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What I Wish I'd Known When I Ran My First Ultra by James Campbell

Updated: May 16, 2022

Introduction I first started thinking about writing this piece almost two years ago. It struck me that my view on running ultra distance had growth and evolved a lot over the years. I’ve learned a lot, what I thought I knew when I first started changed and changed and changed, so I started writing a list of things that I wished I knew when I ran my first ultra. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, advice or anything like that, but more a documenting of stuff I’ve learned, implemented or found useful along the way. I don’t hold any formal qualifications in trail and ultra running and the only sports coaching qualifications and experience I have relate to rugby union. Hopefully to someone taking their first steps into trail and ultra, this might be interesting or a starting point for them to investigate ideas and methods that will help them find things that work for them and support them as they start to go long. I am not particularly focused on times when running an ultra, so I have positioned this from the point of view of completing a race within time limits rather than going for a time or racing to win. My route into ultra running came in late 2011. I retired from rugby in October 2011 and had already taken part in various road races and duathlons. I’d been training with a long time friend, Matthew Turnbull who had decided to raise money for charity by riding from his home in Hartlepool to Scotland. He had virtually no experience in undertaking such a ride but was doing it anyway (he has a long and detailed history of throwing himself in at the deep end). On the day of his ride, 1st October 2011, my wife was due with our youngest so I couldn’t travel far from home, but I committed to riding with him half an hour up the road. That year we had an Indian summer and at 5am the temperature was 27 degrees. As we rode along the Coast Road away from Hartlepool he began detailing his next fundraising idea with “do the words ultra and marathon scare you?” I laughed and said no. From there we went on to train and complete a 24 hour bike ride in May 2012 and my first ultra was a 26.6 hour ultramarathon in July 2012. The route was all organised within the group of participants and we did it with support from our friends and family. The route was a simple back and forth along the seafront at Seaton Carew and on that day I managed 52 and a half miles before my ankle gave in the constant pounding on the hard surface of the prom at 16 hours. I sat on the prom outside the support caravan until the final few minutes and joined in the last minutes, but my overwhelming emotion at the end was that I would never do that to myself again. Subsequently I spent 2013 doing a lot of cycling/multi-sport and did the Coast to Coast in a day then in late 2013 I decided that I was unhappy with how the ultra run ended and entered the 2014 Hardmoors 60. Fast forward to November 2020, I have run 31 marathons/ultras, met a huge number of experienced and interesting people, gained a lot of friends and had a huge amount of fun doing so. My approach to running is very analytical, which probably reflects what I do in my day job (I’m a Strategy Analyst), so I compulsively strip things down to their component parts to see how they work, what factors contribute to the overall performance and what impact each thing has on other factors. Other people are not analytical at all and are those people who simply wing it and hope for the best and a whole lot of people are somewhere in between. In this piece, I’ve tried to recognise that, a lot of my stuff will lean heavily to the analytical, but can be toned down so hopefully there is something there to interest everyone.

James coming into Skinnigrove during the Hardmoors 60 in 2016

Training I've never had lots of time available to train having a busy family with four children and a full time job. I've always found that you don't need to spend hours and hours training or train every day to complete an ultramarathon, but you do need to be consistent in what you do, make the most of the time you have and ensure that you build in time for recovery, which is just as important as the training you do. Generally, I aim to spend over four hours a week running, split across three runs. Two mid-week runs and a weekend run. If I only have an hour available for a mid week run, I'll make the run faster, incorporate more hills or find some other way to make it hard. If I have a couple of hours I'll stretch it out to a 10 mile or half marathon run at a much easier pace and just enjoy getting out into the countryside. At a weekend, I'll aim to do a longer run, but you don't need to put massive miles in. I do try and aim to run a 20 mile plus run at least one a month, but as long as I am getting out three times a week consistently, I don't worry if life gets in the way and changes that from time to time. In the run up to a race, I will try and build my weekly distance to a peak of up to 40-50 miles three weeks before the race then reduce my weekly distance by a third the next week and another third again the week after leaving me the week of the race to rest up and pull my kit together. Another thing I will try to do before an ultra if I can fit it into my peak week, I'll try and put in a long run of 40-50% of my race distance with around half the race elevation gain, but I don't kick myself if I can't do it. This gives me chance to get a feel for where I am running at the race climb rate for a longer distance and to try out running with all my race kit and nutrition. If I am training for a specific race, I'll look for terrain locally that matches that of the race I'm running. That does, to a large degree rely on you knowing the course you are going to race on, which brings me onto my next point.

Race Reconnaissance Unless you have run a certain race before or live close to or on the route of the race, you have no way of knowing what you are going to experience on race day. Often looking at a map or elevation profile gives you no clue what the route is really like and there is nothing like getting yourself onto the route to experience it first hand. Ground truth is often very different to a map or a satellite image. I like to break races down into chunks and run small sections as an out and back recce in the months leading up to the race, using them recces as my weekend longer run by parking somewhere on or close to the route and running eight to ten miles along the route then coming back to the start. That way, you get to familiarise yourself with the route, the surface you run on etc twice in one day. Even then, the weather and seasons can change the way things feel on the day, for example if you run the coastal section of the Cleveland Way in summer, the ground conditions and weather is very different to those in winter. So it's worth trying to run your recces in the same season as the race or at least being aware of what the same track would be like after a week of heavy rain, what it would be like if icy or covered in snow if you are running a recce of a winter race in August or vice versa. It is always worthwhile conducting a recce of any section you will have to run during the race at night in the daytime and at night wherever possible. If you don't live close enough to your race route or (as at the time of writing ) something like Covid-19 restrictions are in force and you can't get out on the route, a map or Google Maps study may help. Pulling the map study together along with blogs, race reports and photos from people who have previously run the route may give you some idea of what to expect on the day.

Coming in to Scarth Nick during Osmotherly Marathon in 2015 (photo taken by Ann Brown)

Navigation Most trail ultras in the UK tend to follow established trails and have fairly straightforward navigation (Race Directors seem to have an aversion to going out looking for lost runners) and those with difficult navigation tend to be very clear about this in the race literature you see pre-entry. As someone who spent a lot of time in the hills in my younger days navigating with map and compass, I am very comfortable with the wide range of navigation challenges that races might throw at me, but even so in the heat of a race, through a lack of concentration when tired or due to adverse weather, I have taken the odd wrong turn at times. My best advice to anyone would be to understand when you enter the race, what sort of navigation skills are expected of you and to make sure you have those skills by the time the race comes around. Even if you are not confident in your nav, there are things you can do to help. If there is a road book or route description available, read this repeatedly in the run up to the race and align what is in it to a map to walk you through the race turn by turn. If you have conducted recces on the route, cross reference the style of writing to what you remember is on the ground to understand how the Race Director describes certain things so that you are able to understand ho they may describe things you haven't had chance to see first hand. If you are worried about a particular junction or section of the route (particularly if previous participants say it's a tricky spot), re-read that section of the route description and try to use maps and online tools like Google Maps and satellite images to bring to the forefront of your mind and if you can, recce and re-recce that section, especially if you expect to be running it in the dark during the race.

Coming in to Holbeck Hill during the Hardmoors 110 in 2018

Race Strategy Some people like to plan everything down to the most minute detail and some people prefer to just go out and see what happens. I think it very much depends on your personality type as to which works best for an individual runner, but even if you aren't a planner, it's worth having in mind an outline of a plan, such as what clothes you think you will need to wear, what you will need to use if the weather turns bad, what food you are going to carry with you and whether or not you want to use drop bags (if available) to supplement your food and kit and if so, what are you going to put in them. On my first ultra in 2012, we had a caravan and our cars parked at the halfway point on the course and I could afford to fill my car up with all the food and kit that I might conceivably want during the run and access it as needed (we were even able to have a pizza delivered to us during the event). In my first trail ultra, I carried a big rucksack and carried as much food, drink and kit as I could cram in 'just in case' and as a result carried a lot of weight that I simply didn't need during the day. On that first ultra in 2012, it was a case of covering as much distance as possible inside a time limit, on a very flat course, in all of my trail ultras, I have had to reach certain distances, over varying terrain within cut off times and I've found it useful to have a plan to do that. The way I do it, is to split the course into bite sized chunks based around where the checkpoints are located and work out from previous runs and recces how long I expect to take to cover each section and plan how much food and drink to carry based on those calculations. I take this to a very scientific level using an app I have built and developed over time, but it doesn't need to be taken to that level if you are not that focused on low level detail. Having the course split into chunks also allows you to predict where on the course you expect to be hit difficult terrain, exposed areas or where you will be when it gets dark so you can plan what extra kit (on top of compulsory items) you might need and how you pack it into your race vest/pack.

After finishing the Hardmoors 60 in 2020

Packing Your Kit While very personal, I've found packing my kit effectively has saved me a lot of mental effort and time, particularly in checkpoints over the years and if you can reduce the time you spend in a checkpoint from fifteen minutes to five minutes, that could mean you don't have to push as hard toward the end of a race as you would otherwise. The way I pack my kit is as follows: Food & Drink is always within reach of my hands while running. I carry two water bottles in the front bottle pouches of my pack and if I think there are sections of a race where there is a long time between water stations, I will carry a third soft flask in the back pocket of my cycle jersey or cycling jacket. The cycling jersey/jacket is in itself an item of kit I wear to increase my capacity to carry stuff within reach while running as most jerseys have three elasticated back pockets designed to be within reach while riding a bike. I use these to carry the bulk of my food and only use the gel/bar pockets on the front of my pack to carry chocolate or Chia Charge flapjack bars. Any other food goes into my back pockets so I can grab food quickly on the go. My waterproof jacket goes into the outermost pocket of my pack (or even in the outer bungee). It doesn't matter if this is packed in a way that will get it wet in a rain shower, it's waterproof. But I do want to be able to get at it fast if needed. If you don't have a pack that is segmented, the waterproof should be one of the easiest things to get out. I tend not to use waterproof bottoms unless I have to stop for an injury or if the weather gets really, really bad, so I stow these in the bladder pouch of my pack, which is closest to my back, but I can slide my hand into it without undoing zips and pull it out quickly if I need them. The other advantage of this, is that the waterproofs provide a bit of cushioning for my back and stop things in my pack from rubbing. My first aid kit, although I hope never to need it goes into an easily accessible zip pocket within the main compartment of my pack. I keep all of the items in the kit in sealed waterproof plastic pouches. I keep my warm hat, cap, gloves and buffs in a stuff pocket of my pack that I can reach on the move. Depending on whether I think I will need them during the race (and the weather) I may keep them inside a sealed plastic food bag to keep them dry. If I'm taking one of these items off quickly to do something during a race (opening a chocolate bar, re-filling a water bottle etc) I tend to stuff these in to the pocket of my cycle jersey for quickness, but don't like keeping them there for long periods as it's easy for them to get accidentally pulled out and lost when accessing food that is stored there. If you supplement your water with any electrolyte powders and or tablets, it's worth keeping those in an easily reachable pocket on your pack. Anything else goes into a dry bag inside the main pocket of my pack in the order that I think I might need them, with the things I hope not to need furthest in to the pack. However I try to keep emergency kit (bivvy bag etc) and toilet kit within easy reach just in case. If I plan on changing my clothes for a night section or there is an indoor checkpoint somewhere just before I plan to be when it gets dark, I will keep both my night kit , head torch and spare batteries in the dry bag. If there is no indoor checkpoint available at that point, I keep my head torch and spare batteries in a zip pocket I can reach while running and spare layers close to the top of the dry bag so I can quickly throw them on (although I would probably try and run wearing kit warm enough for both day and night in those circumstances if possible too). The takeaway message here, is to think carefully about how you pack based on what you will need, when you will need it, what you will be doing when you need it and what will be going on at that time.

The huge pack that James carried for the Hardmoors 60 in 2014

Nutrition I am not an expert on nutrition and even if I was, any advice I would give would be very, very individual. I have also found that my own personal nutritional tastes and needs have evolved over time and can vary from one race to another. What I would say is to try and find food that works for you over a variety of distances, in both hot and cold weather (and everything in between) that is easily portable with the pack (and cycle jersey if you choose one) you have. The only way to find out what works for you is trial and error during training and races. From my own very personal perspective, what I have found works for me is: Ella's Kitchen 7+ savoury baby food pouches (taking a mouthful on board every 10-15 minutes). I find one pouch will last me two to two and half hours in a race. A Snickers or Chia Charge flapjack bar every hour. Something with 20g protein in every four hours. I used to use SiS protein gels but these don't seem to be available anymore, so I now use Chia Charge protein bars. I used to carry a bag of Wine Gums and a bag of peanuts to have every 15 minutes, but over time I found these less palatable and that sugary items caused me issues in hot weather. I also used to use gels on the hour, every hour. Again, these caused me issues on hot days and before I stopped using them, for years during long distance cycling events and ultras, they would cause me unpleasant gastric issues consistently around the 16 hour mark onwards (I only found they were the cause after I stopped using them). What I would recommend is to try and understand what is likely to be available at race checkpoints and if they have something you can use, use the checkpoint to supplement what you carry (but don't bank on it being there) and try to carry something with a different flavour/texture from the start and in your drop bags that you know works for you. That way, you may have the opportunity for something a bit different at checkpoints.

Whitby Abbey during the Hardmoors 60 in 2020

On Race Day Enjoy yourself This is the biggest and possibly most important thing I can say. While you may be embarking on a gruelling personal challenge that may or may not involve pain, if you make a mental commitment to enjoy it (after all this should be why you are doing it) , then the good times will feel great and the bad times won't seem so bad. Don't compare yourself to anyone around you No two people are the same, neither are no two runners in an ultra. At the start line you may be feeling nervous and apprehensive but the person next to you may appear full of confidence, but inwardly may be just as nervous. If you are running next to someone who is running well and going faster than you, don't feel like you have to keep pace with them and don't kick yourself for dropping behind (don't feel guilty for pushing ahead either). Those people may just be better at a certain type of running than you. I am often overtaken by better climbers going uphill only to overtake them as I fly downhill while they gingerly pick their way down carefully. They could be someone aiming to win the race who'd had to take an unscheduled stop at some point. It's your run and you need to focus on yourself. It doesn't always get worse If you are feeling bad during an ultra, it doesn't always follow that you are just going to continue to feel worse throughout the race. Ultramarathons tend to be an emotional roller-coaster. I've started some races feeling awful yet had an amazing time later in the day. A couple of good examples are the 2018 Hardmoors 55 when even before the race, I had stomach issues, but after I got the first 20 miles done, I suddenly felt great and put in a really strong second half despite some terrible weather. In this year's Hardmoors 55, I suffered quite badly with tight calves and hamstrings during the first 10 miles, but after a quick stop to stretch, I got better as the day went on. The important lesson here is that when you are having a bad time, you have to understand that it won't last forever and it's entirely possible that in a few miles you could be having the race of your life. Likewise, don't take every little set back personally. The race Gods aren't out to get you, the shoe that you have to stop to re-tie two or three times is probably just chance and that gate that won't open has been stuck for everyone before you too. Stuff happens on these long events and you are probably forgetting the umpteen things that have gone perfectly well or even better than expected during the day and focusing on the bad things that you have noticed. Play tricks on your mind and don't let our mind play tricks on you During the race, your legs will get tired and your body will start to hurt in ways that you may not have experienced before. There are lots of really simple ways to distract yourself from them. Some of the ones I use are: Repeating a positive mantra to myself over and over again (this is courtesy of something I read in one of John Kynaston's blogs). I repeat “I am strong, I am fit, I am running well and I am running pain free” in a rhythmic pattern. After several minutes, I often feel like I have hypnotised myself into believing it. Running to a count of X then walking for a count of X. The act of counting the second you are running, distracts your mind from the pain in your body and focus you on moving forward. If things hurt a lot, I start with a 10 second run, 10 second walk pattern. I then increase it to 15/15 then 30/30. After that, if I am starting to move well (and moving faster often loosens those sore muscles that want to give in) I then try and run for more than double my walking count, by doing 30/15, 60/30, 120/60 or even 360/120 if I am starting to feel strong again. Focusing on a landmark. I pick a tree/rock/tuft of grass or similar object and force myself to run to it before awarding myself a short walk and picking another object. If I am finding it hard to keep running to the object, I visualise my legs being powered by a diesel engine chugging along or a winch anchored to the object constantly pulling me closer to it. It might seem silly or childish, but you are doing these things in your mind, only you know about them and they work. Passing the time by playing games. Later in races, especially at night, it feels harder to keep moving. I often play daft games with myself like looking behind and making sure none of the head torches behind me catch me. I also pretend I am in an imaginary bike race where riding is easier in a group. I will target a group in front and try to move faster to bridge across to it. Once in the group, I'll eat and drink then pick another group ahead to bridge across to and jump forward again, aiming not to be overtaken by the group I have left behind. Although if you get in with a good group with good conversation, it's often just as good to stay with them and enjoy the company as long as your pace and theirs match with each others expectations in terms of getting to the finish. During the day, if things get hard, you can occupy your mind by trying to spot X number of objects with a certain characteristic or colour within a certain time frame. Anything that takes your mind away from running for a bit. As you get tired and especially at night, you will feel like you are moving slowly (you might very well be moving slowly), sometimes seconds will drag out like hours then half an hour will fly by like seconds. You may see things that aren't there and hallucinations are common. Hallucinations in an ultra tend to be your brain's way of coping with a lack of input. If it's dark and your eye is only seeing half of an object, then your brain will try and fill in the gaps making a log look like a snake or a rock look like some sort of monster, or as once happened to me, a runner lying down by the side of the trail with their head torch pointing skyward, look like a car. Knowing these things can happen can help re-assure you that nothing is wrong and even stop your mind playing these tricks on you. It may even signal that you need to start playing your own mind games to stop your mind tricking you. One of the other things I try to do to keep my mind focused during the race is to start compiling ideas for my race report (which I write for every race) as they happen and I start composing what I want to say in my head. Even if you don't write a race report, perhaps thinking about how you would explain what you are feeling to your non running friends will help keep your mind straight when things get fuzzy. Eat and drink, eat and drink, eat and drink Your body needs fuel to operate, remember that diesel engine? It only works when you keep putting diesel into it. Don't eat too much, the human body can only process a couple of hundred calories per hour, but keep that flow of calories going in. The same with drink. Sip fluids regularly, try to focus on it so that you don't go more than 15-30 minutes without a drink, especially on a hot day. This is also important in cold weather, because chances are, you will be aware of it less in the cold. Primarily, drink to thirst, don't overdo it, but do remain focused on when you last had a drink and if it seems while ago, then it's probably a time for a sip of water. Dehydration is very hard to come back from, my experiences in the 2015 and 2018 Hardmoors 60 races were both very painful because I ignored the need to drink in favour of cracking on with the running. One of the signs you are not eating regularly is that your mood starting to slide. If you find yourself going into a bit of a down period, try chucking some food down your neck and see if that improves how you feel. Try to use food as a reward too, don't focus on taking 100 calories in now and another 100 calories later. Think I'm looking forward to having a Snickers bar at X or a sausage roll at Y or a flapjack is what is going to make me feel good right about now. Aim to finish, but be realistic about whether that will happen and what it may cost Almost nobody starts an ultra and doesn't aim to finish. However, at some point in your ultra life, you will come to a point where you face a decision to pull out of a race or not. Usually this starts to happen when things start to hurt, muscles get tired or blisters get sore, but can happen really early on in a race if disaster happens such as a trip or fall that causes an injury. Remember the acronym DNF that means Did Not Finish can also be viewed as Did Nothing Fatal. Most of us have to go to our normal life, work etc after our race. If what you are doing now is going to realistically seriously damage your health or wellbeing, you need to stop, no questions. It may be that you can continue, but your body will be injured for some time after the race. You need to assess that against whether this race is important enough to do that. Is being injured going to stop you doing things for your family, working or competing in another race you want to? If not, then keep pushing, if so, you need to consider stopping. I've DNF'd five ultras. My first DNF, my first Hardmoors 60, I was on my own, in the dark, hurting and was going to miss the cut off at the final checkpoint. I could have continued, the Race Director may or may not have allowed me through the final checkpoint and have a late finish, but my mind had gone and I decided to pull out when I could (and possibly should) have pushed on and let the race officials make the decision to pull me out. During the Hardmoors 110 in 2018, I found I had left my poles leaning up against a wall at the 55 mile checkpoint in Saltburn just as the course started a five mile uphill slog when I went to get them out of my crew's car. As I climbed, I ended up in thick fog which played on my mind, there was little to see and I missed a turn to a landmark on the route on a path I know very well and have run a lot of time day and night. My mood went into a downward spiral and even having a friend run onto the course to meet me with my retrieved poles and run with me for another 10 miles, my head had gone and I just wanted to stop and end my race when I got to the 65 mile checkpoint. I regretted both DNF's in many ways and have spent more time than is healthy wondering what would have happened if I had carried on. I learned a lot from both and although I was comfortable with my decision to stop during the Hardmoors 110 (I would have probably been timed out in that second day), but that 2014 Hardmoors 60 DNF burned for years afterwards. In the 2015 and 2018 Hardmoors 60, I suffered badly from dehydration and if I had continued, I would have put myself at serious risk. Likewise, in the 2019 Hardmoors 50, I injured myself in a fall less than five miles in. I pushed on in terrible weather to 48 miles then called it a day about eight miles from the finish because I thought that short eight miles of sliding around on a very muddy course, on top of what I had already done, would have left me with an injury that could have sidelined me for months. The finish on those days wasn't worth the cost. Celebrate your achievements Running an ultramarathon is special. Don't let anyone tell you different. Even when it seems like loads of people are pushing boundaries further and further, any run beyond 26.2 miles is tough and anything can happen between 26.2 miles and the finish line to stop you. When you finish, you have conquered a myriad of stuff and you deserve to enjoy it. Celebrate that with your running friends, find out the photos of the day and share them, you'll be able to look on them in years to come and hopefully they will be something to show the grandkids. Write about your experiences, even if you never intend to share them with anyone else, get it all down so that you can go back and remember it when you want to. If you write it down while it's fresh in your mind, you can re-live it all years later when the memories have faded (and they do fade). Don't try and force your non running or non ultra friends to understand what you have achieved (most of them will never get it and will certainly never understand why you would put yourself through and experience like this), be happy for yourself and those who were part of it. Do something nice for yourself as a reward for finishing, that might be having a couple of weeks rest, some well earned food or drink or it might even be finding yourself an exciting new race to enter.....

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