How I ran an ultramarathon

It started as a rogue idea, completely unexpected and improbable. One wintry afternoon in Innsbruck, where we were on vacation, my friend Si Hong floated the idea of running ‘The Wall’ ultramarathon, a 111km footrace from Carlisle to Newcastle. I immediately brushed him aside – I’d never even ran a half-marathon, and the thought of running almost 3 marathons in one go was absurd. I’ve always enjoyed running, and the idea of taking on such a personal challenge was intriguing, but common sense dictated that a runner of my ability should finish a marathon before attempting an ultramarathon.

The next day, we spent Christmas morning hiking up a nearby hill, drawn by pictures of the lush, green Austrian countryside on a tourism website. But of course we’d forgotten that it was winter, and we found ourselves ankle-deep in virgin snow, in a brown, barren woods. As the peak of the hill came into view, we realised that the hiking path had been converted to a ski slope for the winter, and we awkwardly scrambled up the slick slope as skiers weaved around us. 4 hours after we’d embarked on this Christmas adventure, we reached the cable-car station at the peak. Much to the bemusement of tourists who had the good sense to take the cable-car, we rushed in, pulling off our wet socks and wiggling our toes to restore feeling. Gingerly nursing ourselves back to warmth, a sense of human frailty and finiteness hung in the air, and in my mind I was sure that attempting an ultramarathon would be a bad idea.

But Si Hong was persistent, and talk of doing the ultramarathon sneaked into our conversations over the next few weeks. Finally, one evening as we sat around the dining table in our apartment talking over a few beers, I caved. I promised that I’d take a serious look into the logistics of training for and doing an ultramarathon, and Si Hong sent me a 16-week ultramarathon training plan for reference. 

What I read about ultramarathons seemed promising. Somewhat counterintuitively, one article  argued that ultramarathons are actually easier than marathons, since the longer distance means that there is less time pressure, and regular breaks to walk and eat are not only allowed but highly encouraged. The 16-week plan seemed achievable, especially given that we had 6 months left to the race, giving us ample buffer if progress was slower than expected. For the first time, completing 111km on foot seemed possible. That night as I lay in bed, I was restless with excitement at working towards this incredible goal. My mind raced with wild thoughts about the heroic struggle of running the ultramarathon.

But first, I had to get in shape. Our first training run was a 60 minutes ‘easy’ run – a run at a comfortable pace, one we could hold a conversation at. I leapt off, leading the way since I was familiar with the route. With Si Hong following closely, I maintained a strong pace, worried that I was running too slowly for him; he was super athletic, the kind of guy who would go bouldering in the morning, captain the floor-ball team in the afternoon, and then play ice-hockey in the evening. My exertion grew, and I started breathing heavily about 10 minutes into the run. It’s a feeling not unlike drowning, as you struggle to hold on to your pace, feeling increasingly overwhelmed. But still I pressed on. 

After about 15 minutes, Si Hong spoke up. “Hey can you maintain a conversation at this pace?” I replied, breathlessly, “Actually… not really”. And so much to my relief, we slowed down significantly.

That was the first, and perhaps most important, lesson I learned about distance running. It sounds obvious, but learning that the key to running longer distances was simply to run slower felt like a true revelation. It’s natural to think that a ‘hard’ workout is a ‘good’ workout, but the reality is that such an approach is just not sustainable. In fact, experts recommend that to build aerobic fitness, 80% of training runs should be done at an easy, comfortable pace. As a casual runner, I used to simply head out and run at a moderate pace until I felt sufficiently tired. Committing to a training plan, however, made me more deliberate about my training. As expected of a training plan for an ultramarathon, most of my runs were long runs aimed at developing my endurance, and I had to remind myself to run slower and pace myself. I think I’m a naturally competitive person, especially on my runs – whenever I spot a runner ahead of me (or worse – if a runner overtakes me), I’ll feel an urge to speed up and overtake him/her. It took me a while to get used to running slowly, to put aside my ego and have the discipline to run my own run.

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Before our first training run

Forgetting entirely about my time and pace allowed me to focus on the act of running itself, and I’ve come to feel that running is one of life’s pure, elemental joys. Running is not always easy; it’s often frustrating and demoralising. But sometimes everything just clicks and I find myself settling into an easy rhythm, feeling like I was made to run, like I could carry on running forever. I run in search of these moments; I train in the hopes that these moments would come more frequently, last longer. 

For me, running and adventure are two sides of the same coin. I motivated myself to run by seeking out new places to explore, and it was exciting to feel as if I’ve ‘unlocked’ new regions to explore as my fitness improved and I could sustain longer runs. And Oxford was a great city to run in, with trails, parks, nature reserves, small towns just a few kilometres from the city centre. There is something thrilling about strapping on a small bag with some food and water, having a vague sense of which direction to head in, but not quite knowing what to expect of the next few hours. I always feel like I finish a long run a slightly different person than when I started – I’ve seen things, weathered ups and downs, had entire inner conversations.

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A forest near Oxford

As you might have inferred, I really took to running, and in retrospect I think I might have been overeager in my training. I committed fully to the 16-week training plan, ignoring the fact that the plan was targeted at runners who had already completed a marathon. Going from a run every week (if at all) to about 4 runs a week, I made great progress in the first few weeks, and was running half-marathons every weekend after about a month. I felt invincible, and there was little doubt in my mind that the ultramarathon would be fully within my grasp after another 5 months of training. 

But things didn’t go as smoothly. One Tuesday afternoon, I headed out for a 60 minute recovery run after a 30km run on the weekend, and soon started feeling an odd twinge in my right knee. I persisted through it, hoping it would go away, but it only became more insistent, and I was forced to stop running after about 40 minutes. I hurried back home and iced my knee, but my fears were confirmed when my knee continued hurting the next morning. I was injured.

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A path circling around the edges of the Oxford city centre

This was the first in a series of injuries that beset my training plan. Over the next 5 months, I would spend about 3-4 weeks recovering from an injury, only to be hit with another injury after about 5 weeks of training. I think these injuries presented a psychological challenge greater than the physical challenge of running. It was incredibly demoralising to go from running for hours on end to being unable to walk or stand for more than a few minutes, and at times it felt like I’d never be able to run again in the same way. In those weeks where I couldn’t run, I was preoccupied with thoughts of whether I could still complete the ultramarathon, of thoughts that I had wasted so many weeks’ of training. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise I should have taken much more time to ease into distance running and that I should have fully recovered from each injury before running again – but at the same time, without the impatience for progress and commitment to my training plan, I might not have seen through the 6 months of training.

Each time I was injured, I was forced to re-evaluate my approach to the ultramarathon. I’d initially planned to run the whole 111km, then later decided to run 80% and walk 20%. However, just three weeks before the ultramarathon, I injured my left knee, and I had no choice but to hike the entire distance. I was frustrated that I had spent 6 months training only to be injured at the last moment, but I had committed to this whole endeavour too much to give up now. I was going to cover 111km on foot, by any means possible.

The day before the ultramarathon, Si Hong and I took a train up to Carlisle, had a nice dinner, and made final preparations. There would be 5 pitstops along the way, at 24km, 39km, 53km, 70km, and 100km, and we had planned what we would bring and use at each of these stations. We settled in for an early night, woke up at 5am, stuffed ourselves with sandwiches, and headed to the start line.

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My equipment for the ultramarathon

At 7am, the race begun, and I ran off with Si Hong, feeling excited. I’d spent so much time fantasising and fretting about this day, and it felt surreal that I was finally doing it. I managed less than 5 minutes of running before I felt a familiar twinge in my left knee, and so I bid farewell to Si Hong and started walking as planned, settling in at the back of the pack. 

The first 24km were quite fun. Fresh and energetic, I managed to sustain a strong pace, and struck up conversation with the other runners/walkers. I befriended a sombre-looking man with a buzz cut, and he told me that he served in the British Army before being a carpenter. He was a competitive triathlete back in the day, and had decided to participate in this event to raise money for mental health after a close friend of his committed suicide. I met another guy wearing a rubber superman costume, who turned out to be raising money for mental health charities as well – he suffered from depression for many years, and found that running had helped him stay focused and overcome negative thoughts. He said that this was his third ultramarathon in three weeks, all of which he completed in the same superman costume. He was already hobbling slightly at the 15km mark – he had large blisters on his feet from the last 2 ultramarathons – and I didn’t see him again after I overtook him, but I really hoped that he managed to finish this race!

I reached the 24km pit-stop about 45 minutes earlier than I had planned, and I barely stopped to grab a sandwich and an orange slice before heading back onto the course. At about 30km, there was a steep descending slope, and I felt sharp jolts of pain through my left knee as I made my way down the slope. I realised that crab-walking sideways helped to alleviate the pain somewhat, and I must have looked rather precarious, as an usher rushed over and asked if I was okay. I braved a smile and said everything was fine, but I was deeply nervous that my knee would continue giving me grief for the next 80km. It was at about this point that I started to feel occasional (and later, constant) pain in my left knee, and I had to fight quite hard to dispel negative thoughts and convince myself that things would be fine.

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The view along the course

The race route followed Hadrian’s Wall, a wall built by the Roman emperor Hadrian nearly 2 centuries ago to mark out the northern reaches of the Roman empire. The views were spectacular – as far as I could see, a low brick wall snaked across gently rolling hills, and to my right, I could see the rooftops in a distant village, mosaic-like. Walking amidst grazing sheep, it truly felt like I was on a grand adventure. I spent most of the afternoon focused on maintaining a strong pace and chasing down straggling runners. When I decided that I would walk the entire distance of the ultramarathon, Si Hong advised me to bring along hiking poles, and they were incredibly useful in helping me scale hills and taking some weight off my legs. I would try to speak briefly to each runner I met, and I think forcing myself to be positive in those conversations helped stave off a creeping sense of fatigue and dread.

I arrived at the 53km checkpoint at about 9pm. The last hour had been brutal – about an hour ago, I noticed a fellow runner was wearing a GPS watch, and I asked him how far we had covered. He said we had just passed 50km, and so I mentally prepared to take a break in about 30 minutes. But the route led us through a dense, muddy forest, and then up and down a series of steep hills, causing my pace to slow down. I kept wishing that the next turn would bring the checkpoint into view, and I felt irrationally angry every time it turned out that there was still more distance to cover.

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But I finally made it. This was a major checkpoint – at the start of the race, we packed a small bag with supplies such as food, spare socks, extra clothing, and head-lamps, and this bag had been delivered to this checkpoint. These supplies would see me through the night ahead. I grabbed my bag, and hobbled around the checkpoint to get some food and fill up my water bag. I couldn’t use my hiking poles around the crowded checkpoint tent, and I realised my legs were incredibly stiff and sore without the support of the poles – I had effectively been using the poles as crutches for the last few hours. As I collapsed into a chair with a small plate of food, I spotted two teenage brothers grabbing a seat near me, flanked by their parents. They too collapsed into their chairs, looking mildly shell-shocked. They spoke tersely to their parents, who then hurried off for a few seconds and returned with plates of pasta, mugs of hot coffee, and a change of clothes. Those extra few steps to get my own food and supplies might not seem like much in the context of a 111km race, but as tired as I was, it felt like it made a world of difference. I had planned to take a long break at this checkpoint, but I was just eager to get the race over with, so I quickly changed socks, grabbed my head-lamp and some food, and rushed back out onto the trails. I had brought along an extra long-sleeved top to change into at this station, but I was too tired to fish it out of my bag, take off my jacket, and change tops, so I left it in my small bag, to be delivered to the finish line.

Despite feeling rather fragile and broken as I left the checkpoint, the next 1-2 hours were actually quite pleasant, largely because I’d taken some painkillers. For an additional morale boost, I plugged in my earphones and screamed along to ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus. I felt great, and I remember thinking that the cheesy lyrics were strangely profound. There was no one in sight, and it felt nice walking off into the sunset (literally). I passed by a small town just as it started getting dark, and was cheered on by groups of tipsy bar goers. 

Things started going downhill at about 11pm. It was completely dark by then, and I’d realised that I forgotten to bring along spare batteries for my head-lamp. I was terrified of running out of battery for my lamp, so I decided to squint in the moonlight and only use the lamp when I absolutely had to. On my previous rush of energy, I’d sped past a few groups of walkers, and I was starting to realise that I could have used the company (and their light). To make matters worse, the temperatures were starting to dip into the single-digits, and I was really regretting my decision to leave my long-sleeved top behind. And that was how I found myself cold, dark, alone, miserable. 

What finally broke me was the realisation that I still had another 5-6 hours to go before I was done. The thought of carrying on for another 5-6 hours seemed unimaginable, and I cried out in disgust. Defeated, I slumped against a boulder by the roadside, shovelling over-salted chips into my dry mouth as I watched people slowly overtake me. One of them shouted out for me to keep moving, and I barely mustered the energy to wave back. After a few minutes of self-pity, I got back on my feet, only to find that my legs had seized up, making it even harder to walk than before. In the darkness, I could barely make out my surroundings, and the only sense of distance I had were the faint flickers of the head-lamps of the runners ahead of me. It felt like I had been walking forever through a never-ending woods. I was bone-tired and every step hurt.

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The sun peeking through the clouds as I headed towards the finish line

The next few hours were some of the toughest moments in recent memory. I felt rubbed raw, and the only way I kept myself moving forward was by forcing myself to take just 5 more steps, then 5 more, and 5 more. I finally made it to the 100km checkpoint at about 4am, stumbling and shivering. As I slowly munched on a bag of chips, I contemplated if it was worth the effort to drag myself to the man serving mugs of hot coffee. I eventually decided to do so, but the hot coffee did little to stop myself from shaking uncontrollably. I thought to myself that this would have been an appropriately challenging point at which to end an ultramarathon, but of course I had just 11km to go. The sun was starting to rise as I headed back out to finish the ultramarathon, and as the end became palpable, I surged forward with renewed vigour. With each step, I could feel the pain digging into my bones, muscles, skin. 

The final stretch to the finish line was along the piers at Newcastle, past a series of bridges. It was a beautiful scene – walking back into civilisation at day-break – but all I could think about was finishing the race. Si Hong had ran the 111km, finishing at 9pm the day before, and he headed back to an AirBnB for a nap before coming back out to meet me about 5 minutes from the finish line. He asked me how I was, and one word leapt to mind – ‘horrible’.

And so, with little fanfare, I crossed the Newcastle Millennium Bridge and ceremoniously ran a few steps to cross the finish line. 23 hours and 6 minutes later, I was done. I rested in a chair as Si Hong helped grab my bags and got an unforgettable plate of chicken curry for me. I exchanged small talk with a few people I’d met along the course, and then Si Hong and I got a taxi back to the AirBnB, where I napped before catching a train back to Oxford.

In the days after the ultramarathon, I had mixed emotions about the whole experience. While training for the ultramarathon, I’d entertained romantic notions about how it would be a transformative, spiritual, life-changing experience. But having crossed the finish line with not elation but relief, it seems as if what you get for enduring pain and suffering is not any sort of grand revelation or deep personal change, but – surprise – just pain and suffering. 

I’ve come to feel that the only possible reason for wanting to run an ultramarathon is a love for this insane, ridiculous sport, a love for running and adventure. And now that my injuries are starting to heal, I find myself missing the excitement and pure joy of running. I’m not quite sure I want to do another ultramarathon anytime soon – it takes so much time to prepare for, and it’s honestly such an ordeal – but you know how dangerous rogue ideas can be. 

2 thoughts on “How I ran an ultramarathon

    1. That’s great, all the best! I’ve put running on a hold for a while until my knees recover, but an ultra is truly a unforgettable and worthwhile experience – even if it’s just a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ kind of thing haha

      Liked by 1 person

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