Lacs de Fenêtre, certainly one of the most epic viewpoints along the road

What It’s Like Running A 100 km+ Ultramarathon

The ins and outs of ultra running have become so familiar to me that it’s easy to forget how strange a world it is for those who never felt a temptation to run for hours on end, much less signed up for an actual race. Not that I find this astonishing: The grueling prospects of waking up on a Saturday morning at some unearthly hour, only to push your body through mud and snow, over icy mountain passes and through scorching valleys, do not let it appear as a very reasonable (not to mention pleasant) endeavor. This mental image is probably to blame for the fact that my running has become the number one conversation topic whenever I meet someone who knows about my exotic passion: How is that even possible? How do you prepare for it? What are you thinking about during all these hours on the trails? Is it more of a mental than a physical challenge? And, especially from well-meaning relatives: When are you finally going back to normal?

The challenge

The preparation

So how do you actually get ready for such a challenge? Individual preferences will vary, but I think there are a few building blocks that can’t be ignored. Unsurprisingly, you’ll be spending a lot of time out running. Most experts recommend at least half a year of focused preparation for a person of average fitness, during which you gradually built up intensity. I’m running pretty much year-round, irrespective of weather conditions, and collect up to ~90 km during peak weeks (typically combined with shorter races). This translates to 12–14 h on the trails, a considerable drain on any weekend. If you think racing is hard, you haven’t looked at the training.

Preparation has to start early, so conditions for running aren’t always ideal (pictures from March)

The night before

Minutes before the start — still looking happy and fresh.

The race

Photo by Sven Bass on Unsplash
Altitude profile of the course. There are seven peaks to climb, spanning from a couple of hundred meters of ascent to nearly 2,000 m.

If this won’t keep you going…

High and higher

I know some people who run with the stated purpose of achieving a Runner’s High. It’s never been my central focus, but I find that it comes almost naturally during long runs. If you are so inclined, this is where to digress into mysticism; a feeling of being at one with nature, of transcending your physical body, but the basic sensation is simply one of being unstoppable. It really feels like you could run forever. Rather than your body or the trail imposing limits on your performance, it deludes you into believing that you are fully in charge of everything.

About 60 km into the race, shortly before reaching the Lac de Fenêtre (see above). I don’t remember if I was experiencing a runner’s high at this point, or just faking a smile for the photographer.

Mind your body

People not acquainted with ultra running are likely to think that a race is mostly a fight against the physical limitations of your body. The truth is that bodily pain is often negligible, and the true battle is the mental one.

One of the many mountain streams we passed. Yes, it’s extremely tempting.

Subjective distance

There’s one aspect of the above that is worth emphasizing. I imagine no one being astonished to hear that even splitting the race into various intermediate “finish lines” is only a partial remedy against Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. The time it takes to get to the next aid station feels much longer than it actually is, and the disheartening discovery that you’re barely halfway there when you thought it was just around the corner is a feature that’s as cruel as it is common. More interesting than this piece of conventional wisdom, however, is that it’s not just being overly optimistic about your pace, but that your perception itself is being fundamentally altered.

Fueling (or “What to eat and drink?”)

A typical aid station. There’s usually one for every 10 km, and trust me, they’re heaven on earth.

The aftermath

I arrived at the finish line after 25 hours, and a weird arrival it was. I expected to feel some kind of extreme relief, a rush of pride over such an achievement, or just pure and simple joy, but nothing like that happened. In fact, running through Verbier (the final point of the race) felt like trespassing a ghost town. At 5 am, most spectators had obviously gone home already, the speakers were off, and the remaining volunteers were struggling to even fake interest in who was coming in. Not that I could blame them —and just to avoid misconceptions, I will say explicitly that all of them are, without exception, absolutely fantastic, genuinely friendly people who deserve nothing but praise for their selfless work — but the entire atmosphere really drained out all the enthusiasm in me. The good news is, as I’ve experienced in previous races, that it doesn’t have to be this way, and crossing the magic line can indeed be an extremely emotional moment.

How I imagined my finish would be like (from a past race).
  1. The day after. Tends to be “too good to be true”. I’m tired, but not exhausted, and (blisters aside) largely pain-free.
  2. The second night. Oh boy. I tried hard to eat something before going to bed when my stomach began revolting and made me throw up. I felt a lot better afterwards, but wasn’t able to replenish the storage I depleted during the race. I do not think I slept at all during the night, or if I did, it was in very short intervals, interrupted by violent headache, stomach cramps and a feeling of restlessness.
  3. Phase-out. I spent almost all of Monday in bed, waking up only to eat or read a bit. For the remainder of the week, I felt weak and somewhat worn out, sleeping a lot and still being very slow with just about any task I committed to. It took around 5–6 days to be alright again, which is also when I — veeery gently — resumed my training. (Science agrees that this the typical length of the recovery period.)

Le bonheur et l'absurde sont deux fils de la même terre.

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