Recently Michael Shelton went from marathoner to ultra-marathoner when he tackled his first race over the classic 26.2 mile distance. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on a number of subjects, from nutrition to reasons for running an ultra. In this, his first post, he writes about the things to consider when choosing an ultra. Wise words, Michael, and thank you!
When choosing a first ultramarathon, there’s no room for bravado. A 100 miler in the American backwater may sound like the ultimate tough guy challenge, but will more than likely cost you physically, emotionally and financially.
It may not be as glamorous but my logic behind choosing the Nottingham Ultra [the race that Michael picked as his first ultra – ed] is based on some reasoning:
Ultra Distance – Will I be back before midnight?
It may sound obvious but a 50K is the obvious starting point for novice ultra runners. The Race for Life is recommended as a great first run for women who have just taken up running because is a non-competitive event and a manageable distance. This logic stands up – whatever the distance. Jumping from a marathon to a 50 miler is a huge step up.
You also need to make a realistic assessment of how long it will take you to complete the course. Some ultra races have a cut-off limit and it can be excruciating to be given a Did Not Finish (DNF) after being on the go for 24 hours.
Also if your projected finish time is more than 12 hours and it is not a summer race, you must prepare for the possibility of starting or finishing in the dark, without the accompaniment of street lights. If this is the case, make sure you have access to a head torch or some other light source. A little experience under your belt of running in near darkness will help, but remember to remain safe if you’re running off the beaten track.
Exotic or practical – Home is where the comfy bed is
Worldwide marathons are hugely popular because of the sights, atmosphere and the course, but I am yet to be convinced. The build up to the marathon is a horrible time for me as the nerves build up. Can I complete the distance? Is that an injury rearing its ugly head? Taking my mind off the event by being at home, working etc is the best way I find to prepare, rather than having hours of travel and overnight accommodation.
This brings us on to the issue of cost. Travelling abroad for a 30+ mile run will involve at least 3/4 nights away and that will cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds. In the current economic climate, that is quite an expense. Running is an essentially free activity but add this onto the cost of kit and food and ‘free’ takes on a different meaning. One night in an East Midlands hotel may not be glamorous, but it will be inexpensive.
Furthermore I don’t want to imagine what my legs will feel like after the run, but not good may be a mild understatement. If I am unable to walk the following day, I would rather be confined to my own bed. So being close enough to home to make it back after the run is preferable and begging/convincing/bribing a team to support and drive you home is easier when it’s just a short trip up the motorway.
The distance of ultra events and the smaller size of the amount of competitors determine that few have the financial or logistical capacity to take place on the roads. For anyone who has spent years only running on this surface, changing now can be a problem. Trail and off road can be easier on the legs with a softer underfoot surface, but it does take time adapting to it. Mild sprains, trips and falls are likely at some point.
Get an idea of the terrain before signing up and then tailor it into your training. Running 40 miles a week on the roads as preparation for a trail ultra may not be the best plan, so find some off road routes. If you’ve never done it before, they can offer a great feeling of freedom and you may find an improvement in the air quality.
The Nottingham Ultra combines grass, mud, gravel tracks and tarmac, so I am alternating training runs on the roads with trails and some off path running. Although the course is marked, a compass is listed in amongst the recommended kit, in case you get lost. I have not used one of these since I was in the cubs, so I will be trying at least one run by map and compass (a six miler could easily become 16 by the end!)
Love them hills?
Some of the world’s most famous marathons (London, Boston, Berlin) are known for their mainly flat, fast courses, where the hills are no more than an underpass incline or a slightly steep road. The organisers want fast finishers who sign up to improve the PB and preferably don’t die!
Ultra race organisers can be a little more masochistic. They have no qualms about sending you up and down a mountain, just for a bit of fun. The tougher, the better. If you are unaccustomed to exercising on anything higher than a Stairmaster, either start training on hills or choose your race wisely.
My uphill running technique is quite good, but mountains may be a step too far this time. The Nottingham Ultra climbs 1900ft and descends 2100ft. More descent than ascent is always good, but a few climbs should at least make the course interesting (and allow food stops).