A winning ultra running formula? – 5 things winning runners do

Last updated: 14-Dec-16

By Andy Mouncey

So Andy, they said. ‘Now you’re warmed up this ‘transitioning’ theme…can you write us an article on what it takes to go from competitor to winner?
Cue short pause for thought.
Not…really,’ I said.

Because what I‘m thinking is that I know of folks who win in ultras who come from a range of backgrounds and circumstances:

  • Work full time or are professional / semi-professional
  • Have family or footloose and fancy free, living out of the back of a camper
  • Live in the mountains or the flatlands
  • Just run lots or mix up their training
  • Paleo1, vegan diet or just eat out
  • Been around for years or are new on the scene
  • Own a fast marathon or are pretty average on the roads
  • Have a coach or just do their own thing
  • Race every week or peak twice a year
  • Go into hibernation in the winter or keep right on running
  • Swear by interval training or would run a mile at the prospect of set and reps

See what I mean?

And then there’s the Nature versus Nurture discussion: How much is down to our environment and learning and how much to genetic predisposition?

The Kilian Template

If we take arguably the most winning ultrarunner of all – a certain Kilian Jornet – then you’d have to say that both sides of this equation got to work with knobs on in his case. There was a ton of Nurture going on. He was brought up in the mountains to outdoor-loving parents, whose idea of fun was to pack the family off onto a cross-Pyrenean self-powered jaunt for a few weeks. Clearly Kilian is also rather a special version of your average carbon-based bipedal2 life form. And while training and lifestyle choices will have developed this, the special edition template will have been there and available to use straight out of the box. Whereas most of us have to make do with a rather more standard version.

What this means is that it’s really very difficult to come up with a definitive set of factors that are more or less guaranteed to produce a winning performance.

And magazines LOVE to make the complex seem simple. You see it all the time:
Your Best 10k Ever In Six Easy Steps!
Ten Top Tips to Train Your Brain!
Three Stretches To Put A Spring In Your Stride!

Real life is so rarely A + B = C.

In coaching we call this the ‘Technical Template’ – the set of STUFF that combines in the athlete to produce the outcome. And we coach to the template. Except I have my doubts that there is a definitive ‘Winning’ template that I can reproduce here that would turn you all into winning wonders.


All of this I tried to explain to my lovely commissioning editor.  I mean, I like this writing stuff, and the pay cheque at the end – but give me half a chance with the brief, will you?

I know,’ she said. ‘But you’re really quite good at this – so have a go anyway, will you?


Before we get to the ‘So what’s this all mean to me?’ bit, let’s just consider the difference in the magnitude of winning once versus maintaining a winning streak, spanning a number of years in a sport where an overuse or burnout injury can be just a stride away.

In ultra running these extraordinary people are examples of the latter and you may think of others. If you haven’t heard of them I urge you to Google them and allow yourself to be moved by their accomplishments:

  • Scott Jurek and Ann Transon at Western States
  • Bruce Fordyce at Comrades
  • Lizzy Hawker at UTMB
  • Mark Hartell at The Fellsman
  • Helen Whitaker (nee Diamantides) at the long stuff on the fells

These people have their own story about what it took to do what they did – the choices they made, the price they may have paid. Winning once takes something – no doubt. But winning again and again takes something else as well. So perhaps the two questions to ask before we embark on our own quest are these:

Am I willing to do (what I think) it will take?
Am I willing to pay the price?

Because there will be a price. It may not be apparent at the time, and it may not appear till much later – but there will always be a price.


Photo credit: Neil Thubron.

Winning Made Real

In an effort to stop this sliding into a philosophical discussion that goes nowhere, I figured a best way of making this real was to speak to some folks who are close to home and who are doing this winning / podium thing.

Were there some common factors we could all learn from three very different examples?

Neil Thubron owner of www.xnrg.co.uk events took his first multi day ultra victory at The Yukon Ultra 2015.

Beth Pascall had already chalked up wins before she added The Spine Race in 2015 and Lakeland 100 2016.

Damien Hall stood on his fifth ultra podium placing 2nd at this year’s UK Championships. Shortly after he went on to record the fastest known time for the 630 mile South West Coast Path.

Neil, Beth & Damian shed some light on their wins at Yukon, The Spine & Lakeland 100, and UK Championships at the Highland Fling respectively below:

Q. Did you prepare with the possibility of a win in mind?

Beth (She has the winning pedigree, remember): Yes.

Neil: No – a finish was in my wildest dreams.

Damian: No – I thought top ten would be a decent result given the depth of field.

Q. How high were your expectations?

Beth: I figured that I could win if it all went to plan and I wanted the records as well.

Neil: I prepared to finish. I know I could do well in a harsh environment and I expected to be competitive – ‘cos I can’t help it!

Damian: I thought 4th-6th was possible.

Q. How much of your result was due to factors outside your control e.g. other runners dropping out?

Beth: Not much as far as I know. I ran my race and ended up taking both records by quite a margin.

Neil: I felt good from the off. I kept in my bubble and pushed hard during the third day and that was where I got ahead though I never knew at the time or that many had dropped. Once I got news I was leading no one was going to overtake me!

Damian: Almost everything felt in my control – it was my most controlled race to date. Yes, some of the more fancied runners didn’t have the races they wanted, but mine felt almost perfectly paced and it gave me the second fastest time on the course.

Q. What were your key ‘winning’ behaviours, thoughts, tactics etc that made the most difference?

Beth: My previous experience has given me the confidence and knowledge to successfully problem-solve and trouble-shoot during a race. I had a template for preventative action and an answer to every problem. The key was to take action early.

Neil: A competitive mentality – always calculating, sifting, pushing. How can I put one over the competition? Relentless discipline on the basics – fuel, kit, rest, activity – and break down the task into manageable chunks.

Damian: Confidence and calm – from all my physical prep and topped off by a pacing plan refined with my coach and a pre-race ‘big-up’ text from a good friend.

Photo credit: Beth Pascall.

How was your physical preparation different?

Beth: This year has been different – I am faster. I have a busy job – often work shifts – but this year I’ve had more time for my running. There have been more miles more consistently AND I run faster. Even my long runs have faster sections thrown in.

Neil: I prepared specifically – so walking/running everywhere I could for 3 months. 1-2 hours every weekday morning in the dark, pulling a tyre and more at weekends. Between Christmas and New Year I did an 80 mile continuous tyre pull in 26 hours along the canal. Great prep that helped me hone my race routine.

Damian: More strength work. More time recovering. More 20mile and runs with faster sections thrown in.

How was your mental prep different?

Beth: It wasn’t. I’m just more experienced now – better at pacing for instance – which has translated into better results.

Neil: My mental confidence came from doing the physical work. I also demystified the whole thing by researching the race, talking to people who had done it etc.

Damian: I trained with runners who were faster than me. I had faith in the plan and told myself to relax and enjoy it.

There you go.

Hardly an exhaustive sample, admittedly – but these are three Brits who all have real jobs and one has a family. They have all made the transition from competitor to winner – and one of them has kept doing it.

Damian Hall. Photo credit: Summit Fever Media.

A Winning Formula?

If I were to offer any insights then I’d offer these five for starters:

1. You’ve got to do the work.
There are no short cuts and consistency is a key.

2. Prepare with the goal in mind.
Start from the end, work backwards and work specifically and smart.

3. Hang out with people who believe in you and stretch you.
Who doesn’t like having smoke blown up their backside? To keep up/measure up, you have to reach – often further than you think you can.

4. Be in your bubble.
Focus on your plan, your stuff, your strengths – stuff you can control. And control it!

5. Embrace proactivity.
Pay attention to the basics and deal with the small stuff before it escalates into the big horrible screaming, crying, race-ending, nightmare stuff.

Of course there are others – but this will fit very nicely into the ‘Five Things Winners Do That You Can Do Too!’ model of writing.

And there’s a place for that.

Maybe we won’t all stand on the top step, even if we have aspirations to do just that – and perhaps that’s not the point. While Nature is clearly at work in many of the extraordinary specimens at the top of our sport, there is also much we can all affect about our own capacity if we are so motivated to do so. It isn’t easy, there’s no shortcut, and there’s no magic pill – but then again that’s at least part of why we do this ultrarunning lark, right?

What does it take to win? I can’t give you a definitive list but I can leave you with three questions that will help you decide if you really want to start to get closer:

  1. Are you working on your own stuff?
  2. Are you willing to do what you think it will take?
  3. Are you willing to pay the price?

If the answer is YES then you’re already heading towards a winning formula.

About the author
Andy Mouncey is the author of ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra.’ He runs long for fun and is a professional speaker, coach, trainer and writer at www.bigandscaryrunning.com.He lives with his family in the north of England.

1 A Paleolithic diet or paleo diet  typically includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and organ meats while excluding foods such as dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, processed oils, salt, and alcohol or coffee. Source wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_diet

2 Bipedal – using two legs.

"Because there will be a price. It may not be apparent at the time, and it may not appear till much later – but there will always be a price."

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Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

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Increase of up to 1500 metres

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