Ultra-Marathon Distance Running- Is it Physical or Mental?
By Lee Weston, Jun 17 2016 03:11PM
So you are happy with half marathons and done the odd marathon but you find that road running is boring? As my friend and colleague said, “why not try this 40 mile coastal ultra-marathon?” An ultra-marathon is defined as anything over the distance of 26.2miles.
Having just finished my first marathon quicker than my expected goal I signed up without knowing the first thing about ultras, or the event. You expect it to be hard physically because it is longer in distance, so you prepare physically.
This started with short 60 min weekly run with my unwilling friends who also signed up to the race about 12 weeks prior to the event. These built up to 120 min run 2 weeks prior to the event. I was happy to do this as I knew I needed to get some miles under the belt and would do my own “long” run on the weekends. This would get progressively longer and then match the same hilly terrain as the event. The aim was to reach a 30 mile long run and an accumulated 40+ miles in a week, in the 2-3 weeks prior to the event.
This is where it all changed in my expectations. It went from being physically prepared to focusing on how to be mentally prepared. After running 26 miles relatively comfortable on easy terrain I decided to try to hit 30 miles over the North Cornwall / North Devon coast path. I reached 27 miles. 3 miles off my training target and 13 miles off the event distance. I couldn’t go any further. Limiting factors were being too fast (not having enough rest), being ill equipped (not enough electrolytes) and having the wrong strategy/ mind set. I knew I had got it all wrong when I mentally gave in and accepted 27 miles. I had underestimated it mentally, the speed I expected to run 30 miles, how I expected to feel ok physically after 30 miles, the factor of running by myself with no one to talk to for 6.5 hours. It made the last 3 miles too much.
So having missed one of my training targets I refocused. I managed to hit an accumulated 40 miles with a marathon and a 14 mile run in a week, 2 weeks prior to the event. But more importantly it was setting levels of goals that would allow me not to fail and know how to approach the event successfully.
The event: 40 miles. Hardest thing I have ever done, mentally. Not physically! Reaching 17 miles in at 3 hours 54 mins in with my back starting to cramp, wet, and the person in front dropping out it was all in the head! The hardest 11.5 miles I’ve ever done was after that, to reach the check point at mile 28 with the two biggest hills to come. Thankfully I had support waiting for me at the turn point and a fellow competitor to chat to on the final 11.5 miles which made them pass quickly. With single figures in distance remaining I only got faster. So much so my family missed me finishes the race!
Would I run that race again: no way! Would I do another race of similar distance- yes. It all comes down to my reasons for doing the race: 1. To finish 2. See a new part of the coast line in North Cornwall 3. Finish under ten hours (originally my goal was 8! That changed after my training runs) 4. Prove to myself I am capable, mentally and physically. 5. share the accomplishment of finishing with my friends
Top tips if you are thinking about running any distance, especially longer distances:
1. Training: what works for you? Around your lifestyle, commitments, physical limitations and training preferences. Make it social, train with a friend. Schedule when to train at the best times for you. Train in the format that your body most likes, for me it was one long and one shorter run a week, both off road.
2. Eating: practice makes perfect. When training play with types (liquid or solid) and amounts of food. Don’t try something new on race day and see what agrees with your body/gut.
3. Kit: make sure you are prepared: trainers, sun cream & cap, layers, running pack. Ensure you leave nothing to chance as it can cause great discomfort. Best investment was my Hoka speedgoat trainers and Salomon S-Lab race pack.
1. Set goals in levels: Make sure you have a goal you will always achieve and ones that you aspire to. For me it was to see the coast line, whether I finish or not that would have happened. Another was to finish, not a given but likely. The desired was to finish in a time. You will always come away from an event having learnt and achieved something if you set the right goals. If you don’t then you are likely to feel like you have failed.
2. What is your focus? Why are you doing this?: If your answer doesn’t have a deep desire and motivation you won’t do the training, you won’t get up at 6 am to run 20 miles before a day out with your family. You are setting yourself up to fail.
3. Mental strategy: Never think of the event as a whole, it will destroy you. Break it down in to manageable chunks. The first 10 miles. Then the following 10, then your over half way. Only 2 hours left, into single figures until the finish. I set my mile lap times in miles but total distance and speed in Km so I have to use mental arithmetic to keep myself busy trying to figure out predicted times to set points.
If you have any questions regarding how to train for a half, full or ultra-marathon then please contact me. Resistance training is also another important part to the equation. However it is mind over matter! If you want to know more about the things they don’t tell you about ultra-running then follow the link below- it is all very true!