6 surprises from my first ultra marathon

Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay

When I started running, I’d have laughed if anyone had told me I’d enter an ultra marathon one day. I was an unlikely runner, not an ultra runner! Yet one chilly December morning, I stood on the start line for my first ultra event…

I like ending the year with a new achievement. I’ve set myself festive challenges in the past – like the time I ran every day of Advent as a running streak. But on the start line for my first ultra, I knew the festive cheer and novelty outfits disguised a very serious test – I was going to try to race 50k. To succeed, I’d have to run further than I’d ever gone before. But if I did it, I could proudly call myself an ultra runner.

When I took part in my first ultra event, six things surprised me:

1. How early the race started

Races often have early start times to give people time to get round the course, while leaving enough time for the route to be cleared and any roads reopened afterwards. A longer distance takes more time to complete, so ultras often start earlier than shorter races.

When I saw we would be starting before 9am, my mind whirred. How long would I need to travel to the event, drop off my bag and find the start line? My alarm was set for first light. But thanks to my race day checklist, I had my running kit laid out and my bag packed, ready to get up and go.

2. Joining a different crowd

When I arrived at the event, I noticed something different about my fellow racers. Most events have a mixed field, from those tackling the distance for the first time or fundraising for charity to seasoned runners and even professional athletes. Here, many of the entrants seemed to be veteran ultra runners. I overheard competitors trade tales of past ultras they’d completed and longer races they were training for – some twice as far as we were about to run.

3. Taking a slower pace

Once we’d set off, I was careful to pace myself. One of the joys of running more than one marathon is learning how to pace yourself for the full 26.2 miles. But tackling a longer distance meant I had to take a slower pace. When I arrived at familiar distances much later than usual, I had mixed feelings – especially when I reached the marathon mark. It was the slowest marathon I had ever run, but I knew holding back enough energy for those final miles was the right thing to do.

4. The camaraderie

Although all runners have something in common, the extreme nature of the event seemed to connect people. Competitors traded stories at the start line and encouraged each other out on the course. During the last mile, a spectator from a local running club even jogged beside me – the upbeat chat motivated me towards the finish line.

5. How tough the final stretch felt

I remember seeing the 26 mile marker ahead and realising the next few miles would make me an ultra runner. At the point where I’d usually be finishing, I still had several miles to go – and they would be the toughest of the race. Time to dig deep, I thought. I used all my best techniques to keep going when a run gets tough. Somehow, I summoned the grit to push on and cross the finish line. I became an ultra runner.

6. How people respond

You may have heard the joke, ‘How do you know if someone is running a marathon? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!’ The same could be said about finishing an ultra marathon.

When you tell someone you’ve done a marathon, they often congratulate you. But when you say you’ve run an ultra, people respond differently. Some are puzzled and simply ask, ‘Why?’ Others seem amazed, as though you’ve told them you can time travel or teleport. Either way, people react with a sense of wonder.

Becoming an ultra runner

Just like marathon training transformed my running, completing my first ultra changed my ideas about what’s possible. Running 50k once seemed unimaginable to me. Now, I’ve done it. I’m an ultra runner – and, true to my namesake, I’ve signed up to do it all again this winter.

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