My first ultramarathon

This Saturday I’m attempting my first ever ultramarathon; 34 miles (55km) across the mountains of southern Iceland*. Since I signed up and started training for the event back in January, I’ve been asked countless times why I would choose to do such a thing.

It’s going to be painful. It’s hard enough running a normal, 26.2-mile marathon on flat roads, but in this event there is a total vertical ascent of around 2000 metres, and a significant amount of the trail is covered in snow (there is more snow than usual this year, but the organisers have assured us that it is “passable”). The conditions in Iceland are also highly variable, and it’s quite normal to experience four seasons’ worth of weather in a single day. So I’m fully expecting at some point to be trudging uphill headlong into a gale-force wind with freezing rain, knowing that there are several hours of running still to be done.

So why on Earth would I voluntarily put myself in such an uncomfortable situation? Well one reason is to experience scenery like this…

"Landscape during Laugavegur hiking trail 2-CA reduced" by Chmee2/Valtameri - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Landscape during Laugavegur hiking trail 2-CA reduced” by Chmee2/Valtameri – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

… but then I could hike the trail over three or four days and see the same things. The real reason is that the discomfort is the whole point. It’s a way of stepping outside the mundane and reaching physical and mental extremes that you don’t experience in everyday life.

Although I’ve been training for the race for more than 6 months, I don’t know whether I will succeed or will have to be hauled, broken, off the mountain. There’s an excitement though to stepping beyond the limit of what I know I can do. The most rewarding experiences in life are never the most comfortable, and the temporary pain only serves to amplify the long-term satisfaction, the joy, of overcoming a challenge. Even if I fail, I’ll do so having given my best effort and knowing that I took on something most people would never have the courage to try.

That said, this is just a post-rationalisation and there really is no logical reason—once I got the idea in my head to do an ultramarathon, it wouldn’t go away until I tried.

*This is a baby ultramarathon compared to some events—there are events covering 100 miles or more in a single day, and then there are multi-day events like the Marathon Des Sables; a grueling 6-day run across 156 miles of the Sahara desert. Perhaps the worst though is the infamous Badwater ultra, which starts in Death Valley and climbs 13,000 ft over 135 miles. Competitors have to run on the white line on the road through Death Valley to stop their shoes melting.

Update (20th July 2015, 2 days after the race)

I finished in 8:30:40, much slower than I hoped, but I was limping for about 10km after hurting my knee on a downhill section. This was after the last checkpoint where I could have dropped out, so I had no option but to keep going. Fortunately, a group of hikers gave me some ibuprofen which took effect about 3km from the end, so was able to run the last section and put in a sprint finish. Now looking for the next one to take on…



10 thoughts on “My first ultramarathon”

  1. I absolutely understand why you would do this. It sounds like an experience of a lifetime. If you have trained for it (lots of hill climbs and descents) then there is no reason why it should not work out.
    I was a different person when I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman 70.3. Stronger and more confident. Hope you enjoy the same feeling. Look forward to hearing about it on your return.

  2. Good luck!

    I’ve just signed up for my second half marathon at the end of the year. I was completely naive on how difficult running a distance like that could be before my last one – I know how tough it is now, and I still signed up again. Non-runners (as I was for so many years), don’t fully get how much of a commitment a race of any length can be.

    I love running because otherwise I would spend 12 hours on my butt every day. It gives me a reason/excuse to get outside and take a break from my PhD. Plus, all my blood flow goes to the muscles (not the brain) during runs – my brain shuts down for an hour, and its like a therapy session!

  3. Oh dear! I was “almost” signing for that one. I do trail running in the North Moors (my boyfriend’s fault) and I saw this ultra a year ago. I love Iceland and I am sure you will enjoy all the ups and downs. Take it easy and do not forget that it’s a life-time experience. All the best and let us know your result.

  4. Running an ultra marathon is like writing a PhD thesis, right? One step/ word in front of another . . . I recently walked a 46-miles-in-a-day march; all those who ran completed. Good luck!! Enjoy the experience (even if in retrospect)!

    • I’m not a huge fan of the PhD as a marathon metaphor, and I wasn’t trying to make that point… just sharing something significant to me. I usually keep a total separation between my personal life and what I write about on the blog, but I’m making an exception in this case!

      • Yeah I thought you were going to go for the “PhD as a marathon” metaphor too.

        What about the metaphor do you not agree with?

        I can kind of see that marathon running could be more about consistent practice for one major event, whilst a PhD is more of a long, winding hike which you’re going to have to recount in great detail at the end.

        Good luck with it!

        • Metaphors are fine for describing an abstract feeling, but too many people use them as definitions of a PhD or as the basis of an argument.

          You could say that a marathon, like a PhD, is all about putting one foot in front of the other, but even a marathon is more complicated than that- there is strategy involved and it is easy to make big mistakes. I try to avoid these over simplifications and describe things in literal terms, otherwise we can spend hours discussing which is the more apt interpretation of the metaphor!

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