I really put the miles in during the months ahead when preparing for my first Ultra Marathon, but what I realize now that physical preparation, for any distance over a marathon, is only part of it. I completed the race, just, but I didn’t get the best out of the race or myself, it would be a lie to say I enjoyed it….in fact I hated every minute of it from 20 miles onwards!! Mental preparation was my downfall.
Mind vs body
After a few months of convincing myself that I should give it another shot, I decided I would pay greater attention to training my mind as well as my body.
More often than not your head follows your body, being exhausted tends to drag negative thoughts to the forefront of your mind. The chances are you are likely to be on your own for large chunks of an Ultra Marathon, possibly hours… what else are you going to do but think?
Positivity is key
You must make sure your thoughts take the positive fork in the road rather than the negative. On that first Ultra I took the wrong road, minutes seemed like hours, every mile felt like a mini marathon and every hill was a mountain, my thoughts spiraled out of control, everything was blown out of proportion.
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Mental preparation & familiarization
Preparing yourself mentally before you toe the start line undoubtedly leads to a better and more enjoyable race. Knowing the course before you run it will give you a certain amount of comfort, if you can run some of it before race day even better. You can’t predict the weather but at least you’ll know what’s around the corner.
Don’t avoid certain types of conditions during your preparation, not running because it’s raining, too windy or too hot is not going to help. If you’re running for 10 to 20 hours you are likely to experience all the elements, especially if your ultra is in the UK!
The same goes for terrain, don’t just run on roads, most Ultras are off-road and over hills or mountains… so you need to know what that feels like in order to prepare.
Accept that thing can (and will) go wrong
You can’t prepare for everything so expect the unexpected, just roll with whatever comes your way. I had to do this on my second Ultra on the starting line of a 60-mile race over two days.
Minutes before starting I asked my wife to pin my number on my hydration pack, as we got going I noticed a small jet of water spewing up the back of my head where my water bladder had been punctured by four safety pins. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but mentally that could have sent me on a negative track from mile one, but I remind calm, laughed about it with other runners, shared their water and received a new water pack at the first station.
Remember to enjoy yourself
This sounds silly, but once you’ve accepted that things will go wrong you will find yourself having a much better race. Acceptance will make the end result so much more satisfying. Remember you entered for a reason and enjoy the experience!
Tell yourself you’re lucky the fact you can do it! Other people because of whatever circumstances are unable to enter an Ultra Marathon. So, make sure you take in the amazing scenery that you will undoubtedly come across when covering these incredible distances. Keep a sense of humor and remember that everyone who is running is in the same boat as you… you’re not alone.
Break down the race into sessions and rewards
Stay positive, use mantras that helped you get over certain situations in previous races.
In tough situations the human brain responds well to reward, the simplest of things can spur you on in those darker moments. For example a change of socks at the next Station, an energy gel at mile 20 or the steak and chips you’re going to devour on completion.
Whether you’re running 30 or 100 miles breaking down the race will help. When you leg are burning it’s easy to look at your watch and think I’ve only covered that distance in the last hour. What you should do is think ahead, ‘Only 5 miles until the next drinks station’ this is much more likely to keep you in a positive frame of mind.
When you’re on your feet for several hours it’s good to think about something else other than running. Distract yourself, if you’re with someone chat with them about something other than running. Alternatively, if you prefer to run alone you can always put on some headphones and lose yourself.
Most important of all, remember to relax. If you’re attempting an Ultra you are more than likely used to running half and full marathons where overall time, splits and minutes per mile are so important. Although your overall time is probably important to you when you’re running an Ultra, checking your watch every few miles is not going to help. You’ll need a bit of attitude adjustment, think about completion rather than time.
It’s going to be tough physically and mentally, as Ultra Marathoner Dean Karnazes, a man that ran 350 Miles in 80 hours with no sleep says ‘Sometimes you’ve got to go through hell to get to heaven’
Gyles Abbott is an experienced Ultra Marathon runner who now runs his own personal training consultancy in Lewes called Fitbot.