Saturday, 22 December 2012

How to Build a Tyre Pull

If like me you live in a flat area of the country, you might find it difficult to train for running in the hills. Whilst I get out to hiller terrain as often as I can, it is useful to have a method for building up climbing muscles on a day to day basis. One possibility that was suggested to me was to use a tyre pull; running while pulling a tyre along the ground behind you to increase the resistance as you run. I thought it might be useful to anybody else looking to do this if I put up step by step instructions for how I put mine together. I hope these are useful to somebody! I used Marshall Ulrich's blog post as a starting point, but simplified things a little. But check out his post for a good run down of other reasons why running with a tyre is a great way to build up your training (despite looking a bit strange to passers by). 

What you will need:

  1. 1x Tyre: You should be able to get one from a local garage for free. They have to pay to get rid of them so shouldn't mind you taking one away. I got two; a big one and a smaller one. That way I can switch between the two depending on how much resistance I want.
  2. 1x Weightlifting Belt: I got a cheap one from Sports Direct for less than a tenner. Make sure you get a strong one with some padding, and make sure it is quite wide to provide adequate lumbar support.
  3. Thin Bungee Cord (about 4 ft): Available from any hardware stores. This should be quite stiff, but provides some give for when the tyre catches on things as you run.
  4. Nylon Rope (about 8 ft): Available from any hardware store. I just got the widest that I could find.
  5. 1x Carabiner: Available from any hardware store.  

A) Any old tyre will do. The bigger and heavier it is, the more resistance it will give you. B) Everything is connected together with a carabiner, with a length of rope going to the tyre and a length of flexible bungee rope going to the weight belt. C) A wide weight lifting belt is best to provide adequate lumbar support.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

2012: A Retrospective (or "The Horribly Self-Indulgent End of Year Post")

The 2012 apocalypse will be just like the 2009 John Cusack movie - a result of bad writing, a massive mistake, and entirely unbelievable
As we all know, tomorrow is going to be the end of the world as we know it. After all, why wouldn't an ancient civilisation with no access to the advanced astronomical instrumentation that our own civilisation has developed be able to accurately predict the very day that the apocalypse will hit? Sigh. If you're worried about the end of the world at all, please bear two things in mind:
  1. It's not the end of the world. It's the end of 13th B'ak'tun, a measurement of 144,000 days used by the Mayans in their calendar system. As Tim Minchin points out, worrying about the end of the world based on this is like turning over December on your fluffy kitten calendar, seeing there's nothing else after it, then FREAKING THE HELL OUT. 
  2. Even if it is, what good will stocking up on candles do?
Okay, rant over. Anyway, now seems the perfect time to look back over the last year and take stock of how things have gone. 

It's odd to think that this has really been my first year of proper running. I ran my first ultra (the Northampton Shires and Spires Ultra) in the summer of last year, and ran a couple more throughout the second half of the year (including my first 100 miler at the South Downs Way Race a month later), but this year I really threw myself into things with a rather packed calendar. There have been some ups and there have been some downs, but overall it's been a good and (most importantly) fun year. 

Friday, 30 November 2012

Drymax Lite Trail Running Socks Review

When running for long distances there are many factors that can make the difference between a relatively comfortable experience, and an agonizing slog with the end nowhere in sight. Amongst the most obvious of these is the state of your feet, and for many people blisters can quickly put an end to what was once a fun experience. Blisters are typically due to a combination of excessive friction and a build up of moisture - two things that are only going to get worse if you are running a 100 miler. On my first 100 mile race last year, I got a hotspot on my forefoot within the first 10 miles and did nothing about it. Running over 90 miles on a gradually worsening blister is not much fun, and by the time I had finished it looked (and felt) pretty bad! However, with the correct choice of footwear it is possible to alleviate the causes of blisters and ensure that you have no excuses but to push on to the finish line!

As the main point of contact with your feet, choosing the right kind of socks can make a huge difference to your comfort while running. A cheap pair of Asda cotton socks might be fine for a quick jog around the block, but they probably won't last you long on the fells. There are several main types available to you, and as usual a lot of it will come down to what works best for you personally. I would love to give the foot-glove socks like Injinji and Wigwam a go (which have individual compartments for each of your little toesie woesies), but I am unfortunately a genetic freak with slightly webbed toes. I am hoping like hell that my daughter is born with Jen's perfect feet instead of my misshapen hooves! My good friend Dan Park has written a great comparison of the two from the point of view of a runner with normal feet here.

Until fairly recently, my sock of choice was the 1000 Mile Fusion sock, a twin layer sock designed in such a way that friction is reduced by allowing the dual layers of the sock to rub against one another. These have worked well for me over the years, but my main issue with them is that they are quite bulky, soak up moisture over long distances, and it is very easy for them to become rucked up inside your shoe which can lead to exactly the problems they purport to solve. These problems are particularly exacerbated on hilly terrain, as I discovered this year at the Lakeland 100.

As I have started to run more, I have found that I prefer to run as unencumbered as possible. With this in mind, I briefly entertained the idea of foregoing socks entirely by running in shoes such as the New Balance Minimus Trail 110s or the Salomon S-Lab Sense (drool...), which are designed with an inner liner to make them comfortable to wear sockless. However, I found that this led to rubbing on my little toe in the MT110s, so decided to look for a relatively minimal sock.

I have heard great things over the years about Drymax socks, but they were only available in the US and seemed to be quite difficult to get hold of. However, when Keith from the Ultramarathon Running Store announced that he was going to begin to stock them, I figured it would be a great time to try something new. Of the vast choice on offer, I decided in the end to go for the Drymax Lite Trail sock, firstly to go with my more minimal sensibilities, but also because I'm a stingy bugger! 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Piece of String Fun Run - November 2012

Piece of String

This weekend I took part in the inaugural Piece of String Fun Run (billed as the "world's most pointless race"), a novel idea for a race from the fevered mind of James Adams and co-organised by James Elson of Centurion Running to run in parallel with the Winter 100. The main concept for this race is that when it starts, none of the runners actually know how far they will be running. The race organisers devised 5 routes of different lengths, ranging anywhere from 100 meters to 1,000 miles, and one would be picked at the start of the race. 

To enter, runners were asked to send in photos of themselves looking as miserable as possible, and the organisers picked the 16 most horrific looking. Whilst I don't have any photos of me looking miserable (at least not running-related photos), I had recently performed a toe-nail-ectomy with a pair of pliers (as you do) and documented the process. If you particularly want to see it, just scroll right down to the bottom of the post - my feet have never been my sexiest feature! The starting list is an amazing "who's who" of ultra-endurance athletes, with world record holders, deca Ironman triathletes, cross channel swimmers (there and back again), and... me. James did say that there was one "sacrifical lamb" in the list - I suspect that I know who that was!

The race route was devised in such a way that we would be given a section to run, head off and run it, then either be given the next section or else be congratulated for finishing. The race itself is held in Streatley at the intersection of the Ridgeway and Thames Path National trails, with access to several other nearby trails including the Chiltern Valley Way. This gives plenty of scope for keeping these loops interesting and varied.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How long is a piece of string?

This time in 3 weeks I will have finished running the inaugural Piece of String Fun Run. Well, I hope so anyway. There is every possibility that I may still be going - who knows! For indeed, this is the concept of the run, and the reason for the otherwise confusing name; we don't know how far it is going to be! There will be multiple potential routes, ranging anywhere from 100 meters to 1000 miles (and beyond?!), one of which will be chosen on the day. We'll be given a section to run. We'll run. We'll return to the start. We'll be given the next section. We'll run. We'll return to the start. You get the picture. And we'll do this until the Race Director lays his hand on our shoulder and tells us "well done, you've finished". Or until we collapse in a heap and wait for the paramedics to rescue our battered corpses. Whichever occurs first I guess.

Well, that answers that question then. Sorted. From
The concept was thought up by the fevered evil minds of James Adams and James Elson. On paper, it doesn't sound so tough. It's in Oxfordshire, so the terrain won't exactly be up to Hardrock standards. We know the start time (despite their best efforts to lose some of us through the use of the ambiguous term "midnight Friday"), so there won't be any of the anticipation waiting for the conch shell to blow at Berkley. But the question is; if we don't know where the end lies, how can we mentally prepare for what's to come? When you inevitably feel like crap at mile 80 in a 100 miler, the fact that you only have 20 miles to go is a great mental boost. So how do you pull yourself out of the funk when you could be running for another 200 miles for all you know? Pacing is right out of the window, so this may end up as the slowest 10k of all time. Or I may be sprinting a 300 miler. The point is, it's going to be a bit of a mindf*ck, and I guess I'm just going to have to see how I get on. My saving grace is that I figure that mind games don't work so well on idiots like me!

But this got me thinking: how far can a person actually run without stopping? By not stopping I mean running with no obvious rests like stopping to sleep, whilst toilet stops, walking breaks and aid station stops are all part of the game and are going to be difficult to avoid. Obviously it is not possible to run forever, but history has certainly shown that we humans can run a really, really long way. From persistence hunting (essentially chasing your prey all day until it can't run any further) of the !Xo San bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, through Pheidippides' running 150 miles from Athens to Sparta to request help against the attacking Persians, to Pam Reed running 300 miles with no sleep in under 80 hours (narrowly pipping Dean Karnazes to the 300 mile record), there are plenty of feats throughout the ages that make "only" running 26.2 miles look like a walk in the park (of course  I'm talking purely distance here - the marathon is a much faster event, but let's not get into that debate here).

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Norfolk Ultra 100km - 13 October 2012

Last weekend I took part in the AdventureHub Norfolk Ultra 100km race along the Norfolk Coastal Path from Kelling Heath Holiday Park, out towards Wells-Next-The-Sea (grammar is apparently not their strong suit up in Norfolk) and Brancester, then back again. I had originally planned on leaving October free from races to make sure that I was fresh for the Piece of String Fun Run in November after UTMB and my recent mountain marathon training weekend, but I had pencilled in the Norfolk race as a possibility in case I inevitably decided I wanted to get a run in and could convince Jen to let me disappear off for the day. The Norfolk coast is pretty close to where I live near Cambridge, and so I woke at 4am on Saturday morning and drove to the start at Kelling Heath.

The organisers had prepared a number of route cards and maps, as well as a very in depth power point presentation showing the most difficult sections of the run. Together with the route loaded onto my Garmin (and the fact that it's a pretty simple case of keeping the sea on your right on the way out, and on your left on the way back), I was comfortable that navigation wasn't going to be an issue. It was very cold at the start of the race, and I was itching to get moving. The countdown came and we were off! I was planning on running "to feeling" as much as possible today so I set off at a comfortable pace and quickly found myself in a small front pack of runners including Mark Collinson (winner of last year's South Downs Way 100). Of course Mark (and indeed all of the other runners in front of me) were actually running the marathon and not the ultra. I may possibly have set off a teensy bit quickly... But things felt comfortable so I wasn't too worried.

The terrain is pretty easy along this route, and in fact is very similar to the sort of terrain I am used to running on around Cambridgeshire: grassy banks along the waterways, fields, single track trails, all very very flat! The only terrain that was likely to throw up an issue were the two beach sections that we would have to negotiate on each leg of the course - one consisting of a 2 mile ridge of shingles at the top of the beach towards the first checkpoint, and another consisting of a 3 mile section of sandy dunes. Despite the forecast, the weather was pretty perfect, so we approached the first beach section to run the top of the shingle ridge under beautiful blue skies. I kept things steady over this section, trying not to waste too much energy running through the loose pebbles. Keeping a low foot fall, and landing relatively flat-footed seemed to be the optimum approach to this section and worked quite well for me. As we approached the car park at the end of the beach, it quickly became apparent that the first checkpoint was nowhere to be seen. Bugger. I had only brought a small bottle with me to avoid having to carry too much, but luckily had been drinking to thirst and so had plenty left to last me to checkpoint 2 at 13.1 miles (the turnaround for the marathon runners).

miCoach Review

As the writer of a vaguely interesting (or so I am told - frankly, I don't see it...) running blog with at least one reader (hi Mum!), I am often contacted by companies asking me to put information regarding their latest running innovations or gizmos out to my millions of readers (ha!). My favourite so far was the Mizuno Be training shoe - a shoe designed to be worn when you're not training to improve performance. It's based on the Waraji sandals that the Samurai used to wear, and Samurai were awesome, so they must be good. It's a clever way of getting in on a huge market that nobody even knew existed before this. I'd be really interested to see the scientific research that shows the benefit of these!

Typically I tend to ignore these requests, but one did catch my eye. I received a request to review a new game for the XBox 360 Kinect, Adidas MiCoach, which claims to deliver "a feature-rich, sports-specific approach to home console training systems and offers unparalleled connectivity, further enabling the millions of people worldwide who interact with the miCoach system through mobile apps and to extend their training programme into their living rooms". The main reason that this caught my eye was that I own a Kinect but never use it for anything, what with it typically being incredibly unreliable. There are plenty of fitness games available on Kinect, but I have never actually tried any of them. I was interested to see if this kind of computerised coaching could be used to provide a suitable platform for improving my running performance.

The premise is that you can set up a training plan specific to your needs, and you are guided through it by 18 top Adidas athletes to help you get the most from your training, including Jessica Ennis who seems to be one of the main selling points of the game in this country (I confess I have no idea who any of the others are, but then I don't really watch much sport). I typically do all of my training alone and have a pretty good routine at the moment, but my hope was that an external entity (even if it is purely artificial) could work to motivate me to push harder than I would otherwise on my own. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ultramarathon Running Research Project - Pilot Study

Towards the start of the year, I contacted James Elson (Race Director of Centurion Running) about an idea that I had had. I had recently read a few papers by Martin Hoffman's group from the Western States Research Committee looking at factors that affected a runner's ability to complete the Western States 100 mile race. I had also signed up to the Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking project at Stanford, which aims to follow ultrarunners and track their health over many years. I thought that it might be quite interesting to do some of our own researchr here in this country, and thought that James' series of 100 mile races was a perfect opportunity to do something similar, as they are very well organised, they are quite homogenous in their organisation, and James has a particular interest in delving into the stats behind ultra running.

The plan that I proposed to him was to create a couple of surveys for runners of his events to fill in: one before the race, asking questions relating to the runners themselves (biometrics, professional status, running history, etc.); and another survey after the event asking questions relating to how the race went, what their strategy was for the race, their nutrition, etc. By putting this information together with the split times from the event itself, my hypothesis was that we may be able to see some trends dropping out from the data. Yes, this is the kind of thing that I do for "fun"!

In the short term, this approach would give us a good overview of the race itself, the sorts of people who entered, and which runners took a sensible approach to racing. But my main aim was for the long term, building up a database of survey results and race performances for ultrarunners that, over time, will allow us to look at more specific questions relating to performance: Do certain training choices improve your chances of finishing a 100 mile race? Are certain racing strategies more likely to result in a finish/win? Do people with green eyes run faster than people with blue eyes? These burning questions and more may well be answerable in the future from such a database.

To kick things off, we organised a pilot project for the South Downs Way 100 at the end of June. This went very well, and we found some (I think at least) very interesting things from this that bode very well for the future. James has created a research page on the Centurion Running website where you can download the report that I put together (using my official "Dr" title to make it seem to people that don't know me that I have some air of professionalism about me...). Alternatively, I have replicated the report below so that I have a record of it on my little blog. Hopefully you find it interesting, and any comments will be gratefully received. Hopefully we can get even more people interested in taking part in the full project at next year's races!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Adding GPS Routes to Your Garmin

While many trail races are marked to some degree, it is all too easy to get lost which can throw your race plans completely out of the window. When racing for a position, I don't really want to have to be checking a map every 5 minutes. Ideally, recceing the route is the best way to be sure of avoiding any geographical incongruities, but this isn't always possible.

An alternative that I have found to work is to plot the route out on Google Earth, and add it onto my Garmin watch so that I have it available for a quick look while running. This post is just a quick "How To" in case you want to try something similar. Here I focus on Garmins, so if you use anything else you will need to work out how to get the file onto your device on your own I'm afraid!

Step 1: Create the route on Google Earth

Google Earth is a pretty great tool and allows you to view the terrain overhead from Google's secret military satellites. It's fantastic for making out paths and things, especially when used in conjunction with OS Maps and things like that. Once you've used it a few times, you get used to working out where the field boundaries are and which routes are tracks that you can run across. Working out which is the path you are looking for is half the fun!

This is Google Earth. They are watching you...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Stuff you need to run an ultra

I'm pretty new to this whole ultra running malarchy, but one thing that I seem to have done quite well with in my short time running is my kit. More so than with shorter distances, choosing the right kit for you is incredibly important if you want to complete your run in the most comfortable and safe way possible. If you've ever had a blister, you know how annoying and painful it can be. Now imagine running 90 miles on it (yep, I've done that). But blisters don't have to happen if you find the right combination of footwear. Ever been caught up a mountain in shorts and a t-shirt and it starts snowing (yep, I've done that too)? Should probably have prepared for the weather turning. 

I often see the same questions being asked by people looking to get into the sport; "Which shoes/socks/bag/jacket/etc. should I use?". In my opinion, the answer to all of these questions is very simple; "Whatever works for you". Everybody is different and what works for one person may not work for another. I have bought several items on the recommendation of people telling me they were perfect for what I needed, only to find that they really did not work for me. But it's no biggy - I just tried something else. Eventually you will find something that does exactly what you need.

Personally, I am generally something of a frugal (read "stingy") runner, so I try and find cheap equipment that does the job where possible. Also, once I find something that works I pretty much stick to it; "If it ain't broke..." and all that. I thought that I would do this post to go through some of the kit that I use, but concentrate more on my reasons for choosing the kit that I use (which hopefully will help if you are trying to decide what you are looking for), rather than what I actually use. 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, 2012

For the past week I have been following various people on twitter showing off the fabulous weather around Chamonix; beautiful blue skies, glorious sunshine, temperatures above 30 degrees. It was therefore slightly disappointing to arrive in Chamonix on Thursday to cold weather, a lot of rain, and a massive bank of grey cloud where the mountains should have been. Yes, unfortunately the weather gods were not smiling on the UTMB for the third year in a row, and with rumours of another shorter route a la 2010, the disappointment was palpable.
Somewhere behind those clouds there's a mountain with my name on it!
I traveled over to Chamonix with James Elson, who unfortunately had suffered the UTMB curse on his previous trip in 2010. He was, understandably, not amused. We were kindly offered a lift by Richard Felton who was driving over with his girlfriend Kady. Somehow we managed to displace his parents, but they didn't seem to mind!

Monday, 27 August 2012

UTMB - Prelim

This time next week, I will hopefully be recovering having spent my weekend running around the Mont Blanc mountains in France/Italy/Switzerland. The Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB to those in the know) is possibly the most well known ultra event in the entire world (with the possible exception of the Marathon des Sables) despite only being in its tenth year, and even occasionally gets some TV coverage on Eurosport.

The route itself is a 168 Km (104.4 miles in real money) jaunt around the highest mountain range in the Alps, with a crazy elevation profile giving us 9,600 m (31,500 ft - bloody Europeans...) over the entire route and hitting a maximum altitude of 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level. So there's a few hills to worry about. Can't wait!

Start of the 2009 UTMB - that's a whole lot of people! (From
This is my 'A' race for the year, and may well be the only chance I'll have of ever running it, so I had better make it count! Following on from my finishing time of 17 hours at the SDW100, and the fact that the small portion of the Lakeland 100 that I did felt pretty good hill-wise (until I went over on my ankle - let's not do that this time), I tried to predict a finishing time. I figured that 24 hours was a good shout, giving me an extra 7 hours to deal with the extra 20,000 feet of ascent. However, a quick check of the previous years' results suggests that this would put me in the top 10 - highly unlikely! Hmm. So I have been doing more research, following the blogs of others who have run it and have tried to come up with a more realistic finishing time. My aims are (in decreasing order of importance to me):

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Other Side - North Downs Way 100

This weekend was the third event in the Centurion Running grand slam of 100 mile races for the year - The North Downs Way 100. This event was the first race organised by James Elson and team last year (to much appraise) and so this event marked a nice anniversary for what has quickly become one of the premier ultrarunning race series in this country. After a year of running ultras, I thought that it was about time that I gave something back to the community, so contacted James to see about helping out over the weekend in whatever way that I could.

As a handy coincidence, my friend Dan Park was using this event as his first 100 miler, so this gave me the opportunity to help him out as well, acting as a sneaky crew if necessary, and more importantly getting him home to his wife and newborn son in one piece. We drove down to the start at Farnham on Friday afternoon, where I would be helping out with the registration process. James immediately got me to work, bashing out flags outside the car park, selling maps to under-prepared runners (does nobody read the instructions?!), arranging drop bags, talking bollocks to anybody that would listen, and even those that wouldn't, etc. Neil Bryant - winner of this year's Viking Way and Hardmoors 110 (I really want that sword...) - was also helping out, and it was really good to finally meet him in person. Neil is off to run across Europe in a couple of days, and hopefully his nasty ankle injury from UTSW will not affect his 64 day run. His physio has given him up to 20 days - I think he needs a second opinion!

After chewing the fat with James, Neil and the various runners trickling through the registration process, Dan and I disappeared off to chew the fat at the Brewer's Fayre next to the Travel Lodge we were staying at. Fully carbed up (why the hell I was carb loading I have no idea?) we went to bed, safe in the knowledge that we had a personal guarantee from Lenny Henry that we would have a great night's sleep.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Lakeland 100 - July 2012

This weekend I took part in the Lakeland 100, a 105-ish mile jaunt through the Lake District, one of the bumpier areas of Great Britain. Only 4 weeks after the South Downs Way 100, and 5 weeks before the Utra Trail de Mont Blanc (my 'A' race for the year), a 21,00 ft climb along some seriously tough terrain was perhaps not my best laid plan. I actually signed up to Lakeland last year thinking that I would never get a place in UTMB (I did) and because, in 2011, it was one of the 12 events of the Runfurther series of ultras, and would give me both a fantastic jaunt through the Lake District and also count as one of my 4 races required (it is no longer a Runfurther race this year). Bad planning all around methinks!

"Who put this lake here?" Lake Windermere halts my drive to Coniston. Stupid SatNav...
I very nearly decided to miss the race and come back another year to give the race the focus that it deserves, particularly when Mimi Anderson wagged her finger at me and told me off for even contemplating it. I tried to swap onto the 50 mile event, or get my entry postponed until next year, but to no avail (not that I expected to be able to - it must be a logistical nightmare anyway, so it's not like they need me messing things up because I'm a numpty). In the end, I decided to go along anyway, thinking that it would be a good way of getting some hill training in the legs. I figured that I would run to how I felt, and wouldn't worry if I had to pull out. My goals (in priority order) were as follows:

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

South Downs Way 100, June 2012

Well. What a difference a year can make!

This weekend marked my "official" return to ultra running after my DNF at the Thames Path 100 miler in March. Since coming off my bike a week before the race, then running over 70 miles on what would later turn out to be a pretty dodgy ankle, I have been desperately attempting to recover and avoid missing any further races (already failing to make the Viking Way and a Bob Graham Round attempt with Chris Baynham-Hughes). Some aggressive electro-accupuncture from my physio Chelsea Harding and slowly building up my training seemed to be working well. A top 10 finish at the Northants Shires and Spires 35 mile ultra, 3rd place at the Willingham 7.7 mile Fun Run, and a first place finish at a random 5 Km Fun Run in Swavesy that I joined by accident after spotting it on my cycle ride home suggested that things were on the mend. But the big question was; could my ankle withstand a full 100 miler?

This time last year I ran my second ultra - the South Downs Way 100 mile race, running along the beautiful SDW between Eastbourne and Winchester. This was somewhat of a passion project for the race director Jen Jackson, who organised the first event in 2010 with about 35 runners. The 2011 event would be her last event, but she decided to hand over the reigns to someone who could do the route justice. Step in James Elson from Centurion Running, who had wanted to organise an event on the SDW National Trail but had not wanted to step on Jen's toes. He took over the race (with a few tweaks including changing the direction to take advantage of the westerly winds) and added it to his set of 100 mile races (Jen took part in the inaugural rebirth of the race and you can read her report here). Last year I came 5th in a time of 22:10:00, so I was really looking forward to seeing how much difference I had made in the last year.

Despite only having a month or so to really build my training back up, I was feeling strong. Chelsea seemed much happier to let me run this race than she had been at the Thames Path. I was therefore a little peeved to wake up on the Wednesday before the race with a fever coming on and... let's just say "stomach problems". I was a bit worried that I was coming down with something, but a day of drinking water and dioralyte to stay hydrated seemed to keep things in check. So when race weekend finally came around, I was feeling happy. There was no excuse this time!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pacing the Western States Endurance Run

I recently saw a post on the Runner's World Sweat Science blog regarding pacing of swimmers and runners, and how this affects their performance. One of the papers that is discussed is this paper by Tucker et al. (2006), which shows pacing over a number of intervals for world record times at a variety of middle distance events (800m, 5 km, and 10 km). The results of this study seem to suggest that the optimum way to run these events is to go out strong at the start, settle into an even pace for the majority of the event, then finish strong again at the end (a so called parabolic profile):

A "parabolic" pacing strategy seems to be optimal for middle distance events (from Tucker et al.  (2006) c/o Sweat Science)

So I got to thinking - is there an optimum way to run a 100 mile event? Now, I think that this is a very difficult question to answer. Unlike track events, the terrain and conditions for a 100 miler event are so variable that judging pacing becomes a complex interplay between many different factors throughout the race; weather conditions, ground conditions, elevation change, fueling, hydration, navigation, gear choice - there is just much more to consider, and much more that can go wrong. Even ignoring the variable effects like weather, the elevation profile and terrain is so different between any two races, coming up with a simple strategy that would apply to all races is likely impossible. The optimal pacing strategy for UTMB (31,496 ft of ascent) is unlikely to be the same as that for the Thames Path 100 (2,100 ft of ascent) for instance.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Shires and Spires 2012

This month was a landmark in my life as an ultra runner, as it marked a year since I ran my very first ultra - the Northants Shires and Spires ultra, organised by Go Beyond. It didn't exactly go to plan. But hey, I've never been one to take the easy route with things, so why run just 35 miles through the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside when you can run 42? A slight geographical embarrassment resulted in a wrong turn only a few miles from the finish, and I ended up going in completely the wrong direction before looping back on myself to an earlier point on the route. But not this year! This year I had something to prove, and a year of running ultras has resulted in me now being an expert navigator who never, ever, ever gets lost. No siree. Never.


It was touch and go whether or not I would be able to run this race, as I have been suffering from a problem with my hip and with my ankle since coming off my bike in the winter (not helped by running the Thames Path 100 about a week after the accident). Since the TP100, I had not been able to run more than a few miles, but some expert physiotherapy by my good friend Chelsea Harding seemed to be improving things. The previous week, I had been told that I could begin to increase my mileage, but only by 10%. So that weekend I went out and ran 18 miles on the Saturday and an 8 mile race (coming third which was surprising!) on the Sunday. Well, she didn't say the time period the 10 % increase should be over, so I just increased it every hour until the weekend! Oopsie. But all seemed well, and I was now running with minimal pain. But would I be able to run 35 miles having done no training for 3 months?

Friday, 20 April 2012

Are ultrarunners slow?

So tell me if you've heard this one before?

"Pft. Ultra running? Ultra walking more like!"

Reading around various forums and blogs, it seems that some people have a negative view of ultrarunners. The main trope seems to be the opinion that ultrarunners are slow, and are basically speed-walking. Other more extreme views are that ultrarunners are failed marathon runners who weren't able to cut it. Rather than putting in the training to push their marathon PB to a new level, they just go a little bit further.

Of course, the obvious response to this is that, well, I'm sure 100m sprinters look at marathon runners and think exactly the same thing. My wife was a 200m sprinter when she was younger, and she couldn't understand why anybody would want to run any further than that. So if ultrarunners are slow and shambling in the eyes of some marathon runners, does that mean that marathon runners are viewed in the same way by sprinters? No. There is mutual respect - they're just two very different events; one focuses on pure explosive power, while the other focuses on endurance. When you get up to ultra distances, particularly those out on the trails, up mountains, or in other inhospitable parts of the world, additional factors come into play - gear selection, nutrition, hydration, pacers and crew are all important for marathon racing but are more complex for ultras, plus you also may have to deal with tougher terrain, navigation, etc. Is it any surprise that ultrarunners are slower than marathon runners when running up and down mountains?

But even despite this, is it really fair to claim that ultrarunners are slow? In many of these discussions, it seems to me that the comparisons being made are between top-class marathon runners and the average middle of the pack ultrarunner who typically is not out for a podium place, and is just there for the experience and the love of running. But there are ultrarunning guys and girls out there with blisteringly fast times. So when we compare apples with apples and look at the times for the top marathon runners vs. the top ultrarunners, does the accusation of being slow still stack up?

I decided to do a bit of digging; a bit of Google-ing and Wiki-ing and I had put together a list of the fastest times over a range of distances ranging from 100 meters to 100 miles (apologies if I've got any of these wrong, but if it's on Wikipedia it must be true...):

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Thames Path 100 Race Report

This weekend saw the inaugural running of the Thames Path 100, the first of four races arranged for this year in the UK by Centurion Running. The race follows the River Thames as it stretches from Richmond in London, all the way over to Oxford. This obviously offers several benefits as far as running 100 miles goes: Firstly, it's flat as hell with a grand total of 2,100 ft of elevation gain (most of which comes from bridges), and secondly, it's easy to follow (just stay as close to the river as possible without getting wet and you'll be fine). However, as we were all about to find out, there is no such thing as an easy 100 miler!

 Ready and raring to go at the start!

With a couple of weeks to go, I was feeling pretty darn good about this race. Despite a few issues, I had had a great run at the Pilgrim's Challenge, and had even gone so far as recceing the route. I had found all of the points where I would likely go wrong during the final 50 miles and had burnt them into my memory, and had another recce planned to check out the first 50 miles later in the week. I was feeling strong! I was feeling prepared! I was feeling like I was going to absolutely smash it!
I was feeling like a complete bloody idiot when, just over a week before the race kicked off, I skidded off my bike and landed heavily on my right hip. Crap.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Watch us recce the mic... Psyche!

I am well known amongst my friends for my navigational prowess. So much so that I have been dubbed "Sam-Nav" by some. Unfortunately, it is my apparently poor navigation and innate lack of direction that have earned me this name, never more apparent than my 120 % coverage of the 35 mile Shires and Spires ultramarathon last year. I maintain that my various navigational misgivings and geographical embarrassments have been a result of bad luck rather than any defunct internal compass, but to be on the safe side I have decided to improve my chances of success this year by recceing some of the routes that I am due to run in the next few months to get a feeling for the points where I am most likely to go wrong.

My first big race for this year is the Thames Path 100 on the first weekend in March, and for me this is my race to shine and get a nice fast 100 mile PB. It's pretty much completely flat, following as it does the River Thames from Richmond to Oxford. I headed out to Henley-on-Thames (the halfway point) at 4:30 am, with an aim to leave the car at the station, run the 50 miles to Oxford, get the train back to Henley, and drive back again afterwards. It was going to be a long day! The weather was pretty much perfect - crisp and icy underfoot, but sunny and clear. Allan Rumbles had been out a few days earlier on the same section and found the mud to be difficult to negotiate. For me, it was nice and firm with the cold wintery temperatures. I got going at about 7:30 am, heading West and following the signs for the Thames Path, as well as the handy map created by James Elson which I had uploaded to my Garmin.

It was a lot colder than this picture may indicate!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Pilgrims' Challenge - February 2012

Despite all of the turkey and other frivolities of the festive season, I have been surprisingly good and kept up with my training. But I was very excited to finally get back down to racing at the Pilgrims' Challenge race, a 2 day event organised by Extreme Energy (XNRG) along the North Downs Way. The race itself is a 33 mile run from Farnham to Merstham on the first day, followed by running back again the following day. With a total height gain of 6,700 ft each day, it was a great way to get a few hills onto the legs. There were three starting groups, and I had been placed into the "elite" group (ha!), starting a little later in the morning. This meant that I got a nice long lie-in until 5am, then drove straight down to the start line.

A festival atmosphere at the start (right down to the dodgy portaloos...)

It was pretty chilly (down to -9 degrees C I believe), and I got some funny looks turning up in shorts and a long sleeved t-shirt. I wanted to try and limit the amount that I had to carry, so used a handheld bottle and my small Salamon pack with a small amount of water (for backup), my teeny tiny Montane jacket, and a couple of gels. I had downloaded the GPS route onto my Garmin as I was determined to not suffer my usual geographical embarrassment, and was all set to go.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Onwards and upwards (figuratively and literally)

Last year was my first "ultramarathon season", although realistically what that means is that I ran a few ultras in the latter half of the year, along with a bunch of shorter races as well. This year, I have decided to concentrate on longer ultras, and have signed up to some real corkers! I'm really excited to get the ball rolling again in a couple of weeks, and see how my first real season progresses!

So here are the main races that I will be focusing on this year:

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Tick tick tick...

I recently wrote a blog post looking at a recently published paper looking at the effects of endurance sports on cardiac function. Or, more specifically, I was looking at the reporting (and unsurprising overhyping) of this story by the media. What struck me while looking through the comments section of the Daily Mail's take on the story was how many people believe in the idea that we are all allocated a certain number of heartbeats in our lives, and so we shouldn't waste them doing stupid things like running marathons. As in example, this is a quote from Bobby from Inverness:

"You are allocated only so many heartbeats for a lifetime - don't waste them up in silly fruitless 'exercise' - live longer, have a nap"

I suspect that this quote was actually written in jest, but it seems that a lot of people think like this and use it as another excuse not to exercise. The theory is that, since when we exercise our heart beats faster, every hour of exercise is using up 2 or 3 hours of your life that you could be sitting on the sofa doing nothing. Now don't get me wrong - I like to lounge on the sofa as much as the next person. In fact, my second biggest hobby is playing on the XBox; an interesting juxtaposition to my favourite hobby of running. But could I really be reducing my lifespan with all of this running?

First of all, let's look at this theory. It's actually quite an interesting premise, and the evidence for it seems to come from the idea that animals with shorter lifespans have quicker heart rates than those with longer lifespans. So if you take the average lifespan of a species (in minutes) and multiply it by the average heartrate (in beats per minute), you get an estimate for the average number of beats of the heart in a lifetime. And this value seems to be similar amongst different species. I was pretty skeptical, so decided to have a look at a few examples for myself:

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Hoka One One Review

I recently got a test pair of Hoka One Ones from the kind folk at Castleberg Outdoors, so was interested to see if they could help with my running at all. I'm generally of the opinion that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and currently I am very happy with my combination of Mizuno Wave Inspire road shoes, and Salomon Speedcross trail shoes. However, I had heard such great things about the Hokas (a Mouri word meaning "time to fly") that I decided to give them a go, and have been testing them out over the past 5 weeks.

For anybody that has not yet heard of these shoes, they are somewhat of a hybrid between minimalist shoe design tenets (e.g. a low 4mm heel drop to encourage good running form), combined with a frankly ludicrously thick sole (roughly 2.5 times the size of a normal shoe midsole) to reduce impact stress on the joints for ultra endurance running. Famous runners currently using (and loving) these shoes include Mimi Anderson, Karl Meltzer, and Dave Mackey. They come in three flavours; the Bondi Bs (for road), the Mafates (for trail) and the Combo XTs (for both). I was expecting a pair of the Combo XTs, but due to a mixup in the pre-Christmas rush I ended up being sent a pair of Bondi Bs. However, I figured they should give me a good sense of how the technology works for me.

My first impressions were that they looked a little like a pair of MBTs (Masai Barefoot Technology), which are designed to be unstable and require activation of your core muscles to stay upright. I was also a little worried that they were going to feel like running in platform shoes. However, straight out of the box they felt absolutely fine, with no feeling of imbalance. I was recommended to go up a size from my usual trail shoes, but even these felt a little tight around the midfoot and the toe box. It is possible that I could have gone up another half size, but they were not uncomfortable. They are also surprisingly light given their appearance, and give an odd springy sensation when you walk in them (although I didn't notice this when running).