For many an experienced runner, some of the hardest ultra marathons – such as the Spine race – hold a certain mystique and lure. 2024 Spine runner Kendra Wedgwood is no stranger to the hardcore events. From ‘accidentally’ taking the win in the women’s field at the Spine Challenger South, to taking on the legendary Tunnel race: a 200-mile ultra taking place entirely in pitch black darkness back and forth in the UK’s longest foot tunnel.
As she got ready to toe the start line at the full Winter Spine race, we caught up with Kendra to get her learned-from-experience tips for inspired runners looking to take on some of the hardest ultramarathons on the race calendar.
Tarmac to trails: switching terrain requires a shift in mindset
If you’ve predominantly been a long distance road runner and you’re looking to trade the tarmac for the trails, you also need to adjust your mindset says Kendra. “Enjoy the moment rather than living in the future and chasing a time. You can’t compare times on trail races, especially not ultra trail marathons because even the same course on two different days can alter so much.”
Where road running can naturally bring with it a focus on times and finish places, “trail running in my view is less competitive,” says Kendra. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to it. Runners want to see other runners finishing. Especially women – women want to see other women finish when it comes to the long stuff.”
Get your kit sorted, and soon
Stepping up to a multi-day ultra marathon means your gear is a far bigger factor to consider than it would be in a single day event. Depending on the event and the level of support available, you’ll need everything from multiple layers of clothing to emergency shelter and cooking equipment.
Getting everything on the event-specific mandatory kit list – and then working out what kit works best for you can be a long haul process. Kendra’s main word of advice for stepping up to a muti-day ultra marathon is to start thinking about your kit sooner, rather than later. “Start buying the kit you need over the space of the year leading up to your event and start learning how to use it. People who enter events like the Spine won’t be first timers, so they’ll probably have some of the kit but there are definitely items that will be specific to an event.”
Train with your pack
It might sound obvious, but it’s important to practice carrying all your kit in training. Covering long distances on foot is one thing. But doing it with a heavy pack weighing you down is adds an extra layer of difficulty that you need to prepare for. “For the Spine, I’ve spent long days carrying the pack and testing my kit. My coach also held a specific training weekend where I got tips for packing the bag and tips for a good drop bag alongside nutrition, sleep strategy and other course tips. It was hugely beneficial to say the least.”
The point Kendra raises about thinking about how you’ll pack the bag you’ll be carrying during your ultra marathon event is an important one. Think about what gear you’ll need to access and when. Make sure you’ve got everything as organised and easy to find as possible. The last thing you want is to be rummaging around for your waterproof trousers in the middle of a torrential downpour. Or to discover when it’s pitch black and your headtorch has run out of juice, that perhaps putting the batteries right at the bottom of your pack wasn’t the best idea.
The more you practice with your kit, the better idea you’ll have of what set up works best for you. Check out our ultra marathon gear guide with tips from Kendra and Jayson Cavill for a few more handy hints.
Lighter pack versus additional gear
Ultra runners need to consider their ambitions for the race when it comes to weighing up the benefits of a lighter pack versus having access to additional gear. “I carry a second headtorch on me at all times,” says Kendra. “I figure that the torch is one item that if it broke it would likely end my race. I also carry more layers than required as I get cold easily. I’d rather carry the weight and know I have it, than have a lighter pack. That decision is easy for me for the Spine as I’m not going to be winning it. Maybe if I was in the league for the win, I’d re-consider my ‘luxury’ extras!”
Particularly for your first extreme ultra marathon where finishing will surely be the primary aim, it’s probably worth having a slightly heavier pack with the confidence that you’ve got everything you need. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn what you can do without.
Preparing for sleep deprivation
Physical exertion, testing terrain and harsh weather conditions are a given. But an element of extreme ultra marathons not to be overlooked is the sleep deprivation. With a race like the Winter Spine, you’ll inevitably be spending a lot of time running in the dark and foregoing sleep in order to make forward progress within the time cut offs.
So how can you prepare for that? The only way is to get out there and get experience, says Kendra. “I guess the only way to prepare is to have experience of it. I now have a lot of experience with sleep deprivation in races. I know what the hallucinations can be like. Some fun, some not so fun.”
“When I did the Spine Challenger, I’d done a set of night shifts at work so by the time I got to the start line I was already on day four of no sleep! For the full Spine, I have a loose sleep strategy but I’ll play it by ear.”
For races like the Spine, you’ll need to have completed other long distance events to be eligible to enter. Alongside this race experience, it’s worth incorporating some night running into your training schedule in the build up to get used to the lack of sleep and the additional challenge of negotiating off-road terrain in darkness.
Develop your mental strength
Endurance sport is about more than being physically fit enough to complete a given distance in a set time. When the challenges and the adversities come thick and fast. Your mental strength is going to play a vital role in whether you persevere or DNF.
Mental toughness is a muscle you’ll develop through your training cycle: by getting out in all conditions and finding ways to push through. And by honing your own strategies for keeping your head in the game.
But when it comes to staying mentally strong during the event itself, Kendra’s top tip is to see beyond the moment. “I guess the biggest thing is knowing that pain doesn’t last. The overwhelming joy of finishing will far outweigh any misery you experience during the event. My coach (Kim Cavill) reminds me to enjoy the adventure. You also have to remember that most of the field will be having a miserable time at some point!”
Ready to start working towards the start line? Check out our race guides to find your next ultra marathon event.