If you had said to me a year ago that anyone can run an ultramarathon, I would have raised my eyebrows. However, after my experience I believe everyone has the capability to run an ultra marathon.
Like any distance you are preparing for, running an ultra requires commitment to consistent training, a real focus on your running technique, proper planning and good nutrition but perhaps more importantly it requires belief.
During our training we had highs and lows but we loved the experience of the race and both finished strong. Here are some of the lessons we learned from the journey which hopefully demonstrates that running an ultra is achievable for you.
Commit and register for a race. There is nothing like a bit of fear to keep your training on track but do your homework carefully, find a race that markets itself as the ideal step up for beginners from marathon to ultradistance. We chose a baby ultra, a 57km race, with generous cut offs. Generous cut offs were important to me to avoid being negatively focussed on missing them. We used those cut off times to work out the slowest pace we could go and still be inside them.
Study the course terrain and match your training to it. My race was 3,000 ft of ascent and descent, with a fair amount off road but not enough to merit trail shoes. I chose to train on harder, hillier trail routes than the course which prepared me well so that even the hardest climb of the race did not phase me. It also meant that when I hit the flat, tarmac, running felt relatively easy.
Train within yourself particularly if you run with someone else. Find your rhythm and train at your “go all day” pace. I have trained for a long time using the heartrate zone 2 method, which means I know not to overdo it and can sustain a longer running pace. Training with others is motivating but not always practical if you are both running at different paces. Find routes where you set off together and run out and back for an agreed time, this allows you both to run at your own pace and you should finish together. Running in isolation is good for mental endurance but it is also nice to know someone else is out there with you particularly if you are running in the middle of nowhere!
Running extra-long distances to train for an ultra is not necessary. I worked on back-to-back runs of 10 – 15 miles maximum, whereas Adrian ran longer around 20 miles but he did not run long on consecutive days. Both are as effective at increasing your ability to run long distance. Learning to run distance two days in a row gives you a sense of how you feel, when you are running on tired legs. Remember to plan in shorter sessions too that focus on form and running drills, not just for injury avoidance but for leg strengthening.
Run on time rather than a set number of miles. This not only helps you schedule your training in among work and family life it gives a good sense of progress when you realise you are able to run further along the same route for the same time.
Be prepared to walk. I used a walk the hills, run the flats strategy. It is a good one as it saves your legs. You also need to get used to running slower than your normal half or marathon pace. We found trail running helped as we were more focussed on our surroundings, enjoying the scenery, taking pictures so that your run pace ultimately becomes a secondary focus.
Invest in strength training. Core work, glute and leg strengthening exercises are key to endurance training. The more time you can put into this the better your base becomes and the less chance you have of injury.
Focus on your weight. The heavier you are the harder running will feel. Add to the mix you will have to run carrying a backpack, means you will be loaded down more than usual. Get used to running with your backpack during training runs, I guarantee the first time you do this it will feel awkward and cumbersome but with a little practice it is fine.
Keep on top of your nutrition. Find out what is available on race day and try it out in training. I took my own nutrition as I find it hard to eat proper food when running. Don’t be tempted to fuel on sugary snacks alone, they will give you an energy spike but not enough sustenance for long distance. Drink regularly even if you don’t feel thirsty, little sips every 15 mins will keep you nicely hydrated.
Don’t worry about needing expensive kit. Other than buying a backpack I used my regular shorts and trainers. I favour cycling tops for running as the pockets on the back are handy to stuff your phone in and bits of food.
Prepare for what is essentially a long day running. Take enough clothes with you when training and on race day to cope with the elements. Layering clothes makes it easy to strip up and down and carry a light waterproof even if the weather looks fine. Arm warmers and a buff are my essential bits of kit, completely versatile and lightweight.
Have the courage to start and the stubbornness to avoid quitting. You will feel highs and lows in training and maybe also on the day itself but be prepared to psychic yourself through the tough times and keep moving forward. It is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, keep positive thoughts and keep the day in perspective, break the route down into 10k chunks or whatever works for you. Ultimately, an ultra is just a long day out running.
Ultrarunning will change your view on your limits and boundaries. There are really none except the ones you set yourself. Don’t hold yourself back, believe in yourself and make this year the one you run your first ultra.