Last updated: 23-Aug-18
By Andy Mouncey
Here’s the good news: You’ll be used to running on tired legs. Here’s some more good news: No-one’s going to swim over you like you’re just not there. It’s all far more forgiving on your undercarriage. And the race entry fees are damn sight cheaper….
The bad news? You thought a marathon was a long way, didn’t you? All that shiny whizzy kit and those gizmos are now redundant and finally, adoring crowds of spectators are a bit more thin on the ground.
Still, plenty of folks do make the transition – especially folks who are good runner-bikers, come to swimming later in life and are fed up with bashing up and down the local pool early/late at night in a vain attempt to shave 2-3 seconds off their 100m repeats.
Wherever you are on the ironman all-time list, you’ll be bringing a big engine to the party and that’s worth much. You’ll also be far better at time-management than the average Joe, and you should also score highly on the Stubborness Stakes. All of which sets you up quite nicely.
However, for the purposes of clarity, (and a smooth transition – see what I did there?) I’ve dug a little deeper to ensure you enter your brave new world with your eyes open and your shorts baggy. Welcome to our world!
1. It’s Just Running, Right?
That’s right – and despite the growing attempts of an increasing number of equipment manufacturers to make it more complicated, ultra running is a very simple sport: put one foot in front of the other and keep doing that till you reach the finish line.
Now that’s quite a change from three sports – two of which require high levels of technical skill to execute them well, two transitions, and a significantly fatter rule book. Think ‘low-tech’. Heck, you can even think ‘no-tech’. You will be entering a much simpler world – and you can be relieved, excited or intimidated by that.
2. More Head Space
Simpler, less to think about, so there is more room for the demons to come…
How you fill your head is arguably even more of a challenge. You can’t think about stroke counts or waves or drafting or transition sequence or gear ratios or pedal action because they ain’t there. It’s just you, your feet and the course. I think there is an even greater requirement to be able to associate (think about the inside and the now) and disassociate (be away with the fairies) and to switch between the two.
3. (Boys) & Toys
If you’re into your sport for your gadgets and gear this is not the sport for you. Sorry.
4. You Are Your Pillar Of Support
You carry everything you need. There is no water to provide buoyancy or a very nice bicycle to drape your limbs around. So that beautifully–sculpted upper body? Sorry, no real need.
Those ripped and bulging quads? Great for the hills and mountains, but over the flatter stuff? A bit excess to requirements. The bike-mounted bottles and food bags? Well, that lot will have to go round your waist or over your shoulders – ‘cos there’s also probably less aid stations than you’ll be used to.
One of the simplest ways to go faster in this game is to get less and get lighter – that’s you and your kit. Anything else is just excess baggage.
5. Buffed & Ripped
All of which means that unless you are Dean Karnazes – US ultra runner of note and someone who has probably done more than most to make trail ultra running cross over to mainstream – you are unlikely to be looking as much of a sex god as you did in your triathlon days. Your upper body will have withered, your quads will have deflated somewhat, your legs sprouted hairs, and your tan lines will be in different places. And your feet? Sorry, but they’ll be trashed, and you’ll view lost toenails as good news just because it’s less weight to carry around.
You can think of ultra running as a recipe for Repetitive Strain Injury writ large, which means that if you’ve only got one way of training – I’m just gonna run, dude – odds are you’re gonna break something. Especially if you’ve come from a multisport background, where it’s easier to balance the strains of training. You will find plenty of evidence – anecdotal and researched – about the running benefits accrued from cycling, for example. And the fact remains: Fitness is specific and if you want to get good at this ultra running lark you will need to run. So, if you ever figure out how to get the balance right, please let me know – ‘cos I’m still working on that one.
7. Know Your Place
You need to be able to navigate in an ultra and that’s more than just blindly following a GPS. Whole / part route reccies in advance of race day are invaluable. These days there is a whole host of virtual mapping options that mean you don’t even have to leave home to get a feel for a race route.
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. What it does mean is choosing to take responsibility for where you are and where you’re heading. Blatant drafting – tagging along with a group or another runner – without taking your turn with navigation is a sure-fire way of pissing people off and/or being on the receiving end of a deliberate dropping manouevre
which will leave you stuck.
8. 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 indicators 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.
It’s quieter. Less athletes per race, less spectators, no splashing of water, whirring of wheels or slap of feet on tarmac. Odds are that on quite a few occasions it will be just you, your surroundings, and whatever noise you bring along with you. And you can choose to either see that as a release and an opportunity, or as something else entirely…
10. Twists & Turns & Ups & Downs
Unless you’re planning to stay on the track or the tarmac your feet are set for a very different running experience. Gone will be the lovely smooth roads and predominantly flat courses and straight line requirement. Say hello to mud, dust, rocks, moorland, pasture and race routes which twist and turn and take you high and low in equal measure. If you are planning to go ultra and off-road your feet and ankles will need some help and some time to make a successful transition.
Your sense of anticipation, balance and coordination skills will also need sharpening up if you are to run easily and smoothly over rugged terrain that is constantly changing. It’s a world away from the heavy-legged first few miles, (or more) after 112 cycling miles where you’re just crashing your feet down onto the pavement. Y’all gotta dance over the rough stuff in this game…
11. Know Thyself
An ultra requires greater levels of self-awareness & 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 to make good on a big commitment. 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. Which means dusting off your goal-setting skills as well. Sorry.
12. 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 ramblers. 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.
13. 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 ironman preparation and racing is around splits and heart rate and mile markers and training zones and minute per mile pace. 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 manouevre just becomes good sense as well as helping you enjoy the journey.
Hitting absolute indictors time and time again can become a very stressful way to operate. Managing how you feel suddenly opens up a whole new world. ‘Cos we do this for free, right?
14. 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, but the probability remains: 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. Practice the art of self-reliance, dear reader.
15. I Gotta Go!
You need to be OK with a wide range of toilet skills and locations. OK, as a triathlete you should already have mastered the skill of peeing from a moving bike while maintaining good relations with your close, (and draft-legal) competitors.
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 a picture, I’m sure.
You should expect to have to go. Physical effort plus mental stress plus oft 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. Please.
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.
16. The Normal Rules Do Not Apply
Be prepared to experiment – the normal rules do not seem to apply over the big distances. Ever wonder why there is a stack of ‘How to train for ironman’ books, and relatively little choice for ultras? Because the curious among us are still figuring it out, and much of the research is still pretty inconclusive.
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.
17. 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 rare place and a pretty special bunch of people.
18. Ladies: This Sport Is For You!
Ladies get more cheers – because there are fewer of them in the races – and those that are present perform relatively better over ultra marathon distance, and get even better as the degree of difficulty and distance increases.
A higher proportion will finish – partly due, in my experience, to the fact that women do self-management much better and will not put themselves on a start line unless they are ready and healthy – and the gaps between the top men and top women in the sport are very small.
Women have won ultras outright. And while the ladies are getting ever closer in ironman – as witnessed by Chrissie Wellington’s demolition of ironman records and 2nd overall at IM Embrum that top spot on the podium continues to be elusive.
19. You Get More Money
No, really! The races cost less to enter, you only have one sport to kit out for, and you’ll never pay excess baggage for your bike at an airport ever again. How cool is that?!
20. Finish First
The proportion of finishers is small for an ultra race. Much smaller than ironman. 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.
About the writer: Andy had 17 fun years in triathlon signing off in 2003 by setting record stage times for the Enduroman Arch To Arc Challenge: A 300 mile solo triathlon linking London & Paris via an English Channel swim. He is author of three books including ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’.
He is a professional coach, trainer and award-winning speaker who now 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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