You may remember last year we ran a competition to give away 6 months free coaching to someone new to ultra running. We believe that ultra-running can positively change people’s lives and were keen to see if the barriers to entry (lack of knowledge / support, personally imposed limits and lack of confidence etc) are the real reasons why more people don’t get involved. I also just wanted to give something back to the sport that has given me so much.
After a huge response, the lucky person selected was Jenna Wilkinson. Jenna is from the north of England but lives and trains in Dubai (which made the training even more challenging). The target race was in July 2017 and we had almost exactly 6 months to get ready - this would be Jenna's first ultra.
So....without giving away too many spoilers, here's a short interview with Jenna about her experiences as well as some tips for training in the heat.
Q. So, you wanted to Unlock Ultra and run further than you’ve run before? What made you so determined?
A. I’d been back into running for almost 2 years (after a 10 year break) and it was satisfying to see my times slowly coming down. I’d got wrapped up in the running scene here in Dubai and entered lots of different races, resulting in my first marathon in January this year. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do a marathon but it seemed like the natural step as I was training with a couple of running groups where a lot of the members had the marathon as their focus. I’d also made some close friends who were a positive influence on me and believed that I could complete the race with a good time. They also helped me with a training plan too.
Crossing the finish line of your first marathon is quite an unforgettable experience! I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it, that it was too far to run in one go but I didn’t want to fail. I think overcoming this fear only spurs on the confidence and suddenly I was asking myself ‘What’s next?!’.
Q. And how did you find the training? It can’t have been easy, especially with the heat in Dubai?
A. As you ask me this question now, I can say that it was the best experience that I’ve ever had in terms of getting myself focused. Having the plan there ensured that I got outside and completed the session, even if it was 40 degrees or setting the alarm at 3:30am!
Even though the miles were increasing I felt ready for the week ahead, but communication and reading your own body were so important as I felt a little under the weather a couple of times, we’re all human after all.
I’d never done training at this level before either, I would normally train a few times a week so the increase in volume was a big change for me, but because I had a clear goal then I was willing to put in the work.
Q. Any tips for anyone running in the heat?
A. The main thing is hydration, you can’t function properly if you aren’t suitably hydrated so making sure that I was taking in enough water and electrolytes was really important. I’d also make sure that I carried more than enough water and enough nutrition for the session.
For training out here we try and beat the sunrise as much as we can, so sometimes this would mean starting at 4am to complete a long run. I make sure I get a good rest before these early sessions and I’m aware on really humid mornings that my splits won’t necessarily be as planned!
Q. What was your favourite training session?
A. I enjoy running fast (not necessarily the thought process of an ultra runner) so the interval sessions were my favourite. I remember looking at a session that was 12 km long and I was thinking that I was too tired to run that far, and then I seen that after every kilometre I had to pick up the pace for a whole minute! I get myself dressed after work and headed out at about 8pm, it only took a few minutes and then I was in the zone. I’m not quite sure what happened on this session but I loved it. I think it was because my mind was occupied regularly and before I knew it I was onto the next kilometre so I had to run fast again.
From then on, when I seen that session it was like a small victory, I think we all have those particular sessions that we enjoy doing!
Q. What did you dread the most?
A. I’m not sure if it’s dread or if it’s because I’m not very good at it, but the tempo runs are difficult for me. When you see that you have to run 12, 15 or 30 minutes and it has to be quicker than race pace I struggle to get my head in the right place as it’s a long time to be running on your own. I’d normally put some music on for these ones to help me finish it, I know that once a song is over then it’s usually about 3 minutes done! I’d use a countdown method or try and focus on something in the distance until I reached it and then start again. I probably get more satisfaction from completing these sessions as I’ve completed something that I didn’t like, it definitely helped for the race!
Q. How did you feel when you were finally standing on the start line?
A. I was unbelievably calm on race morning! I’d taken my own breakfast to have in my tent and I’d wrapped up really warm while my friend and I took everything to the car as it was 6am and the weather is unforgiving in England.
You could start the race at anytime between 6 and 7am (I was racing day 2 of Race to the Stones so there was a rolling start as some people were running all weekend) and at 6am there was a small group of people who had set off for their 50 km and it didn’t even phase me that I hadn’t started alongside them. My friend had asked if I was alright and we decided to have a cup of coffee and look at final preparations before I set off. I was ready to go by 6:20am, I had my race kit on and only left on my arm warmers as these would be easy to remove later in the run.
Final photos were taken and then I was ready to go, I was more excited than anything, I’d never felt so ready for a race.
Q. Your race finish photo is one of the best I’ve seen. Can you describe what it felt like?
A. If I explain the final kilometre to you and then you might be able to gauge a little bit of all of the emotions that I felt.
So I’d just passed the ‘stones’ which in itself were an amazing sight, I’d just ran 47k, so you have this overwhelming feeling of ‘I’m nearly there, I’ve reached the stones!’. I was also attempting to smile at the photographer and making sure that I touched one of the stones just to prove to myself that it was real. You then come back on yourself and take a left along a long field, you can’t see anything but grass around you, and this field is a slow incline and it’s about a mile long. So I’m now running alone again as there are no photographers anymore (I hadn’t seen any runners for the last 20k, only volunteers at the water stops) my hips ache, my knees hurt and I’m quite sure that I have a few blisters, but I can’t see the end of this field!
I resort to talking to myself ‘you must be nearly finished, the line must be at the top, it’s around here somewhere’ and I keep checking my watch every hundred metres, so i’m struggling. I spot a couple of walkers at the top of the field so I just keep focused on them, even though everything aches I just had to keep moving.
I passed the walkers and could see the end of the field and there was a big green arrow there pointing left, I still wasn’t done!
I turned left which brought me to a dirt track, the track was straight and about 400 metres long, with tall bushes on either side, and at the end of this track was a big inflatable black arch with the word ‘FINISH’ written on it. I took all of these surroundings in in about a second and I started to cry. I was still running but the tears just wouldn’t stop! I didn’t want to cry at the finish line as my friend was waiting for me and she was injured so I knew that I needed to smile for her. I wiped away the tears and ran as fast as I could and I started smiling, I’d actually done it, I’d ran 50 kilometres, and faster than I’d ever imagined!
I heard the organisers say my name over the microphone and that I was second lady, the only way to celebrate was to throw my arms in the air as I crossed the finish with a huge smile! I then spotted my friend and gave her the look of ‘I’ve done it and I’ve smashed it’.
I can honestly say that it was a race I won’t forget.
Q. And what does your running future look like? Will you go on to run long races?
A. I’d like to go back to shorter distance for this season, only because I somehow managed to get personal best times in every distance since training for the ultra so I’m intrigued to see how fast I could go. I hadn’t broken the 20 minute barrier for a 5k before and after 3 months of training for the ultra I ran a 5k in 18:52! So my strength improved dramatically, it’ll be interesting to see what this year brings.
I won’t cross out the prospect of running an ultra again, I’d definitely like to do another one, there are so many beautiful races out there!
Q. And to anyone thinking about running an ultra…..what advice would you give? And is there anything you would have done differently?
A. I’d only ran one marathon before doing this ultra so I was advised to start with the 50 kilometer race, I only wanted to ‘tick it off the list’ and it ended up being the most controlled race that I’ve ever done.
I’d say to anyone thinking about an ultra to look at the races out there and determine which course will be best for you, then it’s all about getting the right training plan in advance! Practice makes perfect as they say…
For my first ultra I wouldn’t have changed a thing, I made mistakes along the way but I’ve learned from them and it’ll make me a better runner in the future.
Q. 3 main benefits of having a coach?
A. It’s easy - I didn’t have to look at numerous plans or possible training as it was all there for me on a weekly basis, and it was catered to me specifically!
Focus - As I said before my personal best times came down in every distance and everyone was noticing, my confidence grew and I knew that the plan was working. I’d never been so focused on my training.
Communication - Even though I was training alone in another country I always had someone to talk to (or moan at if I wasn’t feeling well) you always need a good support network around you.
Huge thanks to Jenna for this blog and for the amazing journey we had. I loved working with her - committed, passionate and thoroughly deserving of a brilliant result. Ultra, well and truly unlocked!
Stay tuned across social for more updates on training, racing and running - maybe even another competition! Or get in touch now.