What is an ultra runner? In the simplest sense, it’s someone who finds pleasure in pushing their body and mind through the torture of running any distance upwards of 26.2 miles (the distance of the good old full marathon of course). But ask a lot of people and the image of an ultra runner would be of some super-human, skinny-boned, gnarled-looking survival specialist.

What is an Ultra runner?? A runner who runs ultramarathons – distances greater than a marathon (26.2 miles). Ultramarathon distances are most commonly 50k, 50 mile, 100k, and 100 mile. Runs can be both road and trail, but usually trail. Ultrarunners are extremely dedicated to their sport and have been found to be some of the most laid-back folks around. They tend to eat like horses, too. Most find them a wee bit eccentric. https://www.urbandictionary.com

virtual races for everyone

A little bit eccentric, eh?? Well the truth is the number of Ultra marathon events has increased by a mind-boggling 1000% in the last decade. And that upward trend is speeding up rather than slowing down. So either everyone is going mad- or this running longer than a full marathon is more attainable than you might think….

What better person to ask about this than the man dubbed The Part time Ultra runner. Steve West has over a decade of running ridiculously long distances under his belt. He’s raised money for charity, and all this while maintaining a job, family life, and (as far as I could tell) his sanity!!.

We picked Steve’s brains to find out what is an ultra runner, what makes them tick, and how can I become one??

How and when did you get started running?    

The 64 million dollar (or 100 mile) question. How would anyone even start considering running such long distances? Turns out Steve’s story mirrors my own (and probably so many others’).
“I started running in mid 2009.  I still smoked at that time and I remember vividly the first time I ran 10k. It was on a treadmill and I only just broke 60mins. I was huffing and blowing. That convinced me to give up smoking. I entered my first 10k with those work colleagues a few weeks later and felt so much better from having given up the fags. I entered a couple of half’s with a mate who then bailed on me, so I nervously went on my own making some rookie mistakes; going off way to fast; then feeling like I was going to come last. I hung in there and finished. My first marathon was Edinburgh 2010. I had been bitten by the bug now so I trained hard and loved it. Thats still my marathon PB 3:30:21.”
I had been bitten by the bug now so I trained hard and loved it
So it’s a gradual thing- and that running bug is so hard to shake! But not many of us take it onto the ultra running level distance- so what gives there??
the part time ultra runner

What’s your favourite distance? Why do you like it?

It must take a certain special kind of motivation to drive you to want to try 40, 50, 100 mile…. so what did it for this part time runner??

“A guy I was supporting at work who had MS unfortunately passed away Christmas 2009. I went to the funeral and his wife was raising money for the MS Society. I was already signed up for the Edinburgh marathon so I raised a few hundred pounds for the charity. However a few weeks before the marathon my best friend died from a brain tumour after battling with it for 7 years from age 21. I wanted to do something in his memory. I basically figured I ran a marathon for a (lovely) guy I didn’t really know so what am I going to do for my best mate. I committed to doing the Druids Challenge which is 83 miles over 3 days. The longest day was 33 miles.”
“It scared me so I entered Nottingham 50k beforehand to see if I could last the distance. I loved it. After Druids Challenge I was hooked on seeing how far I could go. I tried a 50 miler and survived. I was too scared of the 100 at this point so I did some hilly and harder 50 milers and then bit the bullet and entered my first 100. I trained hard again and was delighted to go sub24. (Autumn100 – Centurion Running).
“The 100 is my favourite distance. I’ve finished 3 now. Each one was a harder race than the previous, can you tell I like to push my boundaries! A 100 miler pushes your mind and body to places you don’t think it can or should go. But the sense of achievement after all those months of hard work, suffering, and focus is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m not embarrassed to say I cried at the end of that first 100. What a feeling!”
After Druids Challenge I was hooked on seeing how far I could go. I tried a 50 miler and survived.
A personal quest, a good cause, the perfect incentive to push you to new limits. But after hitting such amazing distances, surely nothing can phase this guy. I decided to ask him.
ultra running
To help any of you reading this who are not only thinking what is an ultra runner but how do I become one? What is the training schedule like for a super long run? How do you fit it into your daily life? I really wanted to get Steve’s take on all these questions.
“I’ve done some mad races…….. but, the biggest challenge is life. Ultra running does take commitment. Finding time to train as much as I feel I need to to be confident going into events is hard when you have a full time job, a partner who works full time and 2 young kids. I’ve found a way to fit a lot of training into my week. It’s unusual but it works for me. I run to work in the morning (5/6 miles). I run on a treadmill at lunchtime (4/5 miles or intervals). And I run home (5/6 miles). Most weeks, but definitely not every, I do 7-10 miles on a Saturday and once a month 20-25 miles on a Sunday. In big weeks before big races that’s 80-110 miles a week. A 4am Sunday alarm call isn’t nice but without it the day is ruined and the family suffer. If it did then I wouldn’t do it. Running is hugely important to me and my health, physical and mental but it’s always an easy second to family!”
So you’re not going to become an ultra runner by sitting on your backside, but it seems like it’s possible to do it without it taking over your whole life.

What are your running plans for the future?

For someone who has already clocked up so many great races and challenges, what could possibly be next? Plenty it seems, and they just keep getting bigger and better!
“Future plans. Dangerous question for an ultra runner! Keep pushing my boundaries of life allows. I’d love to run JOGLE one day. John O’Groats to Lands End. It’s a 17 day race so one that’s Tricky to justify around the work/family at this point in my life (ie pre retirement!). There are some iconic ultras in the uk and Europe. I’d love to travel a bit and do some of those. Laverado in the Dolomites is probably top of my list. GUCR (145 miles from Birmingham to London on the Grand Union Canal), the UK’s oldest race, and one day Western States 100 in California. Iconic and epic don’t really do that one justice. It’s all a long way off but everyone needs long term goals as well as short term ones!”
everyone needs long term goals as well as short term ones!
Goals- a keyword for any discerning runner wanting to keep their running mojo up! And that brings me nicely onto my last question for Steve.

For any beginner runners, what advice would you give?

Running is so easy to get into, just chuck on some shoes, and get out the door. But, unfortunately it’s also just as easy to give up on too. So while I had the ear of someone who’s shown the dedication to keep going at longer and longer challenges I wanted to get some golden tips for those of us who lose their mojo and will to run.

“I’ve seen so many people start running and give up too soon. They expect quick and easy results whether it be losing weight or just getting quicker. It takes commitment and patience but it does happen. If you’re not seeing the results you hoped for don’t give up. Focus on the long term it will happen. You have to enjoy it too. If it is always a chore then you’ll be an easy target for the chimp on your shoulder to convince you it’s just not worth the effort.”
“Personally I would say hit the trails. Whilst I train on road it’s a means to an end for trail races. Trail running is sociable. You make new friends. You see amazing scenery. You basically have a lovely day out in the countryside. Surely that’s more fun that staring at someone else’s arse in a road race for a few hours and not chatting to any of the tens of thousands of people that maybe with you who are all anxious about the fact they ran that mile 6 seconds slower than their target pace. There is nothing better in my mind than a day (and night/day/night) in the countryside or mountains for making yourself feel truly alive.”

No arguments from me! Special thanks to Steve for sparing his time to answer my questions. You can follow his inspirational story, running life and charity work on his blog at https://www.theparttimeultrarunner.com and on his facebook page at Theparttimeultrarunner

If you have any views of your own on what is an ultra runner or how to become one, as well as any questions, just drop them in the comments below.