Inside the mind of an ultra-runner

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On Saturday Robbie Britton and a couple of hundred others started running around the Dutch city of Steenbergen. They didn’t stop for 24 hours. Team GB’s Britton, 26, ran five full marathons and two-thirds of another: finishing 19th at his first World Championships. SPIKES just had to find out more about the marvellous madness of ultra-running…

You’ve just done a 24-hour PB of 239.008km (148.5 miles). Can you explain what it’s like to run that far through the night?

“I never look at the whole 24 hours or 100 miles [161km], or I’d break down and cry. Mentally I just break it down into any sort of manageable chunk that I can, whether that be an hour or a kilometre. Once I’ve got through that, I can just focus on the next one.

“The night is nice because you know it’s going to finish, and when the morning comes you’ll be near the end.

“The ‘A’ qualifying standard for GB is 239km, so at the end of the race on Sunday someone told me: ‘you can nearly get 239’ so I just sprinted for the last 15 minutes to try and get it, not knowing where it was. I fell over, eight metres after it. I’m well pleased with that.”

Surely you don’t run for the whole 24 hours?

“As close to as possible. I think I sat down for a total of five minutes on Sunday. I jumped on the toilet, and did that as quickly as possible. I left the newspaper outside. Usually I enjoy a read but it’s a bit much, a bit indulgent.

“If I’m on a trail, I’ll probably pee while I’m moving. It’s not really acceptable on a course. On Sunday it was through a lovely little village. I went to pee next to a tree at one point and a bloke looked out of his window and saw me. I went: sorry, I’ll move on.”

How did you get into ultra-running?

“I started off with the London to Brighton race. It started near me, so I thought: let’s have a go. See what happens. It’s 56 miles [90km], and I did alright. I think I was seventh out of a couple of hundred people, and didn’t feel too bad in the end.

“I then started moving up and doing longer and longer races. It wasn’t until I got to 100 miles that I think I found my distance.”

Where’s the darkest place you’ve been taken by ultra-running?

“I was jogging along a trail during an ultra, and I just thought: I could probably sit down here. It was raining. I was nigh-on hypothermic. It was dark and I thought: I could probably just sit down in a ditch here and just die.

“I thought: f*** it. If I just sit down now that would be the end of me… It was a dark thought. Jesus, it could have been an hour before someone comes past me. There would have just been some brightly coloured trainers poking out. They might not see me… I’ll keep going. It kept me going!”

And the happiest?

“Nothing compares to some of the highs I’ve had racing. It has been ecstatic, ridiculous. The first time I won a 100 miler I was fifth at half way, and I gradually gained on the guy leading and caught him with three miles to go. For that whole 30-mile period I was just buzzing: on a massive high.

“And finishing this race on Sunday, absolutely spent, with a GB vest on, I just loved every second of it. It’s a massive feeling, putting the vest on and destroying myself.”

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Double shorts: Britton loves pulling on his GB kit so much he wears it twice.

Do you have horrible feet?

“No they’re fine. You wouldn’t even notice. I haven’t got one blister, and I’ve never lost a toenail.”

What’s your secret?

“Vaseline. Cover your feet in Vaseline before you go running. I rub it all over, before races, just in case. Because you never know where it’s going to rub. I also duck tape my nipples.”

What makes a great ultra-runner?

“Endurance is pain and mental strength. You’ve got to be physically fit but that’s not what gets you the extra 10km in the middle of the night.

“A lot of the time, women are better at pacing. A lot of blokes will shoot off going: ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna win this.’ They’ll fly off, and the women will be more sensible. Women have really good race plans, and if something is going wrong they’ll deal with it, when a bloke might try and push on, tough it out.

“You can’t tough stuff out in a 24-hour race. You’ve got to deal with problems because it gets a hundred times worse. Like a hotspot or something on your foot, if you try and shrug it off and carry on it will start bleeding.”

So what did you do last time you had a hot spot?

“I toughed it out, because I’m an idiot. If something’s going wrong, you should try and fix it. At the weekend it started raining and a lot of people kept saying… ‘It’s fine, it’s fine.’

“As soon as it started raining I chucked a waterproof on. It took me 30 seconds and those 30 seconds probably saved me a couple of hours messing around, as the other guys got really cold, and struggled.”

What are your future goals?

“I want to go back to the World Championships and I want to win it. Being out there, I was a good distance behind the winners but only physically. I think mentally I’m there. I can get there, I can make up that distance.

“I want to race at the top level in 100 milers around the world, and if possible just make it my life.”

Can ultra-running become an Olympic sport?

“It definitely could work. 24-hour racing is a completely different sport from a marathon. It’s about as close to marathon as marathon is to sprinting.

“I mean, you’d have to start it when the heats started for the triple jump or something, and just be like: ‘oh yeah, these guys are just trotting off in lane eight, leave them be.’

“They don’t show the whole of the pole vault do they? You could just pop back every now and again and see people vomiting on the side.

“It’s sick and twisted but people enjoy watching it. I’ve been watching 100-mile races and I’ve enjoyed it. Seeing the state people are in: it’s not only inspiring, it’s hilarious. People look ridiculous.”

You can follow Robbie’s escapades on twitter at @ultrabritton. He also blogs at www.robbiebritton.co.uk.

Main photo credit: Mister Castro.