Considering setting yourself a new challenge? How about an ultra-marathon?! Ultra-runner, writer and photographer Giles Thurston, tells us how he got into running and shares some expert tips.
1) How long have you been running and what attracted you to ultra-running in particular?
I came to running, and especially ultra-running, quite late in life. Like all of us, I ran as a child but was definitely more of a sprinter at school. I would normally get a stitch when running anything longer than 400 metres.
From a very early age I loved the outdoors and mountains in particular. This love saw me progress from hill walking to rock, snow and ice climbing, and finally onto the larger ranges and alpine mountaineering. I never felt more alive than when I was in the mountains. My wife and I would spend all of our holidays in them and any spare weekends we could find as well.
I was never what you would class as sporty though. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I dabbled a bit playing competitive Saturday league football before quickly moving onto rugby, which I loved. It was probably around then that I started doing a little running. However, this was purely for fitness and to supplement my rugby training.
My rugby career came to a sudden and rather painful end ten years ago, with a double leg fracture and ankle dislocation just as I was about to score a try – typical! After being put back together with pins and plates, I realised that I needed to find another outlet for my new found sporty tendencies. I switched my energies to triathlon.
I spent a few years competing in triathlon but never really enjoyed it. While I loved the cycling and running, the swimming was a real chore. The general atmosphere and uber competitive nature of the sport was also a real turn off.
Personally, I loved being outdoors, the freedom it gave me and the sense of achievement at what your body could do. While there were some great people in the sport, there were others who were just motivated by the numbers or need to say, “I am an Ironman”, not my kind of thing.
As I was enjoying triathlon less and less, I was running more and more. It fitted with my work schedule, which involved a lot of travel. A pair of trainers has always been the easiest thing to take with me on my travels. A run is always a great way to explore new places.
It was in January 2014 as I was driving to my parents in Norfolk that my sporting life took a change of direction. It was a grey, cold and slightly damp Saturday morning and I was suddenly confronted by runners crossing the road ahead of me, wearing small rucksacks. What were they doing?
A quick check with Google when I arrived at my parents showed me that they were running the Peddars Way Ultra, a 48 mile ultra-marathon along the entire length of the national trail, from the Norfolk Suffolk border, all the way to the North Norfolk Coast.
Strangely I found myself intrigued by the idea and wondering whether I could do it myself? Would the metalwork in my ankle hold me back? Could I physically and mentally cope with running that far?
I was just about to turn forty and I had discovered ultra-running 🙂
2) When was your first ultra-marathon and how did you do?
I didn’t just dive straight into ultra-running and I took a few months to mull it over. Peddars Way was always on my mind but I felt I needed to try something a little simpler first.
After a bit of online research, I stumbled upon The Grimreaper, a forty mile ultra, set in a private Lincolnshire country estate and based around a ten-mile loop. This seemed like the perfect first foray into ultra-running.
With the opportunity to return to my kit bag every ten miles, this meant that I could experiment as I went along and change shoes, clothing and nutrition as required. What could possibly go wrong?
Still I was nervous about taking the step up. The furthest I’d run to date was a half marathon. Finally, just a month before the race in July 2014, I took the plunge and hit the enter button.
I had got some good training runs in but the idea of running forty miles in one go was both terrifying and exciting in equal measure. Could I run that far? How would my body hold up? Would the metalwork in my legs be an issue?
I was an ultra-runner and loved what I had discovered. The camaraderie before, during and after the race was the polar opposite to what I had experienced in triathlon. There were no ego’s here, it was all about running together and enjoying the experience.
It was after Grimreaper that I felt compelled to share my experience and write down my memories for my own future reference, and I so I launched my blog Ultrarun.in, where you can read my full race report.
3) What does your ultra-marathon training involve?
Unlike many ultra-runners, I tend to steer away from super long runs during my training, unless they are races. Very early on I found that these just made me tired and I needed a lot of recovery afterwards.
Instead I focus on overall running volume on a week by week basis. I use run commuting and double run days to help lift my mileage. My longest runs generally no more than three hours.
From a volume perspective, an easy week will typically be around 20-30 mile mark. A peak weak leading into a hundred mile race, will top out at around the 80 mile mark.
The large bulk of my training is undertaken at an easy conversational pace. I generally run by feel but do also carry a heart rate monitor to ensure I keep my easy running at or below the 80% mark.
I always include some tempo and hill work in my weekly training schedule to introduce some intensity. The latter is quite challenging in East Anglia. However I have managed to find a nice off-road track which is one kilometre long and perfect for hill repeats.
I also incorporate a lot of core work, typically doing 2-3 hours per week. Recovery is also key, so I tend to include one or two rest days per week. I also work on a three-week cycle, with a recovery week every 3-4 weeks.
4) What is your race day routine?
Early morning starts are the easiest, even if the alarm call can be quite painful. Typically, I like to eat 3 hours before the race. I usually have a porridge based meal with some fruit and a shot or two of caffeine.
Between then and the start of the race I will slowly drink some water with electrolytes. I will also eat a banana or two, depending on how my stomach feels.
I like to get to the start an hour or so early, to allow myself plenty of time to get registered, get kit sorted and get prepared mentally for the race ahead.
Depending on the timing for the race briefing, I’ll either attend that before or after I have got into my race kit. Ideally, I always aim to be all set and ready to go 30 minutes before the start.
Recently I have done a few races that start later in the day, Lakeland 100 for instance is 6pm. For those races, I still follow a similar process in the final few hours before the race.
For the remainder of the day, it’s just a question of making sure I am eating well but not over eating, and taking it easy to save my energy levels for the race itself.
5) What is the toughest ultra-marathon you have taken part in and why?
The Spine Challenger earlier this year (2017) was probably my toughest. A 107-mile race along the Pennine Way, from Edale to Hawes.
While the terrain may not seem particularly challenging when compared to other parts of the world, the fact it takes place in the middle of the UK winter across open moorland and upland areas of Northern England, makes it interesting to say the least.
While I had run hundred mile events before, my lead up to this race was not ideal, with high levels of work related stress and unplanned travel in the weeks before. As a result, I arrived at the start line physically and mentally exhausted and utterly convinced there was no way I could complete the event.
Somehow I managed to get myself around the course. While it wasn’t exactly a textbook race execution, considering where I was at the start, I was extremely proud to have dug deep, pulled through some really dark places emotionally and made it all the way to the finish line in Hawes.
If you would like to find out more about my experiences during The Spine Challenger, you can read my warts and all race report over on at Ultrarun.in.
6) Have you ever hit the wall during a race? What is the best way to avoid it?
One thing you can pretty much guarantee is that when you start an ultra, you will encounter some issues along the way. I have been lucky that I have never hit the wall in the traditional sense during races. I have had stomach issues during a couple of races. This is usually from consuming the wrong foods at the wrong time or eating too much pre-race.
The pre-race nutrition strategy I have developed (see above) has helped with this. To try and avoid “the wall” I also make sure I am eating regularly.
During races, I try to make use of all checkpoints, eating something before I leave and also carrying some food away with me in a zip lock bag – top tip! This both saves time at the checkpoint, better to be eating and walking rather than standing still, and also ensures I am eating between checkpoints too.
I also tend to carry and consume at least 500ml of liquid fuel between checkpoints, with UK based Mountain Fuel being my preference these days. It’s not overly sweet and I seem to be able to stomach it for hours on end. This is important when races can last multiple days.
Nutrition is such a personal thing and it has taken me a few years to find what works for me. I think I just about have it right, in fact if anything, I think I could probably cut my calorie consumption back a little.
The key thing is to have a nutrition plan for the race but be flexible and prepared to change this if required. Listen to your body, it normally knows what it needs.
7) You clock up a lot of miles – how often do you need to replace your running shoes?!
I generally have multiple pairs of shoes in use at any one time. They are from a variety of manufacturers and designed to cope with a range of terrains. So, from road, to trail, to thick mud and snow.
Looking at my shelves, I have over ten in use at the moment. I keep an accurate mileage log for each pair of shoes and will use this, along with feel, to decide when to replace them.
Typically, this takes place anywhere between five hundred and eight hundred kilometres.
However, with some of the newer manufacturing processes and lightweight fabrics, some shoes don’t even make it that far before they fall apart.
Related: Guide to Choosing Running Shoes
8) What has been your favourite race so far and why?
Like many, my last race is generally my favourite, as the memories are fresh in my mind. That said, of all the races I have done two really stand out. I have run them both multiple times and will go back again in the future.
The first is Peddars Way Ultra, which I mentioned right at the start of this interview. It was the race that got me into ultra-running, is a beautiful course and also runs through the part of the world that I grew up in, so has some great memories.
The second has to be Lakeland 100. I love the Lake District. I have been travelling there for years to camp, climb and just enjoy spending times in the mountains.
The course is amazing, taking a 105 mile loop around the National Park. The atmosphere around and in the race, is also superb, and it feels more like a festival of running. I was lucky enough to complete it at my first attempt in 2016 but unfortunately had to pull out after 20 miles in 2017 due to injury – more on that shortly.
I will be back on the start line in Coniston next year though, injury permitting, which hopefully is an indication of how great this race is.
9) What are your top tip for getting started in ultra-running?
I used to always recommend picking a looped course for your first event. It allows you the flexibility to experiment, without the pressure of heading out for 30 plus miles with what you have in your pack. Grimreaper and Kings Forest Ultra are both great examples of these kind of races.
There are also loads of 24 hour races springing up which would give a similar experience. The new GB Ultra 24 race in the Lake District looks like it will become a real classic, especially if you like your terrain on the hilly side.
However, these days I tend to recommend that people focus on finding a race and course that truly inspires them. As previously mentioned, you can almost guarantee that there will be one or more tough points along the way. Having something that inspires you will help you through these darker times. It will make the experience all the better in the end.
10) What are your running plans for 2018?
Unfortunately, my race plans are all up in the air at the moment due to injury. 2017 has definitely been a year of two halves for me, with some amazing races in the first six months, followed by struggling with injury issues in the second half. This has unfortunately culminated in me having to cancel all my immediate race plans and take an enforced break from running.
At the moment, the only race I have booked is Lakeland 100 at the end of July 2018. We are still unsure when I will be able to start running again. It’s even possible that this could be taken off my race schedule yet.
Once I get the green light from my consultant, this will be my aim. However a steady and sensible return to running is my plan. If I cannot make it to the start line in Coniston, then so be it.
Beyond that I would really like to take part in The Dragons Back Race in 2019, a five-day race down the spine of Wales. A legendary race in ultra-running circles. It is one that definitely ticks all my boxes in terms of terrain and running adventures.
Related: Running Motivation Tips
About Giles Thurston
Giles Thurston lives just outside Cambridge, UK with his wife and two children. He has what some describe as an unnatural obsession with long hilly running adventures and has been ultra-marathon running since 2014.
Using his website www.ultrarun.in, he charts his progress through the sports of trail, mountain and ultra-running – the training, racing and general thoughts on the subject and the kit he uses.
Giles is a keen writer and photographer and has had his work published in a number of online and print publications, such as MyOutdoors.co.uk and Ultra Magazine. He is also a certified British Triathlon Coach (Level 2) and holds a variety of outdoor education qualifications.
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