ULTRA Festival 2021 – Review

A little while ago Kath signed up for the ULTRA festival online. Over Friday 30th April -Sunday 2nd May the festival offered 12 talks and a couple of films to watch online. Honestly, I was only vaguely interested because, you know, ultra… not likely to happen any time soon or ever for me. We haven’t watched everything yet and we didn’t watch everything ‘live’ but I have really enjoyed it. The first thing we watched was the first session Ultra running 101 – Why it’s for everyone. Initially we were a little irritated because the chat seemed to miss the fact that it was supposed to be basics. However, we very quickly settled in and as the conversation went on it hit the brief more and more and felt welcoming and inclusive. It was a nice introductory talk to the festival and really confirmed that running an ultra is basically having picnic while running a stupidly long way.

Then we watched ‘Training for the Long Haul’ with James Elson and Robbie Britton which I really liked because it was so much about how much of what works is so individual. Kit is individual, training is individual, food is. So much of training is about figuring out what works for you. I really liked the way both of the speakers talked about being careful of people who say there is only one right way of running, training, fuelling… Lots of what they were saying made sense and made me think about whether I should think about my running in terms of time rather than distance. So the training plan I use is based on time for 2 runs during the week and then the ‘long run’ is based on distance. But as I was listening to them I wondered if maybe I’m actually doing it the wrong way round and so I might try doing my long run based on time and think about the other sessions a bit differently. I am quite happy to have a little experiment and see what that does to my running.I also chuckled when they referred to running easy as a difficult thing to do and that it’s fine to run 14/15 minute miles. If anyone is struggling to run that slow, I can help. Just come and run/walk with me. If I hit more than one 13 minute mile in a row I am having a speedy day.

Listening to Shane Ohly talk about his Bob Graham round was also really interesting. I liked his take on the many debates about how these rounds should be done and what counts as supported or unsupported etc. He seemed content to do his thing and leave others to debate whether what he did was proper. I liked that. It seems a good place to be mentally – your run so your rules, others can figure out what means for them. My favourite talk though was ‘A Chat Between Friends – Nicky Spinks and Damian Hall’ which came across as really just that, a chat between friends. The ethos of trail running generally as well as just having a thing for going very long came across really nicely. It’s not about going fast, it’s about pushing yourself in other ways and enjoying the outdoors as you do it. Some of it is just about being smart and organised and good at navigating and good at preparing so you can keep going effectively when you don’t really want to. The same came through in the film ‘Wrath’ which followed Damian Hall and Beth Pascall on their successful FKT attempt on the Cape Wrath Trail a couple of years ago – 230 miles across what looked like stunning but difficult terrain in a Scottish winter. It was inspiring to watch and made me think about what my next impossible thing to do could be.

We’ve watched the talk on Sustainability in running yesterday evening which was also really good but also a bit scary. There is so much waste and often we just don’t think about it anywhere near enough. There is so much more we can all do here and I think it will probably make us think about things more in the future. We definitely do not need any more race t-shirts! Again I liked the realism of this talk, and the focus on each of us doing what we can, making small local changes that together begin to make a real difference. It resonated with what I have often told my students: To change the world you take small steps, bit by bit, little by little and it might not feel like much but it all adds up to making the world a better place. We all need to do more and I will try be more conscious of that.

The final talk we watched last night was the talk on mental resilience. I don’t like the term resilience but I think that’s because resilience is an overused phrase in my world and is often used to blame people who struggle to cope with unsustainable and awful conditions and situations and actually the problem is not them. Resilience is not a long term solution. It therefore took a little while to settle into the talk. However, in the talk, resilience was used in a more positive sense rather than as a way to shift blame for structures that are impossible to thrive in. It was about how you get through those tough bits of running long and while some of it was ultra specific – you have more time to go to the dark places when you run long and the physical exertion is on a different level so a different sort of mental strength is needed, much of what was said is also relevant for shorter runs I think. I quite like reframing the inner dialogue from inner demons to inner angels as a concepts – not sure I’d use angels because angels are bit freaky. But having a conversation with my younger non-running self about how amazingly well I am doing compared to what that younger me would have thought possible is a different sort of inner dialogue than the other little voice reminding me that by all objective measures I am a terrible runner. Reframing or constructing yourself differently, changing the way you think about what you are doing and/or why I think might also be a powerful tool. Certainly something to work with.

I’m looking forward to catching up with the remaining few talks and the film Via Alpina over the next few days but mostly I am excited to get back to running. I feel like I may be ready to step back out there. I might never go that long but I love the ethos of ultra running and trail running generally. I like the focus on being outside and in nature, of running your way, figuring out what works for you, fuelling right for you, not being afraid to walk, stopping for photos, not focusing on speed per se but focusing on challenging yourself, on racing – sure, but racing yourself or the terrain or simply the distance, not necessarily other people. It’s all my sort of running and I will try and focus on the joy of being outside, the joy of moving and the #MyRunMyRules mindset as I re-start my running journey once again. So Thank you ULTRA festival and I think I might well be checking out the ULTRA magazine.

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