By Maria Andrews, all images copyright Stuart March Photography, used with kind permission
I have dipped in and out of running my whole life. During my school days I ran cross country. Then, after taking a few years out to be a teenager, I fancied a challenge and signed up for a marathon in my second year of university.
Fast forward two years to the final year of my undergrad, and borne out of the intense boredom of months of lockdown, I decided to put my free time to good use, and I signed up for my first ultramarathon.
It has been less than a month since my first ultramarathon, UK Ultra’s South Downs 100k, a fairly hilly 100k over England’s picturesque South Downs.
Even though my legs have barely recovered, I have already found myself trawling through race finder websites for my next bigger, hillier, and more grueling run. Given that, I can pretty conclusively say that my first go at an ultramarathon was a success!
So here I have outlined ten very important lessons that I learned along the way.
Each one of which played a key part in allowing me to cross the finishing line with a smile.
1. It Is Hard
This may seem obvious. But I found that coming to terms with this simple fact saved me many an internal battle.
About 70k into the race I crossed paths with a fellow 100ker. As is standard, I nodded in his direction and grunted a simple ‘you alright?’ to which he replied ‘no, this is hard’.
It is hard.
To the man in the metaphorical hole I offered a smile and this- ‘I’d be surprised if you weren’t finding it hard!’ ‘Yes’, he replied, relieved, ‘yeah, it is hard’.
2. Weird Food Is Better Than No Food
On my long training runs, I experimented with lots of different food and drinks.
I fine-tuned my perfect ratio of carbs to fat to electrolytes to water. I learned that a running diet of salted boiled new potatoes, lemon drizzle Trek flapjacks, and coconut water was my ideal trifecta.
Regardless, come race day, all food repulsed me.
Maybe it was the nerves or the fact that I was running all day, but I couldn’t bring myself to swallow anything.
Eventually, I abandoned my pre-planned nutrition strategy and gravitated towards the skittles, the watermelon, and the lemon and lime High 5 electrolyte drink.
I ended up drinking five litres of the stuff, eating two slices of watermelon at each aid station, and chowing down on an impressive 15 packs of skittles.
All things considered, the blisters on the inside of my cheeks were worth it.
Thanks to the skittles, I was able to keep my legs moving.
3. I’ve Never Met a Bonk That Hasn’t Passed
If you don’t know what a bonk is, it is essentially when your body battery is empty, you hit the wall, want to give up, everything sucks, and you curse yourself for ever deciding to take up running.
Luckily, they do pass!
Typically, my bonks have come on after a while of both running and neglecting my food intake.
So if I find myself deep in a bonk I make sure to eat something sugary and sip down some electrolyte water ASAP. After that, mental resilience is all you have left from which to draw your energy.
I have found it an invaluable piece of knowledge to know that a bonk won’t last forever. This, like point 1 (It Is Hard!), may sound like the most obvious thing in the world.
But when in a bonk, it is easy to think that it will last for all eternity. It will pass. Repeat this to yourself and you may find yourself cruising that running high once more, often in a surprisingly short amount of time.
4. Lube Up!
Yes, you read that right. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you may remember seeing groups of helpful volunteers holding out handfuls of vaseline for oncoming runners to scoop up upon passing.
During a 100k, after hours and hours of the same repetitive movement, chafe is almost inevitable.
I would recommend using some sort of anti-chafe cream on your feet at the very least. In between toes, all over your heel, on the achilles.
Any innocuous-looking seam could cause you serious strife. I used a Squirrel’s Nut Butter stick and took the more is more approach, even packing my tub in my running vest. No regrets.
5. Protect Your Feet
In many ways, your feet really are the star of the show. Being hooked up to a running watch brought that home to me when I was able to calculate that over the course of the 100k I had taken 151 steps per minute, adding up to a whopping 113,099 steps. My poor feet.
Luckily, I had done enough long training runs to know that I was going to do all I could on race day to keep them in tip-top condition.
I trimmed my toenails and learned that shoes are king. Find your perfect shoe during your training. Unfortunately, this may mean working your way through a few pairs of running shoes.
But once you find your perfect valiant steeds, it will all be worth it.
However, regardless of my perfect shoe, trimmed toenails, and anti-chafe effort, at the end of the 100k my feet still felt like bags of minced meat. But they did get me to the finish line, and that’s all that I asked of them.
6. Negative Thoughts = More Physical Pain
I found out fairly early on in my ultra training that my thoughts directly affect my legs.
What I mean by this is that if I was listening to music and a sad song came on, or if my mind wandered to something rooted in negativity, everything got harder . . .
. . . my legs got heavier, that niggle in my knee or groin became an overwhelming stabbing pain, I would lose the will to keep plodding forward…
7. Positive Thoughts = Less Physical Pain
So, I flipped this.
If sad thoughts = more physical pain, then positive thoughts were sure to mean an easier breezier run. I was more or less right, and ended up implementing this strategy a few times in training.
One comical example of this in action came at the end of my first 50k training run during my 100k training.
It was a hot day, I had run out of food and water, and I had a whole 7k left to cover before I arrived at the oasis of my own home. One big bonk was to come, and I would have to dig deep.
I searched my mind for any form of motivation.
Fortunately, I remembered that positive thoughts meant that the legs made forward progress. Unfortunately, in my deranged state, the only positive thing I could think of was the word ‘yes’.
So it was. I repeated the word ‘yes’ to myself on every fourth step. It became a mantra, and it kept me moving for another 5k.
When I started flagging once more, I upped the positivity, and instead of once every four steps, for the last 2k I said yes to myself on every foot strike, ‘yes, yes, yes, yes…’ Granted, a bit weird, but positive thinking, however stripped back, got me home that day.
8. Music For When It Sucks
I like music. But I’ve never liked it as much as when an absolute banger transforms my run from a meh run to a WAHEYYY!!! run. Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood to run.
Getting out the door in my running shoes five days a week was potentially the biggest challenge of my 100k journey. Especially for those wintery hill sprint sessions.
Music was a lifeline.
I found that, when I had no motivation, I could outsource it via music. Whether that was for a mid-run boost, or simply to motivate myself to get out of my PJ’s and into my running clothes, I would pump the tunes.
9. Have A Look Around
When you train for a 100k, you spend a lot of time out and about.
It is easy to spend hours upon hours of that time running around that same familiar local loop, or staring at the ground two meters in front of your feet. This is fine, but very boring.
After a few months of doing the same runs on repeat, I was near burnout. So I took the opportunity to get a bit creative with my training.
I drew inspiration from Rickey Gates, an American ultrarunner who featured in a killer YouTube video in which he ran every single street in San Francisco, his hometown, check it out:
I switched up my routes weekly, and was surprised to find that there were so many areas of my hometown that I had never seen before, some just a few streets away from my own home!
I soaked in the sights, explored, got lost, and was able to keep training.
100k is an impressive feat. Through my training, I developed a respect for my body and what it is capable of doing.
I began to see my body as something that needed to be nurtured- fed, watered, stretched, and rested. Sounds simple, but self-care feels good.
Spending all those hours on the trails also gave me a chance to step back and be grateful for those in my life who had supported me in undertaking this challenge.
My gratitude for nature also grew. I ran in all types of weather, watched the seasons change from winter to spring, and spent time running in the woods, through fields, and over rugged beachy cliffs. Awesome.
The South Downs 100k marks the beginning of my ultramarathon journey, and I hope to learn many more life lessons along the way.
Maria’s 100k Training Plan
Note from Thomas:
I offer three different 100k ultramarathon training plans, based on your ability and goals. These are Just Finish, Improve, and Compete. Here’s a quick description of each profile, and links below to access the training plans!
Our Just Finish training plans are for runners who simply want to complete their event. If you don’t want to spend all your free time training, and have no specific finishing time in mind, this is the plan for you.
Our Just Finish training plans usually have more rest days and very little speed work (if any); they’re designed to condition your body to complete the distance, but not to win any medals.
The Just Finish training plans are ideal for completing your first event, or for runners with busy lives!
Our Improver training plans are for established runners who want to challenge themselves, and perhaps set a new PR.
If you’ve already run a distance event such as a marathon and want to improve your performance, check out these training plans.
Our Improver training plans balance training and miles with rest days and (optional) speed work; only include the speed work if you want to improve your base running speed.
If you’ve got some distance running experience, and want to push yourself a little, this is the training plan for you.
Our Compete training plans are designed for experienced runners who want to challenge themselves, set a new PR, and perform well competitively.
If you’re planning to race and gain a good position, this is the plan for you.
Our Compete plans feature the most intense training regimes – there’s a lot of miles in there, different challenging workouts (speed-work), and typically only one rest day per week.
You should only attempt the Compete plan if you are starting from a solid running base, and have the time commitment and drive to really challenge yourself.
Here are some further resources I think you’ll find useful in preparing for your 1st 100k:
Take Your Training Further With The Ultra Runner’s Playbook
If you’re looking for a deep-dive into the world of ultra-running, then check out my Ultra Runner’s Playbook!
The Playbook is my premium course for anyone looking for a complete online ultramarathon coaching solution…
With over 5hrs of video content and a ton of downloadable material, we cover:
- Detailed daily training plans for ultramarathons, based on running ability
- Ultra training modalities broken down; in other words, how to train smart
- Ultra running strategies for success
- Expert videos and guides on . . .
- Having an ultrarunning mindset
- Balancing training with your other time commitments
- Maintaining motivation throughout your ultra journey
- Having an ultrarunning mindset
- How to become an injury-free ultra-runner
- Strength and resistance training for improving performance and reducing injury
- Fuelling and nutrition for ultrarunners
- How to achieve your ultramarathon goals
- And plenty more expert interviews, articles, and guides!