Surviving your first 50 miler
Run an ultra they said. It will be the coolest thing ever, they said. Chicks will dig it, they said. You will carve your body into an immortal God they said. You'll write a blog that will have people stopping you in the street and saying "you are that super human athlete who knows no fear, no limits, no toilet going boundaries - please will you make babies with me" - they said.
I am not here to judge why you are here and what you have done before now.
Maybe you are here because there is a girl you want to impress or maybe you read some idiots blog and thought “ooooooh that looks like good fun”. All I have to say is that you are here now and you may as well accept what you have got yourself into.
I imagine right now you are feeling a sense of unknowing, a sense that this isn't really going to happen. A sense that you might wake up one morning and this has been some crazy dream you’ll be able to laugh about with your friends over a drink. Ha ha yeah, 50 miles of running, that’s sounds pretty stupid.
But I imagine if you are reading this it’s not a dream but a reality that you are going to have to deal with. Like all first times there will be a rush of excitement, anxiety, nerves and fear as you thrust right into the job at hand. It might not be easy and it might not be glamorous but I promise you that when it is all over you’ll be able to lie back with the warm glow of satisfaction
Note the title of this article. It is not “50 mile running awesomeness”. If you want to read all about that then I suggest looking at the blogs of Ian Sharman, Robbie Britton, Danny Kendal, Paul Navesey, Eddie Sutton,Stu Mills to name but a few.
This is really a “how run run 50 miles and not die” article.
So here are some last minute tips for surviving your first 50 miler.
These two words are the best advice for ultra running. Your race is coming up and perhaps you feel like you have not done enough? You somehow feel like you are less prepared for you last marathon than you are for this race that is twice that? You are genuinely scared that this might end in tears, or worse. You look around at the start line and see lots of beaming faces of highly trained runners about to run 50 miles like it’s nothing.
Well let me tell you that most of those runners are bricking it too, it just doesn't show very clearly on the outside. Humans are good at that. One thing I would suggest is that you never compare your insides with someone else's outsides. You can’t. It’s impossible.
Take those feelings of fear and apprehension as a sign that you are about to do something pretty significant and then imagine those emotions, in reverse at the finish line of the race. That’s what this is all about, getting yourself into shit scary situations where you think you are going to die or embarrass yourself but somehow you manage to hold onto yourself just enough to make it to the end intact.
If you don’t feel even a little bit scared that I suggest you ask for your money back and give it to the wizard of Oz in return for a heart.
Managing the exceptions
How is an ultra different from a marathon? Well obviously it’s the distance innit? A marathon is exactly 26.195 miles and an ultra is anything more than 26.196 miles. Give or take size 9.
However if I were to describe what is different about an ultra than a shorter distance race I would do it via a graph that looks something like this.
I think this graph best explains what goes on in ultra marathons. You may have come from a background of racing where you know exactly what pace and what food at all points during the race. This approach is still useful and if it makes you feel better to plan then go ahead. Just bear in mind that one of the key lessons you’ll learn when stepping up to ultras is that you will need to think on your feet a lot more.
This is hard because your thinking will be fuzzy and your feet will be sore after 6+ hours of effort. Don’t be afraid to change something that doesn’t work and all the while remember that you are adding to your education as a runner. No matter how bad it is going you are learning stuff and hence making yourself more experienced and resilient in the future.
Chill out - eat grass
Did you know that Zebras are the least stressed animal in the world? This is measured by the level of cortisol in their bodies. They often get chased by a lion (which I imagine is quite stressful) but then when the ordeal is over they simply forget about it and carry on eating grass as if nothing happened at all. They don’t think about the next lion attack, they can’t control that and to spend time thinking about it would mean a life in therapy.
When I am running and something does not quite go right, say someone gets in my way or a gate is sticky or someone has fiendishly placed a large rock right where your foot has landed. Then I just ask myself “what would a zebra do?” It would just forget about it and eat grass. That’s what I try to do, forget about it and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
A good way of practicing this is to cycle in London. There are hundreds of things that might upset you, cyclists jumping lights, zombie pedestrians, pot holes, van drivers etc. Each of these is an opportunity to practice being a zebra. If you can get to one side of Oxford Street to the other without calling another person something nasty you may well have passed.
So when stress is hitting you from all sides, just put on the stripes, get on the bike and start eating grass.
You already have everything you need*
So you have probably been on lots of forums and spoke to a lot of people about what is required then aggregated all of the mentions into a nice pie chart where you have gauged the relative importance of things based on how much people talk about them. Something like this.
Well that’s social media for you, making runners stupid since 2007. This is actually more like what will get you through the race. You’ll notice that not much of this can be bought, you have to earn it.
Now this pie chart is a little misleading. Legs and head are not seperable like this. One affects the other which in turn affects the other in an intractible way that has yet and probably never will be deciphered.
My point here is at this stage there is nothing you can buy that is going to increase your chances of finishing the race. It's all about what you are willing to do with your legs and your mind on the day.
*unless there is something on the mandatory kit list that you have not got. Then you should get it.
Don’t be that dick
I know a lot of race directors. They are all saints. Not just because they give up such a huge amount of their time to create events for people like me to just turn up and run. It’s more because they put up with a huge amount of questions from runners and have hitherto managed to avoid killing anyone. It’s going to happen one day, a race director is going to kill a runner. Don’t let that be you. Here are some simple ways to avoid that.
- Turn up with ALL the mandatory kit. It’s not just a list for laughs, it can potentially save your life. Don’t argue when asked for your waterproof jacket you are then told you can’t use your crepe paper jacket.
- Also, don’t spam the RD with emails saying “I’ve been out on that path before and never ever needed a jacket or spare battery so I think your list is a bit draconian”. If you have already done this then rest assured every other Race Director in the UK now knows about it.
- Don’t drop out without letting the organiser know. Search parties have been sent out in the past to find a runner who ended up being in their living room eating pizza. I hope they choked on a glistening yellow chunk of e-coli
- Don’t point at your Garmin and go “wah wah wah this checkpoint is 17.1 miles and you said it was only 16.5”. Those things are wrong, which makes you wronger and if that kind of thing bothers you I suggest you find a different sport such as picture frame squaring
- Avoid giving the organisers a herniating drop bag.
- Do thank all the volunteers who have given up their time for you. Don’t moan if there are little delays in getting your food and water topped up. They are not paid ferrari wages and you are not Louis Hamilton
- Don't be impatient at the registration. If there are 200 people registered to run and they all turn up at the same time then there is going to be a delay. Use the time to obsess about each others kit and then develop a horrible anxiety that you are not going to finish because you don't have breast pockets
- Say "I don't need a map, I know this place like the back of my hand". That's all well and good but not going to help if you need to call for help. "I think my leg is broken, yeah I'm at the 14.7 mile point of my Sunday morning run. What do you mean "Grid Reference". Check out my Strava, login "Awesomerunner" password "sillybolloX". No, CAPITAL X you idiot.
- Don't ever litter. Ever.
Don’t ignore thirst (or lack of it)
Two big mistakes in ultras. The first is not taking a sip of water in the first 20 miles because you are way too excited and chatting away and think that the precious 10 seconds it might take to get some fluid into you would mean that you would not be able to keep up with the guys you have been chatting with for the last few hours. If you ignore thirst early you will run into trouble later, you can't really "catch up" with hydration very easily.
The second is drinking religiously to a schedule that then messes with your electrolyte levels and causes suffering. I am not going to pretend to be a doctorologist who knows what really goes on here except that I have seen a lot of runners drinking themselves stupid (not beer of course - runners wouldn't drink beer) by following one of those 200ml ever 15 minutes things.
One of the beautiful things about ultra running is that you get to learn the ways in which your body is awesome. One of which is it's uncanny ability to alert you when it needs water. It does this by making your thirsty. Keep it simple. Don't ignore it and don't overide it.
Eat yourway out of grumpiness
OK this is NOT general life advice but a really good heuristic for managing yourself in ultras. If you are grumpy you are probably “hangry” and food will help resolve this. You body will be a raging torrent of various chemicals and hormones and often its hard to know exactly how to fuel it.
I recommend using natural walking points to eat. If there is a 5 minute slog up a hill then use that to stuff your face with cocktail sausages or pork pies or whatever food you have on hand.
Use food as a reward. Derive pleasure from it. Don't think "I will eat a Kit Kat because it has 300 calories in it", think "I will eat a Kit-Kat cos I really like Kit-Kats". I love it when checkpoints have savoury stuff like sausage rolls and sandwiches. It gives me something to look forward to when slogging through the mud. Try and make food and the thought of food a positive thing.
Many runners have found success with trying to delay the consumption of sugar until later on. Sugar gives you instant hits (and subsequent crashes) in energy levels and emotional levels. Again some people will say sugar is the devil, others will call these people nutjobs. Experiment with yourself, that's part of the fun.
Land the Spaceship
There is a scene in Apollo 13 where the astronaughts look out the window and all they can see is Earth. They can’t see around it for it is too massive. This causes great anxiety as they have to land on it. This is the “wood for the trees” thing.
Whenever the size of the task just seems too big for me - and running 50 miles should feel too big - I take that as an opportunity to just focus on the little things that are going right. Like they did in the spaceship: all they could do was to make sure their calculations were correct, to switch the right switches and to do the correct proceedures.
I do the same when I just can’t imagine how much I have to do. All I have to do is get things right now. Just make sure you are landing your feet correctly, make sure your arms are swinging normally. Are you breathing regularly. Distracting yourself with the present and focusing on what you control will pull you out of the fear.
We are all "systemisers" to various extents. We take the chaotic noise from the world and try to make order and that makes us feel good. Every puzzle solved is a little stroke of karma that makes us happier.
I think of long races as a long puzzle to be solved, one clue at a time. It is all one long game of muddy sudoku.
So when gravity of the race in front of you starts to feel crushing, relax, put on your space suit and simply try to do what’s right in the next five seconds.
Dress for all weather
You may have run races where you put in a fairly consistent effort in fairly consistent weather and end up being around the same temperature throughout. That will almost certainly not be the case here. You will be going at variable speeds and being out there for say 8-12 hours you are going to experience the temperature of hte day rise and fall and all that happens in between. It only takes a few minutes to go from boiling hot to pretty damn chilly.
Your body is an incredible machine for disipating heat when you are hot. It is also an incredible maching for holding into heat when it is cold. The problem is that during this race you'll be requiring both and the body might not change modes quick enough. Starting in the morning, you'll be running a bit faster and generating some heat but the air will be cool and it will quickly disappear as the body then shunts this away. Then when the sun starts to glare this equilibrium will be challenged, you may get hotter with no increase in effort and become uncomfortable.
This is the easy part, it's when it gets cooler (as the sun goes down, as you slow or if the weather turns). This can happen quickly. It only takes a few minutes of breeze to zap all the heat out of your body (and your body will still be pumping blood and losing even more heat). Be careful about getting cold. Be aware and wear the right stuff.
The key to keeping warm in the cold is layers. Wearing two or three tops gives you extra air between the layers to insulate you. If it's going to be cold then I suggest taking an extra layer. Keep moving if possible, swing your arms to generate more heat if needed. Think about what to put in your drop bag. Perhaps a change of clothes if you get wet early on and a chance of socks.
But then don't forget the Sun. It is going to get light from about 4am and you'll spend most of the race exposed to the sunlight. Even if it's not hot you should not underestimate the slow sapping power the Sun has. Protect your head particularly the back of the neck.
If the question "what is the optimal pace for running an ultra" was asked in an episode of QI the following answers will set the buzzers off and have Alan Davies looking more like a bufoon than usual;
- Run the same pace throughout
- Start fast then get slower
- Start slow and then get faster
Pacing ultras is a bit like pacing yourself when out drinking in the pub (apart from that 11pm cut-off which is just unrealistic and annoying). Sometimes the best nights are the ones where you go hard early and end up in funnier situations than if you'd took it steady. Other times a conservative pace is more sensible and can often save pain later on.
OK this analagy is a bit tenuous but I don't mind causing the bewilderment because I want to make the point that no one really knows what is "right" in terms of pacing race of this length. Even is "mere" marathons there is a lot of debate as to whether the "negative split" is an optimal strategy and therefore if you take this confusion, double it and then square it you will arrive at the level of certainty at which anyone can be confident about the "optimal" pace to run ultras.
Well this bit has been extremely unhelpful hasn't it?
I guess what you need to think about is both the mental and physical impact of how far you get in what time. You might decide to aim for an even pace, finishing the 50 miles in 12 hours. You may hit the marathon point in 6 hours and think "blimey, I feel really knackered and I have all that to do again". This could lead to a downward spiral mentally that then results in further slowing, further bad thoughts and a greater chance of jacking it in.
You may fly through the marathon point in 4 hours and think "I am a bit knackered but I have loads of time and can keep this up a bit longer" and then by 30 or 35 miles you think "sh1t I've run myself into the ground here but I only have 15 miles to go which will take 3 hours max".
Obviously the opposite of all that could happen, you might be Mr Consistent throughout or you might run yourself stupid and injure yourself. I don't want to tell you exactly how to pace an ultra because everyone I know does it differently and will maintain that what they do is the best way. All I will say is that everyone slows down a bit at least.
Run walk? Maybe. I know people who win races doing this. My preference is to walk up the hills or out of checkpoints (while eating food). Others follow a schedule. Here's an idea (from Jason Rollibards book) "Speed ups". Walking breaks rest your legs as they use different muscles. How about then sprinting occasionally? That uses different muscles too and so can be considered rest. Kind of. I have not tried this yet but reckon it's worth a go. Do it and let me know how you get on.
The wall still comes
I believe the majority of DNF’s in this distance come from simple wall anxiety.
That thing you get warned about in the marathon where your glycogen levels expire at around 16-20 miles leaving you with a painful transition through into fat burning but since you figure you are close enough to the end you may as well pull through and by 22 miles it feels ok again anyway and oyu have only 4 miles to go.
Well the wall still happens here. In my experience because I am running a bit slower it comes a bit later (maybe 20-25 miles) where perhaps my body goes through this change where I just feel bad.
Now the normal response to feeling bad at mile 20 of a 50 mile race is “OMFG I feel terrible and I have not even done a marathon yet and I have more than a marathon to do if I carry on like this I will feel dead pretty soon”.
And then quite conveniently there is often a checkpoint right bang in the middle of this with a nice chair and a nice cup of tea and a nice bus that might take you to the end of the race.
Avoid the trifles
When you decided to run this race you probably (rightly) thought that nothing is worth having if it’s easy to get. You figured that running 50 miles will be bloody hard but the satisfaction that may come with completing would more than make up for this discomfort. You have a good brain, one that knows what’s valuable.
However it is not invincible. When it is a bit starved of oxygen and food and a nice cosy sofa the brain can lapse into quitting mode. It starts looking for the path of least resistance to getting out of this situation. Rather than continuing to the end it will start to devise ways to get out now. It will start thinking of trifles.
A trifle is a reason for quitting that in retrospect you will kick yourself for. I’m not suggesting you carry on if your leg is broken but I have heard (and have given) many reasons for quitting races in the past that when I look back on them I realise how pursuasive my lazy brain can be sometimes.
If you are thinking of dropping out, think ahead 24 hours and ask yourself “is this a trifle?”
Plan your funeral
OK so you are not actually going to die but this is one of the most effective ways I have ever used of getting away from negative and depressing thoughts. When you've been running for a long time your brain lets in lots of negative and destructive paranoid thoughts. Like your friends mocking you, sneering at your awful efforts to try and finish 50 miles. You'll believe that the whole world is conspiring against you, that every wobbly stile or rusty gate is there to impede you personally. That a loose rock or an exposed tree route has been placed there by some devine for intent of ending your race. This is normal. And funny.
In these times celebrate every little victory you can. Every person who lets you past, every dog that does not bite you, every child that yells "well done" or "keep going". Every time the sun comes out, every time you see a route marker that lets you know you are on the right track. All of these little things help.
And if you really are struggling mentally start planning your own funeral. Imagine a scene when you are in a box about to be buried and everyone close to you in your life is there. Imagine the things that they will say, the ways you touched their lives. It will obviously only be great things they will say. You can be as egotistical as you'd like, no one needs to know. Every word spoken will be about how awesome you are. If they have nothing good to day then don't invite them to your funeral.
Furnish your Palace
I’ll let you into a little secret. The key to happiness is to blog about ultrarunning. Well there might be other sources of life fulfilment but I have found this one and am hanging onto it.
I have found that buy writing about my running has helped me in more ways than I imagined possible at the start. I thought it would be a good way of remembering what I did but that’s not the only thing.
- I can re-live vividly some of the amazing events and emotions I have felt while ultra running and can essentially get all the benefits again for free
- I can help others who might be about to do such races by giving them information that I might have forgotten if I didn’t write it down
- It makes it much easier to write a book if you have all this stuff already written down (did I mention I have a book out?)
- It actually helps me during the race.
Yes that’s right. Blogging as you go has actually helped me manage difficult situations. Whenever soemthing “bad” happens in a race my approach is “well at least it will make an interesting blog” and I genuinely believe this has got me through more stuff than if I just shut up about it.
Now you may think this is self centred and I am a bit egotistical. That is because it is and I am but that is perfectly normal and I don’t feel bad about this.
So my advice would be to write the story as you go. A technique I use is to furnish my memory palace as I go along (using my 5 mile commute to work as my “palace”). It is also called the “Method of Loci” but probably best explained in Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstien”.
So in summary, Don’t Panic, Don’t be a dick, It’s not about the bag, comfort eat, blog as you go and land the spaceship.
I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share. And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themselves (which is essentially what my book is about). It is available at Centurion Running.