Ultra Running is a sport that involves running very long distances. The standard definition is anything more than 26.2 miles (a marathon). However, the shortest distance for most ultramarathons is 50 kilometers, which is a little over 31 miles. And there are distances of 100 km, 100 miles and much further.
When I first learned about ultra running, I was amazed that runners could actually run these distances. It seemed very crazy to me. At the time, even just running a marathon seemed crazy. But the more I learned about ultra running, the more I understood how running for hours upon hours, or even days, was possible. It takes an adjustment in your thinking to accomplish these seemingly incredible feats. And I really like how ultra runners think.
“Those moments when you are cruising on a trail, the running feels light and easy, you feel strong, but relaxed and you remember to just appreciate the moment and soak it all up – the sounds, the scenery, how your body is feeling.”
I met Jennifer when she moved into town and was looking for people to run with. At the time, I was coach of a local run club, the Metre Eaters. I welcomed Jennifer into joining us on our regular weekly runs around Boulevard Lake, a favorite 5 km running loop. When I met her the first time, I instantly liked her. She is one of those positive and humble people that genuinely cares about people. And she loves to run.
Since, Jennifer has taken over as coach of our run club. This year, before the pandemic, she helped organize a marathon relay team for a local children’s charity run. She is very active in our run community, helping other runners improve their running and volunteering on race committees to ensure we have some fabulous run events in town. And she now runs with many of the local running clubs in town. Everyone loves Jennifer.
Jennifer also runs ultra marathons and graciously agreed for me to interview her about the crazy long distances she runs.
Here is that interview…
When and why did you start running?
I started running when I was 12 years old in grade 9 (high school in the US). My mom worked at the high school I went to and was also the cross-country coach. Over the summer I just started training with the cross-country team and then kept going once the season started.
I don’t feel like I ever made the “choice” to start running – I was just told to come along and do the runs and saying “no” wasn’t really an option, haha. But, I also enjoyed it right from the start.
“I enjoyed running right from the start.”
How long before you increased the distance to ultra running?
I ran my first marathon at age 16, and then did about a marathon a year for my undergrad and grad years.
I got involved with the Nova Scotia Gambia Association for a school evaluation project and then learned about the fundraiser called Love 4 Gambia that Erin Poirier started. Erin is the head coach at Love Training More, and is a superb runner and human. Love 4 Gambia was a run across the length of The Gambia (423km) as a fundraiser for peer-health education programs throughout the country.
In 2013, Erin “recruited” me to be the runner / fundraiser for the yearly run. I could not say no. So I would say that run – approximately 25km each day for 17 days – was my first dabble with ultra running.
I was hooked.
I ran my first more official ultra run, the Frozen Ass Fifty (50km) in February in Calgary a couple years later and have been signing up for them since then.
Why ultra running?
I just love running so much, so basically the more the better, right?
I love how everything is slowed down in ultra running.
I love just how many places your two legs can take you and all the things I get to see along the way.
I love pushing myself and feeling the grit and challenge and to keep pushing through it.
I love how it brings me closer to other runners and to my crew and that we all get to share in this experience.
It just makes me really happy.
What was your first ultra running event?
I ran across The Gambia, the whole country from East to West along the South Bank Road, in 2013 with the Nova Scotia Gambia Association. It was an incredible experience from start to finish and I don’t even know where to start for this.
I can’t even believe all of the wonderful people I got to meet through this experience. I’m so thankful I took part.
From the running side, it was tough: 25km every day (4 days in a row on and then one day off) for a total for 425km over 17 days of running… in 35-40 degrees heat! It was soooo hot I can’t even tell you.
The second day was the hardest – I had the worst cramps for most of the day, but we also had plans to meet up with schools as they would join us and run along the way, so I just had to keep going despite a stomach that wanted to curl in on itself…
But, each day got easier and easier as I and the team got closer and stronger.
Kebba and I (pictured on the left below) even started pushing each other to run faster each day. By the second to last day I kept tearing up, not because it was hard, but because I got so sad when I thought about it being over in just one day.
What has been your longest distance event?
Aside from the 423km event over multiple days, my longest distance event in one go was the 100 miles (with ~7500m elevation gain and loss) at the Orcas Island 100 Mile Race.
This was also a wonderful experience. A couple of my good friends came to support me and motivate me to get through to the next aid station again and again and again. I wasn’t fast, but I did finish in about 32 hours. Again, it’s hard to sum up such an experience – there are such highs and also such lows.
I think once you get to these longer distances so much of the run is about mental strength and mind games. I even wrote a blog about it after, called Practical Advice for Successfully Finishing (and enjoying) your First 100 Miler, if you want some hot tips.
“Once you get to these longer distances so much of the run is about mental strength.”
What has been your favorite event?
I don’t think I could pick a favourite event – they all bring learning experiences, beautiful places, and pure joy.
The Gambia run was a once in a lifetime experience, but then again, I feel that way about most ultra-races I get to do.
I’ve been really lucky to be able to travel and race marathons and ultra-marathons all over the world and they all bring something different and special. The Istria Ultra in Croatia, the Sunrise to Sunset Marathon in Mongolia, the Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik Run, the Barkley Marathons Fall Classic, the Canadian Death Race…
I honestly couldn’t pick just one…
What has been your biggest challenge in ultra running?
Biggest challenge would be doing the proper training when traveling and working, as well as injuries.
I have done a lot of traveling as well as tree planting, which makes having a consistent training schedule pretty difficult. In Pakistan, I had a 2kmx2km (Section F8 in Islamabad) space of the city that I was permitted to run on my own. I had to wear appropriate local dress (a shalwar kameez). I couldn’t drink water outside during the month of Ramadan (this is illegal), and it was 40 degrees during the day with a low of 30 degrees at night…This all made training for the 100km of Istria, Croatia race very challenging.
Then, when I do find myself in a place where I can consistently train, I find that keeping injuries under control is my biggest challenge.
Ultra running sort of teaches you to ignore aches and pains (mind over matter), so this is what I tend to do, and they almost always catch up with me. One of these days I’ll learn…or not… I’m still hobbling around these days with sore Achilles tendons. So, with that, I guess one of my biggest challenges is following through with the stretching and strength exercise that I know will help to prevent injuries.
What has been the best thing about ultra running?
Those moments when you are cruising on a trail, the running feels light and easy, you feel strong, but relaxed and you remember to just appreciate the moment and soak it all up – the sounds, the scenery, how your body is feeling. Just being in that moment, whether it is a race or a training run, is just the best thing ever.
“Just being in that moment, whether it is a race or a training run, is just the best thing ever.“
What is one thing you have learned about yourself through ultra running?
I feel like I’ve really learned about mental training and mental toughness through ultra-running. I’ve been blown away by how much of ultra running is truly mental and that if you set out to do a certain distance and your mind is prepared to do that distance, then you will do that distance. I’ve also learned some tricks along the way, like breaking it into manageable chunks, how to zone out, etc…
“If you set out to do a certain distance and your mind is prepared to do that distance, then you will do that distance.”
How has ultra running changed your life?
I don’t really know of a life before ultra running, so it is hard to imagine how my life has “changed” because of it. It’s basically shaped a lot of my identity and is part of my daily routine and lifestyle now.
What is your typical warm-up before a long run?
For me, the run itself it always the warm-up.
For ultra-running I count any kilometers I do at any pace towards my weekly mileage, whether it is hiking, walking, running or speed training. Any time on my feet counts.
So usually I try to start and end my runs (when it is warm enough at least) with 5-10 minutes of walking as an active warm-up and cool down. I find it helps to ease my body into and out of the run.
Do you have a post-run routine? If so, what is it?
No. I really need to work on making stretching after running more of a habit, especially for my injuries, but this is a work in progress for me. Right now, depending on the time, mood and weather, it is (to be honest) either shower, eat, stretch or lie on the couch and scroll my phone.
Do you ever get bored when running? How do you pass the time on a long run?
Sometimes? I feel like this also goes back to the mental training.
I think we think of increasing mileage as a largely physical task, but it is also a mental task. I find the more I train doing longer runs, the less I get bored and the more I am able to just enjoy the process.
I also usually carry my iPod with a wealth of podcasts and music should I crave any of that, but it usually stays off for a good portion of the run.
What are your top 3 tips for someone interested in ultra running?
I wrote a blog with some advice about ultra-running, but for starting out I think…
- Mix it up. Time on your feet is all time on your feet. It is all training. Whether it’s a quick lunch walk, a weekend backpacking trip, a long run, etc., it is all time logged. The more you can change it up, the less likely you will be injured. And, you will be prepared for the mix in paces that will come on race day.
- Keep it fun and please don’t take anything too seriously. You could be in first place one minute then DNF (“Did Not Finish”) the next – nothing is guaranteed in ultra-running. So, best to make sure you enjoy the process along the way.
- Pick a race, goal, or distance and do it. Train properly, rest up and then give it your all for the experience. You’ll likely finish what you set out to do, but you’ll for sure learn something about yourself along the way.
What else would you like people to know about ultra running?
I feel like ultra running sometimes gets put on a pedestal, as the “hardest” kind of running, but it really isn’t.
I’ve done some shorter track races in university (whose times I am not proud of – I am no sprinter), and those were some of the toughest races I’ve done.
Ultra-running is just as hard and just as easy as all other race distances: it comes down to how hard you want to push yourself, and how long you want to be out there for.
The cool thing about ultra-running is that anyone, really anyone, can do it, it’s all about taking one step at a time, and how hard is that?
“The cool thing about ultra-running is that anyone, really anyone, can do it.”
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