Respect the distance or it won’t respect you
What is an Ultra, …
Great question, and when discussing with people it’s quite easy to answer…. Anything over 26.2 miles (the distance for a marathon)
However, those that have done one know, there is a lot more to an ultra, below are my musings on what an ultra means to me.
An ultra is not a eating competition, although training for one allows for considerable more calories to be taken in, an ultra is not just a physical race, and it certainly isn’t ‘just a few more miles than a marathon.’ When breaking it down there are a number of areas that i would consider, clearly there is a considerable physical element although i don’t believe this to be e most important, there is certainly a mental/emotional element - one of the most important to finishing, and finally there is the nutritional and strategic element.
The Physical element
The Physical element is clearly core to running an ultra, months and months of training, building the endurance in the muscles, ensuring that considerable hours of running doesn’t result in the build-up of lactic acid causing considerable aching, Delayed onset muscle soreness is thought to be a result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. The amount of tearing (and soreness) depends on how hard and how long you exercise clearly something that has a high chance of occurring during an ultra.
An even more painful experience through lack of training, or nutrition which I’ll come onto is cramping. Muscle cramps range in intensity from a slight twitch or tic to severe pain. A cramped muscle can feel rock-hard and last a few seconds to several minutes or longer, not a nice experience whilst running on a coastal path 50 miles into an ultra. It is not uncommon for cramps to ease up and then return several times before they go away entirely.
So What Causes Muscle Cramps?
The exact cause of muscle cramps is still unknown, but the theories most commonly cited include:
Altered neuromuscular control
Doing a new activity
Other factors that have been associated with muscle cramps include exercising in extreme heat. The belief is that muscle cramps are more common during exercise in the heat because sweat contains fluids as well as electrolyte (salt, potassium, magnesium and calcium). When these nutrients fall to certain levels, the incidence of muscle spasms increases. Because athletes are more likely to get cramps in the preseason, near the end of (or the night after) intense or prolonged exercise, some feel that a lack of conditioning results in cramps.
So tips, keep control of your salt levels, ensure training includes similar environments to your actual race environment, including conditions- if your running in intense heat, try running in a sweat suit to simulate the perspiration you may experience in the race.
The mental part (maybe entering an ultra in the first place!)
There are many elements to the mental part of a race, from preparation, running rough how e race will work in your head, what will you take when, will you pace yourself, will you walk, what time are you aiming for, isn’t right to aim for a time, etc.
The truth is, after 8/10/12/24 hours of running your mind is going to be playing severe games, and controlling these requires considerable inner strength. Running constant hills in heat, and seeing the sun go down, continuing to run can really create negative feelings in your head, controlling these, understanding why they are happening, and giving yourself small positive pick me ups is really important. Everything inside will be telling you to stop.
Night running creates further complications, the small beam from the head torch on the ground, along with the exhaustion from running, and the high energy foods that are passing through your body will create hallucinations, and huge emotional hi’s and low’s.
The typical human experiences highs and lows throughout a day, but normally these are not too far from the norm in terms of emotional strain. An ultra starts to exemplify these, and increase the occurrence considerably, one minute something can cause an intense high which will power you for a few miles, before considerable lows try to convince your head that quitting is the best option.
The nutritional, strategic element.
Staying nutritionally fuelled is critical to a ultra marathon runners success, no one will ever finish an ultra marathon without the correct nutrition. Salt, sugar, water, and good foods at provide both quick and sustained energy are key.
Be sure to think about your environment, a great mistake is often to take what you may fancy when you are walking through a supermarket in the UK, if you are running in the desert your preferences are a little different, as are the practicalities. Chocolate and jelly babies don’t look very good, or taste too good when they are 40 degrees, likewise caramel is pretty hard to eat when it’s frozen!
Ensure to train with your food too, to become accustomed to how it makes you feel, and how long it can power you for.
Finally plan, plan, plan… Go through the race and lay it out in front of you, for instance, I weigh 11st, if I run approximately 8mph for 24 hours I’ll burn approximately 22,000 calories. If I am not consuming just under this amount, I’ll eventually rout of energy, so part of the planning would be how to keep up the energy levels based on what I’ll be burning.
Then do the same with water, salt and sugar.
I hope that’s given some food for thought on an ultra, but finally, even with the greatest planning, preparation, strategising, mental prep, physical prep, there is still a risk, and quite a high one that you may not complete, and that is the final hurdle…. Sometimes it’s just not your day.