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!

Over the next couple of months, I ran a lot of other races, although most of them were of marathon length and under (having been entered before I decided to focus on ultra distances). There were some great races in there, and I have found myself improving and learning in every race that I have entered. A win at the Grafham Water trail Marathon was probably the highlight, although to be fair it wasn't exactly an amazing time as far as marathon running goes. Still, I'll take it!

But this year I have learned a lot; not just about running, but also about myself. If you had told me two years ago that I would be running regularly I would have laughed at you. Yet now I can barely go a day without running without getting antsy! So I thought that I would make a list of a couple of the most important lessons that I have learned so far in my running "career":

  1. Apparently I'm alright at running:  I was a little surprised by this, but I seem to have found something I am quite good at. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming to be a top runner or anything, but I find myself comfortably in the back of the lead pack in most races, and seem to have a pretty good level of endurance (if not speed). I think that it's a combination of competitiveness, stubbornness, and an ass that just won't quit. At least two of those are true, anyway. But I've improved every time that I have raced, and have yet to finish a race feeling like I couldn't have done better. It's all a learning experience, and every time I know that I can push a little harder next time without blowing up.
  2. Dean Karnazes is not the be-all and end-all of ultrarunning: Like many people, one of my first run-ins with the world of ultrarunning was reading the book "The Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner" by Dean Karnazes. It was amazing to me to hear of what this guy was able to do, and it inspired me to see what I can do myself. I probably wouldn't have dreamed of running home after the London marathon if it wasn't for this book. But now that I have been involved in the ultrarunning community for a while, it has quickly become clear that, while Dean is a great athlete, he is nowhere near the top of the field. Take a look at the resumé of guys like Dave Mackey, Scott Jurek, Mike Wolfe, Geoff Roes, et al. The difference is that Dean has a much better publicist! The rest of the guys are happy racing and letting their results speak for themselves. A lot of people see Dean as being arrogant and self-aggrandizing, but he raises a huge amount for some great charities (something I can relate to - I had similar accusations thrown at me relating to my charity run), and he has inspired a lot of people to get off their butts and get fit. How many of his detractors can say that?!
  3. Audiobooks - they're like reading with your ears: A lot of people ask me, "What on earth do you do while you're running for all of that time?!". Well I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I love being out in the early morning, running along under a slowly rising sun, with a great story unfolding in my ears. Running takes up a lot of my free time, so I don't get much chance to read the traditional way, so this is actually works really well. I'm currently enjoying the Song of Fire and Ice saga. George R. R. Marten can write a heck of a feast - although when you're 30 miles into a run on a small bowl of bran flakes, hearing about all of that food can be a bit much to take!
  4. Ultrarunning can be pretty disgusting: Be it lubing up your nipples (and other unsavoury parts of the body), getting caught short out in the woods (if it's good enough for the pope, it's good enough for me), or having your feet fall apart on you (check these badboys out if you dare!), ultrarunning can be a pretty horrific pastime!
  5. Ultrarunners are lovely, lovely people: One of the best things that I have learned about the ultrarunning community is that the are some really nice people involved. I've met some great people at the races that I have taken part in this year, and everybody has been incredibly helpful when it comes to hints and tips, and general camaraderie on the course.
  6. The human body can take a lot of abuse: I used to feel like crap after running for half an hour. Now a short run is 2 hours, and I barely feel it. If anything, I've had fewer problems with my knees since starting running than I have had over the years (particularly from Tae Kwon Do). As long as you have good form at least. Of course, over longer distances, you need to watch out as any problems with your form can exacerbate problems, so I try to check up with a physio every so often to make sure that there are no imbalances to correct. Currently I am trying to correct an imbalance in my glutes - turns out my ass really will quit... But I love the fact that some of the top ultrarunners are in the veteran category. This seems to be a sport where you just get better with experience. Hopefully that bodes well for me in the future!
  7. For some reason, people think I'm crazy: It's funny, but for some reason when I tell people I'm off for a 100 mile run at the weekend, they look at me like I'm crazy. Bizarre. On the other hand, my friends have become completely desensitized to my activities now. "45 miles? Just a short run then?". It's amazing how ones perception can change...
  8. Once you find the perfect kit, stick with it: Running ultras requires a lot more kit than shorter races. You may be out for a long time in variable weather, so need enough water and supplies to last you, as well as any climate-specific gear to avoid freezing/boiling out there if the weather changes. Plus a bag to hold it all, and importantly a bag that doesn't rub after 20 hours of continuous rubbing. Not to mention shoes that don't rub after long periods, and protect your feet suitably (let's not get into any kind of minimalist vs. support shoe debates here), and socks that are able to stave off uncomfortable blisters. But what works for one person may not necessarily work for another, so choosing the right kit for you can be difficult. You may have a bag that only rubs after 50 miles - not ideal for a 100 miler, but without running 50 miles with it first, how will you know? I find the best thing to do is, once you find something that works for you, stick with it! I love my Nike Pro Combat base layers (prevents chafing), Salamon Skin S-lab hydration packs, Mizuno Wave Inspire road shoes and Salamon Speedcross 2 trail shoes. And Lanacane lube is an essential part of any runners' arsenal, along with Compede blister plasters - instant puncture repair for your feet!
  9. Ultrarunning is the sport for fans of chocolate and cake: Typically, for long distance running, the main thing that we need to keep the legs moving is carbohydrates and calories. Sure you can get these with GU gels and the like - or you could have a flapjack! Also, I burn so many calories on a day to day basis that I really don't feel guilty about eating anything. I mean, I typically eat pretty healthily, but I do have a bit of a sweet tooth and do enjoy a good cake every now and then. Now I eat them with impunity!
  10. I love chocolate Nesquick: The best post-workout drink ever. The perfect balance of protein and carbs, and I can legitimately be childish and have a good excuse for it. As my friend recently put it, "body of an ultrarunner; appetite of a child"
So that was 2011. Now roll on 2012!


  1. Very refreshing post to end the season! I can relate to so many of your thoughts that it felt like I had written it myself :)
    Maybe see you next year on a race or else.

  2. Thanks Julien. Good luck in 2012! Do I see that you're going for the TSQ again next year? Any races planned that I might bump into you at?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.