• Tom McAra

Why Ultra Running?

Ultra running can seem pretty daunting to those of us who find 10km hard work … so what is it that’s making ultra events more and more popular?

We have all heard the theory that humans evolved to run long distances chasing their prey to exhaustion - and maybe this is the key to why it is so surprisingly enjoyable to run ultras. The fact is: the longer the race, the slower you have to go. For a lot of people, it is immensely more enjoyable to run/walk at a very comfortable pace for hours than to do a 5km flat out. Of course, elite ultra runners will be training very hard, but even for them the majority of their running will need to be done at an easy pace.

It seems that more and more people are getting into ultra running, and not only those who have been running for years or those who are are amazingly fast over marathon distance. People of all shapes and sizes with all sorts of different running histories are taking to ultras. Part of the lure of ultras is the sense of adventure and the unpredictability of longer events. It’s not all about the time, as factors such as weather and trail conditions can have a huge impact on race times and make them unique for that particular day.

Strange as it may sound it’s not all about the running either, and the longer the event, the more other factors such as eating, drinking, mood, mental strength, preparedness all come into play. It's about keeping going and enjoying the journey. Yes, there will be times when it seems impossible, but if you can concentrate on moving forward it is amazing how far you can go! Lots of people will walk substantial parts of an ultra and that doesn’t mean they won’t do well. It's about pacing yourself and conserving energy. The two most common mistakes people make in ultra racing are setting off too fast and not eating enough throughout the race. There is no point going off fast if you are reduced to a hobble by half way. If you are expecting your body to keep moving hour after hour you need to make sure you keep your fuel topped up and stay hydrated by taking on food and drink - little and often seems to work best.

We asked local runner Sam Rendall to describe her transition to ultras last year. Sam had always been tempted by ultras and with her family growing up she had more time to herself, so decided to take the leap and train for the 55 mile Cateran Trail Ultra:

When it comes to running, it’s pretty easy to convince me to try something different. When a friend of mine mentioned running the Cateran Trail Ultra, I decided to give it a go. A 55 mile run through the countryside that I’d not yet explored sounded like a good idea at the time. All I had to do was train for it!

At the Cateran Trail Ultra

Being used to running around 30 miles a week, I knew I had to be careful when choosing my training plan. I have a very supportive family, so I knew they would manage with me being a part-time mum/wife for a few months. Another friend had used a 14-week plan for the Highland Fling and sent it to me. It looked tough but do-able. The plan covered all bases: interval session, hill training, long back-to-backs and of course rest days. I continued my normal runs with Deeside Runners - being part of a running club is important to me. These friends were so supportive and kept me motivated!

Once the training was in full flow I struggled getting friends to join me on my long runs; I’m a “sociable runner”, and even though it sounded lonely I found that there were some benefits to running solo. I could try a different pace, concentrate on my form and experiment with eating timings and a variety of foods and hydration.

Towards the end of the 14 weeks, the nerves kicked in (from what I hear, that’s pretty common). I was stressing because I hadn’t had a chance to recce the route. When I first registered for the race, I joined a few social media groups for Ultra runners. This came in very handy as some had run this race before, so I could get hints about the course from them. I also bought a map (compulsory kit item) and familiarised myself with it. The hill at mile 53 wasn’t too much of a shock then!

Race weekend arrived – I had my drop bags filled to the top, not knowing what I would be craving after 36 miles. I decided to drive and camp at the start the night before to avoid a 4am drive. It turned out to be a good decision, and there were a few other runners doing the same thing. It gave me a chance to chat and make new friends before the race.

At the start and during the race, I made sure to keep the pace right; there is such a rush of adrenaline at the start but I managed to stay focused. I had very little expectations on times and only checked my time once during the race, and that being at mile 28.

I loved the race. The atmosphere was great, I was just so grateful to be out in the sun, enjoying the views with like-minded people. All the hard work was done in the 14 weeks prior to the race, and all that was left was for me was to enjoy the Ultra experience.

What Sam doesn’t mention in her account is that she was first woman to cross the line and 7th overall, well done Sam!

If your planning to take the leap and sign up for your first ultra, go for it! Let the Saltire 24 or Saltire 12 excite and inspire you, this will keep you motivated to train. Try not to worry about the end goal, which can seem so big and far off. Instead break it down into more manageable milestones that you can achieve along the way. Prepare yourself well but don’t panic if everything doesn’t go exactly to plan, that’s part of the fun. Most importantly, enjoy it 😉

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