Under Starters Orders – Tips of the Ultra Trade!

As an end to lockdown restrictions edges ever temptingly closer, there is a palpable sense in the running community of athletes of all ages and abilities adjusting their training schedules or running routines in order to align them with when that dream, long-awaited, first comeback race might actually take place.

For a huge majority of runners, they were entered into races for 2020 and so are hastily re-arranging diaries to plot the amended date into 2021 – often at a completely different time of the year to when the event normally takes place – and trying to piece together the date clashes or upside-down race schedule they now face. A popular training method is to enter ‘build-up’ races to help with preparation for the ‘A’ race. Many of my marathon running friends in particular now face a problem, as that half-marathon they entered to build up to London, Manchester or wherever, is now in the calendar for just the week before or, even more annoyingly, the week after, their newly arranged big race date!

Still, I don’t think most runners will complain too much and will just be pleased to be out there racing again – perhaps just one of many day-to-day aspects of our previous lives that we will never take for granted again.

My last race: The National Cross-Country Championships at Wollerton Park, Nottingham, Saturday 22nd February 2020 – moist.

The genesis of this article was originally the lessons learned from completing Lakeland 100 in 2019 after DNFing in 2018. I never got round to that piece of writing (surprise surprise!) but many of the points are things that I will do well to remember and consider as I go back to racing. I bet most of us have forgotten about some of the things we used to do as second nature when we were running several races a year – so I have added some other basic things that I need to bear in mind if, as I hope, it transpires that the Lakeland Trails 100k turns out to be my first race in 17 months and my first ultra in two years, this July.

There may also be one or two readers who have taken the plunge and entered their first ever ultra race either last year (and it got cancelled) or this year, as lockdown running has seen them gain strength, confidence or inspiration in all that spare time we had.

In writing the list below I am talking explicitly about ultra running and ultra races, although many of the points can be transferable to other types of endurance event or even shorter races. Ultimately, they are all about preparation, mindset and race execution.

It also needs pointing out loud and clear at this point that I AM NOT A COACH. OR A PHYSIO. OR A PSYCHOLOGIST! The points below are simply my opinions and as such you are welcome to:

  • wholeheartedly agree and recognise them as part of your own routine,
  • pick up a useful idea to try and implement yourself,

Or, and this is easily the most likely outcome:

  • comprehensively disagree with it and continue to do it your way!

Understood? Right, let’s dive in then!

1 – Kit

This could be an article in itself, so I will keep this brief and to the point.

1.1 – Don’t wear new kit on race day: Whether it is your first ultra or your 50th, it is never wise to start a race either wearing or using any piece of kit that you haven’t comprehensively tried and tested in training. Once the race starts, it is too late to do anything about that pack which bounces around on your back like a rodeo cowboy, a water bottle that leaks, the waterproof jacket which is so unbreathable you could have used a bin liner and stayed drier, underwear which is treating your delicate areas in the same way that sandpaper treats wood, or sock seam which feels like it’s burying itself deep into your big toe. Take time selecting your kit pre-purchase, try it out on training runs, adapt kit for different races and make sure it is fit for purpose.

Top: my Ultimate Direction Adventure vest, 2015 edition. Still in full working order but now creaking at every joint so, before in-race malfunction disaster strikes, replaced this week by it’s 2021 update. A thing of beauty, despite my irritation at there only being one dedicated bottle holder.

Before my first ever ultra in 2015, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend at the Conti Lightning Run with endurance athlete coach and mega-experienced ultra runner Euan McGrath (check him out at madonadventure.com or @madonadventure on Twitter) who gave me three invaluable bits of kit advice that I still stick to religiously today:

1.2 – Never buy waterproof trail shoes: This does not apply if you are doing some insane multi-day race like The Spine – there are brilliant walking style, ankle high, waterproof running ‘boots’ available these days. But, if we are talking a regular, single day ultra event, you are better off with light, breathable shoes that will let water OUT quickly and easily. If conditions are so bad that you are considering waterproof trainers then water is definitely going to get in over the top of them anyway and then all waterproofing does is keep the water IN! I’m not even going to discuss waterproof socks!

1.3 – Use water bottles, not a bladder: Again, personal preference but, as I am going to refer to later, I am a renown checkpoint ‘faffer’ who needs to cut down on time. If you use bottles they are generally positioned in easily reachable places – no need to take off your race vest (or ask for help!) to fill a bottle. Also, you know exactly how much liquid you have consumed from bottles and, therefore, know whether they even need refilling at all as you approach the CP. Finally, bottles tend not to be positioned in the middle of your back warming up to cup of tea temperatures as you run. I’m sure bladders have got more scientific these days so these issues may no longer be relevant but I want to cut down on ‘faff’ time, not increase it.

1.4 – find the right shoes for the race: When it comes to road shoes, I have worn just about every brand going and generally will rotate a couple of different pairs at any given time. I do have different trail shoes for different conditions too but, when it comes to ultras, I am a fully fledged Hoka Fanboy! In the interests of impartiality, I have to tell you that Euan is a UK Hoka Ambassador! I still remember him saying to me, “Mark, ultras really hurt your legs. So why wouldn’t you put something on your feet that will stop them hurting quite so much?!”

I have done most ultras I have ever raced in Hoka Mafates and would heartily recommend them to anyone, especially now they have improved the tread to be more aggressive on wet rock and slippery, technical ground. Last year, in the baking hot lockdown, I discovered Hoka Speedgoats – quite simply the most luxurious, comfortable trail shoe I have ever known (I’ve owned less comfortable slippers) and I will now wear them for any ultra possible going forward. I say possible because, if I was in the Lakes/Snowdonia etc and the forecast was dire or conditions underfoot awful, I might still revert back to the Mafates for their additional firmness underfoot and general sturdiness. But that would come at a cost to comfort. I would never wear road shoes personally unless on an absolutely flat trail; for me they don’t offer enough protection on rough, rocky surfaces. But there are certain ultras where you could certainly get away with it.

In summary, my general shoe advice (unless you are one of the mega fast folks at the front) would be to use the most comfortable shoe you can possibly get away with given the course profile and weather/underfoot conditions on race day. Your feet and legs will thank you!

2 – Training

Please remember I am not a coach! This is stuff that works for me but I am constantly adapting and amending depending on my fitness, weakest area to be developed etc. Hopefully you might find one or two of them useful, but take them as hints and reminders to think about – if you want proper coaching advice, get a coach!!!

2.1 – Minimum kit requirements: So, you have bought the kit, now you are into the training and are testing out bits of kit while actually running. Remember, you don’t have to use all the kit all the time, but it is important to practice carrying it all at least once beforehand. It is incredible how that comfy bag doesn’t feel as comfy anymore with a spare bottle and vaseline tub digging into your back! Every race varies in terms of minimum kit requirements and it is incredible how difficult it can all be to carry. Do remember though, most of it is for your safety so, if you are heading off to a remote area or to recce the race route, that is an ideal time to practice carrying the full lot.

It goes without saying that if your minimum kit doesn’t even fit in your pack then you either have the wrong kit or your pack is too small! (Ultra running backpacks are called vests but that always confuses me – actual running vests are called singlets apparently – is it just me or does that blow your mind a little bit?!)

2.2 – Time on feet beats miles covered (or pace): Most people step up to ultras having done a marathon of some description, be it road or trail. An example of the type of question I see crop up all the time is, ‘How many extra miles a week training do I need to add to my marathon training plan for a [50] mile ultra?’ In reality the answer to that question is ‘None!’ If you have completed a marathon then you can complete an ultra, you just need to slow down a bit more and keep going a bit longer! But, obviously, the more training you can do, the easier that ultra will become.

I think/find that ‘Time On Feet’ becomes the over-riding priority when ultra training. Read any interview with the top ultra/mountain girls and boys out there and just about all of them will say that hiking plays a major part in their preparation. This gives you time on feet climbing and descending with the minimum of muscle damage. And, let’s face it, most of us are going to spend a decent amount of time in an ultra walking. (If that sentence comes as a shock to you, see 4.4 in the race section below!)

So, try and switch the emphasis of your long run from distance covered to time out on the trail (not as easy as it sounds!). If you can spare the time to really slow down the pace of your long run but spend three, four or five hours out doing 15 to 20 miles then that is more beneficial than knocking out 16 miles in two hours – using the time theory, 20 miles in four hours is twice as good a training run as 16 miles in two hours. You are doing less damage to your legs, thus helping the training for the next week, and you are just getting your body used to receiving that message that ‘We are going to be doing this for a long time – get used to it!’

When I first started ultra training, I used to aim to wring every last bit of energy out of my body on every long Saturday training run! There were loads of Saturday mornings where I would completely bonk in the last couple of miles and Leanne would have to rescue me at the doorstep with sweet tea and chocolate while I shivered like a loon! Now, my very specific aim is to get back from those long Saturday runs feeling like I could simply go round again if Leanne told me to. This means I am not adversely affecting the next week’s training and, equally importantly, I am pacing myself well – because in the actual race I really will have to go round again!

You may well want to try and go ‘ultra’ distance before your race, but think very carefully about whether this is going to do more harm than good – the harder your training run is, the more difficult it is to recover from and this therefore impacts your training the week or two after. All these points will be different based on your average pace to start off with, the weekly distance you are used to running, your ultra running experience and your fitness at the time. So remember, it is not one rule for all – what works for me may well be an awful strategy for you!

2.3 – Mix it up! In simple terms, try and make a couple of your short, mid-week runs faster. This makes your slow, long run pace feel easier. You can do this as scientifically or as unscientifically as you want: interval training, hill sprint sessions, high intensity workouts etc are all useful but, in it’s most simple form – run a short distance as fast as you can (or at a pace which makes breathing uncomfortable) and it is amazing how that ‘ultra pace’ suddenly feels easier.

The Endurance Podcast did a great show about 80/20 training recently ( https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-endurance-podcast/id1472371032 ) and it is well worth a listen for really useful nuggets of advice. I sort of stumbled on something similar during lockdown. I’m not scientific, but I try to make Tuesdays and Thursdays harder work and have then also increased my weekly mileage by making all my other runs much slower than I ever used to run. Personally, I find it really hard to run slow. I don’t mean to sound smug there, pace is all relative to the person, what I mean is, I have to concentrate to be deliberately slow – my natural style is to progressively increase pace in a run as I feel more comfortable. I have to focus on the process: if I run this slow today I will do better in my interval training tomorrow.

2.4 – Refuelling practise: The big difference between an ultra and shorter races is the need to refuel. You simply will not get through an ultra just by drinking and using gels or food substitutes – or at least you won’t get through it and feel very well! Before I took up ultra running, I was one of those runners who could not eat a thing for at least two hours before a run or I would suffer terrible stitches. The very first thing I started doing when I entered my first ultra was to break my long run up into 10k sections so, every six miles or so, I would make myself stop, sit down and get out some ‘food’ and eat it and not set off for 5 minutes. Call it ‘Checkpoint Simulation’ if you like! At first, it was malt loaf or nothing, then I tried multigrain bars, and after a while I was more and more used to it. This also helps you to slow down your run as you have to go slow when you have just force fed yourself some food you didn’t want! These days I’m pretty good at eating but it is absolutely something you need to practise whether you like it or not (and most don’t!) or else you will just suffer on race day instead (and most do)!

2.5 – Keeping hydrated: The same as above, but swap the word food for liquid! You don’t need to drink loads before a long run, that is also a bit of a myth – and can actually be quite dangerous. But, as with food, drinking little and often is the best policy and needs to be practised on training runs. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty – it’s already too late by then. I started off with Lucozade Sport which worked well for runs from home – I’d fill my running bottles with it and then carry a spare bottle in the bag. But this is no good really as, in reality, your ultra race won’t supply Lucozade Sport and you certainly can’t carry a race worth of it on the big day! For the record, I now use High5 Zero electrolyte tablets in water. The taste is OK rather than great but I know it is doing me more good than just water (which can taste worse from some CPs!) and the tablets themselves are easy to carry on race day and drop into your bottles as you fill them.

2.6 – Replicate the course profile in long training runs: This is almost entirely dependent on a) the race you have entered and b) where you live! Most of my ultra races are in the Lake District because that is where I love to visit and run. So, as I build towards any ultra race, I start to think less about distance (see 2.2 again) and more about elevation gain. In other words – I am not bothered about the pace I’m running, but I am going to make most of those long runs as hilly as I can physically make them. Sometimes I get fixated on this to the point that I will sacrifice a nice, 20 mile loop of the local hills, which might include four hill climbs, and literally do five repeat climbs of the same hill because I can achieve double the elevation in perhaps 15 miles. If I want to do an ultra race in the lakes, my legs have to be ready for the climbing involved BUT ALSO THE DESCENDING. Everyone forgets about descending because it is aerobically so much easier than climbing. But it is the descending that does the damage to your legs. All that impact as you kamikaze your way down the trails is what ultimately batters muscles and joints and renders you immobile later in the race. So by hill training you are preparing your legs for just that – hills.

Unfortunately, this is no good if you live in Norfolk or are generally unlucky enough to live anywhere flat. (Being in flat places gives me panic attacks; I literally struggle to cope with nothing in the background to frame the foreground!) In that case, I have read of people being really creative by using pedestrian road bridges and such-like and hammering out massive reps of them, for example. At the end of the day, you can only work with what you have available to you, but try your best to prepare for your race by replicating the topography of the course. (Conversely, if you have entered the Canalathon you need to hit the flat stuff!!!)

Practise for hills by running up hills! Ingleborough, on the GB Ultras Pennine Barrier, 2017. (Photo by Adam Gallimore.)

2.7 – Using races to get ready for your race: During an interview recently for my brother’s podcast ‘Everyday Runner’ (did I mention he has a podcast?! Check it out here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/everyday-runner/id1541887214 ) Dougie asked me a very interesting question. In 2019, I ran the Lakeland Trails 100k in preparation for the Lakeland 100. There was only four weeks between the two and, as I had been injured all year and didn’t want to overdo it, I pre-planned to deliberately drop out after approximately 35 miles at Glenridding. Obviously plan A, when I entered the races, was to be mega-fit and complete the LT100k as my last long run before a full-on taper. By the time the LT100k came around, however, I knew it was basically suicide to try and run the whole thing – my calf would not have lasted. So, Dougie asked, wouldn’t I have been better off just doing a training run from my house instead? I think, during the interview I told him that, as a tight Yorkshireman, I’d paid £125 to enter so was just going to eat £125 worth of checkpoint food!

But the actual point of practise races is this: it is much easier to get up from your own bed, get dressed when you want, prepare at your leisure, rendezvous with your own toilet before departure, (I haven’t even bothered putting bowels/your digestive system on the full training list – you all just know the toilet bit is crucial to any sort of running, right?) and then set off on your own comfortable local route whenever you are good and ready.

The sad reality is – races are nothing like that! If you want to be truly prepared for your ‘A’ race, then you have to practise the real race ‘discomforts’ which are the gritty, un-romantic, sad realities of running in a race in the countryside which we all wipe from our minds to just remember all the nice bits! Running in a ‘B’ race (or whatever you want to call it) allows you to practise all the little things which lead to success on the big ‘A’ race day:

  • commuting to the race venue, be it car, train, bus etc.
  • remembering to take all your kit with you (we have all left a vital bit of kit at home at least once, right?!),
  • parking,
  • registering in good time,
  • passing kit check,
  • resting before the race,
  • pre-race food and drink,
  • the pre-race toilet queue! (Urgh – warm seat, the smell – especially portaloos, no loo roll [always take your own], people outside listening to you ‘in action’, you’ve waited ages in the queue then you can’t ‘do the business’, the uncomfortable momentary eye contact with the next person in the queue as you leave! I could write an entire article just on this!!!)
  • carrying all that minimum kit that you don’t want to carry,
  • headtorches and spare batteries,
  • navigation on unfamiliar terrain,
  • checkpoint strategy,
  • unforeseen weather,
  • getting through the low points (and trust me, there will be low points),
  • controlling pace.

I could go on forever! Even the bits after the race like not being able to get straight in the bath or shower, refuelling, functioning to any human level in terms of just physically being able to even get back to your car/tent are things you need to experience before you ‘experience’ it in your ‘A’ race.

Select your ‘B’ race carefully: it shouldn’t destroy your training schedule or the negatives outweigh the benefits. Try to find one that starts at a similar time of day, maybe a similar distance from home if not the same area. Try as hard as you can not to get too carried away and flog yourself – think of the long training plan to the ‘A’ race.

I could go on about this for a long time but, to answer Dougie’s original question – no, I wouldn’t have been better off running at home instead. (Aside from being £125 better off if I hadn’t entered LT100k in the first place!) It was a very good question though!

2.8 Reccying the course: I didn’t used to like doing this as I felt it spoiled the magic of the event if you’d seen all the scenery before. I still agree with this to a large extent. But if the race is at the fine edge of your capabilities, it pays to know as much about the route as possible. So that is my current system; if I want to enjoy the race and be ‘surprised’ by the scenery, and if I know I am going to be able to finish comfortably enough without reccying the course, I’ll leave it for race day. If I am nervous about navigation or worried about completing the race and need to avoid any mistakes, I’ll recce some or all of the route beforehand.

2.9 – The Taper: This is definitely an area which all runners heartily disagree on! I know loads of runners who, in my opinion, run loads too much immediately before a race. There are many stories about how people can blow their big City marathon before they even start the race by spending the entire day before on their feet at the Expo, or sightseeing etc when, really, the best thing you could do is sit on your bed all day. Never mind the people who actually go for a run the day before!

Now, it is crucial at this point to highlight the distinction between a road racing and ultras at this point. If you are a decent road runner then there is absolutely a need to ‘stay sharp’ right up to the race. Blimey, even warm-ups for road racing can/should involve getting your heart rate up to speed before the gun. For the majority of road runners in the majority of road races, you need/want to be at race pace from the very start, so anything you can do to tune your body for the start line is crucial, including knocking off the miles immediately before the race, because you want to optimise every minute of the race itself.

Ultras are nothing like this!

For me, ultra running is all about energy conservation before – and during – the race. This is completely the opposite to any other shorter type of race. You need to store away as much energy for the latter stages of the race as possible. So – in my opinion – the best thing you can do in terms of running the week before your race is absolutely bugger all!!! A couple of token gesture 4/5 mile trots, at most.

If you are stood on the start line of your ultra feeling lethargic and sluggish – GOOD! You are less likely to run the first stage of the race like a crazed maniac and do a 10k PB!

If it is 14/15 miles before you start to think ‘Oh, my legs are coming back to me here. I feel decent.’ GOOD. You will be trundling along nicely after 30 miles / 6 hours just as the wheels start to come off for everyone else.

I’ve said this before too, but the single biggest factor to me finishing the LL100 second time around was Leanne pretty much letting me sit on my bum for the entire week before the race eating, sleeping and resting. I was so chilled out by the start that it took me three stages to get going, but it was worth it at the end when I finished the race more strongly than I have done for practically any other ultra.

REST BEFORE YOU RACE! Any miles you do in the last week are not helping you get fitter, you are already fit (hopefully!). All you are doing in the last week is burning unnecessary energy. Save it!

3 – Pre-Race/Race Day

This part needs to be planned as carefully as the training and the race itself, because it is here that you will be burning actual race energy by doing anything that involves rushing about or getting stressed. All the points below are adjustable depending on the length of journey to the race and, more importantly, the time the race starts. There is a massive difference in preparation for an early morning start and an evening/night start, for example.

3.1 – Travelling to the race venue: Know the route/directions, give yourself absolutely masses of spare time, check the traffic news in the hours before you leave. Sounds simple, but we have all got ourselves in that traffic jam or road closure on the way to a race and started panicking about missing the start – even at 4am! Getting lost on route, parking etc can all start you off in the wrong mental state of mind before you even get out of the car. Stress is race energy used. Personally, I have always liked to get to any race hours before the start; it’s just one less thing to worry about.

3.2 – The mandatory kit check: This is a cracking hint or tip! If you take one thing from this blog, take this – it used to annoy me every race!!! I used to carefully pack my mandatory kit into my race bag/pack/vest (whatever!) a couple of days before, just so I didn’t forget anything. I would then present my beautifully packed race vest to the kit check volunteer at registration. That volunteer would then (rightly, I might add!) empty the entire contents onto a table to tick off their list!

Could I EVER get the kit back into the bag just as I had previously packed it after this?! Hell, no!!!

Soooooooooo…… here’s what all the clever runners do: don’t even pack your bag, get a large tupperware box (or similar) and put everything for the kit check in it loose – including your race ‘vest’ – and don’t even bother packing it until after the kit check person has ticked it all off! Easy or what??!!

(nb – this does come with the obvious proviso from 2.1 above, that you need to have made sure you can actually fit all the mandatory kit into said race vest!)

3.3 – Pre-race fuelling: I’m talking about the exact food and fluid you are putting into your body in the hours immediately before the race. It goes without saying that whatever you are putting into your body at this point has got to come out one way or another during the race! So don’t put anything into your body that will come out too easily – or that might not come out at all! Again, refer to 2.5 above, be careful not to over-hydrate before a race – it doesn’t do any good and might do harm. Alternatively, don’t sit in the sun all day baking and sweating out fluids! (I have seen this on plenty of occasions – sun bathing runners at midday end up barfing their guts up in the hills at midnight!)

3.4 – Relax: Easier said than done. Ultra race HQs are great places to be. Lots of adrenaline and pre-race buzz, campsite atmosphere, old friends to catch-up with – I love it! I ensure I build in some time for that bit of socialising, probably while registering and getting kit checked, grabbing a coffee etc. but then I deliberately shut myself away from it in the hours before the race. Like the big City marathon race Expo, it is just burning energy you need to save for the race. Now I try to take myself away from everyone (even family) and rest/lie down/sleep as much as possible. As you all know, sleep-dep is my kryptonite, so any extra kip I can get in right before the race is going to be invaluable for me. It also helps relieve nervous tension – another secret, hidden race-energy burner.

The Race!

Congratulations! You made it to the start line! I bet you didn’t realise it was that complicated, did you?! My apologies – I am probably making it sound more complicated than it actually is! Now all you have to do is finish the race! Easy….

4.1 – Aim for the next checkpoint: The big difference between an ultra and any other race is the number of people who DNF (did not finish). It’s not rocket science – ultras last a lot longer than any race you have ever done and actual checkpoints, unlike a water station in a marathon, are places to fully stop, sit down and, therefore, give you time to think about whether you want to carry on or not! It can be utterly overwhelming feeling shattered and realising that you still have 30+ miles to go. No sane person would carry on in that situation – and you certainly won’t find many sane people participating in ultras! So most runners first rule of ultra running is:

‘Just get to the next checkpoint.’

Think of each stage as a little race within the race, don’t even think about the whole thing, just think about getting to the next checkpoint. Anyone who successfully achieves this mindset WILL finish their ultra – honestly!

4.2 – It really is mind over matter: I’ve mentioned it before, there comes a point in every race where you are starting to suffer. No matter how fit, planned and prepared you are, you will have a moment, probably just before/after half-way when the reality of how far is left hits you and you think, ‘What the **** am I doing this for?!’ The quicker you get through that, the more likely you are to finish. And it is amazing how much of it is mind over matter.

Getting a positive mindset or mantra is crucial. It could be as simple as deciding you are going to slow down and start enjoying the views for a bit, it could be taking some extra fuel on board (this is vital – see 4.6 below), it could be singing a song to yourself or chatting to a fellow runner. You absolutely need to break the remaining race into smaller, less intimidating, bite size chunks and not think of the whole thing (see 4.1 above). The crucial thing is to try to relax, not panic, and not get into a total negative funk – they are very hard to dig yourself out from. It is useful to know – hence me writing it here – that this happens to all runners of all speeds and levels of experience. And they will all tell you that it is entirely possible/likely that you will feel on top of the world half an hour later! (See 4.6 below for another nugget of advice.)

Your mindset will have a much bigger influence on your race than your physical fitness. Try to control it and use it to your advantage. I can tell you now, getting on a positive roll in an ultra is the best feeling I have ever had in running.

4.3 – Heartrate, breathing, effort level / try to be patient: I’ve mentioned it many times before but, for me, my way of not getting too excited at the start and setting off too fast is to work on the physical feeling of my effort. If my breathing is anything above normal breathing, I am going too fast so I slow down. Some people work scientifically to their actual heart rate; I don’t want to spend my race looking at data, I try to be in the moment and enjoy what’s around me. But I try to remain very conscious of not working too hard, especially in the early stages. I am forever explaining to my road running mates that if I can set off on an ultra at around 11/12 minute mile effort (not actual pace – the hills might dictate I can’t stick to pace) there is a decent chance I will be able to maintain that for the entire ultra – I’ve done it for 50 milers and even did it for most of the Robin Hood 100 miler as well. But if I set off at 8 minute mile effort this becomes useless when I have to walk the last 15 miles and take 20 minutes a mile. Try to be patient – ultras are the very definition of playing the long game.

4.4 – Get over yourself and walk!!!: This is massive for a decent road runner who is new to ultra running! The thought of having to walk in a marathon, for example, is the absolute definition of a race disaster for those of us who consider ourselves runners. I can still remember the first times I ever had to walk in races:

  • The Chester Marathon of 2015 for me when I was chasing sub 3.15 good for age and I absolutely blew up with about five miles to go. I probably only walked half a mile while I pulled myself together but I remember feeling utterly humiliated.
  • I remember once setting off miles too fast in the Lakeland Trails Staveley race (only 15k!) on an incineratingly hot summer day and totally underestimating the number of false summits on the second climb as you turn back towards home, (right where the official race photographer sits!). My legs went as quickly as my head went while I sullenly frog marched the last bit of hill!

On the flip side of this, the moment I realised that, in an ultra, if I route-marched up the hills it would actually only take a minute or two longer than running it, but I would feel miles better at the top and would be able to recover and run much better for the rest of the race, was a truly enlightening moment!

For some people, this requires a bit of swallowing of pride! Inevitably people will overtake you running while you walk and it can be very tempting to go after them. I try to console myself with the thought of ‘I’ll see you in 30 miles, pal!’ and leave them to it.

The same can be said for descending. I am, by nature, not a great descender, so I tend to be more cautious anyway. But try not to absolutely smash your legs to pieces on the downhill. It can be extremely satisfying at the time but will – I repeat will – come back to haunt you later on.

4.5 – Keeping yourself hydrated/fuelled: Little and often is the mantra you will hear from just about everyone – mostly because it is right! I have covered it a bit in 2.4 and 2.5 above so I won’t go over that again. But, in terms of the race, a couple of things to think about:

  • Know what will be available at the checkpoints. I mentioned it with Lucozade earlier – there is no point training with it if you aren’t going to be able to use it in the race. This is also crucial if you have a dietary requirement, for example, or are just a picky eater! I am none of these so I don’t have a problem but, if you do, be prepared. Also, there is nothing more soul destroying than spending an exhausted six miles dreaming of soup at the next CP, then getting there and discovering it is a small, cold drinks only CP! I remember one race organiser promising pizza at a certain CP which then ran out when they underestimated the amount they needed! The runner fury was a sight to behold!!! But it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been promised in the first place!
  • Make yourself drink between checkpoints. I use two water bottles and will try, within reason, to fully drink at least one bottle on every stage of the race. I’ll make sure to just drink from one bottle at a time, then I only have to ‘faff’ re-filling one bottle at the CP. I generally find that I have to force myself to drink one bottle for the first three stages of an ultra but, after that, I will drink both of them in every stage and sometimes have to glug loads in the CP as well!
  • Keep your own race ‘treats’ in easily accessible pockets. It is often quite hard to know what will take your fancy until you are there. Sometimes I really want savoury stuff all the time; other races it might be sweets. But have them in an accessible pocket as this will help you to snack little and often. Think of sweets (or whatever) as a treat you are going to give yourself at a certain point: eg. the top of the hill, the next drystone wall, each stile – this helps to break the race up. But these little snacks are also playing a vital role – they are probably providing just enough energy to keep you topped up between CPs so you don’t hit a slump.
  • Know what you are putting in your body. I have only recently discovered salt tablets for myself. I use them more sparingly than the bottle tells me but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that I haven’t suffered leg cramps since. I only use them on really long hill days and races, not ‘regular’ training runs. But just be aware of what you are doing and test out these ‘supplement’ things like salt or hydration tablets before the race.
  • Have a rough plan of what you will eat, where and when. If the race is long enough to require significant food intake, make sure you know which CPs are serving more substantial things and be sure to try and eat it there even if you don’t feel like it at the time. You will regret it if, at the next couple of CPs, there are only basic provisions and you suddenly really fancy the stew which was only available at the last CP!

4.6 – If you are having a bad spell, food is nearly always the cure! This is really important to try and keep in mind! Really it links to the above list but is so vital that it demands its own point! Most in-race slumps are caused by low energy. Slowing down, not panicking and getting some food inside you will nearly always have a transformative effect!

4.7 – Dealing with chafing, blisters etc: I really struggle with this one! The absolute no1 sensible thing to do is to stop and deal with any rubbing etc as soon as you start to feel it. That way you nip it in the bud before it becomes a major problem. This is just so much easier said than done when you are in a race and just want to get cracking! But try, try, try to sort it immediately – whichever body part it is will thank you later!

In Lakeland Trails 2016 UT110k race, on an absolutely foul, wet Lakes day, I knew my pack/bag/vest (whatever!) was rubbing on my back through the wet layers and waterproofs. There was no way I was going to take off all that soaking stuff and then put it all back on again, so I just resolved to deal with the pain and sort it at the finish. Unfortunately, at the finish, my skin had been rubbed right off my back and my soaked base layer had stuck to it, meaning that I had to pretty much peel off the skin with the t-shirt! That was a surprise! It was, and remains, the only time I have ever had to visit the medical tent after a race!

“Nah, leave it. I’ll sort it after the race!”

4.8 – Checkpoint time: Another Achilles heel of mine, and an area that I am going to really focus on in my upcoming races. Obviously, when you stop at a checkpoint (or anywhere else) the race clock is ticking, so time spent in CPs is race time wasted. As all the points above prove, CPs are important and using them is crucial to finishing. BUT (in capitals for my benefit, not necessarily yours!) that doesn’t mean you have to use each CP as a full restaurant experience!!!

Dib in, fill your bottles, grab some food to eat on the move and get out!!! (Again, note to self!)

As stated in 4.5, if you know you will need to eat something more substantial to get through the race, try and pre-plan where that longer stop will be to help you focus on not dwelling at the other CPs. You don’t have to stick to this plan religiously if things are not going to that plan, but at least have the idea!

CPs are lovely places filled with lovely people who are kind and lovely and will do lovely things for you! This makes them INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS PLACES! Don’t hang around or you will never leave! Before you know it you are sat in the broomwagon looking forward to bed wondering where it all went wrong!

Get out of the chair! Repeat, get out of the chair! My 2018 LL100 attempt begins to unravel in the CP at Dalemain. It didn’t end there, but it did a couple of CPs later.

4.9 Befriending other runners: If you have read my blogs before then you definitely know what is coming here!

Some people thrive on the social aspect of ultra running. I genuinely think ultra races contain the absolute best people in society and you will struggle to meet a bad person among them. I know many people who only enter ultras for the camaraderie and to meet up with either old friends or specifically to meet new ones. THIS IS FINE! I am not criticising this at all. But, in the race, it is vital that you fully comprehend what you are getting yourself into once you agree to ‘run together’ – whether that be pre-arranged before the race or whether it happens organically within the race.

Pairing up is absolutely fine if you are equally paced and/or have the same goals in mind. It is also hugely rewarding to help someone else achieve a goal they didn’t think they were capable of, or to be assisted by someone else at the point you personally think all is lost.

You will, inevitably, go through a wave of emotions during a race. If you are with someone, you are going to take it out on them, simply because you are exhausted they are the one who is there with you! It can be massively frustrating whichever side of the performance fence you are on at that point:

  • If you are the person who feels great while your partner is suffering, I guarantee there will be a point where you think ‘I need to get cracking here or neither of us are going to finish’. (And you would probably be right to think it.)
  • If you are the one struggling, your already-bad mood is not helped by the overwhelming feeling of guilt that you are the one holding the other person back.

I have been in both positions (sometimes in the same race with the same person!) and I genuinely cannot tell you which of the two positions is worse! My point is – and this is very personal to me – I DON’T WANT TO BE IN EITHER OF THOSE POSITIONS!!!

Don’t get my wrong, I am not anti-social, I will literally talk the hind legs off any donkey, be they: a fellow competitor, CP volunteer, supporter of another runner, rambler on a day out – pretty much anyone. But I will do anything, literally anything, in a race not to fall into step with someone for more than a few yards. I’ll deliberately slow down to eat a snack, I’ll run too fast for a few minutes just to put some distance between myself and the other runner, I’ll get out of a CP quicker – or hang about a minute longer – just so that I don’t leave the CP at exactly the same point! Anything!

I think the sensible option is to say to one-another, ‘Right, if either one of us is feeling great and wants to crack on, then we just go and do it. Don’t wait for the other person. They might even catch-up again.’ That way you are running at the pace of the fastest person, not being held up by the slower person. (Apologies if that makes makes me sound like a selfish arse.)

Running buddy, Rob. (He gets upset if he isn’t in every blog.) We have a carefully crafted team race plan: we agree to start together but not hold each other back. Then Rob buggers off in the first 5k ‘cos he’s fast.

4.10 – Cut-off times: I am very fortunate in this regard. I never take too much notice of them as my moving speed is enough that, as long as I am travelling normally, cut-off times will not be an issue. What I would say about cut-offs is that these should form a big part of your race plan if you are someone whose pace dictates that cut-off times could be dangerous. By that I mean, if you look at the race schedule and think ‘Blimey, I am going to struggle there,’ then you need to run accordingly from the off. Again, try not to panic and do too much at the start. Ultimately, if you are worried about meeting the cut-offs at the early CPs then maybe it is simply not the race for you.

Most importantly of all, respect the cut-off time if you do fall foul of it and are told that you cannot continue by a CP marshal. These people are unpaid volunteers who have given a significant chunk of their personal time to help runners achieve their goals, they have probably had as little sleep as you and have probably been on their feet for the same amount of time. Cut-offs are for the safety of marshals and volunteers as much as runners. This is easy for me to say I know; I have never fallen foul of it. But do your utmost to be out of that CP in time if you plan to carry on and, if not, try to accept the decision with good grace – the cut-offs will have been pre-advertised, after all.

4.10 – Painkiller consumption: Some of you will find that sub-heading slightly bizarre. If you are one of them – good. It literally blows my mind that many runners (a lot more than you might think) pop Co-codamol or similar all the way through races like you would a gel or a Haribo. Aside from the actual danger to your health from doing it, (of which there is increasing medical evidence) I just don’t quite get the principle of it. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right. Personally, I want to know about that. Ultra running hurts – full-stop. If you don’t want to experience the pain, don’t enter an ultra. If something hurts so much that you can’t go on without painkillers, then you probably shouldn’t be carrying on. Anyway, I’ll just leave that with you and let you make your own mind up. It’s your body.

4.11 – There is no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothing! A major difference between me dropping out of LL100 2018 and finishing in 2019 was my mental attitude to weather. In 2018 the bad weather beat me down. I had the right kit, but not the right attitude. In 2019, I decided that I wasn’t even going to consider weather as a factor. Put extra clothing in your drop bag, carry it of you have to, but be ready for the wet and remember, once you are wet you get cold very quickly if you are not moving too quickly, so make sure you have enough spare kit to put on if bad weather is likely without having to raid your emergency stuff. If you are warm, you won’t care as much about being wet. I would say don’t scrimp and save on cheap tat but, these days, you can get some great cheap kit and some rubbish expensive kit! So buy it well in advance and test it advance on training runs. (See point 1.1 from ages ago!)

4.12 – One foot in front of the other: Last point. And probably the best bit of advice that can be given to any ultra runner, be they novice or expert. If all else is failing, if you feel like you are at the end of the world, if you cannot comprehend finishing this race and all appears lost, JUST KEEP MOVING FORWARDS. One step at a time. It really is unbelievable how the slowest of walks can lead to the most incredible of distances. As highlighted above too, it really is ridiculous how bad you can feel one minute and how amazing you can feel half an hour later. Just stick with it, one step at a time. Get to the next CP, get some fuel on board, and leave the CP as soon as possible.

5 – And finally, what happens after the race…

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;”

If, Rudyard Kipling.

Most races you finish and look back on with great satisfaction; but the nature of ultra running defines that in others you don’t – in fact, some you might not finish at all. Some races go smoothly to plan, others you have to battle through. So races present you with perfect weather, easy conditions underfoot and a stunning view around every corner; other races are grim from start to finish and you wonder why you bothered.

I will leave you with this thought: most people who focus intensely on an event such an ultra are either looking for the satisfaction of the preparation, or a perfect race performance (which never happens in an ultra, btw), or are simply looking forward to a great day out. Not many people think about what happens after it.

Success or failure, there will probably be an after event slump when you realise how much of your life you have just invested into something that is over. This is totally natural, and is why most ultra runners should have their bank cards confiscated for a month afterwards to stop them entering every event going in the immediate aftermath! This slump is easier to deal with, though, if you did succeed in the event you selected. In an ultra, a finish is a finish, regardless of what you think of your own performance.

What if you ‘failed’ though? And I use that word for a reason. The rational person inside us will tell us that, if we got 75 miles into a 100 mile ultra but had to drop out, or whatever distance in whatever event, then we should still be proud of that performance. We should take pride in the journey we took to get fit and make the start line in the first place, and pat ourselves on the back that we still did more in one day than a lot of people achieve in their life.

But we don’t look on the positive, do we?!

If you DNF a race there are usually a myriad of reasons, many of which I have touched on trying to avoid in this blog. Injury is easier to accept, there is not a lot you can do about that. Being timed out is disappointing, but at least you can say ‘Well, I would have finished…!’ But sometimes, at that moment in a race, you just feel beaten down and it isn’t your day.

It is important to remember that all ultra races are a massive challenge – that’s why the DNF rate is so much greater than any other kind of race. Most of the time we enter races well within our ability range and remit but, ultimately, I think all ultra runners are searching for that absolute end point of their physical ability – a race that will take you to the brink and, hopefully, you will emerge from the other side victorious.

But that is notoriously hard to judge. Who is anyone to tell anyone else what they can or cannot physically achieve?!

I regularly see people enter races where their chances of success are so slim that I worry about what will happen to them after the race if/when it doesn’t go to plan. Not from the point of view of the challenge – as I say, there is nothing wrong with aiming for a really difficult goal, that is to be admired. What I mean is, I know this is someone who is going to beat themselves up remorselessly if they don’t achieve the full race completion package – even if what they actually did achieve is remarkable in itself.

I suppose what I am trying to say is, before you hit the ‘Race Entry’ button on the next race, be extremely clear of what your aims and objectives are. If that race is going to be at the absolute extreme of your ability then brilliant, you are about to embark on a great adventure. But do it with your eyes wide open. Enjoy the journey to the start line itself and make sure that you are ready when the gun goes. After that, whatever happens happens, but be kind to yourself and treat Triumph and Tragedy just the same because, if you do:

‘…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.‘ (If, Kipling)

Inside the last 5k of the 2017 Robin Hood 100. Target sub-24 hours in the bag despite the ‘Death March!’
Less than an hour later!

Thanks for reading. I hope you got one bit of useful information out of that lot! Now get out there and do it!

GBSticks x

3 thoughts on “Under Starters Orders – Tips of the Ultra Trade!

  1. Excellent read. Like you said at the start, most points I totally agree with and a couple I don’t. But Ultras are all so personal that the advice in there far, far, far outweighs the parts I won’t do.

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  2. Hi Mark – great blog, really enjoyed reading it. I’m doing the Lakeland 100 this year – first time attempting 100 miles. Even though it’s months away I’m getting slightly consumed by it – probably because it’s the first race I’ve entered where I’m seriously thinking a DNF might be a possible outcome.

    Couple of questions for you – this is my first race which starts in an evening. Morning races are easy to fuel for; wake up a few hours before hand, eat lots of bagels, plenty of caffeine and hydrate. What’s your fueling plan for a race like LL100 when you have all day to eat? Do you proper carb load or take it easy so not to be over full? In the days leading up I’m likely to be guzzling down 4000 calories a day to build energy stores, but think this might be a bit much on race day.

    What sort of training did you do ahead of your LL100s? What was your weekly hours or mileage?

    Final question – any tips for how you like to deal with blisters mid run?

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    • Hi Phil, Thanks so much for the kind words. Right, to answer your questions! First of all, if you can be bothered, if you scroll back a few blogs, they are all about my LL100 2018 DNF and 2019 finish; the actual race reports are very detailed (that’s code for bloody long!) so you might take a lot from those!
      Firstly, yes the DNF rate is borderline 50% every year and these aren’t beginner ultra runners, so finishing is a massive achievement. But I now think I dropped out in 2018 because I let that fact get in my head and think ‘a DNF isn’t so bad, loads drop out!’ as opposed to 2019 where I simply dismissed dropping out as an option. Once you set that in your mind, the difference at each CP is immense.
      Training is very much personal preference but, again, if you read the blogs, 2018 went pretty much to plan training wise including some decent ultras as prep, but 2019 I struggled with a calf injury from Feb 10th until the end of May. I was the least fit I have been on any ultra start line and considered not starting. But my mindset to slow down and complete the race overrode the lack of fitness and I got better as the race went on – mostly because of the positive vibes that were flowing as I realised I was going to get round successfully. So, to answer your question, train as much as you feel you need to be fit – hit hills as much as possible, mix up speed and slow and try and get a couple of big days in as prep. If you are going to recce any of the course, look at Boot to Braithwaite as this is the bit you will do in the dark! I think Wasdale to Braithwaite is the hardest two legs of the race; I always feel that if I get to Braithwaite feeling Ok then you can settle down into the race – you’d be surprised how many drop out this early.
      As for eating, I am a scoffer by nature! I just ate normally all week but, as this blog attested to, I did absolutely sod all that week except rest!
      The sunbathing bit is relevant to the evening start – both Fridays were boiling hot, both Saturdays were cold, wet, windy and borderline winter-like! Get out of the sun on the Friday and keep cool – I passed so many runners throwing up in the night who had clearly got dehydrated in the sun on the Friday.
      Hope that helps for now. Feel free to ask more questions in the next few weeks. Good luck, it is a truly magical event – you will love it!

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