There are many reasons why people run ultra’s or an event that is longer than a marathon (42.2km), but just like the marathon it requires at a minimum 4 months of specific training on which you should have a solid base to build. You need some resilience and should be injury free if you’re an ultra virgin. While everyone’s desire to run an ultra may be different I would like to share with you how I went from being a Marathon runner to an ultra runner.
The event that was the turning point in my running career such as it was, was the Comrades Marathon, the Worlds most competitive ultra marathon staged in South Africa between Durban and Pietermaritzberg. It’s just under 90km of hilly road running. My running friends back then would spend the first half of their year preparing for this event. Every year they would go off to South Africa to run and come back with a raft of amazing stories from their experience. I knew many who had run it and I was intrigued. At that time I was running and racing regularly every other weekend a 10km or so event, a few marathons and half marathons a year, all local low-key events. My limited experience of ultra’s was the 6 Inch Trail marathon, a challenging 46km trail event in Western Australia and the 6 Foot Track Marathon in the Blue Mountains. They were events that needed minimal gear, that had aid stations that supplied practically everything you needed to finish.
It was an afternoon by the pool over a Gin and Tonic in 2011 with my friend Trish while our kids played after a morning of Little Athletics that we hatched a plan to run the Boston Marathon. At that time we planned to achieve a sub 3 hour 30 minute marathon and we had decided to run the Gold Coast Marathon to qualify. As is often the case our plans went awry when training to complete such a task took its toll and my running mates succumbed to injury. I successfully ran the Gold Coast achieving a break through finish for me in 3 hours 23 minutes but our Boston Marathon plan for 2012 was shelved and I had decided to attempt the Comrades Marathon instead.
So January 2012 training for the Comrades began. I enjoyed training most weekends with the ‘C’ Team in the Perth hills. In March my preparation included my first 50km the inaugural Lark Hill 50km, on my husbands 40th birthday no less. I am eternally grateful for my husbands love and support of my running. It was a night run on a 3km loop and I ran with my mate Justin who was also celebrating his birthday. He ran with a sparkly Birthday headband right through the race which looked quite comical silhouetted in the dark. It was a fun and special night for me, it was the first time I had run 50km, the first time I had run a loop course, the first time I had run at night and the first race I had ever won.
The second event I ran as preparation was the iconic 40 Miler, held most years on Easter Weekend, a race run back and forth along a Heritage Rail Trail from the Mt Helena Tavern with a relay option. I completed the 64km and was again first female in a small field, my preparation for Comrades was going well.
My final event as preparation was the Bunbury Marathon. It made for a fun weekend away with friends many also running Comrades. I aimed to run a negative split and enjoyed the day, but was also very excited to achieve a personal best by less then 30 seconds and 2nd place and my first ever prize money. Nothing significant but still a nice sweetener.
I treated the Comrades as an experience, I did not have any overly ambitious goals. I aimed to finish and enjoy the event, soaking up the views and atmosphere.It would be my first international event. While I was not traveling with family I was with my ‘running family’. My extended running family who I had spent much time chatting with on the run agreed that a sub 9 hour finish or the coveted Bill Rowan medal as well within my capability. I roughly knew the splits required and I knew I was within them on race day but I didn’t push things.
I certainly loved that run. Yes it was hard, my quads were taking a beating on that run down Fields Hill, I ran/walked up Cowies and the steep incline onto the motorway for that final run through Tollgate to the finish in Kingsmead. I spent a lot of time waving to ALL the people on the side lines who on seeing me in my Western Australia singlet called out go Aussie, or Aussie Aussie Aussie, Go Sheila, Go lady from Australia. I was so excited to finally run into Kingsmead and to be well within the Bill Rowan cut off. So much so I literally danced across the line as you can see from this youtube clip.
It was the event that revealed my inherent capabilities as a ultra runner and which lead me to attempt to qualify for the Australian 100km team. I went on to represent Australia on numerous occasions. There are two ultra events that are up there as my favourite to date. The first would have to be the Comrades, the other Ultra Trail Australia or the Northface 100 as it was known at the time. Two vastly different events but both iconic in their own right. I finished both with results that far exceeded my expectations. I ran within my capabilities and felt no need to compare my performance with that of others.
“My path to ultra was gradual and fun I ran many shorter ultra-events before I attempted to run 100km. The events I ran were trail and road, on loops that required minimal gear. I feel this was a great way to ease into the longer stuff. I feel it set me up for the more mentally challenging events. I always had a healthy respect for distance and mental and physical challenges of such events and was continually amazed by the capacity of my body to carry me so far and for so long without stopping.”
So how do you decide how and when to run a 100km ultra or longer? Here are some tips to know when you are ready.
- You’ve successfully completed a number of challenging shorter events. There’s a good reason why the most iconic events have a shorter event or a relay option. It gives people a good idea of what they are up for in the longer event.
- You have a very good understanding of the challenges of your chosen event and train specifically for it, allow at least 6 months of dedicated training for your event.
- Find a group and talk to as many people as you can to get their perspective. There are always online forums and likely someone in the group that has run the event but everyone’s perspective will also be different, keep an open mind.
- You should do the event for you, own it, it’s your experience, that doesn’t mean you won’t share the experience but you have to take responsibility for your experience. No excuses.
- You fully accept the conditions of entering your chosen event, that might mean some navigation skills, taking your own cup, being self-sufficient, include a raft of mandatory gear you must carry and completing a qualifying event or standard.