Ultra runner Darren Grigas has completed the gruelling Marathon Des Sables, Rat Race’s The Wall Ultra which covers 69 miles in just one day, and the 250-mile Cape Wrath Ultra. Here he discusses how he’s approached his challenges over the years.

Slow down and you’ll get there…

“Before you’ve taken on an ultra, you’ll ideally have already run a marathon. And the key thing that I had to learn quickly in order to make that transition is to slow down, ease off the gas. People go out to get a park run PB and they’re coughing and spluttering at the end. They say, ‘I don’t know how anyone does an ultra’. But an ultra is a different type of run. You ease up from your parkrun pace and go at a speed you can maintain for hours. Remember you’ve got all day and the main aim is to finish, so go at a comfortable speed you know you can manage to the end. Ultra runners aren’t superhuman, they’ve just learned a different technique of progressing through the miles. You have to relearn ‘running’ to a certain extent.”

Pick your battle…

“There are lots of different types of ultra out there, from multi-day journeys to 60-100 mile single dayers, and your training will reflect the race you’ve chosen. For me, I wanted to do the multi-stage Marathon Des Sables, so my first training ultra was the Druid Challenge, a three day, 85 mile run through the Chilterns. I needed to learn how to pace myself so that I could run a marathon and then get up the next day and start all over again without feeling completely ruined.  If you’re doing a single day event for your first ultra, pick one with a lenient cut-off time so that you can walk it at points if necessary. The cut-off times can make races extremely elite or more forgiving for entry level ultra runners.”

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Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses…

Marathon des Sables

“Make no mistake, training for an ultra is hard, an obvious step up from training for a marathon.  When working towards an ultra I’d build up to training six days a week, combined with three to four sessions in the gym to work on my strength conditioning.

Like lots of other people, I have to work training around my family and job – so I’d be up in the pitch black so that I could go out do a marathon and get back before the kids are up for breakfast, or I’d run a half-marathon to work and a fast run in my lunch breaks.  You’re not necessarily going to run all of an ultra, especially the hilly ones. It’s sometimes more efficient switch to a steady march, which also lets you to refuel as you go.  What’s important is to enjoy it, take your time and soak up your surroundings, don’t be afraid of stopping for a break. I’ll stop, get my phone out and take pictures of churches, hilltop views or a heron fishing down by the river. I’ve learned to love being out for hours and the miles just pass with more ease.”

Treat every run like a mobile picnic…

“Fuelling is key in ultra running.  In order to keep going you need to be constantly consuming calories. For me, it’s the best bit – and I cram my face throughout. If I’m on a training run, I’ll often stop at a village shop to pick up a can of cola and a doughnut or some other energy-packed treat. You wouldn’t go on a long drive without filling up the car now and then.”

The winters are hard….

“When you’re out running in the sleet and hail in darkness, motivation can be a struggle. I’m out on isolated farm tracks with a headtorch, and every rustle can spook you. It’s creepy but it’s also exciting. Your body is also completely sapped, so every six weeks I’d give myself a recovery week where I’d cut my pace and distance right down and get plenty of food and sleep. No matter what you do for a living, or whether you’ve got kids or not, we’ve all got a full life. Finding the time to train is the hardest thing. Sometimes you have to be out the door before 5am or out in the evening when others are home watching TV.”

You’ll become intimately acquainted with your own body…

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot about injuries and the body the hard way, by breaking bits of mine often by overtraining. It’s the wrong way to learn but at least I learn. I’m like, ‘Ah, that’s what that’s called’ after I’ve pulled or torn it. You have to look after yourself.  If your body is giving you a signal of pain, ease off and find out what’s wrong. Don’t do too much too soon either. Just because you used to run that fast and far, it doesn’t mean you can just pick up where you left off years or months ago. If your muscles and tendons aren’t tough enough to take a constant pounding, it can be really damaging and take you out of training for weeks.”

Put your best feet forward…

Marathon des Sables

“When it comes to looking after your feet, prevention is always better than cure. I’ve seen people after running a marathon with toes are black and blistered, and they ask, ‘Shall I put a blister plaster on it…?’ It’s a bit too late for that now!

Some races are wet, some are hilly, some are sandy. The right socks are just as important as your shoes. And unfortunately, most of it comes down to trial and error and you’ll have to make all of your mistakes while training so you get it right for the race. The perfect pair of trainers for one person will be a nightmare for another with different shaped feet or a different gait so get it right early on and don’t make changes on race day. If I know I rub in a certain place, I’ll stick a Compeed blister patch over it before I’ve even started running, better safe than sorry!  Identify your aggravation points. Also have a look at ‘toe socks’ – they work for me and could do for you.”

Learn from the experts

“Listen to advice, go on forums, and learn about technique and mindset. I was really fortunate to share a tent with Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the Marathon Des Sables and I was talking to him about his time summiting Mount Everest. He finally summited in 2009, on his third attempt, aged 65. It was a phenomenal achievement. He just shrugged and said, ‘Well, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other’. That soundbite has really stayed with me. When it gets really tough, I remember that simple phrase.”