Paul Mason - Going Past 100 Miles - ”The Strategy to go further & longer”

By Paul Mason

Firstly, many thanks to Traviss for allowing me to share some thoughts on this SVN page.

We are now in an era where more and more runners are stepping up and challenging themselves to complete a 100 mile race and it is awesome to see so many challenge themselves and prove successful with this goal.

I personally remember the feeling of exhilaration coming over the Finish Line of my first 100 miler but very quickly had thoughts about what it would be like to go longer! After spending my youth and younger years on the Grand Union Canal either fishing or following the GUCR145 Ultra race I knew deep down that I wanted to attempt this iconic race from Birmingham to London. Once again, some weeks after successfully completing this race in May 2017, I knew I wanted to explore longer races to test my endurance and mental strength.

In June 2017 I stood on the Start line of the Thames Ring 250 Ultra Marathon. This was the first time where I found myself starting to question my ability and whether I was strong enough physically or mentally to complete a race that would likely see me on the move for 4 days non-stop. Sadly, it was not to be my day with a DNF after being pulled out of the race by the RD due to medical reasons. Fast forward the clock 2 years and after a lot of hard work preparing for the 2019, I was thankful to complete the TR250 in a time of 84 hrs 22 mins finishing equal 4th.

I am certainly no expert at “Going Long” but my 2 experiences of races over 145 and 250 miles have already taught me a great deal which I would like to share with you as there just doesn’t seem to be many books explaining how to complete a 100+ mile Ultra Marathons.

1. Feet Management –

An area that quite often is ignored or perhaps pushed down the priority list! I have listed feet management as no.1 for a reason, as having issues with your feet over a 100+ mile races could be the difference between finishing or not. Historically I have always seem to suffer from blisters and as a result have attempted to understand the factors behind these and as a result, I received a great book from Caroline “Fixing Your Feet” by Jon Bonhof. I would certainly recommend this to be on everybody’s book shelf as a go to book to help educate you on the root causes and prevention mechanisms.

Sock management is key and is a very personal choice that needs plenty of practice and experimental runs to see what works for each individual runner. Foot taping is another important consideration and is something that I have found to help hugely during the longer races of 100+ miles. I practiced with different types of tape and different taping formations during the races leading up to the TR which helped me gain an understanding of what worked and what didn’t.

During the TR250 my feet got wet due to having to navigate through early morning dew in long grass and as a result my feet became trashed. In hindsight waterproof shoes or water proof gaiters would have prevented the feet becoming so wet and would have minimised the foot damage.

Do not under estimate the importance of your foot management for the 100+ mile races as you will suffer for 2 or 3 days which I can ensure you is not fun and is a big reason for ultra-runners to drop.

2. Sleep deprivation (hallucinations) –

Usually on the 100 mile races most runners will complete without sleep and for those races that can last up to 30 hours most ultra-runners can survive without. As for the 100+ races it is common that short 10 min naps are taken to keep them fresh and alert. Power naps are not something that I have ever been good at as I end up feeling groggy and more tired when I wake hence, I tend to not sleep on the multiple day events. At TR250 I did not sleep for the first 4 days but then after 76 hours non stop my body crashed and I fell into a 90 min coma, lying on the floor out of it.

If you are planning to complete a multiple day non-stop Ultra, teaching your body to power nap is a far more sensible strategy to allow your mind to take the necessary, rest. Ultra-Runners will often talk about having vivid hallucinations during 100 milers where they have run through the night when their bodies would normally have slept overnight. In the multiple day Ultras, the hallucinations are very real where you can experience strange and wonderful things that at the time seem to be there but in reality, they are your mind playing tricks on you.

At the TR250 the hallucinations on day 4 where I had not slept for 3 continuous nights were the most vivid and scary that I have ever experienced with people standing and talking to me but after blinking they would disappear. Hallucinations can be quite scary as you attempt to understand what and why they are happening, but I have learnt that they will pass and that they should not scare you. Please be aware that there have been some extreme cases of hallucinations at the multiple day Ultras where Runners lose control of their senses and at this stage, they can be quite dangerous as the runner is not thinking sensibly and will make huge errors which is likely to end their race.

3. Strength work –

Strength work is an area over the years that I have avoided like the plague….P.T work is an area that in my younger years I just didn’t enjoy or had any inclination to do. In hindsight this has been one of my biggest errors since I started running at the age of 18. Too often I would break down during intensive periods of training and never seem to fix the root cause of these issues.

Over the last 12 months I have finally eaten my frog and been working with a PT instructor and I have seen the benefits with less injuries and the ability to physically tackle the longer races as I move towards my fifties. Being physically strong is crucial and it is not just about grinding out multiple miles in the build up to these longer races.

I would strongly advise that all runners mix up there running with strength work, also yoga & Pilates are also excellent additions to your training programs to successfully completing long Ultra races of over 100 miles.

4. Pacing strategy – learn to walk from the off –

One of my biggest learns from running 100 milers and beyond is that you have to protect your legs and not blow them out. Once you flood them with lactic acid it is almost impossible to flush them through without leaving them feeling dead.

In all of my 100 milers & beyond I have set out with a run-walk strategy as I would run for 25 mins and then walk for 5 minutes. This strategy from the off allows me to ensure that I protect my legs and allow me to continue to run well into the 70’s, 80 miles onwards.

The key to the walking strategy is that you need to learn how to frog march and be able to hit a 4-5 mph walk pace. Walking at a good pace allows you to cover off some decent ground and then once you begin to run again our legs will feel fresh and you will cover more ground and stay stronger later into the race.

Quite often Ultra Runners drop out of long Ultra races as they have smashed their legs way too early and there is no way back from this point. Death marching 30 or 40 miles to get to the finish of a 100 miler is not fun and can be pretty painful experience physically and mentally. In the 100+ mile races you cannot death march 100-120 miles hence the importance of conserving the legs for as long as you can whilst moving forward.

5. Breaking down the race (chunking it down) –

In the longer Ultra races of 100 miles+ too often I hear runners talk about the distance and how it can be daunting and before they even start, they are psychologically beaten. My main focus here is to break down or chunk down a 100 miler+ race into 10 mile sections as I think no further ahead than the 10 miles that I need to complete. It may be that you focus from check point to check point and no further ahead. In the TR250 each section was 26 miles long and all I could do was to break the race down into 10 sections. Every time I allowed my mind to wander and think about the 250 miles ahead, I would find myself move into a negative spin where doubt would kick in. Just focus on the section in front of you and not get bogged down by the length of the race.

6. Belief & know your Why -

All too often I see Ultra Runners standing on the Start Line with no “Why” and when things get tough, they have no purpose to hold onto. Digging deep when you are going through the “Pain Cave” affects runners in different ways. Those who have a strong Why find a way of getting through the dark periods of the race and find mechanisms to cope with the physical and the mental pain.

7. Practice your Race Routines and be Prepared -

It is crucial that all Ultra Runners are well organised and have a strategic plan before they start the race. All too often I see runners attempt 100 milers and do not give the distance the respect it deserves. It is important that you practice everything before race day right down to the small detail. I will not stand on the start line of a 100+ mile race without being fully prepped and the required pre work done. This will include knowledge of the course and what conditions I am going to encounter, kit checks, nutrition that works for me and that I have practiced with. Race day in a 100+ miler is not time to be experimenting.

In the longer Ultra races, I will break my kit into separate kit bags for each day so that there limited thinking during the race and I do not waste time looking for kit or equipment. I will then break these bags into day and night kit bags.

Don’t allow chafing end your race so lube up in the appropriate places as otherwise you are going to feel the pain when you hit the 150+ miles distance.

Kit choices are critically important and if you plan ahead correctly you will have everything that you need to service multiple days. Practice and dress rehearse everything that you plan to wear on race day, so that it feels natural on race day.

Summary –

I believe that to complete a 100+ mile ultra-race you need to have 60% mental will and desire 30% physical strength and 10% running ability. So, it is crucial that you are mentally strong as the highs and lows are huge and you need to be able to ride the wave when you hit those dark moments.

I always think about what I will feel like if I quit during a race the week after when the sore legs have recovered but the disappointment and frustration of not getting that buckle is huge. The lows do pass so it is important to dig into your why to give you the strength to pull through. I am not interested in people telling me that I did a great job if I haven’t finished the race, as I know I will feel like a failure and that is not how I want to remember a race.

So, don’t fear the 100+ Ultra races as the feeling of finishing these races is like no other high than you can experience elsewhere.

Be brave and step into the world of the unknown and go and conquer the 100+ Ultra races.

See you all on the other side.

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