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52 hours into the 2014 Barkley ultra-marathon, Jared Campbell was the only competitor not to have given up. He decided to lie down. He took off his backpack, and looked up at the sky and listened to the wind in the trees


Campbell had already run more than 100 miles, and climbed the equivalent height of Everest – not once, but twice from sea level. He had collected all but one of the 13 book pages that the eccentric race director required for proof of completion, and was well into his third day without sleep.

It was only now however, that he really appreciated where he was and what he had set out to achieve. He was a way from all the distractions of modern life. He was in the present – and when he got up he felt good.

The buzz of the ultra

Reading Campbell’s word you may ask yourself: “So do I need to go long to experience this state of nirvana? Do I need to tackle ultras and stage races?” Well, I’d say yes!

Many of us literally follow the same path day in day out. This is reflected in our work, in our family and social commitments, and even in our running.

Come run time we may be forced by expediency to follow the same route: one that gets us to work or gets us home (back to where we stared). That route might look a bit like this: turn right out of house, always. Avoid the neighbour! Pass the bus stop, and join commute-to-work-route to mini-roundabout where heavy traffic builds in the morning. Jog on spot at dangerous crossing. Check watch. Less time than planned. Run hard to finish strong. Walk short distance to front door to recover.

We stick to it because it’s familiar and easy. The same route, on the same old streets, snatched sporadically in the dregs of the working day.

Get that feeling…

We don’t all need to run for three days like Jared Campbell to experience what he felt. (That might be a bit excessive.) But we do need to ask something new of ourselves occasionally if our running is to be truly invigorating.

Going longer, allowing us to explore new trails, new forests, new mountains, new horizons – this is what is drawing so many into the ultra running community. And rather than feeling exhausted, it’s leaving us more alive than ever before.

What distance?

If we run more than 26.2 miles, we’re officially into ultra-distance. I’d say, 30 miles and anywhere upwards, is where ultra events really start. Sixty miles (100km) is considered a classic distance, whilst some would say the sweet spot is the 100-miler, such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, held in Chamonix every year.

There are multi-day stage races such as the five-day Marathon de Sables, where you must carry all your own equipment for each leg before making camp, and recovering for the next one (see issue 42). There are continuous races, where you choose if and when you sleep, such as the 268-mile Spine Race along the Pennine Way, lasting up to seven days (see issue 41). There are team events with no way-markers, where you must navigate between checkpoints.

There are even races of 24 hours on 400 metre running tracks, where competitors rack up to 160 miles non-stop. However, some would argue that it is not so much the distance that makes an ultra marathon, but more the ultra effort required.

The highly successful ultra-marathon and fruitarian athlete, Michael Arnstein, has talked of being “in a state of ultra running.“

Arnstein describes further his ultra experience: “I connect with myself on a very deep level. I connect with my surroundings, and I embrace the fact that I am struggling deeply. That emotional part of ultra running is something that very few people allow themselves to experience.”

This means that if our regular run is only five miles, but we decide to run ten, and have a struggle to achieve it, we may experience a state of ultra running. We have made an ultra effort. This emphasis on the quality, rather than the quantity of the experience is key. The five-mile runner who goes out tomorrow and runs ten, will not become an ultra-runner overnight, but if they open themselves to both the physical and emotional experience it creates, they will be on their way.

Is it not boring running for five hours or more?

Ultras take place off-road. This is no coincidence. Ultra-runners have the same boredom threshold as everyone else. The difference is, that when you ask your body to take you further, you need to reward it with more stimulation to keep it moving. The ever-changing scenery, of an off-the beatentrack- run, provides the answer.

Aspirant ultra-runner, Owen Williams (25) from the West Country explains how he makes sure even the longest runs are never boring.

“In June, I set out on a journey from Bath with a mate. We wanted to run to the giant painted whitehorse on the hill in Westbury, and back again.

“We set out before dawn on mid-summer’s day from the city cathedral – a great place to start such a big adventure. We wanted to run on trails the whole way, even though it would take us places that we had never been before.

“In fact, that was all part of the plan. After a couple of hours we were exploring an unfamiliar wood, and then a stretch of canal, went through a river, and alongside a field of oilseed rape.

Damian

“We got to the horse around lunchtime. We then treated ourselves to a bit too much Sunday lunch in a local pub! On the way back we ran through different fields and farmland. We walked some of the way, but we expected to be doing this in our first ‘50-mile race’. Time on our feet; be it walking or running was what we needed. Every turn took us somewhere new.

“Our minds were always fixed on the fresh new things in front of us, rather than thinking about what was around the next corner, and when it would all be over. We were dead-tired by the end, but we had clocked 42 miles, and been out over 11 hours once back at the cathedral.”

Does it have to hurt all of the time?

Undeniably, many runners end their session early, or in unnecessary discomfort, because they have gone out too hard in order to beat a previous time, or even to punish themselves for not having run for a long time. This is not only very limiting in terms of the training effects produced, but also creates very negative associations of pain – an association that can potentially discourage a runner.

With this relationship with running, it is understandable how judgments are formed about how an ultra event might feel – it being (wrongly) considered as one of pain, pain and more pain.

The rhythm of running on trails can be hard to tune into and is far removed from the clipped monotone of pavement pounding.

Slowing down though on a rutted path, you give your cardiovascular system a rest, and are forced to turn your attention to footwork. You will instead be working those all-important core muscles more, as you twist and crouch and lunge to distribute your weight.

Montane Lakelane 100 women's winner Lizzie Wraith

Montane Lakelane 100 women’s winner (2015) Lizzie Wraith

The muscles you use off-road constantly vary – resting some, engaging others. In this way, running on trails avoids the steady decline into fatigue experienced by road runners, who don’t have the chance to vary their pace in the same way, or the stress on their body.

Ultra-runners do of course regularly experience low points in races and training. This does not, however, signal a terminal decline in performance as it might at mile 20 in a raced marathon. Feelings of fatigue in ultra races can be reduced and even reversed during its course by rehydrating, careful nutrition and readjusting pace and even having a nap.

So it’s not just about the running?

The long internal dialogue we have whilst running, over years, over great distances, over emotional highs and lows, is a highly personal and absorbing one. If we give ourselves enough time, the gentle rhythms of soft landscapes, can smooth out our concerns and prove a fertile ground for reflection and emotional development. Extended exertion can help build the self-knowledge and fortitude required to accept when it is time to slow down and reconsider, rather than stop altogether.

I’d encourage anyone who has not gone long, to go that bit further, whether it be from regular 5 miles to regular 10s or marathons to true ultra races. The lessons and views and experiences that I’ve shared are in many ways broader in scope than just running itself.

I therefore believe that the decision to set out on the trail, sand, pampas or seashores to experience these opportunities, will be life affirming.

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