Ultramarathons - How to Complete Them

By Tompky - 5:51 AM

It is the question I get asked most often by anyone that I speak to about what I have done this year, and the races that I have been involved in.  I dare say it is the question that gets asked repeatedly of any endurance athlete.  'How? Just how do you manage to run/swim/cycle for that distance.'  The thing is endurance athletes aren't inherently different to anyone else, apart from having a perverse desire to see what they can put their bodies through, but completing these feats is often down to good tactics, mental awareness, a great deal of resilience and a little bit of training thrown in.  Hopefully through this blog I can explain how I can run the distances I can.

First of all, it isn't easy.  I have read many blogs that say ultras are easier than marathons.  The thing is with ultras that if you get any aspect of it wrong, you can burn out.  Whilst this can happen with a marathon, realistically this will only happen a maximum of 10 miles away from the finish.  At walking pace you will finish within 2 and a half hours. With an ultra this can happen 30-40 miles from the finish, which could take anything from 8-15 hours to crawl to the finish from.  So planning is essential.

Walking is normal and even essential.  Walk anything with an upward gradient

Tactics - Pace: It is essential to be prepared and have an idea of how you are going to take the distance down.  In several of the races I saw people shoot off at the start, only to be breathing heavy after 5km of a 100km race.  Unless you are an elite athlete, running from start to finish just isn't going to happen.  The best quote I read on this said the first 1/3 of the race should pass and you should still feel as fresh as at the start.  The next 1/3 should be a bit more challenging, but you should still feel reasonably fresh.  The last 1/3 is when the race starts, when you will need to grit your teeth and really push through any pain barriers that may be there.  I'm not sure if this is entirely accurate, as I have had many an ache and pain in the middle 1/3 of events, but it rings fairly true for how you should feel energy wise. For this to happen I believe the best tactic to be walking everything uphil, and running any flat and downhill.  This doesn't mean walk only the steep uphills, anything with an uphill gradient I walk, and I can guarantee moving into the last 10km I will be feeling fresher than most.  It may feel frustrating, particularly early on when you feel fresh and see others running past you.  But if you still feel that way moving into the last 10-15km then you can up the pace!!

Tactics - Food:  The general rule of thumb is to try to take in 200-250 calories an hour, every hour.  This should mean you avoid bonking at any point without making you feel like you've eaten too much leading to other problems.  Typically I will try to drink one sports drink an hour, along with an energy bar, at least early on when things are relatively easy to digest.  Later in the race, or on particuliarly hot days when eating becomes difficult I move on to 'juicy fruits', things like pineapple, peaches etc. that are easy to eat.

Try to eat whole foods where possible

'What do you think about' (The mental side) - This is probably the second most asked question I get.  What on earth do you think about when you are running for 10, 12, 15 hours on your own??  I never listen to music, and in honesty I feel like I am constantly busy, monitoring how I feel, whether I need food or drink, whether I should be running or walking this stretch, how far til the next pit stop etc.  That bit seems to flow quite naturally.  The mental side that I have struggled with at times, as I am sure all endurance athletes have at some point, is how to keep going when every part of your body and the voice inside your head is telling you to quit?  I typically focus on different things, depending on where I am in the race.

Early on - I focus all about the why.  Why I am doing this challenge, what I am looking to get out of it, why I have trained so hard for it over the past however many months.  Generally this isn't a quitting point, but it is good to remember why you are doing the event in the first place to keep everything in check, whether it is for a charity, personal pride, or you are looking to win the event.

The middle bit - For me this is the most difficult bit.  You will have been on the course for at least a couple of hours at this point, and any aches and pains that you are going to suffer will have kicked in by now, and yet you still have a long, long way to go.  This is when any demons that may have been lurking will start to creep in, telling you that you can't possibly keep going and complete this enormous task that you have taken on.  This is when you mentally need to dig deep, and use evey trick there is.  Typically before the race I will break it up into smaller sections, using food stops can be good for this.  During the middle bit I will focus solely on getting to the next food stop.  Breaking it down like that means you are never more than 5-10 miles away from your next food stop.  It is often good to meet friends/family at these stops, knowing that in an hour or two you will be seeing familiar faces can be a real boost.  I also think about all the reasons to complete it, be that the charity I am raising money for, my family and friends, personal pride, anything at all that will get me through the middle miles.  It also helps to think about the fact that no matter how bad things are going, it will get better.  Sometimes with 20-30 miles to go you can feel at the bottom of a pit, with no hope of finishing the race.  At this point you have to go back to basics, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and tell yourself it will get better.  Slowly your body will come round to believing it too, you will start to feel better, and completing will never be in doubt!!

The end bit - This is when the end finally starts to appear a reality, and not just a myth that you have heard people talking about.  You may have been on the course for hours, even days at this point, but you know now that whatever happens, you will have completed an ultramarathon.  Their is normally a surge of adrenaline and elation kicks in at this point, even though you may still have miles to go.  At this point the focus is purely on the end goal, and all thoughts of quitting should be firmly at the back of your mind.  You may need to keep telling yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but all negative thoughts will surely have been left long behind, and in a matter of hours you will have crossed the finishing line and glory awaits!!

Training - A quick note on how I train for ultramarathons - generally I don't do much more than marathon style training, usually running a maximum of 20 miles in one go.  This all comes down to personal preference though, I know some people who like to add their miles up in a week and aim to do 50-100 miles in a week, some like me follow a fairly standard marathon training plan maxing out at 20 miles, or others that like to do similar to the marathon training, with extra miles added on to a maximum of 30-40 miles in one training session (depending on the length of ultra they are intending to run).  Ultimately the training will be a personal choice, and will be done to suit the individuals life style and preferred methods.

I hope this helps some people, particularly those who are aiming to take on their first ultramarathon at some point!!

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