This is an in-depth article on training for, and running, your first ultra marathon, by my friend and training partner Brian O’Shea.
Downloadable Training Plans available here.
There are plenty of blogs, books and websites in existence that provide information for experienced/fast/elite runners on how to join the world of ultra-marathon running. Many of these provide little in the way of information and advice for the average recreational runner with “mediocre” or “below par” times, and these articles in themselves only serve to perpetuate the belief that the sport is only for the naturally athletic individuals in tip-top physical shape, who subsist on a diet of berries and nuts. Many of these blogs and articles are written by and aimed for those who have vast experience of distance running or “natural” athleticism.
In the following article, I aim to provide some advice and tips for the everyday recreational runner, who may have limited running experience and possibly marathon times beyond 5 hours. This article is designed for the individual who is flirting with the idea of running their first ultra-marathon with the goal not of winning, but of completing. For the purposes of having a focus on a particular event, I will be using the Tralee 100k as a basis for much of this article, but it applies equally well to any ultra.
An ultra marathon is any distance that is more than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.195km). Typically, the shortest ultras are considered to be 30miles in length and can be any distance beyond this, for example; 50km, 60km, 40 miles, 50 miles, 100km, 100 miles or anything in between, or beyond. Ultra-Marathons can also take place as time based events such as 6, 12, 24, 48 hours endurance events where one attempts to cover as much distance in the time as they can. Some ultra-marathons are multi-stage events such as the Marathon Des Sables, which is approx. 254km (depending on the route) and takes place over 6 stages, or days. The sky is the limit when it comes to ultras, as people aim to push both their own limits, and the existing limits on how far they can race.
One may think that running an ultra requires the same tactics that are utilised for running a half-marathon or marathon, but pause for a second and consider this; comparing a 100km ultra-marathon to a marathon is like comparing rugby to American football; while elements are very similar, they are simply two separate sports. That being said, one point that does stand out is they both fit under the umbrella of running.
So why would anyone want to run more than a marathon? Well here’s a typical Irish answer, responding to a question with a question, why would anyone want to run a marathon, a half-marathon, a 10k or a 5k for that matter? The true answer will always be individualised, but the usual categorical answers tend to be one or more of the following: because I can, because I want to, because I want a challenge, because it scares me… whatever your reason is, it’s reason enough. One element that is required is determination (some call it stubbornness) and the other crucial trait necessary is commitment (non-runners deem this as obsession).
The goal of training is to allow the runner to adapt, over a period of time, to the increased distance required by the goal (Planned Event) both physically and mentally. Thereby allowing one to complete the desired distance in as easy a manner as possible, training will consist of Base Runs, Hill Runs/Mid Distance, Long Runs and Rest Days. Training also serves to prepare one mentally for the distance that will be undertaken. Prior to undertaking a program to take the step towards completing an ultra-marathon, it is advisable to have a medical check-up to ensure there are no underlying medical concerns which could be exacerbated by a strenuous physical exercise programme. One should have an existing level of fitness before embarking on this challenge, ideally having already completed a marathon, although this is not always a necessity depending on one’s physical fitness levels. If you have not built up your fitness levels enough to run for at least 3 hours with ease, than you should really consider taking part in another programme to achieve this before embarking on your ultra journey. Ideally, you should have completed a marathon before starting ultra training programmes.
Training can also be sub-divided into practicing ones “race pace” (the pace you will aim to run your ultra-marathon), fuelling and hydration strategies and walk/run practice.
Base runs are the everyday runs which serve to maintain and improve one’s cardiovascular fitness levels. These runs should be completed at a steady but not too fast a pace. Depending on one’s existing fitness levels, this pace should be between 10 mins/mile and 12 minutes/mile. These runs should not be over-taxing but at the same time one should have to put some degree of effort into the run. These runs short in distance and will range from 2 miles to 6 miles. These runs should not be at a pace that will cause any muscle soreness or pain.
Hill runs can be described as being the equivalent of “leg day” at the gym. There is lots of scientific language and dialogue that can be used to describe the benefits of these runs but let’s keep it simple; hill runs help make you stronger. These runs are done over mid-distance which can be anywhere from 8 miles to 13 miles. The pace here will be a bit slower than that of the base runs. One should take care on the downward sections of these runs as going to fast downhill can increase the risk of injury. This run should ideally take place between base run days, the effort of this run may result in some stiffness and muscle soreness post-run or in the day or so after, but this should be relatively mild in nature and easily comforted with the application of a muscle rub or hot Epsom salt bath.
Every training programme will have its own idea of what is best in terms of long runs. Some programmes are designed to have two long runs a week, on simultaneous days; we call these back to back long runs. Others may have one long run, while others still have two long runs on the one day. For the Tralee 100k, we recommend one long run a week, ideally followed by a rest day.
Long runs are used to practice your “race pace”. This is also a great opportunity to practice walking, fuelling and hydration (I will go into more detail about these later). These runs should be done at a slow pace. One should be less concerned with the number of miles covered and more interested in time on feet. For this reason, the training plan we use for the Tralee 100k usually has time targets and not mileage targets for the Long Runs. The pace of running here should be very relaxed and one should be able to hold a conversation easily. The aim here is to increase endurance, while familiarising the body and mind with what can be expected for the day of your ultra-marathon. These runs will usually provide you with some muscle soreness and stiffness post run or tiredness towards the end of your training session. DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) may occur following these runs. This should be followed by a rest day, and the next run should be a base run. Adapt your pace accordingly to how sore you are on that base run, you will usually find that this base run will help remove the soreness and stiffness from the long run.
When training for any event, it is best to try to train on similar terrain to that which you will be running on during the event. This is particularly true for when you are completing the long runs. See if you can familiarise yourself with the route you plan on “racing” and try to train on similar surface and elevation so that you will be ready for your big day. It is even more ideal if you have direct access to the route itself, training on the route you plan running is good at both preparing the body for what is ahead and for tackling the mental aspect of the challenge. This way you will know course and know what is ahead on the day at any given point. Here in Tralee we are lucky we have close proximity to the Tralee 100k route and can train on the route throughout the entire training program. If you are unable to get access to the course, see if you can get your hands on a map of the route, and try to match the surface and elevation to routes in your local vicinity.
Throughout your training, you should practice running at various times of the day. This will help acclimatise your body to running both in the early morning and the late evening. The Tralee 100k starts at 6am, and has a cut off time of 9pm, giving you 15 hours to complete the event. Training for this, we will hold some of our long runs very early in the morning and also have some runs late in the evening.
Walking in a 5k/10k/half-marathon/marathon is often looked down upon by participants and seen as failure. Personally, I view each step forward be it sprinted or crawled as being one step closer to achievement….and a medal. In ultra-marathons, all but a small few (usually the elite runners) will incorporate walking into their overall strategy for race day. But why walk? Simple really, it comes down to smart energy expenditure, walking a section of uphill will reduce the effort level and therefore the energy required to complete that section; this energy can then be expended at another point while taking less effort, on the downhill for example. Walking will also give the muscles used for running a bit of a break, enabling them to recover to some degree so that you can prolong the amount of time you are able to stay on your feet. As runners become more experienced they may adapt their strategy on future races as their body becomes accustomed to the pressures placed upon it. There is no hard fixed rule for this and strategy formation is entirely down to the individual runner. Periodic walking breaks also provide an opportunity for incorporation of your fuelling and hydration plan. The walking sections should be completed at a brisk walk similar to that you would use if you were at risk of being late for a bus and not the same type of saunter as you may have on a lazy summer evening walking along the beach in quiet meditative contemplation of the universe.
There are multiple approaches to how walking can be incorporated into your strategy. Some people adopt time based such as run for 55 minutes and walk for 5; others decide to run the flat ground and downhills and walk the uphill sections. Some people use mileage based strategy such as run 5 miles and walk half a mile. Others will run to the point where the need to walk, and will then walk until they can run again. There are a multitude of permutations around this, and whatever strategy that you choose, you should most definitely practice this at least once a week (the long run is ideal). One thing that is important to practice is the transition from running to walking and walking to running. If you stop suddenly mid run to walk you are doing the equivalent of slamming the breaks on your car, you need to slow gradually to a walk; the process in reverse is true also, start from a walk and gradually increase speed until you are at your desired pace. The first few times you practice this you may feel stiff in the hips after the walk and/or sore in the glutes post training.
When we are training for the Tralee 100k Ultra-marathon, we adopt a run/walk strategy of 25 minutes running followed by 5 minutes walking. During the 5 minute walk section, we practice the brisk pace, hydration and fuelling. We practice the walking throughout the training programme so that the transition to walking and other elements are not alien to the body come race day. On our long runs we keep the pace of the run relaxed at around 11:30/mile and with the walking being kept brisk this provides an average moving pace of around 12 minutes per mile. This may seem slow to some people but think of it this way, if you are able to maintain this pace when you are 60 miles into the event, you will be doing well. The walk/run is not entirely set in stone, and when running and you are very familiar with the route, if you know you are a few minutes from the next steep hill you can hold off on the walk until that hill, or you can walk both, this is entirely up to the individual.
More advice on Walk/Run Strategy here.
One of the first mistakes that runners make on race day is starting too fast. This is very easy to do as one can get caught up in the moment and take off with a bunch of runners. Those who fall victim to this in a marathon, will usually feel the effects in the latter half of the event, but can adapt to deal with the situation. If this happens during an ultra-marathon it can be devastating on your performance and result in DNF (Did Not Finish) due to injury and or not reaching cut-off time requirements. It will most certainly result in more discomfort in the second half of your day and will probably see your pace decrease dramatically. It can be advisable to take part in a few events as training sessions. Match an event to what is on your training programme and complete the event as you would a training session. This can help you practice your starting pace and for less experienced runners it can have multiple benefits. You will become accustomed to being at a start line, practicing your race strategy but also in settling nerves that can often inhibit sleep the night before an event.
In training for the Tralee 100k we have a number of events which match up nicely to our training requirements. We have a marathon that matches up with a 5 hour training session, a 10 mile road race that corresponds to a 2 hour session and we are lucky to have a local 40 mile ultra that matches up to our 40 mile training session. Each of these will be done as training sessions to familiarise ourselves with race day dynamics. Ultimately they provide us with an opportunity to not only practice our running and fuelling strategy but our entire race-day strategy. These events also allow for you to run alone and as part of a group. Those who are familiar with running with others should complete a number of long runs on their own, as there is no guarantee that on the day of your ultra you will spend your entire time with other people, even if you are part of a group where each person is training for the same event. Similarly, for those who like to run in isolation, running with others on a number of training runs or having someone meet you at points on your run can help familiarise yourself with what might occur on the day of your race.
Training programmes are like opinions; there are countless numbers of varying ones out there. What is important is finding one that suits the event you are participating in, and also suits your goals. The programme I will be discussing below is the programme that has been adapted for the Tralee 100k Ultra Marathon. It is designed for those wishing to complete the event or possibly improving on a previous performance. Those who have ambitions of winning or placing in an event should possibly find an alternative programme.
The programme above is 20 weeks in duration, if aims to increase endurance and time on feet so as to tackle the Tralee 100k Ultra-marathon. Ideally one will progress to this training plan having completed a full marathon at least 6 months prior. As has been already outlined, this is ideally and by no means a hard and fast rule; as those with good overall fitness levels on a half-marathon should also be able to successfully complete this programme. The schedule is quiet intensive and time-consuming, one may shy away when they see that most weeks only have one rest day. This is where we go back to what has been said already, pace control is key. One needs to keep the pace gentle and not over taxing. The accumulative effect of the training acts as a double edged sword. On one hand completing the programme across 6 days and not 5 days lowers the overall daily mileage count, but also means training eats into yet another day. Training this number of days per week increases tiredness of the muscles, simulating extra mileage on the other runs, there is a propensity for increased risk of injury if one does not adapt ones nutrition and pace.
Looking at the training plan for the first time can be quiet scary and intimidating. Especially for those who have completed a number of marathons. Remember, key to this is pace. The pace is kept relaxed and one should be okay. A number of the sessions have been highlighted in red. These are some of the sessions that can be used for event training as discussed above. These are suggestions and are not mandatory to the plan. It is advisable not to do all these as event training, as you should also be practicing on courses that match or are closely matched to the profile of segments of the official route you are running.
We are using the Wednesday as our day for mid-distance/hill work runs. These have been discussed already above. If you know that your long run has a particularly tough hilly section in it, you should use the mileage on a Wednesday on easier elevation. What is really important here is time spent on your feet, and less so the mileage covered, this is why most of the long runs are recorded in time format and not distance. These runs should become comfortable, rhythmic and enjoyable.
The training plan in its entirety allows you to practice all the elements you will need for the race day, and will allow you to test by trial and error what works best for you as an individual. Long runs are great for this. You can use them to test food, drinks, clothes, gear, practice using your crew, using aid stations, walk/run transitioning etc. Do NOT pass up the opportunity to find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Nothing new should be tried on race day.
You need to be aware and listen to your body. Sleep and nutrition are important, sleep or the lack thereof can make or break you. There is no need to follow the diet of an Olympic athlete but one should not think they can use increased calories burned off as an excuse to devour nutritionally deficit yet tasty treats. Simply put, if you do not put fuel into your vehicle, you will hit empty and stop in your tracks. You need to eat enough proper fuel to ensure that you remain healthy (see Food Pyramid below for guidance). There is a lot of scientific research and debate into how much of each nutrient and micronutrient is required and reasons for each of these. It is easier to state for the novice, eat as healthy as you can but do not be overly harsh on yourself either. You do not want this journey to turn into too much of a chore. The general consensus in the articles I have read is that there is a need for some additional protein consumption; this is to do with muscle growth, formation and repair. So if one is to eat relatively healthy and be mindful of the information in the food pyramid guidelines, while consuming a bit more protein than they normally would, than you should be doing okay. I am not a dietician and am not attempting to sound like one; this is rough advice, given based upon experience and nothing else. There is a very real reason the world’s top athletes have individually tailor made dietary plans, what I am saying is that if your goal is to complete your first ultra-marathon, than one should eat at least some bit more healthy. You may find you are hungrier than you normally are, if so eat healthy but you do not have to be religious about it and allow yourself the odd treat. If you are really concerned about this, than see a dietician and have a nutritional plan drawn up to suit your individual requirements.
If you find a particular evening meal or breakfast consumed before a long run has little or no negative effect on you during your run, than it is a good idea to eat similarly to this on before all race days or long runs (needing to go toilet mid run is a clear indication that something does not really agree with your running). The opposite is true also if you find something has a negative effect on you. This will be trial and error. Each person is individual in this regards. I find that eating a curry the evening before a long run works great for me, but this may be a complete disaster for other people.
Fuelling and Hydration
I have often heard ultra-marathoners jokingly describe ultras as being secret eating completions. This joke isn’t too far removed from fact when one compares a 100k event to a half-marathon or marathon. Think for a second about what is consumed during a marathon: jaffa cakes, bananas, sports drink, water, jellies… and consider the time spent on your feet.. 3.5 – 5 hours? Now think of your normal day, say when you are working. You eat what 3-4 meals a day and maybe some snack or other, how long is that day maybe 15-16 hours. Failure to eat results in hunger, lack of energy, lowering of both physical and mental performance. Taking part in the Tralee 100k one can expect to be moving for 14-15 hours, plus there is time before and after the event. One is burning more energy than an average day and one needs to ensure there is enough “fuel in the tank” so that you can complete the event.
To do this one needs to eat throughout the event. Unfortunately there are only so many jellies, chocolates and cakes one can consume before even these become distasteful. Fuelling for your ultra should be a combination of liquid and solid foods. Again the cardinal rule of nothing new on race day, all food should be tested during the training phase. What you can eat is unlimited and is entirely based on what works best for you. I and many others have found that you can get the weirdest cravings whilst taking part in ultras. This may or may not have to do with the body looking for micronutrients it requires or maybe simply a bizarre side effect of ultra-distance running…who knows. I have crewed for runners who mid-race asked for a burger and fries, and have seen another runner going up the route with a slice of pizza in his hand. The body tends to look for complex carbohydrates and proteins. The easiest way to make life easier is to practice eating all kinds of random things on your training runs, from sandwiches and burgers to rice pudding or jelly. Practicing your fuelling with solid fuel will enable you see what works and doesn’t work for you. Gels like those used by many in shorter events are not necessarily a good idea as they can cause GI issues.
I have heard of people that find salted baby potatoes in butter to be the best thing since the wheel was invented; I’m personally not a fan of potatoes on a normal day but this is quiet effective for both salt intake and topping up the energy levels.
Strategy on this can differ from person to person, and I find that small amounts regularly work best for me. I am able to tell my crew at a scheduled meeting point what I would like them to have ready for me at the next scheduled meeting point (I will discuss your crew later). On smaller ultras, like the Tralee 40 miler which is a looped course I am able to grab what I fancy from my box of supplies as I start each loop.
I work from the basis of “it is better to have it and be looking at it than not have it and be looking for it”. For this reason I practice eating a multitude of different items when running, and will have a box of lots of things on the day of an event, from which I can pick and choose what I want. I will always end up coming home with most of what was in the box but at least I have choice on the day.
I cannot stress how important fuelling is, I have seen participants drop out of events or nearly drop out because they forgot how important this is. You need to implement this strategy from the start of the day. Items which I personally find great are: soup, salt and vinegar crisps, pineapple chunks, cheese sandwiches, peanut butter, rice pudding and chocolate and coconut snowballs. So on the day of my race, instead of having 3-4 meals I am instead eating very small portions about once every 30 minutes or so. This helps to keep energy levels up and mental fatigue at bay. I also love to have a mug of hot sweet tea every now and then.
In the week or two before the event, I will usually eat a lot of carb based food such as pasta and rice (as I said I am not a major potato fan, but they are good too); this helps to build up the stored energy in the body’s muscles and liver. Then the day before the event I will eat light food and not stodgy heavy foods (ie very little rice with my curry but plenty of chicken and veg). This works best for me but again….. each person is different!!
Hydration strategy is something I have mentioned briefly already. Simply put both over and under hydration can lead to disaster. This is something that needs to be monitored on a continual basis and adapted based on the conditions on the day. On an average summer’s day in Ireland, someone performing moderate exercise can lose about 1 litre of water per hour. If you plan on running for 14-15 hours you will need to replace this or you will be doomed to DNF. When we look at the composition of sweat, among its main components at water and salts, these salts are called electrolytes and like water they are essential to normal functioning or both the body and mind. These like water will need to be replaced. Some will be replaced through solid food such as the potatoes. We can also help replace these through the use of electrolyte tablets, or packets, which can be added to water. These are often flavoured and come in many different brands, some of which have other added ingredients such as caffeine. Here again I will say, try a few different brands on your long runs and find a brand and/or flavour that suits your stomach. Each person is different in what works for them.
I said earlier that around 50% of our nutrition comes from solid and the other half from liquid. This means that we cannot just drink water with electrolytes in it all day. We will also consume liquid fuel such as smoothies, protein shakes, sports drinks, soup etc. Again (you’ll be sick of this phrase) practice by trial and error and see what works for you, each person is different. Some people swear by re-hydration mixes which can be purchased at your local pharmacy.
I find alternating between the various liquids to be helpful in making sure that I am covering all the bases here. To make things easier to track, I provide my crew a sheet so they will know what I got at various points along the Tralee 100k route, and they can tick it off. I also have guesstimated some of the fuelling I will need at the various points and inputted this, or points such as change sock etc. The form will also include at glance information for the crew such as the number of the race director, first aid officer and emergency contact, I will also put on this form medical information such as allergies and any medication if applicable just in case things go very wrong. Below is a copy of this form.
It is important to note, that this is just a rough plan for the day, a tool which can be used by you and your crew to ensure that you are eating and drinking enough and contains other bits of information. I have not inputted everything I will need at every stop because I usually make my mind up based upon what I think I would like at the next meeting point. It is helpful to have your phone with you while you run, in case you need to contact your crew for any reason. You may want a jacket, a change of clothes or maybe just a cup of tea. Having a strategy is helpful towards making your day run smoother.
I have mentioned the term crew a few times. But what is a crew? Some ultra-marathons are entirely solo and self-sufficient i.e. once you start you are on your own and need to cater for everything yourself. Some ultras like the Tralee 100k, mandate participants to have a team which is there on the day to support them. The crew is generally charged with ensuring that you are fit to continue participating in the event. Each participant can use their crew in whatever way they deem. I like to think of the Tralee 100k as a team event, the runner does what runners do and the crew enable their continued participation in the event. The meet the runner at scheduled points to provide food, liquid, change of clothes, minor first aid if necessary, motivation etc etc.
Picking your crew can be tricky, your best friend and brother may not necessarily be the best people to have on your crew. Members of your crew should be strong willed, not queasy or delicate, familiar to you and most importantly people who not only have faith in you but people that you trust. You literally hand over a lot of power to your crew, and if they feel that you should be pulled from the event for health and safety reasons; their word is final! You accept their word and you get back to the drawing board, analyse what worked and what didn’t and try again.
Your crew will transport your supplies as mentioned above, and ensure that you are properly fuelled. They will also have a first aid kit to deal with minor issues. They should be contactable at all times by both yourself and the race director. Your crew will need to have enough fuel in their car to last the whole day, and the car will be required to have signage identifying it as part of the race and warning other road users that a race is underway and there are participants on the road. The crew car needs to have insurance for all those that will be driving, it needs to be road worthy and will be inspected by the event safety officer before it is permitted onto the event course. The vehicle will also be required to have a flashing warning light on its roof (these are available cheaply online). Crew members are bound by event rules and are required to wear a high viz vest at all times.
I would advise having 3-4 people on your crew, with two of these being insured to drive the vehicle. This will allow them to take turns and have breaks. I personally have my crew leapfrog ahead of me in increments of about 2.5 miles. This distance becomes more important in the later stages of the event. I will normally have someone on my crew that is competent in first aid and also someone who is also a runner. Having a runner on your crew is helpful in the event that you hit the wall; they will understand your plight better and be able to motivate you. They may also be less sensitive than non-runners. You will need someone who is able to assess if you are okay and just going through a rough patch, verses thinking you are down and out of the event. These people need to be able to tell you to cop the f*** on but also not get offended if you get over cranky with them. You need someone that will not just abandon you on the course because you told them to f*** off.
Interestingly, with the Tralee 100k you can have crew members run with you once you have reached the halfway point. They are NOT allowed to pace you, cannot run ahead of you and must be either behind you or at your shoulder. This can be very helpful in terms of motivation in the latter stages of the event.
Crew members need to look after themselves on the day just as much as you need to be looked after. They will need to eat and take rest breaks when they can. It is a stressful job. Your crew can make your day a lot easier or they can make it more difficult…choose your crew wisely.
It is a good idea to have your crew practice their crewing skills on some of your longer runs. They should also become familiar with the route. This can prevent mistakes on the day. Ultimately it is your obligation to know the route and make your way around, your crew will need to know where they need to be in order to meet you.
When you meet your crew at a designated point, do not stop and talk with them. Get the supplies you need and move on. You can then use the supplies when you are due a walking break. If you need to change clothes etc, change and go immediately. A huge amount of time can go past in what feels like only a few minutes if you stop to talk. DO NOT SIT DOWN, you will start to seize up.
Your crew should have your first aid kit in the crew car at all times. This should be your standard first aid kit with a few additional supplies added that could come in handy if needed. Have things in your first aid kit such as muscle rub, instant ice packs, analgesic tablets, and allergy tablets if you have allergies, sun cream, burn gel, blister plasters, nausea tablets, and gastro intestinal upset tablets. (speak to your pharmacist about these before buying as some are not safe with certain activities)
Your crew while there for your benefit should also be courteous to other participants. The Tralee 100k has built a reputation since its inception of shared respect amongst the participants and their crew.
Some events have specific time limits for which you need to complete sections of the course or even the entire course itself. In the past two years, the Tralee 100k has had two cut off points; participants needed to pass the halfway point before 8 hours and also complete the course in under 15 hours. Race directors are fully entitled to make adjustments to cut off times or implement more cut off times as they see fit. Cut off times are put in place not to torment participants, but to be mindful to the health and safety of the runners and other road users. If one cannot make the halfway point in less than 8 hours they are highly unlikely to make the finish line in under 15 hours, it is also an indication that something has gone drastically wrong for the runner. Some events have very tight cut off times with adds a further element of difficulty to the event, but the cut off times in the Tralee 100k are very fair.
Events differ in terms of the number and distance between aid stations, as well as what is supplied at the aid station. Some events have no aid stations are called self-sufficient events. This means that the participant is 100% responsible for ensuring that all their own needs are catered for. You should always read the event description completely to find out this information, if it is not readily available then ask the event organiser. Due to the individualised nature of nutritional needs many events allow participants to provide the organisers with a bag(s) of supplies which will be transported to a certain point(s) on the course, this is known as a drop bag. Aid Stations in the Tralee 100k provide water amongst other supplies to participants. They are located every 10km. In the previous two years there was the option to have two drop bags transported to two points on the course. This should not be requirement for you if you have a crew. I would advise that you only use aid stations as a supplement to your plan, do not rely entirely on them. For looped events such as the Tralee 40 miler, I leave a box of supplies on a table provided and do not rely on the race provider for sustenance; they may not have the same foods and brands I have practiced with.
If you do need to get something from the aid station as you are passing, take the item and move on, do not stop to talk or spend time there.
Some ultras mandate that participants have certain gear, supplies or other specific requirements to be allowed to take part in the event. Examples are: rain gear, warm clothes, lights, high visibility jacket/vest, water bottle, phone, maps. You should check with the race organiser well in advance to see if they have any specific requirements that need to be met. For the Tralee 100k participants must wear high visibility vests/jackets, crew cars must be inspected and must have a flashing warning light on the roof. Cars must also have a sign on the back identifying them as part of the event; this sign has been provided in the past.
Getting To The Start Line
If you are contemplating taking part in an ultramarathon, you have most likely some running experience. Whether this experience is smaller events such as 5k to 10 mile runs or maybe you have completed half-marathons or marathons. Looking at the training schedule can be intimidating in itself and even more so if you have completed marathons and experienced pain and discomfort in the process. To be an ultra-marathoner you do not need to be a superhero; but it does help to have one as inspiration mine is Spiderman. What it does take though is commitment to the training plan and keeping your eye on your goal.
In retrospect, one can dillydally a bit when training for smaller events. Miss training sessions completely or adjust the program to suit their lifestyle. This can often be done with no major repercussions if one’s goal is not time based and just completion. Ultra-running differs here because there is no hiding on the day of the event if you have not trained sufficiently. Ultra-running requires a combination of both physical and mental strength. Both of these are increased through completion of the training plan. Having the knowledge in the back of your head that you have successfully completed the programme can actually be the difference between a finish and a DNF.
Will there be pain during training? Most certainly there will be. But not all pain is bad. You will become accustomed to that ache of tired muscles after some of your long runs, the stiffness of DOMS in the morning a few days after some of your longer runs. However, look at it this way, some of those “training runs” are in fact marathon distances and beyond!! Yet the pain after and during the latter stages of these training sessions is only a shadow of the discomfort experienced by those who are racing the same distance as your training run!
After a long run, I have found paddling in the sea to be a brilliant way to sooth tired aching muscles. Some shout the benefits of ice baths while others cry out about how great Epsom salt baths are. Find something that works for you.
Getting to the start line of the ultra is a journey. This journey will take determination and lifestyle change. It does not have to become everything in your life, but it helps to have it up there in your priorities. The runs can be completed at any time of the day, and remember there is 24 hours in a day. You can have a life and train for the ultra. You may have to swap your favourite alcoholic beverage for a non-alcoholic alternative on a night out so that you won’t be hungover and dehydrated for the following days run, but you can still have your nights out with family and friends. You may have to record your favourite tv program because it clashes with your evening run.
Envision yourself having completed the ultra, holding your medal. Are you going to let things get between you and that vision becoming a reality? I thought not! So aside from turning up at training how do you prepare yourself for the journey?
I recommend that you get lots of sleep. Go to bed early enough to ensure you get your 8 hours kip. Have a time at which all screens are off. Eat at least relatively healthy as I have already spoken about. Practice hydration and fuelling strategies. Listen to your body, if you are very tired, take a run slower or adjust the time of the day you are running if you can. Practice running alone and with others, become comfortable in both your own company and the company of others. Accept that it is okay to run beside others and not actually talk or maybe you need to accept that it is okay to talk while you are running. A few years ago there was a big rise in the popularity of Mindfulness, which is basically a form of meditation where you let external factors drift away and focus on the here and now. I find that this happens for me a lot on long runs, the mind relaxes and the body just does its job.
If you experience “bad pain” or start to get niggles; get them investigated. I am lucky that my GP is also a specialist in orthopaedics and takes a keen interest in all things sports related. I would advise finding a similar doctor so that any issues can be diagnosed early and treated appropriately. If there is a need for physiotherapy or physical therapy your doctor will advise you of this. I have seen people in the past pay out hundreds of your on physio treatment before getting proper diagnoses, and getting nowhere they ended up going to a doctor that specialises in orthopaedics and getting a diagnosis and treatment plan for €60 and are back running within a week symptom free. This being said, not all doctors and physios are created equal. Some will always be better than others at finding and treating the cause of a problem and not just the symptoms.
Completing the mileage in the programme, practicing your pace, your fuelling, your hydration, listening to your body, learning how to treat minor issues at the side of the road and learning to become comfortable with your own company alone for hours or with the company of a few companions, determination, patience, stubbornness, adapting life around your training and training around your life is all it takes to get to the start line. Oh and registering for the event!! That usually helps. Having a proper taper towards the end of the training programme allows the body to repair and heal from the cumulative effects of the training regime you have put it under over the months since you began the journey. This period of time pulls together all the benefits of the training and prepares you for the main event. It is important to note that during taper you take it very easy and get plenty of sleep, light levels of activity and appropriate hydration and food. Tapering begins about 2-3 weeks out from the ultra and by race day you should be relaxed and feeling strong. Many people find the night before their event that they struggle to sleep like a child on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa, this can be from nerves and/or excitement and it is perfectly normal. To combat this, try and get plenty of rest and sleep in the week before the race. But what does it take to get from the start line to the finish line?
Getting to the Finish Line
Many ultras will have a race briefing prior to the event taking place. This may be the day before the event or just prior to the event taking place. The participants and possibly the crew are mandated to attend this briefing. It is usually at this briefing that any gear/supply required for the event will be inspected. The Tralee 100k holds it’s briefing the evening before the event. At this meeting the race director will give a briefing on the course, and instructions on health and safety that will need to be adhered to. Information such as crew vehicle inspection will be provided here as well. Some events will also have a guest speaker present to give a motivational talk ahead of the event.
Standing at the start line of your Ultra-marathon the distance ahead of you can feel exciting, overwhelming or a mix of both. If you have followed what I have said thus far, you are prepared and your body is well rested and strong. You have the training completed and have fully practiced your strategy for the day. Your crew is versed and practiced in this also. You will be familiar with the route. If you have not had the privilege to train on the route like I do for the Tralee 100k and 40 miler, than I advise that you arrive at the event with enough time to become familiar with the route without it putting additional stress or pressure on you or your crew. You did not train for month for it all to fall apart now!
I find that breaking the whole course up into smaller sections or milestones helps me get through the day. With the Tralee 100k, many break it up into 10k sections as there is an aid station every 10 kilometres. Since I am familiar with the course, I break it into around 19 sections. Points on the course that I can mentally tick off as I pass them; this way I am never thinking along the lines of, “only 60km to go”, instead I am thinking like this, “Okay Banna is next up, that’s only 4 miles from here”. This allows me to set mini-targets that combine to create the entire route. This works for me, but everyone is different.
If a course is a looped course, like the Tralee 40 miler, I like to count the loops up and then back down. I will start with one, count to five and then count down from 5. Also when counting down, I find it beneficial to think in terms of loops left after this one.
These are mind tricks; it takes strong mental fortitude to complete an ultra, find ways to distract yourself from the overall distance and focus on the smaller details of the given moment. All things going well, you will actually be half way through your course before you realise it.
If you are doing an event that requires a crew, communicate with them. Be honest with them, they are on your team, there is no room for bravado or ego. If you need to change items of clothing or shoes, do so asap.
Expect that anything can happen on a run. Anything can happen on a run. I have seen people DNF from the Tralee 100k on two consecutive years before they even got as far as the 10k sign. For these runners, it was just down to bad luck. They picked up injuries very early, one can speculate that they had not tapered or had trained too hard or gone out too fast, but it could also be just dumb luck, anything can happen on a run. You can get injured in a 5k as easily as you can 10k into a 100k run.
Go through aid stations and crew stops quickly, pick up what you need and then consume them on your walking sections. Do NOT stop unnecessarily as you will start to seize up. Above all else, DO NOT SIT DOWN. You will have plenty of time for sitting afterwards. If you sit down during the event you will quickly start to stiffen up. If you need to change socks or shoes, do this standing up. Change and be on the move as quickly as you can. What may feel like 5 minutes at a stop can in reality be closer to 30 mins. Remember there are cut off times, if you do not make these you will be respectfully retired from the event by the race director.
Accept in your mind prior to the event, that if things go very very wrong, it is okay to retire with minor injury to avoid long term damage. I have witnessed one runner pick up and injury about half way through the event, and by raw stubbornness he pushed on and completed the event. However the damage he done to himself by pushing to complete the event, took him off the road for close to a year. If you think you have picked up an injury have your crew call for the first aid or course doctor so you can be examined.
Do not panic if things don’t go according to plan. It is likely that your legs could cramp up, seize or get very sore around 90k into the event. If this happens to you, have one of your crew massage the muscles for a few minutes using a muscle rub to help free them up, then walk for a bit until you feel up to picking up the pace to a jog or a slow run.
The body is a funny thing, trying to monitor ones electrolyte and sugar levels can be tricky. If you find that your stomach becomes unwell and you feel nauseous, it is worth trying to take on some sugar as this may settle your stomach. A simple spoon or two of sugar or honey can help settle the issue. Getting sick is not necessarily a bad thing as it could be your body rejecting something you just ate, but if it becomes an issue you will need to do something about it.
GI or Gastro-intestinal problems can occur, especially if you have not practiced eating on your runs. Sports gels used by many in races up to marathon distance can increase the risk of GI issues, as can eating food you have not practiced with. If this happens you should have some form of remedy in your first aid kit.
Use some form of body lube (eg glide or Vaseline) on sensitive areas or areas where you can get friction such as bra straps with women, or crotch and nipples with men. You may need to reapply this several times throughout the event. Friction can cause chaffing and chaffing can get bad enough to prevent you from completing the event. Many people use KT tape along where their bra straps have a tendency to rub and cause issues, they find that the tape acts as a boundary defence against chaffing and thus pain. Again this is something you should practice on your long runs.
During the run, mood swings can happen for no apparent reason. This is something you can laugh about afterwards and be a bit intrigued about at the time if you spot it. On my first 100k, around 65k into the event I was in brilliant form when suddenly I had this overwhelming sense of sadness and burst out crying for about 30 seconds, then as quickly as it overcame me I was back in brilliant form…bizarre!! I then spent about 5k trying to figure out where it came from.
Remember that it is a long day for your crew and race officials and stewards too, try to be kind and polite to the people that you meet on the day…. Even if you are at a point of annoyance, you are not the centre of the universe.
Apply sun cream before the events starts, and periodically throughout the day. Even if it is not overly warm or sunny, prolonged exposure to the elements can be harmful and potentially cause issues later in the race. Wet wipes can be used periodically to remove salt deposits left on the skin, you will want to reapply sun cream after using the wet wipes.
If you feel you are getting “hot spots” on your feet etc stop IMMEDIATELY and resolve the issue before it develops into a blister. A hot spot occurs where there is friction; this friction will ultimately lead to a blister. Early detection and application of burn ease gel, changing socks and shoes can prevent a blister forming. If you do get a blister, deal with it immediately. Wisdom from the running community might not match that of the medical community here, where many advise that you pop the blister with a sterile needle and apply a blister plaster. Once a blister plaster is placed on the skin you will need to leave it there until it falls off on its own, do not attempt to remove it as you will tear the skin.
Wet wipes can also be used if you need to go toilet in an emergency; it is a good idea to have a small number in a plastic Ziploc bag on your person during the run.
Wearing headphones on the run may not be the best practice in terms of health and safety as there will be traffic on the roads. If you do require the use of headphones it is advisable to adjust the sound settings on your device so that audio only comes through one speaker so you can also hear what is going on in your surroundings, such as cars approaching etc. This may be an event but you must still obey the rules of the road.
Do not try anything new on the day of the event, all your clothes and shoes etc should be ones you have used in training. Enjoy your day, chip away at the distance and know that you are here as a final lap to finish your training programme. As you are running towards and across the finish line, smile for the cameras and embrace the fact you are now an ultra-marathoner.
After you finish
Having finished your ultra-marathon, it is a good idea to get some good protein based food into your body; this will help with the healing. Put on some warm clothes and cheer the rest of the participants across the line. For the Tralee 100k, medals and prizes and the coveted race belt buckle are not presented until after the event has finished, this gives you reason to stay around and cheer on your fellow ultra-marathoners. Get plenty of sleep and rest over the next few days. About 5 days out from the finish; you may experience some mild emotional upset, especially if you trained for the event with a group. This is normal and can be overcome by meeting with friends. In the days following the race, go for some very slow and gentle short runs to help recover. Many people swear that a sports massage works wonders post ultra. You will most likely find yourself telling anyone and everyone that you have completed an ultra.
Points to Note
- I have seen runners take a quick shower mid-race to freshen up, build things into your strategy that you feel will benefit you.
- Focus less on your speed and enjoy the day
- Worry less about the clock, concentrate on moving forward. The principal of KISS comes to mind, Keep It Simple Stupid! One foot in front of the other.
- If things don’t go according to plan, let it go and try again.
- If you get a blister deal with it immediately
- Small things if ignored can result in a DNF
- Respect others along the course
- Obey all instructions by the race officials
- Do not argue with the Race Director if you are requested to retire from the course, they are not being bad they are concerned about your health and safety.
- Respect the course, there is never an excuse for littering. If you have a bottle and it is empty, that’s cool its now lighter than it was when it was full. Bring it with you and give it to your crew to bin instead of tossing it over a ditch into a field.