Despite the mind-boggling mileage involved, more and more runners are choosing to step beyond the marathon into the big, bad world of ultra running. And what they find when they make that step might just come as a surprise…
Because while the distances may intimidate, the ultra running community does anything but. All abilities are welcomed with open arms, and that all-inclusive atmosphere is complemented, more often than not, by breathtaking surroundings and the chance to explore routes less travelled. Throw in the chance to test yourself like you’ve never done before, plus a free pass to eat like a king, and ultra running begins to seem a little more appealing.
To help you dissect the distance, RSNG caught up with GB ultra runner and Red Bull athlete Tom Evans. A former Army sergeant, Evans burst onto the scene a few years ago with a podium finish at the notoriously gruelling Marathon des Sables, and followed that up with victory from the jaws of defeat at the CCC, an iconic Alpine race covering 101km. Here, he shares his secrets to ultra running success...
In ultra running, as in life, a problem shared is a problem halved. If you want to go ultra-long, but don’t know where to start, Evans recommends linking up with fellow runners. ‘The great thing about social media is you can find out races that are going on,’ he says, ‘and I guarantee there will be someone you know, or a friend of a friend, who has either done an ultra or is thinking of doing one. You can link up, go for a run and pick their brains.’
‘Your mind is such a powerful thing, and ultrarunning is at least 70% in the mind’
Believe And Achieve
If the distances involved are difficult to comprehend, more than half the battle is convincing yourself of your own ability. ‘Your mind is such a powerful thing,’ says Evans, ‘and ultra running is at least 70% in the mind.’ Trained athlete or not, it’s Evans’ belief that anyone is capable of going the distance – eventually, if not quickly. ‘Our bodies are incredible machines,’ he says, ‘so you've just got to convince yourself that you are able to do it. There's a great quotes that goes, “If you think you can, or you think you can't, you're probably right.” It’s all about getting into that mindset where you believe that you can do it. If you can conquer your mind, you will be able to conquer the distance.’
Break It Down
Ultra runners are masters of self-deception. To complete an ultra, you’re going to have to kid yourself – time and time again – as Evans explains: ‘At some point in most races I say to myself, “I'm going to give up at the next checkpoint,” or “I'm going to run for another five minutes and then I'm going to walk.” You convince yourself of these things, because it's a way of dealing with the total distance. If you approach a 100-mile race as a 100-mile race it is just so overwhelming, but if you break it down into 10-mile sections it seems a bit more manageable.’ Doing so won’t make the distance any shorter, but it will make it easier to comprehend.
‘When you have climbs that go on and on, you need to walk in order to conserve your energy’
Take A Hike
In any other race distance, to walk is to damage your chances of a PB, but in an ultra marathon walking is not only inevitable: it’s essential. ‘I am more of a runner than a hiker,’ says Evans, ‘but there were times during the CCC last year where I was running – or trying to run – uphill and I had guys next to me who were walking and keeping up with me. When you have climbs that go on and on, you need to walk in order to conserve your energy.’ Different rules apply for the pros, of course, but for most runners taking 10-15 minutes to walk up a hill isn’t going to make much difference in a race that could take 12 hours or more.
Ultra marathon training doesn’t have to take over your life. Just as marathon runners would never run the full distance in training, there’s no need for wannabe ultra runners to up their weekly mileage too drastically. Just as important as time on feet is strengthening your body for the rigours to come – and some of that can be achieved at home or in the gym. ‘The stair climber is awesome,’ says Evans, ‘and any single-leg exercises are great. Trail running is all to do with balance, because you're hopping over rocks and moving over muddy, rutty terrain, so I do a lot of single-leg deadlifts, single-leg squats and step ups. These are things you can do at home – you don't need really heavy weight set-ups or high-tech equipment.’
It’s often said that ultra marathons are eating contests with a bit of running thrown in. That may be a slight exaggeration, but the point remains: to run an ultra, you need to eat like a champ. ‘In an ideal world I would break an ultra marathon down into thirds,’ says Evans, ‘so the first third I would try and eat normal, solid food. Typical food for me is sweet potato mashed up in a wrap, which is super easy to eat and carry. Then in the middle third I would switch to some more typical sports nutrition: gels and sports bars so you get that little bit of sugar and quick-access energy that your body doesn't have to work as hard to digest. In the final third for me it's pretty much solely caffeinated products. I use Red Bull primarily for the energy benefit, because you're getting the sugar and caffeine you need, but also for a mental boost. The point when you need to switch on the most is when you're most tired, and for me Red Bull allows me to focus and concentrate in the closing stages of a race.’
A considered nutrition strategy is important, but to avoid any race-day calamities your food choices should be fine-tuned in training. Trying something new during the race is a recipe for disaster, so find out what works for you well ahead of the race itself.
WHAT NEXT? Watch pro athlete Zach Bitter explain what it takes to be an ultra runner.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.