"This must be at least grade 3A technicalised trail we are talking here" I thought as I stumbled over huge rocks like a baby giraffe while trying not to re-open the gashed knee I suffered a few miles before.
However ask one of those others racing they would probably just describe it as "road". Or "rerd".
The previous night I had given a talk to some of these guys about my long long run on some tarmac a few years ago. It was nothing like this. Yes there was a part where some roadworks meant I got dust on my shoes and a bit where I nearly tripped over a dead armadillo but that is as technical as it got.
I was really pleased to be here though and enjoying a format that I don't think happens enough in the UK. The Dig Deep race series directed by Ian Coombe looked amazing on the website and even better in reality, especially given the great weather we had. My preference is for point to point races but I liked this loop as it invovled a weekend spend camping and enjoying the company of other runners, a feeling of being outdoors and living with nature and not to mention a few casks of local beer.
The format is simple enough, two runs, a 30 mile "intro" to ultras and a 60 mile version, both completely different routes. Camping is available and during the course of the weekend there are talks from various ultra running people (such as myself) and Marcus Scotney.
Here is a game to play. Whenever someone says the elevation of a race is say 9000m and then say it's the "equivalent" of climbing Everest, even though no oxygen masks were involved, no suffocating at high altitude, no freezing your nuts off on top of the world, no ice axes or sherpas, do this...
Think of other silly comparisons for gaining altitude by walk/running. for example, the elevation in this race was around 2000m, which I reckon is the equivalent of about 1277 games of hop-scotch. Or dancing to that "Jump Jump" song for about 42 minutes, or falling out of bed 3287 times, or 2017 burpees.
Anyhoo, I digress. I chatted to Chris Edwards before the race about what lay ahead and he basically said there were two big climbs and the rest was nothing much to worry about. I found the flat trail fairly hard going though as I am out of practice on bumpy track. I did manage to fall over after around 5 miles and gash my knee open, it looked impressive and got quite a few comments from people out walking about whether I needed first aid. I reckon they should just ban people who live within the M25 from coming out on these trails without a permit.
The first really big climb was Win Hill. It felt like more than a hill. There was a wonderful couple of miles of downhill road which always contains niggling anxiety that it means there will be a big uphill soon. It was spectacular though, really quite tough and steep and I recognised a fellow southerner (because he had walking poles) and we both suffered the humid warm steep climb to the top of a really quite beautiful hill.
I chatted a bit to a chap called Matt Burton who I met at the start. When gathered before the start I overheard him say to his friend "I really wish I had seen James Adams' talk". I didn't know what to do at that point, I thought about just stepping into the conversation and saying "well, helllooooooo" like some seedy pervert but decided against it. He did then spot me and we started chatting which was nice. It was great to hear he followed the blog as I ran across the States, now available in book version.
A BOOK?? I never even mentioned it.
I am still trying to sell a few more copies to fun a printing of the book so feel free to send it to someone who has not yet bought :)
So Win hill was a bastard but I really had missed the simple pleasures of ultra running, such as the wonderful feeling of a hill-top breeze cooling the sweat on your face after you have slogged vertically for 20 minutes. And pork pies.
There were about 5 aid stations of which the one in the middle was immense. After around 17 miles we had a huge spread in a pavillion that included among many other things spinach and pine nut falafel balls.
The next major climb was Rebellion Knob which did involve some map reading. There are trails all over the place here but we figured as long as we are heading upwards we are going the right way and we ended up finding the dibbing point. It was another amazing view of the peaks.
For future reference this race is quite accessible for those without a car. The race HQ was at Whirlow Farm, about 5 miles from Sheffield station and a bus will take you right there (or a taxi, or next year an Uber driver). For such a short distance outside a major city you really are out in the sticks pretty quickly. I was envious of those who live around here even though I have just moved to the country side myself. Well, Bedford. Anyone from around there want to show me some trails? Or pubs?
Chris later admitted that he was wrong about the "just two" climbs as there did seem to be a lot more, the last 10 miles of the race still had a fair few stings in. I was pleased that my new bit of kit was not annoying me. I finally bought what is known as a "race vest", a contraption that is supposed to be like running in a vest but that carries lots of stuff. It was called a "Ultimate Direction SJ vest" it was from last year so I got it half price. It has pockets everywhere but no where to put your phone so you can easily tweet and run. Didn't he write a book called tweet and run? He must have funny arms to be able to contort himself around like I had to to get a good shot of the hills.
I even wore my race number on my shorts like a proper runner, I thought I was guaranteed a win.
In the end this took me over 7 hours. I was originally hoping for around 5 but I think everyone underestimated this course. The winner was Marcus in just over 4 hours and the winner of the 60 miles came back after 10 hours which was pretty incredible on that course.
I can thoroughly recommend this race and there is a repeat of the format on 6/7th September in Suffolk (not as hilly) which you should check out. Thanks to Ian for putting on a great weekend and it was also great meeting Ellie West and Matt Greene of Summit Fever Photography who took lots of great photos of the event which can be seen here.
There is something quite satisfying about starting a race at the beach. The noise of the sea is very calming and can mask the trials that might lie ahead. This same beach was also the finish point and would be a welcome end to what was going to be a pretty epic run/hike. The Volcano Teide is I believe is one of the biggest in Europe, at 3,718m it is the highest point in Spain and the 10th highest island in the world. I have never been over 3,300 meters before and so was in for an altitude challenge. The race was simple, to run from the beach to the top and then back again.
Looks easy doesn't it?
I say "race" - I got a message a couple of months ago from Steve Worallo who asked if I wanted to fly out to Tenerife to capture some promo footage for a race he was planning on organising out there. "Yeah we'll just hike up there and take some action shots and try and build up some enthusiasm for the race". Then about a month later Steve was told that there were one or two locals interested in doing the event too, well actually 150 locals. So instead of being some jogging about on some hills and having some photos taken it was going to be a race.
It really felt like a race too, 150 people gathered at the sea front at midnight about to be set loose into the wonderful trails that will see us climb up way above the clouds and the tree line. There were an number of "international" runners there of which I was one. There were about 6 pretty good runners from Spain, 3 national standard mountain runners from Holland (Yes they have mountain runners) and little ol' me. In chatting to these runners the Dutch guys mentioned the likes of Jez Bragg and Ricky Lightfoot and I said that my nationality was the same as them but my running someone different. Just call me Jimmy Fatfoot.
The race started and immediately we were climbing on steep roads from the beach into a small town near Puerto De La Cruz. We were on the north side of the island where typically the more relaxed holiday makers go rather than the south were the Brits Abroad go. The streets were lined with people cheering and it had that big time atmosphere that you get in some of the Alpine races, at least for the first couple of miles. Soon we are on trails meandering up into the sky.
Those are clouds
The midnight start is to allow runners to get to the top in 8 hours as there is only permission from the National Park to open the summit for that long. The total distance of the race is 64k of which there is an aid station each 16k. 16k might not seem like a long way to run between checkpoints but when it is all up it can take a while, and it really is all up. In the first 10 mile section that took us to about 1600m we went above the clouds and I can only remember a short section that was not uphill.
The trail in the first 16k was not too tricky, the usual dusty trail. I managed to forget to charge my headtorch and it ran out after an hour and then had to use my phone to light the way. When covered by trees it was ptich black and at some point I lost the nozzle from my camel pack and had to wait for another runner with a light to come and help me find it. The first checkpoint arrived in about 3.30 hours and was just above the clouds and the trees. After this there was a large open plain section (still uphill) where I could see so many stars, the milky way and at the side of me the menacing shadow of the huge monumnet we were going to spend the rest of the morning climbing.
The path was marked quite well though I was making mistakes with my lack of light. It really was spectacular and eerie to sometimes be on the side of a volcano with no other human or light in sight and only have the stars to look at. There was no wind today which was very fortunate as it was starting to get chilly. There were some mandatory kit including a jacket which I put on here. The path was only slightly uphill but sandy for the next few miles which made it hard work. After this section we hit the rocks of the next big climbs.
For some reason I was expecting the sun to rise a lot sooner than it did, it didn't come until about 7am. All this time we were climbing without any real sense of how high we were going but then when the sun broke above the sea it made for a pretty spectacular sight. With the first light of the day I looked back from the volcano and saw a carpet of cloud covering all the low ground, then as the sun rose up through this carpet it made the volcano glow a spectacular orange. I doubt my crappy photos will do justice to just how magnificent it was. I urge you to come and to this race next year just to witness unique experiences such as this.
The climbing got really hard, false summit after false summit. The light made it a bit easier to see where I was going but I started to choke on the altitude. There was a point where I estimated I must be at about 3000m and then saw a sign that said I was at 2400m. Bollocks. My legs were not hurting too much and I was really pleased that my recently fractured toe was not causing any problems but this kind of climbing just felt alien, I could not lift my legs over the rocks and my breathing was not great.
Around 3000m with little end in sight you then see this bizarre looking golden peak just start to pop out from over the hills you are scrambling up. It's like someone put one of the Egyptian pyramids right at the top of a mountain, it looks out of place. This volcano is still active, last went off in 1909 I think. I could finally see the end even though there was still a lot of climbing to get there.
However I didn't get to base camp in the 8 hours and was not permitted to climb the remaining 150m to the top of this thing. I was disappointed but not going to beat myself up too bad. I don't like to make excuses but if I had not been out of action for the last three months, if I had not got a masty virus the week before, not picked up a neck injury from a Ryanair flight and if I had charged my light I am certain I would have made that cut off, I missed it by about half an hour. Some hill running wouldn't go amiss in preparation for next time too.
It got warm at the top and had to take my jacket off as the sun had direct access to the side of this rock. I filled my water and started the descent which I hoped would only take half the time it took me to get up but unfortunately I descent as badly as I ascent (I don't do flat very well either). I found the down really tough, fell a few times and oddly managed to turn back on myself and start going up again, I am not sure how I did this but was diverted back by another runner who was coming down too. I asked the stupid question "Are you coming down?" as he was coming down and I was going up. I was not sure whether I was going up to go down though.
The red rocks of sunrise
The descent seemed to take so much longer on the return, the chap I was running/walking with pointed to behind a mountain and said that the CP was there, it looks miles and miles away. The heat of the day kicked in and started to do it's work. It wasn't that hot but coming from the UK it was the first time I have been exposed to over 20 degrees for a while and the sun was reflecting from the rocks.
I thought maybe that the CP was closed as I was pretty near the back of the field now, there was a single section of uphill just before the CP which I choked on.
The last 16k were fairly straighforward downhill and I managed to do some actual running, finishing the 10 miles in around 2 hours. It was really nice heading back under the trees, it felt like green Arizona that I enjoyed running across so much in the States.
So in summary it took about 8.30 to get up, about 5 to get back down again. I was near the back of the field.
So, about this race....
This was a "test" event to see whether this will work as a race. It most certainly does and I think the ambition is to increase the field from the 150 of this one to over 1000 in the future. Having (almost) completed the race and with a sense of unfinished business I really want to see this race do well and can think of dozens of you guys in the UK (and elsewhere of course) who would love this. I have never quite done anything like this.
A word of warning, it is f****g hard. I think a really capable runner could run most of it (the winner got to the top in 4.22) and in better shape I could run most of it, much of it is gradual incline. Next year it will be in June so the Sun might be more of an issue.
Tenerife is absolutely amazing, I had never been before (I have run in Gran Canaria and Lanzarote). It is going to be a great place to go for a holiday, with some sun lounging, some nice easy trail running and then a nails race.
What you need to do in the meantime - is to email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on a mailing list that will keep you updated and also join the facebook page of ultrarunningltd.
Oh, and Ultrarunningltd is also organising a JOGLE race next year that I am very very tempted to do. It looks like a good deal with hotels and food included and the mileage in the first week works well so that you don't have to kill yourself in the first few days.
There has been a pleasing rise in the number of good storytellers that have started to grace the sport of ultra running. I don't know what came first in a chicken and egg sense, did people who like telling stories pick ultra running cos there are loads of stories within or do ultra runners just become story tellers because their head explodes with excitement?
Anyway, I'm babbling incoherently here unlike any point in this excellent book by Ira Rainey who is a very accomplished writer (he writes comedy) and has taken that to ultra running. He basically was inspired to run an ultra marathon after discovering a close friend had cancer. This caused him to really grab hold of his own life and do something special.
I write lots of advice about how someone should go about their first ultra, everyone is so different in their approach and motivation that the task seems impossible. However I think the most effective way to really gleam info on the subject is to read stories of those who have done it before and written about it honestly as Ira has done here.
I quite like re-living some of my own pre-ultra anxieties through this book. There are times when you do feel bionic, that you are like Neo or Anakin and you fell as though to can bend the world to your will while on a run. Then for no apparent reason the following week you feel like this.
So many things are covered here, the back to back training runs, the speed work (I was actually a bit intmidated by how fast he can knock out a 5k), the nutrition and weight loss and dealing with injury and recovery. He discovered that he was not bionic but overall he was very capable of running long distances and recalling the tales very vividly.
The story does not end with the ultra though, I don't want to spoil anything but there is a clear and well documented insight as to what ultra running can do to a person. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes running and moreso to anyone who might feel like giving one of these a go. I think Ira has produced quite a nice template as to what to expect.
Obviously it will never work out the same as that or as you predict, that's why we love it so much.
Thanks Ira :) Looking forward to meeting you soon.
This came along quickly didn’t it? It only feels like yesterday that you signed up for this thing, you promised yourself you’ll run miles and miles of training, gym every day and otherwise turn yourself into a super awesome running machine.
How did that go?
If your answer is “not quite as planned” then don’t worry, you are in the overwhelming majority of runners who feel the same. Two bits of advice I have for the start line;
Don’t compare your insides with someone else’s outsides
Right now you may be looking around at your friends who are running the marathon or perhaps at the start line where everyone just looks in a state of bliss, no nerves or anxiety amongst any of them. Let me tell you something I have learned from speaking to 100s of marathon runners over the years, everyone is chewing up on the inside, everyone is a little bit scared and worried that they have not quite done enough to get to the finish line.
So are you a bit scared? Good. You should be and so is everyone else. You are about to do something that is pretty amazing, probably harder than anything you have done before and these feelings of worry and fear will translate later into feelings of euphoria and achievement.
In my first marathon I was so nervous my node bled for the first 3 miles. I turned up at the start expecting there to be marathon bouncers who would look at you and decide that you are not fit to start. I thought they would just look at me and laugh me away, “Ha ha ha, you’re avin a laugh aren’t you”.
Here follows some practical advice for surviving your first marathon.
The night before the night before
You’ll have heard no doubt that sleep is important for many reasons, it allows us to rest, to switch off from the previous day and to regenerate our brains to tackle the next day. Without it we will be unproductive slow zombies.
Don’t panic about not getting much sleep the night before. You are nervous and perhaps paranoid about oversleeping or just can’t stop thinking about the race. I remember in my first marathon I woke up every 20 minutes paranoid that I didn’t have enough safety pins. It’s normal, don’t panic.
It is quite likely that you will not sleep well the night before, this is fine, don’t worry too much about it just try as best you can to relax. You are not an iPhone who will just cease to function when the battery runs out, your battery has much more life than you can ever imagine (those with young children will know this better than most).
For me sleep is a bonus if I can get it the night before but I don’t let it worry me if it doesn’t happen.
It is actually more important to get a good night sleep the night before the night before so try to create the conditions to allow this. Don’t force yourself up by an alarm or commit to too much activity in the morning.
If possible try to avoid any stress in the previous week. You don’t want demons floating around in your head the night before so if you can avoid moving house, getting divorced, dealing with idiots at work or supporting Tottenham in the week before the race that would help massively.
26 miles is a long way. You’ll probably hit the ground about 50 thousand times and it is hard to get all of these things perfect. You are told that putting one foot in front of the other is easy; ask them to do it on running 21 miles. Sometimes getting the feet to lift of the ground is quite hard.
Use the mile markers as “form checks”. Whenever you see them ask yourself “Is my stride good, am I standing tall, how are my feet landing? Am I thirsty, do I need more energy? Am I running too fast? Or too slow?”
Use these to prompt a mental checklist that you will then act on every mile. It is easy to forget these simple things and then run into all sorts of trouble. If you think about them constantly though you might just go insane and miss out on lots of the atmosphere.
“When I was thirsty – I drank”
The best advice came from Forrest Gump when he said “When I was thirsty – I drank”. It really isn’t any more complicated that this.
Your body is a magnificent feat of biological engineering that has been perfected over millions of years to perform endurance exercise in fairly warm conditions. Your sweat processes and heat management is almost unique in the animal kingdom and is potentially a contributing factor to how we have had the time to grow these huge brains that have led to great leaps of science and culture such as quantumn physics, the Mona Lisa and Gogglebox.
It knows when it needs water, better than any textbook. Contrary to a lot of old textbooks if you are thirsty you are NOT “somewhat” dehydrated, you are just thirsty, simple as that.
The two biggest mistakes I have seen in marathons are;
Not drinking when thirsty early on as it is inconvenient to do so and drinking robotically to a schedule, ignoring your bodies opinion on the need for fluid.
People not drinking early when they are thristy and then trying to “catch up” later on by drinking like a fish. Have you ever downed a pint then had to run for the last train? The results will be similar, only with more people watching. And TV cameras.
Simply try to quench your thirst the day before and in the morning and if you are thirsty at mile 3 then don’t say “I’ll just crack out a few more miles before having a drink”, just have a drink then.
But don’t drink robotically to a schedule. Drinks manufacturers have made a lot of money telling us we should be drinking more than we need, ruining many a marathon and charging for the privelidge. Let your body decide. It’s not stupid.
OK maybe a bit... but for other reasons.
Also, drinking DOES NTO cool you down. pouring water on your skin does but if it is a hot day still only drink when thirsty, there is no mechanism whereby putting cold fluid in you cools you down.
Pasta Party like it’s 1999
Pause reading for a moment and answer the questions “What is carb loading?”
I bet 90% of you got it wrong. I bet 90% of the answers were something like “it’s where you scoff down 2 large bowls of pasta and a pizza the night before the race so that you have the energy required to get around a marathon”.
This is wrong. Carb loading is quite a bit more complicated than that, it is actually quite hard to do and it doesn’t always work. I suggest that in your three meals of the day before you just eat a bit more in each.
The day before the race is not the time to discover new foods. In fact it is not the time to deviate from what you normally eat. If you normally eat lots of bread and pasta then eat that the night before, if your diet is more fruit based or rice based then that is fine too. A mistake many people make is to deviate from their usual diet to one that contains lots of wheat and then struggle with stomach problems during the marathon. If you don’t typically eat pasta/bread etc then don’t do so before the race, eat what you usually eat.
Should you abstain from Alcohol? My answer to this is going to be psychological rather than nutritional. A couple of beers/wines will have no nutritional impact on your race so long as you are well hydrated. Ask yourself whether it will help you relax. I think the benefits to be gained by being relaxed far outweight any slight impact a beer might have on your body. Just don’t relax too much. 7 pints is too much relaxing.
Visualise your dream race
There is not much you can do to improve yourself physically now but a hell of a lot you can do mentally.
Olympic cyclists do it, war generals do it and you have probably done it in a presentation at work. You rehearse in your mind the perfect race, the perfect battle, the perfect pitch. You imagine the roar of approval from your colleagues or fans as you execute the perfect manouvers to achieve your goals.
Even just thinking about it gives you great confidence, it excites you, it motivates you. These are all great things and you should spend the few weeks before the marathon thinking in this way. It will get you buzzing on the start line.
But this thinking does something even more profound. Without wanting to scare you this kind of thinking increases your tolerance for suffering. I don’t want to over state it but running a marathon for the first time you are going to suffer. However the more you have visualised succes the more you are willing to suffer to achieve this goal.
By visualing success you are investing more psychologically in the race and will be more likely to pull through the hard times, the more you feel you have to lose. It’s like watching the Matrix trilogy. You watched the first two, the third was absolute crap but there is no way you are going to not finish the job, you feel like the whole thing would be a waste of time if you didn’t.
The wall is both a mental and physical thing. There is little you can do to avoid it but lots you can do to get over it. I will try to explain what I believe the wall is. (Please note I am not a medical professional, a nutro-biologist or a physiopolist).
Your main source of energy for running is glucose. You have about enough to run 15-20 miles on this. When this source runs out your body turns more to fat burning to keep your legs moving. Your body can do this fine however the transition can be uncomfortable.
I’ve heard various descriptions as to what this transition is like. It’s like being hungover, or really angry, or drunk or giving up caffiene cold turkey or like having the flu or all of the above. These are all real feelings in response to a real change in your body but they won’t last long. However it can poison the mind, and then the wall can hurt you for much much longer.
The marathon is a fiendish distance. You are made to run until your sugar runs out, you then get hit by this wall thing and then told you have at least 10 miles left to run. It’s like been thrown into a room with One Direction and only been given three bullets. When the wall hits and you first feel its effects it is easy to start exprapolating. Dammit if I feel this bad at mile 17 how on earth am I even going to make it to mile 20?
You then start of a downward emotional spiral where you start to doubt yourself, question the point of what you are doing and start to find excuses for why you didn’t finish. You look for a way out, you find it harder to justify carrying on. This is the melancholy you must defeat.
These negative thoughts then make it harder physically. You notice the pains in your legs more, your heart beats faster because you are a bit more stressed, you might breathe harder, your natural flow of running is disrupted and now you expend more energy to put one foot infront of the other. The wall has not done these things directly, it did them via your own brain.
Sneaky little bugger isn’t it?
My advice on this section is to be aware that it will come and then when it does remember that it does not last forever. This really is the time to just start surviving one mile at a time, not letting the fear ruin your race completely.
Relentless Forward Progress.
Nutrition in the race is possibly the worstest done thing by people in a marathon. Probably runs pacing into second place. I think the first thing to recognise is that most people will at some point get this wrong and so you should not feel too bad for having doubts. The main thing to remember is that no one can authoratively tell you exactly what to eat and when as everyone is different.
Well that was helpful wasn’t it?
If I was to advise on one thing it would be to try and delay taking sugar until at least the second half of the race, sugar makes you high and makes you crash. You can to some extent avoid this crash with more sugar to get another high (sounds like substance abuse doesn’t it? It kind of is). Sugar can be a tricky game to play.
How do you know if you need food? Well you’ll probably be grumpy, that’s the cue. Hangry I believe is the correct term. If you start to feel like you want to punch the people who are cheering you on then look for a small child and take a jelly baby off them (assuming they are offering them, it would be mean just to steal from them no matter how grumpy you are).
Imagine the sugar gushing down into your legs and electrifying your muscles, pushing them on to finish the race. OK I don’t mean to sound like a homeopathic shrink but that visualisation works for me.
Pace yourself - somehow
I am going to take a wild guess here and say that you are not Mo Farah. If it is you Mo then hello and good luck in the marathon. Perhaps eat some meat this time so that you don’t fall over at the end.
I am assuming that you are not planning on winning the marathon.
Pacing is a contentious topic and when you start the race you will be so full of hormones that maybe you have never experienced before that you will set out like a bat out of hell. Humans do things like that when full of hormones, I think it’s a design fault.
I think the key things here to remember are not to set out too fast but also that everyone slows down a bit. This “bit” varies from doing the second half one minute slower than the first to doing the second half about 4 hours slower than the first.
Pick your “optimistic” time and head for half way in half of that. For example you may have a target of 4.00 but think optimistically you could get 3.50. Then head for halfway in 1.55, if you are right about your optimistic pace you should arrive there on time and if you are feeling good you should be able to continue at that pace.
If however you might have overstetched yourself at least you have not done so by much and you can afford to slow down a little and still achieve your original goal.
Enjoy being the star
My first marathon I think was my first public performance since a school production of “Rama and Sita” where I played a talking monkey who set fire to curtains with my arse. There are not that many parallels between the two performances (only one did I actually feel real burning in my rear end). However my first marathon was made better by the feeling that I was genuinely a star of some show.
And you will be, thousands of people will be lining the streets cheering you on with a genuine respect and bewilderment for what you are doing. Some of them may have run marathons before but most wont because it does not even occur to them to push themselves in this way.
Draw on their support and feel inspired by your own efforts just for being there. Look forward to the bragging rights afterwards, in the pub, at home, at work.
I have to say that I envy the position you are in right now. Your first marathon is a magical experience that will never be repeated. It’s like having kids I imagine, the first is brillant but then the subsequent ones are a bit rubbish. Only joking, I imagine having kids is way harder than running a marathon.
Every moment of the day will be a significant part of the rest of your life, whether you get your dream time or get carted off in an ambulance you’ll have stories to tell people after this race. Make them good.
PS I forgot all the usual advice. Don’t wear new shoes, only eat gels you’ve tried before, lube everywhere, remember to tie your laces, safety pins, don’t look directly at the sun with a telescope etc etc.
I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share. And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themself (which is essentially what my book is about).
Run an ultra they said. It will be the coolest thing ever, they said. Chicks will dig it, they said. You will carve your body into an immortal God they said. You'll write a blog that will have people stopping you in the street and saying "you are that super human athlete who knows no fear, no limits, no toilet going boundaries - please will you make babies with me" - they said.
I am not here to judge why you are here and what you have done before now.
Maybe you are here because there is a girl you want to impress or maybe you read some idiots blog and thought “ooooooh that looks like good fun”. All I have to say is that you are here now and you may as well accept what you have got yourself into.
I imagine right now you are feeling a sense of unknowing, a sense that this isn’t really going to happen. A sense that you might wake up one morning and this has been some crazy dream you’ll be able to laugh about with your friends over a drink. Ha ha yeah, 50 miles of running, that’s sounds pretty stupid.
But I imagine if you are reading this it’s not a dream but a reality that you are going to have to deal with. Like all first times there will be a rush of excitement, anxiety, nerves and fear as you thrust right into the job at hand. It might not be easy and it might not be glamourous but I promise you that when it is all over you’ll be able to lie back with the warm glow of satisfaction
This is really a “how run run 50 miles and not die” article.
So here are some last minute tips for surviving your first 50 miler.
These two words are the best advice for ultra running. Your race is coming up and perhaps you feel like you have not done enough? You somehow feel like you are less prepared for you last marathon than you are for this race that is twice that? You are genuinley scared that this might end in tears, or worse. You look around at the start line and see lots of beaming faces of highly trained runners about to run 50 miles like it’s nothing.
Well let me tell you that most of those runners are bricking it too, it just doesn’t show very clearly on the outside. Humans are good at that. One thing I would suggest is that you never compare your insides with somone elses outsides. You can’t. It’s impossible.
Take those feelings of fear and apprehention as a sign that you are about to do something pretty significant and then imagine those emotions, in reverse at the finish line of the race. That’s what this is all about, getting yourself into shit scary situations where you think you are going to die or embarrass yourself but somehow you manage to hold onto yourself just enough to make it to the end intact.
If you don’t feel even a little bit scared that I suggest you ask for your money back and give it to the wizard of Oz in return for a heart.
Managing the exceptions
How is an ultra different from a marathon? Well obviously it’s the distance innit? A marathon is exactly 26.195 miles and an ultra is anything more than 26.196 miles. Give or take size 9.
However if I were to describe what is different about an ultra than a shorter distance race I would do it via a graph that looks something like this.
I think this graph best explains what goes on in ultramarathons. You may have come from a background of racing where you know exaclty what pace and what food at all points during the race. This approach is still useful and if it makes you feel better to plan then go ahead. Just bear in mind that one of the key lessons you’ll learn when stepping up to ultras is that you will need to think on your feet a lot more.
This is hard because your thinking will be fuzzy and your feet will be sore after 6+ hours of effort. Don’t be afraid to change something that doesn’t work and all the while remember that you are adding to your educaction as a runner. No matter how bad it is going you are learning stuff and hence making yourself more experienced and resilient in the future.
Chill out - eat grass
Did you know that Zebras are the least stressed animal in the world? This is measured by the level of cortisol in their bodies. They often get chased by a lion (which I imagine is quite stressful) but then when the ordeal is over they simply forget about it and carry on eating grass as if nothing happened at all. They don’t think about the next lion attack, they can’t control that and to spend time thinking about it would mean a life in therapy.
When I am running and something does not quite go right, say someone gets in my way or a gate is sticky or someone has fiendishly placed a large rock right where your fott has landed. Then I just ask myself “what would a zebra do?” It would just forget about it and eat grass. That’s what I try to do, forget about it and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
A good way of practicing this is to cycle in London. There are hundreds of things that might upset you, cyclists jumping lights, zombie pedestrians, pot holes, van drivers etc. Each of these is an opportunity to practice being a zebra. If you can get to one side of Oxford Street to the other without calling another person something nasty you may well have passed.
So when stress is hitting you from all sides, just put on the stripes, get on the bike and start eating grass.
You already have everything you need*
So you have probably been on lots of forums and spoke to a lot of people about what is required then aggregated all of the mentions into a nice pie chart where you have gauged the relative importance of things based on how much people talk about them. Something like this.
Well that’s social media for you, making runners stupid since 2007. This is actually more like what will get you through the race. You’ll notice that not much of this can be bought, you have to earn it.
Now this pie chart is a little misleading. Legs and head are not seperable like this. One affects the other which in turn affects the other in an intractible way that has yet and probably never will be deciphered.
My point here is at this stage there is nothing you can buy that is going to increase your chances of finishing the race. It's all about what you are willing to do with your legs and your mind on the day.
*unless there is something on the mandatory kit list that you have not got. Then you should get it.
Don’t be that dick
I know a lot of race directors. They are all saints. Not just because they give up such a huge amount of their time to create events for people like me to just turn up and run. It’s more because they put up with a huge amount of questions from runners and have hitherto managed to avoid killing anyone. It’s going to happen one day, a race director is going to kill a runner. Don’t let that be you. Here are some simple ways to avoid that.
Turn up with ALL the mandatory kit. It’s not just a list for laughs, it can potentially save your life. Don’t argue when asked for your waterproof jacket you are then told you can’t use your crepe paper jacket.
Also, don’t spam the RD with emails saying “I’ve been out on that path before and never ever needed a jacket or spare battery so I think your list is a bit draconian”. If you have already done this then rest assured every other Race Director in the UK now knows about it.
Don’t drop out without letting the organiser know. Search parties have been sent out in the past to find a runner who ended up being in their living room eating pizza. I hope they choked on a glistening yellow chunk of e-coli
Don’t point at your Garmin and go “wah wah wah this checkpoint is 17.1 miles and you said it was only 16.5”. Those things are wrong, which makes you wronger and if that kind of thing bothers you I suggest you find a different sport such as picture frame squaring
Avoid giving the organisers a herniating drop bag.
Do thank all the volunteers who have given up their time for you. Don’t moan if there are little delays in getting your food and water topped up. They are not paid ferrari wages and you are not Louis Hamilton
Don't be impatient at the registration. If there are 200 people registered to run and they all turn up at the same time then there is going to be a delay. Use the time to obsess about each others kit and then develop a horrible anxiety that you are not going to finish because you don't have breast pockets
Say "I don't need a map, I know this place like the back of my hand". That's all well and good but not going to help if you need to call for help. "I think my leg is broken, yeah I'm at the 14.7 mile point of my Sunday morning run. What do you mean "Grid Reference". Check out my Strava, login "Awesomerunner" password "sillybolloX". No, CAPITAL X you idiot.
Don't ever litter. Ever.
Don’t ignore thirst (or lack of it)
Two big mistakes in ultras. The first is not taking a sip of water in the first 20 miles because you are way too excited and chatting away and think that the precious 10 seconds it might take to get some fluid into you would mean that you would not be able to keep up with the guys you have been chatting with for the last few hours. If you ignore thirst early you will run into trouble later, you can't really "catch up" with hydration very easily.
The second is drinking religiously to a schedule that then messes with your electrolyte levels and causes suffering. I am not going to pretend to be a doctorologist who knows what really goes on here except that I have seen a lot of runners drinking themselves stupid (not beer of course - runners wouldn't drink beer) by following one of those 200ml ever 15 minutes things.
One of the beautiful things about ultra running is that you get to learn the ways in which your body is awesome. One of which is it's uncanny ability to alert you when it needs water. It does this by making your thirsty. Keep it simple. Don't ignore it and don't overide it.
Eat yourway out of grumpiness
OK this is NOT general life advice but a really good heuristic for managing yourself in ultras. If you are grumpy you are probably “hangry” and food will help resolve this. You body will be a raging torrent of various chemicals and hormones and often its hard to know exactly how to fuel it.
I recommend using natural walking points to eat. If there is a 5 minute slog up a hill then use that to stuff your face with cocktail sausages or pork pies or whatever food you have on hand.
Use food as a reward. Derive pleasure from it. Don't think "I will eat a Kit Kat because it has 300 calories in it", think "I will eat a Kit-Kat cos I really like Kit-Kats". I love it when checkpoints have savoury stuff like sausage rolls and sandwiches. It gives me something to look forward to when slogging through the mud. Try and make food and the thought of food a positive thing.
Many runners have found success with trying to delay the consumption of sugar until later on. Sugar gives you instant hits (and subsequent crashes) in energy levels and emotional levels. Again some people will say sugar is the devil, others will call these people nutjobs. Experiment with yourself, that's part of the fun.
Land the Spaceship
There is a scene in Apollo 13 where the astronaughts look out the window and all they can see is Earth. They can’t see around it for it is too massive. This causes great anxiety as they have to land on it. This is the “wood for the trees” thing.
Whenever the size of the task just seems too big for me - and running 50 miles should feel too big - I take that as an opportunity to just focus on the little things that are going right. Like they did in the spaceship: all they could do was to make sure their calculations were correct, to switch the right switches and to do the correct proceedures.
I do the same when I just can’t imagine how much I have to do. All I have to do is get things right now. Just make sure you are landing your feet correctly, make sure your arms are swinging normally. Are you breathing regularly. Distracting yourself with the present and focusing on what you control will pull you out of the fear.
We are all "systemisers" to various extents. We take the chaotic noise from the world and try to make order and that makes us feel good. Every puzzle solved is a little stroke of karma that makes us happier.
I think of long races as a long puzzle to be solved, one clue at a time. It is all one long game of muddy sudoku.
So when gravity of the race in front of you starts to feel crushing, relax, put on your space suit and simply try to do what’s right in the next five seconds.
Dress for all weather
You may have run races where you put in a fairly consistent effort in fairly consistent weather and end up being around the same temperature throughout. That will almost certainly not be the case here. You will be going at variable speeds and being out there for say 8-12 hours you are going to experience the temperature of hte day rise and fall and all that happens in between. It only takes a few minutes to go from boiling hot to pretty damn chilly.
Your body is an incredible machine for disipating heat when you are hot. It is also an incredible maching for holding into heat when it is cold. The problem is that during this race you'll be requiring both and the body might not change modes quick enough. Starting in the morning, you'll be running a bit faster and generating some heat but the air will be cool and it will quickly disappear as the body then shunts this away. Then when the sun starts to glare this equilibrium will be challenged, you may get hotter with no increase in effort and become uncomfortable.
This is the easy part, it's when it gets cooler (as the sun goes down, as you slow or if the weather turns). This can happen quickly. It only takes a few minutes of breeze to zap all the heat out of your body (and your body will still be pumping blood and losing even more heat). Be careful about getting cold. Be aware and wear the right stuff.
The key to keeping warm in the cold is layers. Wearing two or three tops gives you extra air between the layers to insulate you. If it's going to be cold then I suggest taking an extra layer. Keep moving if possible, swing your arms to generate more heat if needed. Think about what to put in your drop bag. Perhaps a change of clothes if you get wet early on and a chance of socks.
But then don't forget the Sun. It is going to get light from about 4am and you'll spend most of the race exposed to the sunlight. Even if it's not hot you should not underestimate the slow sapping power the Sun has. Protect your head particularly the back of the neck.
If the question "what is the optimal pace for running an ultra" was asked in an episode of QI the following answers will set the buzzers off and have Alan Davies looking more like a bufoon than usual;
Run the same pace throughout
Start fast then get slower
Start slow and then get faster
Pacing ultras is a bit like pacing yourself when out drinking in the pub (apart from that 11pm cut-off which is just unrealistic and annoying). Sometimes the best nights are the ones where you go hard early and end up in funnier situations than if you'd took it steady. Other times a conservative pace is more sensible and can often save pain later on.
OK this analagy is a bit tenuous but I don't mind causing the bewilderment because I want to make the point that no one really knows what is "right" in terms of pacing race of this length. Even is "mere" marathons there is a lot of debate as to whether the "negative split" is an optimal strategy and therefore if you take this confusion, double it and then square it you will arrive at the level of certainty at which anyone can be confident about the "optimal" pace to run ultras.
Well this bit has been extremely unhelpful hasn't it?
I guess what you need to think about is both the mental and physical impact of how far you get in what time. You might decide to aim for an even pace, finishing the 50 miles in 12 hours. You may hit the marathon point in 6 hours and think "blimey, I feel really knackered and I have all that to do again". This could lead to a downward spiral mentally that then results in further slowing, further bad thoughts and a greater chance of jacking it in.
You may fly through the marathon point in 4 hours and think "I am a bit knackered but I have loads of time and can keep this up a bit longer" and then by 30 or 35 miles you think "sh1t I've run myself into the ground here but I only have 15 miles to go which will take 3 hours max".
Obviously the opposite of all that could happen, you might be Mr Consistent throughout or you might run yourself stupid and injure yourself. I don't want to tell you exactly how to pace an ultra because everyone I know does it differently and will maintain that what they do is the best way. All I will say is that everyone slows down a bit at least.
Run walk? Maybe. I know people who win races doing this. My preference is to walk up the hills or out of checkpoints (while eating food). Others follow a schedule. Here's an idea (from Jason Rollibards book) "Speed ups". Walking breaks rest your legs as they use different muscles. How about then sprinting occasionally? That uses different muscles too and so can be considered rest. Kind of. I have not tried this yet but reckon it's worth a go. Do it and let me know how you get on.
The wall still comes
I believe the majority of DNF’s in this distance come from simple wall anxiety.
That thing you get warned about in the marathon where your glycogen levels expire at around 16-20 miles leaving you with a painful transition through into fat burning but since you figure you are close enough to the end you may as well pull through and by 22 miles it feels ok again anyway and oyu have only 4 miles to go.
Well the wall still happens here. In my experience because I am running a bit slower it comes a bit later (maybe 20-25 miles) where perhaps my body goes through this change where I just feel bad.
Now the normal response to feeling bad at mile 20 of a 50 mile race is “OMFG I feel terrible and I have not even done a marathon yet and I have more than a marathon to do if I carry on like this I will feel dead pretty soon”.
And then quite conveniently there is often a checkpoint right bang in the middle of this with a nice chair and a nice cup of tea and a nice bus that might take you to the end of the race.
Avoid the trifles
When you decided to run this race you probably (rightly) thought that nothing is worth having if it’s easy to get. You figured that running 50 miles will be bloody hard but the satisfaction that may come with completing would more than make up for this discomfort. You have a good brain, one that knows what’s valuable.
However it is not invincible. When it is a bit starved of oxygen and food and a nice cosy sofa the brain can lapse into quitting mode. It starts looking for the path of least resistance to getting out of this situation. Rather than continuing to the end it will start to devise ways to get out now. It will start thinking of trifles.
A trifle is a reason for quitting that in retrospect you will kick yourself for. I’m not suggesting you carry on if your leg is broken but I have heard (and have given) many reasons for quitting races in the past that when I look back on them I realise how pursuasive my lazy brain can be sometimes.
If you are thinking of dropping out, think ahead 24 hours and ask yourself “is this a trifle?”
Plan your funeral
OK so you are not actually going to die but this is one of the most effective ways I have ever used of getting away from negative and depressing thoughts. When you've been running for a long time your brain lets in lots of negative and destructive paranoid thoughts. Like your friends mocking you, sneering at your awful efforts to try and finish 50 miles. You'll believe that the whole world is conspiring against you, that every wobbly stile or rusty gate is there to impede you personally. That a loose rock or an exposed tree route has been placed there by some devine for intent of ending your race. This is normal. And funny.
In these times celebrate every little victory you can. Every person who lets you past, every dog that does not bite you, every child that yells "well done" or "keep going". Every time the sun comes out, every time you see a route marker that lets you know you are on the right track. All of these little things help.
And if you really are struggling mentally start planning your own funeral. Imagine a scene when you are in a box about to be buried and everyone close to you in your life is there. Imagine the things that they will say, the ways you touched their lives. It will obviously only be great things they will say. You can be as egotistical as you'd like, no one needs to know. Every word spoken will be about how awesome you are. If they have nothing good to day then don't invite them to your funeral.
Furnish your Palace
I’ll let you into a little secret. The key to happiness is to blog about ultrarunning. Well there might be other sources of life fulfilment but I have found this one and am hanging onto it.
I have found that buy writing about my running has helped me in more ways than I imagined possible at the start. I thought it would be a good way of remembering what I did but that’s not the only thing.
I can re-live vividly some of the amazing events and emotions I have felt while ultra running and can essentially get all the benefits again for free
I can help others who might be about to do such races by giving them information that I might have forgotten if I didn’t write it down
It makes it much easier to write a book if you have all this stuff already written down (did I mention I have a book out?)
It actually helps me during the race.
Yes that’s right. Blogging as you go has actually helped me manage difficult situations. Whenever soemthing “bad” happens in a race my approach is “well at least it will make an interesting blog” and I genuinely believe this has got me through more stuff than if I just shut up about it.
Now you may think this is self centred and I am a bit egotistical. That is because it is and I am but that is perfectly normal and I don’t feel bad about this.
So my advice would be to write the story as you go. A technique I use is to furnish my memory palace as I go along (using my 5 mile commute to work as my “palace”). It is also called the “Method of Loci” but probably best explained in Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstien”.
So in summary, Don’t Panic, Don’t be a dick, It’s not about the bag, comfort eat, blog as you go and land the spaceship.
I hope you liked this article. If you did then feel free to comment and share. And also (if you didn't know) I have a book out which I am told is more entertaining than watching an ultra runner poo themself (which is essentially what my book is about).
I am also working on a Marathon Survival guide and a 100 mile survival guide.
It was about a year ago that a chap called dAVE uRWIN emailed me asking for a quote or two on the Barkley Marathons. He was interviewing Forzen Ed Furtaw about the race. I looked him up on facebook and saw we had a couple of mutual friends so figured he's probably not an axe murderer and I am in New Zealand anyway so he is unlikely to do any damage from there.
I wrote him a couple of quotes and sent them over to him and noticed that we now had 7 mutual friends. I befriended him on facebook with a feeling that I'll be hearing a lot more from this guy.
In the following months I had conversations with others as to who this Dave Urwin was. He just seemed to spring out the ground one day and waltzed straight into the ultra running club (tbh the bouncers at that club are a bit useless, no speed and even if they did catch someone they are so light and breezy they just get swatted off). Anyway, where was I?
Ahhh yes Dave Urwin. When I actually got to meet him I think we had over 50 muual facebook friends. I knew quite quickly that there was something very interesting behind this mans eyes. His arrival and immediate imersion into ultra running suggested that this world was doing a lot of good things for him. Perhaps things that he really needed.
And I was delighted to see that he then put it all down on paper (not one of those stupid ebooks) and it really is a gripping read. Dave is a fantastic writer, very funny guy and he has a really brilliant story to tell.
I won't say too much about the detail of the story. It is a mixture of him running various ultra races and recalling his time travelling, working, not working, eating, not eating and so forth. It was really uplifting to read what ultra running can mean to a person and how it can help someone find out what the important things in life are. If you are interested in buying it contact Dave through his facebook page here.
So I have now been unable to run for three weeks now. It is a little frustrating mostly because my running commute to work has been replaced with having to share a bus with a load of school kids who often only go one stop.
I spent a week not really being able to do anything I decided to finally use the gym I have at work that I have not entered in the two years I have worked there. It seemed strange to me that people pay and queue up to go running on a treadmill when there is loads of floor outside to run on.
Inbecile Michael Gove has suggested that kids be given running as a punishment which sounds ludicrous given how much fun I find it, but only if it's outside. Perhaps he was talking about his experience of running on a treadmill in the Houses of Parliament gym. Watching Eric Pickles in shorts and a vest heaving on the butterfly press maching thinking it will increase his biscuit reach, watching Theresa May in heels trying to spin around the cross trainer in heels, Nigel Farage is pulling the plug on any slightly foreign looking exerciser regardless of how hard they are working. That sounds like punishment to me though fortunately it is not too busy in here since Iain Duncan Smith was out in charge of the computer membership database and fucked it right up meaning hardly anyone can access.
Where was I? Ahhh yes, pointlessness. I currently can't do anything that involves impact so I started on the stepping machine. I don't really understand what all the levels are, I selected "Cardio" as a work out and "level 7" which basically has me stomping up and down for 30 minutes while I get to stare at either a timer, a TV with some dreadful programme on or a wall. I have graduated to being able to to 45 minutes at "level 9", whatever that means. I am starting to get a bit obsessed with my heart rate though. I watch it shoot up to 170+ on the resistance bits and then head back down to 140 in my 2 minute recovery periods. I don't know what my resting heart rate or maximum is, I am guessing 50 and 190. It was 60 just after I got run over so guess it's a bit less that that.
Does all this shit matter anyway? The most important thing is the highly accurate and legally water-tight calorie counter that these machines have. It's about 200 calories a sausage so smashing out 600 in half an hour is pretty good going and gets me extra food (that's why people go to the gym isn't it?)
I figure I am now exercising parts of my legs that I do not usually need to rely on such as my glutes and hamstrings. Shuffling along a flat canal without picking up my legs does not give much of a total leg work out whereas now I find I am stretching these unused parts of my legs.
It took a while though before I progressed to the proper henching parts of the gym. My local gym costs £11 per session (discounted to £6 for residents). Who would pay £11 to pick stuff up and down? Anyway I paid the money and went into the place where I was sure not to be intimidated by people I work with but rather I can now get intimidated by complete strangers.
I pick up some dumbells (10s) and start lifting them up an down in front of a mirror while keeping alert to what others are doing on other machines that I might want to use later. I am not stupid enough to use the mechanical weight machines, I know they do more harm than good.
I lift them up in front of me, then lie down on a bench and lift them over my face (which seems hazardous) and then the ones Ian Sharman sugggested recently for trail running awesomeness where I stand up and bend to each side while pretending I am about to be punched in the stomach. I fear I am going to get punched in the stomach for monopolising the weights, however the the amount of dust I have to clear of them suggests that they don't get used that much.
Why do they go straight from 10 to 12.5kg? That's a 25% increase. You wouldn't go straight from running a marathon to running a 50k would you?
I find weights hard, mostly because they hurt my hands like shopping bags. If I put them down and swap them that seems to make both seem lighter, just like when you rearrange stuff in shopping bags.
It looks like I have a few more weeks of this. It's unlikely I'll be able to give the Machester Marathon the smashing I wanted to but this is great ultra brain training here. I find things to releive the boredom, such as looking for sweat clouds. People sweat funny and it makes funny clouds in their back. I saw a unicorn having a fight with a juniper bush the other day.
Current record for bicep dips - 2
I am feeling pretty hench but just not looking it yet. I imagine that the weight I have put on as a super hench core that is pushing my belly outwards making me look fatter? That happens right?
Dare I say I am enjoying this? But if anyone sees me on a treadmill please club me to death with a walking pole and bury me in a Hoka.
So lets me honest about what I am about to do here. I want to write a post that will get lots of hits such that more people might see that I have a book coming out and buy it so that I can spend more time writing posts like this one.
It's all very self fulfilling.
A lot of lists like this exisit and then get shot down with "what about this" and "that race is a joke". The problem is that "That race" has a hold on editors and publishers such that it has to be mentioned by law in any list where the dreaded "T" word is in the article title. I think journalists are in a hard place here.
So here is a list of really tough things I one day want to finish.
I was signed up to do this in the month just gone but decided I didn't want to wreck myself for the rest of the year. I sort of regret this having seen all the fun that was had on the Pennine Way. A 268 mile non-stop point-to-point slog along the "spine" of England in winter. British winter which is usually quite variable but leaves a muddy trail whatever. There were a lot of great stories of success and DNF this year. I would like to do this next year but will depend on having enough time off.
Only about 0.5% of people who apply finish this race. That's because only about 1% actually get in. I really want to do this but it looks unlikely with the popularity. I am told that this is regarded as the most scenic ultra marathon in the world which I really want to see. It sounds bloody hard though. 12000ft of elevation (total elevation is one of those measures that we ultra runners like to swing our dicks about) makes it more gain that the cheese race around Mt Blanc. Not only that but it is all at high altitude and equivalent to constant stair climbing with a sock in your mouth (luckily that's another weekend hobby of mine).
One day I will get in and then off to do it.
Coast to Kosci
This was kind of a bit like the Spartathlon, I think. It's 153 miles going from sea level in Australia to the Highest point, the top of Mount Kosciuzsko (strange name for an Australian mountain, I would have thought they would call it "Great Big Bloody Mountain"). It is a Fatass style event with little support and limited to 50 entrants per year. Will have to do that one time if I have enough money to fly over there.
OK I was not sure of which of Mark Cockbain's really tough races would be part of this so am going to group them all up and say they are all worthy of a place (it's my list so I make the rules). Shortly we will see the 3rd running of the 147 viking way race through miles of English mud. ONly about 20% of people finish this. Next is the Coast to Coast race which has not run yet (and I may do this). A low support crossing of the UK from West to East over 140 miles. Mark has made the cut-off quite tight at 38 hours (probably wanting to get into Newcastle before the sun comes back up).
Third is the Cockslam Trilogy is the now infamous "The Hill" race. 1 finisher out of lots last year, the incredible Jon Steele who went up the Hill like Jack and Jill 55 times in 48 hours.
The Piece of String Race
What kind of sick race would they not tell you how far you had to run to the finish line? The kind of race that would make most peoples heads explode with torture. Well most people of that ilk won't apply for this race anyway but many do and they find it really hard. The first year the runners ran/swam about 115 miles (2 finished out of 10) when they were told they had finished. The second year the runners ran 100 meters and then were driven away 100 miles to the middle of nowhere (Bath) and told to run away to the sea, and then back again, and then all manor of head f****g until two runners finished the 135 miles.
I met someone earlier this week who lost part of a finger in the really quite cold temperatures of this race. It's a 135 run (slide/pull) in Michigan which in January can be really quite cold, even without the polar vortex that engulfed North America this year. You can do it on a bike too but that is cheating.
The only one of the races I have attempted and my effort was pretty feeble. Often dismissed as "not a proper race" because the race course has a chance of winning. It's rather like calling Boxing "not a proper sport" because the opponent has a chance of winning and then saying bullfighting is.
Anyhoo, why is this jolly hard. Well the race has been designed to be on the edge of what is possible by a very well trained and fit human. To cover 100 miles of this terrain in 60 hours I think puts you up there with Tour De France in terms of fitness (without the drugs). It's hard because you need to be going for all the 60 hours, the climbing is insane and the terrain is gnarley and slippy. It is an effort standing still.
I made one feeble attempt at it a couple of years ago and I will return to give it a better go. I need to be insanely fit though.
The Luton Marathon.
6 times I have attempted this race and 6 times I have not even made it to mile 1. My history of this race goes something like this.
2007 - Sign up for race, get too drunk the night before and oversleep and miss it
2008 - Get to the start of race but it gets cancelled as there is a car crash on the course
2009 - Sign up for race, get a bit injured before the race and drop out
2010 - Sign up for race, get too drunk the night before and oversleep and miss it
2011 - Sign up for race, it rains (in Novemeber in the UK) and race gets cancelled
2012 - Sign up for race, get psyched out by the prospect of having to run around Luton three times. Stay in the comfort of my own home until it all blows over
This would never have happened if I was wearing Hokas.
Thursday evening started out just like any other evening. In fact no it didn't because instead of running home I was headed to the shops to buy stuff to cook for dinner and get a Valentines Day card for my lovely wife. If only I were a Jehovah's Witness.
So on my way to the shop I crossed the road at a pedestrian crossing with the green man proudly glowing his stride, before I got half way I discovered an unusual thing on top of my foot. A car. He had just jumped the light and ran right over my right foot.
I reeled back to the pavement, at this stage not really knowing what to do or say. What on earth do you say or do when a car has run over your foot.
I think many runners first instinct when anything like this happens is to panic about the prospect of not being able to go running for a while. I am not too bothered if say I cut my finger while cooking as my fingers are not that important (except maybe for blogging but I reckon I can still do that with only 4 of them). I imagine a guitarist would immediately panic about their future fingerpicking before it even occurs to them to stop the bleeding.
I'd say the chain of thought that went through my mind was something like this;
1 - S**t this looks like I am not going to be able to run for a while
2 - Oh but I can't wait to bang on about this on facebook
3 - Owwwww my foot f*****g hurts
4 - OK better get the licence plate (which I did as the bugger drove off without stopping which apparently is illegal)
5 - Owwww, the foot is really hurting now
6 - Oh dear, It's my turn to cook, this will inevitably delay that and Gemma will be annoyed.
I found a community support Policeman and said in a very reserved English way "oh I'm sorry to bother you but I've just been run over the foot by a car and don't really know what to do".
So he called an ambulance which arrived in about 20 minutes (one of those first response units in a car) while I answered some questions. I was actually asked some really tough questions such as "what kind of car was it"? I know nothing at all about cars. I only recently learned to drive and when someone asks what kind of car I learned in I can only respond "A red one". Apparently it was an Aldi A3, which was quite a nice car to drive.
I just said "A black one" to which he asked "was it a saloon?" and I said "No, it was definitely a car, not a bar".
The ambulance arrived and I disgusted the poor medics with the state of my feet (the injury didn't look too bad but the stink was a bit much". I am not sure whether I could blame that on the hit and run guy. They were however impressed with how low my heart rate was, below 60 which they said was amazing considering I had just been hit by a car. I said it's probably 10 lower than normal because I no longer have to worry about cooking dinner and that usually elevates the anxiety a bit.
The pain got worse and worse as I went to the hospital to have an xray. It actually feels the same as the end of my first Spartathlon when I felt I may have fractured something in my foot. I recall that taking a few weeks to get over and hoped that this would not be as bad. The xray was inconclusive and I have to go to see someone on Tuesday for a further test. I am hoping the fact that it was inconclusive means it's not that bad. Getting the bus to work sucks.
At some point I really should get more annoyed that some dick ran over my foot and then drove off. I think the police are onto it.
And Gemma said the only way I was getting out of cooking tomorrow was to get my hands run over...
But a bit of good news. I send my book to the ePublishing people this week and it will be available to buy from around 12th March. Please "like" my facebook page to keep up to date with what is going on and spread the word too :)
I often get nervous before standing up and speaking about running, usually out of a slight feeling of inferiority that I don't think what I have done is particularly in the company that I am often presenting it to. However this one was different. I was reading the first few pages from my book (THAT IS DEFINITELY COMING OUT SOON) and I was worried that I might DNF 3.5 pages of words.
These 3.5 pages describe in pretty brutal detail what could well be the worst 20 minutes of my life. It happened in New Mexico and although at the time I tried to make a point of blogging everything I felt that I could not publish this as quite frankly it was too humiliating.
So I would not agree to put myself in this situation lightly, however when Simon asked me to read the first pages. He has read the book already and keeps telling me that he really likes that opening part.
A few months ago Simon told me about an incredibly ambitious plan of his. He is already doing great work with his company Freestak whereas this was going to be something else. A magazine that was going to be about the stories behind running. It sounded like a brilliant project and I was full of stories and happy to help. I contributed an article about some of the mind games I play when I am going through tough times. They see me through most things, they didn't quite work in New Mexico but now I at least have that as a story to tell at magazine launches.
It was in a really nice venue at the Truxman Brewery where a kind of "who's who" of British ultra running came and mingled. The magazine was not just about ultra running but obviously I was drawn to them. The magazine is a great read, not what you'd get from a regular running magazine. This was is just packed with great stories and beautiful artwork. This is not a magazine you are going to skim through in 20 minutes and then put in the recycling but one that you will keep and refer back to for inspirtation. I am thrilled that such a magazine now exists and even more so that I was asked to take part.
I managed to get through my part without choking too much. I also heard the delightful Mimi Anderson talk about her experience in the Arctic and was introduced to Simon Wheatcroft who has an inspiring story to tell about how blindness inspired him to run long distance.
But I got to chat to a load of others too. I finally got to meet Stuart Mills who's blog I have been following for a number of years now and I recommned reading and has written a great piece about his first marathon experience. I saw Tobias Mews who I met a few years back who now writes adventure articles in the telegraph. Robbie Britton was there, fresh from a victory at the Pilgrims Challenge 66 mile two day ultra. IN fact he looked way too skinny so I gave him my meal voucher. He too has put in a great bit of writing about his motivation for running. It was great to catch up with Dan Ashfar of Xempo and Sandra and the guys from the Ealing Half Marathon. Sorry I didn't make the Ealing Mile today, I had a work thing honest.
I hope you all get a chance to read this. Reading about other peoples stories and motivations I find is really inpsiring, helps me do things better and give me ideas about what to do next.
And I hope my article was of some use. If the Zebra thing becomes well known I would feel a bit bad as this was inspired from a girl I spoke to supporting the Thames Ring race last year. Putting the Zebra on a bike was all my idea though.
This month in Ultra Tales I assembled an article for "Ultra Wags" that looks at ultra running from the point of view of the other half, the one who is sitting at home wondering where their partner is or perhaps out in the middle of nowhere waiting for their husband/wife with a handful of lubricant.
Anyhoo I thought I'd put my wife's fansastic contribution here. Apparently I am quite obsessed by a race.
Your Name: Gemma Greenwood
Runner’s Name: James Adams
Relation to Ultra Runner: Wife
Details (eg married, kids, etc):
Married less than a year, been together four (it seems longer), no kids yet.
Brief history of ultra runner. (years running, ultras done etc):
What can I say about James Adams that most of the ultra-running population don’t already know? Bugger all, I suspect, since he’s a prolific blogger who loves to bang on about his running.
How long have you suffered your partner’s extreme running?
I started suffering my partner’s extreme running from BEFORE I met him. Yes, it is possible. Facebook makes these things possible, and if you know James at all, you will know his addiction to Facebook is all too real. I think that before I encountered him, I encountered his blistered feet which were his Facebook profile picture of choice for quite a time – some of you may remember the picture: great big purple blood-filled plum-sized blisters that he got as a result of his first GUCR run. Nowadays a small blister makes him drop out of a race (NDW100, 2013). Clearly marriage is making him soft.
Did they do this kind of thing when you met and what was your first impressions of them?
Fortunately (I think), James was already an ultra-running nutter when I met him. He’d completed GUCR and MDS with his sights firmly set on Badwater as the ultimate race…how things have changed! Badwater is a distant memory and now Spartathlon holds James’ focus for most of the year…
Anyway, at least I knew what I was letting myself in for, and wasn’t someone expecting a normal and conventional relationship with actual summer/beach holidays or anything (despite promises to the contrary). No, instead I spend my spare time & holidays standing beside the edge of a road/field/trail, in the freezing cold or scorching heat waiting for a brief appearance from my beloved, all sweaty and smelly, before he sods off again stuffed with food and drink.
Did they start doing this after you met? Describe the first time you heard about their plans.
How do you usually get involved in their racing and training? (eg supporting races, helping with training, massage etc).
It depends on the race distance, location, timing etc, but so far I am mostly a taxi service, given that James can’t drive (yet). I don’t think there is a ‘usual’ for these things. The first couple of Spartathlons, I stayed in the UK constantly sitting at the laptop and updating his Facebook fans with any developments in his progress. Last year and this for Spartathlon, I will be there, driving along the route from the mile point to the end. I don’t actually need to do anything on this race, since it is incredibly well organised and supported, but James did throw his toys out of the pram last year when I didn’t turn up until the middle of the Saturday morning because I was enjoying our swanky accommodation and the bugger just needed a hug.
When James ran across America a couple of years ago (as you do), I was only initially required to go out to visit him at the end of the race, and crew him for the last week before we had a week holiday in NY…until he got food poisoning in New Mexico and I got a sad/pathetic text asking me to go out there sooner. So, for my sins, I spent ten days driving across Oklahoma in 40C+ heat wave three miles at a time. I was responsible for carting his stinking kit, trimming his bushy moustache and beard from around his mouth, making him eat fruit, and generally ensuring he stayed alive.
Do you run? What kind of distances? Other sports or participate in? Run –
Yes, I run, and it’s how we met – through the Serpentine Running Club. Sometimes though, I do think it should be renamed the Serpentine Dating Club, given the number of our friends we’ve seen meet and marry through the club!
Over the years that I’ve been a member, I’ve run everything from a 1k race through to ultras, although I have a rule that I like to sleep at night, so the longest I have run for is 50 miles so far. If I can work on getting some speed like Sharman, I might consider longer distances. To date, I’ve finished over 25 marathons and ultras.
Do you ever wish your partner had a "normal" hobby like golf or chess or something?
Are they normal hobbies? No, I don’t think so. Anyway, running is ingrained in James’ soul (and perhaps his soles too), so I wouldn’t want to change that. It’s part of the man that I fell in love with. Also, if he stopped running, he’d be bloody HUGE. Have you seen how much he eats and drinks? That would definitely be worse…
Would you like your kids to follow in his/her footsteps? How likely is that?
I’d definitely like our kids (assuming we have some) to enjoy sports and the outdoors. Running would be awesome, and I suspect they’ll get little choice in the matter with regards to being surrounded by it from an early age. My biggest concern would the ‘forcing them into it’ element. If they HAVE to spend almost every weekend supporting running events or being involved, it might put them off a bit…
Describe the strangest moment you have witnessed while crewing your partner.
What are they like when they are injured or not running for some reason?
I don’t think I’ve ever known James to be injured or off running for more than about a week. I suspect his joints are well lubricated with all the fat from the pork scratchings he secretly scoffs, and he doesn’t go fast enough to do any real damage.
Do you ever go on "normal" holidays? Do all of your trips involve a race somewhere?
I’ve been promised a “normal” holiday for OVER TWO YEARS now. I am really not holding out much hope of us having one. We didn’t even have a conventional honeymoon as our wedding was sandwiched between two runs in New Zealand. The weekend before we got married, we both ran the Motatapu marathon. The weekend after, James ran Northburn 100. Even the weekend we had earmarked for getting married, James tried to worm out of because Tarawera ultra (in the North Island of NZ) was on that day… I really don’t hold out much hope for him organising a proper holiday / honeymoon experience for us!
What does your partner have to give back in return for all this supporting you do?
He doesn’t ‘have’ to do anything. Although I am still waiting to find out what special treats are in store for me… I suspect he will be the better one of the two of us at middle-of-the-night parenting, should we ever have kids.
Do you ever get the feeling that when you spend time alone together in a beautiful area they are thinking "that would make a great run"?
Feeling?? He bloody announces it ALL THE TIME when we’re out somewhere nice in the countryside.
What are they like with money? How likely are they to spend the family food budget on a solar powered back pack which inflates into a life boat? Give details of times when they have spent money frivolously.
James is a classic for ‘packing light’, that is, forgetting or not taking stuff he’s likely to need. When he moved in with me, he had over 40 cans of deodorant because he keeps buying more. He forgets to take trousers to work fairly regularly, which means he’s a good customer of M&S and when we went away for GUCR this year, he didn’t pack ANY normal clothes – trousers, pants, shirt, socks etc, which meant we had to do a shopping trip for all of the above. Which reminds me, he still owes me about £30-odd for that lot…
Have they ever said "never again". How long did it last?
I think he said that about Spartathlon once...after the first time when his leg nearly fell off. I think it lasted until the leg healed and he could walk again. Then he was determined to go back and beat it. I’m not sure how many times he’ll have to do this before he retires from it though!
How I laughed!
When you stood on that altar and agreed to "for better for worse" did you ever think it would come to this?
It came to ‘this’ a week later as he set off on Northburn 100. The only way I thought I’d get him to NZ to marry me was to tempt him with some ridiculous race. It worked.
Do you deal with their feet?
I have been known to pop blisters, cut toe nails, chop off calluses, and the like. It’s a grim job, but he’s so inflexible, he can barely reach his own feet. I do try make sure he’s washed them thoroughly first though – and even bought him a long-handled scrubbing brush to do so.
Do you have any special words, techniques to keep them motivated in a race (keep it clean please).
At the end of Northburn 100, I ran out to meet James on the trail and accompanied him for the last 5k or so, most of which was in the dying light or the dark. He was really struggling by now, but of course we both knew he’d finish. To keep him moving, I’d run out in front of him and flash my bum or my boobs on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anyone else around… and if there was, sorry!
What is their worst habit?
You mean I can only pick one?Right now, I think it is the vile and repulsive smell of his feet. He ought to take more care of them – dealing with issues before they escalate to this aroma! His shoes have been banished to outside, and his socks are tied up in a plastic bag somewhere waiting for him to deal with them.
Three words to describe your partner?
Obsessed with Spartathlon.
Do you ever wish you were running? Why?
When I want to run, I usually do. Hopefully though, once he can drive, he’ll support me on something a bit mad. Not quite America in 70 days, but I’ll think of something to get him back, I am sure.
If he/she didn't run what would you spend your weekends doing?
Probably walking in the countryside. Maybe bike riding. Visiting National Trust properties… all the normal things people of our advancing age get up to ;o)
What do your friends think about your partner? (assuming you still have friends).
Given that the huge majority of our friends are runners and ultra-runners (the first group being the more normal), I think people are pretty used to him…it’s the reaction I get from those that don’t run which is the best. Gobsmacked pretty much describes it.
Is your partner competitive. Please describe. Does this apply to other areas in their lives too?
I think James is one of the least competitive people I know. He likes to tease some particular friends, who are competitive with him, but that’s all really. Tenacitastic is the word I’d use for James (which I just made up). That man can just keep on running. He might not be fast or glamorous, but he will get there. Does that make him the Skoda of runners?
Do you get competitive? How important is it that your partner beats others to you?
No, I am not competitive either. However, I also like to make sure that where possible he beats the same particular friends above…
What's the best advice you'd give to a new ultra WAG?
Buy a lot of Halo & teach your ultra runner to use the washing machine.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Any amazing stories or anecdote –
Oh no… I don’t want to make his head any bigger than it already is, thank you.
The last fell race I ran I came last. I was hoping to better that result this time. I don't know whether anything south of the peak district can really classify as a fell race and I did see at least one guy wearing tights so figured this was a southern softie thing. The Box Hill Fell Race was going to include a few ups and downs though.
I have run (or walked) up and down box hill many times, this is as close as London gets to having a big hill. I have decided to do more stuff like this rather than plod as many ultras as possible between now and the Grand Union Canal Race. I need to be lighter and faster and figured burning myself 9 miles at a time would be more beneficial that shlomping another 50 miles. I blame Robbie Britton for this thinking.
Plus this was an event with a huge serpie turn out. There were some of the same faces there that I am used to. I find the starts of these races offer a different kind of endurance, for example I have to endure the comment "Isn't this a bit short for you" at least every five minutes before the start and during the race. Also I don't think people here know about ultra-crapping. If there is one thing ultra-runners are much quicker at it is expressing their bowel systems. Often it has to be done outdoors with a 20 second window of privacy and so you learn to crouch, push, wipe and run almost without breaking stride. Why were the people in these cublicles so so long, did they take a paper in there to read?
The start is up the grassy face of Box Hill, over some long grass. Everyone was keen to show that they can run uphill and whereas normally I'd be walking this and having a sandwich but 100 meters into a 9 mile race it didn't seem appropriate. A few minutes later we were at the top and running on some lovely trail.
For the first time in a while I actually started to feel like I could do some actual running. I was running down the hills with great gusto, careful not to plow into the back of others in front, I thought "wow - I'm not the worlds shittest fell runner".
The usual behaviour of opening gates and then holding them for the next runner went out the window as we all just pushed them open and left them to fly back in others faces. I was wearing Walsh's like a proper fell runner which gave me amazing traction on the ground, I should have used these for the Country to Capital last week.
It felt good to run some miles on a trail that were faster than canal boat. I wasn't pushing too hard and didn't feel as out of breath running up some of these hills as I did when walking some last weekend. The ground was pretty dry actually even though low down the fields were under water. It has been some time since I ran up a hill and it felt great.
Some runners commented at the end that they never spent so much of a race walking. For me it was the opposite, running 95%. I supposed 5% walking is a lot for some but most of my races have much more than that.
So - how about this for awkward.
I was running behind a girl, she was doing a great job of sweeping the hazards ahead of me and so I was happy to let the gates and trees hit her in the face (yep, no chivalry in fell running) and for her to slide on any slippy bits. A some point she turned around said to me
Hey, your that guy who posted on Facebook about that game you play where you try to guess a girls underwear when running
What is the response to that? "I have no idea what you mean dear now let me pass".
She could actually be talking about one of two things. There is a game that I am sure many a man plays when tired in an ultra where you try to guess "pants, thong or commando". It can help pass the time when things get hard.
However I think she was refering to my "confession" I made on a facebook group recently where I say sometimes in a race I am very tired, I play the same game but then sometimes realise that I have been playing it with another man who is wearing tights. On realising this I just shrug and think "no one else is around, no one needs to know, I'll just carry on playing".
Anyway, perhaps I need a therapist.
I got chatting to her (Jenni) who was at the talk I did last month about running and the mind. It's funny how every race I have done recently I have got to the stage where I wanted it to be over at some point and didn't enjoy the last few miles, even in 5k and 10k races. With about a mile to go I was still full of energy, the climbs and descents not whacking me as much as I would have thought.
The last half a mile is a nice steady down hill that you can get a good pace on. I have no idea what time i finished, about 1.20 ish or something I think which was faster than I thought I would I could do something that bumpy in my current state.
It's good advice. Also do not contradict the above advice on a train full of commuters, the British Transport Police are non-plussed by this. Also might lose something in the British translation. It should be "ARSE" not "ASS". Anyway.
This book captures the imagination somewhat with it's title and I ordered it without much thought. I thought it would be a book of ultra running tales similar to "Running though the wall" and "And then the vulture eats you" but it is in fact a beginners guide to running ultra marathons. The author describes.
"One average dude with limited athletic ability publicly writing a not-so-serious ultramarathon book for the rest of us"
It's certainly not one of the sterile and morbid guides to running you can get but quite a funny guide to running that most people would enjoy reading. Obviously being a super elite awesome ultra running machine that I am there is little I have to learn about the sport but this book suprised me with a combination of basic ultra running know-how and some pretty cool advice.
There is a lot of advice on how to survive the elements, hot and cold, wind and rain. There are tips on how to read the clouds and the animals to determine how long you have left to live on your run and some great general advice on first ultras and trails. I learned a bit on walking training and "speed-ups" during races. There are a lot of ideas here to try.
However I think this book goes to areas that others dare not go, the author has experimented heavily and can give you great tips on shaving certain areas to avoid chaffing (and maybe please others), how to get away with killing your annoying running buddy and.. erm.. "relieving" yourself on a run .
Jason Robillard is a man who has experimented on himself (in an ultra running sense of course) and is sharing all that he has learned, as he mentions at the start he is not on the heels of Kilian Jornet but more likely on the floor in a bar. However I reckon this serves very well as an intro to someone who might be doubting whether they are able to run an ultra. The laid back writing might be reassuring that anything is possible.
I recommend buying the book or at least following his facebook group which has lots of funny memes you can share with everyone. Read in addition to Relentless Forward Progress and you'll be invincible :)
This year was my fifth running of this race. I assume I'll be getting an MBE when I hit ten.
Instead of taking you through a tale of more beautiful mud splashing and gorgeous canal I thought I would just say to anyone thinking of doing an ultra for the first time why this one is the best.
I managed to convince a few of my friends to do this one as their first ultra. At the end I got comments that ranged from "Thanks for getting me to do this" through to "Are you James? I want to kick you in the shins for making my son do this".
But my shins are OK and I stand by my comment, I think the Country to Capital is a great intro to Ultra Running and here is why.
It was a blustery snowy night in the middle of the middle eastern desert in summer. Joe was still working hard in his workshop. Marie was in the lounge recalling a recently produced episode of strictly come stoning.
All of a sudden there was an almighty crash. Joe raced into the lounge to discover Marie looking pretty shaken.
"What happened" huffed Joe
"I have just had a visit from the angel Killian. He has inspired me to do an ultra marathon." "What the hell is an ultra marathon?"
I was stood at the Swincombe checkpoint as Terrence went through. He was looking in great spirits despite the fact that now he was running further and further away from the centre of the race. I can't imagine what he was thinking. We started at Streatley, drove them 100 miles away and told them to run back, now we were telling them to run away. Could it be another 100 miles? More than that? Who knows.
Terrence came through before Ed Catmur who was running at a blistering pace in the 100. I missed him and the leaders come through as I had to go back to the start and pick up the drop bags of the runners who were going to run up this way and take them onwards. I returned to Swincombe and waited around to see lots of the 100 runners coming in. I got a few interesting comments from them such as "you evil bastard". Clearly they had seen some of the runners on their journey up these hills.
"Leave your brain in your drop bag" - Rich Cranswick with probably the best advice for this race.
Continuing from Pewsey [read part 1 here] after James had left and a couple of things I forgot yesterday. Jackie had dropped at the 35 mile point looking quite crippled. She was so keen on doing this but had an illness in the weeks leading up to to and was not in good shape. She got a ride to Pewsey with Justin and was hobbling around pretty bad.