The Wall Ultra

A month in the life of training for your first ultra-marathon

James Randall is currently in training for his first ultra marathon, The Wall. This iconic ultra takes runners on a 69-mile route along Hadrian’s Wall. James shares his training updates and thoughts in the run-up to the big day.

Easter Weekend

Running is always a learning curve. Even as someone who’s done 3 marathons and run 300+ miles since Christmas, attempting a 26.2-mile training run without being familiar with the route was a ludicrous decision. I’d planned my route but didn’t realise that route was without pavements for many miles. It meant running in the road in busy Bank Holiday traffic when Donington Park was preparing for an event. It meant trying to cross the narrow, historical Swarkestone Bridge. It meant I ran along the canal instead of more roads without pavements and took a wrong turn. All of these things made me feel a bit uneasy, and when your brain starts to feel uneasy on long runs, your legs start to punish you too. Even though I think I got my pacing better than on my long run to Chatsworth last month, I was aching a long way from home. On the plus side, I didn’t need to reapply Vaseline at any stage of the run, whereas en route to Chatsworth I had to stop several times.

Pacing is the main thing I’m finding tricky. I find it hard to run slow. That’s not a humblebrag – I find it hard to run quickly as well. I, like many, have a natural running pace and trying not to run at that pace is tough. To put it another way – my marathon PB is 3:40, and my half marathon PB is 1:35. If I were to match my marathon PB over the whole 69-mile route, I’d win the race. And that is not going to happen. It’s far more likely I’d end up in hospital after 30 miles. To have the best chance of finishing, and of finishing in good shape, I need to slow down to around 12 minutes a mile. I will slow down in the race as well – almost every single ultra runner slows down significantly after 30 miles, as the body starts to suffer. But 12 minutes a mile just feels too slow, and that’s a mental barrier I need to get over. My marathon on Good Friday was 4:22:23 (or about 10 minutes and 1 second per mile) albeit with a final half mile of 4:11, just to see how much I had in the tank. I need to slow down even more.

Saturday’s half turned into a 15.1-mile run, with a cup of tea and slice of banana bread with my Great Aunt halfway through providing a lovely break. I was slightly quicker than my Friday marathon pace and did my final mile in 7:46 which was extremely pleasing. I felt mentally and physically strong for the vast majority of the run; my legs were slightly stiff after Friday’s exertions but that was to be expected.

After a rest day on Sunday, I woke up as usual about 6:30 on Easter Monday, but I felt exhausted in every sense. I think the efforts had caught up with me so I had a couple more hours sleep. Due to the appalling weather forecast, and to get myself used to running at different times of the day, today’s marathon was always going to be in the afternoon but it’s not good to feel this tired before you even start. It’s not going to be pretty. However, it’s also an opportunity to run at a more appropriate pace and see how that feels. If I don’t have the energy to run “normally” I’ll simply have to go slow.

It didn’t quite go to plan – I was slightly quicker than I was on Friday. I’m starting to get a little concerned now – it’s not a “nice-to-have” to slow down, it’s an absolute must. Towards the end of April, I will attempt a 35-mile run and that will be critical in terms of getting my pacing right for the big day.

Thursday 5 April

I did a 4-mile run when I got home from work. I was going to do it on both Tuesday and Wednesday but just felt too tired. The sunshine on Thursday helped and I stretched my legs a little to do the 4 in 30:49.

Friday 6 April

Another evening run, this time 10.5-miles in just under an hour and a half. Nice and steady but enough to draw a sweat and enough to justify picking up fish, chips and mushy peas on my way home. I will have a rest day on Saturday and then do a half on Sunday.

Sunday 8 April

I was planning on treating myself to a few beers on Sunday afternoon / evening and watching the end of the US Masters, so I went out for the half nice and early. I managed to control the pace early on and reached 6.55 miles in 1:02:05, and did the second split in 56:19, giving me a steady time of 1:58:24. I felt absolutely fine afterwards, with seemingly little in the way of ramifications from my monster Easter weekend. However, I was intent on having a quiet couple of weeks to give my body a proper chance to recover.

9-20 April

The furthest distance I did in this time was 7.3 miles, in a very leisurely 1:16:20, which is much closer to the pace I needed to be at. In all, I did 6 runs totalling 37.3 miles, including one bout of interval training.

21-23 April

On Saturday I went out with no rucksack, no belt and just 330ml of water to do a steady half. I felt comfortable the whole way, finished in 2:08:26 and was pleased with the pacing effort. Sometimes it’s nice to run without the gear on and without worrying about constant refuelling. On Sunday I did 7 miles, without timing it, and on Monday evening another 5.3. For the remainder of the week, I focused on core exercise and stretches to prepare myself for Saturday’s big effort.

28 April

I woke up at 4:30am, and had a breakfast of muesli with a banana, toast and tea. I then gave myself a couple of hours to prepare to leave the house at 7. In my rucksack and drinks belt, I had 1.2l of water, 3 bottles of Lucozade Sport, gels, sweets, sports beans, chocolate, flapjacks and biltong. I’d also stashed some more Lucozade and water at a friend’s house around 32.5 miles into my route, which was taking me from Derby to Matlock Bath and back again. I still find running 10-minute miles more comfortable, despite me needing to go slower, so instead I decided to run 5 miles and then walk 5 minutes whilst taking on food / drink in the walking breaks. I stuck to this pretty well, although after 15 miles I also started drinking my Lucozades regularly. I found the 5-minute walking spells left me quite refreshed, although the longer the run went on the harder it was to start running again. The persistent drizzle gave me significant chafing problems (will definitely put a spare pair of shorts / socks in my drop bag for the real thing) and I had to apply copious amounts of emergency Vaseline after about 32 miles. But all in all I felt ok; I finished in 7:18:18 and whilst the prospect of another 29 miles on top is daunting, it doesn’t feel impossible right now. And that’s quite important…

29 April

A 4-mile recovery run, interspersed with some unplanned quick bursts aided by my Jack Russell, went just fine. It was nice and dry and helped ease the legs. 7 weeks to go!

training for your first ultra

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