How to run an ultra-marathon without training

How to run an ultra-marathon without training
 
 

Distance travelled: 92km

Moving time: 12:25

Elevation gain: 2,058m

Calories burnt (according to Strava): 7,271

 

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Before I begin, it’s important to note that I’m a 31-year old, fairly active person. I do go for runs occasionally, and also cycle and swim every now and then, but only when I feel like it. I probably run once a week if averaged out through the year, but there’s no structure to my workout regime. Most of my runs are called ‘learning to run again’ or ‘getting back in the game’ on Strava. When the stars do align, and I find myself plodding around the streets of Bristol, I rarely go more than 10km because my knees start to hurt.

There are a few exceptions to this, like when Jake and I decided to take on the 12ks of Christmas challenge (12k a day for 12 consecutive days, leading up to Christmas Eve) and when I ran the Cardiff Half at the end of 2017 because my boss insisted. That half marathon was the furthest I’d run in years, and the second furthest I’d ever run. Only the London Marathon in 2010 was further, but I slipped a disc in the early stages of training for that and figured I’d just give it a go on the day. I completed it, but only just.  

I’m a huge advocate for exercise but struggle with self-discipline. I’m very aware of the benefits of training and appreciate how much better my body feels when I do manage to string a series of runs together. My technique improves, and my times get faster. I have no doubt that my first ultra would have been more enjoyable if I’d put months of training in for it, and I’m sure that the pains I still feel in my ankles and knees would have disappeared by now.

Training is good for you, and highly recommended. I have so much respect for people who embrace the struggle every day. Jake is much more self-disciplined than I’ll ever be, and runs regularly, but even he didn’t train for this event specifically. We discussed the challenge just after New Year and decided to take it on two weeks later. We both believe in saying yes and relying on our positive mental attitude to carry us through.

If you’re planning to take on an ultra yourself, believing you can do it is the first and most important step.  Beyond that, the more preparation you can do, the better. We’ve made a list of things we learnt by taking on our first ultra without training and hope they help you too.

 
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Go somewhere with a view

If you’re going to spend a full day outside, you might as well do it somewhere scenic. 92km = 230 laps of a 400m track, but can you imagine anything more depressing? We chose the Jurassic Coast because it’s one of our favourite places to be in the UK and there are hardly any other places that we’d rather spend a full day. The first 30km took us on a loop from Weymouth train station around Portland, on parts of the South West Coast path that we’d never experienced before.

Take the whole day

You’ll need it. The fastest ever recorded 100km time is 6hrs 13mins, which is almost all daylight hours in winter. If you haven’t trained, you can forget about this. Even if you have trained, you can probably forget about this. Unless you’re an elite ultra-runner in peak form, you’re going to want to give yourself the best part of a day to complete an ultra. We ran half by day and half by night, and we’d made our peace with being out for 12+ hours before setting off.

Having nothing to do all day but run was the most liberating feeling. Runs are so often squeezed into spare hours before work or at lunch – rarely, if ever, are they the main focus of the day. Far from being a daunting prospect, it felt self-indulgent to be taking the whole day to do nothing but run. We felt privileged to be able to do so, and this feeling didn’t disappear even when faced with a steep set of never-ending stairs in the pitch darkness, after 80km. Even then, the South West Coast Path looked far more appealing than an overflowing email inbox or a traffic jam on the M4.

 
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Take breaks and walk often

Winning an ultra-marathon is much different than running one, and if you’re not looking for a specific time you can allow yourself breaks. Given the hilly terrain of the South West Coast Path, we chose to walk the ascent and run the flats and descents. It was a loose strategy, but we stuck to it and it worked well. Walking down steep descents became essential at the end of the run as our knees began to seize up and we lost the ability to control our legs, but we largely stuck to the plan and didn’t once feel that we were cheating by slowing things down. According to Strava, our total moving time for the 92km was 12hrs25mins but we were outside for 14 hours, which meant over 1.5 hours of rest.

Plan your route

We didn’t choose the South West Coast Path for the scenery alone. We also chose it because it’s an obvious, well signposted, route that would take a lot of the hassle out of navigation. The section we chose also had cafés and pubs at well-spaced intervals, which was essential for refuelling. Unless you’re running as part of an organised event, you’ll need to consider all of these things. Having to look at your phone/watch/map every five minutes to make sure you’re on track will get frustrating, and you won’t want to carry all the food you’ll need to replenish all the calories you burn throughout the day.  

 
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Bring a friend

We always find it easier to find motivation with friends. If you’re normally a solitary runner, or can’t find anyone to take the challenge on with you, consider an organised event. It’s much less lonely but also much less dangerous, especially if you haven’t trained. Jake and I both knew that we’d have each other’s backs if something went wrong, and the camaraderie along the route made it easier to carry on. Whenever one of us struggled, the other would remind them of how crazy it was that we were in the middle of an ultramarathon that we’d planned just a few weeks ago. Being reminded of the absurdity of the situation was a huge spirit lifter.

Laugh often

Smiling (or laughing) is scientifically proven to make running easier, and it definitely worked for us. We laughed at 30km when my knee seized up and again at the halfway point when the sun began to fade and we knew we still had the same distance to go again. We even laughed at 91km when Jake’s flu-ridden body decided it would rather sit by the fire in a country pub than push through the final 9km (along an A-road, in minus temperatures). The novelty of what we were doing was never lost on us. It felt good to be using our bodies and pushing them to their limits – after all, we won’t be able to do this forever.

Final thoughts

A little bit of prep goes a long way. A lot of prep (i.e. training) would undoubtedly go further, but by completing the 92km in a fairly respectable time, we proved that a well-trained brain can compensate for an under-trained body. If you decide to give it a go yourself, or want any further advice, just send us an email or get in touch through our Instagram page. Good luck!▲

 
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Gear review:

Inov8 Rocklite 275

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It’s generally inadvisable to take a pair of trainers fresh out of the box and attempt to run for 12+ hours non-stop in them, especially in a style you’ve never worn before. However, I was confident I wouldn’t have a problem with Inov-8’s new Rocklite 275s. Every pair of Inov-8s I’ve been lucky enough to try have been comfy straight from the box and these were no exception.

The graphene grip was outstanding on the wet and rocky South West Coast Path, and held up just as well on the boggier, grassy sections. They run a little tight by default, so I went half a size up from what I usually wear to get the perfect fit. It was a long day with some steep and slippery climbs and descents, but they gave me no problems.

A big thank you to Maverick Races for letting me try this pair of their test shoes and for sorting both me and Matt out with kit for the run.