I read and enjoyed Atkinson’s first book, “Run Like Duck” back at the end of 2018 (notably the only running book I’ve read that’s had hair hints for women runners) and was very pleased when indie publisher Sandstone Press got in touch to offer me a copy of his new one. I was expecting down-to-earth, warm and funny stories and tips on running – this time on ultras* – and that’s what I got. And a commemorative buff (a tube scarf runners wear to keep the sweat off their face / to keep their hair out of their eyes / etc. (the stories I’ve heard!).

*An ultramarathon is a race of any distance over marathon distance (26.2 miles). They really start at 30-and-a-bit miles / 50k, which is the distance of the only ultra I’ve done – and I remain surprised at how I didn’t get addicted to doing more, like everyone else I know who’s done one!

Mark Atkinson – “Ducking Long Way”

(14 August 2021 – from the publisher)

Races are concerts, an ultra is a week-long music festival from which you’ll emerge with suspicious chafing, a new-found love of pineapple and a haunted look in your eyes from what you’ve seen. Still keen? (p. 4)

In his first book, Mark Atkinson helped us learn how to run, or told lovely relatable stories to those of us who could already but just like a running book. There were some ultras in the end section but here it’s pretty well all ultras, with the odd trail marathon thrown in. The main thing with ultras is that they’re pretty well all off-road, so you have to learn to cope with rocks, weird descents, stiles, gates, mud and water, as well as the distance. You walk up the hills and your pace can go from being an 8-minute-miler to a 20-minute-miler. Sometimes you are allowed to have crew supporting you, sometimes pacer buddies running alongside you. And if it’s a long one, some of it’s through the night. So as well as lots of what are effectively (but very fun) race reports, we get loads of tips and advice on preparing for and doing the races, how to deal with the no disposable cups policy many races now have, how your crew should operate, how to be a good pacer, etc., which makes it useful as well as entertaining.

The first race report is by “Eoin, Aged 33 1/3” because Mark’s has got lost in the mists of time and he wanted to have a clear picture in the book of what it’s like. Apart from Eoin, lots of other runners pop up regularly, club mates or people he repeatedly meets at different events, and so it captures well the camaraderie and sociable nature of these long runs (those of us at the back of the pack get that at marathons, too). Tips follow thick and fast – how to get the air out of your water bladder to stop everyone hating you for sloshing for 100 miles, how to accept you will never win these things (Mark turned into a decent mid-pack runner and gains positions through sheer bloody-mindedness but gives a useful alternative to those tales of unbeatable winners we also like to read), and what not to do when you see a race photographer:

my ambling climb with sausage roll in hand was caught by the race photographer from his sniper-like position on the hill. (p. 47)

I loved the list of thoughts of a marathon runner (about six) and the thoughts of an ultra runner (two pages) and there’s a lot of important information for friends and family and support crew here, too – particularly never trust the trackers people wear, which can fade in and out, which I wish I’d known in my first marathon (it did lead to a hurried shuffle for my husband as well as me when he suddenly realised I was nearer the finish than he’d thought). There’s also an important point made near the end, that the training for a runner not at the sharp end is fun – amble around, getting in the miles, eat as you go, have a fry-up for breakfast, etc., maybe more fun than training for a marathon.

There’s an interesting section on influencers, basically warning people to take Instagrammers with perfect honed looks and views with a pinch of salt, noting they’re often posting to get a free pair of shorts and including the startling but true sentence, “Ultimately runners are just squishy bags of fluids trying to get to the finish line while leaking as few of them as possible” (p. 242) which was going to be my call-out quote at the top of this review but I thought it might put people off. There are a few icky bits in the book, but there are going to be, aren’t there, in a book about ultras.

There’s also a timely and useful section on diversity, pointing out the lack of women and almost complete lack of people of colour in the ultra sport. Mark mentions the excellent Black Trail Runners (who have helped a couple of friends of mine get into and improve their trail running) and makes some good points which it is refreshing to see.

I think it’s primarily ultra runners that this book will appeal to – and anyone who has done one (me!) or no ultras but likes a running book. It’s funny and humane and will increase my propensity to loom at anyone in a shirt from one of Mark’s clubs and ask if they know him. And the last sentence sums up the book and its author:

So remember: Run fast. Run slow. But run happy. (p. 295)

Thank you to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy of the book (and a buff!) in return for an honest review. “Ducking Long Way” is published today!