ARTICLE: Ultra-learnings

Posted from the Jonathan Swift, sailing across the Irish Sea…

As a postscript to my race report on the Lakeland 50 Miler, here’s a few things I learned during the race. There are almost too many to list but let me try with the one’s that spring to mind: First of all, it’s almost impossible to go out too slow but I know I would enjoy these events even more if I could complete them quicker and run greater parts of the distance. So to resume ultra-running later, I would need to really train hard for the specific requirements of the sport. On the positive side, basic fitness won over the years, made itself known through the event.

Long-distance walks

On the topic of training, the long-distance walks over very hard fells on Mon-Wed were good preparatory training for the event and shouldn’t be underestimated as a training tool for mountain runners, especially of the long-distance variety. I’ll devote an article to this subject at a later stage.

Food and drink

Hearty Lakeland food and one of the extremely tasty local ales every night the preceding week didn’t dent my prospects either. Neither did the full English I had in the morning with my cream/honey porridge starter!

On the run, as it showed, I cannot tolerate anything but fluid or semi-fluid food during such events (perhaps the sweltering heat played in, once the breeze hit and the sun receded, everything got easier) so I can forget about cakes, bars etc.

The caffeine in the HI5 bars weren’t a problem, but they did mean I ignored any tea and coffee offerings until the last checkpoint so as not to “over-caffeinate”. My mind was surprisingly clear throughout, which must imply a solid food intake. The Orbana probably played a crucial part because the vitamin/mineral content is so high; if it can cure my headaches on a normal day, its reasonable to assume the same ingredients can help keep the head clear during a long event in hot weather. The deterioration of taste and smell wasn’t pleasant (although I largely just ignored it, knowing the content was still good) but I fixed this by mixing in diarolyte after the Mardale checkpoint. This had the added benefit of increasing the thickness of salts versus fluid (osmolality), important in combatting hyponatremia (low blood salts) which the organiser’s warned were more dangerous than dehydration ahead of the race. I agree.

Footwear – sandal man

Footwear choice is completely individual, my tendon problems meant I couldn’t wear a shoe with a proper heel. Recent barefoot activity has meant a very strong foot, and skin so tough and callus free that I had no blister problems at all. On the flipside, my metatarsals were irritated in recent weeks so I needed some sort of sole to protect them from the rocks. To some of my co-competitor’s surprise, the solution to this problem was to purchase the Inov-8 Recolite 190 sandal from Pete Bland at the Ambleside Sports and run the race in that!

As an added bonus, whenever I went over on my ankle, only the sole went, because the sides of the sandal are lose, my foot simply slid down on the ground as the footwear tumbled over. The Recolite has reasonable grip, a very sturdy sole, and is low and flat to the ground. I’d run another ultra in it happily.


Barefoot walking/running gave me several benefits for the ultra: Stronger skin on the foot (meaning no blisters) and no calluses left (these wear down naturally when walking around barefooted) for shoes to pinch and squeeze. Hot feet is the price to pay and I splashed most puddles to keep the temperature in my feet down and can’t imagine how warm they would have been in shoes.

Effects of terrain

On terrain: It’s hard to enjoy any sort of challenging terrain once you lose the more advanced motor functions. On the plus side you learn how to safely shuffle over most stuff, but it’s no fun to spend so much time running through scree-filled gullies and wet marshland in that way.

Several times, I find myself missing the Wicklow Way. Ultra-running forces you to come face to face with your inefficiencies, at least, which you should be able to transfer to normal distance running. Walking up with wide steps, for instance, is simply too wasteful. Running on your toes is largely also not done, as you can’t afford to lose good use of your calves with long distances to go. Walking hands on knees would kill the quads and back too early in the event. Early in the event I barely used my arms going uphill. Later in the event, I swung them madly to generate some kind of forward motion from the ever deadening legs.


It is also amazing, and just as individual, were the main muscle soreness seems to occur post-race. Many runners had banged up quadriceps, hamstrings and knees. The masseur expected the same from me afterwards, but my soreness and cramping sat in the glutes, hip flexors, feet and calves. Carrying the bag for the whole day has left some very tense shoulders, and strangely, a very sore rib cage.

The most peculiar pain was in the backside of the shoulder blade. Once I tried to grab behind me for my passport in the car, the cause became immediately obvious, this was a pain from twisting my arm backwards to pull the water bottle out of the side-pouches of the backpack!

I believe my recent regiment of yoga, dynamic weights, core work, and synergistic work helped my legs stay in the game longer than they normally would. Muscular fatigue tends to be my weakness and usually occur before cardiovascular failure. In the ultra, I never really ran out of fuel and while the pulse got a bit more stressed at certain stages of the late climbs, in general my heart and lungs were working away happily. Fast downhill running, particularly on the very rocky terrain, became impossible after 30km,  the relevant muscles were simply gone. Uphill running ceased being effective except for very short sections after Ambleside (the 55km point) as the power wasn’t there to move faster than power-walking allowed.


If it is the effects of a full day in the sun or something else, I don’t know, but I have been roasting and feeling like a radiator since the race. I wouldn’t have wished for a wet and miserable day, but when the last ray of sun disappeared purple behind the hills, our group breathed a sigh of relief. The rays had pounded us as much as the mountain passes.

Aid stations

I and my fellow competitors all seemed entirely in love with the checkpoint aid stations were I generally devoured salted soup, cups of coke, and water. The advanced Kentmere station had freshly made smoothies and lovely rice-pudding with marmalade. Joined with a shady refuge from the sun, a habit started of reasonably sizeable breaks here which is probably a place I could save some time in future events. At the late stop in Tilberthwaite, the marquee provided a beacon in the darkness from which our large group decided to depart in unison for the final pass. What’s the right strategy for aid stations, I’m not sure. You probably need to set a maximum time you can spend over the course of an event but also need to be flexible in allowing them to help you recover from crisis periods.

When I hit Mardale, I needed the extra minutes to stave off the early dehydration symptoms and get a fresh impetus for a renewed charge. A quick turn-around here would probably have finished me off.


Don’t get lost would loom high on the list of winning tactics for me, but the key is to keep going at your own pace even if you have companions. I let my two travel companions from Ambleside catch up with me by walking a flat section after Chapel Stile as I reasoned they would be the best group to traverse the last two passes with.

While I think this assumption would have been proved correct, I should have run on ahead while I had the legs and let them catch up with me on the climb when I suffered my worst physical crisis of the day. By waiting, we arrived at the hill together and I was simply dropped. This isolated me from everyone else at one of the trickiest section and by the time I recovered precious time and energy had been wasted and more mistakes followed.

I noticed throughout the rest of the day that walking the uphills, shuffling down the technical descents and jogging the flats provided me the best rhythm and it would be important to maintain that rhythm throughout. That said, I ran most parts of the uphills (if easily) for the first 30km, which may or may not have been a mistake. My position of 23rd at this stage implies a fast start, but I was running well within myself at this stage, and my tactic was to get away from the bulk of the field to enjoy more unimpeded progress and less distractions to navigation.

100 miles?

Finally, words fail to describe the challenge undertaken by the 100 milers now that I have done half the distance, and the patient pacing of most of them is something to behold. As I said to one: “If I had known at 40km that I was only a quarter through, it would have broken my heart.” “It broke mine,” she said.


Tim said…
Wow sounds like a fantastic adventure. very jealous hope your body recovers quickly. well done.