Ultra. Going to the extreme, achieving something ‘beyond’; in this case, a traditional marathon. It is so far beyond most people’s running horizon that it can feel like stepping off a precipice.
Yet more and more of us are taking this leap of faith. I gave in to the allure of the ultra-marathon distance in autumn, when I signed up to take part in Endurancelife CTS Northumberland Ultra. After three months of focussed training, I ran further than I had ever done and into ‘ultra’ race glory. (Ok, so I completed it, albeit rather slowly).
Preparing for an ultra takes your race training into a whole new space/time continuum, so I had plenty of time to reflect on the business of running an ultra.
Because most ultras generally take place away from tarmac, no course is straight, predictable (boring?) – or comparable. Then there’s the distance. I’ve completed a race of 35.5 miles along a pretty flat coastline. Can I really compare this with 200km non-stop across mountains? Not really. Perhaps I haven’t completed an ultra after all? And this is the next thing I’ve learnt…
Whichever ultra you do, there’ll be another that it is more hard core. Accept that. Suck it up. You’re entering a world where you’ll likely forever wonder if you’re an ultra-runner yet. The fact you are on this road probably means you get your kicks seeing how long you can push yourself for, rather than chasing ever faster PBs. At what point is far enough, well, far enough for you and your body? It’s a slippery slope indeed.
Every race is different. It follows that so is every training plan. The only consistent factor is the need to run for an inordinate amount of time. Do you choose hours ran instead of weekly mileage as a measure of progress? Do you run close to full race distance in one day and risk injury or play it safe and cover the same mileage across two consecutive days? Everyone has a different opinion. My conclusion? There will always be people running more or less miles than you. You just need to cast your net wide for advice, find out what works for you and stick to your groove
The sweet side of ultra-training is that you can eat real food. No, I don’t just mean in the pub afterwards. I mean you can stuff your bag or vest with flapjack, salted nuts, sandwiches – what you like – to snack on during your run. Gels are great when pace is everything and you need to mainline energy into your system. But try sticking too many down your gullet and you realise literally how rubbish they can be. Boy, it was a revelation that I could reward myself with natural, slow-release food that lifted my spirits as well as my energy levels.
I had to groan when a friend lent me a training book with this title and then reminded me of the mantra at the start of the race. If it really is relentless then why would we do it? It’s sort of true though. At some point on any long run it is going to feel relentless. It’s only by facing up to this and getting through hard graft of the most tedious kind that most challenges are accomplished.
Ok, if you’re one of those near the front of the field it is a race. But for the rest of us, ultras are the ability to hold your nerve enough to run at a toe-curlingly slow pace, set through an honest appraisal of how fast you can (really) expect to run that distance without burnout. Incidentally, I love the fact that you are allowed to walk (on hills) and stop (while refuelling), so long as you practise getting started again. Be warned though. Sometimes you may wake in cold sweats at night worried you’ll never, ever run fast again.
Long training hours mean you get to spend a lot of time stuck in your own head. This can, at turns, feel fantastically enlightening and mentally exhausting. No wonder ultra-runners’ books are big on philosophy. Alternatively, you can try to skip this bit by running with friends or turning up the music or podcast.
In conclusion, ultras aren’t just about the big-ass Badwaters. I’m no athlete, I’m not fast. I just love running in amazing places. If you feel the same, don’t be intimidated. There is an ultra-race out there for you. Just make sure you pack the right amounts of grit, determination and training for the ride.
Lisa completed the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series Northumberland Ultra on 27 February 2016. The race also includes 10k, half and full marathon options. In her opinion, it’s a great introductory ultra. She got to the start line through the help and support of fellow runners at Derwent Valley Running Club, based in Rowlands Gill, Gateshead.