40km in my 40th year
Back in 2019 I had a place in a team with my running club - Vegan Runners UK - to run as part of a relay at Endure24. It's a great event held over a weekend where individuals (solo runners) and teams from 2-12 people take on running for 24 hours, against their own targets, to run as far as they can.
It was cancelled due to all things Covid, and then last year I was not able to race due to another commitment on the rescheduled event, so when it came around I was looking for something to train for, and figured I would see how far I could go.
My aim was to try to do 30 miles - just over 40km - to mark my 40th year, with a stretch goal of 40 miles. I managed to smash my goal and hit my stretch goal, running 25 miles in the first 12 hours, and 15 miles in the second half.
Bear in mind, before I started my training, the furthest I had run was 10km, or 6.2 miles! Here's a bit of insight into how I got there.
Training for long distance
Obviously with such short distances up to the point where I signed up, I had a lot of work to do!
For about 6 months, I trained by increasing the distance that I was hitting with my longer runs, and working hard in my PT sessions on the muscle groups that you need to run - posterior chain, core, and legs! I based the training on the 50k 'just finish' ultramarathon plan from marathonhandbook.com which I adapted slightly to take into account the other gym-based classes I did. You can take a look at my outline here. I also highlighted when, based on the mileage, I would need to be looking at replacing my shoes.
This worked OK for me until I started to hit 8 mile runs, when my body really started to struggle. I kept getting intense pain in my hip flexors and quads, so bad that I was barely able to walk my way back to the start.
I reached out to a local physio - Bob Grainger at Physiofixx - who offered running-specific gait analysis and running-rehab classes to teach you how to 'run properly', which demonstrated that I was a very quad-dominant athlete, with a very lazy posterior chain! More on that in another post!
It also became apparent in these sessions that I needed a different approach to training, with more focus on how I was running, rather than just the distance.
At this point I came across the training plans from MyProCoach, which are delivered through the TrainingPeaks app, synchronising directly to your Garmin device telling you precisely what to do, what heart rate and pace zones you should be in, and more importantly, completely tailored to your own fitness with regular fitness tests.
This was definitely the turning point for me.
The training plans from Phil focus on the 80/20 methodology (thanks Angie for the book you got me in the Secret Santa the other year) which involves 80% of your training being in zone 1-2 heart rate zones, and 20% of it being in higher intensities.
It helped me understand that to run endurance, the focus has to be on a slow, steady pace and staying out of the zones where you're building up more lactic acid than your body is able to clear. Those sport science lectures actually taught me something after all!
With the 24 week hilly trail ultra plan, I set to work building my endurance base in what seemed to be endless hours plodding around every park I could find in the local areas, and a few adventures a bit further afield when I had to start taking in more miles.
My longest run in training was just over 20 miles, with 6.5 hours of running over very challenging terrain into a 25 mph headwind, and although it was 10 miles short of what I had set as my goal, I figured nothing could be as bad as the conditions on that day!
Some folks do long distance races truly flying solo, but I really found having a support crew kept me going.
My amazing friend Viryamati gave up his whole weekend to come and camp on-site, and make sure I had everything I needed, when I needed it. From preparing my soft bottles with Tailwind to boiling water for me to clean and soak my feet to making sure I had the right kit at the right time (torches were mandatory from 8pm-6am), he was absolutely invaluable. My mum also came and cheered me on all day on Saturday which was wonderfully supportive!
Getting mentally strong
You'll probably have heard folks saying that long distance running is more about mental toughness and grit than it is physical fitness, and I definitely found this to be true.
Absolutely you need to have a solid aerobic base, good proactive foot care (read the Fixing your Feet* book, if you haven't already - it's the distance runners bible!), and take care of your body so that you don't get injured, but without a doubt the mental toughness is what will keep you going when everything hurts, there's another hill in front of you and you are feeling miserable in the middle of the night!
I had moments during the race when I hit all-time lows. Ironically, the immense amount of positivity that I encountered out on the course had me in tears frequently as it was quite overwhelming - so many lovely supportive comments from people as they passed me (which happened every few minutes!) as I had a sign on my pack:
I had several ways to keep myself going - listening to the incredibly inspiring High Performance Podcast, an audiobook, a Spotify playlist (although, make sure you download things, as we had almost no signal most of the route!). The event also provided a huge amount of motivation with energetic, cheerful marshals complete with fancy dress and music playing, a DJ blasting out the tunes at the half-way point, and OMG the watermelon at 4am was HEAVEN!
My secret weapon was my outfit that I wore for my 40th birthday parkrun - a luminous rainbow unicorn - which I left until the very last lap, to make sure that I did hit my goal and didn't give up early! It was a lot of fun doing the last lap in fancy dress, complete with tutu, tail and headband, and really kept me going forward through the tough times.
Would I do it again?
Absolutely! Training starts on Monday for the London Ultra 55km race which will be my first A-to-B non-stop ultramarathon, in October 2022 as my B race, and my A race will be Endure24 next year where I'm aiming for 60 miles!
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