There was a time when the marathon distance was deemed the pinnacle of a runner’s running career. Once the distance had been achieved, thereafter, it was about improving speed and achieving time goals…
I myself can attest to this: I ran the London Marathon in 2000 in 4.50, on my second attempt I improved it to 3.45, and then got it down to 3.33 a few years later. Strangely enough, whilst I loved each and every one of these races, the more pressure I put on myself to improve my times, the less enjoyment I got from running the marathon. Here I talk about why you should take up ultra running, and share some lessons I learnt from running my first ultra.
Ultra running… it’s not about the time, it’s about the finish line!
How long is an Ultra Marathon?
An ultra marathon or ultra includes any race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Whilst most ultras now fit into specific distance categories: 50km, 50m, 100km, 100m etc. there are of course multi-day events, with the ‘The Marathon des Sables’ perhaps the most well known ultra event.
Hitting the wall on my First Ultra
Technically, my first ultra was the Three Forts Challenge, a tough 27.2 mile ‘marathon’ that includes 3,400 ft of climbing, across rough terrain over the South Downs in Sussex (UK). It’s a great race that embodies everything good about trail running: beautiful scenery, hills, locally run, supporting a wonderful charity.
I ran it in 2019 soon after breaking the 3.30 marathon barrier on the roads nearby in Brighton a few weeks earlier. I’d run in the hills before, but It was my first trail race, and I made the mistake of running it like a road race, setting off like a hare, running the uphills and reaching halfway far too quickly. I paid the price and hit the wall at about 19miles in on a long climb. I remember, the last 8 miles being a struggle… a combination of walking, battling cramp in my quads and being passed by a lot of runners I’d breezed past on the uphills.
Lesson learnt… pace myself & slow down!!! But in spite of my poor tactics, I’d been bitten by the ultra bug… I loved the camaraderie, the collectiveness of everyone pushing their limits, being out in the wild, the freedom and headspace that trail running and ultimately ultra running afforded me.
Is ultra running bad for you?
The short answer is no, it’s great for you!
I speak from experience and not from a scientific standpoint, but this notion that sometimes gets floated around on the web that running is somehow bad for you, just doesn’t stack up.
Sadly, most of us live sedentary lives in front of screens for many hours during the day. In my view, anything that gets people out, connecting with nature, pushing their limits and being active has to be a good thing. I know I feel revived and re-energised after a run on the trails, both physically and mentally, even if I do find some ultra races tough!
Is it better to run or walk hills?
Most ultra races and thereby much of the training involves being outside on trails, and for the majority of runners, ultras will be a combination of running flats and downhills and walking the hills.
In any long distance race, there’s a balance between conserving energy by walking up a hill vs the time you save by running it. Ultimately, and as I highlight in How to Survive an Ultramarathon, you are trying to conserve energy, preventing fatigue and avoiding hitting the wall. Whether you walk or run, will depend of course on your fitness, but also the steepness of the climb and even the length of the race. There’s no shame in walking the hills.
From my own experience, I’ve found that the hills offer some welcome respite. They give me time to take on fuel, take stock of where I’m at in the race and check essentials: water, fuel, maps etc, but also help to spread the load on my leg muscles, protecting them for later in the race.
If I run ultras can I eat what I like?
I run so I can eat what I like…
Ok so that’s not entirely true, I have a pretty good diet, but because I’m active and fit, I want to stay that way, so whilst I subscribe to a little of everything is ok, and I’m not counting calories on everything that goes into my body, I’m aware that I want to maintain a healthy balanced diet.
Are ultra races only for super humans?
“I only enter races where it’s ok to sit on a chair and eat a packet of crisps”
This was a quote from one of the club runners, who is now a 100m ultra marathon runner. He started on marathons and has moved up to ultras. What I love about this is he’s dead right*, and he perfectly sums up the inclusivity of ultra running. For the vast majority, it’s not about the time, it’s about completing the race, and that is the achievement.
The journey you take to get there is yours and yours alone.
*Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as your only diet for long distance running, I discovered salt and vinegar ‘SnackaJacks’ at mile 45 of Race to the King… simply beautiful!!!
What’s the scenery like?
It’s beautiful! Ultra marathon races tend to be on trails away from towns, out in the countryside, whether it’s hills, mountains, deserts or woods, being out in the wilderness is good for your soul.
I feel a real connection with nature when I run ultras. For the time I’m in the race bubble, and for the training I put in beforehand, when I’m outside running I try to switch off mentally and live in the moment.
Aren’t the Ultra Running Community a bunch of weirdos?
Ultra running is a great leveller. Yes there’s a race and competition, but it’s mostly about you against yourself. So even when you race against other people, there’s a collective goal ‘to finish’ that you’re all individually trying to achieve.
There’s an intimacy in ultras I haven’t found in marathons, and the barriers are down. I have met some wonderful people, heard some intimate accounts of people’s lives and shared stories with strangers I’ve only shared with my closest friends and family. Read my Race to the Stones Review, where I spent 11 hours with the wonderful Ronnie & Izzy.
I encourage you to try it… you’ll enjoy it, and if you don’t you’ll have a great adventure to tell your friends!
Still in doubt… here’s my check list of why you should take up ultra running
- Put your clocks away – it’s about finishing, not the time it takes you to get there
- Wonderful & varied scenery – hills, mountains, deserts, take your pick!
- Great for your mental and physical health – you’ll feel great, trust me
- Walk, jog or run – You don’t have to be superhuman
- We’re not all weirdos – you’ll meet some great people
- It feels AMAZING – getting to the start line, competing and completing!
What do you love about ultra marathon running? Share your comments below.