The founders of ULTRA-X Jamie Spark and Sam Howard are on a mission to shake up the multi-stage scene rotating events through exotic locations; whether winding through luscious Sri Lankan jungle, exploring the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan or following in the footsteps of the Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe through the Copper Canyons of Mexico immortalised by Christopher McDougall in the running classic book “Born to Run”. All these courses are designed to tempt you and pique your fancy with other far flung destinations such as the Azores and China on the cards. The additional twist of a World Championship event from 2021 draws inspiration from the IRONMAN triathlon world with rumours of a healthy prize pot and the introduction of age group athlete competition into the ultra-running world.
Each race format is based on 250km over five days which is slightly longer than notorious Marathon des Sables but within a shorter time frame. However, for those who don’t like carrying too much when they are running, the self-sufficiency element is replaced by the luxury of the race organisers transporting a 15kg bag between camps. This removes getting cosy with the kitchen scales weighing out every calorie and cutting off the end of your tooth brush to save every last gram.
The most recent Sri Lanka ULTRA X event (15 – 19 Apr 19) offered a stunning glimpse into the remote and inaccessible parts of Sri Lanka; winding through endless neat regimented rows of sugar cane, glass like lakes which reflected the clouds strewn with water lilies, and cheerful crowds of locals dressed in bright colours out in the streets celebrating Tamil New Year. The flat and fast route is mainly on hard packed wide trails or tarmac road with the odd single track section which is perfect for bonafide road runners who can speed through the distance.
Let’s be entirely honest: flat and fast isn’t exactly my sweet spot. Give me the perfect mountain trail anytime. But I’m a glutton for adventure so I jumped at the opportunity to join the fun after a chance meeting with Sam and Jamie at Oman by UTMB in November. However, it became swiftly apparent flat, fast, hot and humid is even further removed from my happy place. The race slowly descended into a microcosm of pain where dormant demons stirred from within and awoke in full force to taunt me. The “enough” monster murmurs softly in my ear; “you’re not good enough, you’ve not done enough distance training, you’ve not prepared properly enough, you’ve not rested enough, you’ve not done enough speed work, you’ve not done enough strength work.....”. The voice is gently hypnotic and all encompassing.
My body and mind are sorely tested to their limits. It’s hard to avoid being sucked into this whirlpool of negativity when every physical step forwards feels like you’re walking on razor sharp needles. Both feet have been completely saturated for hours and my skin has progressed from the prune like wrinkles which form after staying in the bath for too long into a pale ghost like white colour which is clammy to touch and crisscrossed with deep painful rivets.
My full arsenal of mindset ninja tricks are deployed in earnest; the counting game, eating, running 1km sections interjected with 100m walks, eating a bit more, various time, distance and speed mathematical equations to wishfully transport myself further along the route, eating again, positive mantras, another mouthful of food, the emotional power sob, a moment to appreciate the scenery and unsurprisingly the consumption of more food. Repeat. And repeat again. It’s almost a form of torture. Yet the hardship and process strips back everything to the bare bones. A nail biting roller coaster ride which descends into the depths of despair half way through Day 4 (aka the long stage) when a single sentence of miscommunication adds 7km to 67km but then morphs into a moment of flow when everything falls into place, time stands still and running feels effortless as I glide across the ground. The raw emotional highs and lows are part of the attraction as you move through previously self-constructed barriers of possibility and performance.
Multi-stage races are a war of attrition comprised of individual stages or battles to be won or lost. The primary activity of running or placing one foot in front of another constitutes a surprisingly minor part in the whole endeavour. It’s the background secondary activities which will determine your relative success or failure. Hydration, nutrition, equipment, sleep, recovery, foot care and hygiene. I’ve seen races won and lost due to dehydration, infected blisters, a broken lace or ill-fitting trainers. The physical endurance and strength was there; yet an insurmountable challenge in a different area equates to overall failure and disappointment. It’s easy to become fixated with your training programme though it’s the preparation and planning across all areas which yields results.
Sri Lanka Multi-Stage Kit Recommendations
Cool Wings - These were a last minute addition to my race wardrobe though they proved themselves to be an essential bit of kit. The heat and humidity combination was utterly oppressive and the wings served a dual purpose - to cover my arms from the sun, but also cool the body as I regularly sprayed them with water from my additional 500ml soft flask which I carried. Definitely worth testing out if you’ve got a hot race on the cards in the future (especially if there is plenty of water about).
WAA Light T-shirt – I switched up my usual ultra-carrier top for the new WAA light t-shirt which I’d tested in the Sierra Nevada mountains last month. It works really well with the skort and I love the range of colours to brighten things up.
Veloforte – These bars are delightfully squishy in the heat. I have found other brands to be dry, hard and difficult to swallow in previous races, but these were perfect. I mixed up the six different flavours on a daily basis for a bit of variety. If you fancy testing them out use the code rfmcoaching for a 20% discount. I complemented them with 33Shake chia seed gels topped up with coffee for that caffeine hit and the elite pre/post protein shake which always reminds me of muesli smothered with chocolate milk.
Lyo Food create rehydrated food where you actually recognise the list of ingredients. These formed the basis of breakfasts (Fig and Blueberry Chia Seed Porridge) and dinners (Chicken Tikka Masala, Bigos and Stew with Pearl Barley). My calories were then topped up with tinned mackerel in olive oil, oatcakes, olives, dates, M&Ms, beef jerky, and during the first couple of days a couple of tomatoes and avocados. Be warned - the 2,000 calorie per day mandatory requirement isn’t enough to keep you fueled during the week; believe me I’ve experimented during previous self-sufficient multi-stage events and basically been hungry for five days which is pretty miserable. If you’ve got the luxury of someone transporting your bag I’d opt for more food over spare clothes anytime.
Hydration - The Sweat Experts otherwise known as Precision Hydration. I’d invested in the full works sweat test at the Running Show in Birmingham earlier in the year which revealed I’m a salty sweater loosing 1187mg of sodium per litre of sweat. My recommended hydration plan involves a balance of 1000 and 1500 tabs before, during and after an event. I’d recommend you check out their sweat test to create a hydration strategy tailored specifically for you.
Ear plugs - Communal living can be noisy so it’s worth adding a pair or two. The silicon type trump the foam for cutting out noise.
Compression bags - Categorise everything on the kit list and separate into different colour compression bags. This keeps a track of your belongings amongst sixteen other potentially identical items in the tent. The sock fairy has a habit of moving kit!
3 x Top Tips
Get Sweaty - Travelling from the chilly British winter where temperatures can average in single digits to the stifling heat and humidity of Sri Lanka is a shock to the body and it takes time to adapt. If you’ve got a heat chamber (and the cash!) on your doorstep, booking in a series of sessions over the preceding weeks can be invaluable to help acclimatisation, or head out a few days early to adjust. Otherwise add a few Bikram yoga sessions into your training programme or research sauna protocol. The bronzed Dubai crew had a distinct advantage over the pasty white Brits.
Tortoise and the Hare - Multi stage events are all about the long game. It can be incredibly tempting to head off at full tilt, fresh from your taper on Stage 1. I’ve been there several times and Sri Lanka Day 1 fell into the re-learning bracket. 5:15 min/km pace with an average 161 BPM, might be sustainable for long races in the UK, but it isn’t sustainable over 37km with temperatures hitting 44 degrees and 55% humidity. Needless to say stage 2 and 3 weren’t a success. Be the tortoise.
First Edition Events - I’m a sucker for first edition events with the Half Marathon des Sables Fuertventura, Oman by UTMB and now ULTRA X all under my belt in the last three years. It’s worth remembering these aren’t large scale “tried and tested” seamless operations (yet!). Things will go wrong; bags will go missing, water will run out, route markers will be stolen by the locals, tents will collapse... However, if you’re a trail blazer willing to work around these unforeseen challenges it’s exciting to be a part of the development of a new exciting venture which sets the scene for the future.
ULTRA X Sri Lanka is a friendly, inclusive and social entry point event into multi stage racing overseas. It wouldn’t bankrupt your wallet compared to other events currently available; the registration cost plus flights for 2 x ULTRA-X events are roughly equivalent to 1 x Marathon des Sables. It’ll be interesting to watch the series evolve over the next few years.
Train Smart. Run Happy.
Photos: Courtesy of Benedict Tufnell and Lucja Leonard. Thank you!
Everything was overshadowed by the unforeseen horrific chain of events which unfurled on Sunday 28th April 2019. I'm always confounded how human beings can act in this way towards each other. The impact of these tragedies will inevitably be felt for many years to come. My heart-felt thoughts extend to everyone affected.