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  • Writer's pictureBarra Oconnell

An Introduction to Ultra Running.


23rd May 2014

"Don't worry, there's 29 running it altogether, so I won't be alone" "That's what worries me, there's only 29 people in the whole country who think this is normal"

It is 10 to midnight on Friday night and I am standing in the car park of Marley Park next to the board denoting the start/end of the Wicklow Way, talking to my wife on the phone, which is enclosed in a zip-lock bag to protect it for the rain that has been steadily falling for the evening. I had just been dropped off by Rob, my brother in law, who said on arrival

"You have 20 minutes to change your mind, i'll even drive you to Clonegal tomorrow to pick up your car". I had resisted the temptation to accept and am now standing with 28 other seasoned nutters, race organisers and assorted support crews……….

I was about to embark on a 127k adventure across the Dublin and Wicklow mountains to the little know village of Clonegal in County Wexford as part of the Wicklow Way Ultra.

Welcome to the world of ultrarunning

At mile 64, only 36 miles to go

How did I end up here?

When I started running in 2006 to train for the once in a lifetime marathon I though the marathon was the ultimate limit, beyond the boundary of what was physically possible - after all we were told that we had to go through (or more likely hit) "the wall" before we got to the finish line and sure enough I hit the wall on my very first marathon, said "never again" for about a week and came back for some more punishment six months later. I had never heard of ultra running, I thought I had reached the boundary of human endeavour and spent the next few years pushing at the only running boundary I knew - the PB. And while this satisfied my thirst for improvement and better times it was the distance boundary that began to intrigue me more and more.

When I eventually did push the distance boundary (Connemara 39.3 in April 2010) I thought that was it, I could never even contemplate running another mile, let alone the 11 that would take me up to 50 miles. I had read race reports of guys running 100 miles and how they were destroyed after them and though that was way out of my league - funny how when we break boundaries we end up setting new ones.

What is an Ultra

An ultra(marathon) is generally considered a race of any distance greater than a marathon – so adding a warm down after your marathon (as you do) is technically an ultra. As far as organised ultras go 50k (31 miles) is generally considered the shortest distance with no real limit placed on the longest distance – although the The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100, which takes place annually in Queens, New York comes pretty close (runners have 52 days to complete 3,100 miles around a loop of just over half a mile). Outside of organised events you got those who run Malin to Mizen (360 miles), John O’Groats to Lands End (JOGLE or LEJOG depending on where you start - 874 miles), across America (approx. 3,100 miles) or around the World (who knows? I couldn’t find it on Strava 😊) - there just is no limit………

While the majority of ultras have a set distance/routes some have set times where runners run a looped course for 6, 12, 24, 48 hours and up to 6 days. At the pointy end of the spectrum there are two national championship ultra events – the Donadea 50k (usually held in February) and the Belfast 24 hour (typically in June, deferred to October this year).

While the distance is the only thing that defines an ultra, the route, for want of a better description, can be a 400m track, footpath, public road, off road trail or any combination of these. For me the off-road or trail ultras are more appealing as:-

· There is more variety

· There is no traffic

· You see the country from a different perspective

· Numbers matter even less as distances are arbitrary

· The surface is generally more forgiving

· You’re at one with nature

· You don’t need to share a portaloo

Ultra Training

There is no one size fits all training plan for ultras. For anything up to 50k a marathon training programme should do. After all it’s only another 5 miles. The only thing you might want to change is your target pace on race day. As the race distance/duration increases training plans become more personal, with trial and error playing a big part. The main focus should be on training at a higher volume and lower effort. That’s not to say that speedwork isn’t important, just less so. What worked for me was one long tempo run a week to maintain my speed/endurance, generally with a long warmup and cooldown. Add in a few strides to keep an eye on running form and you should be good to go.

Ultimately what you need for ultra-running is equally strong aerobic and muscular skeletal systems. I generally tended to do better on the aerobic front – it was my muscles that were the weak link in the chain. Perhaps because I wasn’t the best for strength and conditioning – “why waste time on that when I could be out running” was my philosophy. Over time I found a way to combine both through hill running - not hill repeats or even long road climbs but running/hiking off road in the hills.

The final and probably most important weapon in the ultra training armoury is motivation. You have to be in the right place mentally to complete an ultra. The last quarter of any race is where the mental demons begin to surface. While it’s the finishing straight in the 400m and the last 10k in a marathon (we’ve all been there), in a 100 mile race it’s the last 25 miles – that’s a long time to be feeling sorry for yourself, particularly if you are on your own (fellow competitors and crowd support tend to be thin on the ground when you push beyond 26.2). If you’re lucky enough to have a support crew (mandated on some ultras) make sure they are a good fit as they can make all the difference when the demons come knocking.

Ultra Gear

As for running gear just wear what’s comfortable for you and make sure that you’re not using it for the first time on race day (goes for any race really). I have worn cheap trainer socks (3 pair for €1 in Pennys) and

€20 toe socks and to be honest the cheap socks were just as good. The important thing with feet is to look after them. That includes giving them room to expand by wearing runners one size bigger that your street shoes. It’s a good idea to grease or tape any areas that are likely to chafe as an ultra will only magnify what may be a slight irritation in a 5 or 10k race. Luckily for me blisters have been few and far between. While it makes sense to bring additional gear on race day, my rule of thumb with changing gear mid-race is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

Some ultras, particularly trail ultras, require you to carry mandatory kit (waterproof jacket/leggings, fully charged phone, route map, compass, water, food, headtorch etc.). The best way to carry this gear is in a running specific backpack that sits pretty snugly on you back (the last thing you want is something riding up and down your back with every step – if nothing else it would do your head in).

Ultra Racing (During and after)

Ultra-racing is all about pacing yourself, going out hard and hanging on just doesn’t work (except perhaps for one or two elites). The way it usually works out is “go out slow and get slower”. I’d certainly agree with going out slow, treat your body like an ocean liner, take the first few miles to gradually increase the pace/effort from walking to a cruising speed/effort that you can maintain for a (very) long time. When I “ran” the Connemara 100 in 2013 I walked the first mile and was the last runner leaving Clifden.

During an ultra expect to:-

· Be on your feet for a long time. Get used to it. Don’t seek the end, it will only do your head in. Treat an ultra like any other day, just get on with it and the end will come, when it comes.

· Eat. Ultras have to be fuelled. While quickly absorbed sugary carbs (gels etc.) work well for marathons and short ultras the longer the race the more real food your body will need and crave. Salty foods in particular become more important the longer the distance. What works best is personal to each runner. The time for experimentation is during training runs. Bear in mind that it’s important to run at an effort that lets you digest food – otherwise you risk throwing up, which could lead to dehydration and a downward spiral.

· Feel sorry for yourself at some stage. Hopefully it doesn’t last too long. If your mind is in the right place your body will push through, no matter what.

· Feel comfortable in your own skin. You could be on your own for a long time.

· Feel pain somewhere, even the slightest pre-race niggle/imbalance will make itself known.

· Feel elation, certainly at the finish.

After an Ultra expect to:-

· Be tired, very tired, especially if you have given up a nights sleep.

· Lose some toenails, albeit relatively painlessly. Ultra runners feet don’t make good flip-flop commercials. It could take six months to lose them as they blacken over time and gradually lose their grip. This is particularly true for ultras with a lot of downhill running where your toes are constantly being crushed against the front of the toe box. This is where larger shoes with

bigger toe boxes come in handy. It also makes for more comfortable running as your feet swell over time. It is not uncommon for runners to change into bigger shoes halfway through an ultra.

· Have pains where you never had pains before. I’ve had gout in my big toe twice in my life (very painful BTW), both after ultras. I remember the missus bringing me to the doctor and saying to me “go on, tell her what you did”.

Some more bedtime reading

If the above hasn’t deterred you there are a few link that may be of interest below. · International Ultra Running Association website - here · Link to some ultra running blogs – here - if you want to immerse yourself. · Athletics Ireland also have a ultra running section - here – with qualifying times/distances, just in case you want to don the Irish Singlet.

The majority of runners have little interest ultra running as:

· it’s time consuming - but so is binge watching Netflix, model railway building and transcendental meditation - it all depends what you want to do with your time. Funnily enough binge watching Netflix appears to be far more socially acceptable, in my house at least.

· there are no additional physical health benefits – no argument here – this is true for running anything beyond 5k three to four times a week. Perhaps this is where mental health benefits come in.

· it can be mind numbingly boring – just like binge watching “say yes to the dress” and

· there is no glory in it compared to other sports

but for me the attraction was the opportunity to explore a road less travelled, see the world from a different perspective and find out a little more about myself, which has helped me put a bit of perspective on the longest endurance event of all, life.

Why not give it a go, what have you got to lose………well except for a few toenails!.

Epilogue Link to the rest of the Wicklow Way Story is here.

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