10 things that happen during an Ultra

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1.Your brain will not work: This started early on for me on my recent 50 miler on the North Downs Way, as I queued up in the wrong alphabet queue to pick up my bib. I then forgot to go to the toilet at aid station 2 as I had been planning to, and forgot to fill up my water bottle at aid station 3. Basically your brains will turn to mush, it will become difficult to make the most basic decisions, and you will find it difficult to form coherent sentences.

2. The Toilet Situation: At the race earlier in the month there were only toilets at mile 14/31 and then the finish at mile 50. I only peed once in 11 hours so was clearly very dehydrated, but I did manage to use an actual toilet at mile 31. I did need a comfort break of the other kind later in the race though, obviously once I had gone past the aid stations that had toilets. For miles I was dealing with needing to go, but struggling to find somewhere sheltered off trail as it turned into miles of open fields. Basically if you are going to run an ultra, you better get used to going in nature! Pack toilet paper/wet wipes in your pack- absolute essentials on the trail.

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3. Weird Appetite: I wasn’t overly hungry at all during the race, dealing with a lot of nausea. You need to try to keep eating and drinking though against how your body is feeling, otherwise you will inevitably just run out of fuel. I am never hungry immediately after ultras, which is proper disappointing. My appetite post race has fluctuated from non-existent at times, to eating the entire contents of my kitchen, and craving and eating weird combinations of stuff, or not wanting to eat anything except cereal or pizza.

4. The Aftermath: You will not be able to walk for days, getting up and down from the floor requires some sort of furniture to pull yourself up and lower yourself down, and don’t even mention stairs. I would say it’s probably pretty rare to go through an event of this kind without suffering from blisters or chafe too, no matter how much you slather yourself in vaseline/sudocreme or body glide. My feet were not too bad at all, other than a sore little toe and a heel blister, but after SDW50 last year, my heels were a mess, I had to wear flip flops for a week, and every time I moved my foot the blister would crack open and weep- gross. Compeed are your best friend in this situation.

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5. New Friends: You might spend all of your time training alone, in fact you may run for this reason, but you can turn up at any ultra event alone and leave with a load of new running mates. The atmosphere on the trails is great, and it’s nice to chat to people along the way, and meet some new running buddies, who just get it.

6. Low Moments: I felt pretty low for most of the second half on NDW50, it’s about riding those low moments and coming out the other side. Everything will pass, so it’s important to make the most of it while you are feeling good, and just suck it up and ride it out when you are feeling bad.

7. Slow Down: If you think you are going slow, you aren’t going slow enough. It’s cliche, but it rings true. I ran quite a lot of 9:something miles in the first half of the race, and I honestly think this was why I felt so shoddy in the second half. It’s hard not to get carried away at the beginning, particularly if the course is quite runnable, but you will pay so badly for it later on, so slow down.

8. Silence your Mind: Your mind will want to quit long before your body has had enough. It’s hard to silence the brain, especially when it’s trying to convince you that everything is an incline and should be walked, and is calculating at what point you would be safe to just walk it in and still make it under cut off. It’s good to have a mantra to think of during hard times.

9. Time Wasting: Aid stations though amazing places, filled with incredibly lovely people and all manner of delicious snacks are an easy place to lose time to on the day. I spent about 40 minutes total either in aid stations, or stopping to sort out my feet, which is quite a chunk of time. When there are 6 aid stations on course, you could easily lose an hour just spending 10 mins at each. I try to be efficient, going in knowing what I want (though difficult considering points 1 and 3), refilling flasks, grabbing food and heading straight off. I only stopped briefly at the first few, but later on had several lengthy stops, mostly down to gear malfunctioning, which could have saved me some time on the day.

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10. Post Race Blues: You’ve spent 5-6 months training for an event, every spare moment going over training plans, gear, nutrition, and then it’s gone, that focus, drive and motivation all geared towards the big day, is over. I find I ride an endorphin wave for about 24 hours, completely wired on adrenaline and unable to sleep, and then crash really really hard. This is the time to just rest, enjoy your achievements, make some plans for races later in the year and do all the things you didn’t get to do while you were out running for 10+ hours a week. Though you may be in pain, and swearing to never run another ultra at the finish line, only a few days later you will be googling for your next challenge.

I hope this has given you an insight into the weird and wonderful world of ultra marathoning, and not put you off either. Honestly, it’s an amazing community, filled with incredible people, and I would highly recommend doing an ultra if you are considering one.

NDW50 2017

I hadn’t slept well all week in the run up to the event, my mind had been racing with a million thoughts about the race. After another restless night in the Premier Inn I headed the short way to the start at Farnham, where I showed how half asleep I was by queuing in the T-Z group for my race bib (my surname begins with an R!). After catching up with a few people and meeting a few faces from Twitter, we headed off to the trailhead and were underway promptly at 8am.

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The first few miles were fairly congested, we had some lengthy pauses for queues for stiles and gates, but after a few miles it started to spread out a bit more. I have never run the first half of the course before, and it was really beautiful, especially from around mile 12 onwards. There were a few changes in terrain, most notably a few sandy sections thanks to all the dry weather we’ve been having.

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It was drizzling at the start, but other than a few tiny spots of drizzle, the weather was good all the way, 17 degrees and sunny, although the humidity was tough, and I was really struggling with it for the first half of the run, I was sweating a lot and felt like I had a headache due to the humidity right from the start.

The first section to Puttenham aid station is fairly flat and runnable, I was feeling strong and moving through at a decent pace. I filled up my 250ml Ultimate Direction hard flask and grabbed a handful of raisins and nuts and was on my way, trying not to linger too long at the early stations.

The first real challenging climbs came around 12-13 miles in, at some point on this section I went offtrack and lost the course marking, luckily a man followed me and asked if we were going the right way, which we definitely weren’t, and we managed to cut across a path and found our way back onto the trail. I ran with Su for a few miles, and actually most of the race we seemed to be very close together, it was nice to have some company and hear all about his running.

The second aid station was at nearly 15 miles at Newlands corner, I was going to go to the toilet here but completely forgot once I got there. My brain was totally not working on the day. I refilled my flask with water again, and grabbed some more trail mix and headed straight off. I was still making good pace up to this point. I knew the first half was a lot flatter and runnable than the second so I wanted to try and bank some time, and then cling on in the second “half”.

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The next stretch was a long one, and the longest between aid stations all day, but I knew my brother was going to be at Box Hill to cheer me on, so it gave me something to target. I wanted to get to the stepping stones which were at 24 miles within 4hr 30, as I thought the second half would take me around 2 hours longer than this. I was still moving OK during this stretch, though slowing a little, and getting tired of long straight flat sections, I definitely started to walk a lot more from here on out on anything that resembled a slight incline.

At mile 23/24 I ran with a lovely lady called Tania, and these were actually 2 of my quickest miles of the day, including that horrible out and back bit under the A24 to get to the stepping stones carpark. I love meeting people during ultras, and hearing all about their lives, running, past races and future goals. We got to the Boxhill aid station together, around 4.22 and after I quickly filled up with some tailwind in my flask, and grabbed a bit of watermelon I was on my way up the steps to find my brother.

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This section of the course I was familiar with having run it 3 weeks ago on my recce run. The steps were even tougher than I remember, with the legs already battered and it hurt like hell going up. After a quick stop, chat and hugs at the top, I was on my way on what felt like a very long way to go, especially as I knew what was to come.

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My pace started to slow dramatically over the next few miles as the hills just kept on coming. Colley hill I found even harder than Boxhill, it is so steep, and goes on forever. The section from Boxhill to Reigate aid station is only 7ish miles, but it took me almost 2 hours, it’s so punishing, brutal climbs, horrid descents and just really not nice terrain to run on at all. This I think is where my real lack of training on this terrain started to show.

It was lovely to see familiar faces at Reigate, and the aid station was really busy at the time. I had a quick chat with Steph, grabbed some cherry tomatoes, and a massive strawberry jam filled vegan flapjack, which was all I managed to eat for the rest of the race, nibbling a bit every few miles.

I didn’t manage to eat a lot during the race, and ended up with most of the food I had taken with me still in my pack. I also had hydration issues from here on out, I was so distracted in the buzz of the station I forgot to fill up my flask, and realised shortly after leaving that my camelbak which had 1.2litres in at the start was almost empty. Luckily it was only 5 miles to the next aid station so it wasn’t catastrophic. I was getting a bit fed up of running, and my head just didn’t seem in the zone, the thought of still having 20 miles to go at mile 31, was not encouragingIMG_9029

I ran a lot of this section with another lady called Sydnee, we would stop/start in-sync, kind of motivating each other to keep pushing on. I think at this point we were both starting to count down the miles, and growing tired of running, there was a really long concrete section and we just couldn’t motivate ourselves to run it at all.

There was another big climb heading into the aid station at Caterham which couldn’t come soon enough at mile 38. I had quite a lengthy stop here as I needed to refill my camelbak bladder, once I had got it out of my pack and had it filled with a litre of tailwind, I did it up and went to put it back in my pack to realise I had done the opening up incorrectly and the liquid was pouring out of it everywhere. When I went to undo the opening, it was completely jammed, and several people at the aid station couldn’t undo it, so I had to abandon it and leave it there- luckily I had a 250ml soft-flask as well as my harder flask, so I could fill both of these up, I felt like I had stopped for a very long time here, much longer than I had wanted to. I grabbed some grapes and a few other bits of fruit and headed off.

As the miles ticked down I could start to think about the finish, though 10 miles still seemed like a long way. I didn’t want to run anymore, and my mind was trying to convince me not to- working out that if I walked from there I could still make it under the cut off. I would say in general I felt pretty low for a lot of the second half, I don’t know if it was the humidity, having run the first half quite quickly or just the brutality of the second half of the course, but I did find it really hard going mentally, which is something I’ve not really struggled with in an ultra before.

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I started to feel quite nauseous with about 12 miles to go, so I ate a few ginger chews and had to walk quite a bit to settle my stomach, and wait for the nausea to pass. I also really needed the toilet but there was no sheltered areas, as it’s quite open in the section on the way to Botley hill.

I think Botley is the worst hill of the lot, so I was glad to reach the aid station at the top.  I had a friend Sarah volunteering here and it was lovely to see her. They had peanut butter and jam sandwiches so I grabbed 2 triangles which gave me a real boost for the next section and the home stretch.

We were counting down the miles, and every step was taking me closer to home.  I found the last section really hard going, running round dry, hard, rutted fields is really monotonous and draining. I finally found a sheltered spot so stopped to go to the toilet, and not long after this I had a very lengthy stop as I had an extremely sharp pain in my little toe which left me unable to walk. I took my shoe off and couldn’t see anything wrong so I put it back on, but I couldn’t run, so I took it off again, took my socks off and put a plaster on it, unfortunately it was a really gravelly section, and my sock and shoe filled up with bits of stick and stones so I took ages sorting this out, all a bit annoying as I was feeling quite decent before that happened. The toe was still hurting, but it took my mind off other things that were hurting like a heel blister, and really bad chafe. At this point Su caught up with me again, and we kind of shuffled along together.

The last 3 miles of the course were unknown to me, and it was hillier than I thought it would be. I also wasn’t sure how far the finish was as I thought it was going to be closer to 51 miles than 50. At one point we went through a fields of cows, I walked past skirting the edge of the field as there were loads of calves and bulls, and one of the calves tried to follow me which was a bit scary. I was trying to motivate myself to run, but the need to walk was overwhelming at this point and the miles were passing so slowly.

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Suddenly we passed a sign that said Knockholt Pound 1 1/4 miles, I wasn’t sure if this was exactly where the finish was, but not long after we could see the finish gantry, and you have to do this horrible out and back for a mile or so with the finish in sight the whole way. I realised at this point I had 15 mins left to get in under 11 hours, so if I ran the last mile I could dip under this barrier. I think I managed my first mile beginning with a 10 since before Boxhill at mile 24, and finally crossed the finish line after 10 hours 55 minutes and 17 seconds.

Another Centurion run done, and 35 minutes knocked off my time from the SDW50 which is a shorter and in my opinion easier course (I really struggled with the mud last year). I was really considering one of the 100’s for next year, but this has put me off entirely. It was the hardest race I’ve ever done (even though Race to the Stones was 13 miles longer), the second half is savage, and I just struggled to hang on. I felt a bit broken physically and mentally at the end, and need a good break to recover.

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I met some amazing people along the way, the volunteers and everyone at Centurion were amazing as always, and these are definitely the events to go for if you want to do an ultra.

Ultra Training Done: Ready to Race…

I had some pretty good runs at the start of week 17 of training, my legs felt good, and I felt like fitness was coming back, but by the long runs towards the end of that week I was feeling really tired. I was going to focus on one more high mileage week, and another couple of really long runs, but my body was just saying no and that it was time to start winding the mileage down.

I think I wanted to do an extra few miles to make up for the missed training due to illness. I ending up cutting the planned 20 miler to 13 miles, which was just a constant mental and physical battle the whole way, my body felt heavy and niggly and I couldn’t push through one more time. Despite this I had a really good 10 mile run the next day which included a course PB at Hilly fields parkrun, so it seems like the hill training has been paying off.

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I haven’t done any super hilly runs since the NDW recce 3 weeks ago, as I felt like my legs took a while to recover from that, and I wanted them to feel fresh rather than battered on race day. In week 17 I managed nearly 40 miles, it was a drop from the 50-60 mile weeks I had been peaking at, but just a gentle way to ease into the taper, and still a decent amount of mileage.

In week 18 I slashed the mileage even further and dropped down to 4 runs a week from 5, and just scraped over 20 miles for the week. At the end of week 17 and beginning of week 18 I just fell into a right funk, I didn’t want to train, my motivation and mojo had totally gone. I had three rest days of moping and feeling sorry for myself, before getting my butt in gear and getting back out there. Week 18 was mostly made up of shorter runs, and I had to take it pretty easy as I had a bit of a niggly left calf which I think was stemming from my hip/ITB. I have a stretching/rolling/strength routine I put in place whenever I feel an injury coming on and this seemed to do the trick. My longest run of the week was 7 miles which freed up a lot of time! I also did a 6.5m run with my other half which was his longest run ever- super proud.

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This week is all about staying fresh, so I’ve just done two short three mile runs- I can’t remember the last time I ran 3 miles!- and I’ve stopped going to the gym too. I was still lifting three times a week up until last week, but last week I dropped the weights slightly and focused on higher reps, and I also dropped big compound moves like deadlifts and squats too. My legs certainly feel fresher this week for stopping the weight training.

I can’t believe how cold it’s been in London lately, it’s felt like January and been utterly miserable and grey, at least it’s been dry though. I’ve been obsessively checking the weather forecast for the weekend, it keeps changing daily between rain, and sun. The ground is going to be very very dry though- I hear it’s quite sandy in places too as it’s been so dry, if I had been training in more supportive road shoes I would probably race in them, but I’m n0t risking wearing ultra boosts for 50 miles so will still to my Inov-8 trail shoes.

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My nutrition was a bit crap when I drifted into the funk at the end of week 17, just eating too much packaged stuff and not enough freshness, so I’ve had a big overhaul over the last 10 days or so, reintroduced juicing into my diet, and have been loving having ginger shots and loads of green smoothies and beet filled juices. I’ve tried to focus on eating as many veggies as possible, and I am feeling really good at the minute. I would have liked to have been a little lighter going into the run, but I’ve lived off bagels, oats and energy bars for most of training which explains a lot!

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So that’s it, 690 miles run, 5 months of training in the bag, time to run 50 miles!

Week 17: 39m
Week 18: 22m
Week 19: 6m (plus race day!)

What I Eat Before/During a Run

What I eat while on the run has changed a lot since I first got into running all those years ago. When I first started running, I felt like I needed a lot more fuel on runs, and would take snacks out on shorter runs and always had to eat before running.

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I feel like my body has adapted to my higher mileage, and years of training so I have got to the point where I don’t necessarily need to eat anything before runs, or during either. My rule of thumb is listening to my body, if I am hungry when I wake up I will have something small beforehand like some dates or a homemade energy bar, but if not then I’ll just get up and go. I prefer to do the majority of my weekly mileage in a fasted state, mostly because I prefer getting up and going straight out rather than waiting for something to digest. For pretty much anything under 12-13 miles I am happy to just get out and go, but this really can depend on what I’ve eaten the day before, how far I’ve run the day before or if I have weight trained, or even hormones during stages of my cycle which affect my appetite too. If I know I’m going to be doing around 12 miles and heading out early without time to eat beforehand (ie. parkrun long run sandwich) then I will try and eat a bit later the night before and have a small bowl of oats or something similar in the evening before I go to bed.

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For longer runs I will tend to have some oats, chia seeds and nut butter for breakfast and wait a 1 1/2-2 hours before running. Sometimes with longer runs if I don’t have time I just head straight out and then eat on the run. I don’t do this regularly though, and it really is just if I’m really short on time and have to be up super early for a long run anyway. I haven’t noticed any adverse effects from doing this in terms of how I feel on the run or recovery. If anything I’ve had some of my best runs while doing them in this fasted state and I have much less digestive issues later on during longer runs.

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So what do I like to eat on the run? I’ve never been a big fan of gels or anything like that, I just find them sickly sweet and likely to upset my stomach or make me feel sick. In the past I’ve used a lot of dates/nakd bars or similar which are two things I still really like to use. I also like to use 33Shake’s chia gels, they are kind of like chia pudding, made up of just chia seeds, coconut sugar and Himalayan salt in a pouch which you add water too and shake together, I find they work really well for me.

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I also like savoury snacks to mix things up, roasted and salted almonds, pretzels or tamari roasted cashews are favourites. Lately on my longer runs I’ve been taking out pittas/tortilla wraps filled with nut butter and jam, to practice race day eating, these have worked really well, but I was getting some weird looks running along the street while nibbling on a pitta. I also like pre-cooked sweet potato/potatoes, I took some in my pack for the SDW50 last year, and though they were totally mushy by half way, they did make a change from the sweeter stuff. Nut butter sachets are also really handy, Pip and Nut’s sachets are great, but recently I’ve really been into Mindful Bites nut butter sachets, the texture is really good for while on the run and the sachets have kind of a straw feature to them so they are easier to use.

I would say especially for longer stuff go with whatever you fancy during the run and what works best for you personally, but it’s important to have tested out your nutrition strategy and eating on the run prior to race day. I’ve had issues in the past when using things like shot blocks and clif bars on runs which have not agreed with me at all, I’ve either felt really ill or got a stitch from them, so I tend to avoid them now, but I know they work fine for lots of people.

I have found I need a lot less than I did previously as my body has adapted to running longer mileage. I tend to have my first snack whenever I feel a little peckish- usually somewhere between 8-9 miles, then I’ll just have a nibble of something every couple of miles, it can take me 5-6 miles to get through a nakd bar, but again I try and go with how I’m feeling and whether I feel I need a bit of a boost. I prefer having smaller bits, as it sits better with my digestion, rather than shoving loads in at one time, and I feel like it’s a slow drip of energy throughout the run.

I always pack quite a lot of food for races, and find I am still carrying most of it at the end unopened, so for my ultra next weekend I am going to pack a lot less. I know from doing a Centurion race before, I will be able to get plenty of vegan friendly stuff- from trail mix, fresh fruit to peanut butter wraps/sandwiches, so I will pack a few things I fancy, and then take an empty freezer bag which I can load up with food at the aid stations, and snack on while I’m walking up those endless hills! My pack is quite small- Ultimate Direction Jenny pack- so I need to be quite selective with what I take, as there is a required kit list, and water takes up most of the space anyway, I’ll be packing things that are a a bit different to what’s on offer at aid stations and a few things I think I will fancy on the day to help me get through the miles.

I will do another post soon about what I like to eat after runs, so keep an eye out for that.

Favourite running foods for before/during runs?

Race Ready?

With under two weeks until my goal race for spring the NDW50, I am fluctuating between feeling better prepared for a race than ever before and woefully under prepared- taper crazies have started already.

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I’ve never trained harder or more consistently for a race, I’ve looked through training logs for previous ultras/marathons and realised I’ve always missed significant chunks of training with injury. This time around I’ve managed to stay injury free- thanks strength training- but I have been ill twice, missing two entire weeks of training which I do feel has set me back a bit, although I did build in 2 spare weeks to my plan for this kind of eventuality. I’ll be close to 700 miles for the year by race day, and all those miles have brought me to this point.

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I was going to start my taper this week, but I kind of checked out during my long run last week. I had planned 20 miles, but was mentally and physically struggling the whole way, so I called it a day at 13.5, and decided to start my taper and wind down to race day early. I was already starting to feel pretty drained and tired and had not wanted to go out for a few sessions last week, I thought it better to go in a little fresher then feeling battered and not recovered.

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My NDW recce run a few weeks ago filled me with many doubts, and I realised my training hasn’t been as specific as it could be. I know that training in South East London is never going to replicate being on the trails, and I wish I had been able to get out for more recce runs, but I just haven’t had the time or motivation to spend hours traveling somewhere before running. I realised on my recce that the NDW is very very different to the SDW, it felt a lot more closed in with all the woodland sections, I also found the trail and terrain a little more challenging too, a lot of narrower rutted paths, and the amount of times I tripped over indicated I hadn’t spent enough time running this terrain, or trails in general. The steps are also a killer, and it’s tough when you are looking forward to a downhill and it turns out to be horrendously steep set of steps that are arguably harder than the ups! I haven’t spent enough time walking/hiking, which really showed as I struggled to even walk up some of the hills on my recce, god knows what state I will be in trying to attempt them after 20+ miles.

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Is it normal to feel both over and under-prepared at the same time, because right now that is how I’m feeling. Prepared in terms of miles run, time on feet, nutrition and gear practiced with, but not prepared in terms of terrain or elevation profile. For the SDW50 last year, I did less mileage, I didn’t do a recce or any trail running before, and I went into the race blind and that went OK, so maybe I will be fine. I feel like in some ways having done the recce I am slightly terrified of what to expect, and almost dreading the second half before I have even started, but I just need to put it out of my head until I get to that point on race day.

The next 2 weeks will be spent winding down my runs and strength training, dialing in my nutrition which has been bloody awful lately, and trying to stay healthy to make the start line on May 13th. I’m already thinking about future goals and races so I’ve maintained some form of passion towards running which has usually petered out at this point in training. I feel like I could have run more, and my running and strength work could have been more specific. I could have eaten and looked after myself better, but when you are running 50-60 miles per week, you are so tired and in a permanent state of hunger so you will kind of settle for anything. The decisions I’ve made have made up my journey over the last few months, yes I could be better prepared, but I could also be less prepared too. I just hope that everything comes together on race day, and it makes for an enjoyable day out on the North Downs Way.