Sunday 18 December 2011

Lessons learned

Well, I think that now seems to be as good a time as any for this retrospective of my first season as an ultrarunner. With my final race of the year out of the way, I can look back over my achievements this year and take stock. And cor blimey, what a year it was!

Now I say "year", but really I have only been involved in this ultrarunning malarkey for about 7 months, so I'm not even sure I can legitimately call this a season, but no matter. Just to recap, my descent into the world of ultrarunning began in April, when I ran the Virgin London Marathon, but decided to make it a bit more interesting by tacking on a 90 mile warm-down run at the end. I was attempting to raise more funds for the Epilepsy Society (who helped my Mum when I was first diagnosed with epilepsy myself) and figured something this crazy would get me some additional exposure. Little did I know quite how much exposure it would give me! This was great for the charity, as epilepsy remains somewhat of a taboo subject for some people. It was incredibly odd for me though...

I thought I was being crazy doing something like this, but it turned out that there was a whole sub-culture of athletes out there doing things like this on a regular basis. And I wanted in! I ran my first ultra in June at the Shires and Spires 35 mile ultra in Northamptonshire. Well I say 35 miles. I think I actually ran about 42 miles! It turns out that navigation is not my strong suit... But the true ultras are those of 100 miles or more, and I was interested to see how quickly I could run the distance. It took me 29 hours to cover ~120 miles in April, but that was not done as a race. I wondered if I could do better. At the last minute, I entered the South Downs Way 100 mile Ultra in July, which passes close to my parents' house in Portsmouth (my Dad even came out in the middle of the night to pace me for a section towards to the end). I completed it in 22:04, coming in 5th overall. Not bad, even despite my Dad's best efforts to take me the wrong way - I guess bad navigation is in the genes!

Thursday 8 December 2011

Is marathon running bad for your heart? Sigh...

I spotted a news story on the BBC News website this morning which claims that Marathon training 'may pose a heart risk'. This story has since caused a bit of a buzz on the interwebs, cropping up in various tabloids and on various discussion forums and blogs. Being a runner and a scientist, this of course piqued my interest. Is this something that I should be concerned about, or is this another case of sensationalism by the media? Take a guess...

First things first. The study in question is a paper published yesterday (6th December 2011) in the European Heart Journal by a group in Belgium entitled  "Exercise-induced right ventricular dysfunction and structural remodelling in endurance athletes". Unfortunately, it requires a subscription, but you can see the abstract here. Being a scientist myself, I have looked over the paper and thought that I would share my thoughts on the implications.

The study measures various aspects of cardiac function for 40 endurance athletes, each a specialist in one of 4 events which are, in order of duration; marathon, endurance triathlon (possibly Olympic length?), alpine cycling, or ultra-triathlon (Ironman distance). Measurements of cardiac function were taken using cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (cMRI) and echocardiograms, as well as analysis of biochemical markers of function such as B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) and cardiac troponin I (cTnI), both proteins involved with contractions of muscle cells in the heart and hence good predictors of cardiac risk. For each athlete, three measurements were taken; the first was taken as a baseline 2-3 weeks prior to the event, the second was taken within an hour of crossing the finishing line at the event, and the final 'delayed' measurement was taken 6-11 days after the event.

Broadly speaking, they found the following key results:

Monday 5 December 2011

Proof if proof be need be

I found this story on Ultrarunner Podcast's URP daily feed and have found it to be very interesting. FKT (Fastest Known Time) is an offshoot of ultrarunning aiming to track (unsurprisingly) the fastest known times for completion of popular long distance routes. For instance, one of the most popular routes is the Grand Canyon R2R2R (rim to rim to rim), running 42 miles from the south rim of the canyon to the north rim, then back again. The record is currently held by Dave Mackey in 6:59:56 - yikes! It's all quite informal, and all attempts and potential records are tracked and discussed by runners on the fastest known time forum. There aren't any rules per sé, but the general format is to first announce that you are making an attempt, and then to report your attempt with as much corroborating evidence as possible.

This story concerns an attempt at the FKT record for the John Muir Trail (JMT). The JMT, at 215 miles in length, is one of the longest hiking trails in the USA, running between Mount Whitney and Yosemite National Park. In September 2009 Brett Maune, a relative unknown in the ultrarunning/fastpacking world, set a new record.

There are several impressive things about Brett's record. Firstly, he had already attempted the route only a month before at the previous full moon (I assume for lighting purposes at night). He suffered badly on the first day of this attempt, and had little time to recover for his second successful attempt. Second, he didn't just beat the previous record - he absolutely smashed it by 5 hours and 46 minutes, completing the full distance in 3d 14h 13m! But the third, and most amazing thing is that he did the entire thing unsupported (i.e. he carried all of his supplies with him rather than having help from pacers and a supporting crew). He beat the next best unsupported time by over 19 hours! If you are not sure why this is so damn impressive, consider this; this is a record held and actively contested on a route attempted by many of the top runners in the world, but he was able to complete the route much faster than that while carrying about 27 lbs of gear extra.