Today we hear from one of the best-known sports reporters in the UK and Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race 2017 runner Vassos Alexander (best known for presenting the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 every morning).
His new book ‘Running up that Hill’ is a celebration of endurance running. Of running ridiculous distances – through cities, over mountains and across countries. Distances most people couldn’t even imagine – such as the Dragon’s Back Race – and so we asked him to share his top 10 tips to get you started…
Top Ten Tips for Running an Ultra
1. Don’t call it an ultra!
The term ‘ultra-marathon’ sounds very exclusive doesn’t it?
It makes it seem like only ultra-trained, ultra-strong, ultra-fit athletes need apply. And actually – honestly, I promise you this – the exact opposite is true. There are runners of all shapes and sizes on the start line, and they’ll all be pleased to see you.
You’ll genuinely struggle to find a more welcoming, inclusive sport – anywhere. And I make my living as a sports reporter, I do kind of know. So not ultra-running please; endurance running is much better!
2. Build up to it.
Run a half marathon. Then run a marathon. And then another. Maybe a third marathon with a PB in mind. At some point you’ll find yourself wondering what lies beyond 26.2 miles and Googling longer races. It comes to us all, welcome! My first long race was the 62-mile Race To The Stones, which was wonderful, but just pick one that sits right with you.
Races of 50 miles and beyond are frequently described as eating contests involving running. Make sure you take on board enough calories, especially early in the race before your stomach starts being weird (which it almost certainly will). Even if you don’t really feel like it, try to eat something every hour while you still can.
I’ve made this mistake before and ran the marathon at the end of an Ironman triathlon on zero calories, it was utterly miserable.
Even when it starts getting tough (which again, it almost certainly will), try to remember to smile – at your fellow runners, at passers-by who look at you somewhere between impressed and bemused, and definitely at the excellent volunteers handing out drinks and offering food at the aid stations along the way. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes. Speaking of which…
You’ll genuinely struggle to find a more welcoming, inclusive sport – anywhere.
5. Remember to say thank you!
It’ll make your day a little bit better and the volunteer’s day a big bit better.
6. Set small targets.
If you’re 30 miles into a race and feeling it (you’ve just run 30 miles after all), try not to think about the 20 (or 70!) left to go. Instead, just concentrate on reaching the next checkpoint, climbing the next hill, reaching the next tree, taking the next footstep… Stay in the moment.
Real life is put on hold for the entire duration of the race. It’s actually rather mindful.
7. Allow the scenery to give you a lift.
That may sound obvious, but if you’re grimly thinking about your pace or how tired you are, you might crest a fabulous fell, say, and only see the climb still ahead of you on the other side of the valley. Instead, take a moment to soak up your surroundings. The watch is far less important beyond 26.2 miles, not least because endurance races tend to be off-road and no two trails are alike, so comparing finishing times is largely irrelevant.
8. Test your race day kit and nutrition.
Don’t turn up at the start line with new trail shoes you’ve just bought the day before in a mild panic. You never know, they may give you blisters. Wear something tried and tested.
Similarly, don’t try to take on board any energy bars or gels you’ve not experimented with during training runs. Your system may not be able to tolerate them during exercise, and it’s absolutely crucial to keep eating (see tip 2).
9. Do it all again.
Finishing an endurance run gives you a sumptuous sense of achievement, but in the days and weeks afterwards you can feel a little rudderless.
It’s always good to enter another race to give yourself something to aim at. Meanwhile show people your toenails, especially kids – they’ll squeal in disgusted delight!
10. Ignore all of the above.
Or rather, feel free to ignore as much of it as you want.
Certainly, many runners turn up at the start of long races having prepared lavishly: they recce the route, double check food and equipment for weeks beforehand, carefully follow a professional coach’s training plan and organise a support crew to meet them at several points along the way. That’s great if you can/ want to go that way. But I rather like the simplicity of the long run, just me and the trail.
I’m much more haphazard in my race day preparations, once even turned up to the start of a 100km race without any running shoes (though you should have seen the state of my toenails after that!). You’ll be fine either way. Trust yourself. You’ll surprise yourself. Which is the point of all this anyway.
Running up that Hill is a celebration of endurance running. Of running ridiculous distances – through cities, over mountains and across countries. Distances most people couldn’t even imagine. But sports presenter Vassos Alexander is hooked!
It’s about the astonishing highs that come from pushing your body to the limit. The confidence and peace when you challenge yourself and succeed. All told, this is a cracking tale of what keeps ultra-distance runners running, mile after mile after mile.