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Running From 5K To 10K To Ultra Marathon – How I Hit My Targets And Increased My Distances……Even If At Times I Thought I Couldn’t

by | 11 Jul 2020 | Running motivation, My running journey, Older runners

In the beginning there was one simple aim for me – being able to run at 52. I was very unfit and rusty to say the least. But once I discovered and mastered those early running tips and understood what’s necessary in order to run comfortably and with relative ease, I started thinking of distance targets that would boost my confidence, inspire my efforts, further motivate me and, of course, give me something to proudly share with my friends.

My first distance target was the all-time classic, running the 5K!

Getting to my first 5K run – 5 kilometers/3.1 miles

Why run 5K, or 5 kilometers?

Every novice runner talks about a 5K target. It’s a badge of honour. Whether you want to go further or even quit running, 5K is something that all want to achieve, and it was no different for me.

How to get to that magic 5k mark?

As a new runner I needed guidance and I found one in the Couch to 5K Program. A simple and easy program to follow, designed to help you run for 30 minutes, three times per week in just 9 weeks of training. Its title may be a bit misleading as it will not help everyone run 5K in 9 weeks although I did manage it.

However, for me the main idea of the program is to help you develop the running habit and strengthen your body in order to be able to run 5K in your own time, no matter how long it would take. I even managed to bring all of my 5K runs in under 30 minutes.

How did it feel to achieve my first 5k. And what next?

It felt brilliant! It felt as if I won a medal, a great sense of achievement. I listened to other runners’ advice and ran 3 x 5K every week for several months in order to consolidate that distance. Towards the end it felt really easy running it and I realised that I wanted to spend more time on my feet so, naturally, I thought of……..

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Image credit: Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

Getting to my first 10K run – 10 kilometers/6.2 miles

Why aim for a 10K mark?

It’s a very popular distance, not too hard, not too long. It seemed just about right. It also gave me an impression that I was going to move away from a total novice and into ‘double digits’.

How I got from 5K to my first 10K

Although on paper it doesn’t seem too long, I remember getting really tired when first running 7km one day and thinking there would be three more kilometers to achieve my new target. I needed guidance, again.

Somebody told me of a popular 10% rule which states that you should only increase your weekly mileage (or volume) in increments of 10 percent. So if you are running 30km this week, you should only run 3 more kilometers next week. For more details see this 10 Percent Rule guide that I followed.

How did it feel to get to my first 10K. And what next?

I was very proud indeed but also felt that running it was very different to 5K. For starters it was harder (surprise, surprise).

I was beginning to understand that in order to feel comfortable running 10K once a week I would have to work more on rest, diet and hydration, elements that would turn out to be crucial in my development as a runner.

In that respect I entered uncharted waters. On one hand I could stop there, choose the 10km mark as my limit and continue to get more comfortable and faster within it…OR I could work on getting better overall and consider even longer distances.

I decided after a winter of running that my next step ‘should’ be Half Marathon but I still wasn’t 100% sure I got that in me. I still felt that the 10 kilometer running distance felt right and wasn’t convinced I could go further.

Then I read of a 10 mile (16km) target! Some would use it as a stepping stone to half marathon.

Psychologically, I needed something between 10K and a more serious double digit target so I committed to reaching the 16K during the spring and used the same 10% rule. Once I hit that target it dawned on me that I was not only exhausted but that in order to reach a ‘mini’ marathon I would have to run another 5K on top. Hmmmm….. I had some proper thinking to do.

Getting to my first half marathon – 21.09 kilometers/13.10 miles

Why did I decide to try for Half Marathon, or HM?

I could run 10K easily and was at the stage where I got really curious about HM distance.

I was reading what others were saying, I heard that it wasn’t as daunting as it first might seem.

I also read that if you weren’t prepared well, regardless of your age, you can get hurt. You can injure yourself trying. I got injured before, in the beginning, and those were rookie errors. Surely, I could do this?

How I got from 10K to half marathon

That was the distance where I would have to spend time on running seriously, sometimes for two or more hours (based on my fitness levels). I needed more than just thinking, I needed a proper plan. One that came recommended was the program by Hal Higdon.

In the program all was laid bare. Week by week. Mile by mile. Step by step. I could see what’s needed. I was reading lots about hydration, diet, the importance of proper resting and road running shoes (the aim was to run on pavements only).

As I was preparing, things seemed to get a whole lot easier but I still had to deal with my doubts. ’Can I do it’? ‘What happens if…?’

The way I dealt with it all was by training diligently, not skipping any steps and by listening to my body, looking for any wrong signals that I could get. I was gaining more confidence in the process.

On the day, just before the run, I knew the route inside out. I planned everything. I was ready for it, fit enough to do it. Pushed any doubts away.

How did it feel to get to half marathon, and what next?

The run itself was much easier than I expected. Afterwards I was exhilarated, over the moon. That was such a big deal, a great deal for me. I wasn’t even running for two years and I did it, I felt like a proper runner, I WAS a proper runner. I gave it my all, was hydrated and fuelled properly, didn’t need to stop once, didn’t need any liquids along the route – I nailed it in 2.07 hours!

The day after I felt a bit sore, my knees were creaky but I had plans, I wanted more, I wanted to run a big one, I wanted to conquer The Full Marathon.

A few days after I achieved my first half marathon I sat down and thought it through. What I just did was HALF a way from 42.19 kilometers. And I was tired and my knees were sore. I knew that some TRAINING runs for the full marathon were 25km, 28km and 32km. All three were longer than HM and once you complete a 32km training run, you’ve still got no less than 10.19km to go.

That was the moment when the doubts crept in. I knew that there were runners running marathons who were older than me but I knew that many of them were experienced longtime runners, while I was just one happy recreational guy, pounding the pavements in my middle age.

That kind of thinking didn’t help so I sat down and considered all options in great detail. I decided not to rush, not to put pressure on myself – except in my mind I had already decided that I wanted to prove that I could do it (so much for no pressure then, eh?).

Running to my first FULL MARATHON – 42.19 kilometers/26.2 miles

Why? How did I come to the decision to try a marathon distance run?

I convinced myself that reaching HM and not attempting the ‘big one’ would leave my running ‘mission’ somewhat incomplete. So many people go and run marathons although I tried to ignore the fact that many of them did NOT finish their races. Still, by that stage the line was drawn and I was well intrigued.

The only question that remained was ‘how’.

How I did it – how I got to my first 42.19 kilometers, or ‘42K’

I definitely knew I needed to follow a plan so I got back to Hal Higdon marathon training. That was easy. The plan was simple again, it told me when and how long to train for. So far so good.

Unlike anything that I did before, this time I had to figure out how to fuel and how to hydrate during 42K.

Unlike anything that I did before, that could not be done on raw energy only, I had to find out what products worked for me as there was not ‘one size fits all’ solution. I had to research various gels, energy bars and drinks in order to find out what product would be tolerated by my stomach, when during the run to use it and how.

Another ‘small’ detail was the fact that I always ran alone so there would be no help, no drink stations, no toilets, no medical staff and I had absolutely no idea how long that would all take either.

I had four long runs during my training during which I had to experiment and get my show together. I realised my stomach didn’t tolerate energy bars and gels but a powder hydrating electrolyte drink was something that worked well. The problem was, I would need 5 x 500ml bottles which I could not carry and run.

I also needed an area with a toilet as well as some people around, just in case I get injured. And to add to the fun, at that time I didn’t even have a running watch so I was clueless about my heart rate. All I had was a basic app telling me how far I went for.

Looking back, I was more than new and naive but there you go, maybe that’s the best learning curve.

Finally, I worked it all out. I would run around a popular London park where I would leave my car with my drinks and there were toilets as well as people around.

The final obstacle was my left knee. I felt that during the 28km and 32km training runs the area around the knee would cramp up and start to hurt. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to run the entire distance, based on how inexperienced I was at the time.

Luckily, I came across a great article by Jeff Galloway where he explained his famous run/walk method, very popular with marathon runners. Here’s the link with Jeff’s full explanation.

That was the final piece of jigsaw and I was ready to go.

How it felt to get to a full marathon…and what next?

I was nervous but felt ready. The run started as fun, and up until the 25th kilometer or so I was doing well but then I started to feel tired in the legs. Slowing down sometimes helps, but in my case it simply meant I started to do more steps, hence more work.

Every hour I would take a new bottle from my car but running after a period of walking would feel even harder. Then I started to feel mentally fatigued when I passed the 30km mark, with another 12km still to go.

I tried not to think about it. Around 35-36km I was hitting the wall and began to struggle big time. Jeff Galloway’s method came as a life saver.

I ploughed on.

The last 3-4 kilometers were not fun at all. Mentally and physically I pushed myself almost over the limit but I couldn’t possibly stop then. I had to grind it out somehow, in any way possible. The legs were nearly completely gone, my brain was urging me to stop and I kept talking out loudly, encouraging myself to carry on.

It felt like I was in a very lonely, painful and dark place. An immense mental challenge, even more than physical.

And then the voice in my headphones told me that after 4.40 gruelling hours I crossed 42.19km. That’s probably the best thing an android app could have done for me, ever!

I stretched and walked to relax my muscles and then went home, nearly numb. I was exhausted, dazed and hungry (it turned out that I didn’t have correct powder dosage in my bottles, rookie error).

It took me a few days to recover in order to eat and sleep well. Thankfully, nothing was broken, legs got fine very soon, and I finally realised what I had achieved and how I did it. Alone!

I was more than proud and I felt that I should’ve been.

I learned massively about what I should change if I ever decided to do it again. There were errors in training, diet, resting, clothes, equipment, drinks….so many things to tweak and change.

For two weeks I wasn’t even thinking about running and then I eased myself back in with all that old pleasure. No plans at the time, just keeping a regular 3 x per week running routine and simply having fun.

And then, slowly but surely, I started thinking about things I didn’t do right and started to come up with solutions. Except, this time I read something else. I read about Ultra Marathons, I read that a 50km run is ‘less’ than 8km longer than the marathon. Less than eight. So, I thought, if I tweaked all the previous wrongs, surely, I could….at some stage…..fairly soon….be able to go for Fifty Kilometers? And that was that. My mind was set. No turning back. The Big 50 was the new plan for me!

Running From 5K To 10K To Ultra Marathon - How I Hit My Targets And Increased My Distances......Even If At Times I Thought I Couldn’t

Image credit: Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

Ultra-Marathon – running to 50 kilometers and onwards/31.06 miles plus

Why on Earth did I go for an ultra-marathon?

The real reason? The only reason? I simply wanted to do it. I wasn’t afraid, I went through the marathon, I knew how to fix the previous errors, I had enough time to do it right. I knew that with proper training I would be ready, so 50K, here I come!

How did I do it – what was the secret behind getting to my first ultra-marathon?

21 weeks of Hal Higdon’s training plan gave me enough time to plan the route down to the last detail. I planned alternatives as well, just in case. I would run alone again but this time I knew exactly what fuelling I needed, how often and how much.

Got the new shoes. Got proper socks. Dri fit tech underwear. A proper running backpack with enough room for all I needed.

I trained 5 days every week. I cross trained. Worked on my strength. Ran up to 80km per week, up to 325km in one month. I took that really seriously, or else there’s no other way it could have been done.

I stretched and worked on my muscles every single day. I read about people who run 100km, people who run 24 hours non-stop, people who run over 200km. I was only about to run 50km. Less than 8km longer than the marathon. Mindset was as important as physical training. Not only did I want it, I was actually enjoying myself.

Another crucial thing was not to over-train. The last thing I needed was an injury setback. Not now! Not in any shape. I had to look after myself now, at 56, more and better than ever before.

How did it feel to run an ultra marathon, and what next?

I was well trained and mentally ready. Got out there, the weather was perfect, and off I went.

I realised I was going a bit faster but I was using Jeff Galloway’s method where I would walk for 60 seconds every mile (1.6km).

I felt fine and comfortable. Reached HM mark and passed it with ease. And then…..then I started to feel a deep ping somewhere in my right thigh. Those things happen, sometimes they come and go, sometimes you shake them off. A niggle.

I stopped to walk, but it got worse. I stopped to stretch the leg thoroughly and it helped a little bit. But then, then it got bad and was getting progressively worse.

As I reached the 31st km the pain was unbearable and the leg simply and completely seized up. I couldn’t move. When I set down I was fine. When I attempted to move it, the pain was debilitating. Well, clearly, on that occasion my 50km run was off.

It took two buses to take me home. I must have gone faster than I should have done. I might have been dehydrated because it was really warm (see here for my thoughts on running in hot weather). The problem might have started before and went unnoticed.

I will never know. What I knew really well, however, was that I needed to do something before my fitness level dropped and all my work came undone. I only had weeks before that would start to happen.

So, I decided to take a week off and monitor the leg. Luckily it was just a cramp, nothing snapped inside. It got better in just a few days.

6 days later I went out for a little jog and was fine. I decided to repeat the last couple of weeks of training when I entered the tapering period and was reducing running mileage in order to rest up and get ready for the long one.

A few weeks later all felt fine, and I was ready for the second attempt. Second time around I went more carefully with shorter strides. I was confident, cardio was good (I had a proper runners watch then).

My body worked fine. Leg was alright. At times I could feel a distant touch deep inside the thigh, or maybe I was just imagining it. In any case, the marathon distance wasn’t much of a problem. Unlike my maiden marathon run, this one was way more comfortable and trouble free.

Between 43-50km I had to take more walking breaks, the knees were getting really sore and I wasn’t ready to risk anything. I was getting tired and fatigued but not in pain and mentally I was still surprisingly relaxed.

When I reached the 50km barrier after slow 6.27 hours, I actually felt as if not much had happened. A very strange feeling. I bought a sandwich, set on the train and went home.

During the trip home I started to become aware of what I had just done. I sent a few phone messages and simply by reading the replies I knew that that was no ordinary run. I did something else that time. I felt as if I completed a full circle and opened up a completely new perspective in my running journey.

Big things became reality!

In just four years I made a transition from an inactive middle aged smoker to a very active ultra-marathon runner.

I would never think of it as possible, I would never think of it at all in my pre running days, to be honest. But running, like many other things in life can lead from one thing to another, from basic to more elaborate, from complex to sometimes unfathomable.

Looking back, the process had its logical course and all of it was down to ideas, hard work and stubborn persistence. I was absolutely determined to get to another stage and denied any factors that could play against me. When I got injured I healed, got back and tried not to repeat the same error. When a new obstacle appeared, I worked around it.

The point is, it can be done.

Remember, at times when facing a barrier that feels insurmountable think of those who have done it. I can’t see why you couldn’t achieve your own goals the same way.

Cover image credit: Ricardo Arce on Unsplash

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