When I was a lad apprenticeships in most things took four or five years. It's now just over four years since I ran my first ultra, the Highland Fling in 2007, so I thought I might try to set down what I think I've learned since then. It was a relatively late apprenticeship, starting as I approached my 59th birthday - the origin of the blog title of course - and I'm certainly not presenting any of this as great wisdom or recommendations; all you have here is what I think has worked for me.
Since the spring of 2007 I have stood at the start line of 22 events, 8 "hundred" milers, 12 fifties and 2 thirties. I got the dreaded DNF three times so I know what it feels like, and clearly still have a fair bit to learn. I've also run a couple of road marathons each year because I enjoy their carnival atmosphere but have pretty well given up shorter races - I don't enjoy the speed required for half marathons and 10k's, too much like hard work! At the end of 2007 I decided what I wanted to achieve, which is to run 6 to 8 good ultras a year, to enjoy them and to acquit myself as well as I can. I don't want to do lots of races and just get round inside the time limits, though this is an understandable strategy and I'm amazed at how many events some runners complete, it's not for me. Neither is reducing the year to 2 or 3 target races that I want to get my absolute best times in - I enjoy the year-round activity and variety too much. No, a good day out and a solid mid-pack finish is where I'm at and the takeout from my learnings will reflect this. So here goes, read on if you're interested, I won't be offended if you've got better things to do.....
1. Long slow runs. This is what ultras are, so I find the key sessions for me are long slow runs - 15 to 25 miles, normally off-road, at least once a week. This gets me to feel that the marathon distance is "no big deal", something I'm happy to turn out for without any notice (or contemplate as do-able near the end of a long race!)
2. Hills. I enjoy days out in the hills, so this doesn't really feel like training at all. I try to get at least 5000ft of ascent in on a good day, rising to 10,000ft in the summer, distance less important, maybe 10-15 miles.
3. Speed (well, it's a relative term...). Over the last couple of years I've been convinced that a fairly frequent tempo run to get the heart rate up a bit pays off. This is the only session that I don't really look forward to but I'm sure it does me good, though 6 miles at somewhere near 7 minute pace is about my limit.
4. Recovery. I'm sure for me that just totting up miles over easy ground at a medium pace doesn't advance the cause at all, so I don't do it. I occasionally do a recovery run of three or four miles the day after a long outing and this definitely works, go out hobbling stiff and come back cruising, but maybe this is an age thing.
5. Mileage has been around 2000 for the year over the past 3 years. About 1000 before the middle of June then ease off the miles and do more hills in the summer to support the longer hillier races. 3 or 4 outings a week is enough if they're good. The rests in between do me more good than more miles. I don't plan "easy" weeks, other activities (climbing, ski-ing, other holidays, etc) ensure that I get enough time off.
I've become more and more convinced that while a fair bit of training is necessary to get you through an ultra, how you manage the day itself can have a huge effect on it's eventual outcome. In particular.....
6. Run your own race. The most obvious rule, and the hardest to keep sometimes - "a plan never survives the first contact with the enemy.....". It's hard not to compare yourself with the progress of others in the event, especially if you know them. But most of us are not racing, we're here to get our best performance. So if I'm used to a two minute walk for a drink every so often and I'm running with a group that doesn't.....yes, I have to force myself to stop and walk, because I know it will pay off for me.
7. Don't stop moving for any longer than you really have to. In my first long ultra I was amazed afterwards to find that I had spent nearly 3 hours sitting around at checkpoints "resting". Nowadays I believe that unless you have to stop to (eg) patch up an injury etc, it's not worth stopping. Most of the recovery you can get from a 10 minute sit-down you can get from the same time walking slowly - and you end up half a mile closer to the finish. As Fiona says about the WHW "Just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of Fort William and you'll get there" - or as John V has put it to me more graphically on several occasions "KFG, mate, just KFG".
8. Run the runnable ground for as long as you can. The slowest most people will jog at is around 12-13 minute mile pace, but the fastest you are likely to walk at, especially when tiring, is up in the 16-17 minute mile region. The maths are clear, run as much as you can. Now if you're a Jez Bragg or a Ritchie Cunningham this is most of the way, but for people like me it's much less, so I have to run at the most productive times. This means saving energy when its use is less productive, by walking up the steeper hills, slowing down where the ground is technical, not going too fast for the first 20 miles, etc so that I can cash in on the runnable ground when it turns up.
9.Use the daylight. Because you lose all your peripheral vision, you go slower in the dark; or to put it another way, to go at the same speed needs more energy. If any navigation is involved this effect gets many times worse. So I accept that I'm going to slow down in the dark and not worry about it. Push on in the evening, take it easy later, go with the flow. This is not too important in Scotland in midsummer, much more so in the Alps in late August, when the darkness can last nine hours.
10. Don't fret about food. If you're managing to eat well, great; if it's hard going, don't make it worse by worrying about it or trying to force it down. Everyone has enough fat on board to finish the race, you just go a bit slower. This was a real eye-opener for me and I'm able to go through odd periods of not eating in a much more relaxed and productive frame of mind.
11. Get the electrolytes right. I used to finish most ultras with varying degrees of nausea, and it caused me to DNF on one occasion. The man himself Jez Bragg then told me that if this happens, 9 times out of 10 it's because your electrolyte balance has gone to pot. Everyone's way of combatting this is different, but for the last couple of years I have taken Succeed caps to a rigid schedule (exact dose depending on temperature); for me it has been the single biggest factor in turning ultras from challenges into enjoyable experiences.
12. Cut the weight down. This sounds so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, but coming from a mountaineering/self sufficiency background the temptation to carry stuff because it might come in useful or make life more comfortable has been hard to overcome. Do a little experiment, run your favourite 10 miles carrying nothing, and the next day run it carrying say 2,5kg (the lowest weight your UTMB or Hardmoors pack is likely to be). The difference is mind-blowing. I once set out on an ultra with a 2l (yes two litre!) camelback. I now buy the lightest kit I can afford and take pretty well the minimum allowed.
13. Recognise when you're making a mistake. We all know when we're going a bit too fast, when a blister has just started to form, when we're getting cold and should stop and put a jacket one, or a hundred other little things that we know deep down are contributing to a less than optimal performance. Put it right, before it gets out of hand.
14. It's going to hurt sometimes. None of us go looking for it but if you set out to cover a hundred miles on foot you're extremely lucky if something doesn't hurt a bit along the way. I'm definitely not into the "embrace the pain" thing but I am convinced by the pragmatic attitude of Joss Naylor - "If you ever want to do anything on the fells, then if you're suffering from some ailment, you've just got to shrug it off". It's not failure, it's not unfair, it's part of the deal, if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined.
15. Don't think about the finish. I used to climb big Alpine faces and big rock walls. You would set out on an adventure that was going to take two or three days or more to complete. Occasionally after a while, maybe conditions weren't great, you would get "summit fever", and then the climb lost all interest, you just wanted up and off as fast as you could go, and from then on there was no pleasure, just a gruelling job to be done. Ultras are like that. If you think about the overall enormity of what you have taken on you can be easily beaten by it. Enjoy (or deal with!) the next mile, the next hour, the next checkpoint, the next cup of tea, and it will be OK.
I now go through points 6-15 as a sort of "checklist" before an event to try and make sure I actually use what I think I've learned. That's it then. Thanks to the huge number of ultra runners who have individually and collectively taught me what I know - because of course you never dream any of this up yourself, it always comes from somewhere!
First "big" race of the year (The West Highland Way) coming up in three weeks. Looking forward to it already.