Never wipe your ass with a squirrel - Jason Robillard

It's good advice. Also do not contradict the above advice on a train full of commuters, the British Transport Police are non-plussed by this. Also might lose something in the British translation. It should be "ARSE" not "ASS". Anyway.

This book captures the imagination somewhat with it's title and I ordered it without much thought. I thought it would be a book of ultra running tales similar to "Running though the wall" and "And then the vulture eats you" but it is in fact a beginners guide to running ultra marathons. The author describes.

"One average dude with limited athletic ability publicly writing a not-so-serious ultramarathon book for the rest of us"

It's certainly not one of the sterile and morbid guides to running you can get but quite a funny guide to running that most people would enjoy reading. Obviously being a super elite awesome ultra running machine that I am there is little I have to learn about the sport but this book suprised me with a combination of basic ultra running know-how and some pretty cool advice.

There is a lot of advice on how to survive the elements, hot and cold, wind and rain. There are tips on how to read the clouds and the animals to determine how long you have left to live on your run and some great general advice on first ultras and trails. I learned a bit on walking training and "speed-ups" during races. There are a lot of ideas here to try.

However I think this book goes to areas that others dare not go, the author has experimented heavily and can give you great tips on shaving certain areas to avoid chaffing (and maybe please others),  how to get away with killing your annoying running buddy and.. erm.. "relieving" yourself on a run . 

Jason Robillard is a man who has experimented on himself (in an ultra running sense of course) and is sharing all that he has learned, as he mentions at the start he is not on the heels of Kilian Jornet but more likely on the floor in a bar. However I reckon this serves very well as an intro to someone who might be doubting whether they are able to run an ultra. The laid back writing might be reassuring that anything is possible.

I recommend buying the book or at least following his facebook group which has lots of funny memes you can share with everyone. Read in addition to Relentless Forward Progress and you'll be invincible :)



The Story of the Human Body - Daniel Lieberman

You may remember Daniel Lieberman from such books as “Born to Run”, a book that many a runner (including myself) put down and immediately vowed to eat only turnips and run barefoot. That book was responsible for the sale of millions of pairs of latex foot gloves at £100+ a go.

Leiberman is an evolutionary biologist which means his area of study is about “why” humans are the way they are. What events happen and what adaptions we made such that now, 4.5bn years on from when the Earth was formed (or about 6000 years depending on what books you read) why humans seem to fair well at survival.

Now it is silly to suggest that somehow humans are at the top of some sort of evolutionary order (if you measure success by the amount of biomass a species occupies on earth then ants win by some margin). However what is clear that over the past few million years where humans speciated from common ancestors share with chimps and other apes “we” have adapted to life on earth in a way that is fairly unique. We live longer, have low infant mortality, spend relatively small amounts of the day ensuring we have enough calories and are unique in the animal kingdom in having offspring that are completely helpless until the age of about 18 years.

The main drive of the book is that while there were an number of things that we evolved to adapt to certain climate and food situations (such as bipedalism, larger brains, longer child weaning times, hands and so forth) that the change in our situations over the past 13000 has developed far faster than our bodies can adapt. We adapted to the dwindling forests over millions of years by walking out on the plains. We adapted to warming and cooling by very gradually growing hair and losing hair.

However there have been two changes over the past 13000 years that have changed human lives too fast for our genes to “keep up”. The first is the agricultural revolution of around 13k years ago and the second was the industrial revolution around 200 years ago.

Humans as well as all life on earth usually have to play a balancing act between getting enough calories out of the earth and then investing effort into reproduction. You can’t spend all time eating and then reproduce but then you can not reproduce and pay the heavy costs of child rearing without energy. This is a trade off that generally keeps animals on the edge of existence, keeps their bodies lean and mean and specialized in whatever environment they are currently in and to deal with whatever predators and prey are around.

Human hunter gatherers were estimated to run/walk around 15k per day in pursuit of this energy that allowed them to invest in reproduction however the invention of farming changed the foods we ate and reduced the energy issue. Farming was still an intense physical activity and so we still burned a lot but the insecurity around food was reduced massively as we started to eat more grains and roots.

Up until 200 years ago to survive you still had to work pretty hard. That changed during the industrial revolution where labour intensive tasks were replaced by machines and now in 2013 we end up doing most of our work at a computer, burning very few calories at all.

So here we are, a product of evolution that survived ice ages and deforestation but now has too much food and does too little work. The result of these are what Lieberman describes as “mismatch diseases”, not typical infectious diseases that we risk in nature but ones that are common now due to us spending so much more time sitting around and having an adundance of food. He argues that many diseases are not inevitable sign of aging (hunter gatherers lived long lives too) but the way we live now.

Cancers, diabetes, heart problems and mental health problems can all be explained to some extent by the massively different life we live now vs 200 years ago and 13000 years ago.

It is not a suggestion that we should all go back to the stone age and eat worms, lick rocks and wear vibrams but it is a great account of just what our bodies were designed for and what we are using (or misusing) them for nowadays.

There are a number of other books I would recommend that give an interesting account of the human body. Waterlogged as well as being an epic rant at the sports drink industry contains a lot of good stuff. I would also recommend reading "Anti-fragile" - not at all focused on running or the body but it gave me a different way of thinking about medicine and food.

 But part of me kind of hopes for an apocalypse situation where maybe the seas rise or the forests dwindle. At that point only those who can adapt the best will be able to survive. I doubt those are the same people watching Dance Factor or getting on an elevator and pressing 1.



Now we may think that some runners really are "natural" runners. Well actually we all are natural runners, see "Born to Run" and "Survival of the Fittest". The fact that some are much better than others is largely due to being given the opportunities to get these many hours of practice in at an early age. It is well known that Kenyan runners have dominated Marathon running for a number of years. This is not genetic, there is no difference in their genes than in Europeans. The simple fact is that they may in their early life run 20k a day at altitude and by their 16th Birthday would have amassed 6000 hours for purposeful practice. Killian Jornet climbed his first mountain when he was two years old. He wasn't "born" to do it he has just had much more practice than the rest of us.

Ultra Porn - The world's toughest endurance challenges

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.

The Chimp Paradox - A book every ultra-runner should read

So this might not be on all endurance runners "must read" list but I recommend you do. The author Steve Peters has spent the last few years as the head psychologist for the British Cycling team (who apparently have been doing pretty well recently). He has now been put in charge of the minds of the Athletics team for Rio in 2016.

The book is not specifically about mind management for endurance atheltes but some parts of it will resonate with you in your training and racing as an ultra runner.

The book is very simple and fun to read. Steve Peters simplified what goes on in our heads as a battle between a Human and a Chimp. Sounds silly but it is quite a fun and useful way of thinking about what happens inside your head, particularly when you have run 60 odd miles, it's cold, wet and dark, you are exhausted and grumpy and feel like the whole world is conspiring against you. And you still have 40 miles left to run.

The premise of the book is that we are made up of a Human, a Chimp and a Computer (and some other stuff). The Human is the part of us that is measured and rational, it needs purpose and meaning. It is this part of us that sets ourselves goals and gets pleasure from achieving something that is not part of basic survival (such as finishing an ultra marathon or winning an Olympic medal).

However whilst trying to achieve these goals we are often hijacked by the chimp. The chimp is the part of us that is obsessed with basic survival. It is much stronger that the Human part of us and will have a tantrum whenever it feels threatened (such as there being the wrong coloured jelly babies at a checkpoint or a downpour of rain during a race). It will usually recommend quitting to safety. There is no point fighting it head on, it is too strong and is the result of millions of years of evolution that has made the Human race so successful. The only way to deal with it is to manage it.

This book gives great advice as to how to do that. I read this just before I ran the Spartathlon this year and glad I did as I feared (like with other events I have quit this year) that I would quit too easily. I didn't and I think part of the reason was the way this book allowed me to think.

I would definitely add this to my shortlist of essential reading for ultra runners (and any sport that requires a huge amount of commitment through tough times).



Eat and Run - My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness - Scott Jurek

This was a book eagerly anticipated by lots of runners everywhere. Arguably the best ultra runner of the last 20 years gives his account of how he got there. His record is impressive. 7 successive Western States 100 wins, 2 Badwater wins, 3 Spartathlon wins, Hardrock win and who knows how many others.

The book did not disappoint, it is a refreshingly honest and candid view of how he became such a great runner. Obviously he has a huge amount of natural talent that he has exploited in his running career but he does not hide the fact that to get where he got took huge amounts of hard work and experimentation.

It was great reading about how he figured out his diet, his training, his race strategy, his mental and physical abilities. He studied classic training texts (before the internet told us everything) and was obsessed with being the best and winning the event he entered.

I was suprised by how competitive he is. I shouldn't be really, you can't compete at the top like that for years without having a competitve streak but he was obsessed with pushing himself as hard as he could go which in turn was as hard and anyone else could go.

It starts with a lot about his childhood which involved a lot of work for his father and looking after his mother. His friendship with another kid called Dusty who became his pacer for many of his runs. I loved the stories of the races, I liked the frequent advice boxes which I think make great reading for learning about the different aspects of ultra running. Each chapter has a vegan recipe too. Not sure whether I'll try any of those.

He opens up a bit about he felt being in the spotlight. The haters and detractors in some running circles. I think this may have got to him more than he'd like to admit. There is an open account of his time in Mexico, running with the Tarahumara which was to become famous in Born to Run. It was great to get his account of that story and also of his 24 hour track race more recently.

This was much more of a refreshing read than many other books. I am not really a fan of the "I turned up and won because I am awesome" books. Scott turned up and won lots of races because he worked so much harder and trained so much smarter than anyone else. There is a lot to learn here.

Running For Their Lives: The Extraordinary Story of Britain's Greatest Ever Distance Runners

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. 

Amazing runners and amazing story.

Tales from Out There - Frozen Ed Furtaw

This is a book written by one of the Barkley "Sickos" "Frozen" Ed Furtaw on the history of the Barkley Marathons. It describes in great detail the past runnings of the race (he has run most and attended some more).

The Barkley Marathons in case you don't know is arguably the toughest race there is. It is 100 miles long (though most others measures of the course clock it at about 130 miles), it's 5 loops around some trails in the Frozen Head National Park in Tennessee. The climbing involved is around 18000m, or twice Everest or twice UTMB. The trail is often overgrown with briars (I think that is American for thorns) and there is no support in the race apart from water left at two points along a loop and the camp ground at the end of each loop. In about 20 runnings of the event 10 people have finished the 100 mile race, the course record is 55 hours. The cut off is 60 hours. Every year someone finishes the race director Laz alters the course to make it harder since this is not a race of man vs man but of man vs that.

The accounts of his own attempts (I won't spoil it by saying how he did) along with the tales from Out There are really gripping and actually quite terrifying. Two things struck me about the race from reading the book, moreso than before.

1 - This race is a war. Or rather it's an arms race. You have probably read lots of stories about a man who gets beaten by a race and then vows to come back fitter and stronger in order to beat the race the next time. There are loads of stories like that right? Here it's just the same, except that when the race gets beaten by a man IT then comes back next time harder and stronger in order to defeat those who beat it the last time. It does not stay the same, does not get complacent, it changes and improves to win, and for this race to win it means all runners losing. I have never been part of an event like that before.

2 - Having read 100s of reasons why people drop out the reasons are very different to what I was expecting. There are a few tales of people getting lost, a few getting timed out buy the cut-offs, hardly any of injuries and not too many of complete exhaustion. The main reason people do not finish this race is that they just give up. After each loop you will be at a cosy campsite. You don't have to go back out there. Many chose not to. Then during the whole loop you are always fairly close to the "quitters road", an easy stretch of road going right back to the start. More than any other race I have ever heard of this one really breaks peoples minds.

Really really good read and recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the Barkley. The Barkley gets treated as "not a proper race" by many ultra runners today whereas reading this you may change your mind. You may even think that this is the only race there is, one where the course has a chance of winning too...




Relentless Forward Progress - Bryon Powell

I didn't think I would like a book like this so much. Where we you five years ago when I was first getting into this? Reading this may have saved me a lot of miles spend staggering around in a daze due to lack of something called "electrolytes", or have prevented those huge purple bulbs appearing on my feet, and would have saved yards of skin on my unmentionables. Second thoughts I am glad that I experienced all that.

That said this is as good a "general guide to running ultra marathons" as I have seen. I get asked the "how" question a lot. In all honesty I don't really know what to say. I wrote this article ages ago on some mental tricks I have picked up over the years but my answer to the practical question as to how to run ultras is always met with a lot of "erms". Well that's normal anyway, even on my expert subjects.

So I was really pleased to read this book and I will recommend it to anyone who asks me how to run these things. It strikes a great balance with giving a lot of advice without being too prescriptive. There are training plans in there and I know a lot of people like to have that kind of structure but there is so much more than that.

Great chapters on how the body deals with stress, heat, altitude and cold as well as two side of some ongoing arguments in the sport such as speedwork vs no speedwork or barefoot vs support. There are details of nutrition and hydration as well as some medical stuff on blisters and drugs. There will always be debate as to what is right and what is wrong, that is not going to be resolved any time soon (or ever) but some of the physiological information here is really useful to know.

All the way through there are guest articles from some of the famous names in Ultra Running such as Geoff Roes, Mike Wardian, David Horton and others.

Like with everything in Ultra Running you can take the advice or leave it. I think this book covers all that you need to know to get through an ultra and have a safe and enjoyable experience. Obviously you'll pick more much more as you go along but this is a great start.

So in summary, don't ask me, read this :)

Running on Empty - Marshall Ulrich

Marshall Ulrich is a legend even amongst legendary ultra runners, let alone sport induced binge eaters like me. His original foray into endurance sports was borne out of personal loss. His accomplishments were vast, several Badwater wins, double, quadruple Badwaters, climbing the 7 highest mountains of the seven continents, 9 eco-challenges (really hardcore multi-day multi sport endurance events) and various combinations of 100 mile races in quick succession marked him out as someone who knew how to suffer. Though I still don't think anyone can ever be "ready" to run across America Ulrich was probably as close as you can get.

I didn't meet Ulrich in Badwater last year where our paths may have crossed  and wish I had made more of an effort to say hello. I have been reading his blog for a while now and the advice he gives is amongst the best on the internet, or anywhere for that matter. Why buy books when you get get it all here for free. I was really looking forward to reading his account on his crossing of America.

This account is full of drama and results in a really honest and lively book. There was more tragedy before the start of the run and this seemed to galvanise his resolve to make the 3063 mile journey. He set his sights high, attempting to cover 70 miles a day. He was running at the same time as (but not alongside) Charlie Engel who was a friend and fellow serial endurace runner. There was mobile support, a crew and a TV production company following the progress of the runners.

I loved the style of writing here. Marshall gets across beautifully just how hard but ultimately rewarding such a feat is without getting overly poetic about it. It is rich in metaphor for how running is a release from hardship while being a hardship itself but it's refreshing just how much the book is about actually putting one foot in front of the other. It's a book about running a bloody long way. A few years ago I would have read such books and tried to imagine what it must be like to do such a thing. Now I am reading from the view that I AM actually going to be doing this and hoping that it will all be worth it.

It's funny how I read books on this and think some things must be an exaggeration. Surely you don't get run over, or shot at? It seems the recurrance of these in the books would say that this does happen. There are so many things for me to get excited about. I loved the bit where he comments on the location of a prison - if you escaped from there you have a hell of a long way to go to get to anywhere else.

The run ended up straining Ulrichs mind and body and his relationships with some of the cast. His determination to get it done at high speed was amazing. He compares himself to a badger when running, something that I can do quite easily :) "Dig deep and love home". 

It is packed with advice on how to actually run and has appendices of his training, nutrition and injuries. The Doc said he suffered more injuries that an entire field would in a Badwater race. I could almost treat this as a manual of how to repeat his endeavor. I was a little concerned about how little time he had to do nothing, it seems like he was constantly either running, getting ready to run or recovering or trying to sleep. Saying that he was eating breakfast while getting dressed sounds like stressful multi-tasking to me. I am doing less miles per day than him so hope to have a few moments each day just to stare blankly at a wall or take in the surroundings. Maybe sleep outside and watch the stars.

I loved the brutal honesty of what this did to him, and what it might do to me. Really really good book. Well worth reading and I hope he can come along and visit the race sometime this summer.

Why We Run - Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich is probably the Indiana Jones of ultra running. His scientific research and ultra running credentials are amazing and this book is an absolute must read for anyone into distance running and the science behind it.

Bernd was a very good runner at school, getting somewhere near the 4 minute mile as a kid. He put the running down for a while to work in Africa and developed further his love of the natural world. He worked as a biologist and became fascinated in the endurance and running capabilities of animals. He looked at nature and asked some of these questions;


  • How does a bumble bee or a moth flap it's wings 1000s of times a minute and not overheat? The thing should turn into a ball of flames.
  • How do birds manage to fly 3000 miles non-stop over several days without re-fueling? 
  • How can a Pronghorn Antelope run 10k in 7 minutes? What kind of VO2 Max would that require


He experimented and found the answers to these which make great reading. However the best bits are where he looks at the endurance capabilities of humans and experiments on himself.

Humans are endurance animals. This theory has been presented well in other books (Survival of the Fittest and Born to Run). We make lousy sprinters (Usain Bolt would lose a 100m race to most 4-legged mammals including rabbits). Our ability to go long and persistence hunt is what makes us unique in the animal kingdom. We have abilities to dissipate heat so that we can run in deserts rather than merely plod like camels. 

Bernd then puts his running shoes back on and starts training hard for races, running a 2.22 marathon and breaking the US 100k record in the process. He trained hard and experiemented based on what he learned from nature rather than running wisdom. My favourite experiment was where he left cans of beer on his long runs to pick up and drink.

I like books that reassure me that what I do is normal and sustainable. I liked this book a lot.


Why We Run

Was certainly a question Drew and I were asking at 2.45am on Sunday morning while the rest of London was asleep in total darkness. We could just go back to bed and get up at a normal time, head over to the London Marathon and cheer along the carnival, possibly via McDonalds and then just drink the afternoon away. Seemed like a perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday.

However our plan was different, we were up in the middle of the night to head over to Big Ben for 4am to meet Robin Harvie; author of Why We Run, to then run the London Marathon route in reverse. Why?

Drew and I set out, along the canal where even the geese were asleep and then on down a lively Edgeware Road that was still alive and the smell of shisha and the aura of mocking washed over us. We arrived at Big Ben around 3.45 and waited for the clock to strike 4 to head off on our meander back to Greenwich Park.

There were 7 of us in total. Myself, Drew, Mark, Rob, Alex, Hugh and Robin. The first few miles along the embankment were fairly easy going though and all the mile markers were already out there. Felt odd running through 25, then 24, then 23 etc. It was already quite warm and the weather reports promised a warm and sunny marathon later on.

Rob and Mark were setting a faster pace in front and the rest of us were happy to be plodding along at 4 hour marathon pace. I got a chance to chat to Robin about running and his book and future running plans as we counted down the miles.

Why We Run - The Book

It would be easy to compare this book to Feet in the Clouds and since I am a big fan of making things easy I think I will. There are a a few similarities. Both are very well written and are from the point of view of a "normal" runner, not a super-athlete. Both detail an obsession with a brutally hard endurance event. Both stories are told alongside the histories of those who have done the same before them. The key difference here was that the obsession was much closer to home for me. It was about the Spartathlon.

Robin is a normal guy, as far as you can call ultra-running and Spartathlons "normal". His journey into Ultras is quite similar to mine (and many others I am sure). He ran a few marathons, felt like he hit a plateux in terms of time and decided to go longer instead. He picked the Spartathlon as the race to do and set about an intense and time-consuming training schedule, much of it on the river Thames. I may have crossed paths with him along that river while training for the same thing. Just passing half way around 6am

There is a great account of the ancient olympics and some of the history of great endurance runners. This fits in perfectly with his accounts on training, his own motivations as to why he should take on something like the Spartathlon and his quest to discover why we run. I thoroughly recommend reading his account. Any of you obsessed with an endurance event (and I am guessing if you are here you will be) then this book is well worth reading.

So, back to the run. Why am I doing this again?

I continued to chat to Robin about the Spartathlon and said it was great that the race was getting some recognition as being the toughest race out there. All those I know who have done this and the other so called toughest (you know what they are) agree that running from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours agree that this is on top. His recent article in the Telegraph is a great read.

Poplar high street and Canary Wharf were very quiet at 5am, in just a few hours they will be overwhelmed with loud and colourful support. Day started to break around 5.30 and from 6 at the halfway point on the Tower Bridge there were signs of life as people in high-vis jackets started to build the huge event that is the London Marathon.

Over the bridge and into Bermondsey it felt odd to be running a course that I had done 4 times before through a city that I have lived in for 7 years and finding that I just did not recognise any of it. This part of the route is fairly residential and quiet at 7am. As we approached Greenwich the roads were being closed, the water stations loaded and masses of marshalls were assembling.

I felt quite good until arond the half marathon point. It has been a long time since I have ran this distance, not since my operation and it showed a bit. I also can't remember the last time I ran this much on roads, it was probably the Spartathlon last year. All of my races this year have been off road. I am not too worried though about having to run 45 miles on a road each day for 70 days.

My "plan" for the US would be to run at about the pace we were running here, about 9 minute miles but add lots of walking breaks in there so to finish 45 miles in around 10 hours. I think not having had any sleep the night before made it harder too.

I lost count of the number of people who shouted "you are going the wrong way". We saw a guy coming the other way who was doing the marathon 5 times. Not sure how he planned on doing that as he would have ended up at the end when it started.

There seemed to be some significant climbs heading into Greenwich which probably explains why people go so fast at the start going down them. By now the water stations were fully functional and waiting for the race to start in a couple of hours time.

It's amazing just what in event this is. Unlike other events this closes down one of the worlds biggest cities to stage this event. It is awesome to see just how many lorries full of water, energy drink, fences, cones etc are needed to make every single miles of this race. Glad I was not running the other way though.

We got to the start bang on 8, bang on target. I felt really quite knackered, more so than I would usually after doing the same much faster. I was really pleased to have got up. We said goodbye to Robin who was later on the TV and we walked through the starting areas. Ha ha ha these chumps have not even run a marathon yet today. Robin and the start line we were not allowed to cross

We got more of the "you are going the wrong way" remarks as we left the starting area to leave.

I spent the afternoon handing out water at the 20 mile water station. I was tired and though it does not sound like it handing out water is quite exhausting. I've done it a few times and trying to stay focussed while zombified runners stagger over and take water or miss you completely. It is great to be involved in this race. I take the piss out of it quite a lot but I wished I was there running.

And then off to the pub. I did well to stay awake so long, call it training. I'll need this kind of endurance. It was really great fun to run the London Marathon in reverse, great to meet Robin (and his book is really really good so I suggest you buy it) and made me think about why I run? While sat outside a pub on a hot afternoon with a MASSIVE calorie deficit to deal with I couldn't quite figure it out...

Meditations from the Breakdown Lane - Running Across America - James Shapiro

In July 1980 (When I was 4 months old, barely able to even run a marathon) James Shapiro set off on a solo run across the USA, starting in Los Angeles as I will and finishing as I will in New York.

His account is quite poetic and he kept a journal with him all the time to capture all of the events and thoughts he enjoyed (and suffered) along his 3100 mile 80 day adventure. The book in another that is difficult to find (and expensive to buy). I thought it was worth the effort though. I can see myself building a library of ultra-running classics.

He did the run as a "Journeyman", meaning self supported rather than being in a race. The majority of the runners who beforehand had completed this run across the continent have done so in an organised race. To this day there have been 240 known foot crossings. Shapiro was the 108th.

This is a very personal first hand account of what it is like to run across America. He was not in a race but was running 45-50 miles a day without rest. Every few pages seemed to jump between what it was like to be running such an epic distance and a feeling of what it is like to be in a particular place in America, usually in the middle of nowhere.


Much of the book focuses on the characters that he met along the way and his straining relationship with friends who come to support him. There is something quite eery about doing a run and joining up so many insular towns and outpost and people who only exist because the roads are so vast. Oddly it would have been easier to do this unsupported in the 20's as there were still plenty of towns and people along the route 66. Now there is not reason to have them more than 200 miles from each other now.

In each town a small soap opera plays out and Shapiro just watches while eating three meals in minutes. He speaks candidly about falling out with the people helping him, as if they are trying to get in the way of his journey.

It paints a picture that runners are not supposed to be there, running on highways like that. He makes himself sound like an alien running where only people protected by juggernauts should enter. Before the days when all crossings are well publicised he just got up and went for it alone.

I like the chapter about him getting his gear put together, the relentless drive to minimise weight by cutting down to the smallest of sleeping bags and taking no luxuries. The disappointment of not getting the sleeping bag to be as small as possible.

One things that jumped out of me from this is that when running from west to east I'll never actually be facing a sunset. The sun will always come up right ahead of me and disappear behind my back.

Another great read to get me more excited about the summer. Despite being surrounded by people all the way in the US I am sure I'll get the same feeling on loneliness as Shapiro did back when I was still an incoherent dribbling defacating mess. 

Run by Feel - Matt Fitzgerald

I like it when people tell me that things are much simpler than others make out. I liked this book immediately, every page seemed to just say cut out the complexities of what you have done before and keep it really simple.

There are may great books out there suggesting that we are "Born to Run". Meaning that running is something that we have evolved to do (and evolved out of doing - having read a lot of Dawkins I know that my use of the word "evolve" is pretty sloppy here). Some of my favourites; Survival of the Fittest demonstrates humans ability to endure physical activity such as running long distance especially in the heat. Why We Run is my favourite and shows how Humans really are endurance kings in the animal world and the famous Born to Run further shouts that running is natural and that our feet are marvels of biological engineering that allow us to do this. 

This goes one stage further (I think) and suggests that running is an innate ability in humans and hence we learn to do it naturally. When we are kids we don't get the set squares and protractors out to be told how to run efficiently, we just do.

There are a lot of good things I have taken from this book so far. Simply put the key to developing a good running technique are;

  • Run lots
  • Run fast sometimes
  • Run when fatigued sometimes

Well if we are "born to run" then how come we all get injured? There are two main reasons suggested;

  • Nowadays we run in big "supportive" shoes that force us to heel strike and cause injury
  • Nowadays we all sit on our arses a lot more, causing tightness in our hips/core and that leads to other injuries when we run

So he adds  2 footnotes which are;

  • Wear the smallest heeled shoes that you are comfortable in - ie don't go barefoot if it feels bad
  • Look after your hips with stretching/yoga etc

Running is a neuro-muscular exercise and the more of it you do the better you'll get. I get told quite a bit about "junk" miles but from my point of view if I like running and can use it to get from A to B then no miles are junk at all. High mileage is the biggest predictor of race performance.

Running fast (sometimes) forces you to run efficiently as there is no other way.

Running when fatigued is something I am familiar with and

The shoes one is an interesting debate, the minimalist movement is gaining ground and now all major shoes manufacturers are offering a "minimal" trainer (at far from minimal price I have noticed).

There were a lot of other gems in this and would definitely suggest reading it. It's funny because his previous book "Brain training for runners" finished off with the usual appendices of training plans for you to stick to. This time he suggests you wing it a lot more. So for example if you are supposed to be doing a hard run but don't feel like it's working then you can ease back and call it a recovery run. Vice versa if you are running easy and feel like smashing it then you should go for it, so long as you get a good combination of speed/recovery/long/hill etc runs in.

Great stuff about the finish line mentality and how records are broken.

Anyway, a great read and quite refreshing that is does not prescribe to tell oyu exactly what you should do and how far you should run every day to achieve your race goals.

Not that I condone proper "training" or anything like that :)

Ultramarathon – James Shapiro

I heard about this book a year ago. It’s an easy one to miss as it’s so rare but anyone wanting to read the history of ultra-running up until 1980 should seek this gem. I got it as a birthday present (a second hand copy in good condition cost around £100) and read it in one sitting.

It starts with the American author tackling a 24 hour track race in Crystal Palace. He talks of being in good enough form to have a go at the World 24 hour record which stood at 161 miles and paints a strangely compelling picture about track ultras. I always wanted to do one some day for the experience and a different kind of race. I know a lot of people say “never in a million years” to this kind of thing but it has always appealed and the atmosphere Shapiro creates when describing his experience is very tempting.

To be in a race knowing exactly where you are compared to others and how much you are gaining or losing on them sounds overwhelming. Even back then before garmins would spout out your pace and heart rates there was a wealth of information about your time/pace and position. The race started at 3pm and went on into the night (where the announcements went silent to not disturb the locals) and then on through the next day.

Most of the book is not about Shapiro’s experience but of him tracking down some of the historical figures of ultra-running and talking to them about their experiences. Remember this is before the days of some of the “classic” ultra-marathons. Before the Spartathlon or Badwater or the MDS existed. The Western States 100 was only just gathering momentum. 100 mile races tended to be the 100 mile points of 24 hour races since it as difficult to measure 100 miles otherwise. It was before some of the more modern household names had got into this kind of stuff such as Yiannis Kouros and Scott Jurek.

The book is rich in stories of races and runner of years gone by.


From where competitve ultra-running started in the UK in 1810 with the "wobbles", 6 day events around tracks that draw in huge gambling crowds and hence large prize pots. These were walking races until a chap called Charles Rowell decided to run sections. Rowells records were impressive; in 1882 his recrods were 13.26 for 100 miles, 35.09 for 200, 150 miles in 24h, 258 in 48 and 353 in 72. These were popular for the whole century and the Victorian working class would often go to the tracks after a hard days work and watch their runner press on. Such endurance feats spread to the US but there is was more walking/running from city to city.

A great interview with Peter Gavuzzi on his racing across the US in 1928 and 1929 brings new light to the books I have already read on the subject and probably inspired him to make hs own US crossing a few tears later in Meditations from the Breakdown Lane (My next book to read).

The best parts I think are the focus on the 2 big races that helped make ultra-running what it is today. The story of Comrades, particularly the early years when Arthur Newton was breaking new ground in endurance is fascinating. Arthur Newton wrote lots of books on the subject of running in the 20s and 30s and even though he only took running up at a later age he managed to win comrades 4 times and was winning the 1928 bunion derby until injury struck.

London to Brighton is one of a lot of discontinued UK ultras that are mentioned (London-Bath, Plymouth-Exeter, Woodford-Southend, Epsom 40). The chapter is a detailed report of an epic race between Don Ritchie and Cavin Woodward, two of the greatest distance runners of the day. Ritchie was famous for going out hard in every event no matter what the distance and had an incredible talent for keeping that pace. Woodward and Ritchie had spent the previous years trading world records with each other for the 50 and 100 mile distances and the race between them in the 1978 London to Brighton did not disappoint.

I love this book and it is a great history of ultra-running up until 1980. It certainly paints a different picture to how it was in the UK back then, although ultra-running has always been a very inclusive sport for people of all abilities and backgrounds it seemed to be more serious at the sharp end back in the 70s. Though I love the UK scene now and my position in the middle of the pack there does seem to be a lack of these types of really hardcore ultra road runners who could entertain crowds with hard racing over 40+ miles. Much as I like to plod along canals I admit that there is little in it from a spectator point of view but I can imagine more interest in seeing 2 or more mentalists trying to smash each other at 10 miles an hour along undulating roads. Perhaps we need to bring London to Brighton back?

It's also full of great pictures going back years.

Anyhoo, it is a great book and provides a great history of the sport until 1980. Recommended reading for anyone interested in Ultra-running. Let me know if you want to borrow the book, I might lend it to you. You'll have to wear gloves though.

It is not pain I feel but sinking

My involvement with the world grows dimmer

It occurs to me that it would be nice to keel over

A barely audible whisper says it would be a way out

It seems almost impossible to bother any more..

but I do

Don Richie, usa, Newton, 

The Bunion Derby

On March 4th in 1928 199 runners set out from Los Angeles to race to New York and claim a prize of $25,000 for first place. That was quite a lot of money at the time, a policeman would earn about $40 a week. In fact that is still a lot of money now, I estimate that is what it will cost me to do this.

I first heard about this race by reading The Bunion Derby, a fantastic book about the race (link goes to google preview). It is an account based on newspaper reports spanning the 84 days and 3400 miles of the race. Things were very different then.

The twenties in the USA was in interesting decade. An economic boom and huge rises in personal income for many which led to some crazy behaviour. Drinking alcohol was illegal and people expressed themselves in funyn ways, such as by 24 hour dancing, week long flag pole sitting and swimming for days. People seemed to go mad for the endurance challenges.

Charlie C Pyle, more of a circus promoter than an endurance enthusiast saw this as an opportunity to make his name (and some money do doubt as was the theme at the time) by promoting what he called "The Greatest Show on Earth" (he was a modest chap). He offered a large prize for runners who (for $100 deposit) could run along the newly built (and in many parts not quite built) Route 66 from LA to Chicago and then across to New York. Strangely enough it probably seemed like a fairly normal thing to do 70 years ago, more so than now.

I don't want to go into detail of the book (or spoil the ending) and I recommend you all read it and I challenge you to not want to follow their footsteps on finishing the book. There are however a few things that just stood out for me when reading.

  • It was a proper race. Not much I do nowadays seems like a proper race but these guys all seemed to be there in hope of winning the money. Most of the competitors were quite poor and scraped the $100 somehow and gambled with 3 months of their lives that they could win this
  • They were actually running quite fast. Quite often I'd read something like "So and so won the 38 mile stage averaging 8 miles an hour". 8 miles an hour for 38 miles when you've already run 2000? That would be the kind of time I would do if I just tried to run that distance once at full speed and did not have to get up for the next week.
  • America is enormous. Well, not just the distance but the geography that you have to run through. The route goes through the hottest desert, mountain ranges, great plains where the winds are so bad that trees grow sideways.
  • Everyone was so young. There were a lot of people in their 20s. There was one kid who was 15 and got halfway before this was discovered and he was kicked out. There were not many over 40. Next year there will be not many under 40.
  • I actually found out what a bunion is. I thought it was like a callous or something but it is actually quite severe muscle contortion in the foot. I don't want to get that.
  • The winning time was 573h 4m 34s. That is a long long time. And why on earth were they measuring the seconds?

Feet in the Clouds

There exist a few books that "have" to be read in the same way that some ultras "have" to be run. Feet in the Clouds by Richard Asquith is one such book, one of a handful of books that every runner seems to have read. I am ashamed of myself for taking so long to finally start reading it, similarly I am ashamed to say that my first visit to the lakes in Cumbria was just this weekend.

I really enjoyed reading most of this. The early parts than deal with the authors early attempts at the Bob Graham Round I found myself chuckling through as it was very close to home. A boy from London trying to take on some of the spectacular hills of the Lake District by throwing gear and science at it. Sports drinks and fancy shoes and maps. It struck me like he had missed the point as to what it was do run on those fells, not that I really know. Reminded me of several discussions on my clubs forum in the winter that would start something like "I've noticed it's snowing outside. Obviously I can't just go and run in the snow but I have a spreadsheet to stick to so don't know what to do. Is there a piece of kit I can buy that will just make the snow go away?"

The Bob Graham Round is a legendary fell run in the UK. It's not a race but a route of 42 fells that the eponymous B&B owner decided to run on his 42nd birthday. Since that running in 1932 a few thousand UK runners have made it their mission to complete it. Some do and some don't. The preparation and training is all consuming though.

Most of the book is concerned with the fell running scene and profiles of some of it's most talented runners. I glazed over the politics and admin of the running clubs and organisations up north but loved the portraits of some of the fells heros. Joss Naylor and Billy Bland are legendary on the fells. There are so many others, some who came down from the hills to compete in road marathon racing, some of them doing very well indeed. You wonder how many olympic class athletes there were in the Lake District who just could not be bothered with running 26.2 on a road.

Askwith is not one of these super athletes but takes on the challenge anyway. The account of his own personal efforts and failures makes great reading for those who want to make an attempt at this. 

I recommend going to the lakes though, it is beautiful but really hard terrain.


 "If you're not cold, or wet, or lost, or exhausted, or bruised by rocks or covered in mud, you're not really experiencing the mountains properly. You need to feel it, to interact with it; to be in it, not just looking from the outside. You need to lose yourself - for it is then that you are most human."