Confessions Of An Ultra Runner

Now that I can officially call myself an ultramarathon runner, I think it’s about time that I come clean about what this gloriously graceful sport has done to me over the past few months…

Thus, I will use this space on my wall, my friends, to confess some of my deepest, darkest running secrets (in no particular order):

  • Members of my inner posse take great joy in belittling the fact that I wear dresses, skirts and shorts only in combination with boots. My well-rehearsed response to this is to merrily claim that the cowgirl look is a deliberate attempt to honour the years of my life that I spent living in the Wild West. But deep inside, I know that the world is just not ready to be exposed to the carnage that is my toenails.
  • Whenever I happen to run an 8 minute mile, I consider my weekly sprint workout completed.
  • My speedwork consists almost exclusively of people-leking these days. You know, I go out for a run, but instead of running intervals or even doing a fartlek session, I just run a little faster whenever there’s someone around who can actually see me.
  • After I run, I usually devour volumes of food that would probably leave a beast emerging from hibernation feel somewhat queasy. What I really mean to say is that I pretty much always eat anything that isn’t nailed down somehow. As far as nutritional strategies go, that one’s a winner.
  • In order to run, I bribe myself with chocolate. A lot. Need to get up that hill? Have chocolate at the top! Feeling tired after 25km? No problem! I just tell myself that I can have a Snickers when I reach 30 km… It works every time. However, I have no idea how I’ll ever race a marathon again (that doesn’t involve a chocolate orgy and associated bribery).
  • At the end of a long run, I find nothing more comforting than immediately getting out of my sweaty running clothes and into something warm, dry and comfy. That’s precisely how I came to stand in the buff in full view of a group of hardcore bikers in a parking lot the other day. I’m not even ashamed.
  • While I’m on the topic of cozy clothes: because my pyjamas happen to be the most comfy clothes that I own, it’s only logical that I should change into them after a long run, right? Then I drive home. I pity the fool who thinks that this attire would somehow deter me from walking into a petrol station and buying a Cornetto for the road.
  • Toilet paper is the single most important piece of kit I carry. It’s never on any mandatory kit list and nobody ever dares talk about it (as though it’s against some secret code… hang on, is there a secret code?!?). However, it’s hands down the biggest life saver out there, ever.
  • Hills are to me now what a bell was to Pavlov’s dog… The association between inclines and food has become so robust in my head that my stomach actually grumbled the other day when I was driving up a multi-storey carpark ramp. It defies the laws of my nature to attempt a hill workout in the absence of a Snickers bar. Yes, that includes hill sprints night at my local running club. I don’t care about the funny looks I get, it takes either a lot of chocolate or a violent temper tantrum to get me up those hills.
  • And finally, I’m beginning to think that I may be committing an act of fraud by calling myself a runner. In reality, I do a lot of plodding around. Downhill sections see my technique and form change to something that might best be described as “controlled falling”. And whenever I’m faced with any hill that might actually be a worthy opponent, it automatically triggers a “fuel break” response, which forces me to walk while stuffing something calorific in my face all the way up. At best, I think it’s fair to say that the notion of me being a runner has a tenuous relationship with the truth.


(A rare sight: a fledgling ultramarathon runner caught in the act of running)

“Enjoying your runs will be the make or break of whether you stick with it or not. Quite simply, if we don’t enjoy something, we don’t do it!”

–       Sara Kirkham

It’s A Journey, Not A Race

Oh, the ritual of the race! There are these dangerous moments when you think that it would be fun to run a race. It’s in those moments that you run the risk of signing up for an actual race; before your head can contemplate the wisdom of this idea, you find that your fingers have already pushed the “enter” button. What have you gone and done now? It’s not uncommon to then require a few days of cowering behind the couch and sucking on your thumbs to come to terms with the gravity or your actions, but eventually you find that you are capable of switching from avoidance to approach coping. You then go through several trees worth of paper in the process of drawing up and refining the ultimate plan for achieving world domination a particular finish time come race day.

Following this, you will probably spend the next couple of weeks wrestling with this master plan; you will have weeks of changing things around only to find that you have missed a run or two. This is inevitably followed by a panic week, in which you consistently overdo your training and basically view your carefully tinkered plan as defining the bare minimum of your training. At the same time, you begin to cultivate mental images of yourself crossing the finish line, light on your feet, the running definition of glorious grace, all while – naturally – smashing your personal best time. But be warned: the effects of religiously overtraining combined with the distorted view of yourself can encourage you to revise your target race pace downwards to something deliriously optimistic.

A few weeks before the race, you start to notice little bits of evidence in training – whether real or imagined – that your naive finishing time might be possible after all. For instance, you have just run the fourth kilometre of a 5km tempo run at target race pace and didn’t die. Therefore, why shouldn’t it be possible to run that exact same pace for 10km, 21.1km, 6 hours at a time, right? But the instant when things are beginning to look promising is also when your taper begins, which means that you’ll feel rather grumpy about your reduction in training. While in this state of endorphin-withdrawal, you will most likely first feel cranky about the race, and then experience a general animosity towards life in general. In those moments, you would much rather just go for a long run, without a care in the world, not limited by the prospects of a silly race. This is often followed by a phase in which you tell yourself that target times for races are a stupid anyway and that nobody cares about your finishing time, so you might as well walk the race and be done with it.

On the morning of the race, it’s perfectly normal to contemplate why you are doing this at all and to spend a significant amount of energy searching for an exit route. But after the gun has finally bellowed and you are, at last, allowed to stretch your legs, you might find that it’s not so bad after all and settle into a personal kind of groove. You enjoy the moments early on in the race, when you are running much too fast but it still feels good to do so. You even tell yourself that you are feeling so awesome, there’s no reason why you can’t maintain this pace and set a new world record. This act of idiotic thinking is immediately punished by a thousand shades of pain for the remainder of the race, which are sprinkled with just enough magical bouts of the elusive “runner’s high” to stop you from pulling out of the race altogether. It’s true that you learn a lot about yourself while racing; for instance, you become intimately aware of several parts of your body you have never really appreciated before – before they started to hurt like hell, that is. And finally, once you have run, walked, crawled or staggered across the finish like, your biggest achievement of the day (i.e. not throwing up this very moment) is rewarded by a stranger hanging a medal around your neck.

You swear you’ll never do this to yourself ever again. You go home, ice your legs, and convince yourself that a tub of ice-cream and an alcoholic beverage are excellent recovery foods. But a week or so later, usually after another glass or wine or two, you begin to think that it might be fun to run a race one of these days…

Race Journey

Long Runs are Mental

Why do I, as a runner, always seem to have to justify what I do to others? And equally, why is it that non-runners always feel compelled to provide me with a plethora of reasons why they don’t run? I’m starting to think that the world is somehow divided into two kinds of people; those who run and those who don’t; only I never got that memo. I was probably out on a long run when it arrived.

In any case, one of the most frequenly cited reasons I hear from non-runners to justify their non-running existence is that they are convinced they would find it boring. This anxiety is of course completely misplaced, as running is in fact extremely thought provoking and mentally rewarding. To fully demonstrate this point for the benefit of all non-runners, I have kept a note of my own thoughts during a recent long run:

Mile 1: What a beautiful day, this is going to be good. My training has gone well so far, I’m hydrated and have faithfully completed the pasta eating ritual last night, so let’s do this!

Mile 2: Oh look, the first hill. I don’t need a power bar yet. That’s, what, 8 per ce… – No, no! Do not think about the distance ahead, it’s better if my mind doesn’t know what’s coming. Should I be worried that I’m thinking of myself as two people already, given that this is only two miles in? Anyways, better keep moving before I get cold. Is this a good time to re-evaluate the wisdom of my decision to go for my long run wearing nothing but running shorts and a sports bra? In October? In Scotland?

Mile 3: I hope I don’t encounter any out-of-control dogs today. Or ducks. Or highland cows. I love nature, really.

Mile 4: Must not look at my watch. Must not look at the watch… Perhaps I should run a bit faster anyways, just in case.

Mile 5: What’s with all the hills? Really, is this whole country hilly? Two more miles and I can have a power bar.

Mile 6: Have I locked my car?

Mile 7: Power bar! Now that’s fun to say. Power bar. Power bar! A bar that gives you power. Magic! Dammit, lost half of my power bar to an out-of-control dog or possibly highland cow. I’m not sure which, it all happened so fast. Also, am now covered in mud. On the plus side, it’s kind of cooling and affirms my tough-as-nails cross country runner girl image.

Mile 8: This is practically half way, right? Anyways, are running nicknames only cool if they are given to you by other people? I really need to pee…

Mile 9: Did that ranger really just see me wee in his forest?

Mile 10: Is there such a thing as eating an unacceptable number of pancakes? This is a purely hypothetical question of course, which is in no way related to the post-run lunch I’m planning in my head.

Mile 11: Okay, so, I’ve run 18km in 90 minutes. That’s an, uhm, what? 8, 8:30, 9-minute mile-ish pace. At this pace I will finish a marathon in 543 minutes, which is 7:23 hours. No, wait, that’s not right. How far is one mile again…?

Mile 12: Wow, I guess this is what forever feels like. Besides, I’m really getting hungry. Damn you, pancake thoughts… Is it possible to order takeaway food on a run? If I knew where I was, perhaps I could convince someone to meet me with a pizza? That marathon man dude did it once, but I suppose he’s in California where anything is possible. A mountain top in Scotland isn’t really the same as a stretch of Highway 101, is it?

Mile 13: Wait, I’m on top of a hill? How did this happen? Am I still on the right track? This doesn’t look at all familiar… Where am I? Hellooo? Anybody? Which county is this? And really, what is it with all these hills???

Mile 14: Up and right? Motion and poetry? No, seriously, what was my mantra thingy again? I just wish I had eaten that whole power bar earlier.

Mile 15: Looks like it’s just me against trail now. Nothing left to do but to keep going and confront all my inner demons.

Mile 16: …Pancakes…

Mile 17: I definitely didn’t put enough Vaseline under my arms, and I think one of my toenails just fell off. What else can possibly go wrong? At least I haven’t hit the wall yet…

Mile 18: Aaaaaahhhaaaahhhh I’ve just hit the wall… I have never felt so miserable in my whole life. My knees have turned to jelly and even my detached toenail feels tired… I want my bed. Or any bed. Actually, that pile of dirt looks good, too.

Mile 19: No, I will not let this beat me. I’m not a whimp. I’m a mud-covered tough runner girl cross-country person who still needs a nickname. Think of that guy who cut off his own arm when he got stuck on a mountain somewhere. I know, it’s kind of disgusting, but the point is, if he can do it, so can I.

Mile 20: “…I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna laa-laaah, keep on, uhm, surviving…”

Finish: Wow, best run EVER… Now, where did I park my car again?