In June, at the age of 50, I ran an ultra-marathon and covered 75 miles in 20 hours.
I still can’t quite believe what I achieved. It was so far beyond anything I had ever done before; literally miles and miles out of my comfort zone. By way of this blog, I wanted to share with you why I decided to do it, how I went about it, and what I learned along the way. It really is true – If I can do it, anyone can….
I have always been a runner; as far back as I can remember I have run; both for fitness and for fun. Most of my running has been 10ks and half marathons. Back in 2012 I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. Just the one, mind you. I felt I needed to tick the box and be able to call myself a marathon runner. So, I chose the race (Amsterdam), did the training and finished in 3 hours 56 minutes. I was really pleased with myself. It was super hard, and I vowed to never do it again. I could never have imagined that 7 years later, at the age of 50 I would be running ultra-marathons…
As I have gotten older I have realised that I run for more than just my physical fitness. A big part of running for me is the positive impact it has on my general well-being and in particular, my mental health. I have suffered my whole life with anxiety and occasionally depression and running has been my main medicine and therapy. It has helped keep me positive, reduced my stress, kept my anxiety under control, and generally helped me be significantly happier than I otherwise would have been.
Running also gives me time to reflect and organise my thoughts and make sense of my world. As my 50th birthday loomed on the horizon, I was reminded of my mortality, of the passing of the years. In my head I think and behave just as I did when I was 25, but my body is twice as old! I decided I needed to have a mid-life crisis; something to remind me that I could still do crazy things and have fun.
As a Porsche was out of my price range, it came to me (on a long Sunday run of course) that I needed a crazy running challenge. Something mad; something totally out of my comfort zone; as a friend at work remarked – Something to “Rage against the dying of the light!
I searched and found Mizuno Endure24, a 24-hour endurance event, consisting of a 5-mile, hilly, trail loop, that you run as many times as you can in 24 hours. Simple! The strategy and approach is completely up to you. It is just you against the course and the clock. The Tag line for the event is: Epic, Brutal, Relentless. The perfect challenge for me.
It became clear when planning out my race prep, that the physical training, while important, was only one aspect of the work I would need to do in the 9 months I had to get ready for the event. For me, I quickly realised I had three distinct areas I needed to focus on:
- Physical fitness
I am lucky that one of my best friends is also a coach and PT. We have known each other for more years than I care to remember, and she jumped at the chance to train me. This would be an opportunity too good to miss; the chance to beast me and drive me super hard in training… and all because I had asked her to!
Fortunately, I thrive on structure, routine goals. My training plan was split into six-week blocks, partly to structure the training and partly because my coach didn’t want to send the whole plan over in one go. The final months were really tough, and she didn’t want to scare me to early on!
Ignorance was very much bliss! I trained at least 5 times a week, with lots of structured and focused running complimented with at least one intense strength & conditioning session each week.
The first 3 months of the plan concentrated on converting me to run based on heart rate zones. This was a new concept to me and took a while to get used to. I needed to train to run a long way with maximum efficiency.
In the beginning trying to stay in HR Zone 2 was so difficult. It felt really really slow. What would my Strava stats look like?! However, over time my efficiency improved, and my pace slowly increased while my HR remained low.
Persistence really was the key to this, and my coach lost count of the number of times she had to tell me to “trust the process!”. Trust it I did, and it really paid off. Slowly as the weeks ticked by my mileage increased and the perceived effort stayed the same. Meanwhile I also altered my cadence, strides per minute and focused heavily on my form; all designed to make my running as efficient as possible.
The training progressed, the miles increased, and I became fitter and fitter. In my peak training weeks, I was running well in excess of 100 miles, doing double run days, night runs and plenty of back to back long runs.
I ran more than 1,400 miles in total in training and in the lead up to my “A” race I also ran the Brighton Marathon and a 40-mile event along The Ridgeway Path from Avebury to Goring; all as part of my race prep.
It was tough, I can’t lie, but I LOVED it. I ended up in the best shape of my life (at 50!)
This was an interesting area, and a real voyage of discovery. As human beings, we aren’t really designed to eat while running. Physiologically we are much more suited to eating while stationary. However, this is something that can be learned.
I spent a lot of time training my body to eat on the run… and when it came to what to eat, there really weren’t many hard and fast rules. The science and logic tell you that you need to have high calorie / low volume food to keep your energy levels up as you continually burn calories on an ultra. And you need to eat often. The analogy of a race car running out of fuel works well here – You can be in peak physical shape, race tuned like a Ferrari, but if you run out of fuel you are not going to be able to keep racing… And once you are behind the curve on calorie intake it is almost impossible to catch up.
I could write a whole blog on the weird and wonderful combinations of food I tried as part of my training. Working out what I could eat, and what I couldn’t(!) was an interesting process. Top of the list of favourites were chocolate covered marzipan, pork pies and tuna pate on soft white rolls! And for the cold night sections, Heinz cream of tomato soup was a lifesaver…
At the end of the day, one benefit of Ultra running is you get to eat constantly and with very little guilt. Endure24 really was a 24-hour eating competition with some running thrown in for good measure!
Mindset was by far and away the most interesting and toughest aspect of preparing for the race. The phrase “the body will do what the mind tells it” is spot on. We really can achieve amazing things, but only when we believe we can.
Every runner knows about the battle that goes on between our ears. Whether you are running a Parkrun or a 24-hour ultra marathon, your mind will be trying it’s hardest to keep you safe and healthy and will be trying every trick it knows to get you to slow down or stop. The only difference is you have to listen to that pesky voice for a much longer time when Ultra running.
To run big distances, you must be able to manage the voice in your head; distract it; argue with it; ignore it; over-ride it. I tried many techniques and scoured the Internet for advice, spoke to many of my running friends, and read lots of books. I took snippets and the best bits from all the advice I gathered…. Filtered it, tested it on my long runs and worked out what resonated with it.
We are all unique and this side of the training is very personal. I found Mantras were a real help and worked hard to find ones that really worked when the going got tough. Just repeating these over and over whenever things got tough helped me get through it. Generally speaking, things will always get better at some point, and it is about keeping going until that time comes, even if you think you can’t run another step.
I also spent a long time trying to work out how far I could push myself. We all have a physical limit, but our mind will try and stop you long before you reach that limit. I wanted to know how I could tell the difference. I had to run as far as was possible, for me, on the day; to know I had given everything and could not have done more.
One very experienced Ultra runner (MDS, UTMB and more) gave me the best advice and, as it turns out, helped me at my lowest point on Endure24. He said:
“You will only know that you have pushed as hard as you can, if you cry on the course; Properly cry; cry with the pain; the fatigue; the crushing pressure; the seemingly never-ending grind. To cry, to come through that and to keep going… Only then will you know you are pushing into areas far beyond what you thought possible.”
Sobering words, given to me by a top-level runner. Little did I know that this would be sage advice and help me when I needed it most in the race.
Race day came around – much quicker than it should have done! 9 months seemed a long time at the beginning of the training plan, but it flew by and before I knew it all preparations were in place, training runs ticked off, food and gear packed, and we were off to set up our camp ready for the race. With the format of the event being a loop, I had a base camp to store my kit and a support crew (my wife, Dad & Coach) to look after me, so all I had to do was concentrate on the running.
My strategy was to run slowly and consistently and to not stop for any significant length of time. I knew if I stopped to rest I would really struggle to get going again; both physically and mentally. I ran double laps, 10-mile stints, with just a 30 second stop at the end of the lap to grab a drink and a snack. At each 10-mile point, I came into base camp and had something more substantial to eat, changed gear if needed and had a pep talk from my support crew. They were under strict instructions to have me back out on course within 5 minutes of arriving and to not let me sit down at any point during my pit stop, unless I was changing shoes.
This strategy worked really well and despite some appalling weather, treacherous muddy conditions on sections of the course and the relentless nature of the laps, I did well up to 50 miles, did a further 10 miles through the night and got to 60 miles in reasonable shape. From this point it started to get tougher and tougher. All my main muscle groups were struggling, particularly my core and this impacted my running form severely. My running efficiency really suffered, and I quickly lost pace and became very fatigued. My team were concerned about me at this point and made me slow down to almost a walk for a lap and gave me lots of food to eat to try and perk me up. I continued, though struggling, to 70 miles and came in for my pit stop. I was not in good shape, and really didn’t know if I could do another lap; it was a 5-mile commitment the moment you step back out onto the course.
My team really wanted me to stop…In my head I had set myself a target of 75 miles, and knew that somehow, I needed to achieve this goal. I very nearly quit. It would have been so easy to stop; I had run 70 miles! Far more than I had ever thought possible. However, it was this point I cried. Everything hurt and I mean really hurt. I could barely walk. I was broken. Yet I knew deep down inside I needed to do another lap. I told my team I was going out again, and with tears streaming down my face, I headed out for lap 15.
I cried, properly cried for the first quarter mile. Shuffling along. Walking pace, moving like an old man. And yet, somehow I kept going, and as my mind realised that I was not going to give up, that I had committed to a full lap, it fell into line; it decided it needed to help me get round; and slowly I felt better; my pace increased ever so slightly; the pain subsided a little; I was able to run the flat and downhill sections….. I started to smile; to overtake other solo runners… I finished the lap grinning, running strong and crossed the line with my head high. I had run 75 miles, in one go, at 50! I was on cloud 9! And then I needed to lie down! I was completely broken but I had done it…
So, the message from this tale is that “If I can do it, anyone can!” – With the right motivation, dedication, hard work, and positive mindset, you really can achieve things you thought impossible… You really can!
– Simon Gerhardt
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Thanks to Simon for sharing his running story! What’s yours? We’d love to know. Send an email to Caroline, firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to contribute to our blog.