Phew! I just completed my first Ultra Marathon.
Why did I enter?
When I took up Chi Running a few years ago, I had made a decision to run regularly and be determined about becoming injury free – hence Chi Running. Chi Running was developed by Danny Dreyer, an ultra runner from the U.S. and together with stories of ultra running from various books such as Feet In The Clouds by Richard Asquith (see my blog) and Born To Run (see my blog) I guess I couldn’t resist entering an event like this eventually.
Friends also inspired me to run an ultra (thanks Wil) and I guess I’ve been through a process of breaking through mental boundary after mental boundary over the last through few years. I hadn’t done a marathon before this event, but I had taken on a succession of long fell races including the Holme Moss Race, the Three Peaks Race, and various Dark and White Challenge events. My aim would be to complete the race and be comfortable the next day.
How did I prepare?
I’m not the only person in my family wanting to train and take part in leisure, so I knew from the start that training for long hours and mileage wasn’t going to happen. Also, I was coming back from some time off after an operation, so was mindful that I didn’t want to over train. After completing the Holme Moss Fell Race in July I put 4 long training runs in the diary. 15, 18, 22 and 30. It wasn’t ideal in terms of gradual progress, but I was determined to get to the 30 mile distance in training. Also, I had easier weeks after each long run in order to allow my body to recover. During August I ran a total of 102 miles. This seems pathetic compared to the distance that many do in preparation for events like marathons, however it was the most intensive month of my life and it would need to suffice. Worrying about inadequate training would be counter productive, and experience told me that I could run for many hours in the hills without needing to stop.
So how did it go?
I made a plan to set out at a 10-11 minute mile pace. I knew that I would never make anything faster than 8 hours, and the idea of running at the 10-11 minute pace when I could would save a few minutes here and there. I knew I was going to walk all the major hills. Hopefully that would put me on track for under 9 hours. It took a lot of discipline to run that slowly, especially on the downhills when I did let myself go a bit faster, but I felt strongly that the first 10-15 miles were all about preserving energy.
After 10 miles I felt amazing – I memorised how easy it felt to run up Eccles Pike so that I could bring back that feeling later in the race. 10-20 miles included a lot of uphill, so it was time to eat a lot of food, keep hydrated, and keep plodding away. 20 miles in 4 hours and all the hills out of the way felt great. The hill scenery around Mam Tor and Hollins Cross is surely some of the best in the whole of the UK.
Then came the ascent of Cave Dale – a long and drawn out climb. Again I walked most of this. Running with a friend helped a good deal here and as we passed the marathon distance mark things began to feel a bit more serious. It was time to knuckle down and get determined. In my training I had not run further than 30 miles, and when I ran that distance in training I did find it very hard to keep going. Now I was in the race my nutrition was totally different to training and it seemed to be keeping going. What was changing was my speed. Even on flat ground, any speed under 11 minute miles was hard to achieve as I passed the 30 mile mark. I made a point of enjoying the beautiful scenery down Monsal Dale. The long walk / run up Deep Dale found my leaving my friend Wil behind (we had not agreed to run the whole course together) and beginning to see if I had any speed in my legs for running at a sufficient speed to get close to 8 hours.
By this stage I was loving the TUC biscuits at the feed stations – maybe my body needed salt?
I came to the end of Deep Dale only to face a long, undulating tarmac section which was quite hard to run along. I tended to walk for short sections of the uphill. My technique was to run the first part of the hill and then walk, always making a mental agreement with myself that I would start running again when I reached a specific point eg the next telegraph pole. I was trying to be kind to myself, whilst remaining determined not to break any of these agreements with myself.
By this time I was counting down how many Park Run’s to go! I was finding it hard mentally, so it was time to be mindful of where I was, accept what my body was able to do and take a look at my runners tool bag. What did I have? A few energy gels. I planned when to use them. I had Chi Running – I relaxed more. I had my own mental strength – I was in charge of what I was doing and I didn’t need to let negative thoughts dictate to me.
Shortly after the road finished at the village of Chelmorton came a few more fields and then another rocky valley, Deep Dale again (a different one.) You can see this one on my gpx file – straight down and straight up a v shaped valley – phew! Chi Running technique for steep hills was my absolute best ally here. Just 4 miles to go.
At this point I realised I had, to some extent, still been holding something back for the end, unsure whether I would be able to run for 40 whole miles. Well this was time to use the last bit of energy! No more walking up hills – I was to run the whole way now. So the runners who had overtaken me on the road now became my targets. For the first time in the race I was competing against the other runners.
The problem was, the next two runners were a field length ahead of me and I actually needed to go faster to catch them up! How did I do this? Very gradually. I just concentrated on my aim of reaching them. As I realised from my Garmin that I was past the 39 mile mark I started to go faster. I came up close to the two guys in front as we crossed a long grassy field. I realised we were entering the School Grounds where the finish was. I ran for it, overtaking the two in front and then spotting two more runners. I went in to a sprint (if you can call it that) and left a decent distance between me and them before crossing the finish line in 8 hours and 36 minutes, making me 80th out of 140 runners.
How did I feel the next day? Great!!
What did I eat?
I would have loved to follow the footsteps of Rich Roll and many others, fuelling up on natural energy sources. My tight budget and time before didn’t allow for this, so I stuck to the golden rule of not experimenting with anything new on race day. For me this meant jelly babies and energy gels to eat + High 5 electrolyte tablets in my water supply. This + bananas, flapjack, jaffa cakes and Tuc biscuits from the aid stations saw me through the race. I would love to find a different way to fuel myself in future. Does anyone have any advice?
What are my best tips for a first time ultra runner?
I asked in a lot of forums and asked a lot of runners I know. I got a whole range of advice, often contradictory, so this is just what worked for me. The first two tips are widely shared and nothing new. These tips enabled me to complete my race, not necessarily compete in it!
Food – use what your body has been used to tolerating in training. I didn’t deviate from tried and tested foods that had worked for me in the past.
Walk or Run? I walked all the major hills – why run if you can walk at the same speed? i had had a lot of different advice on this. When I was tired near the end I allowed myself to walk some sections of hills even though I would not normally count them as hills! I always set a point where I would start running again and kept to it.
Learn Chi Running! This helped me stay relaxed, efficient, positive and enjoy my whole race. Even better I found my legs were great the next day – back to normal! Before Chi Running I had constant knee pain whenever I ran, so running 40 miles pain free was the biggest physical achievement of my life.
Mental preparation – spend time the week before visualising yourself successfully completing the route. I do a lot of this and I’m sure it helps keep negative thoughts at bay. Always look forward to and enjoy every part of the course. Don’t allow yourself to talk with dread about any section. Identify those thoughts if they crop up and reframe / replace them with fun thoughts instead.