Ultramarathons - Its not just about the ups, but the downs too
Ultramarathons are a completely different to your normal running races. For starters, most of them tend to be on trails - and in this instance, in the Lake District, which is notoriously very hilly. They are also very far, a distance which is longer than a marathon, but thats really the only agreed upon definition.
I signed up for the Lakeland 55km Ultra Marathon trail run as an 'introduction' race into ultra marathons. There was a 110km option, but that just seemed crazy ( 55km less so). The run itself is described as "a testing course through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the Lake District". Sounds appealing, doesn't it?
My biggest concern leading up to this race, was actually getting to the start line - not just well prepared, but injury free. Apparently 1/3 of entrants for this race don't make it to the start. My injury history does tend to complicate things as well. Before I was a physiotherapist, I had sustained my fair share of running related injuries. Having run my first half marathon at the age of 15, I developed several bouts of knee pain which developed into the common overuse injuries PFPS and ITBS. I had a tendency to overtrain back then and not really look after myself with all the running I was doing. Fast forward a few years, I attempted to train for my first marathon, only to develop ITBS again - pain on the outside of my knee - which left me unable to run properly for about 18 months.
As you can tell, distance and motivation are not my biggest issues. My biomechanics are. One of the reasons that I do what I do today ( Physiotherapist specialising in running injuries and 3D gait analysis) is because of all the issues I have endured with my running up until this point. They say you learn best from your mistakes. Well, trust me, I've made a few!
I digress. Going into this ultra, being very aware that I am highly susceptible to knee injuries, I successfully worked hard to prevent this. I started and finished the race injury free. Sore quads - yes! But you can only expect that from a race with 1800m ascent and descent! How did I do this? A fairly structured plan of my mileage, running only 4 days a week, regular strengthening and rehabilitation, foam rolling regularly - all things I knew were issues for me from 3D gait analysis. Was my plan perfect, no. But it never will be. You can only do the best you can with the tools that you have. I followed the advice I always give my patients, and I hate to say it, but I'm right and it does work!
Now, lets be honest. A play by play of this run would simply take way too long- as it took me 7. 5 hours to complete! But, I did learn some important lessons which I would like to share. Some of which I am glad I knew beforehand from training, and some things I've taken away from the actual race.
Lesson 1: If you can, run the course before race day
This advice was given to me by a patient who is an ultramarathon runner. Taking this on board, four weeks before the race, I travelled up north and ran the first 20 miles of the course, which incorporated the two largest hills (seriously, they are big). Although I had to self navigate, which was interesting to say the least, this was the best prep I could have done. It made me more confident in my ability to handle the first half of the route and therefore I was less nervous and more prepared...at least for the first half.
Lesson 2: A good ultra runner can run uphill really well, and down hill even better
I am short and my legs are muscly and strong. I'm built for running uphill and I'm pretty good at it. Downhill - not so much. More because I don't trust my feet and I'm afraid of falling on my face. During this race, I would bound up those hills, no problem. I probably only walked the really steep ones - and this was largely because other people were doing it and I didn't want to make a rookie mistake by being too keen on the hills and paying for it later! However, downhill was another story all together. I spent WAY too much time trying to find my footing and crawling down the seriously steep and rocky descents on cliff edges. I'm not kidding, proper cliffs too. Meanwhile, the 'real' ultra trail runners would bound past me like they were goats.
I found downhill running VERY frustrating. To the point where I was convincing myself this was a horrible race because of all the stupid downhills - as you do when something is tough.
At one point, very early on in the race, as a man was bounding past me down a hill and I was gingerly stepping around some slippery rocks, he said "Darling, you're going to have to get your feet wet at some point!". To which I retorted I was more afraid of falling than the water! He was long gone by that point though. I also heard a guy run past me saying "I hate these technical downhills", so I think the feeling is somewhat mutual, for us beginners at least.
However, because I was strong on the uphills, I was able to stay with the same group of people for the most part of the run, as I would catch them up on the flats and uphills. Which brings me to my next point...
Lesson 3: Take advantage of your strengths
I don't actually know if this is a real ultra marathon tip or rule, but it certainly worked for me. Because I was moving SO slowly on the downhill, I always felt really rested by the time I got to the bottom, frustrated yes, but not tired. Therefore, I figure anytime I had an opportunity to really run, I went for it. Not just flat ground, but smooth terrain was key. I made up some time on these sections as I would pass a lot of people who had flown past me on the downhills.
Lesson 4: Ultramarathoners are very friendly people
It's almost like we know what we are doing is crazy and we want to help each other as much as possible (crazy is subjective). I had one guy stay behind me on a very technical and slippery downhill section for a good 10-15 minutes, likely because he could clearly tell I was struggling. One of the most stressful things is trying to run fast downhill with someone right on your tail - but he kept his distance and kindly reassured me through some tough sections when I got stuck. I was very grateful. He was unfortunately slower on the ups and flats and I didn't see him again after that, as I followed my previous rule. Run fast on the flats!
Lesson 5: Nutrition is a personal battle...
I'm like a camel when I run normally. Before training for this race, I would never take water with me or even have a gel. For some reason I just don't find I need them as much as other people. You can get all sorts of nutrition advice out there as to what you should and shouldn't do. Although there are some rules to follow, nutrition is very much a personal thing.
Ultramarathons are a different story than my usual running, so I did actually train with gels, fluid, and other nutrition sources during my training. During the race I only actually consumed 1 gel, 1 full cliff shot blok bar, 1 trek flapjack, and a handful of jelly babies at the last check point.
I had so much more food on me ( in my bag) that I could have eaten, but just didn't feel the need to. However, I did go through my 1.5 litre water bag twice, and my carb/glucouse solution bottle twice!
Lesson 6: Carb loading is a real thing - and it works
If you do it right.
Bread, oats, potatoes, bagels, pasta - all things that modern 'dieting' tells you to avoid - with carb loading, this is all you eat. It sounds glorious, but it actually isn't. As an endurance athlete, I do eat my fair share of carbohydrates for fuel on a regular basis, but not to this extent.
I don't normally carb load for shorter events, as its not exactly necessary, but for this - I knew from a previous 70.3 ironman, that it is effective. I had advice from the nutritionist at The Bosworth Clinic, Helen Money, who suggested a plan based on my specific measurements and consisted mostly of what I like to refer to as the 'beige food group'.
I'll just say this, if you do this right, by that I mean, if you do it far enough in advance and make sure you stick to the rules of carb loading - it does work.
That being said, all i want now is salad!
Lesson 7: Blisters - ignore them if you can!
I developed a blister very early on in the race on my big toe. You can actually feel them forming, its that uncomfortable. From what I've learned from previous running events and from others - the longer you can hold off without addressing a blister, the better. The minute you take your shoe off, it makes it feel that much worse - and you might even struggle to get your shoe back on. I was advised by another seasoned ultramarathoner that using blister plasters was for emergencies only ( he didn't say why...), but I was fully prepared to use them if needed to keep me going. As someone who has run through a lot of pain in my life - I just kept telling myself that this was superficial pain, its not going to stop you! And actually, it didn't. When it checked it at the end, it wasn't even that big - it just felt horrific!
One piece of advice that I had read beforehand was to always bring a spare pair of socks with you in your kit bag. If you DO need to attend to a blister, your socks will likely be soaked through in these kinds of races and a fresh pair of socks can be a life saver!
Lesson 8: Support crews are priceless.
I signed up for this race on my own, as a challenge for myself. I actually avoided telling anyone about it for months, as I was so nervous about getting injured during the training. I've always thought the worst thing about dropping out of a race is having to tell people you aren't doing it. The disappointment is unbearable!
I was all set to go up on my own, when a friend offered to come up and support. And let me tell you - Im SO grateful that she did. Just knowing that someone is there waiting for you along the course or at the end can really make a difference between stopping and putting one foot in front of the other.
The course marshals as well - what a group. I mean, you really have to be made of some strong stuff to stand out in the wind, rain, cold, and bugs (!!) to cheer people on. They really are the stars of the show. Massive kudos to all of them for being there for all the runners. These kinds of events can't go on without them!
Lesson 9: Foam rollers
Just do it. They hurt, just accept it. Im a huge advocate for foam rolling as it allows you to be aware of what is going on with your muscle and
keep them in check. More importantly you are in control! I don't think I would have made it through this race without using my foam rolling on a regular
Lesson 10: Its Mental.
Not crazy, well it is crazy, but by mental I mean there is a huge psychological factor in ultra marathon running. Of course you need to train for it, but if your head is not in the right place, you'll really struggle.
I am very lucky that I have had a lot of sport psychology and mental prep training from rowing and a kinesiology background. I learned very early on in my sporting days about all those tricks and cues to use to keep you going. I see now why! It is so easy to get lost in the pain and the 'why am i doing this' or ' what if I just stop'. I even found myself thinking I would never do this ever again as I was running some of those horrific downhills. Only to get to the bottom and go flying on the flats and think to myself how much I loved it. Like I said, mental.
In summary, what a race. I learned a lot through the training and the run itself. The views, although I was a bit distracted through most of it, were stunning. I experienced scorching heat, torrential rain, and raging winds, all in one day. This was a challenge that even I was sceptical that I could complete, having never raced a marathon before, and I did more than that. Just a side note that it was actually 58km, not 55km as advertised. And yes, 3 extra kilometeres did feel like a big difference at that point!
Thank you to everyone who donated to my Just Giving page to raise money for the British Red Cross Uk Solidarity Fund and for all of the kind words of encouragement. It was Canada Day (150th birthday) on Saturday during my race and so I was decked out to celebrate. The number of people who shouted ' Go Canada Go' truly made my day. A special shout out to Erica and Simon for being there for me during this event, I don't know how I would have done it without you!
Lastly. Would I do it again? ...Ask me when I can walk downstairs properly. Perhaps something flatter is in the cards for next time...
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