Apr 29th, 2015 / Nicki Chick
Forewarned is forearmed! Lucy Fry writes for the Sunday Telegraph 27th April 2015
Whether you run 10km a day or prefer to stay on your couch, our columnist will put you through
your paces. This week: ultra-marathon
If you’re a runner (past, present or perhaps just a wannabe) and it’s still Sunday morning when you
make it to this column, switch on the television and watch today’s great sporting event, the 35th
London Marathon. It’s hard not to be inspired by the guts, the glutes and the glory of the 51,000 (or
so) runners. Each and every one of them will have well and truly deserved their medal and their
moment (I should know – I did a marathon once and nearly keeled over). However, there are also
some runners out there for whom one marathon isn’t enough.
These men and women, known as ultra-runners, are often overlooked, despite taking on challenges
that make a regular marathon look easy. They run the kind of distances most of us choose to drive,
and often negotiate these distances over rocky terrain, up and down hills and in difficult
Such events, called ultramarathons, are classed as anything over the statutory marathon distance.
They can range from days to weeks and even, in some very extreme circumstances, months.
One infamous example is the Marathon des Sables (MDS), a five to six-day 156-mile foot race in the
Sahara desert, founded in 1986. As covered in Living, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, one of Britain’s bestknown
explorers, recently completed the event at the age of 71. MDS is quite a feat at any age,
however, as competitors not only trudge endlessly over sand dunes, suffering blisters regular
marathoners can’t even imagine, but must also carry a day’s provisions and tackle the heat.
Why? Beyond a certain sadomasochistic satisfaction and the (admittedly well deserved) bragging
rights, what is there to be gained from an ultra-marathon that one couldn’t get from a shorter
Intense: Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Rory Coleman on the Marathon des Sables Quite a lot, as it turns
out. Let’s start with the physical benefits.
Insurance broker Blake Roseveare, now 39, successfully completed the MDS when he was 31 (one of
the youngest involved in the race). “You get fit – ultra-marathon fit – very quickly,” he says. “In 2005 I
did [the] London Marathon and had to walk through some of it, but by the end of my MDS training, I
was doing a marathon between 6am and 10am on Saturday, getting on with my day, then getting up
to do the same on Sunday. It’s a kind of fitness that, once developed, your body remembers. I don’t
think it would take me very long to get it back.
“Conversely, I lost lots of weight in the desert and it took me ages to regain it.” But there’s more,
surely, motivating people like Roseveare?
“I got a lot of pleasure out of demonstrating that something people thought was only for
superhumans or special forces was actually very achievable and positive,” he says.
“There’s a huge satisfaction in breaking an unachievable aim down into small edible pieces and then
building up to something previously out of your reach. Also, once you’ve done an ultramarathon, the
whole world opens up, and you develop a hunger to try things that never really goes.”
While some ultra-marathons, including another of Roseveare’s conquests, the Ultra-Trail du Mont
Blanc (a two-day and night event with a 9,000-metre climb), have aggressive cut-off times all the
way around, many are less about speed as much as they are testing oneself.
“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up,” says American ultramarathoner
and author of Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes.
“People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture, though I would argue otherwise.
Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond
the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go –
you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
Speaking of trips, it’s also true that ultra-marathon events, such as the Peruvian Jungle Ultra and the
Grand Canyon Ultra, take participants to new places geographically – allowing them to connect to,
and run in, a new environment in relative safety.
Tempted yet? I wouldn’t blame you, if you were. But it’s good to be aware of the risks too: by
definition, the ultra-marathon bug will suck more of your blood, sweat, tears and time than the
average gym habit (or simply running shorter distances).
Also, endless hours spent exercising can drain the body’s resources and cause an excessive and
chronic emission of stress hormones, which can develop into chronic fatigue syndrome.
And, even for the most cautious of ultra-runners, there’s a high chance of injury, although following
an individualised strength and conditioning programme, taking lessons in running technique,
building up distances slowly and running off-road wherever possible can significantly reduce those
But then, if you’re sensible enough to let those kinds of rational concerns put you off entering an
ultra-marathon, you’re probably not crazy enough to finish one anyway.
PREPARING TO GO THE DISTANCE
Forewarned is forearmed. Here is some professional advice on reducing your chances of injury
during long-distance running by Jonathan Grayson at Six Physio (sixphysio.com).
1. Don’t ignore niggles. An amazing 50 per cent of running injuries are reoccurrences, which is why
it is so important to seek treatment for sore spots if pain persists for more than 48 hours (for
example in the front or outside of your knee, front or inside of your shin, or around your Achilles
tendon). Don’t just ignore it and hope for the best.
2. Don’t just rest, recover. Inflammation from micro-trauma builds overnight, which leads to scar
tissue formation and excessive muscle stiffness unless it is eased out. A 30-minute light cycle or
swim the day after can help.
3. Pilates is an excellent way to counteract the negative effects of an office job, in particular the
overstretching and weakening of the glutes (crucial muscles involved in running) that occurs if
you sit for long periods of time (e.g. at work).
4. Get strong. Runners are often obsessed by mileage, but it’s good to remember that you can
easily gain greater control of your body by working on strength and mobility (through resistance
training and yoga, for example).
FOOTWEAR FOR ULTRA-RUNNING
Champion triathlete Tim Don and I share a love of these Cloudsurfers running shoes.
Brought to us by Swiss company On, they are specifically designed for long runs.
The raised sole looks (and even feels) a bit strange at first – like having springs – but is effective at
reducing impact in a way necessary for those spending hours on their feet.
“These are so light I really do feel like I’m running on clouds,” says Don. “Also, the soles are designed
in such a way that I’m able to keep the landing soft but still have a firm push-off. The end result is
that I can train for longer because I can keep the impact lower.