It has been some time since I last wrote something for here. To be honest, I sometimes forget I even set up a blog in the first place. Being a mid-pack ultrarunner, most people would have no interest in my running thoughts in general, I am sure. But every now and then I want to put something up as a way of possibly helping others new to the world of Ultra’s, like I was this time last year, and explaining where I am at currently.
Talking of this time last year, I was starting to get very excited that for the last full weekend of June, I would be in California to crew for Jez Bragg at the Western States Endurance Run. I only met Jez in January of 2012 but we have since become good friends and I am a huge admirer of what he has achieved and his incredibly down to earth and humble demeanour. Western States last year did not go as he had hoped, but for me it was a simply incredible experience. This is the race that gets my heart beating a little faster and probably occupies my thoughts at least four or five times a day. It would be fair to say I am obsessed with running it and to have had the opportunity to crew for Jez and stay in the same chalet as Mike Wolfe, his family and crew and Lizzy Hawker, was a pretty incredible introduction to the most high profile and sought after 100 mile race in the ultra world.
After I returned from Western States, my attention turned to my first ultra, the North Downs Way 50, which was held in mid-August. Last year the 50 mile race was held on the same day as the full 100 mile race, with two different set off times. However, this year the races have been split with the 50 in May and the 100 in August, which is great for runners like me who wish to cover both distances but on the same course.
The main problem with crewing for an elite at such a high profile race, aside from the pressure to deliver, is that even on an off-day, someone like Jez makes it look easy. So I think I went into the NDW50 slightly complacent. I had run a personal best at the London Marathon in April and felt I would comfortably cover the 50 mile distance in the 11 hours or less, which was the qualification time to go into the Western States lottery for 2013 (see my full race report for more of that, below). It didn’t happen for me that day and I missed out by 41 minutes.
In the year since, I have been doing a lot of thinking, research and training so that I can come back in just over two weeks time and hit that qualification milestone.
Virtually every piece of equipment I will be using for the race this year has been changed. Looking back, I was very much the new kid at school that day back in August and I learnt a lot from the experience. I had not run the course before the race, aside from the area around Guildford that I knew of (which turned out to be the easiest section), and was complacent about the elevation gain, living in hilly Somerset.
Virtually all of my training had been on roads, hilly ones, but still roads. This was not adequate and I was not prepared for running technical terrain. Since August I have only run on roads if they lead to trails and footpaths. Every other bit of running has been cross country. This has strengthened my feet, ankles, legs and adapted my stride for the course and for the type of running I wish to do from now on. At first I slowed a lot to get used to it, but have since sped up considerably and grown in confidence, particularly on steep terrain.
I have made sure that my runs are now on very steep footpaths, with opportunities in-between to run on flat technical terrain, which will represent the north downs well. I have run on the south west foot path, where my parents live in Devon, run the endurancelife Dorset ultra, trained on the UTMB course in the Alps and run daily cross country around Bath. I have increased my mileage and now average 10 miles a day before work and a 25 mile run every Saturday.
In addition to training, I have tried to improve my diet. I still like junk as a treat but my wife and I now certainly eat a lot less. The big cut out has been fizzy drinks where possible. I don’t drink these at work or home now and only have them when out or visiting friends and family. My diet could still be improved massively, and no doubt will. I am certainly aware I need to improve it, but one step at a time. The focus has been on training and better equipment. After this season, diet is the next one. Honest…
So training has been a lot more appropriate and, well, a lot more of it. A 25 mile run now doesn’t hurt like it did last year. I feel ready, prepared and above all- I know what to expect. One final point on my training- last year I was obsessed with my new GPS watch and used to measure and check my speed on each and every mile I ran. Since August, I haven’t used the GPS function even once. I am now running by feel and keeping in tune with my body, not by what my gadget says should be expected. I am confident this played no small part in my crash after 35 miles last year. I had not considered the elevation change between miles 25 and 35 being so dramatic and lost a good chunk of time. Using the watch, I rushed to make up time and subsequently the last 7 miles took me almost as long as my 3 year old boy would take. He’d have dribbled and cried a lot less, too.
The watch is now there as a reference point to know I am roughly on schedule but not to define my race by. I also feel a lot more in tune with my surroundings and enjoy my runs more. After all, my main love of running stems from its simplicity and getting away from a world I feel is too reliant on technology and stressful.
So what else have I changed?
Shoes- when with Jez at Western States, he kindly gave me a pair of North Face double tracks, which are an excellent shoe. Naturally, having been given a pair of shoes by one of the world’s best Ultrarunners, I used them instantly (literally instantly- the day before the Western States 100 there is a race for crews, friends and family of 6k from the base of Squaw Valley to the ridge of the mountain called Escarpment). I then used them for the next six weeks or so and again on race day. Whilst the shoes are great, they are heavier than some I had used previously and were very well cushioned. My feet were in great shape considering I had run 50 miles and they were a very comfortable shoe, but I couldn’t help thinking I needed something a bit lighter and thinner for that terrain based on my stride.
Over winter I have experimented with several shoes and almost settled on The North Face Single Tracks for this year’s running of the NDW50. However, I often thought about Salomon, who arguably have the best ultrarunning team in the world, and amazing products. Kilian Jornet, their star ultrarunner, developed the Salomon Sense in 2011 which he used to win the WS100 that year. Since then, the shoe has been updated to the new for 2013 Salomon Sense Ultra. I read a lot about it and decided to give it a try. It is incredibly light, low fitting and with a more minimal feel than most trail shoes, yet offers a lot of protection and amazing grip. It is by far the best running shoe I have ever owned (thanks, wifey for the early birthday present!).
Socks- last year I used some thin road compression socks, as well as an additional pair over the top which were ankle length in order to have some more protection. I didn’t feel the compression helped me, aside from inadvertently stopping a lot of stinging nettles hitting my flesh. My feet were drenched all day and I was fortunate to not have worse blisters. This year, I have spent time getting the socks right, which are so crucial in ultrarunning. I have used and love the Drymax trail socks and will certainly be using these. I had also bought some ‘Compressport’ calf guards to use in addition to these, but have decided against using them. People seem to either love or hate compression guards and whilst I have given them a good go, I prefer my shins to feel free. They just make me feel too restricted and often make my legs hurt too early in a race. Since changing my stride I no longer have shin splints and so they don’t really serve a purpose for me, as this was the main reason I used them. The downside is, I will get a lot more nettle stings this year, but something always has to give.
Shorts- If you have read my race report, you will see that last August I suffered from chafing and also a lack of energy gels with me. Both problems here have been eliminated by using RaceReady compression shorts, with five gel pockets at the rear. These fit like cycling shorts and mean my thighs cannot rub together as they swell and expand later in the race. In addition, they are designed to wick sweat away unlike cotton, which helps minimise chafing. Further, so do my new running boxer shorts and finally using an American substance called Bodyglide, which is essentially Vaseline but better. Chafing should not be an issue this year.
T-shirt- In October last year I entered a competition to win an X-Bionic t-shirt. I have never won anything in my life and was staggered when my name was pulled out. X-Bionic make highly technical running clothing and this t-shirt is amazing. It is a skin tight fit, which took some getting used to, and is designed for wicking away sweat and keeping the body cool in warmer temperatures. Thanks to the great British winter, this has not been tested to its full potential. Having said that, I have run a lot with a waterproof this winter and have sweated a lot and the t-shirt has been great. Its going to come into its own in this race and being skin tight, means whilst I look like an utter fool, there won’t be any chafing by armpits etc.
Rucksack- Last year there was no mandatory gear list for the 50 mile race, only the 100. However, I have always got very thirsty on long runs and there were gaps of up to 13 miles between aid stations, so I took a Camelback mini-rucksack with me, which held a 2 litre bladder of water, but had no room for anything else. I also took a small gel belt around my waist, but had nothing else with me.
This year, the mandatory gear list includes a compass, course map, survival blanket, head-torch, mobile phone, at least a litre of water etc, so a better rucksack is needed. Even before I knew what the mandatory kit was to be, I had decided on a new race bag to carry more food and supplies with me. I also didn’t like drinking from the plastic tasting bladder and it did not re-fill well at aid stations and sometimes leaked if not sealed right.
I settled on buying The North Face Enduro 13 race pack, which can hold a bladder if one wishes, but most importantly holds two bottles at the rear and has pockets on the side for food and a big main compartment for kit. It is a great bag and I have used it in some horrendous weather over the winter and it has always performed. I may also carry a hand-held third bottle to increase capacity to 1.5 litres, but will decide on the day based on weather.
Finally, I haven’t run with music much before but in a long race, it can really help with motivation, particularly in the latter stages. My children have kindly bought me a new i-pod shuffle for my birthday. These are only £40 and can hold up to 300 songs and are smaller than a 50p coin. It is amazing and weighing nothing is a no brainer to take with me and use if I feel the need during the race.
In addition to the above, I will be taking 20 Gu gels (one per half hour) and 10 S!Cap salt tablets.
I would love to finish in a time starting with a ‘9’ but so long as it starts with a ‘10’ I will be over the moon. Even if I do hit the qualification criteria to go into the lottery for Western States, it is still only around a 7% chance I will be selected. There are plenty of other races out there I can do if I don’t get in, in 2014, but for me it is knowing I am good enough to go into the pot with some of the world’s best ultrarunners.