings in response to a real change in your body but they won’t last long. However it can poison the mind, and then the wall can hurt you for much much longer.
The marathon is a fiendish distance. You are made to run until your sugar runs out, you then get hit by this wall thing and then told you have at least 10 miles left to run. It’s like been thrown into a room with One Direction and only been given three bullets. When the wall hits and you first feel its effects it is easy to start exprapolating. Dammit if I feel this bad at mile 17 how on earth am I even going to make it to mile 20?
You then start of a downward emotional spiral where you start to doubt yourself, question the point of what you are doing and start to find excuses for why you didn’t finish. You look for a way out, you find it harder to justify carrying on. This is the melancholy you must defeat.
These negative thoughts then make it harder physically. You notice the pains in your legs more, your heart beats faster because you are a bit more stressed, you might breathe harder, your natural flow of running is disrupted and now you expend more energy to put one foot infront of the other. The wall has not done these things directly, it did them via your own brain.
Sneaky little bugger isn’t it?
My advice on this section is to be aware that it will come and then when it does remember that it does not last forever. This really is the time to just start surviving one mile at a time, not letting the fear ruin your race completely.
Relentless Forward Progress.
Nutrition in the race is possibly the worstest done thing by people in a marathon. Probably runs pacing into second place. I think the first thing to recognise is that most people will at some point get this wrong and so you should not feel too bad for having doubts. The main thing to remember is that no one can authoratively tell you exactly what to eat and when as everyone is different.
Well that was helpful wasn’t it?
If I was to advise on one thing it would be to try and delay taking sugar until at least the second half of the race, sugar makes you high and makes you crash. You can to some extent avoid this crash with more sugar to get another high (sounds like substance abuse doesn’t it? It kind of is). Sugar can be a tricky game to play.
How do you know if you need food? Well you’ll probably be grumpy, that’s the cue. Hangry I believe is the correct term. If you start to feel like you want to punch the people who are cheering you on then look for a small child and take a jelly baby off them (assuming they are offering them, it would be mean just to steal from them no matter how grumpy you are).
Imagine the sugar gushing down into your legs and electrifying your muscles, pushing them on to finish the race. OK I don’t mean to sound like a homeopathic shrink but that visualisation works for me.
PACE YOURSELF - SOMEHOW
I am going to take a wild guess here and say that you are not Mo Farah. If it is you Mo then hello and good luck in the marathon. Perhaps eat some meat this time so that you don’t fall over at the end.
I am assuming that you are not planning on winning the marathon.
Pacing is a contentious topic and when you start the race you will be so full of hormones that maybe you have never experienced before that you will set out like a bat out of hell. Humans do things like that when full of hormones, I think it’s a design fault.
I think the key things here to remember are not to set out too fast but also that everyone slows down a bit. This “bit” varies from doing the second half one minute slower than the first to doing the second half about 4 hours slower than the first.
Pick your “optimistic” time and head for half way in half of that. For example you may have a target of 4.00 but think optimistically you could get 3.50. Then head for halfway in 1.55, if you are right about your optimistic pace you should arrive there on time and if you are feeling good you should be able to continue at that pace.
If however you might have overstetched yourself at least you have not done so by much and you can afford to slow down a little and still achieve your original goal.
ENJOY BEING THE STAR
My first marathon I think was my first public performance since a school production of “Rama and Sita” where I played a talking monkey who set fire to curtains with my arse. There are not that many parallels between the two performances (only one did I actually feel real burning in my rear end). However my first marathon was made better by the feeling that I was genuinely a star of some show.
And you will be, thousands of people will be lining the streets cheering you on with a genuine respect and bewilderment for what you are doing. Some of them may have run marathons before but most wont because it does not even occur to them to push themselves in this way.
Draw on their support and feel inspired by your own efforts just for being there. Look forward to the bragging rights afterwards, in the pub, at home, at work.
I have to say that I envy the position you are in right now. Your first marathon is a magical experience that will never be repeated. It’s like having kids I imagine, the first is brillant but then the subsequent ones are a bit rubbish. Only joking, I imagine having kids is way harder than running a marathon.
Every moment of the day will be a significant part of the rest of your life, whether you get your dream time or get carted off in an ambulance you’ll have stories to tell people after this race. Make them good.
PS I forgot all the usual advice. Don’t wear new shoes, only eat gels you’ve tried before, lube everywhere, remember to tie your laces, safety pins, don’t look directly at the sun with a telescope etc etc.
I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share. And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themself (which is essentially what my book is about).
Written by James Adams - http://www.runningandstuff.com/
Run an ultra they said. It will be the coolest thing ever, they said. Chicks will dig it, they said. You will carve your body into an immortal God they said. You'll write a blog that will have people stopping you in the street and saying "you are that super human athlete who knows no fear, no limits, no toilet going boundaries - please will you make babies with me" - they said.
I am not here to judge why you are here and what you have done before now.
Maybe you are here because there is a girl you want to impress or maybe you read some idiots blog and thought “ooooooh that looks like good fun”. All I have to say is that you are here now and you may as well accept what you have got yourself into.
I imagine right now you are feeling a sense of unknowing, a sense that this isn’t really going to happen. A sense that you might wake up one morning and this has been some crazy dream you’ll be able to laugh about with your friends over a drink. Ha ha yeah, 50 miles of running, that’s sounds pretty stupid.
But I imagine if you are reading this it’s not a dream but a reality that you are going to have to deal with. Like all first times there will be a rush of excitement, anxiety, nerves and fear as you thrust right into the job at hand. It might not be easy and it might not be glamourous but I promise you that when it is all over you’ll be able to lie back with the warm glow of satisfaction
Note the title of this article. It is not “50 mile running awesomeness”. If you want to read all about that then I suggest looking at the blogs of Ian Sharman, Robbie Britton, Danny Kendal, Paul Navesey, Eddie Sutton,Stu Mills to name but a few.
This is really a “how run run 50 miles and not die” article.
So here are some last minute tips for surviving your first 50 miler.
These two words are the best advice for ultra running. Your race is coming up and perhaps you feel like you have not done enough? You somehow feel like you are less prepared for you last marathon than you are for this race that is twice that? You are genuinley scared that this might end in tears, or worse. You look around at the start line and see lots of beaming faces of highly trained runners about to run 50 miles like it’s nothing.
Well let me tell you that most of those runners are bricking it too, it just doesn’t show very clearly on the outside. Humans are good at that. One thing I would suggest is that you never compare your insides with somone elses outsides. You can’t. It’s impossible.
Take those feelings of fear and apprehention as a sign that you are about to do something pretty significant and then imagine those emotions, in reverse at the finish line of the race. That’s what this is all about, getting yourself into shit scary situations where you think you are going to die or embarrass yourself but somehow you manage to hold onto yourself just enough to make it to the end intact.
If you don’t feel even a little bit scared that I suggest you ask for your money back and give it to the wizard of Oz in return for a heart.
MANAGING THE EXCEPTIONS
How is an ultra different from a marathon? Well obviously it’s the distance innit? A marathon is exactly 26.195 miles and an ultra is anything more than 26.196 miles. Give or take size 9.
However if I were to describe what is different about an ultra than a shorter distance race I would do it via a graph that looks something like this.
I think this graph best explains what goes on in ultramarathons. You may have come from a background of racing where you know exaclty what pace and what food at all points during the race. This approach is still useful and if it makes you feel better to plan then go ahead. Just bear in mind that one of the key lessons you’ll learn when stepping up to ultras is that you will need to think on your feet a lot more.
This is hard because your thinking will be fuzzy and your feet will be sore after 6+ hours of effort. Don’t be afraid to change something that doesn’t work and all the while remember that you are adding to your educaction as a runner. No matter how bad it is going you are learning stuff and hence making yourself more experienced and resilient in the future.
CHILL OUT - EAT GRASS
Did you know that Zebras are the least stressed animal in the world? This is measured by the level of cortisol in their bodies. They often get chased by a lion (which I imagine is quite stressful) but then when the ordeal is over they simply forget about it and carry on eating grass as if nothing happened at all. They don’t think about the next lion attack, they can’t control that and to spend time thinking about it would mean a life in therapy.
When I am running and something does not quite go right, say someone gets in my way or a gate is sticky or someone has fiendishly placed a large rock right where your fott has landed. Then I just ask myself “what would a zebra do?” It would just forget about it and eat grass. That’s what I try to do, forget about it and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
A good way of practicing this is to cycle in London. There are hundreds of things that might upset you, cyclists jumping lights, zombie pedestrians, pot holes, van drivers etc. Each of these is an opportunity to practice being a zebra. If you can get to one side of Oxford Street to the other without calling another person something nasty you may well have passed.
So when stress is hitting you from all sides, just put on the stripes, get on the bike and start eating grass.
YOU ALREADY HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED*
So you have probably been on lots of forums and spoke to a lot of people about what is required then aggregated all of the mentions into a nice pie chart where you have gauged the relative importance of things based on how much people talk about them. Something like this.
Well that’s social media for you, making runners stupid since 2007. This is actually more like what will get you through the race. You’ll notice that not much of this can be bought, you have to earn it.
Now this pie chart is a little misleading. Legs and head are not seperable like this. One affects the other which in turn affects the other in an intractible way that has yet and probably never will be deciphered.
My point here is at this stage there is nothing you can buy that is going to increase your chances of finishing the race. It's all about what you are willing to do with your legs and your mind on the day.
*unless there is something on the mandatory kit list that you have not got. Then you should get it.
DON’T BE THAT DICK
I know a lot of race directors. They are all saints. Not just because they give up such a huge amount of their time to create events for people like me to just turn up and run. It’s more because they put up with a huge amount of questions from runners and have hitherto managed to avoid killing anyone. It’s going to happen one day, a race director is going to kill a runner. Don’t let that be you. Here are some simple ways to avoid that.
- Turn up with ALL the mandatory kit. It’s not just a list for laughs, it can potentially save your life. Don’t argue when asked for your waterproof jacket you are then told you can’t use your crepe paper jacket.
- Also, don’t spam the RD with emails saying “I’ve been out on that path before and never ever needed a jacket or spare battery so I think your list is a bit draconian”. If you have already done this then rest assured every other Race Director in the UK now knows about it.
- Don’t drop out without letting the organiser know. Search parties have been sent out in the past to find a runner who ended up being in their living room eating pizza. I hope they choked on a glistening yellow chunk of e-coli
- Don’t point at your Garmin and go “wah wah wah this checkpoint is 17.1 miles and you said it was only 16.5”. Those things are wrong, which makes you wronger and if that kind of thing bothers you I suggest you find a different sport such as picture frame squaring
- Avoid giving the organisers a herniating drop bag.
- Do thank all the volunteers who have given up their time for you. Don’t moan if there are little delays in getting your food and water topped up. They are not paid ferrari wages and you are not Louis Hamilton
- Don't be impatient at the registration. If there are 200 people registered to run and they all turn up at the same time then there is going to be a delay. Use the time to obsess about each others kit and then develop a horrible anxiety that you are not going to finish because you don't have breast pockets
- Say "I don't need a map, I know this place like the back of my hand". That's all well and good but not going to help if you need to call for help. "I think my leg is broken, yeah I'm at the 14.7 mile point of my Sunday morning run. What do you mean "Grid Reference". Check out my Strava, login "Awesomerunner" password "sillybolloX". No, CAPITAL X you idiot.
- Don't ever litter. Ever.
DON’T IGNORE THIRST (OR LACK OF IT)
Two big mistakes in ultras. The first is not taking a sip of water in the first 20 miles because you are way too excited and chatting away and think that the precious 10 seconds it might take to get some fluid into you would mean that you would not be able to keep up with the guys you have been chatting with for the last few hours. If you ignore thirst early you will run into trouble later, you can't really "catch up" with hydration very easily.
The second is drinking religiously to a schedule that then messes with your electrolyte levels and causes suffering. I am not going to pretend to be a doctorologist who knows what really goes on here except that I have seen a lot of runners drinking themselves stupid (not beer of course - runners wouldn't drink beer) by following one of those 200ml ever 15 minutes things.
One of the beautiful things about ultra running is that you get to learn the ways in which your body is awesome. One of which is it's uncanny ability to alert you when it needs water. It does this by making your thirsty. Keep it simple. Don't ignore it and don't overide it.
EAT YOURWAY OUT OF GRUMPINESS
OK this is NOT general life advice but a really good heuristic for managing yourself in ultras. If you are grumpy you are probably “hangry” and food will help resolve this. You body will be a raging torrent of various chemicals and hormones and often its hard to know exactly how to fuel it.
I recommend using natural walking points to eat. If there is a 5 minute slog up a hill then use that to stuff your face with cocktail sausages or pork pies or whatever food you have on hand.
Use food as a reward. Derive pleasure from it. Don't think "I will eat a Kit Kat because it has 300 calories in it", think "I will eat a Kit-Kat cos I really like Kit-Kats". I love it when checkpoints have savoury stuff like sausage rolls and sandwiches. It gives me something to look forward to when slogging through the mud. Try and make food and the thought of food a positive thing.
Many runners have found success with trying to delay the consumption of sugar until later on. Sugar gives you instant hits (and subsequent crashes) in energy levels and emotional levels. Again some people will say sugar is the devil, others will call these people nutjobs. Experiment with yourself, that's part of the fun.
LAND THE SPACESHIP
There is a scene in Apollo 13 where the astronaughts look out the window and all they can see is Earth. They can’t see around it for it is too massive. This causes great anxiety as they have to land on it. This is the “wood for the trees” thing.
Whenever the size of the task just seems too big for me - and running 50 miles should feel too big - I take that as an opportunity to just focus on the little things that are going right. Like they did in the spaceship: all they could do was to make sure their calculations were correct, to switch the right switches and to do the correct proceedures.
I do the same when I just can’t imagine how much I have to do. All I have to do is get things right now. Just make sure you are landing your feet correctly, make sure your arms are swinging normally. Are you breathing regularly. Distracting yourself with the present and focusing on what you control will pull you out of the fear.
We are all "systemisers" to various extents. We take the chaotic noise from the world and try to make order and that makes us feel good. Every puzzle solved is a little stroke of karma that makes us happier.
I think of long races as a long puzzle to be solved, one clue at a time. It is all one long game of muddy sudoku.
So when gravity of the race in front of you starts to feel crushing, relax, put on your space suit and simply try to do what’s right in the next five seconds.
DRESS FOR ALL WEATHER
You may have run races where you put in a fairly consistent effort in fairly consistent weather and end up being around the same temperature throughout. That will almost certainly not be the case here. You will be going at variable speeds and being out there for say 8-12 hours you are going to experience the temperature of hte day rise and fall and all that happens in between. It only takes a few minutes to go from boiling hot to pretty damn chilly.
Your body is an incredible machine for disipating heat when you are hot. It is also an incredible maching for holding into heat when it is cold. The problem is that during this race you'll be requiring both and the body might not change modes quick enough. Starting in the morning, you'll be running a bit faster and generating some heat but the air will be cool and it will quickly disappear as the body then shunts this away. Then when the sun starts to glare this equilibrium will be challenged, you may get hotter with no increase in effort and become uncomfortable.
This is the easy part, it's when it gets cooler (as the sun goes down, as you slow or if the weather turns). This can happen quickly. It only takes a few minutes of breeze to zap all the heat out of your body (and your body will still be pumping blood and losing even more heat). Be careful about getting cold. Be aware and wear the right stuff.
The key to keeping warm in the cold is layers. Wearing two or three tops gives you extra air between the layers to insulate you. If it's going to be cold then I suggest taking an extra layer. Keep moving if possible, swing your arms to generate more heat if needed. Think about what to put in your drop bag. Perhaps a change of clothes if you get wet early on and a chance of socks.
But then don't forget the Sun. It is going to get light from about 4am and you'll spend most of the race exposed to the sunlight. Even if it's not hot you should not underestimate the slow sapping power the Sun has. Protect your head particularly the back of the neck.
If the question "what is the optimal pace for running an ultra" was asked in an episode of QI the following answers will set the buzzers off and have Alan Davies looking more like a bufoon than usual;
- Run the same pace throughout
- Start fast then get slower
- Start slow and then get faster
Pacing ultras is a bit like pacing yourself when out drinking in the pub (apart from that 11pm cut-off which is just unrealistic and annoying). Sometimes the best nights are the ones where you go hard early and end up in funnier situations than if you'd took it steady. Other times a conservative pace is more sensible and can often save pain later on.
OK this analagy is a bit tenuous but I don't mind causing the bewilderment because I want to make the point that no one really knows what is "right" in terms of pacing race of this length. Even is "mere" marathons there is a lot of debate as to whether the "negative split" is an optimal strategy and therefore if you take this confusion, double it and then square it you will arrive at the level of certainty at which anyone can be confident about the "optimal" pace to run ultras.
Well this bit has been extremely unhelpful hasn't it?
I guess what you need to think about is both the mental and physical impact of how far you get in what time. You might decide to aim for an even pace, finishing the 50 miles in 12 hours. You may hit the marathon point in 6 hours and think "blimey, I feel really knackered and I have all that to do again". This could lead to a downward spiral mentally that then results in further slowing, further bad thoughts and a greater chance of jacking it in.
You may fly through the marathon point in 4 hours and think "I am a bit knackered but I have loads of time and can keep this up a bit longer" and then by 30 or 35 miles you think "sh1t I've run myself into the ground here but I only have 15 miles to go which will take 3 hours max".
Obviously the opposite of all that could happen, you might be Mr Consistent throughout or you might run yourself stupid and injure yourself. I don't want to tell you exactly how to pace an ultra because everyone I know does it differently and will maintain that what they do is the best way. All I will say is that everyone slows down a bit at least.
Run walk? Maybe. I know people who win races doing this. My preference is to walk up the hills or out of checkpoints (while eating food). Others follow a schedule. Here's an idea (from Jason Rollibards book) "Speed ups". Walking breaks rest your legs as they use different muscles. How about then sprinting occasionally? That uses different muscles too and so can be considered rest. Kind of. I have not tried this yet but reckon it's worth a go. Do it and let me know how you get on.
THE WALL STILL COMES
I believe the majority of DNF’s in this distance come from simple wall anxiety.
That thing you get warned about in the marathon where your glycogen levels expire at around 16-20 miles leaving you with a painful transition through into fat burning but since you figure you are close enough to the end you may as well pull through and by 22 miles it feels ok again anyway and oyu have only 4 miles to go.
Well the wall still happens here. In my experience because I am running a bit slower it comes a bit later (maybe 20-25 miles) where perhaps my body goes through this change where I just feel bad.
Now the normal response to feeling bad at mile 20 of a 50 mile race is “OMFG I feel terrible and I have not even done a marathon yet and I have more than a marathon to do if I carry on like this I will feel dead pretty soon”.
And then quite conveniently there is often a checkpoint right bang in the middle of this with a nice chair and a nice cup of tea and a nice bus that might take you to the end of the race.
AVOID THE TRIFLES
When you decided to run this race you probably (rightly) thought that nothing is worth having if it’s easy to get. You figured that running 50 miles will be bloody hard but the satisfaction that may come with completing would more than make up for this discomfort. You have a good brain, one that knows what’s valuable.
However it is not invincible. When it is a bit starved of oxygen and food and a nice cosy sofa the brain can lapse into quitting mode. It starts looking for the path of least resistance to getting out of this situation. Rather than continuing to the end it will start to devise ways to get out now. It will start thinking of trifles.
A trifle is a reason for quitting that in retrospect you will kick yourself for. I’m not suggesting you carry on if your leg is broken but I have heard (and have given) many reasons for quitting races in the past that when I look back on them I realise how pursuasive my lazy brain can be sometimes.
If you are thinking of dropping out, think ahead 24 hours and ask yourself “is this a trifle?”
PLAN YOUR FUNERAL
OK so you are not actually going to die but this is one of the most effective ways I have ever used of getting away from negative and depressing thoughts. When you've been running for a long time your brain lets in lots of negative and destructive paranoid thoughts. Like your friends mocking you, sneering at your awful efforts to try and finish 50 miles. You'll believe that the whole world is conspiring against you, that every wobbly stile or rusty gate is there to impede you personally. That a loose rock or an exposed tree route has been placed there by some devine for intent of ending your race. This is normal. And funny.
In these times celebrate every little victory you can. Every person who lets you past, every dog that does not bite you, every child that yells "well done" or "keep going". Every time the sun comes out, every time you see a route marker that lets you know you are on the right track. All of these little things help.
And if you really are struggling mentally start planning your own funeral. Imagine a scene when you are in a box about to be buried and everyone close to you in your life is there. Imagine the things that they will say, the ways you touched their lives. It will obviously only be great things they will say. You can be as egotistical as you'd like, no one needs to know. Every word spoken will be about how awesome you are. If they have nothing good to day then don't invite them to your funeral.
FURNISH YOUR PALACE
I’ll let you into a little secret. The key to happiness is to blog about ultrarunning. Well there might be other sources of life fulfilment but I have found this one and am hanging onto it.
I have found that buy writing about my running has helped me in more ways than I imagined possible at the start. I thought it would be a good way of remembering what I did but that’s not the only thing.
- I can re-live vividly some of the amazing events and emotions I have felt while ultra running and can essentially get all the benefits again for free
- I can help others who might be about to do such races by giving them information that I might have forgotten if I didn’t write it down
- It makes it much easier to write a book if you have all this stuff already written down (did I mention I have a book out?)
- It actually helps me during the race.
Yes that’s right. Blogging as you go has actually helped me manage difficult situations. Whenever soemthing “bad” happens in a race my approach is “well at least it will make an interesting blog” and I genuinely believe this has got me through more stuff than if I just shut up about it.
Now you may think this is self centred and I am a bit egotistical. That is because it is and I am but that is perfectly normal and I don’t feel bad about this.
So my advice would be to write the story as you go. A technique I use is to furnish my memory palace as I go along (using my 5 mile commute to work as my “palace”). It is also called the “Method of Loci” but probably best explained in Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstien”.
So in summary, Don’t Panic, Don’t be a dick, It’s not about the bag, comfort eat, blog as you go and land the spaceship.
I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share. And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themself (which is essentially what my book is about).
I am also working on a Marathon Survival guide and a 100 mile survival guide.
Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
Staying injury-free while training for the big stuff
There’s a phrase I like to use when describing the difference between training and competing over the ultramarathon distance:
Getting to the start line is physical – getting to the finish line is mental and emotional.
As more and more people take up the challenge of running longer and running longer off road the waiting lists for the big races are expanding. Why should you bother to add your name to an already big list? Because a hefty proportion of those entered will get sick or injured in the build up and not even get a sniff of the start line. As the race distance goes up, the challenge of being really ready becomes an increasingly precarious balancing act – especially if you’re a normal mortal who has to work for a living/look out for a family and does this running lark out of free choice.
That’s most of us then.
The trick, I believe, is to strive to be healthy first and fit second. We all know people who are fit as butcher’s dogs but fundamentally unhealthy – and that, my friend, is not the model we’re after here. Health will give us reserves to draw on which we need during the race – especially over the very long distances - and more importantly after the race so we can recover quickly and go do it all again with a smile!
What follows here is my experience from the world of ultra distance racing which means that the lessons have been learned the hard way and the principles often tested to destruction. Whether your aspirations are 20 or 200km, I believe there will be something of value for you here. The only way to be sure? Be prepared to experiment.
The Usual Suspects
I’m going to assume that you’ve got at least a passing acquaintance with the usual suspects called on to aid recovery after a hard session or a race – and just to be clear, I’m talking about this lot:
Progressive cool down – that’s not from stopping dead outside your door with heart pounding and legs screaming
Shower and change
Drink milk and water (hot drink if cold weather)
Cold leg bath 3-10 minutes (then warm shower if contrast bathing)
Lie down with legs up
Snack within 30 minutes
Self ice cube massage
Cycle spinning 10-30mins (turbo, gym or road)
Cryotherapy (whole body freezer treatment for the very wealthy/totally sponsored)
Now you can find science to support all of these to one degree or another.
For me and the folks I work with we’ve gone through a pick-and-mix process to find those that really do the job and fit into our priorities/lifestyle.
If you want to know more about any of these, well that’s a separate article. In my experience I can tell you that they all have a place when trying to stay injury free as you are beefing up the miles.
Neither am I going to talk about food choices and sleep patterns here. They too have a role to play.
And finally, I am not going to cover emotional stress either. (Completely different to the physical stress needed as part of a progressive training plan if we are to have any hope of improving). If there’s a bunch of tough stuff going on in one part of your life then you can – unless you’re world class at doing compartmentalization or are made of stone a la Lance Armstrong – expect leakage into another part of your life.
Believe me, I know.
Whether that’s workplace or lifestyle in origin matters not a jot: If we’re focused on something we can’t control or part of our life is out of alignment/we’re adjusting to a big change for any period of time, then because we are one physical-mental-emotional unit the symptoms may well manifest themselves in our running. That could be something specific like sore quads or just feeling like we’re running through treacle.
So there you have it: Do the post-run stuff, nail the food choices, get enough rest and sort your life out. Or, if you want to approach it from the other end: Run lots of easy miles in locations that inspire you and you’ll find that everything else slots into place behind that.
If I left it there then this would be a complete cop-out as a piece of informative writing, so this article WILL look briefly at two training techniques, one alternative use of races, and one which in my experience as a coach and competitor can really make a difference – and yet most people miss ‘em.
Back To Back Training
Instead of a 3 hour single outing make that 2 x 1.5 hours – or 2 + 1 hours spread either end of the same day or evening and morning of two consecutive days. Three main advantages:
Can be easier to fit in
Less physically stressful
Develops mental strength as you have to get yourself out the door a second time*
*Great for ultras where a race is checkpoint to checkpoint and lingering in relative comfort is a real temptation.
Stealth Ninja Mode
How quietly can you run? Have you ever really paid attention? In my experience there is a direct correlation between noise and efficiency. And if you are mechanically efficient there is less stress and strain going through your body’s systems. And if there’s less stress and strain…you get more miles out of the tank and those miles are easy miles.
I mean, you’ve run with people who appear to be stamping holes in the ground with every footfall, right? Think about the shock going back through their legs and braking effect they are having to overcome multiple times over every mile. And then there’s loose kit flapping about and accessories with a high faff factor – and boy are there a lot of lovely running accessories available now! You may be able to put up with that over 5km but over 40km plus? Guaranteed to drive you or the people running with you nuts.
Adopting a mental head-toe checklist while you run can help. Go through all the parts of your body and check in with yourself that everything feels relaxed and sounds quiet. Self-talk cue words such as Relax-Easy-Smooth can also help you find a focus that helps you enjoy the journey.
Races As Training
One of the things I noticed with hindsight was that as I hit my 40’s I struggled to cope with combining racing the short stuff while preparing for the longer stuff. I mean, it’s obvious on one level: Shorter, faster is more high impact and therefore the risk of breakdown is greater. I was getting the same ole soft tissue problems in my calves – little muscles that do a huge amount of work – but it was only later looking back in my diary that the patterns emerged. I love to race and moderation can be a fleeting state even today – but the result was that I was compromising training consistency and consistency is a key component of confidence. And in ultras, as we all know, confidence IS the currency.
Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the idea of using medium distance races to test kit, strategy and tactics, and/or to complete them at less than 100% effort and/or to use them as part of a back to back training block. It’s a more measured approach that is less physically and mentally stressful and all the outcomes are positive ‘cos the whole thing is just framed as one big learning and building exercise.
Thank the good lord we’re all different. What that means is that one runner’s road to performance longevity is just that: One runners’. We all need to find what works for us and what we can handle. As the race distance goes up beyond the marathon it would appear that the normal rules don’t apply. There is a great deal of consensus about how to prepare for and race distances marathon. Beyond that – and certainly getting towards 100 miles – the curious among us are still figuring it out and what science there is often inconclusive.
The only way to really know is therefore to be cool with experimenting – with means periodic disappointments are simply learning opportunities – pay close attention to the results you get and keep track of it all in a diary. Over time you will see patterns and trends in the evidence you record that will help you figure out your unique success formula for consistently high personal performance.
Remember: If you are sufficiently motivated and practice the skills of perseverance and learning you will always achieve what you want – it just might not be on your first choice timescale.
Who Is Andy
Andy signed off 17 years as a triathlete in 2003 by setting record stage times for the Arch To Arc Challenge: A 300 mile solo triathlon linking London and Paris via an English Channel swim. Since then he's been into his . He is an accomplished speaker, coach and published author who lives with his family in the north of England.
Find out more at www.bigandscaryrunning.com
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