Q&A: Ultrarunning with Jess Mullan

Jess Mullan is a running enthusiast. We first came across her running journey in her amazing blog on Runr. Since then, we’ve followed her journey closely and have loved seeing her updates on marathons, her first ultramarathon, training and so on.

Jess shares her running story, talks about her best experiences, why running is important to her and her top tips for getting started. Read on!

The interview:

Hi Jess, great to have you on board and thanks for sharing your story. What should we know about you before we start?

Hi! My name is Jess – I grew up in the mountains of North Wales and after leaving to go to university for a few years, I quickly realised I was a country bumpkin and moved back. I have the best collie dog in the world (I am totally not biased) and I am an average runner. I think that is all that you need to know. 

I started an Instagram account, @thisgirlwillrunultras, a year and a half ago when I entered my first ultramarathon. The main aim of this account was to promote that I am an incredibly normal person who has a 9-5 job and running is something I do for fun.

I do not have a perfect body, I do not look really attractive and smiley whilst I run, and sometimes I just don’t want to run and want to curl up on the sofa with a mountain of chocolate. I think Instagram has a lot of good motivational people, but it also has a lot of sugar-coated views. I always try and portray that what I do anyone can do, it was also a way of me talking about running constantly without winding my friends up anymore (who are slightly fed up of hearing about it).

Thanks. So, back to the beginning. What does exercise and, in particular, running mean to you?

Exercise and running is such a massive part of my life. When I have had a hard day or have been stuck inside I always feel better after a run or a workout. Through running I have made some fantastic friends and reconnected with other friends. Running has taken me to so many places that I would never have visited and let me experience so many different atmospheres, from running with 70,000 people in the Paris Marathon, to running through a deserted bog in the Scottish borders. 

Running has also taught me a lot about myself, from where my physical and mental strengths lie to where my weaknesses are. When you put yourself in a position where you are mentally and physically exhausted and you have to get yourself through, you realise how strong you actually are. 

I think as a society we always talk about the importance of physical exercise, but as a society we do not do enough to help individuals get out there and try something new. I went from being an active child to being an overweight self-conscious teenager that hated P.E. This was because I wasn’t competitive, I had zero hand-eye co-ordination and I was hopeless at any team sport. We need to do more in schools to highlight that there are a million and one different ways to be active, and everyone is different. 

When and how did you start running?

I started running in 2014. I was going into my final year of university when my father died in a climbing accident whilst on holiday in the Alps. I had really got into climbing and mountaineering at university after spending my teen years being completely inactive and disinterested in sport and activity.

After my father died, I developed a fear of mountaineering and every time I tried to get out in the hills I would get really upset and scared. I stopped getting out and things slowly got worse until it got to the stage where I had dropped out of university and I couldn’t get out of bed.

After starting to see medical professionals a doctor told me to start trying to set myself little goals, so I set myself a goal of going for a little walk every day. This seemed like a huge task at the time, but eventually, I looked forward to my daily walk, and somewhere along the line these walks turned into jogs. I never recorded how far I ran or how fast I went, it was purely about getting out of the house for me. Slowly my mental health recovered and I went back to finish my degree. I never stopped running and started to get the idea of wanting to complete a half marathon. 

Over a year after my first jog, I entered the Anglesey half marathon, bought a running watch and started training for the first time. I ran that first race with my dad’s brother and throughout that race, I felt so close to my dad. He was a runner but we had never got the chance to run together, as I grew up thinking it was a crazy hobby. I ran over the finish line feeling amazing and within days of finishing that race I had booked my next race.

9 months after that first race I decided to set myself a goal of running 12 races over 12 months to raise money for the local mountain rescue team. Doing these races was full-on, and there were plenty of highs and lows. By the end of the year, I was exhausted and ready for a bit of a break from racing, but I didn’t stop running. I think I realised how much I have a passion for running when I still had the drive to get out every day, even when I wasn’t training for any race in particular. 

Tell us about your best running experiences?

It’s really hard to say what my best experiences have been, as most races and events have really high moments and really low moments and that is sort of the beauty of it. I really can’t choose a top event but I do have a top 3. They all stick with me for different reasons.

 Firstly, Tiree Ultramarathon – my first (and only to date) ultramarathon has to be up there. This was a 35-mile run around the island of Tiree in Scotland. This island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited and would recommend visiting to everyone (even if you don’t want to run an ultramarathon). The route ran over 15 beaches.

Before the race, I thought those 15 beaches would kill me, but on the day they blew me away. Every beach was different and had a unique beauty. It was like running in the Caribbean without the immense heat, palm trees or tourists, crystal blue seas and white sands. It wasn’t just the scenery, but the people. Every islander came out to support this race – there were farmers in their field cheering us on as we ran, there were elderly people in their gardens with home-baked cakes and all the locals came out for the celebratory ceilidh in the evening. What better way to finish an ultra than dancing all night long?  

My second favourite would have to be the Snowdon Marathon. This is a mostly road marathon that loops around Snowdon. This is my home ground. There is nothing better than running past places you have fond memories of. This race passes where I used to go on family holidays, where I used to go on school trips, where I got married and other memories – I find that always keeps me going.

This is also a race my dad used to do when I was a child. I have a photo of me as a 2-year-old being held up to the barrier as my dad is finishing the race. Finishing a race that you have grown up watching, that you never thought you would be able to run is an amazing feeling. I have just completed this race for the second time and it was equally as good.

Finally, my third favourite is probably the most unusual race I have completed. This was the Cross Bay half. This is a half marathon that runs across Morecambe Bay. You do not know the course or the start time before you start. The race organisers wait until the tide is going out and then ride out on a quad bike placing cones – the front runners chase the quad bikes following the cones across the sand and everyone else follows.

The race briefing involves them telling you that if the sand moves too much, then it is probably quicksand, so you should run a bit quicker. They explain that the race cut off is non-negotiable as the tide comes in faster than a galloping horse, so when they tell you to jump on a quad bike you better move fast. This race goes through waist-deep river channels and plenty of wobbly sand, but the feeling of being in the middle of a sandy bay, where you can’t see any land in any direction is out of this world. 

Have you had any bad experiences?

As I said above, most races have sections when you struggle and at the time feel like the worst moments. The Tiree Ultramarathon was one of my favourite races, but it is also the only race that has ever made me cry. I have a massive cow phobia and what I didn’t realise when I booked this race was that the island is full of cows. I managed to survive the first few cow fields, but at mile 13 I reached a field full of boisterous cows that were surrounding the stile I needed to cross. I did the grown-up rational thing of bursting into hysterical tears until a fellow runner saved me. I think this did make the rest of the race easier once I got that out my system.

In general, I think the worst race I have completed is the Rhyl 10 mile race. This runs for 5-miles along the coast and turns around and runs 5-miles back again. Rhyl is famous for its caravan parks. Running in a straight line with your sea on the left and a million caravans on the right gets a bit old after a while. I find any races where you can see miles ahead quite hard, I also always try and choose races with beautiful views and lots to see as this is what keeps me going. 

Ultramarathons require serious mental strength. When the going gets tough, what motivates and inspires you?

I have only completed one ultramarathon so far, so I am no expert. I started running as a way to sort out all the thoughts in my head, and I still use long runs as a way of clearing my head. When I am out training I get lost in my thoughts – I planned most of my wedding whilst out running! It’s amazing how quickly the time passes when you have things to think about and beautiful views.

I also find running with friends passes the time – I now go for runs instead of having a coffee with friends, and within a few hours we have caught up on each other’s lives and the miles have flown by. In the Ultra, I found that competitors were all really friendly and everyone wanted to chat with each other. This is kind of why I fell in love with ultrarunning – because you have less time pressure you are more likely to support each other to get through. As part of the training, I do shorter sessions like hill repetitions, speed sessions, etc. I always find these sessions harder to get into mentally, as you are always having to check your watch and so you can’t get lost in your thoughts. 

Finally, when I am running a long race and things get a bit tough, I try and dedicate each mile to one of my friends and family. I then think about memories with that person over that mile, this always makes me smile and lifts my mood. It also helps break the race into mile sections, rather than thinking how far you have to run. This was a tip that I learnt from a book called ‘Running like a girl’ by Alexandra Heminsley. This is an amazing book for anyone getting into running or anyone looking at running their first marathon.

Where do you begin when it comes to preparing for long-distance events?

I am lucky because I am a person who is obsessed with tick lists, making the following of training plans a lot easier. My husband, on the other hand, is rubbish at training, therefore, for a recent race, I made him a sticker chart (it’s worked well so far). I try to run around 4 times a week and do some kind of strength workout twice a week, usually a circuits class or a home workout video. I think people have the perception that you must be running miles and miles every night to train for an ultra, but that isn’t the case. In my training for the ultramarathon I never ran over 26 miles, but I did do a lot of back to back long runs meaning I would do a long run of 16-26miles followed by a second long run (10-18miles) the next day. 

Over this year I have learnt more about listening to my body and making sure that when I am exhausted I miss a training session rather than running myself into the ground. There are so many training plans out there, and you have to find out what works for you. Being a female I know at certain times of the month I am not going to feel as strong as others, and that is ok. 

I also did a lot of race food preparation. I am a massive foodie and part of the appeal for ultrarunning was being able to eat real food instead of energy gels. When I started introducing solid food, I kept getting a stitch, so I had to slowly add different foods. I have now found that my go-to foods are primula squeezy cheese or peanut butter on a bagel, cut up into tiny pieces. I also eat a lot of dried fruit and flapjacks.

What would you say to anyone interested in getting into running?

If you want to be a runner, you can do it. So many people talk to me saying ‘I would love to run but I just don’t enjoy it’. If you are that person then maybe running isn’t for you, but there will be another form of sports activity out there that you will love. Running is advertised as this activity that everyone should do to keep fit, but I don’t think it fits everyone. I think the most important thing to become a runner is knowing that you enjoy it.

If you enjoy getting out but are nervous, feel unfit, or have other worries, try not to put pressure on yourself. Go outside and simply start running. Don’t take a watch or a running app or anything that is going to make you feel stressed about how far, or how fast, you are running and just run. Take a friend or call up a family member and run whilst chatting to them. The best thing I learnt when I started running was that I didn’t need to be out of breath at all times. I mainly plod along chatting to my friends, and I think that is a good indicator of what your natural pace is. 

I find that sometimes stepping away from a goal (running a 5km, completing a certain race in a certain time, etc.) can be a really useful tool to make you realise why you like something and why you are doing it.  

If anyone reading this has any questions or wants to chat through getting into running I am always happy to chat. I am no expert, but I do know how scary it was when I was starting out, and would love to support anyone through this (message me on Instagram).

What plans do you have for the future?

After the marathon last weekend, I am ready for a bit of a rest. I will still be running, but taking the pressure off for a few months and concentrating on giving my body a bit of a rest. Next year I hope to complete the Highland Fling 53-mile race in Scotland. I am currently entered in the ballot for the race, so fingers crossed for that! If I don’t get in then I may try and enter into more fell races as this is something that I am fairly new to, and due to being very clumsy, not very good at, at the moment.

Outside of racing, I would like to focus on supporting more individuals who want to run, helping them take those first steps and also helping individuals who are new to running out onto the trails. I think off-road running is something that looks really scary at the start, and I would love to be able to encourage people that the trails are open to everyone.  

A massive thank you, Jess, for sharing your story.

You can follow Jess on Instagram – @thisgirlwillrunultras.

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