Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why would anyone run further than a marathon?

"Where next? Oh, over there I reckon. Right lets go. Yup, it's this way. Left hamstring is feeling tight, need to keep an eye on that. Need to drink more water. Not hungry, must eat though. Drink more water. Is that a hotspot on my foot going to turn into a blister. Drink more water. Where is the next stop. Ah, round this corner. Excellent. Stop for a bit. 60 kilometres covered. Been running for over 6 hours, plenty of distance left to cover though..."
That was a short section of the 100km course I ran last summer and the entire distance was covered with my brain asking these questions all the time. Someone asked me during this run what I was looking forward to most at the finish. A beer perhaps? A swim in the river? Simply to stop running? Actually the answer was none of the above. I wasn't looking forward to the finish, I was simply looking forward to the next step. The simple act of putting one foot in front of each other. Getting to the next fence. Running over the next hill. The journey was the goal, not the finish line.
Ultra running is different. Not only because of the obvious difference in the length of the events but in the manner of running them. Line up at the start of a 10km race and you know you're going to push yourself hard to cover the distance in the shortest time possible. If you've run a few before then you'll have your personal best and you'll be looking to run faster than that. If you don't you'll be making excuses to people that it was a hilly course, or you hadn't trained enough, or it just wasn't your day. Marathons are pretty much the same experience. Tell someone you've run a marathon and invariably the first question is "How long did it take you?" Unless you ran a personal best then you'll be making excuses why you didn't.
Imagine two runners comparing their finishing times at different US events. One finished in 15 hours 7 mins, the other in 23 hours 23 mins. Who has the bragging rights to claim they are the better runner? What do you compare these times to when deciding whether these are good times or not? For the marathon (or shorter distance races) most people know what a good time is. That's what I love about ultras. You run for the enjoyment in the knowledge that the finishing time is pretty much irrelevent. Those finishing times mentioned about are actually both course records at the Western States 100 (18,000 feet of elevation gain and the Hardrock 100 (33,000 feet of elevation gain. Both are outstanding times run by elite runners.
So why would anyone run further than a marathon?
Everyone ultra runner will have a different answer but in my case it's simply because I love to run and I don't want to be held back or be judged by traditional race distances. A race of an hour just couldn't scratch the itch I have. I love to be out there running over the hills and travelling great distances using only my own two (often barefoot) feet.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A week of weeks (or "How I created a monster")

Sometimes, just sometimes a week turns into a total monster. I never intended it to because I was planning a 50km run on the second Sunday. Naturally I'd originally planned 2 or 3 days of gentle taper so make the most of the 50km long run but as the week progressed it became clear I was actually going to make it as hard as possible by running twice most days and tapering very little.

Here's how the week shaped up:

Sunday:    Barefoot Off-Road (1 hour)
Monday:    Run 1 - (1 hour), Run 2 - (35 mins)
Tuesday:   Run 1 - (35 mins), Run 2 - Time Trial (40 mins)
Wednesday: Run 1 - (35 mins), Run 2 - Recovery (45 mins)
Thursday:  Run 1 - (1 hour), Run 2 - (30 mins)
Friday:    (40 mins)
Saturday:  Rest
Sunday:    Long Off-Road (5 hours 20 mins)

I don't log mileage so I can't say how far exactly that lot adds up to but it's in the region of 120km of running and about 12 and a half hours on my feet.

Other little additions were plenty of stair climbing, weights, ITB stretching and ab work. And to cap it off for  9 out of the 11 runs I carried a 15lb backpack.

This week things are far more relaxed. That monster week was a result of feeling great and just wanting to run loads. Which leads me to the most fundamental advice I could possibly give:

Enjoy your running. Do as much as makes you happy and feels like fun.


Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Final week before an ultra

In the final week before the Moonlight Challenge 2011 I decided to post an update about each day on Facebook. The posts below are taken from that content.

13 February at 16:55 via TweetDeck
It's the Moonlight Challenge on Saturday and for the first time I thought I'd bore everyone with the final week of preparation before an ultra. Stay tuned.

13 February at 16:55 via TweetDeck
First question is, how has training gone? Well to be honest I haven't trained specifically for the Moonlight Challenge. My last event was the Longmynd Hike back in October and that was brutal in the extreme. 14 hours on my feet and I felt utterly broken afterwards. I vowed never to suffer through an event in that manner again. I exited that race knowing that I have a long list of issues that I need to address.

So I'm going through a long period of rebuilding, strength work and getting more barefoot in and running races has become rather secondary for now. I plan to spend a couple of years in this mode and get my running technique totally dialled in. So I'm treating this race as a training run which I'm planning on utterly enjoying. I've got a few mates also doing it and it'll be great to catch up with them.

In spite of not having done any really long runs since the last event back in October I'm still confident that 32.75 miles is not going to be too taxing. My weekly training is always intense and the mileage fairly high. For instance last week I ran 9 times in 6 days for a total of almost 10 hours of running, which is roughly about 100km of running. In ultra running terms I don't consider this alot but compared to most people it's high. Considering that I'm supposed to be tapering for an event (which is traditionally 2-3 weeks before but I usually cut that back to a week) it was a busy week.

So, in short the distance doesn't worry me at all. As mentioned elsewhere this will be the 3rd time I've run this event and I know exactly what to expect.

Next instalment I'll detail what the plan for the week is, as mentioned I'll be tapering so the running will be consistent but low. More important this week is to prepare for the race rather than blatting out high mileage.

14 February at 21:30
So what is the plan for the week? Well, as mentioned my taper is kind of short but as such it needs to be well structured to get the desired affect. That affect is to allow me to start the race on Saturday feeling refreshed, not tired, not over-trained and most important of all, confident.

Difficult to underestimate that last one. It seems like how you feel should be utterly secondary to what you can physically do but that's not the case. One week before a race there's little you can physically do to improve your chances in the race. Do more physically in the time shortly before a race and you'll only harm your chances in the race.

Thus this week is filled with very little actual running. I'll probably still run every day, in fact on Tuesday and Wednesday I'll probably run twice but the effort will be low and the mileage low. Each run is designed to build confidence and a feeling of well-being. For instance on Wednesday I'm looking forward to a lunchtime run with Meera, it certainly wont be fast but it will be barefoot and it'll feel just great.

The timetable for the week therefore is:
Monday - 40 min easy pace
Tuesday - 40 mins barefoot with backback, 1 hour speed work at lunchtime with Citigroup running club
Wednesday - 35 mins race pace with backback, 40 mins barefoot with Meera at lunchtime
Thursday - 40 mins easy pace
Friday - Nada, zippo, zarro, nuffin. Might even have lunch out.
Saturday - RACE

In addition to this as I fancy it I'll do some resistance work on abs and upper body. As a further little tickle I'll continue with the stair climbing most days which sees me climb up 50 flights of steps to the top of Citigroup tower at Canary Wharf. More weeks I do this religiously but this week I'll only do it if I fancy it.

15 February at 08:28 via TweetDeck
Cutting out the run this lunchtime. Ran an hour barefoot this morning which is longer than expected. I think running club will leave me far too tired.

15 February at 20:58
Turns out that Citigroup running club today did a session at lunchtime that involved carrying someone around on your back. So glad i didn't go along.

15 February at 21:28 
Tonight it's all about equipment and nutrition. I'll cover that in reverse order. Basically there are two aspects to nutrition, what to eat in the week leading up to the race and what to each during.

In short this week I will mainly be eating tons and tons of food. No particular plan to what that food is, just got to make sure that I max out and try a store some away. Goal is to fully replenish the glycogen stored on the muscles. Important thing is when to stop eating so much. That day is Friday and then I'll reduce the quantity and make sure that the majority of what I eat is carbohydrates. On Saturday I wont eat much at all really. Porridge for breakfast and a couple of bagels for lunch. It sounds crude but the goal on Saturday is to make sure that all that food from the week has passed through and you've got rid of it.

Food during the race has changed a lot over the years for me. I used to eat loads of gels, carb bars, sports drinks, etc, but these days I have a different goal. I've found that I'm better off with proper food when I can. I do have a couple of gels and a carb bar standing by for emergencies because they are really good at simply getting calories in. The main source of nutrition during the race will be hot soup, ham sandwiches and some sweets.

The reason for not using the mainstream running food is that my internals simply don't appreciate it. My guts totally shut down during a race if I'm not careful and starting it up again is a somewhat smelly process. Let me put it this way, after a race if I've been eating gels for 10 hours you don't want to me around me when I fart. It's far from pleasant. By switching to proper food I try to keep my internals working as nature intended.

Equipment is pretty simple. If you make things complicated they go wrong so I make things as simple as possible. I have a choice of shoes which I will decide on when I get there. What I wear will depend on the weather. I always try and have on as little as possible though as there's nothing worse than over-heating. Most important item of kit will be my headtorch because the race starts at 6pm and we run into the night.

That's it for now. Next I'll rattle on about hydration and the plan for the race.

16 February at 21:39 
Tonights installment is all about hydration and race planning.

Hydration is the art of drinking enough to be able to keep running without drinking too much that you kill yourself. In fact there's a lot of things that can go wrong. Drink sugary drinks and you wont get maximum uptake of liquid because your stomach is digesting food. Drink too much plain water and wash your body salts away and get hyponatremia and your brain swells and you die. Drink too little plain water and your blood thickens to the point where your hearts pumps so fast but can't move blood around enough. In that situation you can't run at all.

Other factors are that as muscles get damaged during extreme long runs your liver fills up with those waste products. You have to wash them away by drinking lots and lots of water otherwise you get renal failure. So in short you have to know what you're doing because it's a complex system. Drink too little and you get problems, drink too much and you get different problems.

The solution is to drink electrolytes with the water. I use a product called Nuun which is fabulous. It's very much like Dioralyte which the doctors prescribes when you have the shits. In fact many ultra runners use Dioralyte. In the race I did last summer I drank 16 litres of water and Nuun in 13 hours. Had that been plain water I would have ended up in hospital.

On Saturday I will drink about 600ml of Nuun every hour and that it about what I need to keep me going. If the run had been taking place in the day I'd drink more and on a hot day even more. There are water stations all round the course so there's no need for me to carry more than one 600ml handheld bottle. I'll keep the Nuun tablets on me and just drop one into the bottle each time I refill it.

Final topic for tonight is the race plan. Well, honestly, I don't really have one. The race is five laps of the same course and I shall simply try to cruise through each of them at about the same place. Throughout I'll be chatting to mates so I wont be trying to win or anything daft like that. On the final lap though I'm going to do something daft. I'll either strip off and run it with just shorts on, or if I'm feeling really stupid I'll run the last lap barefoot. Hell, I may even do both. :)

That it for tonight. Tomorrow evening I'll witter on about why anyone would even want to run so far. What is wrong with just running a marathon? Why on earth would anyone enjoy running that far...

17 February at 21:51
Just a short one tonight because I'm off to bed soon. So why would anyone want to run more than 26.2 miles? For me the question is, why set a limit at 26.2 miles? There's nothing particularly magical about that distance.

I've run 30 mile races and been really disappointed to be finishing because I wanted to keep going. I've run 5k races which I was more than happy to get over with, get in the pub and have a beer. For me the goal is enjoyment. I love running off-road and covering huge distances. The most enjoyable run I've done so far also happens to be the longest, last summer I ran 100km on a beautiful summers day, with some excellent friends supporting me and loved every single second of it. There was pain, I had to explore just how far I'm willing to push myself but the end result was a hugely rewarding experience. Honestly, I'd recommend to anyone to do it so that they can experience what I did. It was genuinely life-changing.

So why can't I get the same feeling for shorter races? In short it's because of the amount of pain you have to go through to get there. For some people the marathon will be the ultimate and they will feel exactly the same as I do after over twice the distance. That's just a reflection of the amount of training I do and takes nothing away from their achievement. In years gone by I've run marathons and had that feeling but when you've done quite a few of them it takes the edge of it. When you run marathons in training in the evening you find it difficult to feel that longer distances are more rewarding.

Righty, I'm off to bed. Carb loading is going well, tomorrow is all about getting myself fully hydrated and topped up with electrolytes. Night night all.

18 February at 21:36
Just a very short one tonight. Drank a load of electrolyte today and ate plenty. Just spent some time sorting out my gear for tomorrow and iced the soles of my feet. Bedtime soon. Didn't run at all and my legs feel really bouncy and ready to go.

19 February at 13:28 via TweetDeck 
Setting off in 30 mins. Stuff is almost packed.

19 February at 15:01 via Android
When is the rain going to stop?

19 February at 16:46 via TweetDeck
Well it's wet here in Kent. Not very warm but still spirits are high. Time to get changed.

20 February at 00:14 via TweetDeck
Finished in a little under 5 hours 20 mins. Ran the marathon in under 4 hours on a filthy muddy course. Full update tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Moonlight Challenge 2011

Race reports are usually boring affairs where you get to read all about lap times, gels, electrolytes, puking, emergency toilet visits, high points, low points, sprint finishes and aching limbs. I'm going to try something a little different though. I'll give you the executive summary first though:

I finished an off-road 54km ultra in 5 hours 18 minutes and ran the marathon (42km) in under 4 hours in conditions that could only be described as very bog-like and muddy.

So what possesses a man to line up in the dark on a Saturday night, run his legs off for 4 hours, crash horribly because he didn't eat enough and then walk/run/suffer through the final 7 miles to the finish?

Answer: Because it's just awesome! I know I went off far too quickly. Hell I was leading for the first 1/2 mile. Clearly I set off too quickly but it just felt too good not too. I had a mate running with me and we were both seriously enjoying the feeling of moving along just as fast as we could. We knew we were going too quickly but neither of us really wanted to slow down. We both paid the price in our different ways later on but ended up finishing together.

I could consider that last lap to be a failure because I crashed so badly, but I don't see it that way. I see it as amazing training by running on empty for 7 miles. I fully depleted all my energy stores and still had plenty of distance to cover. That's going to happen in all really long distance races and you need to be able to cope with it. You learn how you feel, you learn how to deal with it and over time I'll get better at managing it and hopefully avoiding it.

I've come away from the race with a whole list of things I'd do differently and that's great because I'll get more out of it than just a run through the dark. I get to invest the experience in the next event to improve the whole experience.

So why run ultras? Because it feels like a re-birth. It cleanses you physically and emotionally. It puts you way out beyond what you'd experience in day to day life. Why live life inside the expected boundaries? Modern society is geared towards avoiding pain, taking the easy route, keeping within the accepted norm. My answer to that is: F_ck that! I want my experiences vivid. I want them real. I want them in my face, up close and personal. I want to know I'm alive and full of energy. Run hard!