Last updated: 06-Nov-18
Thomas Giles is a consultant cytopathologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and an experienced ultra runner. He began ultra running in 2005 following an inspirational talk by a professional explorer. He signed up for the MdS 2007, didn’t finish but didn’t stop ultra running. He believes failure has made him a stronger runner. Read more of Tom’s top tips and ultra running experiences below:
Your experience of ultra running
Q. How did you first get started doing ultras?
A. People often say that completing ultra marathons is not normal. Normal people do not do such things and do not conceive of being able to do them. There is a belief that the limits of endurance lie at 26 miles, and even that can only be achieved after months of training. This limit is imposed by the mind. There was a moment in 2004 when I realised this.
A professional explorer, Dr Mike Stroud, visited my workplace to deliver a guest Christmas lecture. He had walked across the Antarctic continent with Ranulph Fiennes then completed 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. As I work in a hospital, much of this lecture concentrated on the medical effects of these exertions but there was also a clear indication that Mike and Ran are not superhuman. They are normal people who have learnt to control their mind to succeed. Wow! Did this mean that those daydreams I had of visiting polar ice could become reality? I went home that week and started running.
I had enjoyed cross country running at school. For 22 years since then I had cycled recreationally and so still had some base fitness, I thought. I soon discovered that I was out of breath with heavy legs after 400 metres of running. I was beginning on a long journey. Despite this I was not put off.
Q. When did you do your first ultra race?
A. One of the other events Mike described was the Marathon des Sables (MdS) – he was one of the first British competitors to complete this. I looked this event up on the internet and found that entries were open. A few details entered online, a few hundred pounds paid as a deposit, one click and I had a place for 2007. My career as an ultramarathoner had begun.
Whilst physically I had a long journey to travel, the MdS entry focused my mind. I had a target to work towards. I could achieve this, Mike’s words were still ringing in my ears, I just needed to work towards it. Having started running in January 2005, I entered my first half marathon in March of that year (Liverpool) and my first marathon in September (Anglesey).
On the start line of that first half marathon, 13 miles seemed a long way off. I knew I would finish, but I did not know how much it would hurt. Afterwards my thighs were sore and stiff making it difficult to walk to the upper deck of the bus back to the car park, and even more difficult to walk down the steps when the bus arrived at the car park. The thought of doing that distance again to complete a marathon was intimidating.
When I did start doing marathons, I would play mental games to prepare for my first ultra. I would adjust the distance left in my head to equate with an ultra so when I had run 15 miles I would think to myself 30 miles to go when everyone else was thinking 11. My first ultra was chosen to be a flat route – Tring to Town. 45 miles entirely along the Grand Union canal.
Q. Why do you keep running ultras?
A. One of the attractions of ultra events is the variety. Road races become monotonous after a while whereas ultras provide new experiences and challenges. There came a point in road races when my performances were not going to improve. Proving again that I could complete 26.2 miles did not motivate me whereas I can still feel nervous excitement at the start of an ultra as I explore my personal limits in new ways in each event.
Here is the fundamental point of my personal journey. I do not treat the events as races, but as challenges. I am not comparing myself to others but seeking what I am capable of. I find the achievement of completing an unsupported personal 30-mile route as rewarding as an organised race of a similar distance. In order to find my capabilities I have to risk failure, yet despite some I still don’t feel as if I have reached my limit. Until I find that limit I expect to keep searching.
Top Tips for running
Q. What are the essential ingredients to being successful in ultras?
A. Completing ultras is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Any healthy person can complete an ultra with the correct approach. Before the starting hooter sounds,I have to have a clear idea in my head what my aims are. I am challenging myself to complete something most people consider incomprehensible. The only time I am concerned about is the specified cut-off time limit for the event. I would not be happy with a discretionary allowance to take longer. I do not worry about finishing position. I don’t like to be the last finisher, but even that is better than not starting.
Q. What tips would you give someone doing their first ultra?
A. Two things can prevent me from completing the course: my feet and my head. If both of these remain in good condition I can always keep moving forward, and if I do that I will finish. Foot care for ultras is different from popular road races. Even a slow marathon involving four hours of running can be finished by toughing it through painful feet and hot spots. This approach to ultras will tear feet to shreds.
Multi-day ultras are particularly hard on feet. Minor trauma which should resolve un-noticed can swell slightly during the night making the skin more delicate, just in time for another pulverising the next day. Prevention of foot damage and attention when it starts are essential.
Q. What type of kit do you feel is essential for an ultra?
A. Three fundamental pieces of kit prevent foot damage: shoes, inner soles and socks. I have combinations which work for me. The correct combination can only be found by trial and error. There is a multitude of high quality, well made shoes to choose from but all have one thing in common – the inner soles deteriorate rapidly. I always replace these with sorbothane insoles. My personal preference for socks are ‘1000 mile’ socks. I will also use injinji socks and coolmax.
One thing which summarises what I require to complete ultras, is personal responsibility. If I start developing problems with my feet, it is up to me to sort it out. It is down to me to navigate my route. I have to sort out what hydration works for me and make sure I have it. I also believe that it is not worth wasting energy worrying about things I can’t do anything about. If it rains, it rains. If the route goes up a hill moaning about it won’t get me to the summit. If the ground is rough I should be careful I don’t twist an ankle but I need to cross it. Checkpoints and support are fine, but I don’t rely on them, I merely appreciate them if they deliver something helpful.
Q. What is the one thing you never travel without?
A. The only kit item which I use every single time I train or compete is sorbothane insoles. They are indispensable.
The good times
Q. What is your proudest achievement to date?
A. Any ultra event has good and bad times. The further into an event I go, the lower the lows and the higher the highs. The greater the adversity one has to overcome, the more meaningful the success. Marathon of Britain (MOB) (2007) stands out for this reason. MOB followed soon after my first attempt at the MdS, my first failure. I started MOB unsure if I was capable of completing a long multi-stage event and this shadow hung over the first five days. Lurking in the heart of this event was a 50-mile stage to be completed in a single day. I had not reached the long stage in the Sahara. I knew that if I completed it in the English Midlands I could finish the event. At 2am, I knew I would succeed.
Crossing the finish line is often not the time of greatest thrill. Knowing I will reach the finish line brings the greatest joy. That is the moment when I know I have risen to the challenge. This point usually occurs about six miles from the finish. By then I know how my body is working, I know how quickly I am travelling and I know how much time I have left to finish. The actual finish a couple of hours later can almost be an anti-climax.
Q. What has been your favourite ultra to date?
A. One ultra stands clear as a core of my ultra event experience – the MdS. This is an experience I share with Mike Stroud. This is the event around which all of my early preparation was built. This is the event that I failed in, reflected on then used the lessons to learn how to complete extreme challenges. The spectacular environment and seamless organisation cement this as my favourite ultra and the only multi-stage, multi-day event that I return to do again.
Q. Which type of ultras do you like the best?
A. Each event is individual and provides different challenges. The attraction of Ultras is the variety and no one type is better than another. Any event that provides good organisation, a good experience and an achievable (albeit stretching) challenge is enjoyable, although the pleasure sometimes only comes when reflecting later.
The rough times
Q. What has been the most challenging ultra to date for you?
A. I am taking part in my fourth marathon in four days. My calf has not felt right since the first few miles but one mile from the finish it hurts. As I cross the finish line I can’t put any weight on my foot. The event base is 300 metres away and it takes me 15 minutes to hobble there. A step into the room is an almost impossible barrier. As I eventually enter the communal room I fall to the floor crying, partly from the pain and partly from the certainty that my event is over. The attendant physiotherapist rushes over and anxiously assesses my Achilles’ tendon which is very tender but still intact. If it is ruptured, the rupture is not complete. I am confined to crutches.
This is only the second event for which I have collected sponsorship. Several thousand pounds depend on me completing a further six consecutive marathons and I cannot stand up without crutches. That evening further physiotherapy and acupuncture attacks my leg. The physiotherapist assures me that she can strap my leg so that my Achilles is protected, but it will hurt. The only way to find out if it is possible to continue is to continue.
One of my basic rules is never to retire from an event at base/camp. I will retire on course if I get beaten, but never in camp. Slowly walking along the road away from Brathay I could move forward. Six marathons later as I approached the final finishing line, I cried again.
Q. What aspect of ultra running is the hardest for you?
A. The ability to assess body signs that things are not good, sensations that things are falling apart and thoughts that skin, muscles and joints are being wrecked and still carry on is the hardest aspect of ultra running.
Q. Who or what has been your biggest help in doing ultras?
A. Two people stand out in my ultra career: Dr. Mike Stroud, who I have only met once, provided inspiration which has lasted a decade; and the decade was built by Rory Coleman. He accepted me into the community. His events had been built with the committed but average competitor (such as myself) in mind as much as the elite athlete.
The greatest help and inspiration throughout every event are the marshalls who stand for hours waiting for me to appear, the organisers who contribute their time to arrange the events, and the struggling, sometimes injured, athletes who are clearly finding progress harder than me but continue and complete.
Q. Have you made any significant sacrifices to complete ultras
A. The only sacrifice I have had to make to complete ultras is a pleasant stroll with my wife. As my understanding of what is normal has changed, she thinks that I am not satisfied with a gentle walk of a couple of miles. A wall has been placed between us.
Q. What have you learned by doing ultras?
A. I believe I’ve developed my ability to achieve in work as well as in play. Mental toughness and resilience are applicable to many environments. I have learned the ability to break seemingly impossible tasks into smaller components. I understand that however horrible bad times are, they do get better. I have also learned that doing nothing and hoping things improve is rarely successful. Where action can be taken to resolve a problem waiting to take that action is pointless.
Q. Any helpful sayings or beliefs that have helped your running?
A. The philosophy I apply to ultras are:
- Preparation and adaptability are equally important.
- Only worry about things that I can do anything about.
- Whatever it takes, keep moving forward.
- Be grateful for help but prepared to cope alone.
Training and Prep
Q. How do you train for an ultra?
A. The physical training for an ultra is similar to marathon training. My emphasis is on stamina rather than speed. I consider time on my feet to be more important than distance covered. I value hill work above all else for developing strength and stamina. For multi-day events carrying loads, time with a similar load on my back is essential.
As important as physical preparation is mental training. I practice keeping moving from day, through dusk into the night. I practice running or walking in the dark with a head torch.
Q. How does your training differ for each type of ultra?
A. For multi-day events I strongly recommend completing at least one 40- mile+ single day event to prepare for the mental ups and downs experienced over this distance.
Q. What race are you doing next?
A. I’m running the MdS 2014 and I will be attempting a non-stop 100-mile Long Distance Walkers Association event in 2014, six weeks after returning from MdS. I still wonder if I can qualify as a Centurion, and have half an eye on the Grand Union Canal race.
Q. What do you hope to achieve with your ultra running in the future?
A. At the moment, my aims are still the same as when I began ultra events – to find the limits of what I can achieve. I am always looking for solo expedition type challenges in the UK to attempt as a ‘first’. Nine years of ultra events and there are still a multitude of challenges to sharpen my focus.
Q. What would be your dream ultra event?
A. I still dream of a polar expedition. With this in mind, my dream event would be something like the 6633 Ultra or Iditarod trail invitational.