‘You must be mad’; this is quite a common reaction to runners who are contemplating taking on an ultra marathon race, but speak to anybody who has run ultra marathons and you will find a perfectly normal, albeit highly motivated, person who just loves a tough, personal challenge.
Why do ultra marathons? For some it is the need to continually push back the limits. The most inspirational stories are those where the ultra marathon runner has transformed his or her life, from being an overweight couch potato, to being a lean, motivated ultra runner. Others have been regular runners who enjoyed their marathon running experience and want to take the next step. Still other runners are doing the run for a specific reason, raising money for a particular charity is a common source of inspiration.
Running an ultra marathon presents both a physical and mental challenge, so if you are considering taking a step beyond the 26.2 mile distance there are a number of factors you should consider. The first is the time commitment that training for a 50K, a 50-mile or a 100K race will demand. This will have a huge impact on your life and if you have a family, then you must discuss this with them first. You should also consider how your training will fit with your work commitments and perhaps make some adjustments in other areas of your life.
Then there is the physical strain you will be putting your body under. Ultra marathoners will tell you that the first steps towards running an ultra event is to build up your base. You don’t need to have run a marathon but you do need a few years of running experience and you will need to be putting in at least one run of 20 miles or more on a weekly basis. (Your weekly mileage can be from 40-60 miles). This is going to give you a much greater chance of picking up overuse injuries so taking care of your body, particularly your legs, hips and lower back is essential.
It is important to realise that an ultra marathon is not about running 50 miles as quickly as possible, in fact very few runners will run the entire distance. The goal is to finish, and for most people that will involve some walking combined with running. Your build up for the event should reflect this.
Your preparation should also reflect the terrain on which you are likely to be running as far as possible. If it is likely to be mostly on trails, then really your long runs should be on a trail surface. This will give your limbs a chance to adapt to that type of surface. If most of your running is normally carried out on a flat and even treadmill or tarmac road, then your body will not be used to undulating terrain, and injuries may well occur.
One common misconception is that running double the distance of a marathon means experiencing double the pain. In fact, many ultra marathon runners say that training for a longer distance is less intense. The fact that you are combining walking with running and less likely to focus on time – simply finishing – takes a lot of the pressure off. Many ultra marathon runners have done their ‘proving’ on the marathon circuit. Ultra marathon running often transcends this.
Your nutritional needs are another factor to consider. If you have run a marathon you will be used to eating and drinking on the move. For an ultra marathon there is no escaping the need to do this. Much of your preparation time will be spent experimenting with what works and what to avoid. While energy gel bars are an obvious source of nutrition on the move, for some people these simply do not do the job. Trial and error is the only way to establish what works and what doesn’t. The same is true of your running gear, your drinking patterns and your combination of walking and running. It is only after weeks of training that you will know what works for you, although reading the blogs of those who have gone before may offer some useful tips and advice.
The biggest barrier to stand between you and your first successful ultra marathon is you! It is common for a 30 per cent drop out at the start of an ultra event, through injury, illness or sheer fear at the enormity of the challenge. If you had moments during your 10K training or on your way to your first marathon when you questioned why you were doing this, you will experience self-doubt so much more in the build up to your first ultra marathon. At times like this you need to have the self-discipline and depth of resolution to get through those dark moments. This could be the memory of someone you are running for. It could be the music you use to accompany you on the runs, it might mean buddying up with another ultra runner – whatever your motivation, harness it and use it to keep driving you towards your goal. The community of ultra runners are highly competitive but they are also hugely supportive, so tap into their collective knowledge and wisdom.