When am I ‘Ultra’?

Into the middle of March and the countdown is seriously on. Soon I will be within 3 months of race date (27th June) and, with each weekend long run that passes, I experience increasing excitement and trepidation in equal measure.

I didn’t really have these feelings in January or February; certainly not the trepidation part at any rate. I suppose this was mostly due to the fact that, as I was building up from a late summer/early autumn injury break, training didn’t feel that much different to any other January. Sure, I got out for more runs than I ever have in Winter, but that was more due to not allowing myself to wimp out of midweek runs using my all-too-easy “I’ve got marking to do,” excuse. But my long, weekend trail runs were only in the 11-13 mile range and, therefore, no longer than usual.

So I suppose the banner question “When am I ultra?” only entered my head in the February half-term, when I made my first visit to the local running shop to begin to purchase ultra kit. (The Endurance Store in Appley Bridge, Wigan since you ask. I have only been once but found their non-pushy, knowledgeable advice invaluable. My wife has since been in to pick me up some other goodies for my birthday and was of the same opinion.)

The ensuing financial hit ensured the race had my full attention! But I didn’t truly feel ultra yet.

The following Saturday had me thinking though. For the first time my planned long run included ‘proper’ ultra footwear (Hoka OneOnes), a ‘proper’ Ultra running backpack (Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest) and a 20+ mile route on which I planned to take food breaks to practice eating.

From the off, the run felt different. Firstly, because the shoes are amazing; a very different ride to any other trainer I have ever worn, but I can feel how they are going to help over longer distances on firmer trail surfaces. Secondly, because the weight of the pack immediately altered my slower, longer distance running style to what I imagined to be the classic ‘ultra-shuffle’! (Another fantastic bit of kit though – everything is so easily loaded and accessible.) Thirdly, because this was to be my longest run to date. At 20+ miles, the only time I had run further was for actual marathon race days.

But deep down I still didn’t feel ‘Ultra’. The distance point was pertinent, I felt. How can I be ultra at less than marathon distance?

So is this the point I become ultra? I have one more long run penciled in before our family ski holiday at Easter. I plan to get up to something close to marathon distance then. But I already suspect that, should I decide on the spur of the moment to run 26.3 miles, I still won’t feel ultra.

No, in my heart of hearts, I know when it will be. It will be race day. Or, to be more precise, it will be crossing the finish line on race day. (Or night!) I actually already know that I won’t feel truly ‘Ultra’ until I complete the race. And I do mean the complete race. (The Lakeland Trails Ultimate Trails 110k, that is.) For me, I would be so unsatisfied with myself at running 50 miles, for example, before dropping out, that even then I wouldn’t consider myself a proper ultra-runner. No, to be truly ‘Ultra’ I feel I need to target a race, train and prepare for a race, and then go out and perform in that race. And, crucially, finish it!

And that is where my March feelings of trepidation have come in. I have now completed two runs of (just) over 20 miles and successfully carried and consumed food and drink en-route without throwing-up (or worse). I have been reasonably comfortable on both runs. However, once my subconscious little back-patting, self congratulatory post-run phase fades away, I am left with a little devil in the back of my mind. And that little devil keeps whispering “20 miles? You do know that’s less than a third of the race distance don’t you?! You do know that will just about get you to the breakfast pit stop on race day, and you’ll be running ’til tea-time, (or supper time) don’t you?!”

So ask me if I am ‘Ultra’ on Sunday 28th June, and I’ll tell you. If you can wake me up.

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