Miles More Fun

23rd May 2014

Heather Harris, herself a runner, finds that in comparison to some, she’s barely left the starting blocks

Forget the HS2 rail link. When it comes to travelling between London and Birmingham there’s a far cheaper and more environmentally sound option: run.

Sounds ridiculous? Tell that to the hundred runners who, every year, complete the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race from Gas Street Basin in the middle of Birmingham to Little Venice in London. The 2014 event starts at 6am on Saturday 24 May. “This year it’s more popular than ever and sold out in two days,” ultra running event organiser Dick Kearn told me.
There is a cut off time for completion of 45 hours (and resting for more than 40 minutes at a time is not permitted), but the record stands at 25 hours for men and 28 for ladies – marginally longer than it takes to fly to Australia with a stop off in Hong Kong.

So just what is the attraction of this sport, in which an estimated 70,000 people around the world competed last year, and which involves nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other for a very long time – without the distraction of a ball to kick or a hole-in-one to achieve?

“All my mates used to ask me that when I started long distance running aged 21, just as they were all partying and drinking,” said Cliff King, when I met him at his gym in Berkhamsted, where he was doing some core work in preparation for his next race.

“I’ve been training around 150 miles a week for the Viking Way Ultra. It starts at 7am from the Humber Bridge in Hull and finishes 147 miles later in Oakham, Leicestershire,” he told me as nonchalantly as if he was describing a family day out by train.

This must surely be the only sport where crossing a county or two is seen as positively attractive and where the level of support is often limited to the local wildlife. As Neil Thubron, who, together with his wife, runs the aptly named ExremeEnergy Events, explained, “Ultras can be anything from a 26.2 mile marathon distance upwards – so it would be impossible to have water stations, marshals and supporters all along the route, as the competitors can be spaced out hours apart.”

The ‘shorter’ races of around fifty miles do have checkpoints at regular intervals. Here the level of catering is renowned and is more akin to a family picnic than a sporting event. Carbohydrates such as flapjacks, sandwiches and sweets form the basis of the ‘menu’ but energy-inducing flat Coke is also an ultra runners’ favourite: after all, events usually involve missing at least four or five mealtimes.

For the hard core, there are the longer ‘self supporting races’. Here, as the name suggests, competitors have to carry their own food, drink and spare clothing… oh, and there’s also the small matter of navigating their own way, often in the dark.

“But that’s half the fun of it. Ultra running is more of a mental challenge than a physical one and getting lost is all part of the experience,” said Neil, doing little to dispel my initial suspicion that this sport is designed purely for masochists.
Kathy Tyler, 57, was, however, eager to change my opinion by regaling me with tales of the stunning scenery and the camaraderie of the ultra circuit. A veteran of more races than she can remember, Kathy took up ultra running ‘by accident’ at 35, the age at which even David Beckham was hanging up his boots. “I entered the Compton 20 mile race with a friend and we got lost and ended up doing 30. The following year we decided to try a 40 miler and really enjoyed it.” Right…

“It’s not like even a marathon when you are concerned about a race time,” she explained. “Ultras are all about completing the distance. It’s a different mindset and everyone is keen to help each other.”

There’s also the added benefit that the majority of these long distances races are off road – and forget iPods: the main distraction and inspiration seems to come from the British countryside.

“I love looking at the map and seeing all the historical landmarks we pass through,” explained Cliff, modestly not adding that he is usually at the front so the scenery passes by rather quicker than it does for the majority who adopt a walk/run strategy.

“In a 40 mile race I probably walk about 20 per cent of it, especially at night where you’re watching your footing,” said Kathy. Mary Pacitti, 46, who took up ultra running after completing a ten mile race “really slowly”, agreed. “I decided that if I was never going to be fast I might as well go for endurance,” she told me, clutching her trophy for ‘first woman’ in the 30 mile Doyen of The Downs, ending in Brighton. “Okay, so I was the only woman, but it was in December and we were running in the dark for hours, so I still show off my trophy with pride.”

Mary has recently run the Marlborough 33 for the second year and knocked an hour off her previous time. “The appeal is the off road element – I wouldn't want to run 26 miles on a road as I find the impact doesn't agree with my body. I have flat feet and am a stone overweight!”

Ironically, the more participants I met, the more I realised that far from being for the masochistic few, ultra running is arguably one of the most inclusive of all competitive sports, and it has a long provenance. According to historical documents there were even ultra runners in Victorian times – although with possibly less impressive trainers.
“The last race we organised, the 57 mile Cotswolds Way Challenge, had more women than men entered and the average age was 48,” said Neil.

Although 18 year olds can take part, the statistics back up my suspicion that running for hours on end is more appealing for the ‘more mature’ competitor. “The mental strength needed means it does attract older runners. Also there are now over 100,000 people a year running marathons, many of them over 40 and looking for a fresh challenge,” explained Neil.
As a marathon runner myself (one who can barely walk for a week after shuffling that final mile along the Embankment), the thought of running twice this distance (let alone six times) makes my feet throb and knees ache.

“You slowly increase the miles in your training so over time your body just gets used to it,” said Kathy, adding that she does do yoga and strength work in the gym to avoid injury.

“Rest is vital,” said Cliff, who last year organised the 55 mile Trail of Herts from Berkhamsted to London. “ This is the hardest thing for runners to get used to. When upping the mileage to ultra events you do need to give your body down time.”

Hearing tales of runners competing in 100 mile races well into their 70s is certainly awe-inspiring. And with the words of Mark Pacitti ringing in my ears – “I didn’t start until I was 48, after my wife persuaded me to try this ‘new experience.’… now every time I finish an ultra, I’m usually in tears, the sense of achievement is overwhelming!” – I am actually tempted to sign up for Neil’s next event.

The Chiltern Ultra Challenge, scheduled for 19 July, starts just down the road in Princes Risborough and is only 31 miles. Barely more than a marathon. According to Cliff that should only take me about five and a half hours. I might just go for it. Or I could watch a couple of feature films back to back, fly to New York or drive to the Lake District…

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