How walking helps prepare for an ultra

It’s fair to say that unless you’re an elite athlete, there’s going to be a good bit of walking involved in an ultra. In my last 100-miler I reckon I must’ve walked between 5 and 7 miles over the course of the race. So, incorporating walking into run training is a very worthwhile thing to do.

Some years ago I ran a multi-day race, open to both runners and walkers (who set off several hours before the runners), where I met a couple of guys whose strategy was to run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills, but to walk them faster than those who were walking the event, so that in that way they were always gaining positions. I tried this strategy with them, and realised very quickly that their fast walk was equivalent to my slow run! In other races since then, I notice that whenever I am walking in an ultra, I get overtaken quite a lot. So I knew that I had to improve my walking technique. I mentioned in a previous post that I walk on average 15 miles a week with our dog Billy, and this has been the key to my improvement in this area. Over the years this has lead me to become a more ‘efficient’ walker, with a much smoother and less jarring gait now compared to what I used to have.  I’m also much faster too, although still slow compared to some people who still glide past me in these races! Clearly I’ve still got a lot to do! So, this time last year, when asked by some friends if I fancied a 75km walking challenge, I jumped at the chance. A few lovely folk, mainly from where I work, grouped together to tackle the Trekfest 2015 in the Peak District, UK. Starting in Hope, the route heads out to Edale before tracking the Pennine Way for a while, and then looping back to Hope via Kinder Scout, Hayfield, Peak Forest and the Ladybower Resevoir.

Early morning sunshine on a walk along the Pennine Way out of Edale
Early morning sunshine on the Pennine Way out of Edale

 

Stunning views over the Peak District National Park
Stunning views over the Peak District National Park

In terms of the scenery, the route was absolutely magnificent. I’m lucky enough to have been to some amazing countries and seen some incredible landscapes in my life, but The Peak District is still one of my favourites. When I was a little kid, from my bedroom window, I could just make out in the far distance the Weaver Hills, which mark the southern foothills of the Pennines – the chain of hills which form the spine of England, stretching all the way to the Scottish borders. And it was on these hills that our feet trod. And trod. And trod. Despite the incredible scenery, there were occasions (that bloody reservoir!) when I felt like we weren’t moving, the miles sluggishly creeping all too slowly.

It’s all in the head (and the body)

Having run a 50-mile and a 100-mile race before tackling the Trekfest, I was feeling pretty confident in my physical ability to get round. What worried me more was the mental aspect – knowing I could run that distance, would walking seem slow and frustrating by comparison? When I start to get mentally tired in the small hours of the morning, would I feel more like quitting, when the 10 miles I have left to cover will take me over three hours, rather than less than two? The answers surprised me.

Shadows grow long in the last of the early autumn sun as our walk moves into the night section
Shadows grow long in the last of the early autumn sun as our walk moves into the night section

 

The route was a hilly, gnarly, rocky, beast. It really took its toll on the feet and ankles, and I realised pretty quickly that this was going to be as much a physical challenge as a mental one, and adjusted my attitude accordingly, telling myself that this was going to hurt almost as much as running the distance would. As the day wore on and the hills never seemed to let up, I began to dread the night section. Our shadows stretched long over the early autumn landscape, and then suddenly, it was dark. Head torches were on, and not long after that, extra layers were donned to ward off the encroaching chill. Stepping stones were navigated, the path was lost on more than one occasion, and we were always relieved to make it to the next checkpoint.

Walking gingerly across the slippery stepping stones in the dead of night.
Crossing the slippery stepping stones in the dead of night.

Paradoxically, the toughest mental part of the race was the easiest underfoot – the long 10-mile loop around that bloody reservoir! Perhaps it was the fact that we didn’t need to concentrate so hard on our footing that lead all of us to seemingly get more introvert on this part of the course. Or perhaps it was just the physical and mental tiredness. Whatever the reasons, the demons came out to play, heightening any niggling injuries, bringing them to the fore, playing mind games with the distance left to cover. I was ready for it this time though, and managed to keep myself thinking positive thoughts. The thing which made this attitude much easier to apply was the company of those around me. We were all feeling it physically by this point with blisters, soreness, and aching muscles. It had also got considerably colder and the thought of a nice warm sleeping bag to cocoon down into was tantalising and luring. But the camaraderie of shared suffering enabled us to still share some laughs – Burt’s rendition of a Zambian version of the Ging Gang Goolie song will live with me forever! It was a blessed relief to finally finish that section of the course though, and the remaining 5 miles coincided with the dawn. Once the warmth of that amazing ball of fire hits me, it’s like being recharged. My last 100-miler had taught me that, and I knew it would happen again. We’re creatures of the sun, after all. Once we climbed the last hill, from then on, it was the rhythmic click of the walking poles and a nice chat to the finish.

Would I do it again?

After the trek, the question was asked around the group ‘would you do it again?‘ For me, I definitely would. Just looking at the pictures in this post makes me want to head out there and go walking right now! Of the nine of us who tackled the challenge, due to a veritable smorgasbord of injuries, some opted for shorter routes back to the finish, but we all of us succeeded in pushing ourselves to our own individual limits. If you’re a walker and fancy a great challenge in amazing scenery, I’d heartily recommend it. If you’re a runner wanting to get some experience of being on your feet for 24 hours and moving through the night, the mental lessons learned will be invaluable to those tough night sections of an ultra run. And spending 24 hours on your feet, no matter what speed you’re moving at, is a tough physical feat worthy of the tag ‘challenge’.

So I’d definitely do it again, but I wouldn’t go alone. One thing is for sure, tackling these kinds of challenges is much, much easier when you’re in great company than if you’re slogging it out on your own. So I encourage you to find a group of like-minded people and go for a long walk in the countryside. It’s unlikely you’ll regret it.

Friends tackle the Trekfest 2015
Great company makes hard things easier, even walking round that bloody reservoir

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