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Photo credit: Alice Morrison.

Are you ready to tackle your first ultra?

17-Jul-18

Last updated: 23-Aug-18

By Andy Mouncey

If you can put a tick to any on the following list then in my opinion you can abandon all hope now of a quiet controlled life:

  • You have kittens at the prospect and are curious regardless
  • The kids have left home and suddenly you have time on your hands
  • Everyone and the cat at work have done a marathon and you hate following the crowd
  • Someone has told you you can’t
  • A little voice has told you you shouldn’t and it’s about time you had a word with that little voice
  • You’re bored and need to shake it up a little
  • You fancy seeing more of the world and figure this would be a pretty cost-effective way to do so
  • You are fed up of shaving your legs for Ironman and need an excuse to get hairy again
  • Oh yes - and the rational route: You’ve followed the 5-10-20-40km progression which means next is 50km - right?

Welcome to ultra running where the normal rules don’t seem to apply and it’s absolutely OK to jump right in.

Now some of you reading this will have ticked your marathon box and be looking for The Next Challenge. Sensible rational thought might suggest a first 50km. And that’s absolutely OK.

But here’s the first of the differences about ultras: I know people with very little running history and who have certainly not come through the 10k-half marathon-marathon progression and who have jumped right into the trail ultrarunning scene.

Yes, really.

Jump Right In

Findings from the Western States Research Group back this up. 25% of a study group, (Hoffman MD, Krishnan E, 2013) had run an ultra within three years of starting regular running – and even more significant for race organisers in particular – the study also found that this three year window was reducing.

In other words a significant proportion of ‘newbies’ were jumping into ultras earlier and earlier, and part of the reason for that was the number 26: The median age they started regular running.

Start later – highly motivated – and wanna get on with it

On the face of it, this sounds like a route to disaster and there is of course a flip side: These people will have less ultrarunning experience to draw on in a sport where almost all the learning is by doing the damn thing.

However, these folks are still alive and functioning so clearly there’s something else at work. Here’s what I think that something is:

  • It’s not about the distance per se.
  • It might be something BIG that inspires you to start – and that’s OK.
  • It’s not really about the running.

Let’s take that last one.

It’s Not About The Running

Unless you’re at the top end of the field you wont be ultramarathon running – you’ll be ultramarathon covering the ground as best you can.

In other words there will be some walking with a bit of running thrown in. That’s one of the reasons you’ll see all shapes and sizes on the start line.

This is where many runners (usually blokes) come unstuck - they think it is about running so they commit two mistakes: run as far as they can till they are reduced to a shuffle, and neglect to practice walking efficently in their training.

As the race distance increases, the less of a runner you need to be

Over the shorter distances, (say up to marathon) it’s nearly all about the ability to run. You will need to be mentally alert – control your pace, remember to eat and drink – and there will be some mood management required, but by and large you can grit your teeth and get there if you want to.

So most of the training is running. The challenge, in order of importance, will look like this:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional

The Distance Makes The Difference

The picture changes for ultras – especially the big ones: It’s much more about tactics, strategy, being on-task, managing mood and covering the ground using a combination of walking and running and a combination of styles within those modes.

In other words, y’all gotta think about it more.

Yes, your working ends need to be physically robust but that’s a very different requirement to a pure running racing snake. The challenge, in order of importance, will now look like this:

  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Physical

What this means is that if you can hike efficiently for long distances at around 3-4mph on the flatter stuff, you’ve a perfect right to be on that start line. You may also be moving more comfortably and for less effort than someone shuffling along trying to run at 5mph.

If you also remember that most of the field will walk most of the climbs…all you need to do is work on your climbing strength and descending skill.

In fact, if you have a look around that start line you will see all shapes and sizes, and if you ask you will get a whole range of running histories.

There appears to be no direct link between number of years running, current weekly mileage, marathon pb and likelihood of finishing a big ultra

While Time On Feet over the years does appear important for the top half of the field, the good news is that other non-physical stuff is at least as important.

So those racing snakes you see on the start line? The odds are they won’t all be there at the finish.

Journey AND Destination

It’s worth noting that the comparison-fest that happens with finishing times in the shorter road races cannot meaningfully occur in trail ultras where every race is different.

The finishing times are unique to that course on that day – different weather can have a huge impact on finishing times.

This means you can’t have that Monday morning water-cooler conversation comparing ultra run finish times – though let’s face it, if you do have someone else at your place of work who also gets their kicks hauling ass over 50 miles at a weekend, you are in a rare place of work!

What this means is that there are very few commonly accepted universally-applicable aspirational benchmarks as per a sub 3 hour marathon. In other words it becomes much more about the experience of that race than the time on the clock.

It’s really and truly all about you – and not about how you compare. Your mark is your mark – and only you can judge its worth.

Ladies Do It Better

I’ve been banging on for a while now that it seemed to me through my own coaching, racing and general curiosity around the subject that the ladies have got this ultra marathon lark nailed better than the blokes:

  • More likely to get their pacing right
  • More likely to stop and sort out niggles before they become problems
  • More likely to enter an ultra only after careful preparation
  • Less likely to be on the start line carrying an injury
  • More likely to start conservatively and hold an even pace throughout

Throw in a propensity to leave their ego at the start line and what we have is a higher proportion of ladies starting a race will tend to finish when compared to us blokes - while at the top end of the sport the leading ladies are quite happy to take records outright for their own and tickle the heels of the leading men.

No longer is an outright win by a woman an incredibly rare thing.

For those of you who like to see the evidence – consider this post-race study: Dr Sam Robson took 66 of the 162 starters for the 2012 UK South Downs Way 100 miler (55% finish rate) as his sample. Here are two of the highlights:

  • Most of the blokes went too fast in the early stages and faded
  • Ladies tended to do even pace better

So ladies, this really is the sport you were made for!

How Will I Know When I’m Ready For My First Ultra?

If you’re motivated enough to fill out an entry form – you’re ready:
Everything else is just detail

What sort of race should I start with?’ asked one of my audience members a few years ago. ‘Start with something that inspires you.’ I replied.

Think about it this way: You’ll be out there for a very long time. If you’re in a new place that you’re curious about with cool scenery – in other words lots of reasons to be distracted – then the odds are it’ll make the miles pass easier.

And if the miles seem to pass easier then you are starting to load the dice in favour of a finish.

The great thing about getting into the sport now is that there are more and more races happening in more and more places, and many of them take you into locations that will make you smile on the inside and out. You just need to have the wit to take note.

So enter something that grabs you. If you have that then you’ll also be motivated to train. All that remains is to prepare with the goal in mind and to make that preparation an experience that adds to the quality of your life – as opposed to becoming another source of stress.

Or if you want to simplify it even more, do stuff that you enjoy and stuff that builds confidence. (Matt Fitzgerald, 2007).

Anything else is just fluffy packing.

Bottom line? It’s OK to jump right in – ‘cos as the distance goes up the less of a distance runner you need to be.

Getting To The Start Line: Your Training Plan Framework

1. Hiking

You will need to train to hike for an ultra. Even the top boys and girls walk at some point in the long races – though you wouldn’t think so from the incredible times. For us mere mortals this falls into two categories: Flats & climbs.

Walking efficiently in a race is a world away from your usual amble to the shops, and is therefore a skill to be practiced. Hiking gives you a physical and mental moving break, and in ultras a break really can be as good as a rest.

During one of my coaching camps we came up with 10 different walk-run styles to use on a climb.

TEN! Most people just run up till the hill beats them. Remember that you are in charge of the hill – the hill is not in charge of you.

Key Workouts: Hiking for climbing strength and efficiency and speed on the flat e.g.

STRENGTH
Max effort short uphill hike repeats with a heavy loaded pack at best pace holding good (upright) form with or without poles.
Sustained effort long hill(s) with slightly lighter pack weight as above.
Moderate effort undulating loop or out and back with lighter pack weight as above.

SPEED
Fast-walk all the flats as part of a normal run.
Steady-sustained running for the first half of a session with the second half as a fast hike.
Hilly loop and you only run the down hills – everything else is a brisk/fast hike.

2. Descending

You really need to train for the descents. (Unless it’s a 12-hour track race you’ve got in mind.) It’s the downhills which are the quad-killer, and if your upper legs are shot then it’s pretty much hobble time from there on in.

Remember the compound effect? This is where you pay with interest.

Descending effectively and efficiently is a different skill set from say, the full-on styles seen in shorter fell races in the north of England. In ultras the emphasis is on conservation and preservation of the muscles and the energy systems. This means the technique is different.

And if you don’t have hills to train on? Move house.

If you can’t move house then help is at hand: There is a bunch of stuff you can do in a gym and outside to condition those quads.

Key Workouts: Descent-proofing and descending skills.

DESCENT-PROOFING
Hiking downhill with loaded pack wearing boots with or without poles.
Faster-than-normal running on all descents as part of a normal hilly run.
Over-stride downhill running as repeats or as part of a hilly run.

SKILLS
Focus on feeling easy and smooth downhill as part of a hilly run – keep knees and hips bent.
Focus on keeping your footfalls as quiet as possible on all downhill sections.
Practice running S-bends (as per slalom skiers) where you use the full width of the trail to take the sting out of the slope.

3. Be In The Present

It’s more helpful to focus on the Journey rather than a Destination in an ultra, not least because the final destination tends to be a very very long way ahead. So far ahead sometimes, that we can barely get our head around it.

So focus on the stuff you can control, get your head up and enjoy the moment – which is, after all, unique. Helpfully, most ultras take you through beautiful landscapes and that means there’s much to enjoy and take in, if we have the wit to do so.

If The End is a very very long way away, then it can be spectacularly unhelpful to focus on how far away it is and how long you need to travel to get there. That’s the deal you signed up to when you paid the entry – it ain’t gonna change by worrying about it.

Key Workout: Pace Control & mental strategies e.g. Progress in bite-size chunks, develop a script of helpful/positive self-talk and cues to help you stay positive.

PACE CONTROL
Easy-Steady-Hard: Build your effort through the run e.g. 20-15-10 minutes as E-S-H.

Out & Back: Choose a linear route and aim to come back a little faster than you went out e.g. Start at 15-20 mins and build over the weeks to an 80-90-minute total workout.

Test Races: Choose a shorter race to practice the skill of starting slower than you think you should. Get right to the back of the field and walk-jog the first bit while almost everyone else streams away from you.

4. Black & White v Shades Of Grey

It can be more helpful to focus on subjective rather than objective measures. This can be quite a challenge because much of marathon preparation and racing is around splits and heart rate and mile markers and training zones and minute per mile pace and ‘The Wall’ at 20 miles. Absolutes where it either ‘is’ or ‘is not’.

In ultras there are so many factors to juggle with over such a long time that giving yourself a mental break and room to manoeuvre just becomes good sense as well as helping you enjoy the journey.

Hitting absolute indictors time and time again can become a very stressful way to operate: Managing how you feel suddenly opens up a whole new world. ‘Cos we do this for free, right?

Key Workout: Leave your watch at home.

5. I Want To Be Alone

You have a greater chance of running alone during part of an ultra. Yes, the field size is growing as more and more people go longer and go off road, and the probability remains: You will need to be cool with your own company and confident in your ability to motivate and look after yourself.

Unless you are racing in the States or Europe you are unlikely to be regaled at regular intervals by cheering crowds and a manic MC. We are, after all, the repressed English. Practice the art of self-reliance, dear reader.

Key Workout: Solo outings mixing hiking and running on familiar ground in good weather progressing to unfamiliar ground in bad weather. These are done Back To Back – two sessions close together i.e. evening-morning / morning-afternoon / afternoon-evening – so you don’t need to find a huge block of time and you are practicing heading out for the second time on tired legs e.g.

Sustained Run 1 hour (morning) Hike with loaded pack 1.5 hours (afternoon).
Power hike hills 40-60mins (eve) Speed hike without load 1-1.5 hours (morning).
Hike with light pack Inc. run on flat 1.5-2 hours (morning) E-S-H run 40-60mins (afternoon).

Getting To The Finish Line: Your Racing Plan Framework

Start Slow
Most people slow down in ultras which means those still standing and smiing at the end will be those who have slowed down the least. To do that you need to try for as even a pace as possible – and THAT means starting slower than you think you should.

Remember that Even Pace is not Even Effort: Even Pace should feel like a walk in the park for the first third, the middle third of the race you will still be in control but having to concentrate, while the last third will feel like a threshold level effort.

Remember that most people will not do this and will go off too fast. Let ‘em: You’ll see ‘em later.

Hike The Hills
Again: Everyone slows down on the climbs – but the smart ones will aim to get up and over with as little additional effort as possible. Far better to slow down and stay in control than try hold your pace from the flat and take yourself into the red zone.

The key is conservation of energy for as long as possible. If you still have energy beans to burn in the final quarter and you have your eyes on a prize THEN you can put heel to the steel on the ups.

But if you’ve nailed your power hiking you should be able to get up and over far more comfortably than someone trying to hold onto a run – and not much slower either.

Control The Descents
The downhills are the quad-killer and that can reduce you to a pathetic shuffle in no time. Preservation of your main working muscles – and the quads are the biggest – for as long as possible is another key to a happy experience.

That does not mean throwing yourself headlong down the first hill. Throttle back, stay smooth and stay in conntrol. You’ve practiced this in training right? (see above). You need to flow easily down the hillside as opposed to doing an impression of a raging torrent.

Faff-Free
If it’s a faff you’ll forget it – and that could be curtains over the long distance. Your personal organisation is key. Kit should be fit for (your) purpose and organised around your person so you can reach it easily.

That means practicing with it so you cn do the simple keep-me-happy tasks without looking and with one hand even in bad weather. And even if you’re using poles.

Eliminate the rubbing-flapping-squeaking things well before race day and you’ll be well on the way to keeping your happy tank topped off.

Transition Not Checkpoint
Checkpoints are a black hole: They suck you in and make you linger and waste time. There are huge physical-mental-emotional benefits to be had from a considered pause and a re-charge – and there are dangers too:

  • You can be distracted/influenced by others enough to put you off your game plan.
  • You can sit down and stay sat down.
  • You can be disoriented by the onset of choices and people after hours solo on the trail doing your best to keep it simple.

So think of checkpoints as a Transition – which means they are something to move through. Stay standing unless you really do need to take the weight off your feet for a bit – in which case set a time on your watch to get up again – and rehearse a routine to take care of the essentials e.g.

  1. Final approach: Drink / drain bottle congratulate yourself for getting this far.
  2. Arrive: Give number, dispose litter, top up bottle/bladder, eat, top up supplies.
  3. Depart: Walk, eat and drink, think good thoughts and re-set for next stage.

Food & Drink
In my running world food divides into two groups: Food for task and food for treats.
The former is quite simply fuel that provides a constant supply of energy over an extended period of time that we can harness for the task of relentless forward motion.

The other one is the pick-up or shot in the arm that we use as a reward or a boost during a low point. (I used to love a jellybaby or two everytime I turned a new page on the race route instructions).

As for helpful habits when you are wearing a number:

  • Keep the calories coming in – a steady stream of savoury and sweet stuff.
  • Drink to thirst.
  • Eat on the climbs when you are walking.
  • Carry your own collapsable cup/flask that you can reach easily.
  • Retain your litter and dispose at checkpoints.

Summary
There are three main trends in running at the moment:

  • More people are running off-road.
  • More people are running long off-road.
  • More ladies are running (and winning / long, off-road).

And while road cycling is the new golf – at least in the business-world – running remains something that requires very little other than a hefty dose of motivation and something for your feet and your modesty.

(Though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise after picking up any running-based magazine these days packed as they are with ads for hundreds of pounds worth of ‘essential kit’).

While road and track ultras are nothing new – look up the jaw-dropping feats of the Victorian and inter-war eras for starters – mass particiaption trail ultras are a relatively recent phenomenon. Almost counter-intuitavely they are – as I hope I’ve demonstrated – accessible in ways that the shorter distances are not:

  • The normal rules and meansures don’t seem to apply.
  • It’s not really about the running per se.
  • And if it inspires you then it’s absolutely OK to jump right in.

We’ll see you on a start line then.

About the writer: Andy does the training stuff for us. He is author of three books including ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’ He runs long for the challenge and fun of it and has been a professional coach since 2000 working across business-education-sport-lifestyle. He lives with his family in North Yorkshire, UK.

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