Is modern life just too easy? Do we have a deep-seated need to punish ourselves? Whatever the reason, extreme sporting challenges are on the rise. Ultrarunning races scratch this itch by taking competitors beyond what most people consider humanly possible, or sane.
I write this as someone who has run at least 2500 miles for each of the last five years and heading towards 3000 miles this year. My running has grown from hobby to near-obsession. I love it. The sense of traveling huge distances with nothing more than a good pair of trainers. Well, actually plenty more but I’ll get onto that shortly.
I’ve I moved from marathons to an annual 32 mile Dartmoor Discovery ultra, then Race to the Stones and most recently (my legs are still elevated and iced as I type this) the Jurassic Coast 100 mile ultra. Running my first 100-mile race last weekend took me 32 hours to cover the distance and 16,000 foot of ascent. There were hills, trails, tears, toil, blisters, and swollen ankles — I absolutely loved it.
Afterward, I spoke to Justin Nicholas, Race Director. I wanted to get his tips on what technology helped, but first asked about the attraction of ultra events? “It isn’t really about going fast, it’s more about the journey. All of our events are as much about the exploration and adventure as they are races. It’s ok to walk and it’s definitely ok to eat. They take people through some spectacular coastal, moorland or mountainous terrain. No Limits Photography captured that for us this year with a film give a real taste of what it’s like to be involved. Film can do this now: inspire people about what it’s really like to take part.”
What used to be a secret pursuit of the crazy or obsessed is, in our social media age, now seen and shared by all manner of people. It seems that many see a film like this and wonder if they could do it too. Events are embracing this too, no longer just aiming at extreme athletes.
“We cater for walkers and runners at our events, and there certainly seems to be a growing community of people looking for adventures in exciting locations. We don’t particularly target any groups. Most of our events are now listed with ITRA and UTMB and we therefore now see people joining us from all over the world.”
With ultra events, there has been a booming market for technology and kit to support runners. Nicholas reminded me that sometimes low-tech is just as good though. “It’s interesting that specialist watches, smartphones, and other GPS devices have become commonplace at running events. People can get obsessed with the direction arrow, often making simple mistakes, rather than using basic navigation techniques. While they certainly are useful tools, our winner at the Devon Coast to Coast and the Jurassic Coast 100 chose to use a handheld map.”
“Poles have definitely gained popularity and become far more accepted at UK ultra events. Their benefits on steep slopes can’t be ignored, but used badly, they can also be a hindrance. Sports nutrition has evolved to produce some liquid products capable of keeping you fuelled for an entire 100-mile race. We also see an equal number of people at the sharp end of races using nothing more than real food.”
While I ran the 100 miles, Nicholas’ words rang in my ears. I had plenty of time to reflect on what technology was really helping and which I could do without. I’d come a long way from when I started running by timing intervals on an old Casio stopwatch. Now, with my phone, chargers, packs, watch, shoes, and headphones I was probably carrying a good $2k of kit with me.
So here’s the result of all that thinking and running. This is the advice I wish I had before I ran that 100 miles, and some that would have been handy before some of the shorter runs I’ve taken on.
Smart Running Watches
While you don’t need a watch to start running, being able to track your run with a GPS feature enables you to see how you are progressing. There is a range of makes that offer entry-level GPS features. I’ve always used Garmin watches for their reliability and battery life. Suunto is another up and coming brand with some excellent and great value watches.
Most watches can be set up to sync with an online service to keep track (and share if you like) you progress. This not only uncovers your improvement but can also connect you with other runners. Garmin Connect, for example, offers an app that provides a range of coaching features that other services (like the Strava app I’ll talk about later) will charge for. Because you have purchased the watch you get these for free.
Whichever watch you go for check whether it can upload straight to an app, has a good battery life, can track your heart rate and lets you customize the data on display while you run.
As I’ve transitioned to longer distances that battery life has become the main driver. For me, the new Garmin 945 I’ve been trying boasts 2 weeks battery life in watch mode and up to 36 hours in GPS tracking mode. I was skeptical about these figures. Even the previous Garmin 925 hadn’t managed this longevity. But on my 32-hour run, it lasted without charging. Well, it would have, although I did charge half way around. I didn’t need to because it still had a good 20% at the end but I didn’t want to risk losing that massive trail of data.
The 945 also offers some nice Smartwatch features. I can tether to my smartphone, check messages, weather, track sleep, provide sunrise and sunset times (something that has now become significant in my longer runs) as well as offering ongoing training advice right on the wrist.
New Running Shoes Design And Materials
Next up is finding the right shoes. The level of variety, materials, and designs on offer in running shoes has blossomed over recent years. This can make it bewildering where to start. The best thing to do, to begin with, is buying a pair from your local running shop who will (usually) be able to film you running on a treadmill to find out what sort you need: supportive, neutral or lightweight.
Along with expert advice, you will feel very different in each shoe. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to try different styles of shoes. I started in a supportive shoe to correct an overpronation (foot roll) but after a couple of years found that a lightweight shoe actually solved the roll more effectively by getting me on the wider front part of my foot.
Because of this, I’m still a big fan of the Nike Free series of shoes. These are designed for no more than 10 miles, but for me, they’ve been great at anything up to 60 miles. Everyone’s body is different so there are no hard and fast rules. Listen to what your body tells you about the shoes you try as this is often more useful than what the experts say and don’t be afraid to think outside the box in terms of what shoes you use.
With the 100 mile race, I gave in to advice that I needed more grip and cushioning for that kind of distance. The Altra Superior 4.0 and Altra Timp 1.5 shoes offered a similar free-run feel. They had a small heel and weren’t too stiff. But still, after the race, I still wonder if the Timp 1.5’s were too stiff. My hunt goes on for a Nike Free flexible shoe with off-road grip.
On the road, I’ve been impressed with Nike’s Zoom Air Pegasus. They use an innovative foam for cushioning long-distance runs. On the road, I love how they bounce along and encourage forward motion with a role to each step. This is extended by the toe to the midfoot inner sleeve. I also liked the back of the shoe that tapers away from the heel for comfort around the Achilles tendon.
The design here draws on some old and new materials in an intelligent way. With Nike, I know that any novel features will have been well tested. It’s a comfort that I value as I find other shoe-makers sometimes allow too much novelty to creep in. I will be doing more running in these and look forward to trying the new Zoom Pegasus 36 version as well as the Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail option.
Another contender at the lightweight end of the spectrum is the Fresh Foam shoes from New Balance. Fresh Foam Zante Pursuit use a soft and responsive foam engineered midsole. Following the less-is-more rhetoric common in ultra running, they have laser-cut out perforations to further reduce weight, increase speed but still maintain the scaffold of cushioning. Similarly, the Fresh Foam Zante Solas take this light bouncy approach to the extreme.
Both these shoes use what New Balance call FuelCell technology. The midsole foam is designed to deliver a unique underfoot liveliness. Each compression is returned with a spring that contributes to motion. It may sound like a small thing, but repeat this thousands of times in a run and even a tiny percentage of a performance enhancement can be significant.
Sock Tech Matters More Than You Think
You may think that if you’ve seen one sock you’ve seen them all. But the amount to design, materials, and technology that goes into a modern running sock is on a par with running shoes.
Before attempting the Jurassic Coast 100 I’d not really thought about what socks I wore. I just grabbed any old sports sock and headed out the door. But with the extended duration on my feet, I knew I needed to find a sock that would reduce the chance of blisters and not slip around inside my shoe. A good sock will feel good, offer a little cushioning and wick away any moisture. For me, this came down to either the Injinji and Inov-8 offerings.
The Inov-8 Merino Mid Sock is, as its name suggests, a mid-ankle length sock made of merino wool. This design and materials mean that it is durable and long lasting but also breathable and quick-drying too. Merino wool is a pretty incredible material that keeps feet warm in cold and wet conditions. The socks mix in nylon and spandex too to create structured support including underfoot padding for comfort.
The Injinji Trail Midweight Mini come up to a similar point on the ankle. But unlock most other socks they offer glove-like toes. This not only feels snug on the feet but keeps each toe from rubbing against its neighbor. It feels a bit weird at first but I soon warmed to the sensation.
With each toe protected, skin-on-skin friction is reduced to protect your foot from blisters and hot spots. Each of the foot-digits is wrapped in sweat-wicking material to keep them drier than traditional socks. The design also separates the toes slightly which means that if you have a forefoot running style you can use your whole foot to propel yourself forward.
Running Apps Inspire And Connect
The choice between running apps is a bit like choosing between Xbox and PlayStation consoles. If you have friends on one platform then it makes life easier if you use the same. Whether Strave, Gramin Connect, Map My Run, Run Keeper or another of the running apps, being able to track, share, discuss and compare your runs with other people is a big benefit.
For me, Strava has the edge on other apps, and not just because it’s the one most of my running friends use. It has more in-depth social connection features than its competitors. The system of breaking a run down into small segments that can be compared to others on overlapping routes is still a central distinguisher. But Strava as also embraced the social-network side of running apps the most. You can comment on other people’s runs and tag friends when you mention them. You can add likes (Kudos) as well as share your runs easily on social media.
Each run can have photos attached (or automatically pulls them in from Instagram) so that my Strava feed looks a lot more like Facebook that it used to. You can even add stand-alone posts that appear in your feed even if you haven’t exercised.
One thing I’d like it to have is a Like option on comments to shortcut the need (temptation) to thank people for their words of support via addition comments. I’d also like to be able to add new shoes to my record in the app — something you can do but only on the website.
Audible has been another regular app I’ve used during my long training runs. Listening to audiobooks, like listening to music, not only passes the time but adds another dimension to running that I always look forward to.
For ultras like the Jurassic Coast 100, Komoot has been essential for some route finding. Not only can you import race route files, but once imported you can download the detailed maps for use in airplane mode. This means that you can preserve battery on long runs while still being able to navigate (GPS tracking continues in airplane mode).
Additionally, Komoot offers advice and analysis of the route you input. This not only includes the distance and elevation as Strava does, but also the type of terrain underfoot, how technically challenging the paths are and whether they stray from recognized footpaths. Finally, you can add points of interest for each of the aid stops on a race so you know how far it is to the next stop at a glance. For the Jurassic Coast race, I also added notes of what foot to expect at the next stop.
Of course, to use these apps on runs you need a smartphone with solid battery life. I added the charger case to my iPhone XS and it lasted amazingly. Through the run, I kept up with social media, navigated, listened to music, made calls, sent texts and the phone still had a considerable charge at the end of the 32 hours. And, importantly, it did that without adding too much weight or fiddly cables. Also, when I did have a chance to get a quick charge into the phone at aid stations, plugging it in charged both the main and the extra battery together.
Sports Headphones That Last
I have tried all manner of sports headphones over the years. The Aftershokz bone induction headphones stand out as offering not only good sound but also keeping your ears clear so you can still hear traffic and pedestrians. Rather than plug your ear canal they sit on your cheekbone and transmit sound via that contact.
Another pair I got on well with, although not specifically for sports, is the Earin M-2. These are wireless buds that sit safely in your ear. Because they have no cables are light, I’ve found these stay in really well. They also sound great and come with their own charging battery which I can pop in my pack for longer runs.
While the price, technology and sound quality have varied on the different headphones I’ve tried, generally, they’ve all only lasted about a year before succumbing to the erosion caused by daily use on a sweaty head. Even my beloved Aftershokz.
The one pair that are still going strong, long after the others have given up, are the Method Wireless Sport Earbud. They are pretty simple wireless headphones that offer pretty reasonable sound and fit my ears well — most other earbuds quickly fall out.
They let you stow the earbud cable away along the body of the battery band when not in use. There’s a button for volume and starting and stopping music. But that’s about it. It’s the reliability that I recommend these for. And at their lower price, they really are good value for money. But more than all that they seem to be pretty much impervious to my ascorbic sweat.
Hydration Vests And Bottle
Last but by no means least, you need a really good hydration system to be able to run for hours and hours. It varies from person to person, but I’ve found a good rule of thumb is to aim to drink about 500mls of water an hour.
If you want to put electrolytes for extra hydration in your water, or possibly some sugars for energy, it’s good to be able to control how much of each you consume on longer runs. I’ve found that having a bottle on my front with the Sugars, separate to my Electrolyte enhanced water in a bladder works well.
Along with this consideration, you need to be sure to have enough space to pack extra layers, first aid kits and other things mandatory for the ultra you are attempting. This led me to choose the Camelbak Ultra 10 Vest which carries 2 liters of water in a bladder and has space for a bottle of sugars on the front.
I like this type of pack, rather than the recently more popular vest style because it has adjustable straps at the side rather than fabric. This makes it easier to order online because you don’t have to guess your size, but also I can adjust things as I drink my water and the back is less full. It also has a place for my running poles which can help at the thin-end of a run. My Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles fit snugly and securely at the back.
Surviving An Ultra
These are my tips to get you through an ultra run. Products and technology will always evolve to meet the needs of pursuits like this. But it’s about finding the gadgets and designs that make a difference for you that counts. Whether it’s shoes, watches, poles, hydration vests or just socks. Do your research and try out a wide of options many months before your run. Then, come race day, the only surprise should be how your body copes with so many miles.