A Rookie’s Guide to Ultra Trail Running

Last weekend I had a first go at running further than a marathon, and just to add a little fun to proceedings I did it off-road. The Weald Challenge is 50km long and 85% of it is pathways, muddy tracks, rutted farm fields (more of these shortly) and climbing over stiles, a lot of stiles…

Here, in random order, is some stuff I learned.

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  1. Ultra running is very inclusive. There are lots of skinny people yes, but there are also lots of other shapes, sizes and ages. They are a very friendly and welcoming bunch.
  2. As with all long distance running events, there will be an old guy at the start in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. You will worry about him finishing safely.
  3. When the hooter goes, you will be thinking, “8km really isn’t that much further than a marathon, is it? How bad can this get?” The answers are a) ‘A lot’, and b) ‘Very’.
  4. You will very quickly find out that trail running is not all on nice broad paths like my local North Downs Way. Farm fields with trodden crops over deep ruts are the running equivalent of those Viet Cong pits filled with Bamboo pungi sticks. That, and downhills are not your friend if you don’t have decent downhill running technique.
  5. Compression socks are really great for protecting you from nettle burn. But not if you leave them in the drawer at home.
  6. The best way to run through a marshy riverside field is to have two large cows follow you with menacing intent.
  7. Pacing yeah? I should know this by now, but however slow you start, it’s still too fast. I got to 30k in a respectable 81st position, by 50k I’d dropped to a humbling 110th.
  8. Ultra running aid stations are the best. Fancy a cold slice of water melon in the middle of a forest after 5 hours of running? Not. A. Problem.
  9. There are adders in Sussex. Well, at least one 3ft long one.
  10. About 10k from the end there will be an old guy in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. He will go past you like you are standing still, probably while worrying about you finishing safely.
  11. At the beginning of the race, climbing a stile over a fence will feel like it’s adding character and charm to your day. At around 48.5k into the race, the 81st stile (yes, 81!) you have to climb will feel like that big f*!king wall in Game of Thrones. PTSD actually stands for Post Traumatic Stile Disorder.
  12. That last 8k genuinely feels like 20. But it so worth it when you get a medal at the finish and a specially made pottery mug (and free coffee to go in it). It’s that kind of stuff that makes local races brilliant.

In summary, I recommend this ultra trail-running very highly. It takes a lot of mental stamina, concentration and some serious leg strength as you can’t just zone out like you do on the road. It’s challenging and fun at the same time, as competitive or social as you choose to make it and with tons to learn and improve on. Oh, and the views are awesome! I’m definitely in for more with eyes on the Pilgrim Challenge next February . Here’s hoping it doesn’t snow!

Thanks Carel and Alechia for the ride to and from the race, the support, the hotdog at the finish and the awesome photos. Special thanks to Alechia for ‘intervening assertively’ when I considered dropping to the half marathon about four weeks out from the race. What was I thinking!?

Thoughts of an Ultra Runner

Alechia van Wyk

An ultra can do a lot of things for a lot of people.

But one thing it will always do is change your mind. It will focus your perspective and help you see things as they really are.

There are some lies that may be clouding your vision.

For example,I can’t run an ultra yet—I’m not in my best shape”. “I’m too old to start running ultras”. “It doesn’t appear that anyone else is struggling as much as I am”. 

One of these that stood out for me whilst running and not completing the North Downs Way 50miler was:

“My first ultra will be just like my training runs”.

You haven’t the slightest clue what your first ultra will be like. Expect nothing. The veteran standing beside you at the start line doesn’t know what this race will be like either. Neither does the dude who has run this course ten times. He can tell you about his past experiences, but he can’t tell you what the run will be like today. That’s the beauty of ultra running: Anything can happen.

Simulate race day conditions during training, but never let it fool you into thinking that you now know exactly what’s coming. You have no idea. The weather could turn, your food could not stay down (this happened to me), or you could step on a rattlesnake. Who knows.

Instead of stressing about it, take it as a relief. There is no pressure to be completely prepared, because nobody is. The runners who thrive are the ones who can be flexible. Have a good base, good nutrition on the day, and know how to adapt. Be ready and willing to tweak your strategy at a moment’s notice, and never see a change as a failure. I changed my strategy at 40kms, but only made it to 56kms, and had to make the decision to drop-out, and for those who have had to struggle with this decision would know how tough it was.

The ultra distance is hard to get your mind around. That’s why people give ultra runners puzzled looks. But once you break down that wall, run past the 42kms, all those lies you believed about yourself are exposed. And it’s easier to see yourself, as you really are—strong, courageous, and able. I will be back, running even longer.

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