It’s your first ultramarathon event. You’ve spent months training; doing back-to-back runs in all weather conditions, skipping social events and questioning your sanity at least once daily. But finally you’re there: your very first ultra.
Waiting at the start you overhear others around you talking. “Oh yeah,” someone casually starts to their friend. “This 50K should be a great way to shake off the 100 miler of last week.”
… Well damn.
The ultra effect
Ultras are, in any instance, a remarkable feat. But remarkable feats often attract remarkable people. Therein lies the dilemma (or at least demoraliser) for those new to the scene. If you start doing ultramarathons, then chances are everyone around you is already an ultra-running superstar with a fair few insanely impressive races under their belt.
The same can not necessarily be said of any other distance running. Sure, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons have their running regulars and professional athletes, but chances are you either won’t see them (because they’re too damned fast) or they’ll be infrequent.
Most marathons in the UK are done for charity, which means that you often have a lot of first timers or intermediate runners who are in a similar boat to anyone new to the race distance.
It takes a special type of person to even consider an ultra, however, meaning that almost everyone on course has done a fair few marathons or are already running ultras.
To the newcomer this can be highly intimidating.
We’re often told in life that to compare ourselves is to despair and this is often true, but that doesn’t stop us from doing so. Humans are social creatures and so we look, by default, to others in order to ascertain our own rates of survival and success.
So what can the new ultra runner do to counter any potentially despair-inducing moments of comparison? Here are a few helpful suggestions.
1: Run your own race
We hate to break it to anyone but, unless good fortune is shining very brightly, you’re unlikely to podium at your first ultra, but you’re also quite unlikely to come last. Even if you do, who cares? What matters to you? The time markers of others or your own sense of personal achievement in reaching a previously uncharted milestone?
Any finish is a PB on your first few ultra distances so settle down, focus only on your own progress and enjoy the process.
Others around you may try to sweep you up in their goals, pace, or expectations. Do your best to resist. They’re at a different stage in their training and race goals. Identify where you’re at and take it at your own pace. After all, it’s the only pace you really have.
2: Make sure your positive self-talk game is strong
Positive self talk is perhaps one of the most important tools an ultra-runner has.
Let’s face it, when it comes to ultra distance the mental game is a large part of the battle, especially if modern running research is to go by. Matt Fitzgerald, in particular, is a big advocate of the psychobiological approach to running, in which mind can often literally triumph over muscle.
So make sure that before you rock up at your first ultra you’ve taken the time to identify and practise your positive self-talk methods on your long runs.
Pro tip: this self talk doesn’t always have to sound positive to be positive. Sometimes swearing and some strong words are just as significant in letting yourself know just how capable you are.
3: Check yourself
Sometimes as runners we get so lost in running culture that we forget that, to many people, we are just as extraordinary as the many others surrounding us on the start line.
Any effort to get up, get moving and test yourself to the extreme is an immense achievement and deserves to be acknowledged.
Remember: 60% of Brits don’t even know what constitutes an effective workout so you’re already beating the odds just by getting your trainers on and hitting the road/trails.
So if ever you’re struggling to feel the gravity of your fitness level then permit yourself at least a few chances to casually mention your run distances to others and to take their responses in earnest.
You might just be surprised at how capable you are from an objective outsider’s perspective.
4: Acknowledge, then redirect
These tactics are all about not thinking about the achievements of others, but have you ever tried not thinking about something that you’re telling yourself not to think about? That’s a paradox and a half!
Instead, try mindful acknowledgement of your thoughts. Notice when you feel an inadequate comparison fill your mind, say ‘That’s a thought’ or something similar and then just leave it there are move on. Or allow yourself to feel your emotions, but as an observer on the sidelines rather than someone caught in the middle of it.
We have feelings, we are not our feelings and if given space feelings come and go quite easily.
Keeping that in mind always offer yourself an alternative question or thought after a negative comparison or thought comes up. Something like, ‘Now what am I going to eat as my victory meal?’ or ‘How am I feeling physically?’ is good. Runners spend an awful lot of time thinking about running while running. Well, running and food. Nutrition is king, after all.
5: Allow yourself to get inspired
The problem with ultras is everyone who runs ultras runs ultras. But that’s also the biggest benefit too!
There is wisdom on those trails, my friend, and if you can find time before, after or during a race to talk to those around you then it’s almost guaranteed that you will gain some valuable knowledge along the way.
Those around you have experience and their willingness to share that will save you from having to learn the hard way in many instances. It will also serve as a good basis for what you might personality want to achieve looking forward.
Oh and race recommendations – you will get a lot of them!
Yes, it can be intimidating being surrounded by running champions from all walks of life, but view these people as inspiration rather than competitors and suddenly a whole new way of running will be available to you.
After all, we’re all runners and community spirit exists outside of comparison.