The Longest Race

Welcome to the world of the ultramarathon, where 26.2 miles is just a training run and half marathons are merely a warm up

Words: Warren Pole

(Men's Fitness)


THE MARATHON, ONCE REGARDED as the pinnacle of running endurance, is not what it was. It’s still as tough as ever to run fast, but with marathon numbers swelling by the thousands annually simply finishing doesn’t cut it anymore. Unless you’re careering across the line under three hours or doing the whole thing in a diving suit, no one pays a whole lot of notice.


So where to turn for your endurance fix? The answer is ultramarathons. Defined as any footrace longer than a marathon, ultras range from one-day 30-milers to multi-day 150-mile self-sufficient epics across the Sahara desert, and finishing them isn’t impossible as you might think.


               

Running through the night isn't unusual in ultramarathons - once you start pushing your limits

you'll be amazed where it can take you


Because running 50 miles, for example, is not twice as hard as running a marathon. Mentally it may require some deeper digging, but physically it’s not the massive leap you might think.


This is because of the pace. With ultras almost exclusively held off-road on undulating trails, average speeds are naturally slower than in flat, urban road races. Besides, try banging out your first 50-miler at your happy marathon pace and you’ll blow up spectacularly before you hit 30 miles. But if you treat the run as a journey and an adventure, settle into a steady low gear and plain refuse to stop, you will be amazed at what your body can do.


As ultrarunning expert and coach Rory Coleman tells it, “there are no limitations to what people can do, only limitations on what they want to do. Anyone can do this if they want it enough”.


Ultrarunning supremo and four-time winner of the torturous 103-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Lizzy Hawker’s advice for would-be ultrarunners echoes this.


“Just try,” she says. “More is possible than you ever thought. Don’t put barriers up thinking you can’t do something”.


                   

The phenomenal Lizzie Hawker - refusing to accept mental barriers has made her

one of the world's greatest ultradistance runners


But why would you want to run ultramarathons? I could go on about the mind-blowing natural scenery of many races which make city marathons look about as pleasant as commuting, or the addiction of constantly pushing your boundaries, or the way your body will feel better than it has since you were a kid once it’s adapted to the miles, but Kilian Jornet, perhaps the world’s greatest ultrarunner, sums it up more cleanly than anyone:


“It’s not about competition, it’s about experience, very deep personal experience”.


               

Kilian Jornet is one of the greatest endurance specialists ever seen, but his main reason

for running is still the personal experiences it brings


Fancy it?

Here’s how to dive into the world of ultramarathon running with maximum grin factor and minimum injury.


Your body was made for this

We are running machines. Or rather, we were thousands of years ago, but today our sedentary lifestyles, shoddy high-sugar, highly processed diets and lazy habits have robbed us of our natural gift for distance running. Rediscovering your inner ultrarunner is simple, it just needs a gentle approach.


Pounding pavement too hard, too soon is only a recipe for getting injured. Concrete is the worst surface you can run on for injury, closely followed by tarmac. Stick to grass and concentrate on a quiet footfall. A heavy footfall means you’re inefficient – too much energy expended going up and down at the expense of forward motion – and that you’re pounding unnecessary shock through your joints. Quiet and swift is the key in ultrarunning.


               

Head off the beaten track, discover new surroundings and ease up the impact on your body

just by turning to the trail instead of the road whether that's the local park, or the local mountain range...


As Coleman puts it, “economising your running style as far as possible will help you go as far as possible,” while also explaining how running off-road not only helps injury prevention but also builds essential ankle strength.


Also, remember to breathe while you’re at it, from the stomach, and concentrate on relaxing your body because running should be enjoyable, not painful.


Training

Now you’re running soft, loose and smooth, build up the miles.


Here I’ll hand over to French ultra legend Sebastien Chaigneau, who explains you must, “increase the distance slowly so you progress muscle maturity and gradually understand what is possible for your body.”


The best training for running, is running. So put monthly targets in the diary and get to it. In the first month, build up to running comfortably for an hour, in the second two hours, in the third, your first 15-miler.


A heart rate monitor will help you start learning how your body behaves on the long haul. You want to spend the majority of your running time in the 70-80% of maximum bracket. That should be comfortable enough to take in the view and talk easily. This is where you build your endurance base and is the foundation of all ultrarunning.


Once your body’s comfortable running, add weekly hill sessions for leg strength and speed – a great one is ten 30-second all out sprints up a decent hill with a three-minute walk down between each for recovery. Also add the odd gym session concentrating on legs with squats, lunges, deadlifts and step ups as well as core strength. Planks and Swiss ball exercises work well here.


“Your legs and arms doing the work when you run,” says Coleman, “but it’s your core that holds it all together. By going to the gym you’re investing in your future races”.


Along the way concentrate on good stretching, good hydration, and increase protein intake to help muscle repair.


Trainers

The more your body’s biomechanics adapt to running, the less it matters what’s on your feet. Until then, experiment to find what works for you. Shoes basically fall into two camps – support and neutral. Trial both types for a couple of months, see which you feel best in. Despite the advertising blurb, shoes are not rocket science. Feeling comfortable running in them is all that matters.


Gait analysis can be helpful but is only as good as the machine operator and they’re often the weakest link. Treat with caution. 


Racing improves the breed

When 15 miles is comfortable and you can still run again the next day as your muscles adapt to their new life, you can bypass the marathon and enter your first race. A 30-miler is ideal.


Races are the best catalyst for building performance. Without them booked you’ll have no goal to aim for and motivating yourself to train will be impossible.


Don’t worry about race day pressure because ultra start lines are relaxed places. The monster nature of the races guarantees it. This is true even for world-class performers like Chaigneau, who says, “for this sort of race, the objective is the travel. If you have one adversary, it’s you”.


The tortoise and the hare

Many eager first-timers canon off the line, rabidly zig-zagging their way through the field only to spectacularly blow up before they halfway point. The result is either a shamefaced withdrawal or a soul-destroying stagger to the finish as the rest of the field cruise by, neither of which will make you feel like coming back for another bite of the ultra pie.


Instead, aim to be last into the first couple of checkpoints and only even consider running faster in the second half of the race. This is supremely tough on the male ego but if you can do it the rewards are huge because you maximise your chances of a strong finish while around you runners who’ve paced badly start flagging – the boost you’ll get from passing them is enormous.


The brain game

In ultrarunning there will always be dark times as your mind plays havoc with your will to run. When these strike analyse how you feel. Are you dead? No. Are you dying? Unlikely. Are you in pain, or are you just a bit sore? Chances are it’s the latter and as long as your legs can still take another step, take it. And the next one. Repeat this process until you’re out of the mental wilderness. If it gets really bad, grit your teeth and remember the Royal Marines saying, ‘when the going gets tough… love it’.


Even the world’s best fight these demons. As Hawker explains, “you have to run with courage and humility because you never know what the mountains are going to throw at you, your body or your head”.


The soaring lift from breaking through these ultimately self-imposed mental boundaries is unbelievable and one of the biggest reasons the sport’s so addictive.


               

Tired? Yes. Battered? Definitely. Stopping? No way. Top Brit ultrarunner Jez Braggs refuels halfway through the 103-mile UTMB, one of the world's toughest ultras


Listen to your body

Run over two hours and you’ll need to eat on the move. The single greatest piece of ultrarunning advice I have ever had was on this subject and came from Chaigneau. Meeting him before my first attempt at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc I was concerned about nutrition and asked him about his strategy.


I was expecting an intricate plan of gels every x minutes, drink every y minutes, and so on. Instead, all he said was, “you must listen to your body. Just give it what it needs”.


Listening to your body’s signals takes time to tune into, but if you can start your ultrarunning eating natural you’ll be in a far better place for the long run.


Real, solid food, chewed a lot so the body can absorb it readily, and eaten slowly but regularly and in small amounts will stoke your fire better than any gel. It also won’t leave you feeling as grim as an endless diet of sickly gel, bars and sports drink will.


Personal favourites after years of experimenting are buttered malt loaf and honey sandwiches for sweet snacks, and cheese sandwiches and Peperamis for savoury. Over the long haul you’ll want both as your body variously craves carbs, protein and salt.


Sports nutrition can play a part but should be used sparingly to fine-tune your ultra nutrition rather than being the basis of it.


Fat versus carbs

Your body has two energy sources, fat and carbs. The carb tank is good for a couple of hours, the fat tank can fuel you all day. The key to accessing the latter is plenty of low intensity training and a diet high in fresh veg, pulses, lentils, and lean meat and fish, that also cuts out processed foods and sugar.


Blowouts are still important though. As the miles pile on so your metabolism ramps up. Reap the benefits by guiltlessly gorging on your favourite foods every now and again. Summing this perk up perfectly, running chef Michel Roux Jr simply says, “I run because it makes me hungry”.


                   

Michel Roux Jr (right) explains his combined loves of food and running to me

in London's Battersea Park


Post-race recovery

Your post-exercise recovery window is wide open in the hour or so after a race, so fill it with water and anything you can eat – your stomach may not feel great after early races so no need to force down anything you that’s going to make you hurl. Just remember anything is better than nothing.


Compression socks or tights are great for slapping on post-race to minimise stiffness the next day, while stretching and ibuprofen also take the edge off.


Having seen Chaigneau bounding about just hours after he came second in this years Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc I asked what the secret was. The answer? Well, it included a shower, a spot of electro-stimulation for the legs and compression socks, but his real weapon was the Jacuzzi.


“If you want supple muscles, the Jacuzzi is your salvation,” he told me grinning before answering the toughest question of all – if ultrarunning is so brutal, why do we keep coming back?


He paused, serious for a minute, before breaking back into his trademark smile, saying, “your mind remembers the good sensations and it throws away the bad memories. It’s crazy.”


Indeed it is. You’re going to love it.

 

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