“It’s not the mountain we conquer, it’s ourselves.” Edmund Hillary
As I write this, I’ve started four ultra-marathons and finished three of them. I did the Race to the Stones 100km in a weekend (2016); Cotswold Way 50km (2017); Isle of Wight 50km (2018 — I dropped out at 22km); Chiltern Challenge 50km (2020). I’ve learned something new each time and my most recent event went absolutely perfectly. In this episode, I’ll share some of my thoughts, tips, and lessons learned.
- Why would you want to do an ultra-marathon anyway?
- Preparation and practical tips. Here’s my day hike kit list.
- Event day
- Walk/run/live your own race
- Enjoy the journey, not just the destination
- Sometimes, it’s OK to give up. The importance of self-care.
- What’s your next challenge?
- Books about walking
Why would you want to do an ultra-marathon anyway?
If you’re goal-orientated, as I am, it’s a good way to challenge yourself. I also like to push my comfort zone regularly, otherwise, I end up enjoying comfort too much. In this pandemic year, I feel like I’ve been cooped up in the house for months, unable to stray too far, and I really needed to get out and do something different.
Booking an event gives you a deadline. It gives you accountability, especially if you tell others that you’re doing it. Of course, things might change, events might get canceled, but if you don’t book them, they will never happen. I’ve learned to snatch adventure where I can this pandemic year and take advantage of any window of good weather, or good luck, to get out into nature.
The organized events are a great way to see a different part of the country, they are very well supervised and the routes are well-marked so you are never in any danger of getting lost or getting hurt. There are medics at every stop and you can drop out anytime. This event (in 2020) was also COVID-secure with masks and sanitizers and social distancing to keep everyone safe. I have done events with Threshold Trail Series and Ultra Challenge, both have UK based events across most of the year and I would recommend both companies.
Long-distance walking gives me insights that I don’t get with shorter walks. There’s time to really sink down into my physical self, to become aware of my body in nature, my mind moves into more of a meditative state. I am disconnected from the online world, from writing, from expectation. All I need to do is walk and at the end, I need to eat and sleep.
I’m a 45-year-old writer and I’ve only really become aware of what my body can really do in the last few years. I took it for granted for so long, and I’ve valued my brain over my physical self. I like seeing what I can do, and feeling strong and physically capable. I do not take it for granted anymore and I’m grateful for my ability to explore this way. I want to make the most of it because clearly, there will come a time when I am not as physically able as I am now.
Preparation and practical tips
Most organized events will have all the guidance you need for preparation, for example, a training plan and a kit list so you’ll have the information well in advance. You can look at the route and see the terrain and where the hills are, although you don’t need to know the route as it will be well-marked so you just need to follow the markers.
Here’s my kit list for a day hike.
If you don’t usually walk anywhere, then you can work up to an ultra, for example, start with a 5k, then a 10k, then a half-marathon, then a marathon — and anything beyond a marathon (42k), is an ultra, so 50k is only a couple of hours extra if you’re walking! You also don’t need to have done 50 km before you start. I’d suggest making sure you can easily do a 35 km day, and if you’re doing multi-day walking, then make sure you train back-to-back days to get used to walking with fatigue and likely some muscle pain.
Learn how your body works and optimize your race day accordingly. It will be different for everyone. I’ve been working with a personal trainer for the last year and my right hip needs loosening up before a longer walk. I do specific stretches and use a tennis ball to release it. If I don’t do that, I will end up with knee pain. I also drink a lot of black coffee in the morning, so I take a flask so I am highly caffeinated!
You will be given a time slot to set off and usually, you arrive an hour before. There will be portaloos if you’re away from facilities and there will tea, coffee, and food at the start, rest stops and finish, as well as medics, helpful staff, and a place to sit and rest/wait/eat.
Take care of your feet. This is the most important thing. Take your boots off at every stop and change your socks even if you don’t feel you need to. Put talcum powder inside your socks to reduce moisture even more. I used four pairs of socks + talc for the Chilterns and I didn’t get any blisters. Check for any pressure points and add plasters BEFORE you get a blister. Use specifically blister plasters like Compeed or similar.
Walk with poles. Poles help you walk upright and maintain your posture as well as taking some of the strain off your legs. They also help with stability on rocky ground or to help you ford a stream or to avoid slipping in mud. They also keep your fingers from swelling up which will happen if you keep your hands by your sides for that many hours! I wear gloves because my hands sweat and you can end up with hand blisters if you don’t have gloves. Make sure they’re waterproof for wet weather.
Sometimes you just need some loud music! A full day walk, even through beautiful countryside, can get boring. Plus, the human body responds well to a good beat! At around 35 km, I start listening to a playlist of epic tracks. It helps get through those final kilometers.
Expect some pain and discomfort. It’s a challenge. It’s not meant to be easy. [I’m not a doctor and this is not health advice. Obviously check with your medical professional if you are on medication etc.] I take ibuprofen from about 35 km in order to reduce inflammation and also to keep any muscle or joint pain down. If you wait too late to take painkillers, it’s going to hurt more.
You do have to decide how much pain you’re willing to accept in order to achieve your goal. I did the 100 km Race to the Stones in 2016 and the first day, the first 50 km, went reasonably well — until I took off my socks (which I hadn’t changed all day), and my feet swelled up overnight and my blisters were worse than I thought, I didn’t sleep at the campsite, and I had a lot of muscle pain as well as the inevitable fatigue.
By 70km, I was crying with pain with blisters on my blisters, even with codeine painkillers. I phoned my husband and said I wanted to stop, and he said, ‘If you don’t finish it, you’ll feel like you failed and you’ll just want to do it again. If you finish this, you’ll never have to walk 100 km in a weekend again.’
I decided I would rather take the pain and finish. I came in very last, about 15 mins after the cut off time, with two other guys. We were broken — but we finished. A lot of people gave up and didn’t finish. I spent about a week hobbling about on exploded blister feet and super sore muscles, but it was short-lived pain and I am very proud of the achievement. I swore I’d never do another 100 km, but I actually booked the Race to the Stones again in 2020. It was canceled due to the pandemic, but hopefully, it will be back in 2021. I’m ready to try again now I am in far better shape and I also understand how to look after my feet!
Here are my lessons learned.
(1) Walk/run your own race
Don’t judge other people by your standards and don’t judge yourself by theirs. Everyone has their own definition of success and their own journey. Decide what you want to achieve and what you will be happy doing, and then make the best of your own situation.
On an ultra, there will always be people ahead of you and behind you as well as people in worse shape and in better shape than you. Some people started earlier and you will overtake them and you could feel superior. Some people start later and run past you super fast and you could feel pathetic at being so slow. You will overtake someone younger and heavier than you panting up a hill, then you will be overtaken by a sprightly pensioner half your size.
None of that matters.
As in life, you can only live your own way. You can only make your own decisions — and your own mistakes. Only you can decide to carry on or give up.
Judgment is inevitable, it’s human nature. But we can be aware of it, and be compassionate with others as well as ourselves. Are you walking/living your own race?
(2) Enjoy the journey, not just the destination
Walking gives you time to really see the world. If you run/cycle/drive/train/fly, you don’t see the detail you do when walking.
But even if you’re walking, you can miss the journey if you keep your eyes down on the path, and just slog it out as fast as possible to the finish. Your event is a race, for sure, and you will get there faster than someone who dawdles a little, but dawdling is important for experiencing the world.
The Chiltern walk passed through the village of Hambleden and I noticed this gorgeous lych gate leading into a beautiful old churchyard, so I veered off the path and went to see it. Lots of walkers and runners went straight past, but I put my mask on and sanitized and went inside to view the incredible ceiling.
There’s also the journey to the event itself, the months of training, and the walks (or runs) you will do to prepare. Enjoy those too, and enjoy the process of learning more about what your body can do and what’s out there in the world. During this pandemic year, I have walked the same three walks in rotation over the lockdown period, but each time there were new things to see and experience as the seasons changed, and I changed too.
So often we race through life without pausing to follow our curiosity, racing from one event to the next without pausing to reflect. What can you do to enjoy the journey more?
(3) Sometimes, it’s OK to give up. The importance of self-care
My Chiltern 50 km was a perfect day — beautiful, crisp, sunny weather; no injuries, not even a blister; a happy day in a beautiful part of the country; enough food, water, and painkillers to make it pass by. Everything worked well for me. Frankly, I was surprised when I walked under the finish sign feeling strong and energized.
But I dropped out of the Isle of Wight ultra because a number of reasons collided. I started walking with someone whose pace was too fast for me so I tired quickly. It was a very hot day and I sweated a lot, plus I wore the wrong socks, so I had blisters by the 12km rest stop. Not a good start!
I also had some family things going on and my head wasn’t in the race. I sat down at around 19km and looked at to sea and I just wanted to have a cuddle with my husband. I was tearful and I felt fragile, not a great mental state for doing an ultra. He was staying on the island, so I phoned him and he picked me up and we had a lovely sunny weekend together, exploring the area — in a car!
So, I ‘failed’ in terms of the 50 km ultra, but that weekend, it was more important to me to be with my husband and feel happy and loved and to focus on self-care. There are different kinds of enjoyment and different definitions of success. We had a wonderful weekend and I will go back and try that ultra again another day.
Is there anything you need to give up or stop doing in order to focus on self-care? (especially in this strange pandemic year!)
The next challenge
I’ve already booked some walking challenges for next year because the sense of accomplishment is well worth the temporary pain. It’s also a bit like any kind of accomplishment. Once you reach a certain point, you want to push it further.
When I wrote my first novel, Stone of Fire, it was an incredibly hard journey and I felt an immense sense of accomplishment when it was done. Now I’ve written 30+ books, it’s not such a big deal anymore. I love the research and creation process but it is not incredibly hard anymore and inevitably, I don’t feel the same way when each book is finished. I’m always proud of myself, for sure, and we always have a glass of bubbles to celebrate, but it’s also my job. I write books for a living. I know how to do it (and I share my thoughts at my site for writers, The Creative Penn, if you’re interested in writing).
I’ve also found my experience as a walker has progressed, so doing these longer walks is about continuing to push myself, and also about seeing different places, and learning new things about myself and the world along the way. There are also different levels of ultra-marathons and ways to make that distance a lot harder, for example, on more challenging terrain or in difficult weather. Every race has a new challenge and I love seeing what’s possible.
You can do more than you think you can. What’s your next challenge?
Recommended books about walking
While these books are not about walking ultra-marathons specifically, they are about the benefits and joys of walking, and they have chapters about longer walks.
In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good For Us — Shane O’Mara. I listened to this on audiobook and although we instinctively know that walking is good for us, for both physical and mental health, it’s great to learn more about the specifics.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking — Rebecca Solnit. This is more a series of reflections on the history of walking as well as different famous walkers who incorporated their physical practice into their creative lives.
Walk: Tales, Trivia and Rambling Routes for Hikers — David Bathurst. This includes tips for lightening your rucksack load, as well as planning, safety and recommendations for routes in the United Kingdom specifically.
The Art of Mindful Walking: Meditations on the Path — Adam Ford. This includes practical tips but also encourages an attitude of mindfulness, paying attention to the world around you as well as the inner experience.