For some runners the marathon is just not far enough! Once you have ticked the marathon off your list of 'must do before I die' what will you aim for next? Maybe it will be an ultramarathon.
What is an ultra?
An ultra-marathon is an event longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Ultras usually take one of the following forms:
An event where the challenge is to run and/or walk a set distance as fast as you can such as the Comrades Marathon, an 87km held each June in South Africa. An event where the challenge is to run and/or walk as far as possible within a specific time, for example a 24 hour race.
A stage race where the challenge takes place over several days, like the Tour de France
However, some runners devise their own ultrarunning challenge.
If you look back to the history of ultrarunning you will discover that human beings have been walking and running phenomenal distances for ever and it became very popular in the 1950s and 60s when the London to Brighton race was inaugurated.
What is noticeable about ultrarunning is the tremendous sense of camaraderie amongst the participants. The difference may be that the runners tend to run against the clock, the distance and their own limits rather than each other and so they support each other, share their food and equipment and the pace, if they are running in a group.
Many ultra races take place in iconic or inspirational places. There are ultras that cross deserts, the arctic and jungles as well as other remote places. Travelling to the location of an ultra race is often as exciting challenging yourself to the actual distance.
Why would you run an ultra?
The motivation of many runners is to raise money for a charitable cause that is close to their heart. Once friends and family have sponsored you to run a few marathons you may feel that you need to go further to justify this support.
Perhaps the marathon is too easy and not challenging or inspirational enough. By firing your sponsors’ imagination with a new challenge such as an ultra you may secure even more support for your chosen charity.
As a runner you will enjoy seeing yourself improve your times and positions in races. This continues for a time and then, as you get older, you will find it harder to shave the seconds off your race times and beat your younger competitors. Your stamina stays with you for much longer and so, once the times stop improving, you can move up the distances and gain success over longer races.
How do you train for an ultra?
If you have already done a marathon you will find that the training is much the same for an ultra.William Sichel described himself as "an ordinary marathon runner" who, when he stopped improving at the marathon distance made the step up to ultramarathon.
Do you do hill work?
I am a big believer in hill work both up and down hill work. They are vital for ultra running, they toughen the leg muscles in a way that is advantageous for ultras, especially the down hills.
How important is speed for an ultra distance runner?
It all depends on your goals and ambitions in ultras. If you want to set PBs, records, get a high finishing position, achieve your full potential etc then speed is essential. No matter how long the race, it is always the fastest average speed that wins. This should never be forgotten.
How many miles a week do you do?
About 50 - 70 miles a week but it does depend on the training phase I'm in. Also I race about 3 ultras a year and do 'Crash Training' weekends too [back-to-back long runs – long run both Saturday and Sunday]
What do you do to stay injury free?
A runner is only as good as their musculo-skeletal system allows them to be. I do a very extensive strength training programme involving twice weekly, heavy weights sessions, plyometrics, flexibility, power walking, running specific exercises etc to support my running and racing, but of course you can never see the imaginable, especially if its a tree root on a night run!!!
How would you advise a marathon runner to train if he/she wanted to move up to ultras?
Train the same but do some longer training runs to get used to being on your feet for that much longer. Put your ego to one side and adopt a run-walk strategy, from the start, which can be hugely effective in ultras because you don't slow down so much in the second half. Also rehearse your race nutrition in training, as that is a vital component.
Mental approach is of the utmost importance and you need to know why you are doing it and what you are aiming for - have a number of clear goals to aim for.
Are there any races or events you would advise for someone who is starting out?
There is a huge variety of ultra events on road, track and trail. The first choice is do you tackle a point-to-point or a lap course first. I would suggest either a short point-to-point ultra or a longer one on a lap course - often a mile or two of road in a park or similar.
The beauty of a road lap is that you have full access to the aid station or your crew area at any time you want, you will never be left behind, you can easily pace yourself as you will be given an exact lap measurement and you can run without pressure of any kind without getting lost.
Rest and recovery becomes even more important when you are training for longer events so don’t forget to factor this into your ultra training.