When I first heard about ultra races, I had no intention of going anywhere near them! The idea of running 30, 50, 100 miles or more sounded completely insane and I assumed you’d need to be some kind of elite super athlete to even contemplate it.
But like a lot of people, as I started running a bit further and then a bit further again, they started to sound more interesting. I finished my first marathon, said ‘never again!’ and then within a month, I signed up for my first ultra and was hooked!
In the past, ultras were quite rare in the UK, but nowadays there are loads of different ones all over the place and it’s easy to find one to suit you. You probably do need to be a super being to actually win one, but as a regular middle of the pack runner I find ultras are a really fun way to spend a day or two in the countryside with friendly people and lots of food.
I’m definitely not an expert but I’ve run quite a few now and in a weird way, I find them easier than shorter races. If you’re thinking about running your first ultra, hopefully the reasons below convince you to go for it. The only warning is that they’re addictive and you’ll want to do more!
I used to think that walking during a race marked me out as a massive failure and should be avoided at all costs. Obviously that’s totally wrong anyway, but once I switched to trail running, I realised that very few people are running up the huge hills and in an ultra, you just can’t run the whole way. Once your mindset changes and you realise that walking isn’t the enemy, it’s a totally different experience and takes the pressure away.
(You can also go too far the other way. During one ultra, I was having such a nice time ambling along chatting that we got overtaken by an old lady walking a dog! At that point I remembered we were technically in a race and probably should be running once in a while!)
If you’re like me, the food is one of the best parts of ultra running! Forget the boring water stops you get in a speedy road race, the aid stations during most ultras are basically mini feasts. There is usually a big selection of sweet and savoury food, plus various drink options. I’ve even been to one race with a Gin bar midway through! The aid stations are often like a little party with music and lovely marshals to chat to, the only problem is actually making yourself leave!
It’s worth mentioning that there are races to suit everyone, so if you do want a super challenging event where you carry all your own food and the stops are minimal, those races exist too. I just avoid them because I like my mid race party!
Obviously, the further you run, the more you’ll need to train, so if you’re planning to run for hundreds of miles through mountains, you’ll need some pretty intense training. But for something like a 50km race, the training isn’t that different to a marathon. It’s still time consuming and it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible and doesn’t have to totally take over your life. There are lots of great training plans around to suit everyone, but the main things I have personally found useful are back to back long runs and generally spending a lot of time on your feet. Spending a few hours walking can be really useful as it mimics what you’ll be doing during large parts of the race.
As I said above, you’ll need to train, but ultras are as much a mental test as physical. For me that’s a good thing, I’ll never be the fastest runner but I am really stubborn, so I will just keep going. In any long race, there are phases where you feel great and others where you feel awful, it’s the low points where the mental challenge kicks in. Maybe it’s just me but there is something weirdly enjoyable and reassuring in knowing that, however bad you’re feeling, if you just keep plodding on, you will get there in the end! (It goes without saying, that doesn’t apply with injuries, I don’t recommend dragging yourself along on a broken leg for 40 miles!)
The majority of ultras take place in the countryside so you generally get amazing views. You often have to scale some pretty big hills to reach them, but the hills are a nice excuse for a walk and the views are usually worth it. One of my favourite things about ultras is spending the day out in the country, and because you’re going a long way, you have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery! One of my favourite memories is running along the cliffs above Durdle Dor as the sun came up, those hills are evil but it was an unforgettable view.
Runners are generally lovely anyway, but there is something special about ultras. Apart from anything else, you have a long, long time to get to know people! You end up discussing all kinds of random things and getting to know strangers amazingly well. You’re all going through the same thing so you appreciate when someone else is finding it tough and can help each other through it. The people really do make this kind of race, I always turn up by myself but have never finished without making new friends.
I would really recommend these as a great way to ‘accidentally’ run an ultra. The loops are usually fairly short and the idea is to run as many loops as you can within a time limit. I thought this sounded boring before I tried it, but I actually love them because it’s such a sociable way to run. It’s one of the few races where the faster and slower runners mix because you’re all running together, whether you’re on loop 2 or 20! It’s nice to know you’re never far from an aid station and it’s surprisingly tempting to head out for another loop and end up running much further than you expected because you’re happily chatting to other people. I’ve run a lot of these races and every time, there are people who run their first marathon or ultra without planning to. If the idea of running a long way by yourself isn’t appealing, these are a great alternative to a standard ultra.
So that’s it, if you’ve been thinking about running an ultra but were worried you couldn’t do it, go for it! Plan your training, test out nutrition and gear, then get ready for an adventure. It might be a while until races are back to normal, but that gives you plenty of time to plan and train. If you have questions, the Running Bible Community group on Facebook has lots of people who have run Ultras and love to talk about them, just ask and you’ll be bombarded with advice!
See you on the start line!
Author Lucy Fry