When a marathon just isn’t enough: how to be an ultra-runner

Donnie Campbell. Picture: Globalshots.co.uk
Donnie Campbell. Picture: Globalshots.co.uk
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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to run 500 km in 9 days? Try asking Donnie Campbell, British Ultra Trail winner and Great Britain representative. Ultra-running is one of the fastest growing sports around, with races almost every weekend in the UK. i spoke to Campbell about his journey into the sport – and how to stay motivated and injury-free.

From takeaways to ultra-athletics

Growing up on the Isle of Skye, Campbell’s first sport was shinty. “I played that up to international level, for the Scotland under-18 team. “Then when I was seventeen joined the marines and spent three and a half years there.” Following this, Campbell studied Sports Conditioning and Development at University, where he fell into a pattern familiar to many of us. “I enjoyed the uni lifestyle a bit too much – a few too many beers and takeaways. By the time I finished uni I was 16 and a half stone.”

“I started running because running was what I always used to keep fit when I was in the marines and playing shinty. A friend suggested I do this ultra-run on Islay & Dura, in Scotland, which was 150 miles over 4 days. “It sounded like what I joined the marines for – a bit of adventure and running on trails and hills. So I got fit, ended up finishing 4th and just fell in love with ultra running.

“That was in 2009. My first ultra. “From there I trained smarter, lost more weight and I just got faster and faster. In 2013 I ran for Scotland at 100k in the Anglo-Celtic Plate.”

It’s not just about racing

Campbell takes care to stress that racing and exploring are two sides of the same coin. “Racing gives you focus and sharpness, but the other side of it is just going out and exploring new trails. “I’ve travelled a fair bit to race. I went with a friend for two and a half weeks and we ran 15 or 16 consecutive ultras around Africa, including running up Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. I ran across the Namib Desert – 550 km in 9 or 10 days.” Unsurprisingly, Campbell still has a soft spot for the scenery of his Scottish homeland. “Having Glencoe or the Nevis Range on your doorstep – and being brought up in Skye with the Cuillins – you have a great playground there.” In fact, in 2011 he ran a sleepless 184 miles from Glasgow to Skye, raising £22,000 and gaining national coverage in the process.

Campbell believes his Scottish upbringing has other benefits too. “I suppose the harshness of the Scottish winter does make you a bit tougher because you’re used to being wet and cold. “If you wanted to train in nice weather, you’d never train in Scotland. You can cope with it better than some European countries because you’re more hardened to it.’

‘Sometimes it’s just about keeping moving’

When it comes to tactics for taking on these ultra-runs, Campbell notes he “hasn’t really got any mental quirks”. “Sometimes I’ll use positive self talk just to focus a bit more. “I’ve always had quite a lot of self-discipline and determination – obviously you need that to get through marines training.” However Campbell has some tips for those of us with less natural grit. “I have read ‘The Chimp Paradox’ which is a great book by Dr Steve Peters, who used to be the British cycling team psychologist for Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. “That’s a good mind-management book for if you get into a downward spiral, which you inevitably will do during an ultra. There’s strategies you can use to keep yourself going, keep yourself motivated and positive. “It’s an easy reading book – you can relate it to your work, your hobby, sport or diet. It helps you understand why you make certain decisions and then to control the decisions you want to make.”

Staying injury-free

For Campbell, avoiding injury is all about “doing some strength and conditioning”. “Running’s a skill. Everyone can run but some people can run better than others. “Look at Mo Farah’s running form compared with Paula Radcliffe. Mo Farah’s a lot more efficient at running than Paula Radcliffe was.

“Most running injuries are from overuse, so it’s [about] having a progression in your training and building up gradually – not trying to copy what the elite athletes do. “[You] end up getting injured because [you’ve] just done too much, too soon.”

‘Just go out and run’

As a running coach, Campbell has some advice for people struggling to get their running shoes on each day.

“Small steps – 20 minutes is better than nothing. And it doesn’t have to be running, it could be a walk-run. “If you’re struggling for motivation, the best advice is ditch the watch. “Forget about ‘I’ve gotta run this mile in this time’ or ‘I’m slower than I used to be’. Go out and just run, explore and try and have a good time – switch off from the stresses of life. As for diet – “just a healthy balanced diet, plenty of veg, some pasta, rices and lean proteins”. “It’s not rocket science: just avoiding processed foods, ready meals and high saturated fat like crisps and chocolate.” For more information, visit Donnie’s coaching website at getactiverunning.com or visit runultra.co.uk to find a race near you.