Ultramarathon running is a relatively new trend – it’s basically running far – very far – up to 100 miles or more. I’ve stood at the start line of 8 ultramarathons (aka. ultras) and finished six. I’ve practiced:
- Aim high: Committing to a goal that challenges common convention
- Trust nature: Paying attention to and responding effectively to a changing environment
- Be in flow: Going with the flow, not against it
- Fail forward: Learning from when things go wrong
- Be consistent: Consistency beats intensity in producing long-term, sustainable results
1. Aiming high: “Are you crazy?”
I’m at a networking event or house party and we are talking about what we do in our spare time. When asked what I do for fun, I say, “I write music on piano & sing. I love to travel and have been to 35+ countries, including once as a guest of the President of East Timor for a charity project. And last year, I ran three ultra marathons of 100-miles or more.”
Upon mentioning the songwriting and travel, I get the typical “that’s cool” and “wow, the president?” But when I talk about running ultra-long distances, people are often unsure whether they should be inspired by the feat or question my sanity. I’m frequently asked, “What about your knees?” “Is that good for you?” and “Why do you do it?”
I then have the opportunity to open their mind to the realities of running long distances – and share with them the joy of challenging what we think is possible.
Success can often hinge on the ability to think outside the box and challenging our notions of what is possible.
2. Trust nature: Ultramarathons are human, not superhuman…
For many people, they have ‘run a marathon’ as a “bucket list” item. There was a time when running a marathon was considered the ultimate test of human endurance. In recent years, many people have ventured to run the 42,195 metres and the distance has become so popular that spots in the most famous races are secured only by the luck of a lottery draw.
Few people consider running farther than the marathon. Races greater than the marathon are called ultramarathons. The word isn’t used to make the distance sound grandiose, but rather it was picked because it literally means “beyond the marathon”. People often refer to such races as “Ultras” and people that run them as “ultra runners”. Whilst it may sound like a rather egotistic nomenclature, if you ever attend such a race, you will discover that these ultra-long-distance runners are among the most down-to-earth and humble people you will ever meet.
In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall posits that humans are literally evolved to run long distances. In our sedentary society, running 100 miles seems outside feasible; but McDougall argues that our ancestors ran great distances as a matter of survival. It seems unthinkable to many of us today only in the context of our relatively sedentary lifestyles.
The reality is that we are built for running very long distances. Our access to achieving what sounds like superhuman goals is to trust nature and make the most of it. The same is true in business, we must seek to dance with the nature of how things work.
Success is accelerated by playing in concert with the nature of the people and organisations with which we interact.
3. Be in flow: Be ready for the unexpected – it will happen and you won’t expect it.
Shorter races tend to be more predictable. 5k (3.1-mile) and 10k (6.2-mile) races are highly focused and competitive events – where you’re running about as fast as you can muster. What will happen is fairly sure for most: start off hard and keep it up as long as you can. As you start to tire out, try not to slow down too much. In the home stretch, give it all you got and SPRINT! A similar, albeit more steady pacing, is often applied to half-marathon 21.1km (13.1-mile) races.
As the running distances get longer, there’s more opportunity for things to go contrary to plan. The 26.2-mile (42.2km) marathon is famous for humbling some of the fastest runners. It’s often said that the halfway point of a marathon is 20 miles into the race. This is because the last 6 miles (10k) feels as hard as the first 20, and is usually the time in the race when people boink or blow up. It’s the point in the event where so many literally run out of energy and struggle for the rest of the race.
But with careful strategy, training and planning, most flat (road) marathons can be run at a consistently steady pace – or even a negative split, where the second half is run faster than the first. (I’ve managed to do this once so far in Berlin, October 2015).
The vast majority ultramarathons take place on hilly countryside or steep mountain trails. There are a variety of weather conditions during the race – it can be hot, then wet then cold all within a matter of hours. The race can take place during the day or the night – or both – or more. The footing can be road, dirt, mud, rocks, gravel, grass, bog, river, swamp – you name it. Drinking and eating constantly is critical to survival – and you have to manage your gut effectively to sustain and utilise the massive intake. And there’s plenty of time for the unexpected to happen – a race can take 8 hours, 12 hours, 16 hours, 24 hours, or even more (my max so far is 40h43m).
Things can and do regularly go wrong – multiple times in any race. For ultra-distance races, simply finishing is a triumph. Effective, consistent pre-race physical and mental training is mandatory. On race day, it’s important to respond effectively to the environment – external and internal. Some of the race is spent joyfully exploring the outdoors, and experiencing how incredible the body and mind is. Some of the race is making moment by moment decisions about how to deal with physical & mental adversity.
Typically, 50-75% of those that toe Start Line complete the race, compared to the 99.9% finish rate of the London Marathon.
In 2014, I participated in – and dropped out of – the 125km TransGranCanaria trail race in Gran Canaria. But in that same year, the Champion from the previous two years departed the same event with a “Did Not Finish” (DNF).
An ultramarathon race challenges runners to their limits – but limits no runner.
Every finish is a win – and every attempt a worthwhile learning experience.
I do ultramarathons because I can…
I do ultramarathons because I discovered that anybody can.