What’s an ultra marathoner? And how can a human run for 24 hours or 48 hours at a time? I’m impressed with myself when I run ONE mile! Luke runs ultra marathons and lives to tell about it. This is his story.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am Luke Ashton, an ultra runner aged 35, from Brighton, East Sussex in the UK. My day job is as a security officer at a local London Airport.
For those of us who don’t know, what is an ultra-marathon?
More and more marathon runners, beginners and the more experienced are jumping into ultra races to see what all the fun is about. Any distance over the marathon (26.2 miles) is considered an ultra distance. Races vary from 30 milers, 50k, 50 milers, 80k, 70 milers, 12hr, 24hr, 48hr, 72hr, 100 miles and the crazy 100+.
Some of these can be multi day events, cross country, covering bigger areas through desert and jungle. Some ultra marathons are just plain old roads, laps, point to point locations and mountain (sky running).
When did you start running?
I started running on the treadmill after gym workouts as part of my cool down routine back in my 20’s in 2004. It was only in 2009 that I ventured outside to d- stress after working long hours. I started to enjoy the benefits more and soon realized I was fairly fit already.
My first race was early 2010, a half marathon, then a full marathon in my home town of Brighton in the April.
I ran my first ultra in the summer of 2012, after running a marathon every month of that year. I started with the Grim Reaper, which is a 40 mile event that was 10 mile laps on a multi terrain route in Lincolnshire. I felt pretty good throughout and the wet conditions didn’t stop me from coming in first position! Not bad for my first go!
Why do you prefer ultra marathons over traditional marathons?
As crazy as it may seem, I find marathons are over too quickly – I finish fast road marathons in three hours. In an ultra, I’m just warming up at the three hour mark!
I cover far more land and see more sights during an ultra event, and some of the locations are in the most beautiful parts of the country and world. The distances are bigger, the buzz is bigger, usually the medal and the feeling of accomplishment is much bigger, too!
How do the people in your life feel about your running? How does your doctor feel about your running?
A direct quote from my partner “I’m very proud of all Luke’s training, his dedication to running and I’m constantly in awe as Luke racks up his achievements. I do worry and voice my concerns when I think he’s not giving himself enough time to rest or his training affects our home life but I totally accept that it’s his passion and who am I to question that? I will always support whatever decision he chooses ultimately and will always be proud of him.”
Luckily, my doctor is a runner and understands my passion. It is usually physio who will advise me to scale back or rest up some more with cross training and strengthening exercises.
I’m sure a lot of us have heard urban legends about ultra marathon runners – their toenails fall off, their nipples start to bleed etc. What are some of the most common misconceptions?
Bruised and black toenails is quite common with ultra runners. I have lost count how many toenails I have lost. They regrow soon enough. I wear Luna and Earth Runner sandals more so in the summer and autumn so my nails get a break from the consequences of shoes.
How do you deal with the logistics of super long runs – eating, going to the bathroom, sleeping, etc?
Logistics for such long running events and training takes good planning and a lot of trial and error. I never need to sleep during an event, I wouldn’t want to miss anything either. I can sleep once I’m finished!
The bathroom? Well when you have to go you have to go… a good meal the night before and strong coffee two hours before an event usually gets things moving!
When you’re not actively training for a race, what’s your running/health/meal plan like?
Nutrition is a very personal choice with any runner. I follow a no sugar no grain lifestyle. This has helped fantastically with my endurance (steady energy supply) and overall health. I eat a balance of 60% fat 20% protein 20% carbohydrate.
My carbohydrates comes from fibrous vegetables and some fruits like berries or strawberries. I rarely eat bananas as they are very high GI, and I never ‘carb load’ with pasta, rice or bread. I never count calories and I only eat when I am hungry. I am very fat adapted so can run very long periods before I need fuel again. It has took time to adjust, but it is so good now I no longer obsess over food…
*I will use sugar in small amounts during hard intense exercise or in a race towards the end, but it’s what I like to call a trickle in small amounts just enough for my brain to get that lift to push further. It is controlled and only a few grams at a time. This can be with fruits, coconut water and even chocolate covered espresso beans!
Running so much and over such love distances, I assume you have to be quite diligent about preventing injuries. How do you do that?
I train quite low for an ultra runner so to prevent any unwanted injuries. I like cross training on bike to still get the training and miles into my schedule. I have had the odd few injuries and last year I had Peroneal Tendinitis in my ankle, which still needs monitoring and ongoing physio, but it is manageable to control. I know the signs of over training and it is very important to rest, listening to the body is key!
What the benefits of being such a serious runner? Are there any drawbacks?
Drawbacks: time consuming, can struggle to balance work, home life and family commitments. Training hard can cause over-training which will make you feel even more tired than usual and prone to injury. Listening to your body is key.
Benefits: Keeping healthy and strong. Mood lifted, feel-good hormones released. Heart and cardiovascular benefits. Focus on quality time out whilst exercising. Seeing scenic places around the world, faster than walking. Brings other runners together. Can run anywhere!
What advice would you give to someone who just starting to run?
Find a good comfortable footwear to run in – neutral with less heel cushioning is best to get you into correct running form and prevent bad habits like heel striking. If you’re just starting to run, it’s best to start out slow with walking breaks.
This will help improve your fitness over time and regulate your natural breathing pattern. The aim is to reduce the walking once you have your stamina built up. This usually takes 4-6 weeks.
If you already run and want to build up to longer distance, start out slow and add few more miles gradually over the weeks. A 10% maximum extra on your total mileage per week is a good guide. Don’t jump up too quickly or you will over use your muscles and joints then get injured!
Thanks so much for sharing, Luke! Do you guys have any questions for him? Are any of you super-serious athletes?