How to chose an ultra marathon

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.


Michael, our intrepid correspondent, in the centre

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).









Is James Adams the UK’s Dean Karnazes?

Dean Kaznazes - not as fast as James Adams

In the latest edition of Outdoors Fitness magazine, there is an interview with the person dubbed the fittest man alive – Dean Karnazes. Now please don’t think for one minute that I am going to be disparaging about Dean and all he has done and continues to do. But I recently bridged the psychological gap between me and what I think I’m capable of and Dean Karnazes who seems to specialise in doing things that seem utterly impossible. One of the endurance challenges he is most famous for is his recent run across America: 2,900-mile in 75 days. I was reading the interview and I started thinking about my friend James Adams. He’d just run across America, competing in the LANY (Los Angeles – New York) race and covered 3,200 miles in 70 days. And I used to go running with James when we were at the same running club in central London….

After returning from his incredible feat and amazing adventure, James and I met up for a beer. I had a few questions for him and I really wanted to know whether he had metamorphosed into a Karnazes-like figure.

How do you get into that sort of running?

I started by asking James, on the record, about his running history. James told me that at school he was typically sporty, but not exceptionally so. He was typical of so many students who arrive at university with very little thought for sport but in 2000 he applied for and got a place through the London marathon ballot. At this point James had never run any long distances and was actually worried as he stood on the start line, that he would be pulled out of the race for not being a proper runner. He finished in 4 hours 35 minutes.  That was obviously a good experience because James returned in 2003 and 2004 to the London marathon, running both times in under 4 hours. By the time James had run his third London marathon, he had moved to London where he joined the Serpentine Running Club, which was the club I became a member of and where I met James.

James with his Badwater medal and buckle

After his first few marathon experiences, James became dissatisfied with just running 26.2 miles. By early 2007, Adams was already thinking about much longer races. He had heard about the Badwater Ultramarathon and decided that he was going to make that his next challenge. He and I both ran in the Tring to Town 50 mile ultra along the Grand Union Canal towpath in January that year, but for me that was an event in itself. For James it was just a training run for something much bigger.



The attraction of ultra-distance running.

I asked James what he thought the attraction of ultra is. He told me that he found ultras easy and that he enjoyed running in races where there is no real time pressure. James went on to say that he loves the point-to-point quality of the majority of ultras and, most impressively for me, he said that knowing that a 50 mile run was a relatively easy undertaking made the world somehow feel more accessible. James went on to tell me about how he left his house in west London one day and ran… to Reading, before catching the train home. I guess that is what you do when you are dedicated to the ultra distance. I went on to ask James whether he thought he was competitive. He told me that he isn’t motivated by beating other people and that indeed he rarely knows, until he’s finished a standard distance race, whether he has gone quickly or not (although it should be pointed out that his marathon PB is a fairly handy 3:07).

Next I asked Adams for his top tips for people considering running beyond 26.2 miles and the answer I got was as I expected – very little about nutrition and training, and a lot about listening to as many experienced ultra runners as possible and then making up your own mind, finding your own way. James suggested that it is important to enjoy the social aspect of ultra running and he also emphasised the importance of fitting running into your life, not the other way round (for example James reckons he runs around 50 miles per week and much of that is to and from a demanding full time job).

Whilst James’ greatest achievement to date has to have been his run across America, he has completed ultras all over the world and in a vast array of conditions. I asked him what he preferred – desert, canal towpath, mountains? James said that he really enjoys running in the heat and believes that has much to do with the evolutionary process that have created humans as we are – designed to run long distances in hot and arid conditions. For James then, his run in the Spartathon was a real highlight. You can read about that race here.

The dream race.

So with so many incredible races under his belt, I asked Adams what he would design if he were to create his own event. James started, in his usual self-effacing way – by telling me that he is terrible at organising things which he thinks comes across in the blog he wrote whilst running across America (you can make up your own mind by reading it here). But if he was to organise an event, one idea would be for a Spartathon-length event (153 miles in case you are wondering!) finishing at the Olympic stadium as the London Games were starting (I’ve passed that idea on to Lord Coe, but had no response so far…)

Then James fixed me with a look and told me about the event he’d really like to set up; a race where the entrants do not know how long the course is. James suggested that the distance would be bracketed, say between 100 and 150 miles, but the actual distance would be known until the runners saw the finish line. That is a crazily challenging concept that only a man who has run across America could dream up!

Footwear for a 3,200 mile race

James during the LA-NY

My final question to James was about the kit he used on his 3,000+ mile run. And James had saved the biggest surprise for last. He told me that he ran almost the whole way in Newtons. He took 8 pairs of Newton Gravity shoes and even sold the ‘emergency’ other brand of shoes that he had taken, on eBay when he got back. What surprised me even more is that Newtons haven’t even offered James a free pair in exchange for being allowed to make some publicity from this amazing effort!

And then there we were – me and my old mate James Adams, in a pub in Camden – chatting over a beer. He isn’t much changed from the chap that I used to run the ‘three parks’ route at the Serpentine Running Club with all those years ago. James is just very down-to-earth, easy going and friendly and someone who happened to cross the entire United States of America on foot faster than Dean Karnazes. I hope one day that I’ll get to meet Karnases and, as happened with James, I’ll let him buy me a beer and tell me his tale!


Team Dean – a review of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run!’

I love reading (especially now that I am trying as much as possible to leave my laptop in the lounge when I go to bed – one of the most important steps to getting a good nights sleep is the lack of too much iStimulus in the bedroom) and my two favourite subjects are running and business or economics. It will come as no surprise that on balance I read running books much more often than business books. And I rarely have time for novels.

However I do sometimes lament the writing quality of books about running. Undoubtedly there are many running books that are beautifully written and as a result are engaging and captivating and motivating. Charlie Spedding’s book ‘From First To Last’ is one book that springs to mind when I think of running books that are not only informative and interesting, but are also easy to read and real page-turners.

So I was excited to buy a copy of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run! 26.2 stories of blisters and bliss’ because I really enjoyed reading Dean’s first book ‘Ultra-marathon Man; Confessions of an all night runner’ not least because the book was so well written.

‘Run!’ does not disappoint on that score; it is brilliantly written – or rather dictated because Dean points out that much of the content was spoken into a digital recorder on his smart phone whilst he was out running – and I was so absorbed in the book that I started and finished it in one day.

As far as the story goes, I thought that ‘Run!’ does two things; firstly it gives an insight into what Dean does as an ultra-marathoner, entrepreneur, campaigner, husband and father (and it comes as no surprise that Dean reportedly gets by on 4 hours sleep per night. I’m sure he doesn’t have time for any more!) Secondly I enjoyed getting a real understanding of team Karnazes. Let me explain.

Whilst there is no doubt that what Karnazes does is a very individual sport both in terms of competition and even more so in terms of training, Dean clearly relies on a group of people who support him in different ways. The book really highlighted for me the relationships Dean has with some key people including his wife Julie, his father – who he refers to throughout as Popou – and another ultra-marathon legend Topher Gaylord, who it seems had little or no interest in running until he met Dean and is now considered to be one of the top ultra runners in the world (whilst also being President of Mountain Hardwear Inc).  There are naturally other people who appear in the book, but these three seem to have a special place in Karnazes’ life and his continued professional and athletic careers.

So, I think that ‘Run!’ surprised me in one regard. It is a predictably great account of some of Dean’s crazy antics – the chapter on the 48 hour treadmill run is utterly brilliant – but in another regard I was surprised at how strongly the book reminded me that despite the fact that we are engaged in a solo sport, runners of all levels rely on and take inspiration from those around them. I think that Dean has written a brilliant book and I would recommend it to runners of every level. It might also be wise to buy a copy for your loved ones if you are thinking of embarking on a career as an ultra-runner… just so they know what they are letting themselves in for!