Running first 100 miles: Can you do it?

Can you run your first ever 100 mile ultramarathon? The answer is simply: Yes! You can, because I could!

Let me tell you about my first 100 miles attempt a couple weeks ago. It’s a bit tricky distance to train for – not like you can do a 100K long run every Sunday. So instead of training specifically for this event, I spent the past eight months working on being “ultra ready” which to me means I am capable of running an ultra marathon anytime I choose. I am still a rookie of the ultra community having completed my first ultra distance only last year. During training, I focused on time on my feet including walking, a lot of double runs (running twice a day) and doing a monthly ultra (usually between 45 and 50K).

Endure 24

My first 100 mile attempt was at Endure 24: 24 hours long relays that one can opt to run solo (if mad enough). The route was a 5 mile trail lap with an aid station at around 5K and access to own supplies at the start/finish area. Hence, this was an excellent opportunity to have a go at a long distance while being able to access own nutrition and gear without carrying it all around.

That’s just shoes and food…
Preparation

Obviously, preparation was crucial (and somewhat stressful and exciting at the same time). I brought a crazy amount of gear and nutrition with me. As expected, I did not use most of the things I brought, but the comfort of having it all accessible unburdened my mind a little.

Goals

I set myself A B C goals. My C goal was to conquer 100 miles (even if it meant walking), B goal was running until the end of the event (I somehow always assumed that I would be able to fit 100 miles well within 24 hrs), and A goal was to be a top 3 female. I realise my goals were rather ambitious given the fact that it was my first time doing this kind of event and distance, but I felt they were still realistic enough.

Mindset

Now let’s talk about mindset. In my opinion, the key to running long long distances is not to get intimidated and not to overthink things. There are terrible stories being told about DNFing due to all sorts of stuff: cramps, fatigue, stomach issues, injuries, the list can go on forever. One needs to be prepared for eventualities but not get fixated on them. I said to myself “How hard can it really be?” It may sound oblivious and naive, but in my experience, a little bit of naivety is goes a long way (check out my blog post about it). One just needs to carry on putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what.

Some laps felt real hard and I though how on earth will I be able to carry on? And then the next lap came and felt easy and joyful. So I figured out it does not stay difficult forever and there is always an end to whatever pain one feels. I am lucky to be a natural survivor which is an important trait of an ultrarunner. I managed to keep my spirit up whether it was by smiling no matter what, my terrible singing through the night or a random shot of Fireball at 2 am.

Nutrition

When it comes to nutrition, after a couple laps I figured out I don’t need to carry anything with me as long as I have water and couple slices of orange (I have never eaten so many oranges in my life) at the aid station and something more substantial at the start/finish. I went with High5 gels, shortbread, salted crisps, bananas and rice pudding which together with Tailwind was my nutrition through the 24 hours. I kept electrolytes topped up with my favourite Totum Sport sachets. It comes without saying that everyone needs to find their go-to food for long distances.

I soon got into the rhythm of doing a lap after lap – and boy, did time flow quicker than I thought it would. I had set uphill sections which I walked and a specific point where I started pre-planning in my head what nutrition and gear I need for the next lap (to avoid unnecessary faffing at start/finish). I didn’t waste any time sitting or standing around – I ate either while walking or sitting in the portaloo (yuck!).

Using uphill sections to eat while walking.
Issues and mistakes

Speaking of portaloos – it was not all smiles and unicorns. During the first 30 miles I was going through some digestion troubles and there were times when I though I might genuinely poop my pants. I spent a lot of time in the toilet. Luckily around mile 40, it settled in, because (as I said) nothing unpleasant lasts forever.

When it comes to running itself, I started sensibly and made sure my breathing was easy on the first few laps when one is tempted to go fast (I didn’t really look at heart rate or pace). I managed to keep a decent pace until about 80 miles and then I started to struggle running. It was not due to specific pain or injury, my legs just got fatigued and I had a hard time lifting feet off the ground. So I grabbed poles (that I never used before) and started walking. Several times, I attempted to restart running, but my legs were not cooperating. So walking it was. I didn’t panic, I just accepted it as a fact and kept going, trying not to stab anyone with my poles because I clearly was a pole amateur.

At that time I also made my first and (luckily) the only mistake at this event: I stuck to my current nutrition routine of refuelling each lap at the start/finish, but because laps now took me longer to complete, I ended up consuming fewer calories per hour. This resulted in a drop of energy level and left me drained on my last (22nd) lap. I was worried I won’t complete my last lap before the cut off of the event. During the last few miles I cried, because I just felt emotional, especially when I realised I will actually make it and also bank 2nd female prize.

Over the moon to be the 2nd Solo Female at 2022 Endure 24!
Happy ending

I could barely stand when the prize was given to me, but felt lucky because the winner spent the prize giving in the medical tent. Shortly after that, I fell asleep in my tent snuggling my trophy, only to wake up in an empty field because most of the participants have already left.

So back to the initial question: Can you do it?

Yes!

Yes!

Yes!

I am not going to pretend it was easy, but I found running (walking) 110 miles easier than I thought it would be. All you need is to simply carry on with forward motion, no matter how slow, and keep smiling. There is something intensely magical about running through sunset into the night while most of the nation sits on a sofa in front of TV. For me, running ultramarathons certainly satisfies my love for nature and my lifelong search for unknown adventures waiting in the woods and mountains. There is something spiritual and elevating about sunset and sunrise on the trails, so if you are looking to starve your muscles but feed your soul, get out and do an ultra. I recommend ❤️

Tips for marathon pacing: How to get those even splits?

Marathon day. 20 miles in. Hitting the wall. Slowing down. Struggling. It’s going to look terrible on Strava!

So what on earth does one have to do to finish strong? While I have no perfect recipe, I can offer a few tips that worked for me and helped me achieve an evenly paced marathon (consisting of two 1:40 half marathons).

Now enough boasting, here we go:

  • Planning

A well-paced marathon seldom happens naturally. In my experience, it requires a thought-through plan that is executed with precision.

First of all, ask yourself: What is my target time? Be realistic, but ambitious. I, for example, aimed for 3:25, however, my secret target was 3:20. So I trained for this pace. Not only I did runs entirely at this pace (anything from 5K to 10 miles in the peak week), I also incorporated this pace into my long runs, especially towards the end when my legs were getting tired. An example of such a workout would be: (5K easy followed by 5K marathon pace) x3 = total 30K. There are numerous variations you can come up with.

  • Be smart

Once you have a race plan – stick to it! Chances are, that at the beginning, your target pace will feel like easy jogging. That’s actually a good sign! Do not perceive it as a permission to speed up. I appreciate it’s hard not to start too fast. At the beginning of your marathon, you are buzzing, so are the runners around you, the crowds cheer you on and you feel amazing. Don’t get carried away and start running at a pace you won’t be able to sustain. Stay smart!

  • Motivation

I know I just advised you not to get carried away by cheering crowds, but once things start to get tough, use the crowd to motivate you if that sort of thing works for you. Perhaps have your name on your vest so they can shout at you, or wave and they will cheer you on.

To be honest, I am not really a person who looks for support of crowds. (Unless they are kids. I usually go out of my way to high five kids.) Instead, my motivation rests in my carefully selected playlist. (Check the race instructions to see whether headphones are allowed so you don’t get disqualified!) I have a marathon playlist that I run to during my training block and then I listen to it during the race itself. There must be some sort of science behind this, because my body seems to respond in a positive way when my songs come on. In the last 5 miles of a marathon, it’s not the crowd, it’s my music that keeps me going.

Obviously, everyone is different so figure out what motivates you once things get tough and use it.

  • Nutrition & hydration

First of all, you need to start the race already fully hydrated, with glycogen stores topped up and electrolytes in balance.

During the race, you will need to keep replenishing your carbohydrates. My top tip is to consume a source of carbohydrates every 30 mins and most importantly, before you even feel you need it. Once you feel you are getting sluggish, it might often be too late. For me, this meant I consumed six full gels during my marathon.

Carbs alone are not enough. You need water for your body to carry on functioning correctly. If the conditions are cool enough and you don’t sweat much, you are in luck. I don’t think I drank more 350 millilitres of water during my marathon, if that, but I would have needed way more if the temperature went above 15°C. Little and often is always better than downing a pint of water on the verge of collapse. Have several mouthfuls at each aid station.

I also replenish my electrolytes through the race. Sucking on Crampfix once your muscles start to sieze up is, in my opinion, a little too late. I swear by Totum sachets. I have one at the start line and one approximately every hour. Especially during the later stages of the race, I notice my muscles feeling fresher once I take Totum, and this boost is not only physical but also mental.

  • Pacers

If you are going for a sub-4:30, sub-4 or sub-3:30 marathon, chances are that there will be a pacer you can follow. This saves you a lot of pacing and strategising. For me personally, following someone you trust is a great way of saving mental focus on running itself, rather than on thinking about pacing.

Having said that, pacers are just people so do not blindly follow them (unless it’s your mate who you trust). A lot of running watches these days have built-in pacing, but for me it’s not the same as following the person ahead of you.

  • Long runs

Now we got to the arguably most controversial point. You might not like what I am going to say:

Most training plans peak with a 20 mile long run. Let’s be honest – unless you start far too slow, your marathon will not have even splits if 20 miles is the longest run you do beforehand. Period.

To carry on at a target pace all the way to the finish line, your body needs to be conditioned for this and sadly, one 20 mile run will not accomplish it. I took eight minutes off my marathon PB in six months by simply increasing the distance of my long runs and incorporating marathon pace (or some sort of effort) in most of them, including my infamous three blocks of marathon pace during a 50K ultramarathon. It might sound like total madness, but training like this clearly works for me and gives me confidence and advantage in the later stages of a long race.

Now, before you set off on an ultra challenge, let me point out that most coaches would discourage you from doing any runs longer than 20ish miles as a part of your marathon training because the risk of getting injured offsets the benefit of this training. So you have to figure out for yourself what your body can handle… The bottom line is: don’t let a training plan limit your potential 🙂

  • Mental toughness

Finally, your brain and mindset play an enormously important role in whether you finish strong or crumble. Besides running itself, I also practice discomfort which is a normal part of my training. I consciously place myself in uncomfortable situations. I run hard up hills; I run in rain, storm, mud, snow and heat; I try to get some trail runs and cross-countries in; I acknowledge and embrace pain. If your attitude to discomfort is “bring it on” as opposed to “poor me”, you already have a massive advantage. So tell yourself: bring it on! Put your heart and mind into your race, not just legs, and most importantly welcome some discomfort during your training because it will make you tougher and faster on a race day.

Good luck!

And what are your tips? ⬇️

Couch to marathon

So you fancied doing something extraordinary and entered the ballot for London Marathon….and got in! Now it sounds like you’ll have to run a real marathon. No panic! It’s actually much easier than it seems.

First of all, anyone reasonably healthy can conquer a marathon without a Kipchoge-style crazily intense training. I would lie if I said it was easy, but it certainly is achievable.

Let me tell you about my first marathon. I was a beginner runner, 6 months postpartum, not running more than 10-20km a week, and my longest previous run was a half marathon. Yet, I somehow managed to complete a marathon (walking and crying at times) just under 5 hours. And so I believe anyone can do it. Including you!

If you feel a bit stuck and are not sure where to start, here are my top areas to consider:

  • Training

Yes, training certainly helps. If you aren’t a runner, start easy. Alternating running and walking is fine. Running slow most of the time is essential (trust me on that). Increase distance gradually. Run slow. (Oh did I already mention that?) Also, run slow!

To make your training more effective, try to get one faster run or an interval session and one longer run in every week.

  • Running events

Organised running events will help. Sign up for a parkrun (it’s a free 5K run every Saturday). Run-walking or just walking is absolutely fine at parkrun so it’s suitable for every novice. Then, enter a few races and increase distance from 5K to 10K to a half marathon. You should really try to get at least one or two half marathons in before the big day. Most training plans suggest doing at least one 20-miler, which certainly helps, but, in my opinion, is not essential as long as you are happy to go slow and walk a bit during your marathon. Having said that, the more longer runs you’ll do, the better you’ll get at long distance running.

If you’re really serious, you may consider joining a local running club. You can find more about running races and running clubs in my previous blog post.

  • Nutrition

No one can run 42.2 km without fuel. But worry not, there are plenty fuelling options for runners – from gels to sweets to carbohydrate drinks. Try some of them in advance during your training to figure out how your stomach reacts to them. Think about where to carry them on a race day. Practice consuming them while running or walking.

Some races provide nutrition at drinks stations but it’s smart to test that specific brand beforehand. Also, don’t rely on it too much in case they run out.

  • Shoes

Footwear is the most crucial thing so you need to choose wisely. Will you run mainly on road and paths? Will you train and race in the same shoes? If yes, then you need to get shoes that can do both and are most importantly comfortable. My personal tip is New Balance 1080 but there is a plethora of other shoes available. Pop into your local running shop to ask for advice.

  • Gear

And then there is the rest of your gear: socks (do not underestimate socks!), shorts, top, underwear, hat if needed. Think it through and practice wearing your gear on longer runs. Also think how will you carry your nutrition and perhaps your phone and other necessary items. Belt? Hydration vest? Pockets?

Golden running advice is: nothing new on a race day! Those brand new socks may look fancy but are you sure they won’t give you blisters? Test and try everything beforehand.

  • Mindset

Nothing is more important than the right mindset. Be honest with yourself: you will suffer during training and during the race itself. However, the sense of achievement as you cross the finish line will erase all your suffering, and I promise you, you will be proud of yourself like never before.

So how to get through the tough parts? It’s rather simple – make quitting not an option. No matter the weather, the pain, the doubts other people have about you, you will succeed. Be stubborn. Be brave. Be determined. You will do it!

(Okay, enough talking, off you go and start training!)

Brace yourself, but don’t pace yourself

I am known for starting races a bit too fast. I’m sure any guide to running or an experienced runner would advise you not to. It’s not a sensible thing to do. I get it. But hear me out.

First of all, ask yourself why do you actually run? If you run just to be fit, read no more. If you run for the adventure, for the hope of beating the former self and perhaps the person next to you, for the thrill of the unknown, and for the tiny possibility of achieving something you have not even dreamt of, then you might understand me.

Most of us will hardly become Olympic athletes (but who am I to limit your dreams) so achieving something that seems beyond our reach is our equivalent to setting a world record or snatching an Olympic medal – whether it is running further than ever before, or faster than you thought you could, or finishing first at your local parkrun (yes, I know it’s not a race).

So how does one achieve something seemingly unachievable? (I mean something unachievable to that individual, while perhaps totally normal for someone else.) Are boundaries pushed by following a plan to a tee? Are new horizons discovered by being careful? Are limits broken by being cautious and reserved? Never!

Let me tell you about my recent marathon and half marathon that took place only six days apart – that is a “mistake” no1. No one would advise you to race a half marathon six days after you raced a marathon. It’s madness. But what if you deep down know you are on form despite Mr Garmin telling you you should be resting? I ran a sub 3:30 marathon which was faster than I thought I could. And so I entered a half marathon the next weekend because I felt there is more in me. My first mile was 20 seconds faster than my half marathon PB pace. My head was saying “too fast”. So I slowed down a bit, and then the 2nd female and her “pack” overtook me. In that moment, I stopped looking at my watch and started following her like a donkey follows carrot. I decided I will be third female and no one will take that from me. And so I ran like mad, without looking back once, with my watch beeping splits some of which were stupidly fast. With every step, I felt like I am making a history – maybe not a general running history, but my own – and skipping over what I thought were my limits. I finished with a sprint just in case anyone felt like threating my position (although, as I later realised, the next female was good 3 minutes behind me). I couldn’t believe my eyes when I checked my watch and it was telling me I run 1:34:39 half marathon. The time I was aiming for was about 4 minutes slower.

And that’s why I start my races a bit too fast – because there is always a tiny possibility that I might just manage to maintain that pace and achieve something I did not dare to dreamt of. I smashed 3:28 marathon and 1:34 half because I did not pace myself and because I had the courage to epically fail. To be honest, in my case, failure is not that uncommon, but before each race I tell myself – whether I fail or succeed, either way it’ll be epic! Whether I crash or triumph, I always leave everything out there on the course.

So do carry on sensibly following your watch if that’s your style. But me, I will run with my heart, with no regrets, dizzy from the excitement that I can occasionally achieve something spectacular, or DNF trying. Either way it’ll be epic!

Running 101

Hello enthusiastic new runners! Here is a crash course in running. Everything you need to know:

  • Running gear

In principle, you don’t need any special gear to run. There is no running police to stop you jogging in your old gym trainers or barefoot (like some minimalistic runners do). The rule is that the more you run, the more running gear you’ll need. As I said, your old trainers will probably be sufficient when covering your first few kilometers per week, however, you wouldn’t want to run a marathon in them. Same applies to pretty much all items of clothing. Primark socks will do just fine if your weekly mileage is 10km. Expensive Under Armour socks and running gear snobbery can come later on…

  • Shoes

Having said that, if you were to invest in one piece of running gear, it should be shoes. But hold your horses before ordering those fancy Nikes from a dodgy seller on eBay! First of all, runners often get their running shoes half or a full size larger than their everyday shoes. It’s wise to do that if you want to keep your toenails. Secondly, you need to chose the right type of running shoe to prevent injury and keep running enjoyable. To do that, I’d recommend visiting a running shop and asking for an advice / a gait analysis. You won’t regret it.

  • Pace

You can measure your running pace either in minutes per kilometre, or minutes per mile. Miles or kilometres per hour is a speed measure for vehicles. You are not a car.

As a new runner, try not to worry about your pace too much. The important thing is that you shouldn’t all the time run as fast as you can. Let me repeat that – do not try for a personal record on every single run! Don’t! Speed should be reserved for fast days, intervals, races and similar. Most of the time, you should keep it chilled. Chilled pace means you can comfortably run and have a conversation at the same time.

  • Mileage

So how much shall I run per week? Well, there is no right answer to that question. The key is to build it up. You don’t want to jump from zero to 50km a week. Instead, gradually increase your mileage until you have a solid base. Some say that the increase in distance should not be more than 10%. I tend to disagree, but then again, I am sometimes guilty of being a running cowboy. The bottom line is – start low and make your way up to what feels beneficial and sustainable for you. The upper mileage limit is not created by an opinion of people on the Internet – it is created by your physical capabilities and time you can commit to running.

  • Races

You don’t need to be a pro athlete to enter running races (although don’t expect to be allowed into Olympics and championships just yet). With running becoming more and more popular, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll have a race within a driving distance every weekend. Normally, you register online, pay a fee and turn up on the day to run for a medal. The longer distance you choose to run, the more it’ll cost, but let’s say you can participate in a standard 5K race for around £20. Included in that price is normally a medal, your pain and suffering trying to achieve a personal best, water, a post-race snack, bag drop and (hopefully) accurately measured time of your run.

You can probably find some little local races that are considerably cheaper but your result may not be chip-timed or there may not be a medal. I personally refuse to race if there is no medal. #priorities

  • Marathon

Marathon is an actual distance. It measures 26.2 miles which is 42.2 km (or 42.195 if you like being precise). No one has ever run a “5K marathon”. Marathon is not an equivalent of a running race (or a fun run).

And yes, it is very far.

  • PB

PB does not stand for peanut butter. It means personal best – the best time you have ever run that specific distance in. It is also called PR – personal record. It does not count as a PB if you pause your watch and catch a breath during the run (just saying). At the beginning of your running journey, every other run can easily be a PB – enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t kill yourself trying to maintain a PB strike because it is not possible.

  • Running clubs

You can join a local running club to help you train and get motivated. Running club membership is considerably cheaper than a gym membership. They organise joint training sessions, normally aimed at runners of all abilities, quite often local races and other challenges as well as social events. You can probably attend a trial session(s) to see if club running is your thing.

  • Injuries

It is important to recognise injuries from niggles. I am not going to lie, the beginning of your running journey might hurt while your body is getting used to this type of movement. If on your first ever 5K run, your knees or shins hurt, chances are you are not injured, but your body is just trying to figure out what’s this new type of activity about. On the other hand, continuously ignoring niggles can easily lead to an injury. The most important thing is to learn to understand own body, however cliché that may sound.

So that was more or less everything you need to know to get started… Actually, you don’t really need to know half of this stuff. As long as you know how to tie your shoe laces, you’re good to go. Just get out and get running!

Dear new runner…

Dear new runner,

So you have embarked on the mad but rewarding journey of running. Whether you are a shiny new runner, or someone who is rediscovering their passion for running, let me share a few words because it is only four years since I started running, so I remember all the emotions and motions as if it was yesterday.

First of all, a word of warning: You are at a serious risk of having your life hijacked by this sport. Actually, running is not just a sport, it is a lifestyle. I could warn you about all the expensive pairs of shoes you soon realise you “need”, and the ever-growing medal collection that will start taking over your living room to your family’s displeasure, but I willl not mention any of that. One thing I will mention is that running is NOT bad for your knees as you’ll hear over and over (and over) from non-runners.

Running is not just about the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other. It is a physical, mental and emotional challenge. One that will potentially transform yur life, your attitudes, your points of view and your perception of time and distance. Above all, running is a spiritual journey of a sort. It’s like a pilgrimage that carries on and on, never to be completed because there is no actual destination, and this time, however cliché that sounds, the journey is the destination.

Just like most of the time in life, you will have support and encouragement of others. Just this time, quite often the “others” will be strangers on the Internet and your running club members who will understand you and your struggles better than your own family will. That is okay. And quite often, despite all the support, you will be alone to search and find your own strength, battle through setbacks and experience feelings that only you as a runner understand.

So what I would like to say to you – believe in yourself and do not let anyone or anything discourage you. Running is an activity that is all about you and you can make it whatever you want it to be. You will and should do things your way. Because your way is the right way for you. (Unless you do all your runs at race pace and don’t foam roll, in which case your way is totally wrong 😉

And finally, you will be surprised how quickly all the things that now seem impossible will be within your reach. Then you’ll realise the real reason why we all do it – to achieve something we never thought we could. And this feeling, once tasted, is so addictive that it won’t ever let you go. So good luck and congratulations because you have just taken the first step on the journey to forever change your life.

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