Last updated: 14-Mar-19
By Luke Jarmey
10 Questions / 3 World class runners. The heads-up on multi-day ultra running from the best in the business. Three amazing runners sprinkle some of their pixie dust on some insightful questions. First on the start line is Damian Hall: Sarah Lavender Smith and Robbie Britton still to come.
Q. Ok, let’s start on your background. When did you first start running ridiculous distances? And at what point did this morph into multi-day racing?
A. I ran my first marathon in 2012, dressed as a toilet. I was raising money for Water Aid, rather than an ill-advised pub bet. I’m a journalist and had been badgering the editor of Outdoor Fitness & Adventure to let me write about it. He totally called my bluff and invited me to run an ultra marathon and write about that instead. So, I completed the 69-mile The Wall, over two days, the same year. The marathon was a love-hate thing: I loved the sense of achievement, the atmosphere and toilet-based puns – though “You look a bit flushed mate!” did get a bit wearisome the 23rd time. And I hated all the tarmac.
The ultra though was a love-love thing. The camaraderie, scenery and – at risk of sounding like an American life coach – the emotional journey, were all very affecting. I knew instantly I wanted to do more ultras. The next year I did my first 100km, first 100-miler and in January 2014 the 268-mile Spine Race. It’s a multi-day race, but a single-stage, i.e. the clock is always ticking. The Spine became an obsession and I did it again the next year. I’ve done three multi-stage races to date: The Dragon’s Back, The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica and the Marathon des Sables (MdS) this year. I’ve done UTMB twice and, as I’ve yet to finish in under 24 hours, I guess that’s been a multi-day race for me too. I’ve also run the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which took over 10 days. That made me a bit tired. And I probably ate too much custard.
Q. Going into that first multi-day event, did you have any particular preconceptions about that style of racing vs single-day affairs?
A. My first ultra was a multi-stage (two-day) race. As well as worrying about simply whether I could cover the overall distance, I was very anxious about how my legs and body would feel on the morning of day two, after covering a distance greater than I ever had before the previous day. I had run one marathon at that point and could barely get out of bed the next morning, let alone run. So, I was cacking it.
Q. Now, then and since, which of these have been proved true and false?
A. My concerns were valid. My legs felt worse than they ever had before, even after a massage, but then my training had been naive and minimal. However, I didn’t see that I had any choice but to continue. I desperately wanted to see what was possible. Plus, if I didn’t complete the race, I wouldn’t get paid by the magazine which has been a good motivator down the years. You soon learn your body can go on almost indefinitely if your mind wants it to. Your body just likes to pretend it can’t. It can be a bit of a fibber.
At MDS. Photo credit: Susie Chan.
Q. Diving deeper into this for a second, why do you think some of these misconceptions exist around multi-day racing?
A. If there is a misconception around the sport, it’s probably that only the super-fit need apply. But I’m constantly amazed by the ages, backgrounds and shapes of runners who achieve great things. It’s mostly in the mind. But if you train well, you’re then less dependent on the mind.
Q. Looking at it from a different angle, have there been any unforeseen aspects that have surprised you?
A. I guess beforehand I hadn’t considered the camaraderie, atmosphere and the huge sense of goodwill you get, especially from volunteers, at events. That’s really special, though it doesn’t just apply to multi-day or multi-stage races, rather all ultras I’ve done. At multi-stage races there tends to be a lot more hanging about and socialising after the day’s racing is done, so they feel more like a holiday. I loved that aspect of MdS. No internet (you could send one email but not access your inbox, thankfully), no screens or external distractions. Just hanging out with like-minded folk, doing that really old-fashioned thing of talking face to face. It felt odd at first, but we got used to it.
Q. So moving on to race prep, obviously every event is different, but in general how does your training approach differ to a single-day ultra?
A. Back-to-back longer runs is the obvious one. I might do more of those, but not that many as they’re risky. And if you have to carry a bit of kit in the race, as in MdS or the Spine Race, I practise with that, building up gradually. A lot depends on the terrain and climate, too, and I prepare as specifically as I can for that. If it’s a hilly one, strength becomes even more important. For MdS it’s a surprisingly fast race, so speed work would help there.
Q. Does your nutrition tend to stay the same? I could imagine certain ‘quick energy hit’ products may prove unpalatable day after day…
A. Some races, like The Dragon’s Back and TCC, are catered, so you know you’re able to recover well nutritionally with good-quality food and lots of it. For MdS it’s whatever you’re willing to carry, but that’s part of the appeal to me, counting the grams and calories, playing chess with it all. But yes, the longer the race, the more likely I am to be repulsed by what I was happily eating at the start, so variety is key. And I know I’ll do better if I have ‘real’ food. I’m a big fan of 33Shake‘s all-natural, mostly-organic, very well thought-through fare. I’m not sure I’ve ever gone off cheese or custard either. Sometimes though, things like chocolate have been a race-saver. To be honest, I’ll eat absolutely anything.
Q. Right 3 quick questions to finish… hardest multi day race you’ve run?
A. Easy. The Spine Race.
Q … dream event you’ve yet to run?
A. Tor des Géants. I hope to be there in 2018.
Q. And finally, any parting words of advice for the first time multi-day racer?
A. Always save a bit for the next day, eat well and prioritise sleep and recovery. But prepare to be surprised by what the body’s capable of. If your mind wants it enough, the body will normally follow. And vass your nips and bits.
About the writer: Outdoor journalist and GB trail-ultra runner Damian Hall has finished on the podium at the Spine Race, Dragon’s Back Race (5th OA) and the 2016 UK Trail Ultra Championships, and set the FKT for the 630-mile South West Coast Path. He’s supported by Contours Trail Running Holidays, Inov-8, Suunto and 33Shake, and you can find more from him on Facebook, Instagram (ultra_damo) and Strava.