When describing my year of challenges to friends and family I try to avoid use of the term "ultra marathon". Partly because many, quite understandably, don’t know how long an ultra is, but mostly because without fail I get such a look of shock I find it hard then to convince that honestly and truly, I am not super human (or completely crazy!)
Instead I believe is an ultra can be completed by almost any individual with a good level of fitness and a 6 month training lead-up. I would also go far as to say that I find an ultra easier to complete in many ways than a marathon.
So, with a view to convincing the uninitiated to join me, here are 10 things I have discovered about ultras since I entered this rather surreal and magical world.
(1) It's not about how fast you are
In the marathons I have completed, the first question I always get asked afterwards is "What was your time?" This drives me a little batty. To ask this implies it is not enough of an achievement to complete this piece of pure hardship...I also I have to impress on time as well! And even worse, many have a view on a "good time" (below 4 hours) and a not so "good" time (4 hours or more). As a consequence, when my response is a truthful "I came in at 4.5 hours", I quickly feel the need to follow up with any excuse for my rather average time. I have found "hitting the wall" to be my favourite.
In stark contrast, for an ultra participant, it is all about the journey and completing the distance. Ultras vary hugely in length and terrain, so no-one (including myself) has an idea of what a good or bad time is. Instead, the mindset is all about keeping on going. And as long as you complete before the cut-off time, the day is a success. How liberating.
(2) Ultra runners.....walk.
This was perhaps my BEST discovery of all. Chances are, there will be some point in the run (maybe many points) where you just want to take a bit of a walk for a while. See a hill - walk; want to eat, then walk; feel exhausted, take a nice long walk!
(3) Ultra runners eat real food
I have taken gels and energy bars. To be honest, they don't work for me. Shortly after I have a surge of energy followed by a real low and feeling ill in the stomach. I also find gels impossible to consume successfully whilst running...the sticky sugar syrup inevitably ends up all over my hands and mouth.
With discovery number (2) in place in ultra runs I find it possible to eat proper food along the way. Usually peanut butter sandwiches and muesli bars fuel me along the way. This helps keep blood sugar levels stable and make the day so much more enjoyable.
(4) There is real camaraderie out there
There is no doubt that completing an ultra is long and difficult. It can get a bit lonely out there too. So it was wonderful for me to find out that other competitors (usually when passing!) are often happy to slow down and have a chat. If I am struggling, they will offer support and food and a few cheery words. I have learnt to do the same. At the end of the day it is all about doing your best and helping others achieve the same. This is a really refreshing mentality and perhaps the reason I have a huge respect for ultra participants that goes beyond the physical feats they achieve.
(5) Looking after your feet isn't optional
This one is perhaps obvious. Prior to attempting an ultra I had never had a blister. So felt a bit invincible on the foot front. Having now completed a few, I am without three toenails and have experienced blisters severe enough to feel like I was walking on knives.
I have therefore learnt to tape my feet BEFORE I run...especially in multi-day ultra's. Taping each toe individually and applying silicone lube before running is a good tip. And rubbing alcohol in the evening to dry them out. This stuff makes the competing the distance that bit more bearable and stops me looking like a absolute numpty hobbling around in days to come
(6) Success is 90% mindset and 10% bloody-mindedness
It is a given is that all who participate in an ultra have a base level of fitness. But that doesn't mean all who participate complete the course. I have also found that looking at a person's physique, age or gender can provide very little indication on how they will go.
My best friend in Australia who is a bit of an ultra addict has a saying that I have adopted - "I am either going to complete this thing or be carried out on a stretcher". And to be successful, you have to be that binary about it. To give yourself an option of not completing will plant that little seed in your mind. As the run progresses it will grow to a GIGANTIC form overtaking mind, body and soul. It is nearly impossible to overcome this.
Many I talk to who Did Not Finish ("DNF") a run have told me they were not in the right mindset. It is not as I would have expected - they did not train enough. What I have learnt is that fitness lessens the pain (and injury), but mindset gets you over that finish line.
(7) Jubilation on crossing that finish line won't necessarily happen.
Completing an ultra is a massive effort. By the time I finish, psychologically I have been telling myself for 6+ hours to keep going, suck-up the pain, eat more, drink constantly and not to give up.
When I cross that line, all of that mental stuff drops away. But somewhat surprisingly, it is not jubilation I feel - it is relief. I take a few minutes to shift mental gear, my mind goes to neutral for a while, and I take some quite some time to process what just occurred.
Perhaps that will change as I get more experienced at this ultra thing. The emotions I would expect to feel - jubilation and pride, just don't come to me. This could be because there are so many outstanding people and runners doing this stuff. But it is more likely to be that to complete in an ultra is a hugely humbling experience that ends up feeling like a privilege to be quietly savoured.
(8) Sleeping the night after isn't a given
This one also was a surprise to me. I would have thought that the pure exhaustion and 3000+ calories I expend on an ultra will lead to collapse and immediate sleep. But to the contrary, I have found that on nights following an long run it takes me some time to drift off to sleep.
Again, I think the cause is the mental toughness of the day. My brain is still on high alert and adrenaline pumping through the body. My advice to anyone trying an ultra for the first time is to expect to spend a couple of hours in the dark analysing your day and trying to comprehend what on earth you just did!
(9) Volunteers and marshals become your best friend EVER
It is always a joyful moment on an ultra to spot a tent containing a feed station. It marks the end of a long stretch and sustenance at the ready. And best of all, it contains happy, helpful people. On my trip to Namibia, the volunteers would refill my water, give me food and provided kind, encouraging words. I even had one sunscreening me up head to toe whist I sat listlessly in a chair trying to get myself physically and mentally together.
These people obtain a saint-like quality to the jaded ultra-runner and I love them to bits.
(10) Running an ultra is to discover unknown beauty
Almost all marathons take place on roads. Crowds cheer you on, music gets you motivated and there is a real buzz to the day.
Ultra's are quiet, remote, off the beaten track and held in the most beautiful places.
In October last year I took part in the London Ultra Marathon, The 55km route traversed the south section of the capital ring - a green route from Woolwich to Richmond, passing through parks and woodlands. I saw parts of London I have never seen before. At times I felt quite remote in one of the busiest cities in the world.
In Namibia I crossed a dessert that has been walked/ran by fewer people than those residing in my street. If I saw footsteps, they were from other participants in front of me...or in one case, a participant from the year before. The scenery was spectacular.
And this, without doubt, is what I love the most about an ultra marathon. Whilst one could argue that hiking can achieve the same things, in a ultra marathon I feel at one with the elements - beauty and pain living side-by-side. I loved and hated those sand dunes in Namibia. They claimed a part of my soul and will now stay with me forever. Not just mentally, but to this day I physically feel them.
Photos courtesy of Leo Francis photography