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Photo credit: Active Northumberland Kielder Marathon.

Training to win: how to take on your first ultra with high ambitions


Last updated: 23-Aug-18

By Cees van der Land

Much like Christian Servini said in his recent post, I needed a new challenge. After eight successful (and one less successful) marathons it was time to move on. After coming back from an injury, I had a great result in my local race, the 2016 Kielder marathon. As this race is on a trail around a reservoir and classified as a mountain marathon, it made me wonder, could I do this for a longer distance?

Could I run longer than 26.2 miles? Would my body disintegrate at 26.3 miles? How to train for an ultra-distance? What race should I pick to start my adventure into ultra-running?

Also, I am ambitious for a good result. I want to bring my marathon success forward to ultras if possible.

Picking a race

The Marathon des Sables or the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc sounded like amazing races (more on that later), but I figured it would probably not be very sensible to run these as an ultra-rookie. So, I was looking for a race slightly over a marathon distance on relative easy terrain.

Being Dutch and having lived for over five years on the island of Texel this decision became quite easy. The 60 van Texel race is a 60 km lap around the island, with a few dunes and some beach to cross, it is mainly a flat course. They also organise a relay where each team member runs a stage of about 15km.

I’ve done the relay race three times, each time a different stage, getting to know the course. So, with the race distance and terrain picked, how to train for such distance?

Training plan

The first steps of the venture into the unknown! Drawing from saved training plans from my marathons and combining them with information on how to train for longer distances, I got hopelessly lost. I knew my body could cope with up to 100 km of running per week, but given my recent injuries I was a bit hesitant to put such mileage into the training plan.

Relative to marathon training I lowered the amount of speed training and increased the amount of easy and steady (slightly faster than easy) runs to up to 75% of my total weekly mileage. I’d like to say there is a scientific basis for that number, but I can only say that I found that number somewhere on the internet and it seemed to make sense, again, heading into the unknown!

I tried to not have massive increases in mileage between weeks and an easy week every  four weeks. A midweek long run was added and one session per at steady pace. I decided that “steady pace” was going to be my ultra-race-pace. Again, no real scientific basis for that, expect that I wanted my body to get used to this pace as I would need to hold it over a 60km distance.

Week 14 (highest mileage week)

  • Monday: Easy lunch run – 11km
  • Tuesday: 5x1mile reps – 9km
  • Wednesday: Midweek long run – 20km
  • Thursday: Running club session: [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] pace – 16km inc WU/CD
  • Friday: Rest!
  • Saturday: 20 km “steady” which means running at the goal race pace for the 60km race
  • Sunday: Double run Sunday! 2x 25km
  • TOTAL: 126km

Training execution

“Race specific training, race specific training, race specific training”, this became my running mantra when running up and down the hills of the North Pennines around our home. As I was training for a flat race with about 15km of beach, it made total sense to train in the hills on asphalt, right? Well, at least it made me smile while running up the hills.

I didn’t miss too many runs, which is good, but I struggled a bit to find flat stretches of road. The runs at goal race pace were good in that they felt sort of easy, hopefully a pace I can maintain for the full race distance. I’m a little worried that single long runs were never over 3 hours (except when I got lost once on a local trail and ended up being away for 4.5 hours on one litre of water and two energy gels), but that was compensated by several double run days. I am currently tapering, so paranoia has started and I feel niggles everywhere!

Race fuelling and strategy

I’ve mapped out the water and fuel stations of the race where bananas, oranges, ontbijtkoek (Dutch rye cake), cola with low CO2, sportdrink and water will be supplied. However, outside of the water and sportdrinks I’d like to rely on my own fuel as I haven’t tried eating and drinking all the other items on the list and don’t want to try something new on race day! My stomach reacts well to SiS energy gels, they have been my tried and tested choice of fuelling during a race.

During training runs I take about one per hour, but during the race I plan to increase this to one every half hour. As my aim is to finish somewhere near the four hour mark that means I would have to take seven gels with me.

Luckily, the race allows support from a cyclist and one of my friends who still lives on Texel has done this before (for the race winner last time!), so she will be carrying my fuel. The second half of the race has some endless stretches along a dike, so some mental support at that stage would be great too.

What’s next?

A race report and whether I succeeded in my ambitious finish time to follow. Training for my first ultra has been a great experience, I’m surprised I didn’t get injured during the high mileage weeks, I guess your body is capable of more than I thought.

Coming back to the UTMB, I have visited their website to see what races would be needed to qualify. Based on how I feel after my first ultra, this might be a plan for 2019….

Cees is running the Texel ultra on the 17th April, so his race report will follow. He was too modest to write it in the piece but he has high hopes for a good placing in the race. Good Luck Cees!

Your Comments On Training to win: how to take on your first ultra with high ambitions

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Ultra Virgin

01:18 25-04-17

Just starting to think of my First ultra on 1/1/18 Hardmoor 30. Training for such a distance scares me but Cee's article has inspired my thinking.