Ultramarathon madness, from Morocco to Warwickshire

In Races, Ultramarathons by All This Running Around8 Comments

Until this year, I had pretty much assumed that completing a marathon was the ultimate achievement in running. I may have heard of longer races, but I wasn’t familiar with the word ‘ultramarathon’ and I certainly didn’t have any understanding of the potential distances involved. Once again, Chris McDougall’s ‘Born To Run’ was to be my introduction to what seems to be, on paper at least, an insane sport.

I learned that an ultramarathon is defined as any race longer than 26.2 miles in length, although the shortest distance commonly accepted as an ultra is 50K. There are hundreds of these races all over the world every year, with the Leadville 100, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and the Western States being among the most famous. There’s a ton of stuff on the internet about these and other events, with some truly incredible accounts of endurance running.

My interest was piqued. For the avoidance of doubt, I am a long way from being able to run even a ‘normal’ marathon. I could run a half marathon, possibly 15 miles reasonably comfortably, but the thought of running 30, 50, 100 miles… It’s basically inconceivable at the moment, but it’s something I’m going to aim for in the next few years. However, having read all this stuff about various ultramarathons all over the world, naturally I got the urge to check one out. See what goes on. See if the competitors are all kind of mad looking. (They’ve got to be, haven’t they?) The only problem is that I live in Warwickshire, a county in the middle of England famous for William Shakespeare and little else. It’s not exactly a mecca for ultra runners. The odds of there being something happening close to home were approximately nil. Or so I thought.

It turns out that not only is there an ultramarathon held every year in my neck of the woods, the route actually passes within about a mile and half of my front door. The ULTRArace.100 is a single stage, 100 mile road race that winds its way from the racecourse at Stratford-upon-Avon, down through the Cotswolds and back again in one almighty (and I would imagine tortuous) circuit. I couldn’t quite believe my luck at having something like this happen so close to home. My plan was to run down to the point at which they pass my village, then maybe catch up with them again another ten miles or so into the race. Fast forward another twenty hours, and perhaps I could watch some of them as they came in to finish. At which point it occurred to me that if I was going to make such an effort to watch these nutters¬†dedicated athletes, I might as well try and make myself useful.

I got in touch with Rory Coleman, founder of ULTRArace. ULTRArace currently organise seven ultramarathon events in the UK and Ireland. Fancy running from John O’Groats to Lands End in 16 days, running 55+ miles each consecutive day? Well, you can. Or if that’s a bit too much, you could take it easy with a gentle 50 mile run through the Brecon Beacons right down to Cardiff. Clearly these races reflect something of Rory’s character, and when you look at his list of achievements, it’s not hard to see what.

Rory has completed 716 marathons. Over 170 ultramarathons. Ran from London to Lisbon in 43 days, which equates to 30 miles a day for 43 days. Completed the Flora 1000 Mile Challenge. Oh, and he’s completed the Marathon des Sable 8 times. Which, by the way, is what he’s currently doing for a ninth time as I type this.

The Marathon des Sable is generally acknowledged as being the toughest foot race on earth. It’s a six day race through the Sahara desert, covering approximately 156 miles. The longest stage is about 50 miles. That’s 50 miles running through desert terrain, across rock fields and mammoth sand dunes whilst being baked by the Sahara sun. And you have to carry all your own food, water and supplies. It bears repeating: Rory is currently competing in this event FOR THE NINTH TIME. He’s 50 years old and is currently in position 204 of over 800 competitors.

Wow.

Here’s a video from the first stage, which took place yesterday.

It probably goes without saying that I cannot wait to meet Rory. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to ask him a few questions and maybe get the benefit of some of his vast running experience. But to be honest, I’m just looking forward to being a (small) part of the day, and doing whatever I can to help those brave/mental enough to run 100 miles in one sitting. On day one I’ll be at some of the early checkpoints, but on day two I think I’ll be at the 90 mile mark, so it will be great to give some encouragement to the people coming through at that point, so close to the finish.

The race takes place in June, and needless to say I’ll be writing about it afterwards. I have a strong suspicion that Rory Coleman might be the subject of a few future entries as well.

On a final, personal note for this entry, it seems I have managed to overcome the problems I have had with my blisters. But once again, as one problem abates, another appears to take its place. I’ve started getting some quite uncomfortable stiffness in my left achilles tendon. I ran in my Lunas for about seven miles on Sunday, and if I’m honest I could feel it right from the off. It’s not debilitating enough to stop me from running altogether, but it’s annoying and I’m concerned about making it worse. Consequently I haven’t been out today, which despite the awful weather is very annoying. With under three weeks to go until my next half marathon, it’s touch and go as to whether I’ll manage to complete it in my Lunas. It would be a bit weird to go back to my Mizunos, but I’d rather enjoy the run as opposed to worrying and possibly damaging myself. We’ll see how it goes.

Shaun

You can find out more about the Marathon des Sables here: http://runningsahara.com/

And if you want to feel extremely ordinary, have a look at Rory Coleman’s website:¬†http://www.rorycoleman.co.uk/