5 Lessons I Learnt From Running My First 100-Mile Ultra in 2022
2022 was a year of success when it comes to ultrarunning. I achieved my goal of completing the UTMB Mont-Blanc and learnt a lot while training for it. Here are my 5 lessons I will be taking into 2023 planning!
It's worth starting by explaining this 100-mile running goal. It actually was never my personal goal, until I fell in love with the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, with its 171 km and 10,000 metres of ascent, after visiting the area and recce-ing it for running its sister race, the CCC, in 2019. I suffered a lot during that race, partly because of poor race management, partly because of shoes that were great on their own merits, but not the right size! I didn't want to return. Until the following morning when I saw my husband finish the UTMB... and then a few hours later I saw the electric finish line atmosphere in Chamonix (Doug's great finishing time of sub-37 hours meant there was hardly anyone around when he crossed the line!).
My mind just filed all that away. We went through COVID, lockdowns, post-lockdowns, and planning and re-planning our running calendars. And, when 2021 came around, I had a spot at UTMB, aiming to have my own electric adventure around the Mont Blanc. For many reasons, however, that didn't quite work out... ending in getting timed out just after Champex-Lac, with 37km left to go!
Returning in 2022 was a fantastic opportunity. I learnt from my 2021 mistakes in the race, and I looked for what I could improve in my training. And then I leant some more. So here are my 5 takeaways.
1. Your mind will take you further than your legs alone
Yes, you need to train. Yes, you need to run - a lot. But, as we'll see in another one of my lessons below, running is definitely not everything when it comes to completing 100 miles.
The UTMB is a very demanding mountain ultramarathon, with a time limit of 46.5 hours for completion. A third of runners don't make it to the finish line (in some years, the DNF - Did Not Finish - number was even higher, according to these stats, although weather conditions play a huge part as well). With a 6pm start, the race forces you to go through at least one full night of running, which adds complexity to race management plans. How will you deal with sleep deprivation? And what mantras and helpful reminders will you use when you're feeling the worst?
There is simply no way to run 100 miles without going through some dark patches. Motivation waxes and wanes. Nutrition will influence your lucidity. There's quite a lot of useful information about how long distance running like this affects your body and brain here.
It's fair to say I hadn't given this enough thought before. So, in 2022, I made sure I prepared lots of tools to help my mind:
I read the excellent book Mental Training for Ultrarunning by Addie Bracy, taking away as many lessons that applied to me as possible.
I worked on mindfulness and started using my Headspace app regularly, especially in the month before the race. There was a meditation specifically designed for when you feel overwhelmed in there, and I ended up going through it in my head during the race when I panicked about over-heating. It was a lifesaver!
I put together a confidence jar at the my coach's advice. This feels a bit like bragging at the start, but the more you think of things you've done (not necessarily running related!) that you're proud of, the more it boosts your confidence and shows you what you can do!
I wrote coping strategies down before the race. This included a list of "what if" questions going through all the stuff that could go wrong, and answers of how I would deal with the issues. This further calmed me down and made me feel confident on race day.
Of course you can't ever pin down one thing that made all the difference in finishing the race. But, looking back through my dark patches at UTMB 2022, I remember using some of my pre-race work to calm myself down, re-focus, and plan my next steps. I also used a lot of self-talk to almost guide myself through the race. I felt more in control than in 2021, and I believe this helped me make good decisions throughout.
2. Trust the process
I've never been one for overtraining, zealously adding up the miles or bragging about my total weekly distances on Strava. However, coming back from a knee injury at the start of the year, and having the DNF in the back of my mind throughout the training period, made me question myself a lot during the 2022 prep. I often wondered if I should be running more, climbing more, doing more.
I should know by now more is not always better. Running pros, coaches, scientists - all tell us quality should be prioritised over quantity. For me, this meant I actually ran fewer miles overall before my first 100-miler than I had in previous years. I also live in a very hilly area, so time on feet was prioritised over distance, simply because it takes longer to cover my home trails! And, let's face it, the amount of elevation at UTMB means a "back of the pack" runner like me was never going to aim for fast running, anyway.
My coach was instrumental in holding me back. We had a plan, it was progressive, it would get me to the start line in the best possible shape. I had to trust it. It was stressful at times, but it worked out. So, yes, it's a cliche, but a good lesson nonetheless.
3. It's not all about the running!
Ok, I have always believed in the benefits of cross-training for ultrarunning and for running and fitness in general. But 2022 really drove this home for me, especially as I ran less than I felt I should have!
I spent the early part of the year focusing on knee rehab, which involved a lot of physio exercises. Every run had a prescribed warm-up programme including mobility work. I cycled a lot. I added walks into the day to build mileage and time on feet with less impact on my joints.
And, as the year progressed, I made sure I never missed a strength & conditioning workout! I also did a weekly Pilates class and started doing a 10-minute yoga / stretch every morning to get my body moving and improve flexibility.
One of the year's highlights was a 3-day hike I did completely on my own in July, discovering new trails and going from refuge to refuge. I learnt a lot about my own abilities, I had to problem solve without anyone around (seriously, I was on a GR walking trail in the middle of the summer holidays and hardly crossed a soul until I got closer to refuges!), and I carried a heavy pack.
The latter helped build my leg and back strength, made the UTMB mandatory kit feel light on race day, and gave me so much confidence.
4. Knowledge is key
The longer the race, the more essential it is to know as much as you can about the terrain and to plan meticulously in advance. This will pay dividends when you haven't slept for 2 nights and are getting angry at how long a climb is taking... just checking my careful race notes with key information like the high point of each of the UTMB's 10 main climbs was enough to put things in perspective!
I don't think I'll do this for every single race in the future, but I made SO many lists ahead of UTMB. I planned my nutrition between each aid station, especially as I was lucky enough to have crew who could help restock me this year. I must have written the aid station food list about 5 times before the start!
I also memorised the route. Again, maybe a little overkill, but this gave me so much peace of mind in the race. I could brace myself for the tough sections when I knew they were coming, I could plan to take a caffeinated gel well before starting a climb for a boost of energy, and I could psych myself up before getting to sections I knew I would enjoy. It helped that I had run some of those trails 5 times before (two recce trips in 2019 and 2021, then 2019 CCC, 2021 UTMB, and finally a recce this year!).
However, I cannot overstate the usefulness of knowing as much as possible about the race course before your first 100-miler. My tips to do so:
Start with the basics: distances between aid stations, climbing and descending stats, type of terrain
Batch the information: work in segments, in between the main aid stations, so you don't over crowd your mind or your note sheet
Build a timing sheet, even if indicative: my goal was to simply finish, but that doesn't help when you have 46.5 hours ahead of you! I looked at other people's finishing times and average time taken between aid stations, as well as at how long sections took me during the recce, to come up with a timing strategy that would tell me if I was on track or not. I also had 3 goals so I wouldn't despair if I was massively behind at any one point. I was about 3 hours up on cut-offs for most of the race until I started flagging, but knowing I had built a buffer helped immensely
Watch race videos and read race reports if you can't go visit beforehand: you'll get a good idea of the terrain, the overall conditions, the style of the aid stations. This will save you time and energy on the day. It will also help you pick the right kit to wear
Visualise, visualise, visualise: I spent hours thinking about how I would manage the start line, which was a huge source of stress for me the first time I ran the UTMB. I got so emotional and worked up that my heart rate was through the roof all through the first 45 km, leading to wasting lots of energy and feeling exhausted as I tackled the first difficult mountain section in 2021. This time, I played the iconic start line music in my house before every long run. I'm not joking, my heart was flapping like a caged bird every time for the first 2-3 weeks! In time, this became routine and didn't phase me so much anymore. I also walked through key sections in my head, thinking about how I would manage a descent I hated if I was going to be sore, or tired, or if it was going to be wet when I got there. On race day, I didn't even notice it much!
And knowledge isn't just about knowing the course. I spent a lot of time in 2022 learning about myself and what works for me in various scenarios.
This meant training for all weather conditions, including heat - it was not always smiles on the trails, as you can see from this literal breakdown when my husband came to crew me on a long run!
I also tested a lot of different shoes and socks, to ensure I would not get the blisters I struggled with at CCC and at UTMB 2021. I read another helpful book: Fixing Your Feet: Injury Prevention and Treatment for Athletes. This helped me learn how to tape my toes to avoid blisters. I also tried different anti chafing creams for my heels (which had horrible blisters on other ultras) until I found one that worked for me. It's all trial and error, and knowledge gained!
5. It's a team sport after all
2022 was the year I took full advantage of the entire network that I could lean on for help. And I'm so glad I did. Firstly, my husband had the brilliant idea of hiring a running coach for me - this was my Christmas present in 2021, in fact. For me, being coached added accountability and motivation, but it was also a great choice since I needed to balance physiotherapy and running, which Team HP3 is great at.
Next, I took looking after myself a lot more seriously. I saw a podiatrist to try out different insoles to improve my comfort over long distances. I even got a few massages to relieve my aching muscles. All things I'd ignored systematically for years.
And, more importantly, I had an amazing support crew. My husband was always in my corner, cooking me great healthy meals and providing mobile aid stations and useful taxi services when needed. And our amazing friend Corina let me stay in her flat in St Moritz for the whole month of August, giving me access to trails very similar to those around Mont Blanc, and to sleeping at high altitude (which maybe helped me a little, too!). Having the "camp" in St Moritz was great for focus, too: I just ate, trained, worked, slept, and did nothing else. It's not always feasible, but it's a great way to embrace minimalism when you want to hone in on a goal.
Finally, Doug and Corina were my crew during UTMB. I could have finished without one, of course - most people do. In fact, Doug did it twice! However, knowing that a friendly face would be waiting at some of the key aid stations was a huge motivation boost. I also took advantage of their presence to change tops a few times, to refill with my own nutrition that I had tested in training, and to get some much needed pep talk towards the end. I cannot thank them enough!
Running 100 miles around Mont Blanc was the athletic highlight of my year. It was also a relentless obsession that I invested significant time, energy and money in throughout 2022. I'm grateful for the positive outcome and for the lessons I can take with me in 2023. Hopefully, these can be useful to you, too! Happy running!