Cool Runnings – Ultra Marathon Training in the Snow

, January 23, 2013

Edinburgh in the Snow - Beautiful but cold. (Photo Credit: Mark A. Brown)

Ultra marathons are growing in popularity throughout the UK. If you’ve run a marathon, then the next logical step is to try something longer. An Ultra marathon is defined as any race longer than the 26.2-mile (42 km) marathon distance. I had run a marathon way back in 2007, and aside from a few half marathons since then, hadn’t really done any serious running.

With this in mind, my running partner (Duncan) and I signed up for the Deeside Ultra Marathon in Aberdeen. Although seemingly oxymoronic, this is an ‘entry level’ Ultra marathon, at ‘only’ 33 miles, or 53 km. Most serious Ultra marathon runners don’t get out of bed for less than 50 miles (80km).

The two main attractions of the Deeside Ultra (or D33) were the timing and the course. The D33 is in mid-March, giving enough time post-Christmas for training, and is run on a flat course on the Deeside way in Aberdeenshire. The downside of this is that all of the training takes place in the depths of the Scottish winter.

So, after a Christmas spent apart, Duncan I reconvened in Edinburgh in the New Year. Realising that a) our training thus far had, at best, allowed us to maintain fitness over Christmas, rather than improve and b) we were a little behind on our long runs, we decided to get serious, and Saturday 19 January was pencilled in as our first really long run. Duncan planned out a 16-mile (25.7 km) loop through the city at Walk Jog Run (Click here to see our route).

The flaw in the plan came when Edinburgh experienced its first snow of the year on Friday. After a short debate on Saturday morning, Duncan and I agreed that running in the snow was far, far preferable to two and a half hours on a treadmill, and so set off into the cold morning.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Brown

The D33 has water stations every 8 miles, and so we had left some goodies at the 8-mile mark. Still experimenting with food, we had a smorgasbord of gels, water and the perennial favourite of the runner – Jelly Babies. I have had bad experiences with gels in the past, and so gave them a miss this week, and I have to say that the Jelly Babies did sterling work at getting me through the second eight miles. Other than that, we had water literally on ice at the halfway mark, and took a handheld bottle round for the second section to keep us topped up.

When the weather is really cold, knowing what clothes to take can be a bit of a nightmare. You have to strike the Goldilocks balance between being too hot and too cold. I usually prefer a long-sleeve undershirt with a t-shirt on top, although I had a wind-breaking top over all of that. I don’t usually suffer with cold legs, so I had shorts over the top of Lycra undershorts. Duncan (full disclosure – a South African) had Lycra leggings under his shorts, and opted for a pair of (somewhat ineffective) gloves.

The early parts of the run were through some of Edinburgh’s many parks, and although running on untouched snow was hard, the payoff came with the stunning views. If you’ve ever visited Edinburgh then you’ll be aware of the hills, and the great sweeping views of the city they give you. This was made extra special by the blanket of snow that covered everything.

Breaking the run down into two eight-mile sections definitely helped psychologically, and the pace we are aiming for (10 minute miles), whilst not world beating, feels very sustainable. At the end of the run, both of us felt tired but happy with the way it had gone. The slight downside comes from the knowledge that our 16 mile adventure would not get us to the halfway mark come race day.