Maybe it’s because I am preparing myself for an ultra race later this year but I find myself comparing the log hard slog of National Lock Down 2 with running and ultra distance event. And I’m noticing the tactics I use to keep-myself-going-when-everything-hurts-and-I really-want-to-stop are actually useful in these strange times with no apparent end in sight.
So in the spirit of being helpful (hopefully) and partly to help myself keep going, I thought I’d share some top ultra running tips which seems to be helping me in Lock Down 2. Non-runners, who knew you needed more running tips in your life… think of it as the benefits of running without doing any running…
- Don’t compare yourself with others – it’s not a race
I never use the term ‘race’ about an ultra, yes there are a few super humans who are gunning for the glory of the podium, but for most of us it’s about just getting round in one piece – without losing too many toenails. When you’re overtaken by someone else it’s tempting to push yourself harder to keep up but rule number one is: ‘run your own race’. Having felt very low in the first Lock Down because a one stage I had very little paid work but saw many peers being very ‘busy’ or because other people were being more ‘useful’ than me to society I also know how harmful comparison can be for our wellbeing.
Try and enjoy it
You’re kidding me right – enjoy the LockDown? People often say that to me about my hobby too – ‘are you doing it for charity?’ they tentatively ask, as that would be the only legitimate reason they can imagine to do something so daft.
I had the opportunity to witness a really great ultra runner up close last month when I supported Sabrina Verjee on the final leg of her Coast-to-Coast run. Despite the fact she had run nearly 190 miles with only an hour’s rest, in really tough winter conditions, I was struck how cheerful she was. Yes, her legs and feet clearly hurt and she must have been knackered, but focussing on the scenery, or chatting to other runners, or enjoying the cake you’re eating to fuel yourself keeps you going better than thinking about your blisters.
This Lock Down we’ve been doing GLAD at home daily at tea time to lift our mood (citing 1 thing for which we’re Grateful, something we’ve Learned, Achieved and Delighted in). I’ve also been doing crazy ‘fun’ things and laughing about them with my friends: like eating Xmas dinner with my family in the backyard; long dark hikes round the local villages with friends; enjoying outdoor theatre in a torrential downpour; ‘testing’ waterproof socks by wading through the flood waters; camping in the freezing cold when all the hostels closed. Basically being a bit daft and trying not to let the restrictions stop us doing the things we normally love, even if that means it’s a bit ‘type 2 fun’ at times.
- Eat well and often
A cardinal rule is low mood = eat food. People say an ultra is basically a picnic with some running, and keeping your energy up is important. In Lock Down when so few other pleasures are still allowed making nice things to eat, treating ourselves to nice snacks and experimenting with new recipes has definitely helped keep my family’s spirits up.
- Manage your mood
Stay positive – don’t agonise constantly over what might go wrong or has gone wrong. In a long race – like in a pandemic – things will go wrong, and there will be a lot you can’t control – like the weather. It’s not easy, but work on your inner Stoic – when shit happens, ask yourself can you do anything about it? If not, try not to waste mental energy on it and focus on what you can control.
- Look after your body
This tip comes from legendary fell runner Nicky Spinks – what she termed ‘the rule of three’. If you think to yourself three times ‘I’m a bit cold’ or maybe ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘my foot is starting to rub’ then act on it – your body is telling you something and if you want to be able to keep going, you need to listen to your body’s needs and deal with them: whether that’s eating, putting on an extra layer or dealing with a hotspot before it becomes a blister. Women (including Nicky) sometimes beat men outright in ultra races and some have speculated a factor in this is that women athletes tend to look after their bodies better during the race – they don’t ignore and push through pain so they are less likely to encounter an injury or problem later that causes them to stop.
Bottom line: if you want to go far, you’ll need to take good care of your body and this applies in Lock Down too. Feeling tired? Early night – guess who was in bed at 9pm on NYE? Feel a migraine coming on? Stop looking at the screen; have a nap; a cuppa and get some fresh air.
- Challenge yourself
In his tips for ultra runners, Pennine Way record holder and coach Damian Hall suggests setting yourself a goal that scares you. Finding something that slightly takes you beyond your comfort zone can be motivating and stops you get bored. And goodness knows I have been very bored at times. For many of us work and life has been disrupted in many ways in Lock Down so there are lots of opportunities to try new things that stretch us and offer some satisfaction by having learned a new skill. Coach (not running coach!) Shirzad Chamine encourages you to look for the ‘gift’ in an apparently bad situation: what would you want to learn or take from a tough situation that would mean it has some value afterall?
- Break it down intro bitesize chunks – and just focus on the next mile
In the first Lock Down I got excited about ‘building back better’ and the chance to shake things up for good; goodness knows that still needs to happen. But I also became self-critical and doubting – why wasn’t I doing something more useful? I ended up feeling over-whelmed and hit a bad patch and became unproductive.
This time I’m made my peace which what I can do right now which is mainly ‘backstage’; supporting my family (which includes frontline medical staff); and supporting others by giving anything I earn, above what I’ve decided I need, to charities. I hope I can do more to tackle inequalities later, but now I’m just focussing on surviving this phase – head down, slogging on best I can.
Focusing on the next mile with two kids at home trying to learn looks like a day-by-day horizon, and at most looking a week ahead – mainly so I know what to order for the weekly food shop.
- Keep moving but pace yourself – it’s not a sprint
So just as I set off slowly in a long race, I’m pacing myself during Lock Down. I’ve made the mistake of setting off too fast so many times in marathons and then suffered the consequences that I know now to take it steady from the start.
I’ve no idea when this current phase is going to end, but I’m trying to be realistic that we might be home-schooling til Easter and that 2021 might not be significantly better to 2020. To me it feels like we’re in it for the long haul, and I’m also under no illusions that the ‘real fun’ doesn’t end with the medical crisis, with this lot in charge I suspect that’s only the start. But do try and keep moving slowly – it’s easier to move at a slow pace than stop and start.
- Know that you will hit a rough patch at some stage
This happens in ultra events, and it happened to me in the first Lock Down a couple of times when I could feel my mental state declining. I acted quickly on the signs – took a day or two off work and did what I needed to (usually for me that’s going for a long walk on my own and some early nights).
Two final thoughts about what happens once you finish an ultra. First, you need a recovery period: to rest and recover fully before taking on any new challenge. Second, once you’ve recovered you will be stronger and proud of what you’ve achieved. Oh, and you might need to see a chiropodist…