Having just completed my first ultra marathon (100km, and circa 4,000ft elevation) I thought I’d reflect on my experience leading up to and during the event itself. Hopefully some of my training and gear learnings are useful for others with an ultra in the diary or for those thinking of it.
Firstly, it's worth noting that I have run quite a lot of marathon’s and half marathons in the last 5 years, so whilst a complete novice to anything over 42.2km’s, I did have an awareness and experience of the sorts of training cycles required.
I quickly realised that training for this distance was going to be very different to what I’d experienced before:
Trail Running is a completely different beast to road running and whilst I’d hit the odd trail before, it wasn’t something I’d taken too seriously.
Getting the right gear (trail shoes, back packs, snacks, etc.) takes some time and just like looking for road trainers, a lot of research and fitting needs to take place to ensure you find the right pair of trail shoes.
I also found finding the right back pack a bit challenging - should I go with a larger one, a smaller one, one with water bottles or one with a reservoir? I probably did too much research (the world of internet reviews), but ended up finding what worked for me in an Innov8 10 liter with 2 soft flasks. Just like running on roads, I made sure that I broke in the new trainers and gear way ahead of time.
Time on feet was a relatively new concept to me. Whilst my wonderful coaches at RunnersConnect always tell me to slow down on my long runs, my goals up to now had always been to aim for a PR time. That all changed very quickly once I’d started training.
For a start, running on trails is just slower. There is no way around it, you are running on uneven terrain, through nature’s obstacles, up and down steep hills, etc. It’s also training for a distance that is mind bogglingly long and where only the very best have a focus on time.
With all this in mind, I very quickly started focusing my long and easy runs on just going slow and getting used to spending time on my feet (note, my mid week tempo / interval training still focused on speed / strength / stamina, etc).
Nature was often overlooked by me when I went out and hit the sidewalks.
That all changed when I started out on the trails. I came to appreciate hearing and seeing the wildlife in the forests and parks as well as seeing all the wonderful changes to the scenery as the season changed from winter to spring to summer. That’s probably been the biggest positive for me in this experience - I’ve come to love running once again. No longer am I focusing on a PR or stressing about a really tough run and missing my pace target. Instead I get excited about getting out onto a trail that will not only push me, but where I can take a new route and see some spectacular scenery and wildlife.
Nutrition has been a big part of my training this time round, probably more so than ever. You’d probably expect me to say that being I’m part of the team that is Runners’ Beans' who helped create Daily Tonic.
Yes, I believe that Daily Tonic has helped me massively again and has helped replenish low stores of vitamins and minerals I lost through the training. However, I also tried to focus more heavily in the run up to the race on a very balanced diet, but also didn’t stress if I went off the plan now and again (I kept telling myself I wasn’t going for a PR anymore, but to enjoy a potentially once in a lifetime experience).
I’m helped by the fact that Sally knows her nutrition and looks after our whole family diet so well. My plan was to prepare properly for 7 to 10 days before one of the 5 big weekend training runs that I had over the course of 16 weeks. That really helped and I ended up nailing it pretty much the last couple of times and it made my final week before the race so much easier (Run Fast Eat Slow book highly recommended).
Long runs are a massive component to any training plan and I was concerned about just how hard they would be in preparation for this race.
Luckily, the coaches at RunnersConnect had me covered (again) on this front. Their plan saw me running a medium to long distance on a Saturday and then an even longer distance on the Sunday (something like 16 to 22k on a Saturday and 29k to 38k on a Sunday). This helped minimise the risk of injury and also ensured I could get used to the experience of running in a fatigued state on the Sunday…believe me, this was a major factor in why I finished the final quarter of the race in the fastest time of all 4 quarters.
All races come with their own unique experience, but getting to the event, registering, dealing with any pre-race nerves and excitement, saying goodbye to friends and family is always a great part of the experience. That was the same this time around for me too, but the similarities pretty much stopped there.
A sense of community is something runners often mention, but this was taken to a new level within the ultra race setting. There were less people and everyone lined up was excited and terrified at the same time about the experience (and pain) they were about to go through.
During the race itself, this sense of community only grew. I don’t know whether it was because most people are going at a slower, conversational pace or whether people wanted to give and get encouragement from their fellow runners. Whatever it was, it was amazing! I must have talked to 7 or 8 people at length during the race, listening to what they did, where they were from, how they were feeling, tips on what to expect, etc. It was mind blowing how friendly everyone was compared to a standard road race where everyone is just shooting to hit a PR or just surviving by listening to their music.
The food and drink is out of this world compared to what i’d experienced on road races. Granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate, flat coke, coffee, soup, oatmeal, candy…you name it, most of the stalls along the way had it.
And the people giving it out were super kind and friendly, mainly because most people don’t rush through and grab a half full cup of water whilst not breaking stride. Ultra runners tend to stop, choose some goodies, have a quick chat and then carry on.
The high’s are high, the low’s are incredibly low. I must have been told that a thousand times before the event and it turned out to be so true. My particular low was more mental than physical and it came at the half way stage up to 60km.
I struggled to cope with having to do the same distance all over again (especially as there was a finish line at 50km for the runners who were doing the distance over two days!) There were tears, there was anger and there was self doubt, but I’d read a lot about it and knew it would be coming. I tagged onto another runner and we talked for a while and I focused on getting to the next pit stop 10km’s away and within 30 mins, I was through the worst of it. I’d not experienced anything that tough mentally when running a marathon before.
Fix the niggles early. People also advised me to get my niggles sorted out early and it was such good advice. In the last few weeks run up, I had started getting a blister from the rubbing of my right heel against my trail shoes. I thought the issue had gone away before race day, but at 25km’s I felt it again and stopped at the 30km pit stop to get it taped up and again at the 50km stop. That proved to be a really good idea (again, not focusing on a time, but to get to the end in 1 piece) and meant that the last 50km wasn’t affected by things like blisters.
The sense of achievement for me has been bigger than anything I’ve experienced before and I didn’t think that would be possible. I ran my first marathon in Singapore and running in that heat and humidity was very tough and my sense of achievement there was huge. However, this ultra has surpassed that. The mental and physical strength I had to find to get through that race was like nothing I’d experienced before. I found a lot out about myself and realised that I really can do anything I set out to achieve. It was also great to be able to let my kids see that too, as that's what all parents want to teach them. The sense of achievement as a result of all this is unparalleled for me.
What would I have done differently?
So, what would I have done differently if I were to do it all again? In short, not a lot really.
My training plan was perfect, my mental preparation seemed to be spot on and my focus on surviving and trying to enjoy the experience proved to be the right one.
I guess the one thing I would do differently would be to not carry so much stuff with me. I noticed at the start line when looking at some of the experienced ultra runner’s that they had very small back packs. They didn’t have 3 cookies and 3 savory muffins, a warm mid layer, way too many plasters, bandages, and other unnecessary first aid kit, etc. I quickly realised why, because the pit stops at every 10km had pretty much everything you would need. They did all have water bottles or a reservoir, a waterproof jacket, the essential first aid kit and energy gels of their choosing.
So, I hope you enjoyed reading about my journey. Everyone will have their own one, but hopefully a few of these reflections might help you in future ultra's or even a marathon on a trail.
I’m now hooked on trail running as a result of this experience and whilst I might not jump straight back into another 100km, I will be hitting the trails every week from now on.
For the record, I ran my 100km (technically it was 100.9k - and that .9 was a long straight road towards the finish line - a very tough way to finish) in 11:09hrs. I didn't have much expectation of time so while it wasn't a goal, I'm pleased with the outcome, but it's just a number really, I managed to finish it and that’s all I care about!