Running a marathon is tough enough right? So why would anyone want to take it even further and do double, triple or even quadruple the distance?
Known as ultra running, and once only for the hardiest of athletes, these events are now seeing a much wider spectrum of runners at the start line.
We asked ultra runner Sarah Ridgway to tell us all about going beyond the marathon.
JOIN THE ULTRA CLUB
An ultra run is a run of any distance extending beyond the standard marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.2 miles). While there is no limit, common distances are 50 km, 100km, 50 miles and 100 miles.
Other ultra races include double marathons, 24-hour races and multiday races of 1000 miles or even longer.
The terrain can be anything from track, road or trail, and in some mountain events inclement weather, altitude or rugged terrain must be tackled.
ULTRA RUNNING IS NOT AN EXTREME SPORT
Many people perceive ultra running as something unattainable, however go to any ultra race and you’ll see people of all shapes and ages.
Completing an ultra is achievable to nearly anyone who has the desire to challenge themselves, the discipline to train properly and the dedication to see it through.
GOING BEYOND THE MARATHON
Many runners are deterred from ultras after running a marathon, unable to comprehend the idea of running twice as far and hurting twice as much.
As someone who ran numerous ultra marathons before running my first marathon, I can honestly say that ultras are easier than marathons – at least for your first few races where the goal is likely to be simply to complete.
It is important to realise that while most people will run the full distance of a marathon, walking sections in an ultra, such as uphills, is more than acceptable.
YOUR RACE TACTICS
The best way to tackle an ultra is to divide the race into manageable chunks, such as distance or time ‘legs’ between aid stations. Take it steady at the start.
You’ll probably feel fresh and inclined to run faster at the start than you should, so just remember the real race usually begins in the last third of the race where you often just have to grit your teeth and concentrate on finishing.
ULTRA MARATHONS ARE A MENTAL AND PHYSICAL ROLLER COASTER RIDE
You may find yourself skipping along at a steady pace enjoying every minute, when suddenly you could sink into a dark low with thoughts of quitting, only to find an hour later you are back to a euphoric period of running.
In dealing with the lows, replace negative thoughts with positive ones and focus on how you can get yourself back on track.
For example if you are overheating and fear you may have become dehydrated, slow your pace, walk for a while and drink plenty of water. Enjoy the highs when they come!
WHILE ULTRAS ARE LARGELY A MENTAL GAME, DON’T KID YOURSELF THAT YOU CAN GET THROUGH ON GRIT ALONE
Pick your ultra well in advance, educate yourself on the course terrain and profile, and tailor your training to mimic the conditions: if the course is hilly, then don’t avoid hills.
Is the terrain technical? Find some technical trails to train on. Will you be running sections at night? Start night running.
Ultimately, success (and enjoyment!) on race day is related to total training volume. Put simply, one of the best ways to run better in ultras is to run more.
Allow yourself around six months to prepare, where ideally, weekly mileage should be built up sensibly to no less than 40-50 miles per week within the first three months, with periods of stabilisation to adjust to the new mileage and then sensible increases thereafter depending on the goal race distance.
Generally, however, you’ll be adequately prepared on a 40-50 mile week as you get your long runs in. Your longest run need not necessarily be longer than 30-40 miles, but at least one long training run of this distance in one go is a good idea to experience the inevitable roller coaster ride and how to get through it.
Use your long runs to test your clothing and equipment as well as food and drink you will use on race day and never cut your run short simply because you don’t feel like finishing!
ULTRAS CAN BE PRETTY ADDICTIVE
Immediately after crossing the finish line on your first race you’ll be in a world of hurt and, despite the elation of doing something you may have thought you could never do, you’ll swear “never again”.
That won’t last – you’ll sign up to your next one before you know it.
There is an undefinable appeal to ultras. For some it’s the opportunity to challenge yourself while taking in amazing scenery, for others it could be the curiosity to see how fast you can do a certain distance.
Whatever the appeal, it can certainly be life changing, and indeed what better way to compete shoulder-to-shoulder with the men where as a woman you may even have a good chance to beat many of them to the finish line!
Just look at British runner Lizzy Hawker who holds the 24 hour ultra world record.
TOP TIP FOR NOVICE ULTRA RUNNERS
Your goal in your first ultra should simply be to finish. Just run your own race and try not to think about any particular person you want to beat or a strict goal time.
Enjoy the journey as much as the finish!
Sarah Ridgway is sponsored by inov-8 and co-runs a guided running business based in Snowdonia. www.runsnowdonia.co.uk.