There’s plenty you need to prepare for when tackling your first ultramarathon. You need the right kit, you need to make sure it’s comfortable over long mileage, you need a nutrition strategy and to be equipped for changeable temperatures. But knowing what to do when a tropical storm is threatening to rip your tent out of the ground amid a flooded campsite? Well, that wasn’t on my list. But there are things you learn about yourself when everything goes off-plan.

Why would anyone decide to sign up for a 250km race in unfamiliar territory? It’s a fair question, and one I’ve been asked. The best answer that I can come up with is that I don’t like to get too comfortable in any one space.

I’m a personal trainer, Men’s Health Squad coach and one half of nutrition and fitness team The Lean Machines. So, I’m not new to intensive training. But I don’t like to categorise myself as an athlete. If you only do, say, bodybuilding or CrossFit, you’ll only be good at bodybuilding or CrossFit. I wanted to feel like I was ready for anything life could throw at me.

Staying fit might be part of my job, but ultrarunning certainly isn’t. From the start, I knew my training would need to fit around my life, not the other way around. Not only did I have a business to run, I have a wife and daughter. I didn’t want to compromise my time spent with them.

In the lead-up to the race, I went from doing perhaps one 5k or 10k run per week – alongside three or four weightlifting and conditioning sessions – to running seven times per week, with two lifting sessions. The running was 80% low and slow, with a long run on weekends to practise my fuelling technique, plus a few hills and intervals to build capacity and lower-body strength. To spend more time close to my family, I had to put in a few miles on the treadmill (luckily, I have one at home) – a fair exchange for staring at my own exhausted face in the mirror for hours on end.

In the peak week, before I started tapering, I ran a little over 200km across seven days, back to back. I’ll admit it: it wasn’t fun. By the end of day six, I felt broken. Describing the next day’s marathon to my wife, I could feel myself welling up. At that point, overcome with apprehension about the race, I wondered what I’d signed up for.


The Heat Is On

The Sri Lanka Ultra X takes place in Udawalawe, in the south, over five days. The course winds through 10,000-year-old rainforests and past rivers, waterfalls and tea plantations, with a total elevation of 680m – or half a vertical mile. Each day, we’d run between 40km and 70km, setting off shortly after sunrise.

It was during day one – around the 45km mark, less than a fifth of the way in – that it began to dawn on me just how tough this was going to be. The temperature, which had been predicted to settle around an already-sweltering 30°C, peaked at a suffocating 49°C. The terrain was totally different from what I was used to in training – a mix of bumpy dirt roads and woodland.

Until that moment, I’d believed that the best way to deal with the nagging voice of doubt – the one that cries out for comfort and respite – was to ignore it. But during a feat of this magnitude, there was no quietening that voice. Instead, I reasoned with it, in an attempt to get it on-side: ‘I will stop, I will rest, just not for the next 10km.’

It’s possible I’d have been less excited about the prospect of a good night’s sleep had I known how hard it would be to come by. Imagine the warmth created by six runners packed into a tent in the stifling heat, still 25°C in the evening, humidity settling around 95% – you get the idea. I probably managed eight to 10 hours across the whole week. To decompress after running, I’d take myself off to one side and write in my journal. For those 10 minutes, I wasn’t really there any more. Moments like those really helped.

Running in that kind of humidity is like running in a face mask; at times, it feels like you’re being softly strangled. But I pushed on. By the end of the second day, I was sitting in fourth place. By day three, any initial excitement I felt was starting to wane; mental fatigue was setting in and it just became a case of getting it done. Still, I managed to maintain a relatively consistent pace – although I worried that I’d pushed too hard too soon and was about to fall off a cliff. Turns out, that needn’t have been my biggest concern.


Breaking Point

After the third day’s 50km stretch, we were camping on the edge of a picturesque lagoon, ahead of what was to be our longest day of running. I was almost looking forward to it. Then, around 5pm, a storm rolled in. Normally, these tropical storms are loud and heavy but dissipate after five minutes or so. This one just kept coming. After about half an hour, it felt like our tent was about to be ripped up. Then the zip went down on the front of the tent and one of the Ultra X team members poked their head in and told us to pack our bags – there was to be an emergency evacuation. By the time we’d loaded on to the trucks, half of the tent was already floating.

We were put up in a local temple overnight and informed that the next day’s race would be cancelled. It hit me hard. All of my mental preparation, all the work I’d done to get myself in the right headspace – a day without running would throw it out of balance. With a full day out, I’d only clock 190km. That wasn’t enough.

I probably learned more about myself on day four than I have in the past 10 years. I knew two things: I wanted to run every day I’d planned to, and I wanted to hit 200km. Once the trucks dropped us off at our final campsite, I grabbed my bag and put on my running kit. As I strapped on my fuel pack, I noted another runner walking by with a cold beer. Others were eating, or sitting by the campsite’s swimming pool. I set off to complete 10km up and down the tarmac road.

Other runners saw what I was doing and slowly they began to join in. By the time I’d finished (I managed 12km in the end), we’d formed a 20-person conga line. We’d channelled our disappointment and transformed it into something positive. When I settled down at camp that evening, I realised I no longer cared where I finished. I’d dug deep when I could have taken the easy option. And, inadvertently, I’d helped others find that same grit and determination. It was the warmest sense of achievement I’d ever experienced. It was very wholesome.


Crossing the finish line on day five was a blur of emotions: excitement, exhaustion, relief, pride. Mostly, I just felt happy that I’d approached my training the way I had. The process is where the real energy and power lies – the event is just the victory lap.

Tackling challenges that fall far outside of your comfort zone gives you freedom. At the start of this year, I had no idea I was good at ultrarunning. Now, I’ve been offered a world championship spot because I finished third. There’s so much potential out there for people to find new passions and talents. You just need to find your unique motivation.


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