Friday, 11 August 2017

Exploring Ultras - Running up that hill

Rational assessments too often led to rational surrenders” ― Scott Jurek (see footnote)

This blog is really only aimed at those runners wishing to explore their first trail marathon or ultra and is my own thoughts on getting through it.

Running a marathon is a special achievement, never to be underestimated.  Deciding to run a second marathon takes a lot of guts as you already know the pain and stress you'll be putting your body through again.  Deciding that the marathon distance is not far enough and then include hills, mud, carrying your supplies as the aid stations are 8 miles apart, long periods of running solo and rarely crowds to cheer you on - that's a bit mad.  Why would you do that?  You'd have to be a touch balmy!

There are major differences between road running and ultra running.  You'll be on your feet a lot longer, covering terrain that can wreck your ankles and shred your muscles if you've not trained for it. The hills become relentless, but you grow to love them because the flat ultras can be worse.  You'll be starting at silly o'clock and often running all the daylight hours. Many of the races have strict time cut-off's at checkpoints and DNF's can sometimes outnumber the finishers.

So after running three marathons, I was lined up to run the Ridgeway 40.  I investigated the route and trained for the extra distance, got off-road and invested in some minimal kit.  I learned a lot from that race, in fact, I learn from every ultramarathon.

Train for the distance, you can fake your way through a 5k but a 50k will eat you up if you are not ready.  Read up and work out a training plan, you don't need to stick to it religiously but missing too many runs will come back to bite you. If you'll be running through the night then find a friend silly enough to join you and plan in at least one long night run, using the same equipment you will use during the race.   If it's a summer race get in plenty of miles in the heat of the day, if there are lots of big hills then find hills to practice on.  Replicating the race conditions is an important way to prepare the mind and body.

Night running takes some practice

Running on the same terrain as the race is a massive help, even if it means travelling.  Running stages of the route will also help, as does trying to emulate the conditions.  I recently ran 100km, in training I ran the last 10km the week before the race so the route and hazards would still be fresh in my head when I would be running tired.

Invest some time (and probably money) getting the right shoes and socks.  I found my toes spread the further I ran and the only shoes that work for me are Altra, but everyone is different.  Sizing up can lead to heel rub so find the perfect fit.  Getting the right socks also pays dividends, personally, I use toe socks.  I rarely get blisters and have not had a black toenail in over 6 months (when I kicked a tree root!).

Map out your training runs and equip for it, don't be put off by the weather as you won't have a choice on the day.  Test and experiment with any new foods and drinks on your training runs.  Learning when to eat and what to eat can take some time.  I've started to carry dried fruit, pretzels and homemade food for runs.  Sip and snack but don't binge at aid stations.

Explore the route online, read the maps to discover where and when the hills will be in the course and look for reviews of the race, other runners will give you a better description of the course than a map.

Look up and see if Steven Cousins has filmed the race or if any other video blogger had posted on Youtube.  Video of the route gives you unrivalled views of the course.

Read the race instructions carefully and try to memorise the aid station distances as this can help you break the race down (in your head at least) into manageable chunks.  If need be, make a small laminated cheat-sheet with all the info you think you will need.

Learn the course.

Work on your core and upper body strength while you are training.  Core planks, press ups and squat thrusts cost nothing but pay dividends during races.  I also use a kettlebell weight to strengthen my arms and shoulders.

The more ultramarathons I run the more I understand the true need to have a good diet.  Most runners already know the importance of eating right but for the longer races, it is imperative that your body is getting the right amounts of proteins, carbs and nutrients.  Speak to a sports nutritionist, read up.

Ultrarunning is about eating and drinking, ensuring you get enough calories into your system to last the distance or you'll burn out very fast.  Take time to plan your fuelling, never try new things on race day (although I've broken this rule more times than I can remember).  Ensure you know roughly how much fluid intake you will need for the race and carry enough spare electrolytes/Tailwind/etc to get you to the end.  I use more natural foods on races now for fewer sugar highs/lows.

Plan your pacing and your race strategy.  Your training runs should give you an idea of the pace you'll be comfortable at over the full race distance, but no amount of fuelling and training will help if you go out too fast and burn - learn to slow your pace.  You should be training up to marathon distances in preparation for a 50k race, and back to back long runs for anything over that distance.

Ensure your kit is packed and you know where everything is without much thought, at +20 miles searching for a power bar or blister plasters can be painful.  A useful video for packing is here.

Stick to your plan (but have a backup)
On the Ridgeway 40, I let my plans slip, I didn't eat enough or keep the pace I had planned and paid for it at around the 35-mile point.  During the Pilgrim Challenge, after the initial hour, I took a gel at the hour and something solid on the half hour, this was on top of the Tailwind.  The change of fuelling meant I finished a lot stronger and without feeling spent.

During the Ridgeway 40, I had planned to run/walk the distance, a system favoured by many ultra runners, and my pacing had been going well during the first 20 miles but as tiredness and fatigue set in I found myself walking longer periods.  So I set myself targets, run between given points and then walk to the next point.  I used bushes, trees or posts as points to run to.

You will need to walk!  Unless you are in the top 10% you will be walking the steeper hills, wading through mud and just giving your legs a rest.  It's part of ultra and trail marathon racing.  Watch some of the 100 Marathon Club runners in a race and learn from their techniques.

Not an issue you get in a road marathon

Have a backup plan in case things start falling apart, being able to add flexibility into your race plans gives you more options.

Run your own race
Aim to run the race on your own, even if you will have company.  If you rely on your buddy and they drop out you may have a lot of extra mental baggage to suddenly start carrying.

Don't think about the complete distance, break the race into achievable sections in your head.  Use simple calculations (easier to remember when tired) to break up the race and just aim to complete the current section. 

A lot of marathon and ultra running is 70% in the head and if you give up in your mind then your legs won't be far behind.  Try to keep positive, have a few "go to" thoughts that keep you strong.  Wear those lucky socks, underwear, hat - whatever gets you through the night, that's alright.

Try to keep positive - it's only pain!

Talk and listen 
On trail marathons and ultras most runners are not conserving everything for a PB finish and are happy to chat, you can learn a lot about trail running by talking to experienced runners.  Their kit and why they use it, their fuelling, races they recommend, just about anything.  Find local runners and club friends who have run ultras and ask their advice, also ask about what they have learned from their mistakes.  

Use forums and Facebook to the full extent, even if you don't feel you have anything to share reading posts by experienced runners can help you understand the sport a lot better.  Don't be afraid to ask for advice, but respect alternative approaches and use common sense.

There are some brilliant books to be read on trail running, but getting your shoes dirty is still the best way to learn!  I can recommend Where The Road Ends and Relentless Forward Progress

One last thing - subscribe to Ultra, the only UK based ultrarunning magazine. 

Scott  Jurek - When I first considered running an ultra marathon I did what I usually do - read up and talk to people with experience.  Being a vegetarian I started investigating diets and fueling for the long races and discovered Scott Jurek. Scott was and is one of the ultra running legends, he is also the author of a great book called Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness.

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