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 micoach.com 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.