Two days ago I completed my first ultra. The ultra I got roped into trying just ten weeks ago. My friend Telle asked myself and my fiance, Sam to keep her company on a ‘training run’ she wanted to do along a 41-mile section of the West Highland Way. Technically I think this classes as a ‘social ultra’ as it wasn’t an organised race, but hey, I’m still taking the tick!
The plan was to run from Tyndrum up to Fort William (the official finish of the West Highland Way). Off-road, with over 2,500m of height gain, it was not a straightforward first ultra. And it was November, which in Scotland could mean weather conditions ranging from driving rain and gales to snow and ice.
In the days leading up to the run, friends sent me photos of snow-covered landscapes and reports of icy, treacherous walking conditions on the route. But in the end, we were lucky with the weather. It was a cold, but (mostly) dry day with barely a breath of wind, and the snow underfoot was crunchy, not icy. We were also lucky to have a support crew in the form of Telle’s fiance, Liam who met us with spare kit, water and food at the 7, 18 and 26 mile marks.
Setting out I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it to the finish, and I had my doubts on the way round. But we made it! And here are a few things I learnt along the way.
It will hurt
Yeah, sorry to break that vision you had of running for miles and miles with fresh legs. Obviously the more you train the easier it’s likely to be. But really, training just puts off the aches and pains for a bit longer. They will come. Remember, when you’re doing your first ultra, you’re pushing your body hard. You’re making your legs go further and for longer than they’ve ever been before. And all that pounding takes its toll.
You are stronger than you think
Everyone will have a low point on the run – a point where the first niggling doubts set in. For me, this was after our first decent rest stop, around 18 miles in. We’d been running for four hours – the longest I’d run for in training – and my body decided that it was time for a post-race nap. (Yup, even in the snow.) My hips were aching and after switching shoes to give my feet ‘a break’ my arches had started hurting.
The truth is, I wasn’t suffering half as badly as many people do. And looking back on this time made me understand – really understand – what endurance athletes mean when they say that it is all a mental game. Because you can keep going. It’s just a case of continuing to put one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line.
So be prepared for it to hurt, and be ready to grit your teeth and push on through, even when you think you can’t go another mile.
If in doubt, eat
When I asked Telle for some last minute tips the night before the run she told me this: “If you feel crap, eat. A lot of the time it’s a fuelling thing.” She was right.
I found that the time passed a lot quicker than I thought it would. I’d planned to eat about every 45 minutes but often checked my watch to find over an hour had passed since my last snack. This was particularly the case towards the end when it’s tempting to focus purely on getting to the finish. You’re burning way more calories than you can physically consume and if you don’t keep eating, you’ll pay for it at some point.
Also, remember to eat AFTER you’ve finished. This was the one big mistake we made. In training we would always have a protein recovery shake or bar as soon as possible after our long runs. But when we finished the ultra, we were too wrapped up in the joy (and pain) of having done it to remember to eat. We then rushed around getting checked into our hostel for the night, having showers and stretching, so by the time we finally sat down to eat it was about two hours after we’d finished the run.
Just as our food arrived, Sam said he felt sick, staggered a few paces and collapsed in the doorway of the gents’ toilet. (He does like a bit of drama.) We’re pretty sure this was his body demanding payback for not having given it recovery food. (And yes, by the next day he was fine.)
Don’t run the full distance in training
Running an ultra is a huge mental challenge, so save that mental strength for the day of the race. It also puts a huge stress on your body which takes time to recover from. If you try and build up to running 30 or 50 miles in your training runs, you’re more likely to end up injured, or burning out too soon.
One great tip a friend gave me was to do some ‘pre-fatigues’ before your long run. This is essentially a set of exercises that works the big muscles in your legs (e.g. squats, lunges, jump squats etc.). Completing 4-6 sets of these before you run means you’re starting out with tired legs and simulates what you’ll feel on a much longer run. For more tips on training, check out my post on How to Train For Your First Ultramarathon.
Look after your feet
In my experience, people tend to fall into two camps: those who get blisters, and those who don’t. I’m one of the lucky ones, but I do get foot pain from pounding (particularly on long walks) and on this run, a pain in the arches of my feet.
Whichever camp you fall into, taking care of your feet will make the whole ultra experience a lot more pleasant. If you’re prone to blisters, get used to where your hot spots are and tape, tape, tape. Possibly the best tip of all is to carry spare socks (or have them stashed in your bag at support stops). There’s nothing like a nice dry pair of socks to make your feet feel better.
Break it down into stages
During my low point of the ultra, Telle told me we’d just passed the half-way point. She said it to make me feel good, but it just made my heart sink. How could we be only half way? If this is how I feel now, how can I possibly keep going for another six hours?
Sometimes contemplating how far it is to the end of the race is just too much. It’s much easier to focus on the next milestone or checkpoint. After all, you have to make it there – there isn’t another option. So I asked Telle to just let me know how far it was to the Kinlochleven checkpoint and focused on just getting to that point. After that, the final stage was easier as the finish was in sight.
But always aim for the finish
When we got to the end of our run, I swore I couldn’t have gone another mile. But is that really true? Or was it just that I had that 41-mile distance in my head. If there had been another ten miles to go I probably could have done it. It would have been hard, painful and slow, but I could have pushed on that bit longer.
If you tell yourself that it’s ok if you only make it to 30 miles and anything after that is a bonus, then you will only make it to 30 miles. So even when you break the race down into stages always have that final figure in your head: the finish is your ultimate goal.
It won’t all be fun, but it will be worth it
I spent quite a lot of time on the run asking myself why I was doing this, or coming up with mantras to get me through the next mile. There were some amazing parts: the stag silhouetted against snow-capped mountains and the mountains glowing in the pre-dawn light. But I can honestly, hand on heart, say a lot of it was not particularly fun at the time. But was it worth it? Hell, yeah.
You may not be able to stop at one
I hesitate to write this, only two days following the run. Normally it takes me much longer to forget the pain and even contemplate going through it again. But I wouldn’t be the first person to find that their first ultra is most definitely not their last.