Couch to Ultramarathon – Part 1: The Road To 5k

Now that I’ve hit my first running goal – running 5km without a walking break, I’m about to start the next step – training to run in a 10km charity event, I begin Monday, and will be sharing my thoughts along the way.

My last 5km run clocked in at 30 minutes, I have an overall target time of 20 minutes, as my fitness and distances increase – my 5km times will come down considerably.

My distance goals are:

  • 5km
  • 10km
  • 15km
  • half marathon
  • full marathon
  • 50 mile ultramarathon
  • 100 mile ultramarathon
  • 100 mile+

As I achieve each milestone I’ve set for myself towards my ultramarathon goals, I’m going to write a little bit about the journey so far – a diary of sorts to keep me focused and document progress I’ve made.

When I first decided I was going to run an ultra, I knew I was starting from zero and that small but consistent regular improvements were going to get me there. Far from being knowledgeable about running, I decided my best chance of becoming a runner was to start small and set myself realistic goals. This way, I could minimise the risks of injury, build up a good level of fitness, and get the momentum needed to push for my longer term goals.

5km seemed to be quite a good place to start – just over 3 miles, and at least 5 times further than I’d ever run in my life. I searched Google for some tips on getting from 0 to 5km. Everywhere I looked, I heard about “Couch to 5k” and “Run/Walk intervals”.

I did some research, the Couch to 5k theory sounded good – in a nutshell, you build up your stamina by running for a very short period of time and then walking to recover – and repeat. Each session lasts around 30 minutes and you train three times a week. At the start of each week, the length of your running sections increases, and your recovery times eventually begin to decrease, until you’re running more that you’re walking.

By the end of 8 weeks you should be running for a full 30 minutes – which for most people (running 10 minutes per mile), is enough to reach 5km.

To save me timing my intervals with a stopwatch (taking my focus away from running), I looked for an iPhone app which would help. I discovered Ease Into 5k by Bluefin Software, which provided audio instructions to ‘run’ and ‘walk’ at the beginning of each interval.

I was ready…

The first session starts with a 5 minute warm up walk, then 9 repetitions of a 60 sec run and a 90 sec walk. Then finally, a 5 minute cooldown walk.

I’d already mastered walking 10km, this will be easy…

Unfit was not the word… every run section was torture – I felt like my legs were going to fall off, my lungs seemed like they were going to burst and my heart was trying to escape from my chest.

How could my body feel broken from under a minute of running?

My mind was much stronger – I kept angrily repeating the words “Keep going, come on fat boy… come on, come on!” I was fat, this was the reason – I was lazy, I didn’t exercise – running was the cure.

Nothing was going to stop me, I will not be defeated, EVER… I kept on, longing to hear the sound of the app’s ‘chime’ followed by the instruction to ‘walk’, then it arrived. 90 seconds of bliss – time to walk, recover, catch my breath and prepare for the next 8 torturous repetitions.

Come on fat boy, come on fat boy… COME. ON. FAT. BOY!

By the time the my phone told me to ‘cool down’ I was a mess, my t-shirt soaked with sweat, red faced, legs burning and my heart pounding – but I’d done it, I didn’t stop when I thought I had to.

I’d taken the first step – despite the discomfort, I felt amazing. I had chosen to run, and I ran.

The next two sessions of the week went well – armed with the knowledge that I didn’t die the first time, I’d already proven to myself that I could run and walk when the plan told me to – it became a game to me.

Week two upped the ante slightly, a 5 minute warm up walk, then 5 repetitions of a 60 sec run and a 90 sec walk, followed by a 90 sec run and a 90 sec walk. Then, a 5 minute cooldown walk.

The extra 30 seconds of running felt fine, I already felt fitter after the first week and I was ready to go again long before my walking intervals had finished.

The weeks progressed and I kept on with the plan – it was working for me, and I was going to follow it to the letter. I began to love the routine, being out on the tarmac by the sea with nothing but my own company, a few tunes and Ease Into 5k for company.

My eating habits had changed – why eat junk just to run it off again? I began to lose weight without even thinking about it. I started at 110kg and just before my 32nd birthday I weighed 99kg. I’d lost around 10% of my bodyweight in just over a month, I felt amazing.

By week 5 I was running 5 minute intervals, walking 2 minutes, then in week 6 my world fell apart.

It was just after my birthday in 2012 when my girlfriend broke up with me – we’d been living apart for a while, trying to work things out when I heard from her that we were over. At the time, it felt like I’d hit rock bottom. I won’t go into detail about the breakup, the past belongs right where it is.

My motivation to run disappeared, I also began to think less about what I was eating. The weight I’d lost didn’t quite creep back on, it’s marched on like the Salvation Army brass band. I buried myself in my work, and tried to keep my mind busy.

I didn’t quite realise how long had passed before a friend of mine asked me about my running, I told him I hadn’t been for a while and I had been too busy working since the breakup. He told me to get out there, go to the top end of the promenade (5km) and back (another 5km), run/walk/crawl if I had to…

“Running is the best anti-depressant known to man”, he said.

I didn’t feel depressed, but I’ll never forget his words – they hit me right where they needed to. Running did feel good, I love the acheivement, I missed it, I wanted it in my life.

For a split second, I thought about how much work I had to do – then my motivation took over – an hour won’t hurt…

“You’re right, I’m heading out now.” I didn’t want to wait, if I had waited, I might not have done it. I put on my trainers, my headphones and I was running again.

For the first mile, I was flying – two or three minutes running, slowing to a jog and then walking when I absolutely had to. Just after the first mile I was sick, in my rush to get out of the door I’d forgotten that I’d eaten a large lunch less than 10 minutes before leaving. My stomach really didn’t want me to continue, I thought about turning back, but I’d already started and I wasn’t going to let myself down.

I walked the next mile and a half. Walking made my stomach feel better, I started running again – my legs didn’t like it very much but they kept me going – I jogged as far as I could, when I thought I couldn’t jog any further, I sprinted for 10 seconds to prove myself wrong, and finally walked to recover.

By the time I reached the end of the promenade I was exhausted, I’d put in a lot of effort and hadn’t run for 10 weeks, I turned around and started back home. I walked most of the way, every now and then picking a lamp post or a bench in the distance and running to it.

I got home, jumped straight into a hot bath and lay there soaking my aching legs while reading a book.

This was it, I was back, I really had missed running and I wasn’t going to let anything get between me and my ultramarathon goals again – Work, relationships, nothing. The only thing that could ever slow me down would be injury, I can reduce the risks by learning as I go.

My legs ached for a couple of days, so I rested them before I went back out to start my couch to 5k journey again. The plan had worked for me before, and I was going to follow it all the way to the end this time.

I had become quite busy with design work, instead of trying to squeeze in a run where i could or running at the end of the day when I knew I’d have least motivation, I made running my first priority – I’d be up at 5:30am without fail on run days.

For the next few weeks, I was out by 5:45am every other day, pacing the promenade – fresh, motivated and getting fitter. My first few weeks were easy, I barely needed the walk intervals – I knew the plan worked so I didn’t want to skip ahead – I was going to follow it from the beginning to the end.

I got invited out for a drink with some friends – I was introduced to Anne-Marie, a friend of a friend and we got talking about running, goals and life in general. I must have been quite passionate about it because later that night I had a message on Facebook from her, telling me she’d decided to take up running, thanking me for the inspiration.

We got talking and ended up running together a few nights later. I kept up my morning 5k training and also ran some evenings with my new running buddy. Through our shared interests, we’ve grown very close and we are now in a wonderful relationship together – she keeps me grounded and inspires me even more than I can inspire myself.

We ran regularly, and each time we did – I was able to beat some of my personal best distances – proud that I’d run further than the time before. One night, Anne-Marie told me she’d gone out the night before and run a full 5k. We were due to run and she told me she thought I could make the same distance.

Could I? What’s the worst that could happen?

I hadn’t reached the end of my 5k training yet, but with someone by my side who had already done it – would I push myself that little bit further?

I don’t say no to many challenges – this was no different.

We set off on our familiar route along the promenade, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. We seemed to be running a little faster than usual, I told myself this was a good thing, if we started to get tired we’d have a little room to slow down if we needed to recover. My breathing technique isn’t the greatest and the thought of trying to run a full 5k when I’d never done it before was playing on my mind, sapping some of my motivation.

It was tough – I used every trick I knew to keep me moving. First, I set my sights on the half way point, if I could get there without stopping, surely I could turn around and do the same back again. My legs started to feel heavy at around a mile, less than half way – my breathing and my heart felt fine, I could still hold a conversation so we weren’t going too fast.

I already knew from experience that my legs could carry me a lot further than I felt they could at the time, so I kept going.

As we ran, we stayed side by side, if one of us fell back slightly we slowed down but never stopped to walk. At around a mile and a half, I could see the half way point marker – a life belt at the Heysham end of Morecambe promenade. I tried to speed up a little to give myself some extra motivation. We both tapped the life belt with our hands and turned around, making our way back – slower than our original pace, but steady.

I can’t stop now, I’m already more than half way there – all I have to do is the same as I’ve just done, and I’ll reach my first running goal, earlier than planned. Being ahead of schedule on my 5km plan was the key, I like to beat my own expectations, if I did this, I’d be weeks ahead of my goal.

Music, that’s what I need…

When I run with Anne-Marie, I don’t bother taking my headphones – I prefer the company. When I’m running alone, I love to have music in my ears. I started to sing in my head – I don’t know why I picked Mr Brightside, but it kept me going.

Mile two passed by and we’re nearly two thirds done – this was already the furthest I’d run without a walking break, my legs felt fine, my breathing felt good and my heart didn’t feel like it was trying to break my ribs from the inside.

Two and a half miles, I begin to struggle – it always happens to me, the end is in sight and somehow I feel extra effort is needed to get me past the finish line. I didn’t feel like giving up at all, just that the last section was harder than everything that came before. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like I know the end is near so I’m winding down. Something I’m going to have to overcome through training.

The last 250m were the worst, by now I’m convinced I’ll make it to the end, I’ve run further than ever before, I just want it to be over – I know it’s in the mind, but I have to do something to distract myself.

I don’t have hang ups about my shape, weight or size, running is taking care of everything – I know what motivates me, sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing, this time, in the last quarter kilometer I needed to hate myself…

“Come on you fat ****, come on – grrrrrrr!”

This time, the words weren’t in my head – I was growling them through gritted teeth.

200m… 150m…

“Come on fat boy….”

100m… 50m… DONE!

I’d done it, as soon as I stopped, I coughed a little and felt like I was going to puke. I took a mouthful of water and walked home with Anne-Marie, both exhausted, but grinning.

“Told you!” She said.

“I know, I know – I knew I could do it, I just needed to do it to be sure” I replied.

Since then, we’ve been 5k runners – we’ve gone a little further as an experiment, but consistently running 5k slightly faster than the last time has been our collective goal.

My next target is 10km, I trust the Ease Into 5k app, so I bought Bluefin Software’s Bridge to 10k app yesterday – ready to start the plan on Monday.

If you’ve read this far, thank you – it means a lot. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far, I’ll keep up with the updates. If you’re training for anything or you’re on the way towards one of your life’s goals I’d love to hear from you.