A little over a year ago I was lucky enough to be selected to try out for the Berghaus Trail Team. Not through any great talent you understand – I’m very much a middle of the pack runner. The Berghaus trail team is about giving the opportunities usually reserved for the elite to four “normal” runners. Well I wasn’t one of the lucky four but the selection weekend in the Lake district was itself a wonderful experience and one I am still benefiting from now. I met some amazing people, made new friends and gained a lot of confidence.
Inspiration – Steve Birkenshaw imparts his words of wisdom at the Berghaus Trail Team weekend
A year down the line I’ve completed several more Ultra-distance events, including my first 100k, the Mud Crew Plague, and this year my main goal will be the Lakeland 50. Along the way I’ve had the chance to put in to practice some of what I learned that weekend, so here, in no particular order, are my top five tips for any aspiring ultra runners:
1. Walk Tall
Unless you are an elite runner on a flat 50k there will be walking involved. During the trail team weekend we met the legendary fell runner Helene Whitaker. Watching her overtake me on our way up Helvelyn – her walking and as I ran –underlined the point that walking, like any other skill, requires practice. Build walking into your long runs, if the terrain is hilly then simply walk the ups and run the flat and downhill sections. If you are training for a flat course then walk say, five minutes every half hour. Walking uphill is often faster than continuing to run and it also gives you a rest as different muscles are used. It’s important not to allow yourself to ease off the effort too much though, on flat ground or moderate inclines it’s generally best to stay upright so your lungs can fill to capacity and swing the arms to help with forward motion. As the incline increases though I find hands on thighs and a slight lean forward is best – though lean from the waist and keep the back straight. Where possible on steep ground keep the steps short and concentrate on using the powerful glutes to propel you forward, giving your thighs as much rest as possible.
Walking the walk at the Trail team weekend
2. This too shall pass
Joining Helene during the weekend was Steve Birkenshaw. Having won the Dragon’s back race in 2012, Steve was about to embark on his toughest endeavour yet – an attempt at Joss Naylor’s Wainwrights record. As we now know Steve succeeded and it was doubtless in no small part to his mental strength. Steve gave us lots of insight into his coping strategies for dealing with negative thoughts and low points. Breaking a route down into small sections – maybe the next checkpoint early in the race but towards the end perhaps just concentrating on the top of the next hill or the next ten steps even, talking with other runners, listening to music, etc. all featured in his arsenal. But the one that stuck with me most and has been borne out time and again is simply to remind oneself that, if you just keep moving, things will likely improve. Pain, suffering, fatigue, nausea; all come in waves. During a long distance event it is easy to assume that the suffering increases throughout, but rarely is that the case. You might be feeling terrible at twenty miles and then perk up at thirty. At the very worst the day will be over soon enough, so sometimes you just need to shut it out and remember that “this too shall pass”.
Trying to stay positive at the bottom of another set of steps on the Mud Crew Plague
3. Foster self confidence
I arrived at the trail team weekend to be greeted by runners from all over the country; most of them far more experienced than me. I’d also never run in the mountains and wondered how several years of training on the coast path in Cornwall would prepare me for running in the Lakes. By the end of the weekend I was brimming with confidence. Everyone there was so humble about their achievements and it made me realise that these were ordinary people achieving extra-ordinary things. And if they could do it then so could I. Belief is so important in ultra running. Over the last year I’ve come to see that a positive attitude can work wonders. Practice positive phrases and words and repeat them when out running but also be mindful of the negative self talk we all engage in when we are tired and in pain. Identify it and suppress it, replacing it with positive words instead. If all else fails try to smile, it works wonders!
Tired but happy, morning has broken – Mud Crew Plague
4. Listen to others but do your own thing
We all found new friends last year and the ultra running community as a whole is a very open and engaging one to be a part of. Use that. Learn and digest what others are doing and saying. But above all, be yourself. I’ve tried different nutrition, running styles, pacing strategies and so on; but just because it works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for you. For instance, I’ve tried all sorts of foods and listened to various people saying real food works best, but for me, I like gels! I alternate gels and flapjacks – the latter usually homemade – eating every half hour throughout my races and long runs. It works for me. Helene Whitaker said she liked Pizza on race day, everyone is different. The main thing is to try it out on training runs, give it a few weeks and if it’s working then great but if it’s not then bin it and move on.
5. Make it fun
There was a young guy at the trail team who left a lasting impression on me. Not from what he said so much as how he ran. On the long downhills he would weave around, off the trail and back on, sometimes jumping over boulders he could have avoided or taking a steep technical option instead of the open winding path. As he ran he reminded me of the way a snowboarder or mountain biker might approach the descent. He ran not the fastest route but the one that was most fun! Not perhaps a good strategy on a long race but the sentiment is important. Take time to enjoy your running and make it fun!
Fun in the sun, Cornwall