Endless training, mental determination, ragged kit and even the possibility of trench foot are all elements you need to embrace if you want to go ultra
For many in the running world, ultramarathons hold the same position as an Iron Man for triathletes or a multi-stage cyclosportive for cyclists. While you may know someone who’s completed one, it still sits at the hardcore end of your chosen sport. For a run to be classed as ‘ultra’ it simply has to go beyond the traditional marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards. Yet despite the extreme nature of ultras, popularity is booming.
They happen all over the world, in all environments and terrains and over all sorts of distances. From the Marathon des Sables, the equivalent of six regular marathons in the Sahara Desert, to the Yukon Arctic Ultra, 430 miles at the other end of the thermometer, to some races that are a comparatively “short” at 50K.
For some runners they are an obvious next step after completing a few ‘vanilla’ marathons. A quarter of those tackling their first ultra event have less than three years of regular running behind them (and that level of experience before a first ultra is on the decrease). We spoke to those who’ve gone before and beyond to show you what it takes – and takes out of you – to complete an ultra.
Gen’ up not just on the route but the reputation of the race, too – especially when you’re taking on challenging conditions. “The Spine Race (a 268-mile, non-stop race along the Pennine Way in January) takes place in winter, so most of it is spent in the dark, with floods, ice, snow and absurdly strong winds,” says GB ultrarunner, inov-8 ambassador and two- time Spine finisher Damian Hall (@damo_hall).
It’s a race where water bottles and hydration bladder hoses can freeze up and potentially fatal hypothermia isn’t uncommon. “Some ‘Spiners’ have discovered trench foot isn’t just something that happened in France during World War I,” he adds. But the Spine Race is an extreme example.
When it comes to ultras, walking really isn’t cheating. “Practise power walks,” says GB ultrarunner (yes, runner) and coach Marcus Scotney. “You don’t run the whole of an ultra, so you need to train the body to get used to being on its feet for longer. The best way to do this, rather than longer and longer runs, is to go out for long days walking, getting used to ascending hills.”
“Positive self-talk is the language of the ultrarunner,” says William Sichel, British and Scottish international ultramarathon athlete, Buff ambassador and master of upbeat bantz. “Be aware of how you are talking to yourself and be sure to focus on constructive and positive self-talk – congratulate yourself and remember
you are doing what only a tiny percentage of people can do!”
“Ultras give you a sense of exhaustion and satisfaction that, in my opinion, can’t be achieved over shorter distances,” says Rob Forbes, winner of the Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones 100K ultra in 2016. “Not only do they take you to your mental and physical limits, but you share the experience with all the other runners. The camaraderie is second to none. The highs and lows are unforgettable and the scenery is, generally speaking, stunning.”
“Science tells us that ultrarunning is a balance between the physical and mental aspects,” says Dr Andrew Murray, GP and elite endurance athlete sponsored by Merrell. “Physically, make sure you do the training, eat well and sleep well. Mentally, have a clear focus, and look positively at any situation. Breaking a race into small, easy-to comprehend chunks can also be very helpful.
“In a multi-stage race, an ultrarunner knows the need to treat feet like royalty,” adds Hall. “I always prioritise a comfortable shoe above things like grip and cushioning – they’re secondary. Your feet can swell, so have a pair slightly larger in your drop bag. Change socks at the end of every stage if possible, air your pinkies, elevate feet when you sleep.
“You need loads more calories during an ultra, so you need to eat real food and food you enjoy eating for many hours,” says Scotney. “I would never recommend running an ultramarathon on just gels. Carry a sandwich (or even a slice of pizza) and, ideally, pack more savoury foods rather than just sweet food. It’s also vitally important you have tested the food out in training.”
“Both marathons and ultramarathons require a lot of mental stamina, but in an ultra you may have to deal with sleep deprivation and sometimes complete physical fatigue,” warns Scotney. “You have to have the right positive mental attitude when your legs are feeling completely wiped out.
Most ultras are off-road and the scenery is stunning, so use the location to help with the mental stamina required. Soak in the scenery and views and remember just how far you’ve come.”
“One of the main differences compared to marathon running is the importance of self-restraint,” says William Sichel. “Practise patience – the ability to allow the distance to come to you is key to successfully completing an ultra. It’s more about keeping going to the finish than performance.
Over-ambition can be disastrous in ultras. Approach the race with humility and respect – your run will be better and much more enjoyable with that approach.”
“Ultras are hard on the mind and the body. This is where cross-training comes into its own,” Sichel recommends. “Incorporate a basic strength routine into your weekly programme and focus on areas that you know need attention. Doing an ultra can hurt at times, but what you don’t want to do is break down with an over-use injury during the race.”
“Doing mountain marathons rather than ultramarathons is great training for races like the Spine – as is going out all night, navigating somewhere unfamiliar, in foul weather. That’ll serve you better than putting in 80-mile training weeks.”
“Remember that the longer the race, the slower your average pace will be,” says Sichel. “You are on ‘slow burn’ in an ultra, so just think of it as drip-feeding as you go along – little and often. Your stomach will also thank you as the walk breaks allow a little blood flow to return to the stomach to continue the digestive process.”
“Recovery is longer after an ultra and it can take a while to get back up to normal training load, so don’t rush back to running too quickly,” says Scotney. “Appetite can also be a lot bigger post ultra, so make sure the fridge is well stocked! If anything, it’s a good excuse to indulge and eat shed loads of food!”