I have a confession to make. For some time now I have been in denial about this but friends and social media observers have made the comment and I just wouldn't believe it.
I have become an ultra troll.
There is a forum on the internet where people talk about ultra running. It’s a much busier place than the forum I used when I first got into this game. I was frugal with my questions as I realised people have limited time and perhaps I wouldn’t get the answer to everything.
I asked some wacky questions, like how would the wind affect my run along a canal and what was the best brand of string to use to measure the distance I travelled in a run on a map afterwards.
I got some useful advice, I got some useless advice.
But now here I am on the other side of it all, having run a few races myself, covered a few miles and spent thousands of pounds on fabrics, electronics and colourful carbon molecules that were supposed to make me better.
I should be in a position where I can give useful advice or at least some commentary on my experience. Instead I have recently just been a sarcastic dick.
For example, at least three times daily there is a post that fits into this exact template.
“I am considering buying a new [Bag/GPS Watch/Shoes] and am torn between the [Brand A current model/Brand B current model] or waiting for the [Brand A newer, slightly smaller in a different colour model]. Thoughts?
Now I have some experience of buying bags and gadgets, I really should respond from my experience which would be something like;
“I wouldn’t worry about the differences between them, they are all effectively the same. If the bag holds some flapjacks, if the watch measures your time, if the shoes fit your feet then there is really nothing else to consider. Be wary of the gush of comments about come some saying [I bought Brand X watch and I LOVE IT!] for they are being manipulated by the post-purchase rationalization bias http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-purchase_rationalization where they insist that the thing they spent money on is great, even though it’s no better than anything else. It’s not their fault, they can’t help it, it’s human nature. Just buy whichever one is easiest to buy for you, it doesn’t matter how good it is anyway as you too will start to suffer from the post-purchase rationalization bias and think and tell everyone it is great”
But instead of useful advice like that I’ve recently been giving pithy comments such as;
“buy all the watches, all of them. That’s what everyone else does”
“Yes you certainly need new shoes, the more shoes you have the better person you are, just look at Paris Hilton”
Not very helpful.
And then there are the posts along the lines of;
"I understand that the key to running success is through the physiological adaptations caused by smart training and a healthy lifestyle, at least that is what the elite runners say, however I recently was exposed to a conversation from someone who works in “marketing” and he said I could bypass this by throwing money at the problem and that instead of the hard work I should be investing in some colourful gaffer tape for my thighs, some constricting tubing for my calves or injecting my face with the essence of beetroot, can you tell me what brand of these will give me the biggest placebo effect”?
Now here my most helpful advice would be along the lines of;
“grow the fuck up, you can’t get something for nothing, no such thing as a free lunch, you get out what you put in etc etc. If something sounds too good to be true then it is, despite what the marketing Ruperts will tell you, leave the snake oil alone, don’t go buying Tarquill another fucking snowboard. Ultra running is quite simple, you put in the work and you get the performance improvements, it is agnostic of wealth, isn’t that what appealed to you? If not then can I suggest Horse dancing or Formula 1 or Politics?”
But no, instead of imparting this wisdom I will instead comment with something spurious that sometimes gets taken seriously such as;
“The red tape, yes the RED TAPE – that’s the fastest because it reflects the infra-red radiation which causes fast twitch fibres to convulse slightly and spasm your foot strike”
But the questions that alarm me the most, and the ones I would like to help the most but again I descend into stupidity, it’s the ones asking for the very specific;
“Hi, I have a 57 mile race coming up and the most I have ever done before is 43 miles and I wondered what should be my precise eating schedule to handle these additional 14 miles? Should I change the viscosity of my food or the GI load? When should be my first bite and then what algorithm should I employ with each additional bite?”
I want to tell these people that the best thing I have found about ultra running is the exploration of the unknown. It’s the fact that you do not know the answers before you start a run but somehow along the way you pick up what’s needed and it is this, not the finishing or the medals that makes it worthwhile. That the best thing of running a long long way is a feeling of being free to make your own choices, your own terrible choices sometimes but you still can fight back from those and feel the glow of satisfaction.
I want to tell them that there is no victory in being given the exact programme to execute like a robot, to be a dog fetching a stick, an input-output script on a computer screen, part of a human centipede. The victory is in filling the void of unknowing yourself with your own experiments, trial and error, more trials, more errors, spending the years slowly debugging your own programmes and feeling the lovely glow of satisfaction when a gremlin is slain.
I want to explain that some things will never be known, there are too many variables and too few running opportunities that the “how to run an ultra” question will never be “solved” as a system of equations but that all we can hope to do is light up some of our own personal black space ourselves, it’s the colouring of this space that makes it good, not the completion of it.
But no, more likely I will answer with something like;
“Eat 23 grammes of cheese and onion crisps at mile 12.5 and then a further 14 grammes every 4.7 miles. Make sure the crisps come from a blue packet, cos cheese and onion crisps from a green packet are stupid”.
Maybe it’s because I am grumpy in my old age, maybe it’s because I have not done anything good in ultras for 2 years, maybe it’s because I haven’t sold a million books.
Or maybe I am just a dick.