Before this year, I was a reasonably proficient marathon runner (PB: 2hr 50min), but I had never run an ultra – a foot race longer than a marathon. Intrigued by the ever-growing popularity of these races, I decided to ratchet up the distances. I ended up running six ultras in 2017, the last three of them in a mad five-week period, culminating with the epic 100 Miles Sud de France in the Pyrenees last month.
It has been a steep learning curve, and by the end of these races I knew things about how to survive and complete an ultra that I didn’t know before – things that might help others embarking on one in the future.
Of course, not everyone will agree, and there are many ways to approach an ultra, but just turning up with a pair of running shoes, some water and a few gels, as I did for the first one, and like you can in most shorter races, is not advisable. Ultras take planning. You need to be organised. That’s lesson one. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, and many are the times I’ve stood alone in a stew on the trail cursing my poor preparation.
One time was near the end of the second day of the Ring O’ Fire ultra I ran in Anglesey in September. The race is one complete lap of the Welsh island on the coastal path. I can just follow the signs, I thought. But when I got there, the other runners were all clutching well-marked maps. Others had phones with advanced trail finding apps downloaded. And all with good reason, because it turns out the coast path is not always easy to follow.
The first day, a mere 35 miles, I got around by sticking like glue to other, more organised runners. But I realised this was not a foolproof system, so that first night I found a map and hastily drew the course for the remaining two days on it. I also installed the Viewranger app on my phone and downloaded the GPX file of the course, which had been on the race website all along.
But 62 miles into day two, as darkness was descending, I came to a crossroads. The sign for the coast path said turn left. My map said go straight on. I pulled out my phone. It was dead. Did I trust my map or the sign? I went for the sign as, in my haste I’d been far from careful plotting the route, I now realised. I’d just drawn it on my map roughly, thinking that would be close enough.
An hour later I was waving down cars, knocking on the doors of tiny cottages, scaring the life out of the local people, trying to find out where the hell I was. After more 12 hours running I was a mess. A mess of my own making.