From Marathon to Ultra

This article was written by a guest blogger – Robert Henning. It explores his experience in moving from standard road distances to Ultra Marathons. Robert is an ultra-runner and coach and can be found here.

I remember glaring up at the unforgiving South African sun. ‘Isn’t it meant to still be winter?”, I thought. The clouds decided to clear to make the mercury hit 40 degrees Celsius on this August afternoon in Cape Saint Francis – a sleepy holiday town on South Africa’s South Coast. We were running through what is called the Sand River – an old river bed that is now just soft sand dunes stretching 10km long. After 30 km of coastline single track and farm roads, we hit the dunes. I was in 4th position and feeling strong. My longest race had been a road marathon almost two years prior, but I thought “How hard can this be?”. This was the Chokka Trail Ultra: a 62 km foot race through the beach paths and coastline.  After the dunes, at 42km, my legs decided they no longer felt like functioning. The cramps – likely from a combination of the heat, my running out of water half way through the dunes, and the soft sand making it nearly impossible to walk – made this unbearable. I hit the 44km aid station and lifted up the iced cooler with a drink in, opened the tap and just poured it in my mouth. Feeling slightly better, I managed to run/walk the last 18km to the finish. I still managed a 9th place finish, though, but just made it through the finish line, beer in hand.

Since then, I have run 4 ultra trail races ranging from 44 to 76 km, one Two Oceans Ultra 56km road run, and a few marathons. 

So what did I learn from shifting from the marathon distance to ultra? To answer that, I came up with some rules: 

Rule 1

You can not train for an ultra the way you do for a marathon. The extra few kilometers make a HUGE difference. You should focus less on speed, and more on spending long hours on your feet. Long, slow runs should be your weekend runs. Learn to run spending hours and hours on the road or trail alone.

Rule 2

Double training days and back to back long runs on the weekends should be a regular staple in your program. This will allow you to develop the physical and mental strength to keep running when your body is tired.  Your weekly mileage should also increase at a gradual rate, and you will likely be running a higher load than if you were training for a marathon. 

Rule 3

Learn to eat on the run. Most times, you will need to eat while moving. Practice this during your training runs to see what you are able to chew and stomach while on the move.

Rule 4

Take in calories and drink fluids consistently, and early! For anything over 2-3 hours, getting good nutrients in within the first hour become critical. This will prevent a crash later on. The rule is: if you are hungry or thirsty, it is already too late. The digestive tract slows down considerably during an ultra, so making sure you get calories and fluids in early on are vital. Research shows that 500-600ml of water, and 50-60 grams of carbohydrates should be consumed every hour, starting from the first hour.

Rule 5

Be fine with walking! Strategic periods of walking will allow you to save the energy required to finish the race. This becomes even more vital the longer the race is. Also, you can walk the hills. Walking the hills saves crucial energy and prevents much of the muscle fatigue and breakdown, and actually doesn’t allow you to lose much time, if any at all.

Rule 6

Learn pacing strategies during your long runs, as starting too fast during an ultra can lead to serious issues of burning out during an ultra.

Rule 7

Get the correct gear, such as shoes to handle the distance, socks, lubricants, and clothes. Trust me when I say this – you DO NOT want to be 40km in to a 100km run and start chafing because your shorts are not right, or you don’t have lube. 

Rule 8

Learn to master the elements by keeping out the sun or keeping warm with the clothing you wear. A good cap, UV arm sleeves, neck shield, and proper t-shirt can keep you cool in the sun. Alternatively, a proper thermal top, rain jacket, or gloves can be the difference between hypothermia or finishing the race.

Rule 9

Lastly, manage your expectations. Your first ultra has a massive chance of being a disaster. That’s fine! You are in unknown territory, and you don’t know how your body will handle the extra distance. The good news? It get’s better as you learn.

When I first made that jump in distance I was honestly nervous. How did I know how my body would react? But looking back at it now, it was honestly one of my best memories. I discovered things about myself that I never knew,  and made some great friends and memories during that race. The reward of pushing your body to distances previously seeming impossible is priceless. However, I must warn you: once you run your first ultra, you only want to run another, and another, and further and further. 

A note from Tom:

We’d like to thank Robert for helping us out and giving us a great article to share with you. If you need an ultra running coach, fancy a webinar or other online content visit Robert’s Website. If you’re not quite ready to step up to Ultra running yet have a look here for the best value custom training plans on the internet!

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