Going the distance

Published 19th May 2021 by mymo

Photo credit: John Kelly Twitter @RndmForestRunnr


Unstoppable legend of Ultra running American athlete John Kelly, got himself back in the FKT (Fastest Known Times) record books this week with an incredible new record (2 days, 10 hours, 4 mins and 53 secs) for running the entire length of the Pennine Way. 

Kelly’s record was over three hours faster than British athlete Damian Hall ran last year which is a huge win over the 268-mile distance. A previous 31-year record that had been held by Mike Hartley was smashed twice by Kelly and Hall within just a few weeks in 2020. Kelly and Hall are formidable athletes with heaps of experience including Kelly’s completion of the Barkley Marathons, the world’s toughest Ultra distance race. 

What is an ‘Ultra’?

Technically speaking, an Ultra marathon is anything over marathon distance, but many will class 50k as their first ‘full’ ultra distance in running. Ultras can take on many forms, whether that’s 50 or 100k, 100 miles, set over looped courses such as the Barkley, or point to point like Badwater in the States, or The Wall if you’re looking closer to home. Ultra marathons have been run for many years but they seem to be growing in popularity thanks to the exposure of seemingly superhuman challenges like John Kelly’s.

What does it take?

As in every type of running, Ultra marathon running requires a build up, a great deal of time and a lot of adaptation. Ultra distance usually requires some walking, definite consideration for fuelling and sometimes managing sleep (or doing without it!). John Kelly’s successes are certainly not accidental. Given his day job is that of a Data Scientist (also a Dad of three) he has every record attempt planned and executed scientifically, working out schedules, timing, sleep and feeding. While not everyone is out to bag a FKT, good Ultra running requires planning and patience, as well as learning new skills such as running with kit - many races will have a kit requirement designed to keep you safe. 

What can make or break it?

Something you may never have had to consider before is whether you can pull a crew together for your Ultra. A crew usually involves a driver to meet you at set stages in your race (often marked out and provided as rest stops by race organisers if it’s an official race) and provide you with fresh drinks, food and in John Kelly’s case - somewhere to sleep in the back of a van. Crew can be vital to a good performance as they can step in with kit changes and moral support as well as fuel. They are often also a much needed morale boost, and sometimes crew may step in to run alongside you for a set time or pace to help keep you going. 

Poor planning is often your worst enemy in ultra running, and that can come from lack of preparation either in miles run in training, understanding the event or course demands, lack of correct kit or footwear or not having a learned nutrition strategy. Even the most experienced marathon runners can make mistakes when stepping up to the distance, so lean on people for advice and plan, plan, plan!

A cloud-shaped spanner in the works

Weather can be a huge factor in successful Ultra running. Hot sun is not your best friend if you’re out running in it for an entire day. Wet weather and dangerous winds have also scuppered the excellent planner John Kelly on a handful of occasions, showing nature can sometimes win. While we can’t control the weather, suitable kit planning can certainly help. Keep a non-obsessive eye on the weather forecast and make sure you plan for what is ahead - check your sunscreen is in date, long lasting and waterproof, wear a cap and plan to change clothing regularly to prevent chafing. If rain is on the way, make sure you have invested in good, breathable waterproofs and twin skin socks as well as suitable footwear.

Have you completed an Ultra? What advice would you give to someone going the distance for the first time? 

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