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Ultrarunning: Step Beyond!

by Mark Hartell
Tuesday 3rd November 2009

For many people, the 26.2 mile marathon is the pinnacle; the ultimate distance race. But for an increasing number it’s just the start. Add 10, 20, 30 or more miles, some hills, rocks, mud and a generous helping of British weather and they are happy.

So what is it that drives these otherwise sane people to set off into the wilds for races up to 100 miles long all year round? We caught up with a few to find out why they do it and how you can too! 

© Karen Mc Donald“an incredible sense of achievement” is what does it for Karen – from a background of mountain biking and adventure racing Karen was, at first, skeptical of the attractions of 50 miles of moorland but 3 years on she is hooked. “imagine:  you set off facing this daunting task of running longer than you ever have. You contend with the weather – there always seems to be a lot of weather! – the navigation, the highs and lows, trying to eat well, not getting lost and eventually you complete the course – the feeling of finishing is ace!!”

“the friendships and the great vibe at events – ultra-running events don’t have the gear freaks like MTB and everyone is really approachable. On a long race you get to know people and know things about people that would take years of friendship in normal life” says Steve, a member of the Vasque team. “It’s because of the incredible range of emotions you go through in an ultra – at times you will be on a real high and other times you will be in despair – chatting to other runners during these lows can really help and you can work together to pull through.”

© Andrew Heading

“Getting away from it all and making life simple for a few hours” cites Mark – an ultra-runner for over 20 years. “we live such complicated lives with emails, mobiles, facebook, twitter and all these intrusions. Ultras are about setting off on a mini-adventure with as little as you absolutely need and relying on your own skills and perseverance. The race organizers and checkpoints are there to help you but otherwise it’s just down to you and what little you have with you. It’s hugely refreshing for the mind.”

So how do you go about selecting, preparing for and completing your first Ultra? …read on!!

Step 1 - relax
The first thing is to relax! It’s going to take time to build distance and prepare in the same way that it’s going to take time to run the event itself. In fact, when you actually start your chosen event you will find that the pace is much less intense than a road race or marathon. Walking up hills is allowed as is chatting to your fellow competitors!

Step 2 – find a buddy
Finding one or two mates and making a joint commitment to the project can make a huge difference – you motivate each other, learn faster and keep the focus.

Step 3 - Get out there!
The best way to train for running far is to slow down and run further. There is no substitute for time on your feet and you will soon find that you start to develop a “distance running” speed – walking some of the ups and gliding along the flats and downhills., Use these opportunities to practice navigation and to expand your boundaries – discover new areas of your local hills.

Step 4 - choose a race
One of the best ways to do this is to check out www.runfurther.com; the home of the UK championships for Ultra-running. These events provide a great opportunity to meet others. Don’t worry though; at the sharp end it has the best runners in the country but it’s not elitist and everyone is welcomed – you probably won’t be last! Start with one in the ironically named “short” category – 26 to 31 miles. Sign up with runfurther for regular informative newsletters and the chance to win spot prizes of great kit each month including Vasque trail shoes, Thorlo socks and OMM packs.  

Step 5 - Make sure you have the basic kit
Some trail/fell shoes for better grip, a waterproof and spare top, compass and whistle, water bottle or drink bladder and a small rucksack to carry it all in.  If it’s a winter month (or actually, almost any month in the UK hills) you might want hat and gloves too!

Step 6 – run your race.
Top tips for the day would be to set off reasonably slow; try to keep a steady pace that you think you can maintain. Eat and drink early – unlike a 10k you are going to want to eat and drink en-route and if you wait until you feel hungry or thirsty it’s too late. You will have to experiment with what food you like during races – many choose the high tech bars and blocks from Clif but some prefer Jelly Babies and sandwiches! Hook up with others who are running at similar speed – chatting helps to cover the miles and you can check each other on navigation. Finally - ENJOY!! 

After the race -  keep hydrated and eat well. Some stretching and very gentle running/fast walking in the 2-3 days afterwards will help the recovery. You may find that there is a sense of anti-climax – after all, you have just achieved the goal you have focused on for weeks or months so you need a new one – right? Simple – enter your next event!!  You will probably find that completing your Ultra leaves you feeling refreshed and more confident to tackle the challenges of daily life.
…and whether you finished or not. Think about what went well, what didn’t and what you might train specifically for next time. Even if you had to pull out, don’t worry – as with mountaineering, sometimes that’s the sensible decision and you can come back next time with greater resolve

Get inspired
If you need inspiration, look at the story of team “Run like a girl” – 4 women, none of them thought of themselves as ultra-runners but they set a target of running the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc – over 160 km and 8000metres of ascent around Mont Blanc! Within 18months of starting they all achieved their dream. The following year, Karen went on to become the only woman so far to complete all 12 races in the runfurther series and they are now tackling the Bob Graham round (a UK 24 hour mountain challenge). Read more at www.runfurther.com

The UK Ultra-running championships are now in their 4th year and comprise 12 races around the UK at distances from 26 to 100 miles. These are grouped into three distance categories and runners must complete 4 races including one from each category to qualify. Over 800 people are signed up and the series hands out over £10,000 in prizes and awards each year. Registered runners are in with a chance each month to win spot prizes and can attend the highly regarded awards and social weekend in November each year - tickets still available! This is a great chance to swap tales from the trail and make hasty commitments for the year ahead. The series is supported by leading outdoor companies who are actively involved in the grass roots of the sport – Vasque trail shoes, Thorlo socks, Clif nutrition products, OMM packs and the Lakes Runner store.

2009 Overall winners are Andy Rankin and Rachael Lawrance. We plan to catch up with them over the winter and ask a few questions so look out here for their secrets for success.

So – get out there – step beyond and discover the free endorphin high that everyone is raving about!

The Vasque Ultra-running Championships
•    One series
•    12 races
•    Over £10,000 in prizes and give-aways
•    Information, race reports, results and more at: www.runfurther.com


About Mark Hartell: Mark first ran long in 1989 with a sub 20 hour Bob Graham round (72 miles and 42 peaks in the English Lake District within 24 hours). This motivated him into giving up smoking and training seriously. Over the following 8 years he successfully ticked off similar rounds in Wales and Scotland. In 1997 he was successful on his 3rd attempt at the Lake District 24 hour record. His round of 77 peaks was one more than the then record held by his close friend, Mark McDermott.

In 1995 he made a first foray over to the USA to run a 100 mile race in Colorado. These trips became an annual holiday for Mark and friends and in 2005 he completed the “Grand Slam” – 4 of the major USA 100 milers in a single summer.

He has raced in Europe, New Zealand and Alaska and completed the Marathon des Sables in 2001. Twenty years on he protests at having sore knees but still regularly competes. He is the co-founder and organizer of the Vasque Ultra-running Championships here in the UK. He cites his favourite events as the Fellsman (61 miles), the Scottish Island Peaks race (circa 60 miles running but 220 miles sailing) and Hardrock (100 miles in the Colorado Rockies)

When not running, Mark likes to dabble in Adventure racing, Ski mountaineering, Cycling and climbing. Mark works independently as a project manager and recently married Lynn who hails from California. Together they intend to setup an activity/outdoor business in Europe – offering running and biking holidays and training camps.

Mark will be our regular correspondent for the Ultra-running scene both here in the UK and around the world.



About The Author

Mark Hartell

Mark did not show early promise as an athlete. He elected gardening instead of cricket or rugby and even smoked for several years. Progressing from climbing, through orienteering to fell running he discovered an ability to run long and a passion for big days in the hills.

Over a running career spanning 23 years and counting he has become just about the most experienced UK ultra-runner out there. Some of his achievements include 11 wins at the 61 mile Fellsman in Yorkshire, the current record for the South Wales traverse of 2000ft mountains and the current Lake District 24 hour record – standing at 77 summits completed in 23hrs and 47 minutes.

He has completed the “grand slam of ultrarunning” in the USA and is a former winner of the Hardrock 100 race in Colorado. He has also raced in Alaska, Hawaii, the Sahara, Nepal and Europe.

Now 47, Mark continues to train and race hard but tries to be smarter about recovery and lifestyle. He provides coaching services both in the UK and the USA for those who want to dream big and run long and can be contacted via hartellmark@gmail.com


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