How to step up to your first ultramarathon

Are you fresh from Boston or London and looking for your next challenge? Perhaps you’re training for a marathon, love running, and want to take your experience up a notch. Stepping up to an ultramarathon might be for you.

What is an ultra?

Generally regarded as any distance over 50km, ultramarathons can be found the world over – with tonnes of brilliant race organisers. Start by looking at what’s out there, and find something that really grabs your imagination.

If you’re in the US, check out Running in the USA; in the UK you’ll find most races on Run Ultra or the Beyond Marathon calendar. In Europe, take a look at Ahotu Marathons, and in Ireland there’s Outsider. Worldwide, I love the International Trail Running Association.

The key to successfully completing anything is having a good reason to do it. Don’t sign up to events that don’t excite you, perhaps because you’re following someone else. Choose road or trail; single or multi-day, and get ready for an altogether different mind-set.

Getting bitten by the ultra bug

I was first inspired by watching the 1998 Marathon des Sables on French TV. The event is often described as the ‘Toughest Foot Race on Earth’, and the idea of running the equivalent of six marathons over six days in the Sahara just seemed too far out of reach. Then, in 2008 I turned to my wife and said I would do it one day, to which she replied ‘either get on and do it or stop talking about it!’, as I had mentioned this dream pretty much every April for around ten years! So, point taken, a few days later I paid my deposit and signed up for the 2011 event.

Since marathons in 2001 and 2002, I had continued as an occasional jogger and weekly swimmer, so I had a good base level of fitness to build upon. I still remember the first 10-mile double-digit run that I completed on New Year’s Day 2010, which was a real confidence booster.

Putting one foot in front of the other

Stepping up to ultra-distance seemed a daunting task, so I invested in a coaching day with Rory Coleman, and signed up for the 45/90: a two-day ultramarathon from Northampton to Tring (and back) along the middle third of the Grand Union Canal.

Day one was long but OK. Day two was tough! I weighed around 95kg at the time and Rory had previously told me to lose weight; day two proved how right he was. The second thing I learned was the importance of a thorough pre-race kit check. Once it started to turn dark I couldn’t find my head torch, so I proceeded gingerly so as not to fall in the canal! Not only did I lose a lot of time, but it was pretty dangerous. Fortunately, a guy who was crewing his wife gave me the front light off his bike. To this day, I’m grateful. Needless to say, I set about losing some weight and ever since have been meticulous with my kit checks.

Although the event was tough, I gained valuable lessons, and bags of confidence and strength. I also felt a terrific sense of achievement, which for me is exactly what running ultras is all about!

Are you thinking of taking the leap to ultra-distance? I’d love to help. Drop me a line on if you’d like some tips or coaching.

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