I have never run an ultramarathon. I can very honestly say I will never run one either. But I have supported at many (my husband runs them) and I work with many ultrarunners on their mental preparation skills as a Sport Psychologist. It is a sport that is fascinating; the ‘why’ people put themselves through it, the mental skills they need to continue when their body has all but shut down and the vast amount of things that can go wrong. They all add together to create complexity, potential stress and discomfort. The distance means that however well you have prepared, however strong your why is, however big your toolbox of skills is – it could still go horribly wrong. For the very fastest right through to the very slowest, failure is always an option.

Matt Whyman’s book makes this point beautifully. It isn’t a text book for running an ultra, there are no big physical or psychological lessons to take away and no tips or tricks offered – just a really refreshing, interesting autobiography of a man who has gone from running to the end of the road with his dad as a child and using school cross country as an opportunity for cigarette breaks through to discovering the joy of parkrun with his family and then attempting one of the hardest ultra-marathons in the world; the 6 day Dragon’s Back Race which spans one end of Wales to the other, via a lot of mountains!

Matt’s journey into running throughout the book is interspersed with his build-up practice to the Dragon’s Back. Unlike many books of this genre there are no great quotes you will want to pin up on the wall but there are some great descriptions (I really loved one of a mountain looking like “some angry god had pinched the earth and then pulled to see how far it would go before tearing away”) that pull you into the story.

Despite knowing I will be sticking to shorter distances Failure is an Option is incredibly relatable. So many phrases stick; the idea of the ‘death marching’ (or ‘pitiful power walk’) we might do when a race is not going our way and the ‘survivors solidarity’ that comes when we all know we are suffering together.

The book is also incredibly readable – I sped through it in less than 24 hours.

If there are any lessons to take away from this book two stood out; both around the complexity of ultrarunning: The fact that problem solving is so necessary, but also so difficult mid race and also something I see time and time again in my clinic with ultra-runners; nutrition (or lack of it) is usually our downfall. In an ultra, particularly if the weather is not as you were anticipating, nutrition is the biggest threat to success. Once a little way in, it seems a runners appetite disappears and they feel nauseous. As a result they don’t take in their planned nutrition and hydration. This feels ok until it doesn’t. And by that point it is too late. It seems to be about the 70 mile point where it comes crashing down and because you haven’t fuelled your brain (your brain takes about 20% of your fuel) you are unable to think with the logic zone in your brain (the area that makes the good decisions) and instead the amygdala kicks in. The amygdala makes its decisions based on emotion – and no-one’s emotions are in a good place after running for 70 miles. I do keep meaning to write a blog post about the importance of this – but now I don’t need to as Failure is an Option has done it for me!

I will be recommending this book to anyone starting out on their own Ultrarunning journey – it should help you feel you are not alone, the mistakes you make will have been made by others (especially if getting lost or not eating enough is a fear!) and reassure you that often a DNF is not a failure – the failure only comes if you do not try.

Failure is an Option is available from VP