Just getting to the start line of a major Ultra is an achievement in its own right, see here for our thoughts on that.
However once you arrive at that start line there is the small matter of making it to the finish. And the longer the Ultra, the more demanding that will be; both physically and, most importantly, mentally.
OK, this is the easy and obvious bit. You have got to keep moving to finish. When you can’t run anymore switch to Power Hiking, when you can’t do that…try running again! Your body will hurt, it will ache, it will be sore…but a lot of that is in your head. Honest. When you can’t step down a stile, how do you explain being able to run the hundred (ish) steps that come off Pen-Y-Ghent? The pain was all in the mind, and when it’s more painful to step down well running is the only other option!
For example, on the 108 miles of the Spine Challenger, I ran the flats and downhills for the first 60 miles. After that I couldn’t run, so I power hiked the rest. Except the final descent, and the final mile or so, where with the finish line (and family) in sight the pain disappeared and I could run again!
Power Hiking is a key element of getting through an ultra, so it should be part of every good training plan. Try hiking uphills on your long runs to help prepare. And when you can’t ‘power hike’… just walk! And while doing so use the time to develop a plan to help your body recover – do you need water, food, pain killers, feet taping? Do you have a drop bag? And if so what do you have there to help you recover and move on towards the finish line (e.g. a change of shoes).
“It’s all about the process”. Yes it is a cliché, but standing on that start line you have to believe in yourself and your training. Knowing that you’ve prepared well for this event and knowing that you are as ready as you will ever be. Getting to the finish line will need you to retain that self-confidence and belief. When things don’t go to plan (they won’t), or when your morale is in a dip (it will be), the foundation of your mental resilience is that self-belief. Belief that you can, and will overcome every adversity, every hurdle and every dip.
This belief is built through your training (see our courses) knowing you have prepared holistically – mentally, physically and that your kit shouldn’t let you down. The belief also comes from knowing the route; if you’ve been over the terrain already during recce runs – you know you can do it. If you can’t get to the route prior to the event, study the map and learn the key features and milestones.
You can also build confidence through smaller ‘Test events’. These don’t have to be paid for training runs, it could be something you do yourself or with a small group of running buddies. Use your longer runs to test yourself and your kit, building confidence and knowledge alike.
Finally, have a buddy or 3 – you get your motivation from your tribe, your network. Who will you spend time with during training and who will you have on speed dial that can build your belief, not break it down. Stay away from people who bring negativity about your running – and if you can’t stay away from them then don’t talk to them about running!
Preparation is key in ensuring you know what you are doing, where you are going, and which darn pocket you put your stuff in. It’s also critical in minimising your stress and maximising your enjoyment. Pre-planning and ‘what-iffing’ all potential eventualities will smooth your passage (see the getting to the start article). Effective planning is all about dealing with the unusual, not just planning for the best case scenario.
Equally, spending time to get to know your route is time well spent. The level of navigation on an event will vary, but even on a fully waymarked route having a good sense of where you are and what is to come will help balance the physical effort and silence the annoying toddler in the back of your mind that keeps wanting to know ‘how much further’!
Finally, have you ever seen someone dump their entire pack on the trail looking for something? Yep we’ve been there…training with your actual kit, developing a system that works for you and knowing where everything is will prevent those time consuming, morale sapping, and a teeny bit embarrassing moments. If it is an overnight event with time spent in darkness make sure you know through muscle memory developed during your training where everything is. Even with the best torches, you may find it impossible to find that thing you need from your pack in the dark. And the more kit you get out of your pack in the dark, the more likely you will leave something out and leave it behind.
Manage your body, and your mind. The majority of people that DNF events like the Montane Spine do so because their feet are a mess. There are other common ailments that you must be aware of, and able to self-manage your way through. Whether it’s Hypothermia, Blisters, or something more serious you are likely to be your own First Aider. Recognising the symptoms and dealing with your own issues is essential; over the years we’ve dealt with our own heat exhaustion (in Death Valley), hypothermia, twisted ankles, cuts, bruises and blisters.
You will also need to be your own Mental Health First Aider…those doubt demons will visit. They will try to convince you to quit. Being able to manage your internal monologue is crucial in making it to the finish line. I don’t allow ‘that voice’ to be internal, I’ll talk to myself out loud, I’ll discuss my options with the nearest docile animal (sheep, cow, or if I’m hallucinating random clump of grass) – externalising it, saying it out loud works for me. I find it makes things clearer, the crazy ideas said out loud become just that…crazy. And the negative thoughts always have an alternate perspective.
Despite all your preparation(!) things will not go to plan. Things you never even thought of may happen; the funniest, in retrospect, we’ve had was the sole falling off a shoe…in the middle of nowhere. When problems occur fall back on your prior planning (execute the plan if you have one for the eventuality). If it is something completely unforeseen take a breath, weigh up the options and make a plan.
These things do happen, and you will have an initial emotional response, let it happen. Sit on the side of the trail, put your head in your hands, and feel sorry for yourself or give yourself a good strong talking to, whatever your immediate response is, let it go. But you must timebox it – give yourself 5 or 10 mins. Once you have allowed yourself to react emotionally to the setback, switch focus and get on with working out what to do about it (the answer may be nothing – “I left my poles at the last CP, I’m just going to have to crack on without them”). A few minutes spent reacting then planning or thinking though whatever the problem is will not make a huge difference in a 100 mile race.
Also remember that some things are just outside your control (like the weather), some things you can’t undo (like getting lost) – so try not to waste effort fighting them, if you can’t change it don’t worry about it. Adapt and move on!
As you train for an Ultra you will become more attuned to your physical and mental health than you have ever been before. Really listening to your body, understanding what it is telling you is immensely empowering, and again, critical to your success. Knowing how you behave when you’re low on nutrition, or when you are about to cramp is important, but learn the other signs, the subtle neurological ‘quirks’ that your body uses to let you know it needs something. The body is a wonderfully complex machine and the powerhouse that is your brain will manipulate you in marvelous ways. For example, when you are low on nutrition you may not feel hungry. You might feel really sore, your feet throbbing, hips tightening, shoulders aching…all ways that your brain is trying to get you to stop; “We’re out of fuel, you aren’t stopping, so I’m gonna make it hurt so bad you’ll stop!”.
SO if you are feeling really sore and in pain, deal with the immediate cause if there is one (e.g. blister, or chafing), BUT make sure you refuel…a 2 minute break to get some food down nearly always makes the pain fade and the brain less cloudy.
And make it a tiny habit to regularly check in with yourself throughout your event – run a mental diagnostic checklist and if you identify any issues, deal with them early.
Running an Ultra is fun. It is meant to be fun, you wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t (would you!?). Every event has so many highlights, amazing sights, sounds and experiences. Just make sure you embrace those moments and find the joy in them, and what you are doing. For us that means stopping, taking it in, maybe taking a photo, or just spending a few seconds to really appreciate the environment we are running in, and the people we are doing it with.
Stop for 10 seconds or a minute to watch the sun set, sit listening to the dawn chorus, take in the view from the top, or chat to people about what you are doing. These are all joyful moments, and in a big Ultra those minutes really aren’t going to matter. The mental uplift of recognising and taking in those moments will probably be of greater benefit than if you just keep plodding on head down!
There is more to celebrate on an Ultra than just the finish line. Celebrate the first half marathon covered; marathon done; rain; toilet stop..whatever. Celebrate the hell out of your event! A little cheer, a celebration sweet, a fist pump, or a full on dance routine…it doesn’t matter. Just celebrate what you’ve achieved…it will give you that lift to achieve even more.
On the Spine Challenger I celebrated every half marathon, I celebrated every full marathon, and I celebrated my first ever 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. And I also celebrated falling in a river, tripping head first and cutting my knees (I actually celebrated it not being worse!)…to be honest I lost count of the celebrations I had, but I still cried tears of joy as I strode down the final 500m, seeing my wife, son and dog waiting for me. Yep I got a lot of dust in my eye as I celebrated the end of an amazing event, and achieving a massive personal ambition. Something that had taken 2 years and over 3500miles of preparation…
Getting to that Finish Line is what it is all about, it’s not the medal, or the certificate (note we are partnered with Trees not Tees, it’s definitely not about the T Shirt!). Nor is it about the applause or the finish line beer. It’s knowing that you did it…you finished! And that is a feeling like no other.
Our plans are broken down into 4 week blocks, with each block focused on a specific aspect of your training. Our team have built plans using their own experience, knowledge (and quite a collection of personal ‘lessons’ such as those above) to help you fully prepare and avoid some of the pitfalls, mistakes and pain we have suffered on our own Ultramarathon journeys. Each 4-week block includes details on preparing physically and mentally, as well as ensuring your equipment is ready and won’t let you down on the day.
When you purchase one of our plans, we will give you access to our members only Strava Club and Whatsapp group so you can talk to, be encouraged by, motivated and helped by other runners. It’s a club after all, and seeing other runners working towards their goals, sharing their highs and lows, and ultimately becoming your tribe and support network, will hugely increase your chance of success.
Our plans can be found here.
If you don’t see what you need in our standard plans, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Getting to the start line of a major event
On reflection – reviewing performance at the Spine Challenger