If you’re thinking of tackling your first ultra soon, the most important thing to remember about ultras is that it’s going to take you a long time to recover. Longer than you think.
This may seem like a glib statement. You’re embarking on an epic distance; of course it’s going to take a while to recover from that. But seriously, be prepared for it to take longer than you expect.
Ultras are amazing! They have repurcussions on your mental strength, your physical strength and endurance, and your general outlook on life. But running them isn’t the toughest bit. Recovering from them afterwards is torture.
Let’s rewind. Last year, I bounced from 10k to half marathon to 10k regularly, chasing PBs. If one race went wrong, it didn’t matter because there was another just around the corner. I didn’t need to train, just keep my fitness up and do some regular speedwork. I did so many 10k events that I – understandably – got bored of them and decided to enter a marathon for the spring of 2017. The next natural step was my first ultra, and it happened so accidentally that before I knew it I had completed the 40 mile event and was signing a contract in my own blood to complete a 100km event. To me, surrounded by inspirational ultrarunners amongst my running friends and peers in the Twittersphere, this seemed completely normal, and it took me a while to realise that my family and friends thought I’d lost my marbles.
“What are you doing?” asked my mum, her voice cracking with worry. I laughed it off. I’ll be fine, I said.
Between May after my first ultra, and my second in July, I didn’t have time to worry. With seven weeks, I took 3 weeks of recovery, did some longer runs, then rested and awaited my fate. Regular readers will know how Race to the Stones went, and I won’t go into it here, just have a read of the blog, but what happened afterwards?
Day 1: Sleep. Bath. Can’t eat, I feel sick. Are these ugly bodily parts my feet? They’re swollen, like big blotchy ogre’s feet. There is no way on this earth I’ll get them into a pair of shoes. Thank the God of running for my OOFOS. Although they’re so blotchy that I definitely don’t want to go out in public. They look like I’ve had some kind of allergic reaction. I feel like I’ve been in a fight; every part of me is tender to touch.
Day 2: I still can’t eat. No appetite. I soaked my feet in the bath and peeled off the Compeed. That was brave, and perhaps a little premature. I don’t think my feet will ever be the same again. Black nails; nails forced to grow in the wrong direction; I’ll paint them and deal with them another day. I take the dogs out for a walk today. Bad idea, because three huge dogs gallop over to say hello and bounce on my delicate ogre feet.
Day 3: I’m still not hungry. I’m trying to forcefeed myself, but I feel like my stomach has shrunk. I can’t physically fit food in. I know I should eat, but I can’t. I’m walking normally again now at least.
Day 4: It’s raining, so it’s a good job my feet have returned to human proportions although they’re still not the right size. However, I’ve fitted them into running shoes again for a dog walk. Also, HELLO appetite. It’s been a while. Will I ever satiate you? I doubt it, because you are voracious!
Day 5: I’m trying a parkrun today. I’m wearing my race T-shirt so that if I’m REALLY slow, everyone knows the reason why. I’m also taking the dog, as she’ll give me another excuse. Legs want to run fast, that’s weird. It’s a hilly course, and I don’t need to walk up the hills. This is messing with my ultra re-wired brain. Course PB? How did that happen? I still cannot eat enough. I’m making up for an entire week of calorie deficiency. Give me all the food.
Day 6: It’s nice not to have to do a long run. And it’s nice to eat. I love eating.
Day 7: I try a run this afternoon. It’s 4 miles along a canal. It feels HORRIBLE but when I look at the stats afterwards, its beautifully progressive. I’ll take it steady this week though, don’t push your luck.
Day 8: I’d better take another rest day.
Day 9: I try a few hill reps today, with a running club in the area where I’m staying. It feels good to run.
Day 10: Another rest day. Let’s be sensible.
Day 11: I go for a 5 mile trail run. It’s slow, it’s nettly, it’s a slog. I’m so tired.
Day 12: It’s parkrun day again, at my home run. I have the dog again, and this time our 4 year old wants to get out of the buggy every now and again. It’s slow and steady and I’m happy here. I need a nap this afternoon.
Day 13: I don’t feel like a run today. I’m tired and my legs feel heavy.
Day 14: I can’t run for the next 4 days as I have no childcare. I might go slightly off the rails, but it’s a great excuse to rest up. I’m struggling to get up in the mornings now – it feels like I have a very delayed jet lag.
Day 15: My brain is working overtime. I need a run to quieten my mind. But rest is needed.
Day 16: LET ME OUT OF THIS BOX! I feel exhausted. Everyone is telling me I look tired. I WANT to run because I know that will perk me up. But I’m shattered. Hopefully tomorrow.
Day 17: I RAN! I am happy. 6 beautiful miles. I pushed harder than I should have but I enjoyed them.
Day 18: 7 miles of beautiful trails. My heart is happy. My legs are tired, but it’s parkrunday again tomorrow.
Day 19: Family parkrun. I have the dog again (there’s a pattern emerging here, do you see it?). “We’ll run together” says Mr M. What this means in practice is he runs with the buggy, while I try in vain to keep up. Every so often he yells, “Bella!” and the dog strains on the lead and drags me and my legs closer to him. I crash and burn after the first mile, and eventually roll across the finish line in a wheezing heap. I hate running.
Day 20: Where’s my mojo? I should have looked after it more carefully; they’re delicate things. Perhaps I’ve offended it. Maybe I just need a rest day.
Day 21: I put my running kit on. I huff. I lace my trainers up. I huff. I cry. I don’t want to run anymore. I’m tired. I take my trainers off. I sit in my running kit for perhaps an hour, pondering who I am without running. I get undressed and go to bed. It’s time to rest.
Since then I haven’t run (Today is Day 23). I’m still taking naps in the afternoon. I’m still slow. I think I also have an underlying water infection. It’s taking a while to recover. So I’m not pushing it now. I’m staying patient. I’m conscious that I have a half marathon in 3 weeks but there is genuinely no desire to run at the moment, so I’m taking plenty of dog walks. My brain feels quieter than it should and this time I think it’s my brain that is telling me to rest.
Recovery from an ultra takes longer than you think. I’m still a novice at this, and know I haven’t got my recovery right, but I’m learning. I do know I wouldn’t want to put myself through this more than a few times a year. I’m approaching 40 now, and recovery as we age does take a lot longer than it used to. Acceptance and recognition of this is important. Rest is vital. I certainly haven’t pushed myself beyond my own limits these past few weeks, but running 100km takes a LOT out of you. It’s important to be kind to yourself.
My mojo will return, but I’m not going to force it. To all intents and purposes, my muscles and joints felt great after a few days rest, but its the invisible systems which have also undergone huge stress and need much more recovery time than we think.
To those considering their first ultra marathon, don’t let this article put you off; simply be aware that you will need to book in some valuable recovery afterwards.
Thanks for reading
EDIT: 16th November 2017. It turns out I had also been feeling fatigued and generally unwell because I had an infected tick bite. Lyme disease can be very serious if not treated promptly, so if you find a tick bite that remains swollen, red and itchy, go and see a GP about it immediately. Mine was treated with a two week course of strong antibiotics.