My ultrarunning two cents!

Running holds a special lure for individuals of a certain personality, which perhaps Tim Noakes puts it best in the introduction for his book: The Lore of Running. Most ultra runners, especially the ones attempting it for the first time are very misunderstood folks, often being dismissed as unreasonable or crazy and foolish. However, I believe that the reasons for most people wanting to attempt runs of this nature tend to be very deep-rooted and hardly worthy of a cursory glance. Human beings have evolved for endurance running and it’s not very hard to imagine what the mind and body can be convinced of achieving with proper training.

“The people dancing were judged insane by those who could not hear the music.”

The appeal of endurance events is rather superficial – to do something that not too many people can claim to have done. There’s no shortage of extraordinary things to accomplish in life, but ultra running, most singularly offers a challenge that one can’t cheat their way out of. There is no politics and only guts and pure discipline is involved. You can either run 50 or 100 miles or you can’t and the amount of mettle required to overcome every instinct to stop running, can be understood only by those who have experienced it first hand. Books and media can only do so much to convey the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing such an event.

Click on this link to read on about Tim Noakes’ description of one such run.

For me running 40-50 mile weeks is a monumental task and touches every aspect of my life, both mentally and physically. There is the initial base building phase, which is often more depressing and requires strong motivation and discipline. One gets dependent on endorphins and taking necessary days off running for recovery also becomes difficult. Previous PB’s often need to be neglected in order to build up more slow-twitch fibre for distance running, whilst maintaining that ever crucial balance with speed workout sessions.

Ultra running is not supposed to be a full-time pursuit for most runners and the best runners learn to successfully integrate their training routines into other areas of their lives. Running 50 miles is much different from running a marathon and the way we train for either event is also entirely different. Most marathons are ran as races with the objective of finishing within a per-determined pace, whereas, most ultras are ran with the objective to finish without injuries or time goals and with many walking breaks spread throughout the run. The primary challenge for an ultra runner is predominantly mental, an opinion that’s voiced over and over again within the community.

In ultra running, it is simply not sufficient to be a slave to the weekly mileage. Most marathoners will usually run anywhere between 30 to 100 miles per week depending on their skills and expertise. My total mileage for my first 50K was less than 40 miles per week, although I don’t deny that I could have improved my performance significantly had I committed more training miles. But in my mind the most important thing about ultras is not necessarily the weekly mileage but the actual distribution of the weekly run. While running 5-7 miles every day, five days a week will certainly add on the weekly miles, it would not necessarily prepare one for an ultra. The key to ultra running is the long run in my opinion. Most ultra running should be done with the goal of time rather than distance in mind. Usually these are interspersed with walking and the beneficial effects of long runs are felt upon being out there between 3 to 6 hours. This is when the mental and physiological adaptation to stress kicks in and there is no other way to experience this than by being out on the dirt for over three hours.

In general my present glycogen reserves can only carry me for about 3 – 4 hours without replenishment, however, if the long runs are interspersed with periodic walks during which I supplement my reserves with food and drinks, it allows me to carry on longer while allowing me to train my walking muscles at the same time. Walking in ultra running is not as much of a taboo as it is in marathon running and is, in fact, essential to being able to complete the entire distance. The general rule of thumb is that we should be able to carry on a conversation while running and to incorporate walking and nourishment/hydration right from the beginning and not waiting until it’s too late. It is also important to take consecutive weekends off from the long runs in order to allow the body to recover sufficiently. I generally tend to increase my weekly mileage by only 10% per week while training and even that is not a steadfast rule. This rule allows me to keep the ego in check, which in turn spares me from overuse injury. Cross-training is often a good way to ensure continued life long running without the risk of burning out. Of course, sometimes cross-training tends to dominate over running but that is the scenario which I find mostly innocuous so long as I’m on off the couch and on my feet :-).

Usually, my philosophy is that my running is just training for Kendo and climbing, all of which in turn satisfy a lifestyle that I aspire to or a “way of life” if you wish. Strength training is integral to my running and I train the muscle groups that tend to be ignored by most runners, such as the abdominals and the back muscles. In addition, strength training is also great for improving tendons and ligaments strength in the knees and ankles which a runner can’t really do without. Hill running is a great way to strength train, preferably over gym workouts – it tends to build quads, and subsequently strengthening ligaments and tendons while bearing the weight of the body and maintaining proper running form. I prefer to run hills as a separate session where I attack a hill not very aggressively, but with control, at about 5% grade for about 3-5 minutes followed by a gentle jog down for recovery, repeating the process several times. Often with runners, they tend to attack the beginning of the hill quite aggressively only to slow down once they reach the top and thus losing all their advantage. It’s better to maintain proper cadence and while it’s inevitable that some time will be lost on the uphill which cannot be made up for on the downhill, proper running cadence and posture will allow for an efficient, smoother and less stressful running experience. Incorporating regular stretching exercises into ones training regimen is also very beneficial as it helps to diminish the risk of injuries while increasing our stride length and leg turnover.

If one can avoid burnout by successfully integrating running into their daily lives without much thought to distance or time then the rewards of such running will parallel the benefits obtained from a life long practice of Tai Chi or Yoga.

My rather slow and only ultrarunning PBs until now:

31.3 miles — 06:28 — Garden State 50K

looking forward to seeing this list grow…

“If people relied solely on reason, they would not run marathons. But we are not creatures of reason, we are creatures of passion. We need reason, of course, to steer the ship. But if the winds of passion are not in our sails, all the steering in the world would get us nowhere.”

                                                                   – unattributed quote