Forget the ‘humble’ marathon. As Katie Mulloy reports, women are going ultra with extreme fitness goals that push them harder than ever
At some point, everything hits avocado-on-toast status – too mainstream to be impressive, and so the marathon, a mere 26.2 miles of sweat, tears and blisters, may be at such an impasse. Our lust for a long-distance challenge has moved on and going ultra is the new social currency. ‘Seeing how impressed people are when you say you’ve completed an Ironman [a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle, and a marathon] makes you feel good about yourself,’ says Sarah Grant, 38, a paramedic from County Durham who first attempted the extreme triathlon in 2016.
And while extreme fitness is still male-dominated, things are changing. Around a third of Ironman World Championships competitors are women, a figure that tallies with Triathlon England’s membership – the number of British women joining has increased by 230 per cent since 2009. Davina McCall completed a gruelling 500-mile triathlon in 2014 for Sport Relief and, last summer, a group of six female teenagers from London became the youngest relay team to swim the Channel. We’re being inspired to test our endurance harder than ever before.
Pushing yourself to your limits taps into a very current notion of what success looks like. Dr Rhonda Cohen, sport and exercise psychologist at Middlesex University and author of Sport Psychology: The Basics: Optimising Human Performance, says, ‘When many people can’t manage a minimum amount of weekly exercise, the discipline to commit to something so intensive is a virtue. It is a modern kind of thrill-seeking.’ And, she adds, a result of life lived through a screen. ‘People don’t want to aimlessly scroll their lives away. Extreme fitness is an antithesis to that.’
The visceral, human-meets-nature necessity of extreme exercise is part of the pull. ‘Being out in the elements is good for me,’ says Heather Ford, 36, from North Yorkshire, an ultramarathoner and mum of two who competes in several races a year of up to 110 miles. ‘Your mind can’t wander – you are focused instead of stewing on your problems, which is brilliant for mental health.’
For Jodie Moss, 27, a PhD student and Ironman World Championship competitor from London, it is a different kind of mindfulness: ‘I used to suffer from depression but Ironman has taught me a lot. If you’re able to identify that nothing stays the same for long, good or bad, you can cope.’
There’s a confidence that comes with achievement and these women’s stories have a common thread: first, surprise at what their bodies can do, followed by curiosity to see how far they could push themselves. None of them began as elite athletes. ‘When I first started, I couldn’t swim front crawl,’ says Sarah, who progressed from sprint triathlons to Ironman. ‘I just wanted to complete it within 12 hours, but I ended up being the first female over the finish line.’
The distances may sound intimidating, but the atmosphere isn’t. ‘You don’t have to race against other people,’ explains Heather. ‘You’re racing against the course and the elements.’ She adds that they’re not superwomen. ‘If you told me to run 30 miles I could do it. Ask me to do three pull-ups? No way!’
There are specific physical benefits to endurance training. ‘Beyond the three-hour mark, the body stops using carbs and starts raiding your fat stores,’ explains Dr Mark Burnley, an expert in endurance exercise from the University of Kent. Translation: after a four-hour run, calories don’t count.
For every pro, however, there’s a con. ‘Muscle damage is part of the process. And your immune system will take a dip after prolonged exercise. If you’ve done a long training session, think twice about places where there’ll be lots of people – and therefore germs – for the next 24 to 48 hours,’ says Dr Burnley.
Rest and recovery are vital. As is sleep. ‘Athletes who don’t get seven to eight hours are more likely to become injured or ill,’ adds Dr Burnley. ‘Your body improves not during training but during recovery.’ He suggests finding a training guide online or enlisting a personal trainer. ‘Factor in strength training. Plenty of fluid, foam rolling and massage can help reduce DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness].’
Extreme challenges require serious fuelling. ‘If running, eat your last substantial meal – packed with carbs and fat – three hours before setting off,’ says Dr Burnley. ‘In cycling or swimming, meal timing matters less. For any exercise of two to four hours, you’ll need carbohydrate during the session [energy drinks, gels, Jelly Babies] and plenty of water. Refuel afterwards with carbohydrates as soon as you can.’
So how does a novice get involved? Firstly, building up slowly is essential. Depending on your fitness level, it takes six months to a year to train for an ultra event. ‘You need
a balanced regime that involves long duration work, lower-impact recovery work (such as swimming or cycling), and some shorter, high-intensity sessions,’ suggests Dr Burnley.
One more word of warning: balance is crucial. ‘You can get obsessed,’ says Jodie. ‘It attracts a lot of Type-A personalities with an all-or-nothing approach.’ For Heather – who became a mum five months ago and is already back in training – knowing your limits is key. ‘You can’t forget what really matters. Family, friends – they’re too important to sacrifice for a challenge. Yes, I train, but I still go out for prosecco with my mates.’
Up to the challenge?
If you like climbing, try… Vertical Rush (14 March)
Climbing makes its Olympics debut at Tokyo 2020. Welcome it with this homage to altitude: a race to the top of London’s Tower 42, in aid of Shelter.
If you like running, try… Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race (20–24 May)
Consider Ironman a snooze? Try the world’s toughest five-day mountain running race. Over five days, participants cover 315km, with 15,500 metres of ascent.
If you like swimming, try… Great North Swim (7–9 June)
Challenge yourself in England’s largest natural lake, Windermere. Distances vary from 250 metres to 10km, which may pale in comparison to the Channel’s 33km but you’ll be up against pleasure boats – and the Cumbrian weather.
If you like cycling, try… London to Paris Cycle (various dates)
If your leisurely weekend ride isn’t cutting it, try going cross-continental over five days and 532km from London to Paris, ending up beneath the Eiffel Tower. C’est parfait.