So Jon, you want to run an ultra?
This is the question I asked myself in the summer of 2017. It was an idea but I really had no idea. I had run 1 road marathon, booked my first trail marathon, (Beachyhead), for October and Paris for the following spring and here I was on the verge of signing up for a 100km race. What was I thinking?
Fast forward to right now and I write this very close to starting the Centurion Running North Downs Way – a 50 mile race and 18 weeks into a training plan from my coach Mags. This is the first race specific plan for an ultra I have completed. Last year I ran 4 ultras. The first was 50km and it was a training run for the 100km. The other two, I just relied on my marathon fitness from Berlin and Chicago road marathons, with a couple of trail training runs including my 2ndcrack at Beachyhead. It wasn’t ideal but I had fun. 2019 would be very different though, It needed to be.
I have learned a lot. I’d learn’t from mistakes and I’d learn’t from personal wins in 2018. I have also learned a great deal during this training block.
Here are some of MY thoughts on the various elements that affect your ability to run an ultra.
Everyone is different but I like a plan; I like to know what I need to do and when. Training for Race To The Stones was odd, and to be honest I didn’t feel like my coach really understood what was needed for this type of race. She was a pure track and distance runner – I couldn’t fault her marathon plans but I kind of felt a little lost with the ultra distance. I did the Autumn and Winter ones on my own, relying on the marathon training alongside some distance trail runs, but basically I spent the time from September to December going: peak, taper, race, recover, peak, taper, race, recover…etc. With each of these phases being a week I found it was not the way to train and of course I picked up an injury. 2019 needed to be different. I picked a coach who has run the types of races I want to run. Someone I know, someone who I can relate to and relates to me. Maggie set me a plan well in advance. It wasn’t set in stone as no plan should be, but it allowed to plan for when the distance would increase, to know when those long runs would be that would take me away for most of a day or even a weekend. To plan runs with friends, ones to do solo etc.
This training block brought 3 new things to the game for me though.
- Solo Hill Reps. Before, I would just go to the Wild Trail Runners sessions on a Monday, as it’s easy to just show up and work and go home. However, doing hill reps on a dark, cold and wet morning on your own isn’t much fun. But I learned it’s necessary. It will help my mental game massively.
- The Evil Stair Machine. I had never been on one of these before this block. I didn’t really know what they were for to be honest. I now get it!On ultras, unless you are an amazing hill runner, you’ll be walking the steep ones because it’s way more efficient to do so. I don’t have any super steep hills to power hike up that are close to home. This is a replacement and I have seen massive improvements in my walking pace. I have always been good at hiking up hills, but now I can get up quicker and go straight into a run over the crest. This has happened because I can do 275 floors in 45 mins. It will be 300 soon!
- Running a marathon in training is normal. Yup it pretty much happened twice in this block. Once with friends and then on my own. The difference in the runs was massive but the learning’s are amazing. The resilience and mental strength to run one on your own is hard but you get it done. Trotting along with friends is awesome, you share tips and you can still do a pretty good pace, even if you do end up dicking around.
- Go on adventures! Make those training runs different – like a trip to the Peak District or organizing a group run. Time on feet is key, doing it with views and/or good company will make such a difference.
I have experimented with lots of kit so far, and again made mistakes, but feel now that I have made major steps forward. Kit is really important and can make or break some situations, especially weather related. There are many things you might need and often they are specific to the race and are required as mandatory. I could talk forever on kit but here are a few things that have come up.
- Bottles over a bladder any day. I used a bladder for water at RTTS and it got really annoying to fill up and as tiredness set in, just bloody horrible and I needed help. I now carry 3 flasks for races, 1 for water and 1 for electrolytes/fuel with a back up. The back up can be filled and stashed in the back pocket if on a longer training run.
- A wind proof jacket is vital. Super light weight but provides so much warmth. Great to wear pre-race while waiting around. A perfect layer to chuck on as you go to higher elevation and wind chill comes into play.
- Shoes for different surfaces. You might think one pair of trail shoes will do you. When you start this is often the case but as you train through winter, to spring to summer, you’ll soon find that the grip and cushioning requirements change. Right now I have 3 pairs of trail shoes. The Salomon SLab Ultra for distance races where it isn’t too muddy. They have great cushioning and enough grip for most races. The SLab Sense 6 for summer training, when the ground is reasonably dry. These are light weight, and low drop, (4mm), which means you can feel closer to the ground. Then the Sense Pro 3, a shoe for mud. Again, they have a low drop but more cushioning so you can run a 50k race in them like I did at Hurtwood.
- Gloves/arm warmers. I recently ran in the Peak District and it was a bit chilly. The gloves I have for down South, just didn’t cut it up on the ridgeline and my fingers started to freeze. I have since purchased some thicker waterproof gloves as I also got hailed on. Another recent discovery are arm warmers. These things are amazing! On a recent training run, I noticed my arms getting cold but my main body was fine – having these would’ve made a massive difference. You can just slide them up and down when you need them. Also, a tip I learned from watching a Centurion kit video is that they will help keep the inside of your rain jacket dry by stopping sweat getting out if you are only wearing a T-shirt! I bought some montane ones!
Now this is personal, really personal. We all like different things and have different needs. One thing for sure though is I have been training my gut to take different types of fuel for my runs. Some things have worked and others haven’t. The way forward is to practice and refine your strategy. I think I’m getting close but this is work in progress for sure. You also need to think about the effort in your run/race. This will determine how many calories you need.
Choice of Race
So this is a tricky one as there are now sooooo many ultras in the UK and abroad. I would say that you should find a connection to the race, a reason to do it. Here are my reasons.
- Weald Ultra (50k) – It was fairly local to me. For a 1st50k, it seemed like a real friendly local and small event. It totally was. The elevation was not too daunting at 900m. A lovely day out.
- Race To The Stones (100k) – I initially picked this as it looked like a good first 100km with decent aid stations at every 10km. In the end I think it did its job but the route wasn’t the most exciting
- Brecon Beacons Ultra (43 miles) – This I initially picked because I needed the 4 UTMB points, but I also really fancied a run in the Welsh hills. I also heard good things about the organisers. Again, this didn’t disappoint. Stunning scenery and some nice climbs.
- Hurtwood (50K) – This was a bonus run, I picked due to its location being close to home. And the Surrey Hills are a lovely place to run. Again, I’d heard great things about the company who ran it. Really nice out and backcourse, that I actually decided to race.
- North Downs Way 50 (NDW50), (50 miles) – I wanted a race to race early this year. I also didn’t want to travel too far. Having a route that starts from my Mums house (ish) and goes almost to my home is a dream. It’s a route I could recce too, which is a major bonus when you want to go a bit harder.
- Eiger (51k) – I really wanted to do the CCC but knew it was going to be hard, so this was planned as a training race. Beautiful scenery in the mountains of Switzerland was such an exciting prospect. A tough one to get into as it sold out in 2mins but I am so excited to try it. Face my vertigo issues head on!
- Cumbria Way (117km) – This was the accidental race, the one I had to pick after I didn’t get into the CCC. I’d wanted to go back to the Lake District since I last went in 2010. I found this race while searching on the ITRA site, then asked some friends about it and it came with some solid recommendations! Excited for my trip north in September.
- Lemkowyna (100k) – Some friends did the 50k version last year and loved it, so a group of us are heading off to Poland to try this and the even longer one! I have never been to Poland before, so an adventure in a new country with friends seems exciting. It’s also got some decent hills!
Picking 4 key races for the year is also a sensible thing to do in my book. It allows me to do all the other things I love too and hopefully stay injury free!
This might be last but that’s because it’s the most important thing. Ultras are a long way. Some a really long way. If you are not going to enjoy it then why bother? Yes, they will hurt at times and you might question your life choices, but the experience as a whole should be awesome. Train right, get the right gear for your race, eat right for you and smile. There is a big wide world out there to explore and running it is frickin’ great way to see it!