Heard runners talking about ultramarathons and wondered if you could run one? Helena Stroud is here to tell you why they’re special, and why you should absolutely plan to run one!
Bitten by the bug
I got into running in 2014, training for the London Marathon. Running has changed my life, as it has changed the lives of so many others. But before I ever laced up a pair of trainers, I had a tantalising brush with ultramarathons.
In 2013, my friends and I decided to walk the London 2 Brighton Challenge, a 100K trek. On the day before the race I turned up, nervous and excited, to register. A lean, sinewy woman, who was also on her way to registration, struck up a conversation with me.
“Are you walking or running this?” she asked.
“Walking, of course!” I laughed.
“Oh, I’m running it as an ultramarathon,” she said.
I was flabbergasted. This race, which seemed at the time like the most extreme, huge challenge I could imagine, could be done at a run! I had never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. But with that, a seed of curiosity was planted in my head. That seed grew and grew until, in February this year, I found myself on the start line of the Thames Trot 50 Mile, my very first ultra.
So, what is an ultra?
Technically, it is any race above a marathon distance. Run 26.3 miles and you could (if you are prepared to accept quite a lot of derision) call it an ultramarathon. In practice, a lot of ultra runners start with a distance of around 50K – just over 31 miles. It’s a step up from a marathon, but quite a manageable step up.
Want to run even longer? Well, you’re in luck. Ultras can go on for hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of miles, and be completed in a single big effort or as multi-day stage races. Other ultras are measured not by the distance run, but the time taken – 24-hour races are very popular now, on looped courses.
Once a very niche hobby, today ultra running is growing hugely in popularity. The past 12 years has seen the number of races shoot up from just over 150 to over 1,800 – an increase of over 1,000%.
Why so popular?
So why is this? Once the marathon was seen as the ultimate test of running endurance – and a marathon is still a very hardcore race for many. But with so many marathon runners and races worldwide now, a growing number of runners are attracted to races that seem a little more outré. If you can’t produce a suitable gasp from friends or colleagues when you tell them you’re running a marathon, why not step back and observe the astonishment when you say you’re running 100 miles in one go? There’s something about the experience that seems to place ultra runners in a different world from other athletes – a willingness to go far beyond the norm.
“I love the challenge,” ultra runner Rab McAvoy says. “I like doing something that others can’t… Not everyone can do what we do and I love that I’m in an elite class of people that are all so friendly outside of my normal job.”
The internet and social media also have a large part to play. Seeing friends sharing pictures from races they’ve completed helps to make something that might once have been unthinkable seem, suddenly, very do-able if you’re willing to put in the training.
For me, the sense of adventure is the huge pull of ultras. I’m drawn to races that require a high degree of self-sufficiency to complete them. In a world which seems ever more regimented and desk-bound, being out on a trail for, potentially, days, racing with just a map and compass to guide you is a challenge that it’s difficult to find if you’re working a normal 9-5 and worrying about spreadsheets.
Pushing your limits
Another runner, Alison Caldwell, agrees: “I was attracted to ultra running because the idea of running 82 miles sounded so ridiculous and insane that I just couldn‘t say no,” she tells me. “I enjoy pushing myself and trying to find my limits. There’s something quite satisfying about making your body keep going when you’re suffering that much!”
There are also much less po-faced benefits to running ultras. Running 100 miles? That’s a lot of ice cream you’ve just earned yourself. As Alison says, aside from the physical and mental challenge, “I also enjoy the cake”.
Ready to give it a go? We have rounded up 5 UK ultramarathons worth a try.