The Rise of the Ultra Runners: Advice from the Pros
As part of my training for the 500 race miles, I needed some literary inspiration. Having bought three books, I've now finished Adharanand Finn's, "The Rise of the Ultra Runners". To be clear, this isn’t a book review but I wanted to share some thoughts that this book evoked; most notably, some great running memories and observations from my own ultra running journey.
The kindness (and sometimes oddness) of strangers. Straight off the bat, Finn describes a guy taking a dump in the middle of a trail. I've never seen that running, but I did see a guy do it on a lads weekend in Bratislava down a side street...(not one of my mates I hasten to add and not a memory I want to recall too frequently!). But in more uplifting sections of the book, Adharanand talks about the great people he's met on his journey, some of whom are the 'who’s who' of ultra running and others who have simply caught the same bug I have. During an ultra, there’s time to talk, time to share experiences.
My first ultra was the 46 mile Summer Green Man in August 2019. I’d only run 26.2 miles prior to this, had done very little trail running and to top it off, it was 26-28 degrees Celsius: not ideal. I hadn’t done a recce of the route, but had my map.
Thankfully, I met a fantastic athlete called Tina Southgate (pictured) whilst we were lining up. Tina hadn’t run an ultra before either but she was a runner, a triathlete and an Iron Man finisher…(definitely the better athlete) - but crucially, she had a good GPS watch. We set off, chatted away about anything and everything. The Green Man is a largely exposed, hilly course around the ancient woodland of Bristol and at around 25-30 miles the heat was getting to me. Tina had been carrying me for about 5 miles or so but I insisted she go on.
Two things worried me 1) getting lost and 2) time. The course had a 12hr cut off and I was slowing and had really lost my bearings. Thankfully, as Tina ‘dropped me off’, I hooked onto a guy called Dave from Bristol (everyone knows a Dave). Dave - a veteran ultra runner - had perfected the 'power shuffle'. I had not and couldn’t understand how I kept falling behind and then having to run to catch up, which on legs made of bread sticks, became uncomfortable.
I was suffering by the last check point and we were in serious danger of missing the cut off. Dave was brilliant; I was pestering him about ETAs and repeating, "will we make it?". I was so desperate to get the medal. Dave - quite rightly - re-aligned me and said ‘first priority is to get back safely, second priority is to be present in the experience. If you get the medal, you get the medal. Don’t sweat it’.
I crossed the line that day with Dave in 11hrs 26mins. Both Tina and Dave made that race enjoyable and gave me the warm feeling that ultra running was something I could do. I am wiser for the guidance of two very different athletes. I still keep in contact with Tina and hopefully, post-lockdown, we’ll be able to race together again.
On a side note, it wouldn’t be the Green Man without mentioning the best Marshall ever - and coincidentally, another Tina. Tina Drury routinely marshalls the Green Man and is a member at Bitton Road Runners. She greeted me with a hug every time I saw her and I was so relieved she was there in the last 400m across the fields to the finish. Sometimes you just need a smiling face - something Adharahand regularly mentions and this is absolutely bang on.
Adharanand describes his experience in Anglesey (Ring 'O Fire) and the delights of a leisure centre floor. It evoked strong memories of the Druid's and Pilgrim's Challenges: three and two day ultras respectively, organised by XRNG. These are great events with great support, but as Adharanand describes, there are some lessons around the long nights spent in leisure centres between running days:
Pick your sleeping spot, with the key being, be close to an electricity point.
If there are gym mats – use them.
Don’t sleep near doors and watch out for drafts; the same applies to key thoroughfares through the tired hordes.
Be lucky – get a warm shower and try to avoid sleeping next to ‘The Snorer’ (in my experience there always is at least one!).
I loved the description of hallucinations in the book and I've experienced that that all-encompassing fatigue for myself. I remember clambering up to checkpoint 7 on the Gower Ultra 50 at Three Cliffs…"left foot, right foot, left foot…just keep going", running through my head. The weather had just started to turn and the all-day sweat on me had started to cool.
It was my second ultra and I was still learning about fuelling, so being naïve, I’d stopped eating because I wasn’t hungry. When I finally reached the checkpoint, wonderful Soph was there; as I stumbled over to see her, one of the marshalls requested the obligatory kit check, given we were likely to be running in darkness imminently. I hauled my bag off my back and bent over to get my waterproofs and head torch. As I came up, I had a massive head rush, and felt an arm link mine as my legs went wobbly. I saw Soph's smiling face, thrusting a bottle of coke towards me - effectively distracting the marshall whilst I regained my senses. She sat me down, the smile turned into a classic, stern Soph face, "drink this now" she said. Then, "what food have you got?". She force-fed me some fruit from the checkpoint table – I think it was banana. I was now starting to shiver; I stripped my wet layers off and pulled on my emergency clothes - something that, without the sugar rush and smack of ‘concerned girlfriend common sense’, wouldn’t have happened.
I spent some time talking to Ash after this about fuelling and his experience doing Iron Mans. Key lessons were, the longer you go on, the less saliva you’re creating, the more difficult it will be for you to eat/fuel - crucially, don’t just wait to get hungry! That was certainly my experience. I was treating it like a marathon, fuel and drink at equal distances across the race. After The Gower, I started to front-load and eat more early on, as well as have readily accessible nuts and dried fruit to keep topping up whilst walking up steep hills. That fuel not only keeps you moving but it keeps you thinking straight and you certainly need your wits about you in the pitch black on narrow coastal paths.
The physical challenge of an ultra marathon is only a small part of the battle; mental strength and resilience is key. In his book, Finn talks about 'being in the moment'; 'mindfulness' is a term batted around regularly in the modern world, but there's a key importance to it - especially for athletes: mindfulness practices help us regulate emotion, will decrease stress or anxiety responses and will help us focus our attention on achieving our end goal - something that's incredibly valuable when you've been running for hours in the cold. This advice was seconded by my coach, Ash, and as part of my training I now prioritise a daily meditation practice.
Conclusion I thoroughly enjoyed reading Adharanand's journey and reflecting on my own experiences in ultra running (so far!). On to the next read...Ed Caesar's, "Two Hours".