Reflections from my first ultra

Reading race reports of how others have got on with their goal races can be a bit like feigning interest in a distant relative's holiday photos. Of course, you are very happy for them that they had, by all accounts, a lovely time. Nonetheless it is a bit boring hearing "this happened, and then this happened" and so on for the longest 15 minutes of your life. I'm painfully aware of this, fellow Harriers.

This weekend, I ran my first ultramarathon. It was the Lakeland Trails 55K at Ambleside. In light of what I've just mentioned, here's a brief synopsis of my race: I ran for 36 miles, it was very tiring but, ultimately, hugely rewarding. I absolutely enjoyed (almost) every minute of all eight and half hours of it.

If you want to know more of the nitty gritty of what happened, first of all are you sure? And secondly, OK! I will tell you more over a pint at some point in the future.

Instead I thought it might be handy for Harriers present (and future) who are curious as to what lessons I learned (successful and unsuccessful) along the way in preparing and executing an ultra. Hopefully there's something here that is handy for your future training and races.

Some lessons I've learned:

1. It's an ultramarathon - not a sprint!

I'm sure this is news to no-one, but there really isn't a rush to be had when doing an ultramarathon. Sure, some people were absolutely flying past me (and it was hugely inspiring!) but for us mere mortals, it genuinely is the journey along the way and not making haste towards the finish line. I really enjoyed the conversations I had with fellow runners along the race and taking in the gorgeous views of the Lake District.

2. Eat early and eat often.

I am absolutely not the first (and I will not be the last) to say ultras are truly an eating contest with some running thrown in. It's a tired cliche for good reason. According to my watch, I burned just over 5,000 calories. I have no idea if this is accurate; regardless it's a stupid big number. That's 42 large bananas, or 24 pints of Guinness, or 9 Big Macs. Ridiculous!

From the first hill I started chomping on a rice-bar, and every half hour thereafter I had my watch alert me to eat something. The aid stations were well stocked with sandwiches, cakes, crisps, and all sorts of goodies a runner would want. As the race went, I admit I did struggle to keep food down. I persisted in nibbling on a sandwich and sipping on a flat coke whilst plodding along which saw me through to the end. During training I almost always had the benefit of having had a big meal a few hours before a training run. This is definitely somewhere I can improve for the next race.

3. Train specifically for the race you're racing.

Living in Salford has many merits, but being blessed with easy access to the fells is, sadly, not one of them. Consequently, I made a conscious effort to run on the trails twice a week during my training block. I did a medium run of around 10 miles during the week and a long run that increased in distance as the training block progressed (starting at around 16 miles and topping out at 23 miles). The rest of my running was plodding the pavements. Maybe the occasional Parkrun or club race as speed work. I topped out at 50 miles per week for three weeks before tapering. That's the most I've ever run in a block. I might have been able to manage more, but I would've been tempting fate with injury.

Running on the trails had several benefits:

  • I got lots of practice with what I wore and ate. Each run was a mini dress rehearsal for the big day. I learned that some shorts caused horrific chafing, chocolate milk is the best drink in the world at the end of a run etc.
  • I got familiar with how hills felt. This is a bit strange to describe, but after a while you could just feel if it was worth running up a short albeit steep bump or march up a long slope. I learned it was OK to walk to save myself for the downhill and flat sections of a run.
  • My feet and ankles got used to uneven terrain. I am definitely a stronger runner going down hill than I was before this block. Always room for improvement, of course, but I feel more confident than I did before.
  • It was fun! I got to see loads of new areas in and around Greater Manchester.

Heading into the Peak District and West Pennine Moors was a big time commitment, but a worthwhile undertaking. Whilst I knew the distance would be overwhelming on race day (more about that in a minute) I managed all the other variables that I could. There were no nasty surprises on race day. I would've liked to have run more in preparation, but that's something I'll do differently next time.

4. Chunk it

Honestly I had no idea how long the race was going to take me. I've only run a marathon distance once before, and that was a road race over a year ago. I guessed the ultra would take me between 7-8 hours, based on my long runs with proportionate elevation. I used a website where I plugged in the course route GPX file, entered in the aid station locations and it generated a race card where I could see when I would arrive at each aid station. I did this for a speedy 7 hours and a sluggish 8 hours on two sides of A5.

As it happened, it became pretty obvious after the third checkpoint I was going to take longer than 8 hours. I immediately adjusted my expectations accordingly. Having that race card helped tremendously. I gave myself permission not to stress about goal times and just focused on the distance between each aid station. 12km followed by 7km followed by another 10km is so much easier to mentally digest than 55km in one go. When your watch says 5km to go - that's easy! I can do a Parkrun! Breaking up the distance made the whole day doable.

5.Move something heavy repeatedly and consistently

Running is the purest sport in the world, since time eternal. We all know that. Case closed. End of conversation. You just go out the door and move forwards until you stop. What more is there to it than that?

Well, cross training is, annoyingly, really helpful for running. I've been going to the gym twice a week consistently for over a year now. I don't particularly enjoy it, but it's good for me. During training I didn't pick up an injury (sure, I had little niggles, but nothing that stopped me going out for my next run) and during the race my legs were not tired. In the days since I am sore, but nothing unmanageable. I attribute this to spending some time in the gym. Squats, deadlifts, leg curls etc. make you feel secure and steady in yourself. Weight training was a crucial foundation in my training. It facilitated me to run further and longer than I ever had before.

That's it! Those are my five lessons I've learnt over the course of the last few months preparing for an ultramarathon. I hope this blog is of some use. There's definitely more lessons to be learned from far more experienced runners than myself but unfortunately I'm not them as I have only done the one ultra. So far.

My final reflection writing this blog is if you're thinking about doing something mental like an ultra and, like me, you're unsure if you can do it: Just go for it. You will never be ready. Training seriously makes it more straightforward on race day but you will never just miraculously become an ultrarunner. The feeling of crossing the finish line in a race you've been dedicating training for months is (for want of a better word) exquisite. It's a celebration of all that focus and effort you've made to push yourself. I hope this blog has informed what it takes (and maybe even inspired a fellow Harrier) to tackle one of the gnarliest running challenges: completing an ultramarathon.

— Sam Gilmore