Can You Run an Ultra Marathon?

By Kate Allen

If you don’t have time to read this article, then the short answer is emphatically YES!

If you are even considering running an ultra, it shows you have an interest to do so and that really is all that matters. How you do it, however, is another matter.

Out of interest, I put the question of what made people enter their first ultra out to Twitter the other day. The response I got was amazing and if you have time, go over and have a look at the replies (some are listed below). They are heart-warming and illustrate perfectly the huge variety of reasons that people took the plunge. Maybe yours is similar to one of them.

Going back to the other matter of how you approach it, I would suggest you ask yourself what piqued your interest in the first place. Are you inspired by one of the stories doing the rounds of FKTs (fastest known times) being broken during last summer?

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John Kelly during his FKT run in the Summer. Photo credit: Steve Ashworth/La Sportiva

Are you being persuaded by friends or have you seen photos and are attracted by the scenery? Is it the next natural step for you to take in your running journey? Did you win entry to a race as a prize? Are you inspired by someone? Wanting to celebrate a big birthday?

There are so many reasons that could have brought you to this point, perhaps browsing the many races on our website and reading this article and every single one of them is an excellent reason to enter. Motivation is THE biggest factor that will get you across that finish line and so long as you keep it in mind, remember it when times are tough, you WILL finish.

You do not have to have done a marathon before doing an ultra. There are no rules to this game – we do it for fun, for enjoyment, for ourselves. Some people progress upwards through race distances, some jump straight in but so long as you have given your body the training it needs, previous racing experience doesn’t have to make any difference.

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The views alone are worth it

Ultras are different to any other race you can do, with the exception of trail races, but then 99% of ultras are on the trails. The reason they are different is, I believe, the community of runners who I think are more focused on the pleasure of being out in the countryside, enjoying their surroundings and the adventure.

Don’t get me wrong, if you are a racing snake you will be able to compare splits and timings with your fellow competitors; but you get the best of both worlds. In shorter, road, races, it’s all about the time and that can put a lot of pressure on people.

Once you know why you want to run an ultra, you will know how to tackle it. If you are competitive and want to do well, experience has shown me that you don’t need to do anything different than you would do for a traditional marathon training plan (although I am in no way a qualified coach). I would say, however, you should get used to doing long distances as a training run.

Those long runs are crucial for adapting your body to being out for hours or all day. It allows you to find the best fuelling strategy that works for you; whether it is a highly technical mineral supplement for your water and gels, or those cheese and pickle sarnies that I love so much.

If your goal is to complete it and take more time enjoying the experience, then you can absolutely walk/run most of it. The cut off times for many races are generous; they allow for an average pace of about 15min/m (or 9.6min/k) for the overall race and it’s something you can easily check on a race’s website before entering.

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The camaraderie is the best

Ultras, at whatever speed you plan to do them, are really social events. Only the elite run so fast they can’t talk; everyone else is able to at least exchange a friendly hello or two and at most chat the whole way round and I can almost guarantee you’ll make a friend for life. My top tip is if you are running so fast you can’t talk then you have gone out too fast!

The ultra-running community is known for being one of the friendliest around. Whatever level of running you are at, there will always be someone to help you; whether you have a question about what shoes to wear (it’s a never ending debate!!) that you can ask online, or if you stumble out on the course, there will be someone who will stop and ask if you need help.

Ultra runners also come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be fooled and think only super fit, skinny racing snakes can do this. It is much more about the mental will power than your body shape and I have been bested at speed by ladies larger than myself; size doesn’t matter!

Training wise, you can approach it with serious precision and set out an excel spreadsheet with your running plan; or you can approach it more casually. Time on feet regardless of speed is what is important. There is a well known phrase used that says running an ultra is 10% fitness and 90% mental. The percentage changes with each telling, but if you remember to keep positive, keep fuelling, keep smiling and keep putting one leg in front of the other, you will finish.

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Did I mention the views?

A lot of people say to me, “oh I couldn’t do what you nutters do” and really what they mean is, “I don’t want to do what you do”. Because it’s all down to desire and what you want to do. If you want something badly enough, you will achieve it.

My top tips for your first ultra:

  1. Be confident in your ability to be on your feet all day (at whatever speed you run).
  2. Don’t worry! There will always be someone to help you if you are unsure about anything.
  3. Be comfortable. Make sure you are happy with whatever you are wearing; clothes, shoes and vest.
  4. Be ready to snack. Make sure you have all your favourite snacks and drinks on board and your body is used to consuming them on the go.
  5. Don’t stint on mandatory kit. It’s there to help you if you get into problems.
  6. Talk to people. Whether it’s on a Facebook group, Strava, twitter there will be lots of places you can chat to people before the race and on the race itself chances are you will find yourself running naturally at the same pace as other people. Not only will you find new, like minded friends but it also helps take your mind off the miles.
  7. Don’t be afraid to stop to adjust or get something right. Don’t think about time lost but time gained by stopping a small problem before it becomes a big one.
  8. HAVE FUN. Remember, we do this for pleasure as well as the challenge and it shouldn’t kill you. If things go terribly wrong (and they do for everyone at some stage or another) nothing you do is a failure but a lesson to be carried forward.

Some of the responses from Twitter. Do any of these sound familiar?

Sarah @mia79gbr “Alcohol. 90% of my race entries are people talking me into it on twitter while I’m having a glass of something lovely.”

Swambikedran @fl600 “Because it was there. I’ll never be a speedy long distance chap so rather than going faster… go further.”

Geoff Shaw @gshawisme “It finished in my village so if I was going to do something daft beyond a marathon, I might as well finish up dying in my own bed. Thankfully didn’t, really enjoyed it and done two more since to prove it wasn’t a fluke.”

Dan Stinton @allhailthetrail “I randomly heard the word “ultrarunner” and knew immediately I wanted to be one. I had no idea what it meant, but found out and did it.”

Mark Rickaby @markrickaby “I haven’t tried my first ultra yet – haven’t even done a marathon distance – but I’m training for one as if it’s going to happen. The main reason is that I don’t know if I can do it and I’d like to find out. I was inspired by Damien Hall and John Kelly’s recent Pennine Way FKT.”

Adam Prav @adamprav “The social aspect and the fact there’s no pressure to finish within a certain time. (Oh, and the mini sausages and cheesy Wotsits of course).”

"Motivation is THE biggest factor that will get you across that finish line and so long as you keep it in mind, remember it when times are tough, you WILL finish."

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