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The Spine Race 2014 mile 90. Photo credit: Mick Kenyon.

10 Things You Need To Know about ultramarathon running

04-Mar-15

Last updated: 21-Aug-18

By Andy Mouncey

1. No Bluffing

You can’t bluff in an ultra – ignore your basics and the warning signs at your peril. The stuff you can get away with over 26.2 miles can seriously compromise your performance and even cause you to DNF over 40, 50 & 100 miles.

That hotspot on the ball of your foot? Stop and sort it out before it develops into a bad blister that has you crying a few miles later when you still have 30 miles to go. That flapping, noisy, ill-fitting kit? Will drive you to distraction and that means a waste of valuable mental energy. That sense of humour failure? Probably means you need to eat and drink.

Over 100 miles, ‘mind over matter’ is a myth. Neglect your fuelling and your body will ultimately shut down and you will STOP.

2. Know Your Place

You need to be able to navigate in an ultra – and whole / part route reccies in advance of race day are invaluable. If you are confident in where you are /going then you have more mental and emotional energy to give to the task of relentless forward motion – which after all, is the basis of ultramarathon running success.

This does not mean being a whiz with a compass: there’s stuff you can do before you even get outside just by turning the route info provided by race organisers into a format that works for you. Prefer lists rather than maps? Translate the map info into a route card of your preferred size and detail and bigger than normal font size. Then stick it in a plastic sleeve and seal the sleeve. Run holding the card with your thumb always on your present/next route feature.

3. Night Time Is The Right Time

You will need to be comfortable running at night in an ultra.

It is a different skill set for a different sensory experience. Many of your usual indicators of progress will be missing – the view ahead, for example. Learning to relax and enjoy the beauty and challenges of running at night can transform your ultra running. A way to start is to go out on familiar trails with a good light – minimalist lights are all well and good, but you want to see where you are going first and foremost, right? -  and with friends. This will give you other people to key off and focus on apart from oh look how dark and spooky it is, and I can’t seem to see where my feet are going.

4. Know Thyself

An ultra requires greater levels of self-awareness & greater skills in self-management. Why? Because success will ultimately depend on managing how you feel – over an extended period of time when you are being constantly challenged in a constantly changing environment to make good on a big commitment.

There’s nothing like your own company for 12-24 hours as a way of getting up close and personal with the real you. Self-knowledge is of course only half the story – you then need to have the motivation and skill to act on that knowledge when the situation demands it AND do so in a way that is helpful.

Which means Making A Decision. That’s right, your decision-making skills also get a workout. Of course, decisions only have meaning in the context of a clear and compelling goal. Which means dusting off your goal-setting skills as well. Sorry.

5. It’s OK To Walk

You will need to train to walk 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. Walking gives you a physical and mental moving break, and in ultras a break really can be as good as a rest. During a recent coaching camp 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.

6. It Ain’t Over If You Blow

You can blow up and recover fully in an ultra. Really. Even if you lie down and have a little sleep ‘cos it’s all getting a bit too much – what’s 30 minutes over 12 or 24 hours?

Back to ‘Know Thyself’ and knowledge of what to do when this happens. Here’s a brief checklist:

  • Know the signs
  • Heed the signs
  • Slow down, walk, eat and drink – let everyone go – you’ll see ‘em later
  • Reduce the size of the chunk of the race you are focused on
  • Talk good stuff to yourself
  • Be patient as the fuel goes to work
  • Change something else if you need to be really sure
  • Keep talking – have faith
  • Re-start slowly telling yourself what a clever sausage you are!

7. It’s OK To Sleep On The Job

See above. Usually preferable to do this under supervision at an aid station – though I do know people who just couldn’t wait and crashed out in the undergrowth. Risky and it scares the tourists. Set an alarm on your watch or tell a member of the aid station crew what you are doing – few things more alarming to a volunteer than to discover a body at their checkpoint – and ask them to wake you at a time of your choice.

8. 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, which means there’s much to enjoy and take in, if you 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.

9. 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 indicators 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?

10. Decisions, Decisions

An ultra requires that you really are a good / decisive decision-maker. See above.

Andy specializes in coaching ultra-marathon runners and triathletes in person and by telephone so that their training has balance and their race performance becomes more consistent. Andy is also the resident running coach on Alpine Oasis trail running camps, which run in the UK and France. For more information please visit.

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