For most of us, running is a relatively simple business: you lace up your trainers, have a swig of water and head off up the road. But for the likes of Eddie Izzard and other endurance athletes, going for a run is a lot, well, grottier.
Ultra running is classified as anything longer than your typical 26.2-mile marathon, but can involve distances of literally thousands of miles, with races taking anywhere between a few hours and a few weeks to complete. As if that wasn't hard enough, for the men and women who take part, there’s a whole host of physical, nutritional and hygienic obstacles to tackle along the way - and they’re far from glamorous.
We caught up with two of Britain’s most accomplished ultra runners to reveal the downright dirty side of long distance running.
The dirtier the pizza, the better
“Ultra running’s just an eating and drinking competition with a bit of running thrown in,” says Robbie Britton casually, as only a man who has won a bronze medal in the IAU 24 Hour World Championship can. If you think that the Team GB athlete is talking about energy gels and nut bars, you’d be wrong. When you’re burning up to 8,000 calories a day, your nutritional needs become a bit more extreme.
“People will eat anything. Curry, baby food, ice cream… One Algerian International I saw turned up at a race with a wheel of brie - every other lap he’d stop, cut a slice and take it with him,” says Robbie, who is also partial to some unusual mid-race snacks. “There’s a video of the North Downs 100 race - the first 100-miler I won. Halfway through, you see me walking up a hill eating a pizza; the next time you see me I’m crossing the finish line first.” His secret? It was a Hawaiian. “Pineapple means more carbs.”
When nature won't stop calling
When you’re stuffing your face with stuffed crust during a run, your body inevitably feels the need to lighten the load. For that reason, most ultra runners carry a few sheets of loo roll with them at all times.
Athletes employ a variety of techniques for dealing with nature’s calls - some more anti-social than others. “I’ve run with guys in international races who have just peed as they’ve been running. You get sprayed,” says Jez Bragg, the fastest man to complete New Zealand's 1,898-mile North-to-South Trail, in under 50 days. Bragg prefers to sacrifice 20 seconds and nip into the bushes, and not just for decency’s sake. “After the first few hours, you’re in a dehydrated state and your pee gradually turns from dark yellow to almost brown. You don’t want to get salty, dehydrated pee everywhere - you end up chafing.”
You're never safe from chafe
Aside from blisters and, you know, passing out from exhaustion, chafing is a distance runner’s worst enemy. Between the thighs, behind the knees, under the armpits - anywhere skin rubs against skin is susceptible. “The worst is if your arse crack starts chafing,” says Britton. “You have to waddle like a duck for six hours - it ruins your race.”
Ultra runners come up with ingenious ways to combat this unwanted friction. “You always get funny looks when you wander into a shop and ask for the biggest tub of Vaseline they’ve got,” he says, but there are some places where not even Vaseline will do the trick. “I use duct tape on my nipples. People say, ‘isn’t it painful to take off?’ They’ve obviously never had their nipples rubbed for five hours straight.”
"I lose a lot of toenails"
Pro athletes may have the best footwear money can buy, but when you’re running a marathon (or more) every day, not even that is enough to protect your feet. “I’m always losing toenails,” says Bragg. “Particularly on mountain runs, because when you’re descending for long periods of time, your foot’s getting pushed to the front of your shoe, and you’ll get to the point where there’s too much bruising under the nail and they just die off.”
A look at Bragg’s feet would put most people off their dinners, but he’s surprisingly upbeat about it. “I’ve never not had one grow back! Though they never get to full size before they go again… Some ultra runners have their toenails permanently removed, but I’m not sure I’d take it that far.”
Suffice to say, ultra running isn't a walk in the park. Duct-taped nipples, urine-soaked shorts, gross toenails, and all for the love of the sport, or in Eddie's case, a truly noble cause.
But the biggest secret of all, according to Britton? “The one thing ultra runners don’t like telling you: anyone can do it.”