This is not a training guide, just a collection of things I've found useful over the years and a shortened version of this general advice thing that I wrote a long time ago.
Mind - DON'T PANIC
I think the first two words to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy are probably the best ultra running advice you will ever get. This was written with someone thrust into the depths of the universe in mind. You may feel the same. Keep saying it to yourself.
Don't compare your insides to someone else's outside's. You might toe the start line looking around at all the other runners and think things like "those guys are so much better prepared than I am", "They don't look worried at all". You are wrong. I think everyone feels a bit daunted at the start of a 100 mile race, be it their first or fiftieth. People do a great job of keeping things looking good on the outside while fallilng apart on the inside. Don't stress about everyone else appearing to have it all under control. They are feeling it too.
And don't start comparing training that has been done before. There will be someone here who has run more training miles who will finsih behind you. There will be someone who has run less and will finish ahead of you. What's done is done. I've found that these kind of events are less about what someone puts into the training and more about what they are prepared to do in the next day (or two).
Afraid? Good. You should be. 100 miles over some really tough terrain is a really really tough challenge that is going to take a lot out of you and is going to require all that you have to finish, maybe even more than you think you have. Fear canbe a good thing, it is an emotion that keeps us from getting outselves into bad situations but also overcoming such fear is a thoroughly exhilirating experience. I always like to remember a Mark Twain quote "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, NOT absence of fear". If you are afraid it means that you are about to do something emotionally significant. Something that you'll never forget or regret.
Matter - Don't overdrink or ignore early thirst/hunger
Bit of a tricky one here. My view of hydration has changed since last year where I thought that you couldn't really get into much trouble by drinking too much. You can. Despite what the drinks manufacturers will have you believe about needing to be constantly drinking this is not the case.
Drinking to thirst is the order of the day and this includes if you are thirsty early. I know sometimes we get carried away and not drink for a few hours because our bottles are really hard to reach or you are running at 12 miles an hour.
Similarly don't drink to a schedule, drink to how you feel. I take electrolytes as do most runners I know (evidence is still inconclusive) and so consider taking those.
Same applies to hunger. You may have heard of some elite runners who can smash 15 mountains in a day fuelled on three prunes and Werther's Original. This isn't you though is it? In ultras I've found that eating is the solution to many problems. A friend once said "If you are grumpy that means you are hungry, so eat". So remember if you are grumpy it's because you need food. Or perhaps in really bad company.
Matter - How fast should you set out?
Ha ha. How long is a piece of string? Actually best not go there. This is one of the great hitherto unanswered questions in ultra running. With anything up to a marathon it's easy. Take the time you want to do, divide that by 26.2 and that is the pace you should set out. Experienced runners can keep the same pace going for 26 miles however even at the top end of 100 mile running even pacing is rare. Everyone slows down, even in some of the worlds best performances. And read here on Stu Mills' excellent blog about the fallacy of the negative split for distance running.
This is not a license to set out like a whippet though. You don't want to run yourself into the ground early and have an 80 mile death march. You should run at a pace that isn't lung busting. The hills, the food stops, toilet stops and navigation will mess with your average pace. The point is that no one yet has found this "ideal pace" solution and therefore you should not stress about exactly what it is for you.
Also, I find that I hit the wall at around 16-20 miles in every run I do, whether it's a Marathon or a Spartathlon. It's just that uncomfortable time when your body starts burning it's fat reserves. Nothing to worry about. Remember those first two words.
Mind- Thing big and think small
100 miles is a bloody long way. There, I said it. You already knew this. There are times when it all just feels too big, when the size of the task feels so huge that you end up thinking that you can not do it. When the size of the job feels too big then this is the time to switch to small thinking mode. Think about every step, if you can put one foot in front of the other you are doing fine. Don't think about how many you have to do, just do them, one by one. Think of the next few meters, of every sip of drink, every signpost. All of them are progress. Think small, think boring, think detail.
Sometimes the here and now is too painful, or too dull. You legs hurt, you feel tired or hungry and the present is not a very nice place. Now is the time to flip the switch and think big. Think of the finish, think of the joy and satisfaction of completing a 100 miler, think of the stories you will tell to your friends and family, think of the glow of satisfaction when you lay down to sleep after such an incredible feat. Feels pretty good doesn't it? Well worth the pain right now.
Matter - Dress for the hot and cold
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 at 6 am, 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. Even in Britain you can get sun stroke and heat exhaustion.
Mind - 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 100 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.
Matter - TAKE THE COMPULSORY KIT
I know you might be thinking that the race organisers take some sadistic pleasure in making you carry stuff around and that you can shave a precious 10 seconds off your 100 mile time if you weren't burdened with the crippling weight of some spare batteries. You'll find kits lists like this in events like this all over the world for two very good reasons, your own personal saftey and the saftey of others.
It goes without saying how some of these items can save you if you did get into trouble. Instead think about how the safety of others would be compromised by your own failure to take responsibilty. If the organisers or rescue services are dealing with someone getting hypothermia due to not packing the mandatory clothing it means they are stretched if another incident occurs, such as a bad fall. I've seen this happen and it's often the more experienced runners who take these risks. Don't do it, it's not just your own saftey that you'll be compromising but that of your fellow runners and of the existence of the race.
Race directors talk to each other. They exchange notes on the chumpers who get hypothermia due to not taking the correct kit, or those who disappear from a race without telling anyone. You don't want to go on the list of chumpers do you?
Oh and while I'm here just a reminder to LEAVE NO TRACE on the paths. A great thing I've heard at races before is a call for runners to pick up at least one piece of litter on the trail. If you drop nothing and pick up one thing then the trail is cleaner foer your presence, much cleaner for the race and therefore no one can complain.
If your Saturday nights involve this man you are wasting your life
Mind - Enjoy the suffering
After 24 hours of running, you'll exhausted, you didn't sleep the previous night and you might not sleep tonight. You legs hurt with every step, your feet are on fire. You feel hungry but unable to eat, you may feel cold but burnt. You still have a long way to go and fear not getting there. You mind is tormented with the scenrios of failure. You start asking yourself "What if I don't finish?", "what will people say"? "What the hell am I doing out here?"
Times like this I think of the people back at home, on a Saturday night in their living rooms waiting for a long line of musical wanabees get cut down by a sneering record exec to make good TV. I think about those who don't really know what it's like to be outdoors in the cold and dark wondering what the limits of their physical being are. I think about those who are going to sleep in a nice warm comfy bed to wake up the next morning and have nothing to do and all the time to do it. Perhaps watching more TV, having another breakfast or reading the same old stories in the newpapers. Those who will stay indoors if it's raining. Those who might drive to the gym later but probably won't.
I think about how these people are suffering so much more than I am. They just don't know.
I had some ideas as to what might be involved, a Mankini, a Badger Costume, Gimp outfit or total nudity. My friends decided to embrace my love of triathlon and make me wear one of those ridiculous unitards that triathletes often sport.
OK. The anxiety is over. No more waiting for my Spartathlon number. I got an email last night that confirms that I will be number 65 this year. I can't believe 64 people got in before me, I was up at 3am entering my details. Anyhoo, stress over for me and many others, now is the time to get on and think about running the race.
I first toed the start line of the Spartathlon in 2009, I was a boy amongst men. I listened in awe of some of the running achievements that my fellow runners had completed. It was a magical but humbling experience that I will never forget.
I also remember looking around at the truly international field that was present. It really is. I looked at the beautiful kit of the Korean team, the Japanese, the Croatian, Hungarian, German and Brazillian. They all looked amazing in preparation for this wonderful event.
I looked back at us Brits. We had guts and experience and resilience and speed. However we looked like the cast from Shameless.
And so I thought, why don't we have our own kit? This happened first in 2011 when Peter Leslie Foxall designed a brilliant T-Shirt with the slogan on the back "What have the Spartans ever done for US?"
Last year Stu Shipperly created an amazing T-Shirt which I wore for the who race (and bled on). Suddenly The Brits were looking like a smart outfit. SHAMELESS???
This year I want to take this further. I want to create a real "team" atmosphere. I think I have done well in my own personal objective of convincing others how magical this race is and take some pride in knowing that I have at least helped convince some people to attempt the worlds greatest race.
But as we all know, starting the race and finishing the race are very different things. This is one of the few races I know where finishing is not a given. I want more Brits (or anyone really) to kiss that foot because I can never put into words just how amazing it feels.
And so I have created website (with great help from Mimi Anderson, Matt Mahoney and Mark Woolley) for the British Spartathlon team which I hope will serve as a resource for all those heading out to Greece this year. I am hoping it is something that all Brits will find useful and will want to contribute to. I want this to be a longer term project too, not just for 2013 so if you have any designs on running the Spartathlon then this is for you.
Hopefully we will get some sponsors on board that will help our athletes on their journey to the feet on Leonidas. Also we are hoping to organise a "Spartathlon Boot Camp" in Spain to get us pasty Brits in the sunshine.
I am quite excited by all of this and hope you are too. If you are a Brit who has been accepted for the Spartathlon then please let me know. Any feedback, suggestions, contributions are most welcome. The site is in it's infancy right now as I collect content and figure out wordpress. In the meantime enjoy :)
A paradox. Sam Robson would like this. There is a queue of 10 runners climbing over a stile. They each take two seconds to climb over. If there is a stile just 50 meters later then why does another queue form? Should they not all be 2 seconds apart?
Anyhoo, my head was starting to hurt as the hangover kicked in and I felt low on energy and two small packs of pork scratchings didn't really cut it. I was intending to continue my no sugar experiment for this race but decided to have a GU gel shortly after joining the canal at about 25 miles. Ahhhhhhh canal.
Let's face it, this is what this book is. It probably should come in a plastic grey sleeve. The pages are quite glossy and would wipe clean quite easily.
Sorry, I don't mean to lower the tone. I'll start again.
I was really looking forward to this book and it didn't disappoint. I was looking forward to it even more when I discovered that it includes some quotes from me in there. That's not the best bit of the book obviously.
I had doubts about this year, more than any other. They were almost all to do with my mental state going into the race. There was nothing that has happened that has made me less capable of finishing a race that I have already finished two times now. Though physically I had not done as much training as I’d have liked I knew it would not have stopped me from making it to the end. This summer has been pretty light on the running which is not the best preparation, but on the other hand you could say I’ve been training for this for five years now and that training has gone very well. I had no worries about my body.
My head has not been in anything recently, certainly not running. Without going into detail here I have been finding it too easy to give up on races. I have been suffering a huge amount of self-doubt which has been crippling me in races (and in real life too). Though I never realistically thought I could complete Barkley I definitely surrendered too soon. I should definitely have been capable of completing the UTSW in June. I was at one stage really looking forward to it but by the time it came I just could not get my head into the right place to finish it. I dropped about 20 miles in.
Then the 10 peaks challenge, a truly brutal scramble that would have taken 24 hours to complete except that towards the end I decided that it wasn’t worth finishing, with 1 peak left I just walked into Keswick and was done with it. Another DNF.
And so my biggest fear was that I’d fly out to Greece to the race I call my favourite having convinced a load of other Brits to come along for the experience too and then end up giving it less than my all and pulling out. Making the situation worse. I have not been running through this race in my head as much as in the previous attempts, I’ve not been dreaming of kissing that foot or of scrambling over that mountain or of seeing in a new day through some quiet olive fields in the valleys.
I really hoped that this race would be different, that somehow it would transform me into someone who cares about finishing once again, someone who doesn’t try and make excuses and justifications as to why it was a good idea to hold my hands up and surrender. I was hoping that standing beneath the Acropolis and the sun rose over it to mark the start of the race will transform my brain into something that didn’t give a fuck about anything else but winning the war I was about to start.
I think more than any other year and any other race I needed this. Right now I needed the Spartathlon.
Around 5.30 in the morning the runners gathered in the London hotel to eat breakfast, there was not much more than bread rolls and fruit, no fry up that I would like to start a two day slog with. I had been laying off the coffee for a number of days now in the hope that when I really needed it, sometime around 2 am when I am trying to scramble over a mountain and keep my eyes open I’ll be able to feel the proper benefit of the coffee bean.
I met with the other Brits who had signed up for this race, some of whom I think I may have influenced into doing this. Between us all we had done a lot of races. GUCRs, Badwaters, UTMBs, Western States 100s, Leadvilles, MDSs, Ultrabalatons, West Highland Ways, Lakeland 100s, Trans USAs, JOGLEs. There were a lot of first timers here who I think were eager to experience just how special this race is. I hope I had not oversold it.
We stepped out into the dark and onto one of the coaches that would transport 350 runners and some supporters though the sleeping streets of Athens towards it’s most historic point.
The Acropolis before dawn is an intimidating sight. There is little evidence of fear here, not on anyone’s face anyway. Perhaps it is all carefully contained inside. Or I suspect that it’s either ignorance or amnesia. Those who have not been here before don’t know what is about to happen, and those who have been here have forgotten. I still remember John Tyszkiewicz's words to me before my first Spartathlon – “Look at all these first timers, fresh faced like lambs to the slaughter". I don't know whether knowing just how much it was going to hurt actually helps, if at all.
We joked with the Americans as we saw the light start to penetrate the gaps in the brickwork and light up this magnificent ancient monument where 2500 years ago a professional runner set out to run the to warrior city of Sparti and try to raise an army. In five minutes we had the same task, minus the army raising bit. I really can’t comprehend how this run was completed by the second sunset by a lone runner with no support and having to avoid hostile city states along the way. There was little time for this kind of reflection though as almost by surprise the start horn sounded and 350 wars broke out.
The first mile is a downhill melee on cobblestones, I want e dot stick with some familiar faces but it is hard whilst trying to avoid running into others and avoiding kerbs. After it flattens out and heads through the main streets of Athens I settle into a steady pace with James Elson, happy to run with him for as long as it’s comfortable to. It’s really hard to know who is ahead and who is behind after the bumblebee dance at the start. After a few miles I believe that of the Brits, David Miles, Paul Mott are up ahead, LIzzy Hawker is way up ahead and most of the others are around me or behind. It never stays that way though, over the next few miles I will pass some and they will pass me as our individual responses to the heat, the hills, the distance and the sheer size of the task are exposed.
I enjoy a few miles running with James and Peter Johnson but I am always looking around for a place to have a shit. I try a portaloo in a park but it is locked, I eventually leave them after about 5 miles and head into some trees and do what I should have done hours ago if only I had not quit coffee. As I left the partially enclosed bushes I found another runner come in to use the same spot. I found it necessary to inform him of what I had done and where, didn’t want him slipping up early.
I didn’t manage to catch James again but rejoined the race with lots of other friends. Claire Shelley, Drew Sheffield, Allan Rumbles, Lindley Chambers, Rob Pinnington and Kevin Marshall. It was all laugh and smiles now, because we’d run about 5 miles, it was before 8am and the temperature could be described as “warm”.
The police do an outstanding job of halting rush hour in Athens to let this race unfold. The locals are less than enthusatic about it though, what is this race doing getting in the way of their day? I’m going to be late for my riot.
I pushed on ahead of the Brit pack, wanting to catch up with James as I thought he would be the best match for the pace I wanted to run, and also the company would have been great. I warned everyone time and time again though that you have to be ruthless and run your own race here, no trying to keep up with those who are too fast or waiting for those who might be falling behind. The company is great but it has to take second to running your own race.
It didn’t take long for the heat to kick in. The expectation for the first 50 miles is that you should average a sub 11 minute mile pace, which can sound quite pedestrian expect that you have the hills, the heat and of course having to save something at the end of it for running another 103 miles. I was running an average of about 9.30 minute miles which would give me a 90 minute buffer at the first major checkpoint at Hellas Can – 50 miles. The cut off at 50 miles is 9.30 hours, in my previous two runs I have got to this point in 7.37 (and felt great but fell apart later) and 8.35 (feeling terrible but recovering and getting stronger later). I was hoping for somewhere in between this time, 8ish hours and ideally to feel great AND get stronger.
The heat cranked up like it had not done before here, I hit the marathon about 4.10, bang on 8 hour pace but feeling the strain already. One marathon down and 5 to go, that was the easy marathon done, the flat one in morning while it’s cool. Now I have a very hot marathon with some hills, followed by a warm marathon with major hills, followed by a dark marathon with hills and a mountain climb, followed by another dark marathon with leg breaking down hills and then finally one more marathon, with serious hills and serious heat.
Apparently I am good at running in the heat. It didn’t feel like that way but I survived the heatwave of the USA last year and I don’t think that helped me here in an acclimatisation sense but I felt like I knew what to do, based on some reading and talking to Serge Girards crew while in the states last year. I thought it was time to test some things.
Eating early and often. My blood normally tries to do three things, pump oxygen to the muscles, shunt heat from the organs to the skin and away and finally supply the digestive system with the blood it needs to do it’s stuff. Right now I am demanding huge amounts of the first two from my body and the third right now is superfluous. There is no need to keep my metabolism going as my body thinks that obviously I am not going to be doing this for long. In a few hours I’ll stop and then I can eat. I felt that eating was the only way to stop my digestive system from shutting down and was determined to eat something as often as possible, no matter how horrible it felt.
Cold water outside, warm water inside. This sounds like the most ridiculous thing but drinking cold water does not cool you down. In fact shoving ice cold water down is likely to increase stomach distress and result in even more eating problems and drinking problems. I filled my water bottle often and drank out of it while it was warm. There were complaints about lack of ice in the water but I reckon this was a good thing. I cooled my body by dosing myself in cold water at every checkpoint (at least when I could remember). I took electrolytes and drank lots of warm coke and isotonic drinks at the checkpoints. I made the mistake of only half filling my Elete bottle and only had enough on me for about 12 litres of water. That was silly.
Breathe through the nose. - Stops that really uncomfortable dry mouth sickly feeling and perhaps makes you go a bit slower. Warm air through the nose makes your brain warm up though.
Slow down in the shade - There is not much shade in this race at all, it's all so exposed. However there are sections where some trees cover the road and I slowed in those sections to cool down. I also ran any section that would shade even only my legs as they were getting slow roasted by the reflection of the road.
Remember how much I needed this - I didn't want to drop unless I was dead
Something I forgot was to lube my nipples. I use sudacrem as my lube of choice, it seems to work with the boys but not so well on the nipples. I felt them sting early on, within the first 10 miles and then after 20 there was blood. After 50 the blood had covered the beautiful British Spartathlon T Shirt that was made for us.
Just after the marathon point I caught up with David Miles and Paul Mott. Paul was striding up a hill with an amazing gait like I have never seen. He finished the Spartathlon last year in a great time because of this great stride and the fact that he never stopped for faffed around. David looked like the weather was getting the better of him but still looked to be moving forward at a reasonable clip. I chatted briefly to both and passed, hoping to see them again soon.
Around 50k I saw John Price standing at the side of the road, he has already been timed out at around 30k as he could not run fast enough in the heat. It was sad to see him in this way but he seemed relaxed about it and was looking forward to tracking the rest of the race.
Miles 30 – 40 can be fairly pleasant, there is a coastal road which is a joy to look at but at the same time quite tortuous for all I want to do is to dive into the water. At around 1.00 the temperature must have been 35C and with the humidity, the traffic and dust in the air it felt even worse.
The 3 or 4 miles up to Corith, the 50 mile point are hideous. An uphill slog on a busy highway when the heat is at it’s most intense. There are usually a fair few drop outs at this stage, not too many, around 50 out of the 300+ who start. Some people are spent by this point, having used everything they have to get here. Others get a little further having gone too fast and having little left, burning out in the next 10 miles. Time wise after this point the cut offs “ease off” little, giving anyone who has lots of energy left plenty of opportunity to make up some time on the remaining cut offs. I was looking forward to seeing Gemma for the first time since the Acropolis, she was at Corinth wating for me to arrive.
I first did this race about a month after I started seeing Gemma three years ago. I came back from that trip a broken man and swearing never to do this to myself again. I changed my mind and did it again in the following year, having a much better race and then vowing to return every year possible. I kept her away from this race until now. I wanted her to see what this means to me and what is so special about the event. I didn’t expect her to get an introduction quite like this.
I got to Hellas Can/Corinth/50 miles in 8.30 and feeling pretty rubbish. I immediately saw Lindley and Phil Smith, who I knew were behind me and hence now I knew they were out. I also saw James and Richard Webster who were just about the leave the checkpoint and continue, I was pleased that I caught them and perhaps could run with them later. I picked up some rice and sat down to eat it when Gemma came over to give me the news.
“Most of the Brits are out – Everyone, Drew, Allan, Rob, David, Lindley, Phil, Paul, Stu, Peter, Kevin, John, Bridget, Rajeev – everyone has been timed out”.
I could not believe that so many had gone, I could not believe they’d all get timed out before making it to the 50 miles. I was told of the people I knew there was only James and Richard up ahead and Claire behind me, everyone else was on the bus. I was shocked, I felt terrible, overheated and sick. I didn’t know what to say, I got up and walked out taking the rice with me and headed out to the quiet roads through the olive fields. Last time I really picked it up through here and was hopeful of a repeat.
I could see James and Richard in the distance now, they had not set out too fast which was good. I knew I would catch them at some point and right now I was trying to force this bowl of rice down me. It was not going down too easily and then a couple of miles later I walked through an area that smelled like really foul dog shit. It was enough to make me gag and spew up all the rice I had just so awkwardly consumed. I was fine though, I’d just have to remember to eat even more.
I caught James and Richard who were in great spirits despite the whitewash. We spoke about how it could have all happened and who was most likely to have suffered the most. It was a nice few miles where we started gaining some time back on the cut offs. I started to get cramp, something I have never had in a race before. I only normally get this afterwards but both my calves were cramping, causing incredible pain. I stopped many times to stretch them and took more salt. It got to a point where I had to say to the guy to leave me as I am going to have to lay down and sort this out. As I did lie down to put my feet up on a wall I wailed as both of my calves screamed. I lay down and could not move, there was no one else around to either help or at least smirk at this embarrassing situation unravelling on the floor of some dusty road. I managed to get onto my feet and plod on, knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to sit down again, which was probably a good thing.
The cramp did ease up and it took about an hour for me to catch up with James and Richard again. They were running a steady pace, walking any hills and jogging all the flat and down. It was good sticking with then and keeping the discipline of running anything that was easy to run and trying to make some time back.
I saw Gemma for the last time today at Ancient Corinth (miles away from modern polluted Corinth). It was around 90k in and I told her about my hideous cramp and general sickness. I stopped for a massage and had to explain to the lady that there was no way I way lying down, I would not get back up again. She finally understood and then massaged my calves while I stood there drinking coke.
Both Richard and James agreed that this was a race like non other. It is hard to explain what makes a dirty long hot road race the best ultra marathon in the world but I rarely find someone who has done this who does not agree. I think Richard hit the nail perfectly when describing the cut offs for this race. HE said that in other races he has done they all have had cut offs but that he has never even thought about them. “The cut offs are just not for us”.
All of the starters of the Spartathlon are seasoned ultra runners having completed other tough events before. Though they may not all be at the sharp end in races (in fact Richard often is) the big shock here is that the cut offs really are for us, they are a constant psychological menace that most of the people here have never experienced before. I’ve never been pushing the cut offs in the GUCR, Badwater or the UTMB. James was never pushing the cut offs in the Western States, Badwater or the UTMB. Richard never was in the GUCR, UTMB or in his numerous recent podium finishes.
Just as the sun started to go down I got news from Gemma that Claire Shelley had timed out. She got to 90k and was half an hour outside the cut off. The organisers in fact had let many runners through the 50 mile point after the cut off due to this extreme weather. I had never seen such a mass drop out.
The three of us resolved to finish this, that we were over the worst and nothing could stop us now. Unfortunately one thing about the heat is that once it’s got you it never leaves you alone. It was hard running those hot miles in the day but then it is equally as hard running in a warm night with burnt skin, hot blood and a mutinous digestive system. The night in the Spartathlon is long and hard.
The sun sets as the big climbs start to appear, the first after about 70 miles. We were sticking with the plan of walking anything that was uphill and running everything else, trying not to faff around at the checkpoints. My calf cramp had subsided, my legs felt better and I was really pleased to be running next to James and Richard and felt much more confident of making it to King Leonidas tomorrow.
With three of us running we all exchanged places as the person to keep us all going, it can be dangerous going too fast or too slow according to someone else’s pace but at the same time it can help to eliminate any needless walking. I was feeling great and wanting to push on, James and Richard seemed less keen on going faster so I held back a bit. I knew any spurt by me would be short lived and so it was probably a good idea to reign it back a bit. I was however worried that our current pace was not making much of a dent into the cut offs. We still only had an hour, about the same as we had at the 50 mile point. We were bearing down on the halfway point, Nemea and I was keen to keep my momentum going. I ran off from them into the second major checkpoint and sat for a while eating.
James and Richard came in about 5 minutes later. James was not stopping for long and by the time I had finished my food we were both about ready to go. Richard was on a bed getting a massage and looking very pale. I think the sun had burned him from the outside and now it was dark it was still burning him from the inside. I said I’m going to head out and James came with me but said he was going to walk until Richard caught up. I said I wanted to go ahead and we said our goodbyes and good lucks and I went on. Richard didn’t catch James again and eventually dropped out at 85 miles vomiting quite badly.
I was on my own now, as I always seem to be in this section. The race had spread out even more than usual, there are usually some people in sight or at least support cars. There is a section of gravel track where I always think I am lost as there are not many markings. Right now there are half as many people in the race as there are usually at this point and it shows, it was very lonely and dark.
I ran through some familiar sections of hills, tunnels, farms and bridges, it was like I had never left from the last time. I was running really well, feeling strong and at some point a camera van came out and spent ages following me from in front and behind with the camera trained on me. I would love to see that footage make it onto the DVD, just to see if I was actually looking as good as I felt. I hit a checkpoint in a small town which I recognised from last year as a place where a guy told me he thought I was a tourist at the start line and could not belive I was running the race dressed as I was. I was wearing a running shirt which was really cool (in a temperature sense). Just as I remembered this two guys piped up and said "Hey - you are that British guy from last time who was wearing that smart shirt". It was unreal, being recognised by the checkpoint and then chatting to these guys. As I enjoyed the conversation about how it was going it occured to me that I was very capable of a decent conversation and so was in pretty good shape. Always a good sign when you have yet to pass the "only 100k to go" point.
Around 90 miles in I caught up with a Canadian Glen Redpath and we ran together until the mountain. He was a very very fast trail runner (top 10 western states) and I felt a bit out of my league running with him but the pace was comfortable and we helped each other along quite a bit. He said he was not that great on the road but was glad to be doing this race. I know many a trail runner who dismisses this as a “road race” but I would say to all of you if you do one road race in your life do this one, no one has ever regret running this. Ever.
I chatted a lot with Glen as we headed up the all now familiar switchbacks up to Base Camp. We go down down down until we reach a sink where we can look straight up and see a highway. The highway skirts the mountain we later have to climb but first is the long slog up switchbacks. We pass a few people here, keeping up a good pace. In fact my uphill stride is faster than Glen's which suprises me. I saidto Glen just before we reached Base Camp that I was going to sit down there and have a cup of coffee, my first cup of coffee for 5 days. I had stopped drinking it to give my self a boost when I needed it and I thought there was no better time than the scramble over Sangas pass.
True to my word I slumped in a chair and asked for a cup of milky sugary coffee and Glen carried on, saying that I will catch him later but I am doubtful. He is likely to skip up and down that mountain like a mountain goat. I am more likely climb it like a lemon. I wave goodbye and start enjoying a massage whilst lying down drinking coffee. Every year I stop here for a little while, I usually have some time. I have about 2 hours on the cut offs now that I gained from running quite solidly with Glen. Every year I see at least one person slump down in the sheltered beds they have and ask to sleep. Depending on their state the numerous medics will suggest a time, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. I always stare at them as I am lying on the massage table or stood around thinking that I am not going to see this person again. I don't know how many people get back up from sleeping for an hour.
I said goodbye to the checkpoint staff, many of who are Brits and head of to the start of the best bit of the best ultra marathon.
It isn't a hard climb. It isn't a big climb. I don't think it would look significant in the Lake District, certainly not the alps. The hardest thing is that you've already run 100 miles on road and in those 100 miles on road you have tried to conserve energy by lifting your feet off the ground as little as possible, shuffling along the burning highway gaining no unessesary height or grace in the motion. Now a complete change of movement was required to get me up the mountain and keep me off my face.
I never do this well. The first year I was terrible. The second was probably just as bad but it just felt faster. This time felt slow and hard again. I felt like I still had a lot of energy but just could not get any leg lift and so was tripping all over the place. No one passed me on the climb though, in fact there were at least 5 people going the other way including the two guys I spoke to earlier about having been here a few times. There were lots of cameras up there taking evidence of my slow progress. I could only make it a few rocks at a time before having torest my hands on my knees and breathe a little. I don't know why I always make such a meal of this.
But I reached the top and saw exactly what I had been thinking about for nearly two years now, two ladies in blankets by a tent and the most spectacular panorama I have ever seen in a race. Look behind and I can see as far back as Nemea, a town I ran though nearly a marathon ago. It will be closed now as a checkpoint but still alive as Greece is this time of night. Winding out from there are lights and the closer to the mountain the easier they are to identify as head lamps. There are a number of people behind me who have still got that big climb to do. I hope that two of these lights are James and Richard and that they are not too far behind.
Look ahead and it's the same, except the lights are moving slowly away. Down the steep swithcbacks of the mountain pass and then into the small town of Sangas and then on some more. These are the people who are way ahead of me, well on their way to completing the Spartathlon having done two thirds of it. Nothing is in the bag though. If I look far enough ahead I can perhaps see the point where I'll be lapped by the sun.
I stand up to leave and hear another runner scrambling up the mountain, it's the first other runner I have seen for an hour now and I am shocked to see that it's Mike Arnstien. Last I heard he was 11th in the race. I remember seeing Oz Pearlman sleeping at a CP earlier but figured Mike would be way ahead. I started the descent and he followed, quickly passing me and heading off into the distance. I got passed another couple of times going down, I am quite bad at it but was not taking any risks. This smashed me on the first year and I was not going to repeat.
The decent into the town of Sangas seemed to take a long time and on arrival my lead on the cut offs had been cut to 1.40. I was not too concerned though, I knew that was my slowest bit. I love checkpoint 49, I always leave a fresh pair of shoes there and always get offered help to put them on. There are always some very nice people there willing to chat to anyone who comes though and while I sat down changing into a fresh pair of identical shoes and faffing around to get my timing chip from one pair to another I was happy to yak away. I didn't feel sleep at all, this was a first and a very good sign. I was in good shape, full of confidence and ready to head of for the small matter of two more marathons.
I ran close to Mike for much of the next 10 miles, down familiar winding roads and into Nestani. The sky was clear and the moon was full, there was no need for headlamps here though a Korean guy we were running close to had a fog light strapped to his head which was lighting the night sky like a nuclear explosion. There is a long straight 4k section where I am running just behind Mike and I notice someone coming bounding up from behind me at great pace. I still thought I was going fast but the light was gaining like a car. I got to the checkpoint and saw that it was Oz Pearlman flying along, I thought he was out. He looked dead last time I saw him. He had just slept for a while and was back in the game.
It was great to see him and I kept with them for a while, sometimes ahead of them and sometimes behind. I reached the exact spot in a park where the sun rose that I have been for the last 3 years. My 24 hour progress seems to land me in the same spot every year, I was pleased, I was gaining on the cut offs again, having about 2 hours again. I text Gemma to ask if she is going to come back out to see me and shes says yes she will after breakfast.
I was determined to "keep" 2 hours buffer for the marathon and then take it from there. The calculations were still ringing. I was going at about 5 miles an hour on average but still worried that if it went wrong then 3 mph would be hard, particularly for a long way. I never felt safe. Mike and Oz were talking about the cut offs too, I bet they have never done any other race where the cut off times are of any interest to them at all. Mike did at some point yell "This race is kicking our ass". That's exactly what it does. It's why we come back every year.
The heat hit pretty early the next day as I rolled though the beautiful quiet village roads and in and out of Tegea where there was another major checkpoint with around 50k to go. I spoke to Chilsholm Dupree who I met last year here and he had been out supporting the Americans through the night. It was great to see him and he was always ready to help. "I can do 50k in 9 hours" I said. I hoped so.
The beautiful quiet roads we had been running on were about to come to an end. There is a turning with about 45k to go that goes onto the main highway into Sparta, it's hideous, dangerous and starts with a huge slog uphill. The only thing good about this climb is that some point on it you pass the "only a marathon to go" mark. I now had 2.30 on the cut offs, I achieved what I wanted with a marathon to go and then some more. I was more and more confident of finishing but the sun was beating down on me again, swirling my brain. I realised it had been two hours since I texted Gemma and sent her another one "Longest breakfast ever?" She apologised and said she was just leaving nowto come out and see me.
For some reason I didn't think the sun would hurt so much on the second day, I made this mistake in Badwater. It was actually hotter on the second day, I thought it would not matter as I was running much slower at this stage but it was still imense. The gaps between the checkpoints seemed to take longer, Apart from right at the start the longest gap between two checkpoints is 4.7k, this feels like an ultra in itself now though. I've got blisters in the middle of my toes and it hurts to run downhill. I also recognise the familiar tingling of my piss. I am pissing blood again. Or as Mark Cockbain later said "just a bit of kidney rattle".
Two hours passed since I last heard from Gemma and she is still not here. I send another frustrated text message "Car break down?" I just wanted to see her, I was starting to lose my mind now. The cars drive fast and there often is no shoulder to run in and makes this part of the race a death trap. I successfully navigate the road and onto 30k to go, still with over 2 hours on the cut offs and Gemma finally appears with Jon Knox who has flown out here to see that the Spartathlon is all about.
I am still running OK but I am stopping a lot at the checkpoints now, sitting down wiping my face, drinking cokes and moaning about what hurts. Nothing is really that bad I am just exhausted and have reached the stage where I want this to be over.
I get to the half marathon to go part still with over 2 hours on the cut off - I know I am there now barring getting hit by a car which is not too far from my imagination. My despondancy is lifted briefly by a lady who says to me "hey you are that guy who writes things on the internet". It's true, give mea piece of internet and I'll write on it.
With about 10k to go and still with more than two hours I decide that I can not run anymore and walk the rest of it, it will be at least two hours of plodding but I feel like I have got what I came more. My feet feel ruined. I get passed by at least 15 people as I awkwardly stagger down a huge downhill section and moan about how far the checkpoint is, 4.7k? how are we expected to cover that kind of distance?
I see Gemma for the last time at CP73 ourside a restaurant. I sob a bit, I am spent. She says she is going to the finish to see me there. I say I will be ages, it's about 5k to go. One more checkpoint and then the finish.
I head down the highway that leads into Sparta, I am alone now, I have not seen another runner for about 15 minutes. I sob again knowing that I have jsut done what I came out here to do. I didn't surrender, I made no excuses, I got through the race and soon I was going to be heading up the finishing straight of the greatest race I have ever known. I say out loudly to myself "Well done James - remember how much you fucking needed this".
I stagger across the road to the last checkpoint, filling up my water just for something to do, I'm not going to drink it. I wave goodbye for the last time this year the wonderful checkpoint volunteers that sustain us through this race. I stare up the street and start walking, no need to run, this is about finishing only this year, I can run another year. It's a longer stretch that the checkpoint distances suggest and not long after I see the first familiar face, Andrew who is out here writing an article about the Spartathlon (and Greece). He said before the race having spoken to me a lot that he was banking on me finishing. I was glad not to disappoint. I chatted about how stupid it is to run in this temperature. It's nearly over, just a few more minutes. Then ahead I see Allan Rumbles practically wetting himself with excitement. We hug and turn the corner. I am now on the finishing straight.
The first person I see here is Bando. You may remember him from New Mexico. The first thing he did when he saw me before the start was to pat my belly and say "this year you have not trained". I had not trained as much but I got through this one on want.
I then see Gemma, she has the British flag which I drape over me and she asks if I am going to run. It's one of those loaded questions, I have no choice, she is demanding that I run.
I started to run and to my shock I can run really fast. I mean really fast, outrunning the others in suprise. Phil Smith, Rob Pinningtin, Jon Knox, Lindley are there. I look out for others. I see Claire and Drew, then Lawrence and Martin, Then James Elson who I only recently discovered had pulled out too. I see Bridget for the first time since last year. I high five everyone I can spot, holding the flag and then waiting for that moment when the trees stop obscuring the view and you can see in all his glory, King Leonidas, looking dismissive as always but I don't care. I have not thought about his foot enough this year, this moment almost came as a suprise. This was my best ever finish, the one I am most proud of, the one I needed the most. My favourite photo - Photo by Lindley Chambers
I just rest my head on the foot, burning my face as it's go hot. I then go through the wonderful motions of completing a Spartathlon, a handshake with the RD, a wreath placed on my head, being presented with the water to drink, having loads and loads of photos taken and then being apprehended by the medical staff for checks. I head into the tent, everyone else is lying down but my resurgence means I can just sit again, have my blisters lanced and head over to the bar.
I will get beaten by this race one year. But 2012 was not that year. For that I am very grateful.
It has been a long time since I have been in the lake district, more than a year which is longer than I'd normally like to leave it after discovering it's magnificence a few years back. Usually I am not here for an event (unless you count the Anniversary Waltz which I managed to come last in last year). The excuse to nip up there this time was to run the 10 peaks challenge, climbing the 10 biggest peaks in the lake district. 24 hour cut off and I'd have to finish in 16 hours to make it back to Keswick for the famous Cow Pie dinner. 45miles and 5600 meters of elevation. How hard can it be? We had our feet in the clouds. That give me an idea for a book..
We started at 4am at the base of Helvelyn, 951m, one of the bigger peaks. 200 odd runners plodded single file up a steep climb up some rock steps to the summit, it took nearly an hour and by the top by which time the sun had risen and the day looked glorious. one down, a nice down hill bit of running and we were well into this.
I was doing this as Ben Cope wanted to do something epic in his 30th year and what better than smashing your legs on some of Britains finest rock. It wasn't just rock though, there were bogs everywhere. It has pissed it down in England for a month and everywhere was soaked. Luckily the weather today was perfect, glorious sunshine and no rain. In the first running of this event no one finished due to the bad weather.
I was also with Mike Wilcox who was running like a dog who had never been out for a run before, jumping over and into things and generally being stupid. Two of his friends Tim and Oli were with us too, they knew the way along with Ben and so we were determined to stick with them.
We climbed another two significant peaks before being told that those don't count in the 10 peaks they are just smaller peaks that you have to climb to get up the the main peaks. So after 4 hours of climbing up and down and up and down we were still only on one peak. That Cow Pie might not happen now.
It was really hard even on the flat grassy bits as there was water everywhere and I made a very poor choice of shoe. Much as I love these shoes they were certainly not fell shoes and not good for kicking rocks which I was doing a lot. I lost my shoe once and spent much of the time on my arse, at some point sliding down a hill faster than I could ever hope to run down.
Finally we managed to get to the second peak Bowfell, 902m tall. It was frustrating that we had to climb up and down three others to get there.
The terrain here is brutal. It brought back wonderful memories of the Barkley race in April as to just how difficult it is to get any momentumn on here at all. There was some running down Helwelyn but from then on we were just hiking. Going down was hard, we were staggering around like Bambi. I don't think any of us were any good at it. I thought the Bob Graham Round might be doable by me but now I am certain it's not as I can't go down anything at any pace.
I thought about how this compares to Barkley. The climbs are as severe. The distance and total elevation is about a third of the Barkley so the time limit of 24 hours is quite tight. The only difference is that where there are rocks here in Tennesse there are dead trees. On the beautiful clear day you could see all around and it reminded me of Frozen Head Park. This is definitely good training.
We did the next few peaks in quick succession which was great. Great End, 910 m, Ill Crag, 935 m, Broad Crag, 934 m and Scafell Pike, 978 m all seemed to fall away quickly. I had never been up Englands highest mountain before and so getting up Scafell Pike was a novelty. There were a lot of tourists up there. We then headed straight off to climb Scarfel which was a bit lower but a harder climb and one with two options. One involved a rake and another a fox and a tarn. We took the foxes tarn and regretted it as it took a lot longer climbing up a waterfall and up a load of scree. It took ages to get up there. There was an option of not doing this climb and incuring a 1 hour penalty. We did this then had to go up scafell pike again to get back onto the course, taking about 2 and a half hours. At this point we lost Oli and Tim who had gone up the rake.
So, 7 peaks done in about 9 hours, seemed like we were doing well but we were hardly into it yet. The next peak was bloody miles away.
Great Gable, 899 m, was some climb. We could see it in the distance for ages before climbing it. It was here when the estimated finish time went from "guaranteed cow pie" to "no way are we going to get this done before midnight". That made me grumpy. I wanted a cow pie.
Going up Great Gable was hard enough, coming off it was stupid. There was a long line of us scrambling down the scree, trying to stay on our feet but slipping all over the place and kicking rocks down the hill. I though if enough people did this all the rocks would end up on the bottom which would make this a lot easier. I yelled at a rock and told it to fuck off, something I have not done since the Marathon Des Sables a few years back. I had a proper sense of humour failure coming down that hill, we were told at the top that the next checkpoint was only 1k away and it was downhill. Still took us half an hour and at the bottom we were told that after 8 peaks we were still only about half way through the race. Bugger.
The next stop was an epic journey to Pillar, I think the smallest of the peaks but by far the longest hike to get to. We could see it in the distance but it was still over a load of rocks. On the way here we saw Carla Denneny coming the other way who had already down Pillar. I thought she was just ahead but I was not quite prepared for just how far we had to go. We were warned about false peaks on this and we sure did get some of those.
After a load of walking on the flat but still tripping over rocks we headed for the peak in the distance. It drew near and up we went, I commented that at least we were half way up so didn't have to go up a whole peak. It did not seem to make it any easier though and later on their way down we saw Tim and Oli coming off the peak and they told us it's about another half an our to the top. I did not quite believe them as I was pretty sure we were near the top and sure enough about 5 minutes later we were at the top. Of a different peak. Scafel Waterfall
Pillar was way ahead, which meant going down and then back up again. FFS. I was quite grumpy now and my feet were sore from kicking rocks. Itdid indeed take another half an hour to get to the top of the other peak and then back down, back up then back down into the swamp and rocks. They really should have tarmaced this place for some sort of ultra skateboarding event in the Olympics. I think at some point I was resigned to not having anything to eat whenever I crawled back into Keswick later so I texted Gemma to tell her to get me lots of milkshake for the finish. On coming back from Pillar we had a nice section heading to Honiston Pass where we'd get some hot food which we were all looking forward to. Mike had already deicded to drop and I was tempted but the promise of a "nice flat run to Keswick and then only Skidaw left" seemed to keep me in the race.
We got the checkpoint and had a jacket potato and chilli which went down very nice except that we too were getting eaten by the midges. Ben and I waited for about 20 minutes but did not see him come in. He got lost apparently in a dehydrated daze. Ben and I pushed on, and what better way to start the nice flat run into Keswick than with a bloody great big muddy hill.
I think it was a combination of slipping and kicking a rock, really hurting my foot and getting a bounceback from the text message about the milkshake that made me quit. I was done. I fell in love with the idea of getting back to the B&B before midnight and having a normal nights sleep. I felt sorry for Ben who wanted to keep going and I was going to bail on him but I just could not be arsed with this anymore and justified it to myself by saying that I might injure myself on those rocks in the dark and that would make Spartathlon training hard. I really quit because I have become a quitter of late.
So I urged Ben to catch up with a couple of guys in front while I took the road to Keswick. I got back around 11pm and had a cold cow pie waiting for me. I didn't really deserve it but I ate it anyway. The shingle down Great Gable
Ben finished in 23.30, half an hour inside the cut-off having had a miserable time descending Skiddaw with blistered feet. Tim, Oli and Carla finished sometime before. It truely was an apic and difficult event and with perfect weather still a challenge completing inside the cut off. I need to cure my quitters disease before going back but I certainly recommend it.
These two runners could stake a very good claim on being the greatest British distance runners of all time. Not only did they achieve such great things but they did so at a time when running for sport was relatively unheard of. There were no books to read on how to optimally run long distance, they had to find out via experiementation and much of what they learned and did became the standard practice.
The two runners are Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi. Newton took up running to protest against his treatment in South Africa and used it first as a means of gaining publicity for his cause. He managed to gain some by winning the first four Comrades races. Peter worked in the docks in Southampton and first met Newton in 1928 in Los Angeles.
The book charts their close relationship over the years from their first meeting in 1928 at the start of the first ever Trans America Footrace. Arthur Newton was invited by the race director CC Pyle to give some credibility to the event as he was perhaps the only known world class runner there. Newton dropped out in the first two weeks with injury but carried on in the race as medical/morale support. While doing so he became close friends with Gavuzzi who was winning the race all the way up until 400 miles to go when he had to drop out with infected gums. He had nothing to eat for days and was wasting away. He was pulled out of the race by the medical team.
Newton and Gavuzzi both vowed to go back the next year, when the race was being run from New York to LA. Newton didn't finish for similar reasons to the previous year. I won't spoil the incredible ending to this race other that to say that Gavuzzi proved himself to be absolutely world class.
After the events of the second trans USA race Newton and Gavuzzi remained close training partners and were a class above everyone else. Newton held the records for everything from 30-100 miles and he and Gavuzzi were a formidable team. They agonised over the choice to become professional runners and try to make a living with thier amazing gift, having plenty of rifts with the UK Amateur Athletics Association as they did.
The book is a great account of many of their adventures, snow shoe races in Canada, record breaking in the UK and France, what they got up to when they were held in France during the war. It is a fascinating insight into how elite runners at the time lived and also contains a huge amount of Newtons own advice and principles on running long distance.
A brilliant account of two runners who the UK should be immensely proud of. And has inspired me to ahem "organise" a run from Bath to London later in the year to follow the footsteps of Arthur Newton when he broke the world record in 1929 for 100 miles (14.22) then broke it again when he was 51 by running 14.06.
I wrote this post a while ago and think it's about time I updated it. I've enjoyed (and suffered) a lot of stuff since writing this and thought I'd share. I've tried to organise it in sections but as you may well know I am pretty terrible at organising anything so it may not quite work. Enjoy
Like I said this is what has worked (or not) for me over the years and the greatest thing about ultras is that there is no "correct" way of doing anything. The debates will always rage on by people who want to try try to sell you "solutions" to everything. I say just keep it simple, experiment occasionally and enjoy the unknowing. "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" - Da Vinci
I've also added some links to other blogs and articles I have found very helpful over the years.
Don't panic if it all feels a bit big and overwhelming, it fells big and overwhelming because it IS big and overwhelming. Everyone else feels the same.
Don't compare your insides with someone else's outsides. You may line up at the start and look around at the other runners and decide that they have everything sorted out, they all know what they are doing. In most cases you are wrong, they are probably crapping themselves just as much as you are, they just aren't showing it (and you probably are not showing it either).
Don't seek too many answers or obsess about details. The joy of this sport is finding those out yourself. It's a very personal journey where you'll find that you do things differently to others. It's ok to talk to others and read articles about how to run ultras and you'll hear lots of "answers" to the question of how to do ultra-running. Caffeine is essential vs caffeine is evil, liquid food only vs solid food is vital, cushioned shoes cause injury vs "Barefoot? Are you f****g nuts?", satellite watches vs sundials, run vs walk vs run walk vs run sit walk sit run walk, Man shorts vs Girl Tights. No one has figured it all out yet and I hope that no one does. The day Ultras get solved is the day I'll take up something else. Mountain Pogo?
And on the same subject, consider this. The Rubic's Cube, you are probably old enough to remember (Excuse the diversion I do this a lot). I never really got into it but millions of people all over the world spend hours of fun (or torture) trying to get all the sides to match. Have a look at this. The puzzle has been solved. Any given starting point there is a series of moves that will guarantee victory. Imagine getting one now as a gift and also getting the solution? What would be the point? Like I said, the day Ultras get "solved" I am taking up something else. Penguin Tossing?
Therefore there is no "Correct Way" of running Ultras
And with that in mind feel free to ignore everything I have written here The further you run the simpler it gets
Try not to extrapolate, i.e. thinking "I feel this bad after X miles so I'm going to feel this more worse after Y miles". Long distance running is a roller coaster of ups and downs and the longer you go the bigger the ups and the bigger the downs. You may feel shit now but your body is an amazing thing and a combination of positive thinking, progress and all the chemicals your body will produce may mean you feel ecstatic a few miles later. My first GUCR I could barely walk just after before 100 miles. Later on I ran miles 120-130 like I was gunning a 10k. I can't really explain it but I knowing it could happen helps me through the rough patches. I had a similar experience in the Spartathlon 2010. The first 50 miles I ran 1 hour slower than last year but felt twice as bad? I was a little concerned as I had 100+ miles to go, feeling shitter than last year and 1 hour less to do it. However the next 80 miles (yes EIGHTY) just seemed to fly by, I was cruising. It's important to remember these times as I know I am going to need them in the future. You won't just hit one wall in long ultras, you hit several. But the more you break down the better it feels at the end (and for a long time afterwards).
Don't take every little set back personally. When you are exhausted it is common to feel paranoid that things are happening because the world is conspiring against you. If a gate is stuck or a stile is wonky or a dog gets in your way. These things will happen and it is important to just shrug or even laugh them off. In the MDS while I was close to collapse and walking over the rocky terrain I kept tripping on the rocks. At some point I got so angry I picked up one of the offending rocks, shouted at it and threw it away. Anger like this is counter-productive. Remember "Mind like Water" - How does the water react when you throw a stone in? With an exactly proportional response to the size of the stone, soon all evidence is gone. Don't make a tidal wave over a little stone.
Similarly, celebrate a little when these little things go right. Like when someone holds a gate open for you or people spot you and get out of the way, or when a part of the path is not muddy or when the sun goes behind a cloud on a hot day. The more reasons you find to smile the more you will smile and the better you will feel.
Try to pay attention to your running form at regular intervals. I used to use mile markers in marathons to remind me to check that my head is up and shoulders relaxed etc. Perhaps do it every half an hour or so or every time you see a bridge or regular feature.
Recently I've been trying drills in long runs. Focus on one part of good technique for a mile or so. It takes your mind off the hurt a little. The fancy term is Proprioceptive Cues that I learned reading "Brain Training for Runners" by Matt Fitzgerald.
No one is going to judge you for squatting in the bushes. If you need to go then go, don't suffer too long holding it in. Everyone does it. Inevitably one day you are going to be squatting in a secluded place and then get rumbled by a large band of scouts and a brass band marching through. Just nod and smile, you won't ever see them again.
Try not to stress about the distance that you are covering or what your garmin may be saying. Particularly the really long runs. Sometimes you feel like you have run for miles yet you have barely covered one, sometimes your view of time is distorted by the tiredness, sometimes the distances advertised in the race are wrong.
Learn to love the 30 minute mile for you may meet a lot of these. It is still a mile just like any other.
Don't waste too much energy avoiding water and mud in the wet times. If it rains you are going to get wet, accept in, embrace it, love it.
Smashing it VS pacing it? Sounds obvious that you should pace evenly but ultras are a different thing to 10k or Marathon races. There is something to be said about going faster at the start and "banking miles" early and many of the elites follow this. Check out this great blog post from Stuart Mills on the subject of the best 100 mile times in history. However I know a couple of people who pace quite evenly. Pat Robbins who wins the GUCR every year follows a strict 25/5 run walk regime and never seems to slow down. Early on in the race he is way back but sure enough every year he tears through the field. Ian Sharman recently recorded a fantastic 100 mile time with "almost" even 20 mile laps.I quite like to get the miles in early and think that if you start fast you slow down but if you start slow too you still slow down.
RFM. It's easy, get a T-Shirt if you keep forgetting.
GENERAL RACE STRATEGY
BEWARE OF THE CHAIR - The most common warning I see in the really long ultras. Don't sit down at the checkpoints if you can avoid it, you get cold, stiff and sleepy. It can be a real effort to get up and waste energy (not to mention time) getting going again, time and energy you could have spent doing another mile. I sat in a lot of chairs in the GUCR and Spartathlon, believe me you never feel rested more for sitting in a chair for 10 minutes. Winston Churchill said it best - "when going through hell keep going".
Organise fresh clothes if at all possible. They feel great when put on and the smell of freshly laundered clothes can be uplifting when you have spent hours smelling of sweat, piss and dirt.
[HIGH HORSE ALERT] Read any running book or article and you'll be told about the importance of having a plan. You must have a plan, with goals and objectives and a strategy and you must plan to reach your goals and targets and they must be SMART and you will never succeed unless you have all your goals and plans and targets defined and blah blah blah. Dunno about you but that sounds like the crap I have to do at work. I run to get away from that sort of thing. Don't turn the hobby that you love into a shitty marketing job.
My point above is that "Planning" is different for everyone and in some cases (including mine) is actually stressful and counter-productive. We are not all planners. Some of us are wingers. I suspect that there are a disproportionate number of wingers in ultras than in other distances and in life in general. When I first did the GUCR I was unable to even estimate when I would be at the first checkpoints. I just shrugged and said I'll see how it goes. Badwater I just said to my crew to make sure I had water and make sure I don't die. The problem is you get all this PLAN PLAN PLAN shoved at you that you think it's a neccessity and it ends up stressing you more. If you are a planner then plan away. If you are not a planner then don't try. I am running across the USA next year and have already been subjected to the dreaded "Plan" and "Budget" words. Those things just kill the adventure for me. I'll take a credit card and a spare flapjack and see how it goes. What could go wrong?
When you get really tired concentrate on moving forward rather than your exact position and distance. Ineviably you will slow down but the effort seems the same so it can get frustrating when you feel like you are not moving as fast as you think you are. Then the paranoia kicks in; "The distance markers are wrong", "The course is long", "I'm lost" etc etc. My first GUCR I thought I was at the 100 mile stage and only when I ran on another half a mile I realised that I was only then at 100 miles. What was half a mile out of 145? Well at the time it was massive and started me on a downward spiral that nearly cost me a finish.
Realistically there is a point where the sensible thing is to drop out. It depends on how far you have to go, how bad a shape you are in and how much the race means to you. "Finishing at any cost" is a silly thing to say if the "cost" is that you can't walk for 6 months. Similarly a race may mean so much that you are willing to rule yourself out of action for a few weeks just to get to the finish. This all gets blurred in the long and drawn out mess of an ultra. Be careful, but don't sell yourself short, the worst thing is sitting around the next day thinking "you know what? I could have finished that". When I was marshalling at the GUCR 2010 I saw some people drop out who looked in proper pain and I thought "yeah they really should have called it a day sooner". But more often I saw someone give up cos it all "got a bit much" or they lacked motivation to finish. In those instances I just knew that those guys were going to be very pissed with themselves tomorrow.
NUTRITION (What I don't know about nutrition can be written on the back of Canada)
The dangers of OVER eating are feeling a bit sluggish, perhaps some stomach problems, going to the toilet more and if you have a wedding soon not getting into a dress. Relatively trivial. The dangers of UNDER eating are stomach problems, cramp, fainting, exhaustion, anger, depression, muscle damage, organ damage, death and perhaps more importantly there is a greater danger of not finishing. You may have read books about runners who can run 100 miles on a can of coke and an apple but these are likely to be the elites who have done this many times before and have well practiced routines. If you are not at the sharp end and relatively new to this they I would lean on the side of over eating rather than the opposite. You can always change it the next time.
I hear the phrase "fuelling the Ferrari" used quite a lot when giving advice on nutrition to runners. Well I'm not a Ferrari. More likely I am a rusty old camper van with a big dent in the side and smells funny. The fact is that when running for hours and hours the act of eating can become a struggle. You may not feel hungry or you may have trouble getting stuff down. In these cases ANYTHING is better than nothing.
In my experience the biggest mistake nutrition wise is not eating the wrong types of food but simply just not eating enough.
You can 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.
If it's true and "you are what you eat" then I am a pile of shit. Stuff I have consumed in races over the years include pringles, sausages, McDonalds (122 mile point in Badwater), Subway (65 miles into GUCR), enormous amounts of spicy meat and cheese in the UTMB, coke, coffee, Fish n Chips, milkshake, Pot Noodles, sausage rolls, soup.
Drink early. I learned quite early on that it's easy to jog 15 miles and ignore feelings of thirst because you want to get ahead but then it catches up on you and them some. It's hard to come back from dehydration.
ELECTROLYTES - I have only recently discovered these (I previously relied on the salt content of crisps). If you are running a long way then take these from the start. There are plenty of easy to carry products out there. IN Badwater I asked my support team to put them in everything I drank. Electrolytes are simply the salts that are cruical for the electrical activity in your muscle movement. If you flush them out with pure water then you risk cramp in the muscles (including those in your heart).My preference is Elete but there are others. Here is a more in depth article on how they work.
Protein - another one of those "you must take it/you must not take it" debates. I try to eat it as normal on a long run which generally involves protein and fat. From personal experience and lots of others too there has been great feedback for the 4-1 carbs to protien energy drink/powder you can buy. I think you need protien, you need to recover as you go.
Protien is especially imortant on multi-days. At the end of a run where I am doing the same the next day I try to guzzle some milkshake, beef jerky and nuts within an hour of stopping. If you are doing multi-days this hour after you stop running is perhaps the most important for eating, drinking and stretching. Here is a great article from 1 Vigor on the subject of recovery nutrition. Eat within the first hour and anything is better than nothing.
Camelpaks and bottle belts are the kit of choice for carrying water but don't rule out a hand held. It's not ideal in terms of running form but if you are prone to not drinking enough and if it's very hot then a hand held bottle could be very useful. I use backpacks where lots of kit is required (UTMB, ONER, Gran-Canaria or general UK ultras), I use a bottle belt where checkpoints are frequent and kit needs are low (Spartathlon, Davos, some UK ultras) and I used a hand held for Badwater.
Don't get suckered too much into the expensive "science" food. Read the second half on any running magazine and there will be loads of ads claiming to have "unleashed the power of the daisy" and swearing that your running will improve by 23.7% Most of the runners I know get by on stuff you can buy from a regular supermarket.
When out for a long time and trying to work through the tough times I find it really helps to think in the third person and take yourself out of yourself (if that makes any sense at all). I am quite comfortable thinking about myself in the 3rd person and years of Facebooking has made James very good at this.You can be as ridiculous and as egotistical as you like, if it helps you out of a funk then so what? No one needs to know. Here are a few that I use. There are some that I won't share right now and some that I might never share.
Imagine your own funeral (ok perhaps it sounds silly to imagine you are dead but hear me out). Hopefully your funeral is years and years away. When it happens people are only going to say what a great person you are and how you touched their lives. Think of the speeches made and the conversations between your old school teacher and training buddy. I've even got the location of mine sorted, hmmmm maybe I should contact the council.
Think of the stories you can tell about your experiences. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone saying "I entered a race, trained really hard and then got a pb, then I entered another race, trained really hard and got a pb, then I entered another race and I trained really hard and I ... *SLAP*". Remember that you are creating your own stories as you go. The more stuff that is going wrong and the harder you find it the more captivating your story will be in the pub. Try and remember everything so that you can re-tell it when you are nice and dry and warm and full of food with your feet up. Others will appreciate it.
And try to think of every set back as a funny story for later. Soon you'll be wishing mis-fortune on yourself....
Imagine you are supporting someone you know in the race you are doing now. This kept me occupied for 10 hard miles in the Spartathlon this year. There are a few people I know who want to do the Spartathlon and I imagined I was here with them supporting them through their run. You can only guess as to the kinds of problems they will run into but your amazing and uplifting words and advice can help them through it. That then makes you feel much better and perhaps even forget for a while that you are actually running that very tough race yourself right now
Persuading someone else to do the race you are doing. You may not believe it but some people don't like the idea of running 145 miles of canal on a Bank Holiday Weekend. The thought of this is incredible to me but each to their own. Pick someone who you know will say it's crazy. Tell them it's crazy but they still should do it. Argue with them (though not out loud near medics as they might think you have lost it and pull you out).
Imagine your friends back at home tracking your race.I do lots of Facebooking and texting during long races and tend to get this feedback anyway but in it's absence you could still make it up. Think of a status update and then your friends responses. You know all the people who will say that you are doing awesomely as well as those who say their Gran could run faster.
I imagine doing speeches at the start of events or to general crowds of ultra-runners. Invent questions and give your answers and pretend that the whole audience are in stitches with your hilarious jokes.Of course they are hilarious cos it's all in your head.
More and more ultras nowadays have lotteries to enter. The UTMB, Badwater, Western States, MDS, GUCR all have more people wanting to participate than there are places. This leads to disappointment for many as well as headaches for the organisers. When running imagine someone sitting at home who applied to do what you are doing now but did not get in. Don't do him/her a dis-service by bailing out for some wimpy reason. Finish it for the person who could not start.
Be respectful to other runners feelings. There will be times when you overtake another who looks a mess, try not to look too smug or comfortable as you do. No one likes getting flown past by a runner who looks like they are not even making an effort. It's funny how you can occupy the same part of space and time yet be in completely different places.
Similarly don't contaminate someone else's race with your own suffering. When you are on a roll you don't want to hear someone moaning about how bad their race is going. Remember you could be having the worst race of your life but be right next to someone who is having their best.
It's great to find someone to chat to during a race but sometimes people might not be in the mood. It's nothing personal, they just may be struggling. Sometimes a question can feel like someone plunging their fist into your brain and trying to pull somthing out. Don't feel you need to talk all the time and respect others need for mental space.
SO don't be too afraid of saying "I don't really feel like talking". And don't take it personally if this is said to you. In some of my longer races such as the ONER ot Trans Gran Canaria it was nice to have friends around just up ahead or behind and just seeing them and exchanging a few words and jokes every now and then. I could not imagine jabbering on for 24 hours though. Some people however love this.
BE NICE to the marshals and the organisers. It can't be much fun standing in the rain for hours only to get abused by a grumpy sweaty beast as he starts crying that there are not enough green jelly babies at the checkpoint. Also, give some slack to the race organisers. I think it's great how many people out there are willing to put themselves on the line and organise these events. They have made my life so much better over the years. Organisers and race directors will make mistakes too, don't beat them up about it.
HOT, COLD, KIT Etc
There are a lot of great blogs and resources out there to give advice on extremes of temperature. Marshall Ulrich's great blog has some stuff on dealing with both Hot and Cold. Also this is a great little website full of stuff about really hot running
PROTECT YOUR HEAD. Sun hat when it's hot, fleecy hat when it's cold, hood when it rains. Your head will be going through enough without you beating it up more with the elements. A good UV protection hat for warm and a buff for cold are 2 essentials
Do not underestimate the slow sapping power that the sun has. I got spanked on both days of the GUCR last year and really suffered. Wear a good hat and sun cream, have some on you if you are doing a very long run.
Don't ignore thirst ever
If you are run/walking then run in the sun and walk in the shade, spending as little time as possible exposed and giving you longer to recover where it's cool. I do this in the GUCR when there are trees and on the Spartathlon where there are bridges, spending longer in the shade helps your body cool from the constant stress of overheating.
IN training for Badwater I did 1 session of Bikram Yoga a week for 10 weeks. This is much less than is recommended and that most people do but it was fine for me. More than anything it made me learn how to deal with the shock of that kind of temperature while working. The first 10 minutes are hell but you adjust and manage it.
In the cold its layers that are the key. The warmth is generated by your body and kept in by air in the layers of your clothing and so the more layers the warmer you will be rather than the total volume of clothing.
The more and more I get into ultras the less and less kit I think I need. You sure can buy a load of crap these days. My first ultra I am sure I obsessed about everything I wore, bag, shoes, tights, shirt, shades, GPS etc etc. My most recent Spartathlon I just made sure I had some shoes and shorts and I was sorted. I am sure you've been called an idiot lots of times because of your choice to run a long long way. I'm sure you've learned how to laugh that kind of thing off. However don't actually BE an idiot pay for things that really are not necessary. "It's not about the Bike" as Lance Armstrong famously said. That is totally true of ultras too (apart from the bike bit obviously).
Having said all that there are a few bits that I use though all of this stuff I will tend to buy when it's on special offers and rarely will buy the really expensive brands
Make it your life mission to find comfy pants. Men and Women come in all different shapes and sizes in that region so we are likely to all find different answers to this. I've been using compression shorts designed for Rugby players, seem to work. It may take a while to find the perfect pair but once you do stick with them (ok not actually "stick" to them).
I don't really like head torches, I prefer the little hand torches (you can get them from outdoors shops for a few pound). Head torches make me crane my neck and probably screw my running up. I don't trip over any more in the dark that in the light. Enjoy the moonlight.
Some sort of hand sanitiser or wet wipes are very useful. Your hands are going to get very dirty. It's easy to forget sometimes that you are stuffing jelly babies into your mouth with the same hand that has just wiped your arse.
Toothbrush, flannel, take every opportunity you can of washing your hands (and other regions) in the really long stuff
You probably compare yourself to others all the time. This is one of the best ways possible to make yourself unhappy. Road runners have this thing called "age-grading" where they compare their time for some fixed distance with the fastest person of a similar age over the same distance and then say things like "I am 63.7% the man that Haile is". Depends how you measure it I guess. I am 182% the man that Haile is (in mass). Such comparisons don't really belong in ultra running.
Don't compare yourself to others in terms of time/volume etc. You will meet all sorts of people at these events all with different backgrounds, different motivations and different levels of ability. Some will have not been running for long and maybe have families and are short on time to do running. Others may have been running for years and get all the time in the world to train. Some are here to win, most are here to finish and enjoy. Have your own measures of success that are completely independent of the performance of others.
Ignore the cancerous voices that may pop into your head that may talk of disappointment. I get this sometimes, the frowning of letting someone down. You are only doing this for yourself.
Think back to times when you were suffering as much as you may be now and remember how you got through them. Key moments like this for me were; Jurassic Coast challenge in 2008 - on the third day I could barely walk before the start but managed to run the hilly 30 miles of that day, Rotherham 2008 - The weather was Baltic, everyone around me was suffering from hypothermia and the checkpoints were indoors. It was the hardest thing in the world stepping out of those checkpoints and into the rain. I knew that in 5 minutes time it would be fine again.
Also, think back to the times when you were not nearly the runner you are now. Everyone started somewhere, perhaps a 4 mile run on a treadmill seemed like an effort a few years back. Keep in mind just how far you have come over the years. I remember when 4 miles on a treadmill would make me weak at the knees, I remember the fear of my first marathon. In Greece I passed the marathon stage of the Spartathlon in 3.47, that was my marathon pb in Berlin just 4 years earlier. The glowing feeling of progress propelled me all the way to 50 miles
For some reason I find miles 16-22 quite hard in any race, marathon or 150 miles. I don't know why but I've learnt to ignore it.
I spend a lot of my time in races thinking about even longer and harder races that I want to do. It sounds like a bad idea to be taking yourself into an even harder place when you really should be thinking about fluffy kittens and pillows and candy floss but it seems to get me through it. I spent most of my time in my first ultras thinking about finishing the GUCR. I spent a lot of my time in least years GUCR thinking about the Spartathlon. I spent some of my time in the Spartathlon thinking about Badwater. I don't know. Perhaps the point here is to always have a "next step" to think about. Now I always think about running into New York.
YOUR BRAIN - YOUR WORST ENEMY
Don't freak out when you hallucinate. It is normal for the brain when tired to see things that are not there. Your brain "sees" not by seeing everything but by looking at only a small area and "filling in" the rest itself. It's how optical illusions work. It is easy for the tired brain to "fill in" your surroundings wrongly, like when I thought a pile of branches were a giraffe or some flowers in the dark were actually small faces with hats or when I thought the canal by night was a huge quarry.
And don't worry too much about the King of the Mushroom people. He's a pussy.
Beware of the dangers of over-thinking. You are a long distance runner and hence are likely to be much brighter than the population at large. Hopefully this has worked out well for you in other aspects of your life but it could actually work against you here. Relying on your brain too much can be hazardous. You have probably heard the old cliché of "it's all in the mind" a million times and this has a lot of truth in it, however relying on your brain to make calculations and objective decisions can be futile sometimes. Don't waste considerable energy thinking too much, try to switch off. Forrest Gump never looked in trouble did he?
My marathon PB is still from a race I did the day after a 24 mile fell race. The point here being that sometimes things just don't make any sense.
One of the most important things I have learned is that my mind can become useless at any objective thought or decision making. It is hard for someone to admit that they are mentally losing control but it does happen and can be hazardous if you try to "think" your way out of it. This is the point to go with what "feels" right. To quote Homer Simpson - "Shut up brain before I stab you with an ice-pick".
Write about your experiences, if only for yourself. I love reading back about races I've almost forgotten. I love looking back at how different I was when I started out running distance, when a marathon would terrify me. Put it on a blog and allow others to learn about what you have done, it does not matter if only your Mum reads it.
Many people will never understand why you would do a thing like this. Don't waste too much effort trying to explain what they will never understand, even in your head. I will never understand why people sit in their living rooms and get excited by z-list celebrities cooking for other z-list celebrities. I suspect I am not missing much
Imagine a life where every race you did went to plan, where every race was a PB. Where everyone you loved loved you back, where every job you applied for you got, where your football team win every game and the sun always shines. Every test is an A+ and you never once got the flu. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Really? No. I'd kill myself. That would be a miserable existence. The best life experiences are when everything fucks up, when everything falls to pieces but you just about manage to hold onto yourself enough to get through it. Those are the times worth keeping.
The crippling lows and euphoric highs are why I do this. You have to go a long way to feel at your lowest but in the same race and after that you can feel the greatest you ever have. Every low point you have you can use as a learning experience, a reference point to help you deal with it when it happens again
As I grow old I'll forget things. I'll forget the least important things first, like what my pin number is or the name of my grand-daughters name, I'll then forget the unimportant things like how fast I could ever run 26.2 miles on a road or how I felt when running some 80% wava race or whatever. But I'll never forget the time I was running through the Canadian forests when 3 hours elapsed in 10 minutes because I was having so much fun. I'll never forget the top of that sand dune in the night in the Sahara when I looked around and could see nothing but stars, that moment I was the only person on Earth. I'll never forget staggering through a crowded street in Sparta to the adulation of runners and people of the town who had no idea who I was but know what I did. And the last thing I'll forget will be the turnaround I enjoyed in my first GUCR, I went from crawling to running, then from running to running quite fast. Then from running quite fast to being all of a sudden overwhelmed and having to hold onto some railings while I burst into tears. I thought at the time that the emotion was due to me realising that I was going to finish the race, but it was more than that. It was the moment in my life where I realised that I could finish anything. Anything is what I intend to do.
BEWARE of how addictive this all is. I entered my first ultra with the intention of doing more but never thought I'd be looking to do them every week. It takes over, you are always looking for different things to do. Longer, hillier, hotter, more navigation, less sleep or whatever.