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Looking pretty tired a few miles from the finish line. Photo credit: Simon Evans.

Running my first ultra

05-Apr-17

Last updated: 05-Nov-18

By Christian Servini

A couple of years ago I was getting a bit fed up running my usual route along the same old roads. It was pretty dull and I needed a new challenge. On a whim, I bought myself a fancy pair of trail running trainers and decided from then on, I was gonna be off-roading it. What a difference a bit of mud and jeopardy makes.

Around the same time, I began reading about ultra marathons. Blogs, magazines and books. I lapped it up. I couldn’t believe how many people were out there putting their bodies through what sounded like sheer hell.

But could I actually run one myself? After a bit of chin scratching, I decided to go for it. I signed up to Run, Walk, Crawl’s Brecon to Cardiff 70km Ultra Marathon. It was classed as ‘beginner’ level on RunUltra’s website – because running 70km is obviously what ‘beginners’ do, right?

Training Plan

If everything I’d read was to be believed, you shouldn’t run an ultra marathon without a training plan. The problem was, the more I read about them, the more confused I got. How many miles should you aim for each week? 20? 80?

My wife would have you believe I can get pretty obsessive about stuff. Training plans are ripe for obsessiveness. I had to be careful not to get too carried away.

I worked out a simple, achievable plan split into 4 monthly blocks (covering 16 weeks). In month 1, I aimed to run 20-30 miles a week. In month 2, 30 to 40 miles. Month 3 would be the toughest, at 40-50 miles a week. And in month 4, I’d taper down from 30 to 20 miles a week. If I struggled to meet these targets, I wouldn’t beat myself up.

Despite thinking my plan was a little optimistic, I met my weekly goals. In month 3, I was really chuffed with four consecutive weeks of 50 miles, especially as it coincided with Christmas. It was also the first time I’d ever run 200 miles in a month.

Kit

This was the first race I’d entered that had a kit list. So I knew from the beginning that a pair of trainers and rucksack crammed with food and drink wouldn’t cut it.

Two weeks before the race, I studied the list with a magnifying glass. I highlighted what I had, and what I needed to buy. There were a few niggling questions in my head, but overall I felt pretty clear what I needed. Aside from the usual, it was things like a whistle, emergency blanket, first aid kit, waterproofs, compass etc. After all, I’d be running through the Brecon Beacons in mid-winter.

I planned to spend the day before the race with my feet up and a cup of tea in hand. But I went online and started reading comments from runners on the event’s facebook page. I was unnerved by some of the chit-chat around spot checks and potential disqualifications (if anyone was found without any of the essentials). 

So instead of relaxing, I rushed around shops in a bit of a panic, doubling up on things I already had and spending lots of money. With hindsight, I wish I’d ignored the hearsay and Chinese whispers. I kicked myself for not just sticking to the list and trusting my own judgment.  

The race organisers offered the option of a drop bag. I didn’t quite get how this would work, but it was pretty straightforward. They took kit bags (filled with runners’ spare kit) to the 22 mile checkpoint in the race. After we’d used them, they were transported back to the finish line. I used mine to put on a fresh pair of socks and swap trainers. I never knew a fresh pair of socks could feel so good.

Nutrition

Whilst reading about ultra marathons, I realised some endurance types followed a diet high in fat, and low in carbohydrate. High fat / low carb? What about my beloved pizza and pasta? Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I decided to give it a go.

Before rushing ahead and grating lard on my salads, I made an appointment with my GP to talk it through. She was surprisingly supportive. I had a range of blood tests, and we agreed I’d go back after six months to repeat the tests. That way, we could see what (if anything) had changed.

Making the switch took a bit of getting used to. For all the carbs I cut out, I had to make up in fat. But I started feeling the benefits quite quickly. I felt stronger, my energy levels were constant through the day (no sugary crashes). And despite working in an open plan office where people were dropping like flies over the winter with cold and flu, I managed to stay symptom free. Six months on, I’m still on it. I guess I just love my cheese and spinach omelettes too much. My doctor might think otherwise, depending on the results of my second lot of blood tests.

Despite the diet, I still need some carbs when I run. I can’t stomach energy gels – I don’t like the texture and I don’t trust what’s in them. I wanted a healthy-ish alternative. My wife thought I’d lost the plot when she opened the cupboard one day to find a stash of Ella’s Kitchen babyfood pouches. But as organic fruit and veg mush goes, they’re surprisingly tasty and much easier on my guts than gels. I had four of these during my race, along with nuts, seeds, a guacamole wrap and water.

Race strategy

I knew that every step I took beyond 26.2 miles in the race would be new territory for me, both physically and mentally. So I kept the strategy for my first ultra nice and simple: 1) finish safely in one piece, 2) try and finish it before it got dark (sub 8-9 hours).

The route was pretty straightforward, broadly following the Taff Trail through the Brecon Beacons towards Merthyr Tydfil, and then all the way to Cardiff. I had some doubt about the seven-mile hill climb in the first half of the race. Ok, it’s not the Alps, but I hadn’t done much training on hills, and I was worried it would take it out of my legs.

One thing that gave me confidence on the day was knowing I’d be running to a heart rate – an approach I’d read about. I’d been doing this for a while with one of those straps that go around your chest and get really sweaty. A few weeks before the race, I treated myself to a Garmin Forerunner 235 watch which has a heart rate monitor built in. With this, I simply run at tempo pace. Based on my age and fitness, this means keeping my heart below 144bpm. It’s a nice and easy way to train and run. It kinda feels like running in 3rd gear.

What it felt like

The build up to the race felt like an eternity. The training, reading and preparation… not to mention all the conversations with family and friends. Finally, I was on the start line. I couldn’t wait to just run, and put all the uncertainty behind me.

To use an old footballing cliché, it was a run of two halves. For the first 20 miles or so, I chatted with lots of other runners and everyone was all smiles. It was great fun – we were in this together. After the 22 mile checkpoint, the field became much more spread out. Runners were few and far between. The people I came across were starting to struggle. Lengthy, enjoyable chats in the first half of the race became much shorter exchanges.

We were all fighting our own battles. After mile 30 my pace was slowing and my thighs were screaming. The doubt crept in: ‘Had I overdone it on the hills?’, ‘Would I finish?’ I tried to keep my mind distracted from my thighs. I started thinking about work, my garden, improving my Italian and beer. I couldn’t stop fantasising about drinking a cold, crisp, golden beer.

What helped was the attention to detail by the organisers and the fantastic support from people throughout the race. I’d wondered about safety and logistics before the race. But Run, Walk, Crawl did a sterling job. And all the volunteer marshals at checkpoints were really positive, encouraging everyone to stick with it.

As I crossed the finish line and felt the medal around my neck, a range of feelings and emotions flew through my head. Sheer joy I’d finished. Relief I’d completed it safely and on time. Pride I’d trained and prepared well.

I’d achieved both of my pre-race goals. I finished injury free in one piece, and I didn’t need to get the headlight out. I ran it in a time of 7 hours 45 minutes, putting me in 52nd place from 223 finishers.
What drowned everything else out was an overwhelming urge for that cold beer! I’d been salivating about it over the last 10 miles of the race. So as soon as I’d showered and changed, my wife and I headed for a curry and beers to celebrate.

What I took from it

I’ve had a few ups and downs with my mental health over the years. One thing that works for me is finding something to focus my energy on. That way, my brain has less time and space to hook onto all those anxieties and worries.

Entering the Brecon to Cardiff Ultra Marathon gave me that clear goal to focus on. There was no messing around. I had to train hard. I had to read about running long distance. And I had to spend a lot of time getting prepped and ready for it.

It really worked. I’d never been so fit, active and motivated through the winter months before. Usually it is a time when I’d rather be watching Netflix and drinking beer in the cosy warmth of my home.
Running 70km might sound like madness to some people, but I loved every minute of it. Yes, it was hard. But it was also one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I’m now thinking about my next ultra running challenge. My wife will probably wince when she reads this, but I think this might just be the start.

To hear more from Christian, follow him on:
Instagram: @restlessadventures
Twitter: @restadventures
Blog: www.restlessadventures.co.uk

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