Thursday, 18 September 2014

The road is long

This time in a week I will be in Greece preparing to run one of the most iconic ultra races in the world - The Spartathlon. As we all know (hashtag sarcasm), the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles, told everybody in Athens that the Greek's had won the battle of Marathon, then dropped down dead (hence how we know that 26.2 miles is the precise limit of human endurance). However, other historical accounts have him running a little further than this - about 500 Km from Athens to Sparta and back again. The Spartathlon aims to recreate this epic journey (well, half of it at least - only crazy people like Mimi Anderson would think of heading back again) by following the route as closely as possible. Runners therefore have to head from the Acropolis in Athens to the statue of King Leonidas (AKA Gerard Butler) in Sparta about 153 miles away.

After my run at the Grand Union Canal Race a few months ago, I was starting to get a little worried that I wouldn't even make the start line. I developed some issues with my foot that didn't seem to be responding to physio. My worry was that there could be something like a stress fracture underlying everything, but after 2 months of no improvement, a last minute post-work trip to Profeet proved to be very fruitful (except for the bit where my bike got nicked, but that's a story for another time). After a bit of jiggery-pokery, my fears were assuaged and they were pretty confident that with a bit more rehab I would be good to go. True to their word, after another week of strength exercises, I felt I could run again and have been steadily building back up over the past few weeks.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

10 Things Nobody Told Me About Being A Parent

So I know that this is a running blog, but I've been dealing with an injury from the GUCR for the last few months and haven't really done enough running to bang on about. So, if you'll forgive me, I'm going to use this forum to bang on about something else in my life which is incredibly important to me - parenthood. Feel free to switch over to something more running related now. I hear James Adams has a book out. I've been in the illustrious club of mini-human wranglers for 18 months now, and think I have a pretty good handle on things. Don't get me wrong, I'm no expert (who is?!), but I know which end to put food in (and know very well which end it comes out again). But some things about being a parent really took my surprise, largely because I watch far too much television - and it ain't nothing like you see in the movies! So here are 10 things that have surprised me about being a parent:


1: They'll let any idiot do it

Seriously. I can't believe that you're just allowed to create a human being with no real interjection whatsoever. There should at least be a test or something, right? I wouldn't let me have children if I were in charge, never mind some of the other mouth breathers out there procreating as we speak.


2: Giving birth is nothing like you see in the movies

Don't worry, I'm not going to go into the details (for everybody's benefit, not least my wife's), but suffice to say that giving birth is not a case of: 1) Your waters break; 2) You are desperately rushed to hospital before you have to pop it out in the car park; 3) "Breathe! Breathe! Breathe! Now push! Wow, it's a boy!". It's funny, because when I was younger I knew the concept of "waters breaking", but because of the way that TV and film is, I never really got that it was a potentially messy affair. I think the Friends episode where Phoebe gives birth was the first time it really clicked. We went to test a new car on our due date, and I made Jen sit on a bin bag the whole time. You break it cover it in mucus, you've bought it!

It was a very different experience than I expected, I have to say. I was woken up at a very reasonable time in the morning by Jen who had started having contractions a few hours earlier, but had let me sleep in so that I was in a position to help out later. We then spent 12 hours watching Criminal Minds on Netflix, intermittently pausing for a few minutes when Jen was having trouble paying attention. We finally went to hospital in the late evening, and it was a lot longer before Lottie was actually born. You want to talk about an ultra... There's no way I can ever pussy out of a piddly little run ever again; "Oh boo hoo. Your knee hurts? I pushed a human being out of me for 28 hours - man the fuck up!"

It's also a lot messier than I originally would have expected (although I was well prepared for this fact by the time of the actual event). It helps to have somebody willing to give you the warts and all description of what to expect, and our friends are nothing if not disturbingly honest.

Plus Aliens is my favourite film.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ultra Raffle Results

Thank you so much to everybody that entered into the UltraRaffle. Thanks to your fantastic donations, we have raised £788.25 for the Epilepsy Society. The draw was conducted at my birthday barbecue, in between stuffing our faces with burgers and eating lava hot marshmallow s'mores (#paleo). Good times!

So without further ado, here are the results. I will contact winners directly over the next few days to arrange getting your prizes to you. Congratulations to everybody that won, and thank you again to everybody that entered:

Julie Freeman - Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra vest signed by Scott Jurek
Gary Dalton - Signed running gear from Mike Wardian
David Barker - Signed Mountain Hardwear race vest from Ellie Greenwood
Jacqui Byrne - Signed vest and swag from Mike Morton
Nicky Wall - Signed Inov8 X-Talon 212 trail shoes and 1 month free coaching with Robbie Britton
Steve Monaghan - Julbo sunglasses
Spencer Lane and Paul Ali - Signed copy of Relentless Forward Motion from Bryon Powell
Louise Ayling and Gary Dalton - Signed copy of Running and Stuff from James Adams
Stuart Bennet and Nick Thompson - Signed copy of Everything Will Work Out In The Long Run by Dave Urwin
Andrew Jordan, James Adams and Matt Poulson - Copy of the next edition of Like The Wind
Stuart Bennet - Entry to the South Downs Way 50 or North Downs Way 50
Ira Rainey and Matt Bevan - Entry to the Stort 30
Emily Schmidt - Entry to the Inov8 Plague 100 Km Roseland August Trail series race
Amanda Crozier - Entry to the Likeys Brecon Beacons Ultra
Steve Monaghan - Ultrarunning half day with Andy Mouncey
Julie Freeman - 1 hour heat chamber session at Kingston University
Andrew Cummings and Matt Poulson - Signed copy of Fat Man To Green Man: From Unifit to Ultramarathon by Ira Rainey
Gary Dalton - Hour long sports portrait photography session with Stuart March

Monday, 2 June 2014

Grand Union Canal Race Report 2014: GUC-king hell that's a long way!

"Put One Foot in Front of the Other One" by Fun

"You need to run more."

I love my wife! It's not that I hadn't been running much recently; my training had become more consistent since the start of the year as we finally recovered from a difficult year of no sleep, and I was finally getting back to my level of fitness from the previous year. I was back to commuting to work through running and getting plenty of speedy miles in, with a couple of podium places in local ~10K races indicating that I might be getting in good shape for the coming season. What I hadn't done recently was many long runs on the weekends. Well, long runs anyway. My short run is 10 miles, so my sense of scale is a little skewed. But with some long (long) races coming up, my wife was a little worried that whilst my speed was looking good, my endurance might not be up to scratch.

My first A race of the year was the upcoming Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) - 145 miles along the Grand Union Canal starting in Birmingham Gas Street and finishing in Little Venice, London the following day. The GUCR is something of an institution in the UK ultra running community, and if you've ever raced in this country then chances are you've bumped into Race Director Dick Kearn, who is a mainstay of support throughout these events. He's easy to spot these days with his rather spectacular beard. I actually met him in my first ever ultra way back in 2011. I chatted to him at the end and asked if he had ever done anything like this before. Little did I know...

Dick Kearn in all his beard glory. Photo C/O Ross Langton

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Using things as other things

I'm nothing if not resourceful, and particularly like to get my money's worth from things. I'm stingy to a fault so will use things until they break, and have to rely on my wife to tell me when the holes in my shorts are getting a little too indecent. I'm especially happy when I can squeeze out extra use from some of the bits and pieces that I have hanging around in my box of random running crap, particularly when it's far and away from the initial usage intended by the manufacturer. So here are 5 things that I find incredibly useful when I run, but whose use was never the intended purpose:

1: Golf balls are great for injuries
This one isn't a particularly novel one, and I'm sure that we all do this regularly. Golf balls are handy little buggers for getting into those hard to reach areas for a bit of self-massage (ooh er missus). In particular, they work well at getting stuck into the hard-to-reach plantar fascia inside your arch when it's tight, but can also serve as a surprisingly brutal alternative to foam rolling tough to reach tissue like your IT band. I haven't played golf in a while, but you can usually still find a couple of balls hanging around our house (although that might just mean that my shorts need replacing...).

2: Compeed makes a great nipple guard
If you're a runner, you've probably used Compeed before. It's like a puncture repair kit for runners, and can be slapped onto a hot spot or blister to offer a bit of protection when you've still got miles left to go. They're pretty darn sticky, and I've ended up with the damn things stuck to my foot for weeks after an event before (if you've stuck it over a popped blister, I recommended getting it off as soon as you're done, otherwise the smell when you finally do take it off can be a little pungent). I don't often get blisters these days (see number 3), but still keep them on standby for emergencies. Plus I have found an alternative use for them.

Their incredible stickiness lends themselves perfectly to covering my nipples on long runs. I've never had bleeding nipples from running (although I have come close before), but it certainly doesn't look like a barrel of laughs. The problem that I have is that under my running gear I am basically a slightly less groomed version of Chewbacca. Hairy nipples (if ever there was an argument against intelligent design, it was nipple hair...) do not lend themselves particularly well to the bonding of moderately adhesive things like plasters. However, the iron-like grip of Compeed can deal with even the most bouffant of chest wigs, and will easily last me over a 100 mile race. And the following week or so. I get funny looks at the swimming pool.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Sigh. Is marathon running bad for your blah blah blah

I had originally decided that I couldn't be arsed posting this, but I saw a recent post in Outside magazine titled The Runner's Ticking Time: Why Runner's Need to Pay More Attention to Their Hearts which got my ire up again. Ignoring for a start the fact that one of the expert opinions that they quote is a registered dietician "who appears regularly on Good Morning America" (although at least dieticians are actually accredited, unlike nutritionists), the article is about the apparently high levels of heart attacks due to coronary artery disease that are seen in marathon runners. They even quote a paper from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology which says that "one in 50,000 will experience a heart attack from coronary artery disease during a marathon". Scary. Except that they miss out the kind of crucial (I think anyway) point that this is an incredibly small risk as compared to that of the general population. Here is the conclusion from the abstract in full:
Although highly trained athletes such as marathon runners may harbor underlying and potentially lethal cardiovascular disease, the risk for sudden cardiac death associated with such intense physical effort was exceedingly small (1 in 50,000) and as little as 1/100th of the annual overall risk associated with living, either with or without heart disease. The low risk for sudden death identified in long-distance runners from the general population suggests that routine screening for cardiovascular disease in such athletic populations may not be justifiable.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

It's GU to TORQ

Nutrition is a pretty important part of ultra-running. Whilst you can get used to running without eating too much by becoming a more efficient fat burner, for races and for optimum performance you really need to stoke the fire as you go. In my training I tend to rely on fat-burning, largely because gels are frigging expensive, and I'm too cheap to buy them if I can help it. So I very rarely eat anything on my runs, even on my long (25-30ish miles) ones.

But even the most efficient fat-burner still needs carbs to function - "fat burns in a carbohydrate fire" I believe is the cliché that is bandied around. For this reason, I tend to use gels when I race, and will often make my way through a 100 miler predominantly on these, with the odd bit of fruit thrown in at the aid stations. I don't go too nuts; for instance I probably had 5 gels in 8 hours at the recent SDW50 - so about 1 every hour and a half. This works out fine for me, and gives me the energy I need to keep going, without causing major stomach-related issues or borderline diabetes.

Below is a little review of the two main brand of gels that I use - TORQ and GU. I don't really know the ins and outs of physiology and metabolism (I believe that the head-bone is connected to the arm-bone?), so I won't go too much into the "sciencey" side of things. The main thing that I care about is how they taste and how easy they are to eat while running. It's simply a way of getting energy into my face at the end of the day. Beyond that, I don't notice a huge difference between them; I know what I like and what works for me after a few years of trying various things out and failing miserably every now and then. I'll pretty much eat anything I'm given, but these are the ones that I will go for if given the choice.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Keep it stupid, simple

I can't help but think sometimes that we have a habit of over-complicating things. Take for instance this natty little device - the SmartFork. For the low, low price of $100 (plus shipping, plus a $10 yearly protection plan), you can get hold of the latest innovation in food-mouth-interface devices. Have you ever looked at your fork and thought, "well, it does poke food and let me cram it into my gaping maw - but it doesn't have bluetooth"? Well then this is the device for you! Okay, so the idea is that it is used to aid in weight loss, and allows you to track what you eat and how fast you eat it. In particular, it encourages you to slow down to allow your body's natural "I'm full" message to actually reach your brain, before you pile in another pie.

I'm sure that conceptually it is a useful product. I just can't help but think that it's massively over-complicating a relatively simple (although obviously very important) issue. For $99 less you could just buy a smaller plate so that you don't overdo the serving sizes. Or just, y'know, slow down when you eat. Do you need a glowing fork to do that?

But this got me thinking about how we, as a species, like to over-complicate things. "There's an app for that" - there's a worrying verisimilitude to that statement these days. Despite what old people might tell you, kids these days probably aren't dumber than in the good 'ol days. A well-supported phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect (after it's main proponent James Flynn) suggests that our overall intelligence is actually increasing by about 3 points a decade. When people from different generations take older version of IQ tests (as well as tests in semantics, cognition, memory, etc), they always do better than previous generations. The most plausible reason for this effect is the increase in complexity in our lives since the dawn of the industrial age - kidz [sic] today need to be aware of much more stuff (even useless stuff like Twitter) than people from past generations. There's a good TED talk on the subject from James Flynn last year here.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

South Downs Way 50 Race Report

I hadn't planned any races between the Spine in January and the Grand Union Canal in May because I half expected to still be in traction. However, when I inexplicably managed to survive without going the wrong way and running off a cliff, I decided to take up one of the last few places in the Centurion Running South Downs Way 50. This was a chance to get a longer run in before the GUCR, and also was a good way to recce the last half of the SDW100 in June. But more importantly, Centurion events are also one hell of a party.

After spending 2 hours driving the half hour trip back home after work (grr), I had to head straight out to brave the wonders of the M25 on a Friday night. I made it to Worthing just in time to pick up Bryan Webster and Dan Park from the station and order food from the pub before they closed. We met up with Sue Albiston, her daughter Becky and everyone's ultra-mum Nici Griffin who were patiently waiting for our arrival. After eating and talking b*llocks for a while, we headed off for a surprisingly good night's sleep at the Travelodge. Well, I had a good night's sleep anyway. But then I had a double bed to myself, not a teeny tiny single bed in the corner of the room like the other two. God bless shotgun rules.

We turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed at the start line to be greeted by the usual slick Centurion machine. Nici had recently joined the crew and had brought along her trademark panache for efficiency, and despite everybody's best efforts kit check and registration went without a hitch. It was great to see so many friendly faces, and I spent the whole time before the start chatting away to anyone who would listen (surprisingly I wasn't left talking to myself). It always amazes me how close it's possible to get to people that you only actually see about 4 times a year!

And they're off! And I'm already chicked... Photo courtesy of Pete Aylward of runphoto.co.uk

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Ultra Marathon Raffle to Raise Money for the Epilepsy Society


Last year I was hoping to arrange a weekend holiday event for ultra runners at CenterParcs toward the end of the year, but unfortunately it never really took off. One of the events that I had organised was a raffle of various ultra-related bits and pieces in order to raise money for the Epilepsy Society. I have been sitting on the prizes that were kindly donated and have been waiting for a good time to set it up again (but this time as a standalone online event). In the interim, Neil Bryant organised a similar raffle for the Facebook Ultrarunning Community page so I didn't want to step on his toes. But I think that enough time has passed that hopefully people will be interested in taking part.

Some of you may know that I suffer from epilepsy myself, although I am very lucky that it is kept completely under control through medication. Other people however are not so lucky, and the Epilepsy Society work tirelessly to help those for whom epilepsy can have a terrible effect on their way of life, as well as funding cutting-edge research to try and understand the disease. Whilst it is one of the most common neurological disorders in the UK, with around 1 in every 100 people suffering from the disease, we don't really understand much about it and a quite frightening number of people still think that it has something to do with demon possession! Very sad.

Anyway, it was actually raising money for the Epilepsy Society that got me into the world of ultra running in the first place, so I wanted to have another go at raising some money to help them in their work. I have been contacting as many people as possible to get as many awesome prizes lined up as possible, and have some pretty cool stuff including lots of signed gear from ultra elites like Mike Wardian, Ellie Greenwood, Mike Morton and Robbie Britton, as well as signed copies of some fantastic ultra-running books and free entries to some of the top races in the UK. There are more irons in the fire, so hopefully this prize list will only get bigger!

If you would like to enter the raffle, simply go to the Just Giving page above (or click on the Just Giving button on the top right of the blog page) and donate towards this amazing cause. For every £1 you donate we will put one ticket into the draw for you. Winners will be drawn on Saturday 21st June, and will be announced in the next edition of the free online ultra running magazine Ultra Tales (due out in July), as well as on this blog. 

There's a little bit of small print to be aware of, but it's nothing too concerning! Firstly, please be sure to leave your contact email address so that I can contact you after the draw to let you know that you have won. Also, please note that where applicable delivery of prizes is limited to the UK only (as it's all coming out of my pocket). But if you are from outside of the UK and would like to enter, I have no issues with sending things overseas if you are happy to put in a contribution for the delivery. Feel free to email me at stupiddrummer@hotmail.com if you have any questions.

The most important thing is that, if you would like to be included in the raffle, we will not be able to take Gift Aid on your donation, so please do not tick this option.

If you have any questions, or if you would like to donate a prize (the more the merrier!), then please email me at stupiddrummer@hotmail.com.

Prizes currently up for grabs include (please note that more prizes may be added as we approach the draw): 
  • Signed men’s running gear from 4-time USATF Ultrarunner of the Year Mike Wardian 
  • Signed Mountain Hardwear Race Vest from 2012 Ultrarunner of the Year Ellie Greenwood
  • Signed goodies from 2012 Ultrarunner of the Year Mike Morton, including the singlet he wore in his 1997 win at Western States (it's been washed, honest!)
  • Signed running gear and one month’s free coaching from UK Ultrarunner of the Year Robbie Britton
  • Signed copies of ‘Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons’ by iRunFar creator Bryon Powell (one of the best intros to ultra running around)
  • Signed copies of ‘Running and Stuff’ by James Adams (an incredibly funny story of an ordinary guy competing in an extraordinary race)
  • Signed copies of Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run’ by Dave Urwin (an incredibly moving and funny story of Dave's battle with addiction through running)
  • Free entry to South Downs Way 50 or North Downs Way 50 miler from Centurion Running
  • Free entry to the Challenge Running Stort 30 miler 
  • Free entry to the Inov8 “Plague” 100 Km Roseland Trail Series Race from Mud Crew Events
  • Free entry to the Likeys Brecon Beacons Ultra

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Top Shelf Ultra Mags

In this world of instant connectivity through the internet, it is very easy to keep up with the whacky world of ultra marathon running. If anything, it is possible to get overloaded by the amount of information available through blogs, websites such as IRunFar and Ultra168, and podcasts such as Ultra Runner Podcast and Talk Ultra. But if, like me, you can't get enough of it, here are a couple of magazines that you may find of interest.

First up is UltraRunning magazine, possibly the original source for all things ultra. Since its inception in 1981, UltraRunning magazine has given comprehensive results and reports from the US ultra scene, as well as reams and reams of stats and articles from some of the most knowledgable people in the sport. It is definitely American-centric, possibly making it a little less interesting to people from outside of the States, but there is still a tonne of information in there for anybody looking to improve their running. Plus many of the most well-known races are American anyway, so you can read all about your Western States and Badwaters in there. Until recently, it's been pretty difficult to get hold of in this country, but now you can order it directly from Ultra Marathon Running Store. The January/February edition of the magazine contains interviews with American ultra runners of the year Rob Krar and Michelle Yates, as well as a fantastic article from Ian Sharman about how to finish your first 100-miler and a great review of some of the latest trail running shoes on the market. The March issue is available now.

Monday, 17 March 2014

What to expect in 2014

Good grief. It's March! That's, like, a quarter of the way through the year. I've only just gotten used to writing "2014" instead of "2013". There's only 283 shopping days to go until Christmas! Okay, ignoring my histrionics, it is still a little late in the day to be writing a post about my plans for the year, but in fairness the season is only just starting really. Plus nobody cares anyway. Still, it's good to get this stuff down on paper, if only so I don't forget.

2013 was a bit of a damp squib running-wise, mainly due to an injury at Transvulcania which awkwardly occurred slap bang in the middle of my main series of races. Add to that the whole "having a baby" thing, and my running kind of fell by the wayside. Probably for the best to be honest. The end of the year was a case of getting rid of the remaining niggles and avoiding making things worse, which unfortunately resulted in pulling out of the Piece of String so close to the end. Still, it was all good fun, and I have had an amazing year getting to know my little girl! She's almost walking now, and is definitely not a baby any more. Her cheeky little personality should keep me on my toes in the years to come - I can't wait!

But now we're into 2014 and I have some plans. Things have settled a bit in my home life, in particular with respect to sleeping. She's still not sleeping perfectly, but it is a million times better than it was last year. And being able to sleep more than an hour at a time does wonders for your ability to run. Rehab on my knee went well last year due to some sensible decisions on my part, and some great work on the part of my physio, Chelsea Harding. So the only issue is that I have started the year in worse shape than I started 2013. It's not terrible, but I have definitely lost some speed. It's on the mend, and there's plenty of time to get myself sorted. But it will require not eating quite so much cake. Damn.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Obligatory "Why I Run" Blog

I started writing my blog purely to document my first ever ultra attempt - running home straight after the London Marathon in 2011. It was mainly for the benefit of my wife and family, so that they could see my progress and check that I wasn't lying dead in a ditch somewhere (you bet I would have blogged about that). This wasn't just my first ultra, it was my first marathon. So at the time I had no idea whether I could actually do it, and entirely expected to end up collapsing somewhere along the way.

My blog has evolved over the last few years into what I hope is an interesting and informative set of rambling diatribes into various aspects of running which have caught my attention over the years. And yet at no point have I covered that age old question - "why do I run"?

Or, more precisely, why do I run so far?

I'll say this first of all; up until a few years ago, I hated running. I did it sometimes in order to try and keep fit, but I didn't really enjoy it. My sport of choice at University was Tae Kwon Do, where I helped out as an instructor whilst finishing my PhD. Whilst I didn't enjoy running, I did enjoy dragging the more committed members of the club out on an early morning beast of a run every week. We would intersperse interval training and hill work with hardcore exercises like knuckle press-ups on the gravel (all in the age before Tough Mudder). By the end we were normally utterly destroyed. I loved that feeling! I was still pretty fit back then, although was a lot bigger than I am now - pure muscle of course...

Fast-forward a few years and we had moved to a new city for me to (finally) start a job. But my PhD had taken its toll somewhat as I was looking pretty chunky. I don't think I'll get away with saying this was muscle. Spending my life sat trying to write a thesis, with virtually no exercise, snack food rather than meals (my wife, Jen, used to have to "remind" me to eat when it got to midnight), and no sleep will do that. When we first moved to Cambridge I was working long days in my new high-profile post-doctoral position at the Sanger Institute (home of the Human Genome Project), then coming home and having to write my thesis until 3am to try and finish it. Man that sucked, although never getting out of that studenty lack of sleep mentality proved to be quite useful for both running and having children.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 3: Kit List

As promised, here is a relatively (maybe) brief run-down of the kit that I used in the Spine Challenger. Now, you might be wondering why you should take advice from somebody who DNF'd, but whilst I never managed the final few miles of the race, my kit choice allowed me to get through the distance that I did cover in comfort and with almost no ill after-effects. Of course, I say kit choice, but really I took what I could get, borrowing large amounts of gear from my brother-in-law Trevor. Luckily he is awesome, and that kit proved to be excellent! Right, here we go:


In My Pack

Backpack: Osprey Talon 33

This 33 L backpack is a relatively lightweight pack for a race like this. I wasn't sure at first that I would fit everything in there, but it is incredibly roomy with lots of additional pockets for secreting all of your gear. I put my roll mat, stove, sleeping bag, dry bag filled with spare clothes and dry bag filled with miscellaneous gear in the main compartment, my micro spikes in one side pouch, head torch in the other, mobile phone in one front waist pocket (for photo opportunities), lots of gels in the other front waist pocket, maps in the rear pouch and food in the top pouch. This kept everything nice and easy to find when I needed it.

I used the 3L bladder that came with it (although only used 2L at most), which has a very neat magnetic system for holding the feed tube across your body and out of the way. I used an insulating cover on the tube (stolen from my old-style Salomon running vest), and was sure to blow water back into the bladder to help prevent water in the tube freezing. The final weigh in came in at about 7.5 Kg without water, so I was probably carrying a maximum of 10 Kg. As the race went on, I ended up wearing more of the clothes from my pack, so it got a little lighter as well. All in all this was a pretty good weight, and I did very well to end up with such a light pack without having to spend the earth for some of the über lightweight gear.

I was a little worried that I would suffer from chaffing issues, particularly as the race was in fact the first time that I had ever run with it (it was borrowed from my brother-in-law). But actually it was very comfy, and didn't ride up or rub at all. If I ever do anything similar to this race again, I'll probably buy myself this pack.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 2: In Soviet Russia, Spine Cracks You!


I woke to the sound of my alarm an hour later, feeling groggy and not at all well-rested. In hindsight, I wish I had slept a little more at this stage, but I wanted to just crack on. In general I was feeling good. My feet were blister-free, and my legs were surprisingly not utterly trashed from the hills of the previous day. I seem to do surprisingly well with hills considering that I live in one of the flattest areas of the country. The closest I get to hill training is running upstairs when my daughter starts to cry. I was glad to have gotten myself clean and dry, and felt ready and raring to go.

The next section was going to be longer than the first, with about 60 miles to CP2 at Hawes. This would be the finish for runners on the Challenger, but less than halfway for those on the full Spine Race. Race Director Scott Gilmour told me that the forecast for the next day was going to be wet, windy and cold, so I should be prepared with all of my best gear. I wasn't going to make the same mistake as I made at the start, and got suited up from the beginning with several layers including my warm Montane Fireball Smock. Toasty warm! There would be no faffing with clothing once I headed out, no siree.


So you can imagine my annoyance when half an hour later, heading back up the winding forest path to the road, I found myself sweltering like a whore in a butchers shop. It was about 1:30 am and was actually a really pleasant night. The sky was clear and the stars were out in force, and whilst there was a crisp chill in the air, it wasn't nearly chilly enough to necessitate 4 arctic condition layers of clothing. Sigh.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 1: Where's a chiropractor when you need one?

I first heard of the Spine Race last January, when social networks were ablaze with stories of woe and suffering from the hardy soles taking part in this 268 mile jaunt along the Pennine Way. The route starts in Edale in the Peak Distract, and makes it's way north through the more interesting bumpy parts of the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and southern Scotland. Being January, and being Britain, the weather is normally wet, cold and miserable. Add to that the fact that you have to be pretty much self-sufficient, with checkpoints spaced up to 60 miles apart, and this is one tough proposition. Sign me up!

One for James Adams there
As the race approached, I realised that I was woefully underprepared. I hadn't even looked at what I needed to get for my kit (apparently shorts and t-shirt weren't going to cut it), had done no form of recce of any description, hadn't tried running yet with the sort of heavy pack I was going to need for all of the required gear, and hadn't really run any long distances at all due to an injury earlier in the year. I wasn't really relishing the idea of being away from my family for a week either, so decided to split the difference and do the easy version instead - the Spine Challenger.

Sorry - "easy" version.

The Spine Challenger is 108 miles, and is essentially identical in all things (required kit, start time, support on the course), except that you finish at the second checkpoint in Hawes.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

2013 Review (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Run)

Well that was 2013. From a personal perspective it has been an amazing year, with the birth of my gorgeous baby girl in February being the absolute highlight of my life so far. Watching her grow over the last 10 months has been incredible, and she is now a little person with her own (incredibly cheeky) personality. I can't wait to see what else she has in store for us over the years to come!

But from a running perspective? Meh.

It's been okay, but not the year I was hoping for. My training through last winter was great, and I came into 2013 feeling stronger and faster than ever before. My diet (by which I mean "what I was eating in general", and not that I was only eating a stick a stick of celery every day) was pretty good, so I was in pretty good shape.

But obviously with a baby on the way, this was interrupted somewhat to concentrate on the more important aspects of my life. That being said, I was still able to get a fair bit of running in, which is largely due to having such an amazing and understanding wife, and also due to being an early morning runner and getting a lot of miles in through commuting.

Since we didn't really know what to expect from the first few months of parenthood, my first race wasn't until the Viking Way at Easter. As it happens, the first few months were relatively easy, other than a severe lack of sleep. Obviously this affected how much I was able to get out for long runs, but since a lot of my running is done as commuting to work this was unaffected.

I hit the start line feeling pretty good, with a good finish in my sights. It started well, with Mark Cockbain telling me off for getting to the Aid Stations too quickly for them. Unfortunately some issues with navigation left me making some serious cock ups resulting in finishing second despite being over 2 hours ahead at one point. C'est la vie. You live and learn. That being said the race itself went brilliantly for me, and in particular was the furthest I had ever run. I recovered quickly and was back running a couple of days later which was a great sign for my conditioning.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Hoax email and website on "how to avoid cancer"

This is nothing to do with running, but I feel like the following is worth highlighting.

I was a bit disappointed yesterday to see this blog post being posted around Facebook from some of my friends. The blog purports to discuss new research from Johns Hopkins that essentially says that eating healthily and exercising is an effective alternative treatment for cancer than chemotherapy and radiotherapy. To quote:
"AFTER YEARS OF TELLING PEOPLE CHEMOTHERAPY IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRY AND ELIMINATE CANCER, JOHNS HOPKINS IS FINALLY STARTING TO TELL YOU THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE WAY…"
There then follows a point by point description of why cutting out sugar, milk and meat from your diet and exercising can replace nasty cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

Now believe me - I hate cancer. Like many of you out there, it has touched my life on a personal level, so much so that I actually moved fields while studying for my PhD to enter into the field of cancer genetics to try and help find a solution. And that is why articles like this really piss me off.

To be clear - this article IS A HOAX.

It is not just wrong advice. It is dangerous advice. Your first point of call, and the advice that should trump all others, is that from a medical professional. However, it is inevitably an incredibly difficult time, and of course anything that you can do to help is obviously encouraged. Complementary treatments are used by many people. But these should always be in addition to and never instead of medical treatment. 

One thing to remember is that a lot of research and testing has gone into chemotherapy drugs and the like, whereas alternative medicines have essentially zero regulation, and sometimes no credible research either. Research that is published in some back-woods journal that nobody has heard of might cut it in a relatively underfunded field like sports science, but I'm afraid that in this field any radical conclusions had better be based on research in a high impact journal.

This particular article is based on a hoax email that has been doing the rounds, and Johns Hopkins have released a press release specifically to combat the false claims made in this article. This rebuttal is very clear and succinct, so if you want a full run-down on everything that is wrong with this article (almost every single one of the "facts" is incorrect), then please read it. 

But I found myself making my own list of corrections for one of my friends when he was genuinely interested to find out what was wrong. I have copied and pasted my post below, which was written in haste to just cover some of the basic points to clearly show why you should not trust this information. There are probably some errors here, but I haven't bothered to correct it because I feel like there is a good lesson to be learnt here:

Please do not take medical advice from a blog!!!

First of all their interpretation of what a cancer cell is is very naive. Cells show mutations all the time, due to mistakes in the DNA replication machinery, or brought on by environmental factors like UV radiation, smoking, etc. But the body has an amazing system in place to check for errors and either correct them or remove them. If something happens that prevents these checkpoints from working correctly, cells can grow unchecked which leads to tumours. What we call "cancer" typically is a tumour which has also developed the ability to spread to other sites in the body by a process known as metastasis, where cells break away into the blood stream or lymphatic system. This is why it is so difficult to fight because they are not localised to one place, so chemotherapy is used to attack the cells throughout the blood/lymph system. So this idea that "cancer cells occur 6-10 times in your life" is erroneous. Mutations occur millions of times but generally don't do anything. This article follows the very basic idea that cancer is a thing. Cancer is a catch-all term for many, many diseases that result in uncontrolled proliferation of cells. 


The immune system is not really involved in fighting cancer - it's nothing to do with how strong it is. Cancer cells are not detected by the immune system because they are not invading cells. That's kind of the point - they bypass the intrinsic checkpoints so the body can't detect that there is a problem. 

Whilst diet is a risk factor for cancer, and obviously eating healthily is a good idea, there's no evidence that "when a person has cancer it indicates multiple nutritional deficiencies". 

Whilst it's true that chemo and radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells (that's why you feel terrible and have issues like hair falling out), they are actually incredibly specific in their action. But improving recognition of the malignant cells in one of many areas of research in the field. 

I've never heard of surgery causing cancer to spread - I believe that this is entirely untrue. 

The idea that cancer cells respond in any way to the foods that you eat is ridiculous. What you eat can act as a risk factor to whether you get cancer in the first place, but the micro-environment of the cells themselves is not dependent on how much sugar you put into your body. 

Addendum: Whilst the idea of generally eating healthier having an effect on the micro-environment for cancer growth (as seems to be the point of the email) is largely bunk, a few studies that do show how diet can be used as effective cancer treatments have been brought to my attention by Andrew Jordan in the comments below. Whilst these are much more extreme dietary changes than simply not eating cakes, they are very interesting. A couple of examples are the works of Valter Longo et al who show that fasting can lead to cellular changes that protect them from the damaging effects of chemotherapy, and the work of Adrienne Scheck et al who show that switching to a ketogenic diet (almost cutting out carbs entirely and increasing fat intake so that ketones are utilised instead) can be used to treat some neurological conditions (e.g. epilepsy and brain cancers) since ketones are not metabolised as efficiently as carbs in the aberrant cells. 

Cancer does not "feed on mucus". 

It's "Johns Hopkins", not John Hopkins. 

It's "dimensions" not dimmentions. 

Again, exercise is good for you, but not because it makes you breathe more. You can breathe as much as you like but you're not going to create an oxygenated environment that will prevent growth of cancer cells. 

Believe me, I hate cancer as much as the next person, and it was my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer that made me focus my research on cancer research. I now work in one of the top epigenetics labs in the world trying to do what I can to help in the fight against cancer. But articles like this are not just unhelpful, they are downright dangerous. This is very very bad advice, that will unfortunately be taken at face value by some people.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Two-Time Piece of String Finisher? I'm a Frayed Knot.

Blimey, what a day! Another year, another edition of the World's Most Pointless Race (TM) as 13 hardy souls (aka idiots) turned up on a Friday morning in Streatley to run the Piece of String Fun Run. Last year was the inaugural race and was brilliant despite a few teething problems (mostly due to the horrendous weather). But this year they were going all out!

After a brief race briefing ("please don't die") it was left to one of the runners to decide the fate of the group - an "honour" which I was bestowed with last year for paying my £1.47 donation to the RSPCA by internet transfer rather than by postal order (a far more embarrassing prospect, particularly when it costs £1.50 to get the order made up and you're holding up an entire room full of people waiting to cash in their giros). Ian Brazier was punished this year for forgetting to pay his entry fee, and picked one of the 5 pieces of string - which ended up being about 6 feet long. Did that mean anything?! Who the hell knew! But our fates had been sealed. With that, we were rather unceremoniously sent on our way out along the Thames Path, and were told that we would be intercepted somewhere along the way. And we were...
A bunch of stringers. Photo curtesy of Nici Griffin.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Halfway to a String Quartet

Well that came around fast! Tomorrow morning I embark once again to try and find the length of a Piece of String. The brain child of Messrs. Adams and Elson, the Piece of String Fun Run - The Most Pointless Race in the World (TM) - is an odd little race. There are 5 potential routes of differing length - anywhere from 1000 meters to 1000 miles. Nobody but the race organisers (and I guess some of the volunteers) know the exact route, and runners basically run until they either die, or are told they have finished.

The idea is to make it kind of a mind-fuck; if you don't know how far you've got to go, how do you pace it? How do you cope mentally when you can't say, "Only 50 miles left"? Depending on how you look at it, it may be the most fiendishly demonic race ever created (mwa ha ha etc), or the most pure form of racing imaginable.

Just run.

No pacing charts, no nutrition plans, no worrying about other competitors - just run.

Last year, I was one of only two people who successfully completed the inaugural event. The second person was Wouter Hamelinck, who I think everybody would agree was the winner - mainly due to his amazing navigational skills (mine; not so great!). Some people claimed it was clear proof of the benefit of ultra beards over ultra sideburns, but I will just point out that I believe our tally is currently 3-1 wins in my favour. Not that I'm counting of course...

Nobody is quite sure how far we ran last year. Not even the RDs. With heavy rain in the weeks preceding the event, the River Thames burst it's banks and much of the Thames Path became impassable. Well, if you're particularly precious about getting your feet wet. And knees. And thighs. And bollocks. It's health and safety gone mad I tell ya! But I was running for about 36 hours or so. Estimates of 120ish miles are probably not far off, although don't take into account all of the dicking about going the wrong way.

So having survived once, why in the name of Satan's gonads would I come back again?! Glutton for punishment?!

Honestly no. I thoroughly enjoyed the race last year. I have genuinely fond memories of the event, and I'm really looking forward to hopefully seeing some of the same trails again. It was just so simple. I stuck my headphones on, looked at the map, and was off. The psychology of it wasn't too bad because I was doing what I call "running stupid"; not thinking about goals, and not worrying about what was going on. Just enjoying a good audiobook (Game of Thrones) and seeing some new areas if the UK.

Okay, there were a couple of things that I didn't enjoy.

First of all I was absolutely shattered. I hadn't slept well the night before, and the race didn't start until midnight. I was knackered before we started. By the time I got towards my third sunrise in a row, I was a bit of a zombie. Luckily, a quick nap in a car on the middle of the Ridgeway at Paul Rowlinson and Luke Carmichael's checkpoint saw me to the end (which annoyingly was only about 10 miles later). This year though, the race starts at a nice leisurely 9:45am. With a baby that doesn't sleep and having not sleep more than a couple of hours at a time for the last 9 months, I plan on sleeping like a baby tonight!

Well, not my baby, but you get the idea.

The second thing that I didn't enjoy was the conditions. It rained a lot! I actually don't mind rain at all. Running in the rain is one of my favourite pastimes. What I don't love is when the mud is so thick and sloppy that you literally can't run. Trudging through the rain in November after 30 hours of running is far less fun than running through it at a snails pace, just getting colder and wetter. That was the closest I came to dropping last year, as my map had turned into papier mâché (I had one suggestion for James this year - buy a laminator!) and I couldn't move fast enough to get my core temperature up. But James gave me a good talking to and I stuck it out - and actually really enjoyed the next section.

This year, however, the weather appears to be far more conducive to running. I'm not sure what deal with the Devil James Elson has done to cause this new trend in perfect conditions at his races, but it should be a very different beast this year. Frankly I think this year's batch has it easy!

And then there's the distance. How far will it be? We won't know until later this weekend. I've either come woefully underprepared for a 300 miler, or this is going to be the most well-stocked 5K of my life! It may even be a completely different format to last year. I wouldn't be surprised to be bundled in the back of a van and driven out to the wilderness!

I'm just not thinking about it. I'm going to turn up, run and have fun. Of course this year hasn't been the best, training-wise, what with my gorgeous daughter being born, and various injuries along the way, so it will likely be a very different run to last year. So if you see me crying in a ditch somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, you have my permission to tell me "I told you so"!

So how long is a piece of string? I dunno - let's find out!