Last updated: 23-Aug-18
By Andy Mouncey
In 2017 it would appear that in many quarters having weekend bragging rights at the water cooler on a Monday morning ‘cos you did a marathon just doesn’t have the shine it once did. 26.2 miles? Pah! People do that dressed in all sorts of silly costumes these days – so clearly it ain’t hard enough anymore.
Now an ULTRA? That gets their attention. There’s the name to start with: ‘Ultra’. It’s like HYPER or MEGA or MONSTER or HARDCORE or…SCREAMING CRYING BADASS MUTHA DEATH-FEST. (Did you know there really is a Canadian Death Race? (You could dine out on that one for weeks).
Those of you who have read some of my stuff before will know I think it’s absolutely OK not to do the sensible progression thing and jump right into your first ultra. There are some rules, of course:
- Your race of choice should inspire the pants off you
- You will need to practice your walking / hiking
- And it’s probably best to leave your watch at home
But if you ARE going to do the sensible progression thing and are contemplating a first step beyond the marathon, here are some of the things you need to know about the world beyond 26.2 road miles.
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 recces 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, or 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 indictors 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 and 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.
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. This means dusting off your goal-setting skills as well.
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 practised. 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. After all, 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.
10. Decisions, Decisions
An ultra requires that you really are a good and decisive decision-maker. See above.
11. Wish You Were Here
You get more inspiring landscapes in an ultra. Unless your thing is going to be those 24 hour track races, of course.
I know of few things more effective at taking your mind away from the miles than the majesty of Mother Nature. And before you think I’m gonna turn tree-hugger on you, think on this: I’m not talking about rubber-necking through a car window. You will be part of those landscapes with all the sensory experience to go with it. Areas that you think you know will take on many more shades of meaning once you have your own journey to thread through them.
12. I Want To Be Alone
You have a greater chance of running alone during part of an ultra. Yes, the field size is growing as more and more people go longer and go off road. You will need to be cool with your own company and confident in your ability to motivate and look after yourself. Unless you are racing in the States or Europe you are unlikely to be regaled at regular intervals by cheering crowds and a manic MC. We are, after all, the repressed English. Practice the art of self-reliance, dear reader.
13. Get Sorted
Personal organisation: You need to get the ‘faff factor’ to a minimum, because if it’s a faff, 40 miles into a 50 mile race when you’re not thinking straight you wont do it and that could be curtains.
The reason many people don’t or can’t navigate? It’s a faff doing all that stuff with a map. Unless you choose to take responsibility for knowing your own whereabouts.
The reason many people have problems with blisters and chafing? It’s a faff stopping, getting the kit out and doing the repairs on crappy feet. Unless you choose to practice the skills of keeping your contact points intact.
The reason a good friend of mine had dehydration problems on nearly every race till he figured this one out? It was a faff to reach his drink bottles stashed on his rucksack. A bladder was to be his saviour.
In ultras, personal organisation is (nearly) everything. Test, refine, and test your kit choices and equipment stash locations till you can do nearly everything while on the move, with one hand, in crappy weather, in the dark.
If it’s simple and easy you’ll do it and use it – if it ain’t, you wont.
14. I Gotta Go!
You need to be OK with a wide range of toilet skills and locations. One of my most vivid recollections from my early ultra days was racing in the US and seeing a lady runner peeing successfully from a standing position just a few yards off the path. She just hoiked her shorts to one side and…you have the picture, I’m sure.
You should expect to have to go. Physical effort plus mental stress, plus often strange foods, plus miles and miles can play havoc with your insides. The only way to find out which foods agree with you – and this could differ according to effort level and how hot it is – is to experiment. You might have to go through some unexpected and messy results before figuring this out. So, carry your toilet paper in a little plastic bag (see faff factor above). Please. And please respect the environment. Bury it or burn it when you are done. Do not spoil the beautiful area you are running through.
The general etiquette is to go away from the path. Some races are specific: at UTMB in France all runners are given a mesh bag which can be threaded to a waistbelt for litter and toilet paper to be disposed of at checkpoints. As environmental awareness becomes more mainstream, our racing footprints will be required to be ever lighter.
15. Compounded & Complicated
There are more and different factors to plan for and deal with in an ultra, some of which I’m covering here. Then we also have the compound effect which is simply a function of the greater distance. In other words, s*** builds up over time.
There are more aid stations. More kit to carry ‘cos you’re out for more time. More choices to make.
More food to eat. More drink to drink. More weather to deal with. More time to think. More stuff to forget. More opportunities to give up…
Just because there are many, many more miles to go.
16. Train To Get Down
You really need to train for the descents. It’s the downhills which are the quad-killer, and if your upper legs are shot then it’s pretty much hobble time from there on in. Remember the compound effect? This is where you pay with interest.
Descending effectively and efficiently is a different skill set from say, the full-on styles seen in shorter fell races in the north of England. In ultras the emphasis is on conservation and preservation of the muscles and the energy systems. This means the technique is different.
And if you don’t have hills to train on? Move house.
If you can’t move house then help is at hand: There is a bunch of stuff you can do in a gym and outside to condition those quads even if you live in the flatlands.
17. The Normal Rules Do Not Apply
Be prepared to experiment – the normal rules do not seem to apply over the big distances.
Sure, there is some consensus:
Run. Run as often as you can – and run is the standout one for me in Tim Noakes’ ‘Lore Of Running’.
But after that?
Heck, I know people who race off junk foods and others who have nothing but gels.
I know people whose long run is all day, and others who achieve on two hours.
Listen, if it gets you the results you want in the way you want ‘em and you can make those results stick over time, then whatever you’re doing is a legitimate strategy for you. Even if it’s totally different from the next guy and you can’t find any mention of it in the manuals.
18. Be Special
The field size is smaller for an ultra race. So that start line you’re on and those people you’re with? It’s a pretty unique place and a special bunch of people.
19. Ladies: This Sport Is For You!
Ladies get more cheers – because there are less of them in the races – and those that are present perform relatively better over ultra marathon distance. This trend is even more pronounced as the degree of difficulty and length of race increases.
A higher proportion will finish – partly due, (in my experience as a coach) to the fact that ladies do self-management much better – and the gaps between the top men and top women in the sport are very small and getting smaller.
Women have won ultras outright. The only marathon case I am aware of in the UK was the Severn Sisters off road marathon on the south coast sometime late 1980’s / early 1990’s.
20. Finish First
The finish percentage is smaller for an ultra race. Much smaller. It’s normal for one out of two people to DNF at the longer mountain races. Whatever your aspirations and level, remember this: You need to earn the right to finish first. Anything else is a bonus.
Who Is Andy Mouncey
Andy is author of ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’. He is a professional coach, trainer and award-winning speaker who runs long for fun and who has placed 2nd twice at the UK premier 100 mile trail race The Lakeland 100. He is married and lives with his family in the north of England.
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