Neil Featherby: My thoughts on the world of ultra running

Pete Johnson 10 Mile Road Race

Pete Johnson after the Whittington 10 Mile Road Race where he posted a PB of 53:40. - Credit: Pete Johnson

Whilst I like many others follow several running blogs, one such blog which I always look out for is Running Around with Pete Johnson.  

Needless to say, Pete works for us at Sportlink but is also one of Norfolk’s most respected runners. 

However, and whilst I always find his posts really interesting, this week's blog about ultra running really did create several very heartfelt responses. 

Pete is like me, old school in lots of ways where our best running days were during a time where most people's running mindsets were different to many of those who run today. 

Running back in the 1980s and 90s very much followed a pattern of running certain distances on the track and road whereby the marathon was the distance which was considered the ultimate when it came to tests of running endurance. 

Whilst there were some absolutely amazing ultra-running athletes along with lots of classic ultra-races back then, it did not have the same profile as it does today and really was considered to be for those who were a little mad, albeit very fast too. 

I fell into that mad group what with always being fascinated by those really hard athletes who could bash out sub six-minute miles up to 100k and seven-minute miles up to 100 miles. Or of course those who could run 600 miles round a track in six days. 

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I always knew even when running my best marathons that one day I would have a go and although I had a couple of early attempts at the start of my running career, my first serious ultra-race was aged 34 when winning a 33.5 mile race along a canal trail path between Nottingham and Grantham into what I remember was a really strong head wind with hail showers.  

Despite going off course twice and losing easily 15 mins, I finished in just over 3 hours 30 mins. However, and most notably, there were just 120 competitors whereas if it was today, I am sure it would be at least ten times that number. 

I also completed another run of 62km (38.5 miles) at what felt very comfortable in 3 hours 57 mins and was able to run 50 miles in just over 5 hours. But the truth being told and looking back, I left it too late before having a go at these distances which went well beyond 26.2 miles. 

Neil Featherby Great Canal Race

Neil Featherby on the way to winning the Nottingham to Grantham 33.5 Mile Canal Race. - Credit: Neil Featherby

At the same time, I just could not get my nutrition right. In other words, I did not eat on these runs which of course I now know was crazy. 

I was even picked to run for GB in the World 100k in Belgium in 1993 in a race which was contested over 10 laps of 10k picking off each lap well under control in 38/39 mins without even a single jelly baby. However, what was running well under control very quickly changed just after 50 miles when the lights went out. 

Lots of older and more experienced guys had sent me advice as to what to eat during the race, but partly through arrogance and partly through naivety, I was sure I could do it using just electrolyte/energy drinks and water as I had done in marathons. 

Mind you some of those who did lend me advice used to drink beer and even smoke on the run to keep themselves awake for which this just added to what I thought was all part of the eccentricity of being an ultra-runner. Needless to say, smoking was definitely not for me, but looking back perhaps the idea of a beer or two might have been good! 

Anyway, and to the point – in Pete’s blog headed up – “Without wishing to offend many of my running buddies who take up this challenge, what is that all about?” He says during his peak running years when he ran 53 mins for 10 miles and a 2-hour 34 min marathon, ultra running was just not on his horizon and did not appeal to him.  

In truth and back then, I think it is fair to say that Pete was not the only runner who thought like this, and that ultra-running was very much for the minority and hardened few as already mentioned. 

Incidentally, at no time in his blog was Pete being derogatory to those who take on an ultra race. 

In fact, he mentions lots of friends and some of the many superb ultra runners which we have here in Norfolk. 

The point he is making is how times and mindsets have changed and of course what with the many responses his blog got it also gave me a good reason for wanting to write about the subject this week. 

Each comment/response was clearly written from each person’s heart, but one which really did stand out was that by Norfolk Gazelles Phil Whiting. 

Whilst I do not have enough space in this column to quote him in full: “The emotions that a 100 mile race bring out are confirmation of life itself,” he said. This is so true and for those who have and who do run ultras will know exactly what he means. He also goes on to mention his many amazing experiences of when running across the Yorkshire Moors, the fear of clambering up a cliff in Cornwall with the waves crashing beneath him, getting lost on the Pennine Way and crying when hobbling the last few miles of the North Downs when having survived Hurricane Bertha. 

There are no two ways about it, running is a different sport to what it was just two or three decades ago, but people are also now more programmed in to believing that if he or she can do it, then so can I and in the words of Phil Whiting: “Every Ultra is an Adventure.” 

Whilst it is a well done to everyone from Norfolk who ran for their clubs at the South of England Southern X/C Champs last Saturday, I will apologise here and now to those who I have not mentioned. 

However, an extra shout out to the following – Finley Winslop 17th in the Under 13 boys, Zachary Dunne 7th U15 boys, Jeya Kandola 18th and Henry Jonas 23rd U17 Men’s, Reuben Andrews 13th and Samuel Stevens 25th U20 Men, Callum Bowen Jones 35th, Logan Smith 58th, Stu Huntington 60th and James Reed 62nd Senior Men’s. Needless to say, and not forgetting the girls and women of course with Lexie Heather 37th and Lottie Hood 56th U13 Girls, Connie Easter 38th and Rosie Dickety 47th U15 Girls, and Megan Gadsby 5th and Grace Buchanan 12th U20 Women. 

Last but definitely not least, the biggest well done has to go to Hattie Reynolds for her superb win in the Under 17 ladies’ race. 

Finally, a further shout out to Eva Barton who took third place whilst setting another county U15 Girls indoor 800 metres record at the London Indoor Games with a time of 2mins 22.3 secs.