Saturday 24 August 2013

Ultramarathon Running Research Project - Thames Path 100 2013

This year, I have continued the project that I started last year with James Elson from Centurion Running, looking at various aspects of ultra running and how these relate to a runner's ability to complete the race. I still think that there is lots of interesting information to be mined from these data, and hopefully more people will take part in the surveys for the next few races. Anyway, below is the report that I produced for the 2013 Thames Path 100 mile race in its entirety. As ever, these are merely my own interpretations of the data, but I would love to hear from anyone that might have any alternative ideas. I hope that you find it interesting!


Following on from last year's pilot project at the South Downs Way 100 mile race (SDW100) last year, we have now upgraded the analysis to look at all four of the Centurion Running 100 mile events in 2013. The current state of research into the factors that may affect a runner's ability to complete a 100 mile event is still very open, with several key studies beginning to delve into the key factors essential for all runners to consider.

The research of Martin Hoffman and the rest of the Western States Endurance Run Research Committee has produced several key papers, analysing both the effects of running 100 miles on the body, as well as the demographics of the runners who choose to run such events. Recently, the Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) study from Stanford University (which I recommend everybody takes part in if they haven't already by going to has begun to track a wide range of information for ultrarunners, which will then be tracked over the coming years with the hope of monitoring training styles and observing how these relate to injury rates.

Recently, more and more researchers have aligned themselves with race directors in order to obtain data on ultrarunners in the field. For many races, this may allow the study not only of runners' preferences and training styles, but also the study of the changes in physiology brought about as a result of running 100 miles. These studies will undoubtedly direct our current understanding of "optimum" training methods in order to ensure that running styles are tailored to specific physiological needs. Whilst I personally do not believe that there is such a thing as "the right way to train" (it is likely highly dependent on individuals), there are certainly universal truths that we can all benefit from fully understanding.

Our own study was a fairly simple yet powerful approach. We asked runners of the SDW100 to complete a pre-race survey (focussing on information on the runners themselves and normal training strategies) and a post-race survey (focussing on their approach to the race and how the race itself went for them), and combined these data with split times throughout the race. There were several goals with these data, but the main goals were to understand what sort of people typically take part in such events, what sort of training strategies are typically used, and how these relate to race-day performance.

In 2013, we will be performing these analyses on all four of the Centurion Running 100 mile races; the Thames Path 100, the South Downs Way 100, the North Downs Way 100, and the Winter 100. At the end of the year, we will combine these data into a single analysis to get a view of how runners have approached the different races through the year. These analyses are only possible because of volunteers choosing to take part in the surveys. But the more people who take part, the more interesting the findings will be. I hope that these results will encourage people to take part in the future studies and that we will soon have a deep pool of data to mine for interesting results.

On a personal note, my time for performing these analyses has been drastically reduced due to the birth of my gorgeous little girl. She's strong on her feet already so I'm sure she'll be a runner like Daddy! But unfortunately she also seems to have my lung capacity and ability to cope with no sleep... But I hope that you find what I have managed to cobble together between feeds interesting! These are entire my own opinions, but if you have any thoughts or comments feel free to contact me through my blog at As ever, all the best to everybody with your running, and I'll see you out on the trails!

Monday 19 August 2013

Guest Blog: Confessions of an Ultra Running Widow

Well bless her cottons! My lovely wife Jen has decided to write a little blog post about what it's like living with an insufferable idiot. Enjoy!

I am a runner. Correction; I was a runner, back in my teenage years. But I was a proper runner; a fast runner; a sprinter. My favoured distance was 200 meters. I was once encouraged to try my hand at long distance and step up to the 400 meters, but as my dad often likes to remind me and my husband I replied with "why would any one be stupid enough to run more than 200 meters?". How interesting that I now consider a 'short run' to be anything under 26 miles. Not for myself you must understand, that's when Sam does it. I got sore shins for 3 days when I 'jogged' 1/4 mile home to save Sam from our screaming child the other evening.

I have tried to find a piece of the enthusiasm that Sam so obviously has for running. I downloaded an app which proclaimed to be able to get anyone running 5k. I decided I would do the training and surprise Sam by entering us both in a 5k race. So I used to take our dog Max for a walk up to the field that is near our house. I would put on my iPod and listen to the little voice encouraging me along the path from fat to fit. I didn't make it. I got bored. Running just isn't my thing. If the race isn't over in less than 30 seconds I'm not interested in competing. (And I don't believe for a second that I could cover 200m in less than that now.)

I must admit I like the idea of being involved in a sport with the tight knit community that Ultra Running seems to have. Sam is forever on Twitter or Facebook chatting to some runner from somewhere that he knows through someone who he once chatted to at an aid station for 2 minutes. Otherwise he is crunching numbers and stats about races or running. Or compiling a blog post. How wonderful to enjoy something so much that you want to eat, breathe and sleep it?

What Sam sometimes fails to remember is that not everyone shares this all encompassing infatuation. You probably don't understand this concept either as you are currently reading a blog about Ultra Running. But if we didn't discuss running I'm not sure what we would talk about. My day at present is full of baby and to be honest she is only just starting to get interesting at six months of age. Even when I was at work our jobs are so different there is no common ground, except moaning about our bosses. Maybe that's a bit unfair - we do have other interests in common and things to discuss. But Sam's enthusiasm for running often means it's a primary topic of conversation.

I have learnt to love Ultra Running from afar. Sometimes I have the mad idea of getting more involved, coming to a race, making a weekend of it. I hear Sam talk of other WAGs that dutifully drive their partners to races and crew for them, finally cheering them on at the finish line. I have crewed for Sam before. When he 'ran home' after the 2011 London Marathon I was in the car meeting up with him every 8 miles, restocking his bag, giving him words of encouragement. It resulted in me throwing up at the side of the road in a little village in the early hours of the morning as the lack of sleep and the feelings of worry got to me. I won't be repeating that experience anytime soon thank you very much. 

I do think that I should really get involved in the scene more though. Now we have Lottie I think I should at least come to a finish line sometime so she can cheer her daddy through the line. The last time we tried that it resulted in us standing in the centre of Oakham on Easter Sunday evening for the best part of 6 hours waiting for Sam to come in for his first race win at the 2013 Viking Way. Unfortunately his 'Sam Nav' went wrong and he ended up coming in second, but at least we were there. Now Sam just has to actually finish another race and I might consider standing around a bit more

Harsh but fair I guess... For more amusing insults of her doting husband (*sniff*) you can follow Jen on Twitter 

Saturday 17 August 2013

To D(NF) or not to D(NF); that is the question

To many people, DNF is a four letter word. Clearly those people need to work on their 'rithmetic, but still I understand the point. To get a DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race is seen by many people as the worst possible way to end their attempt, beaten only by never making the start line in the first place (DNS). But is it really something to get so worked up about?

Now don't get me wrong; I am a stubborn little bastard. I will (and have) push myself through a lot of shit to get to the finishing line of a race. But I have also DNF'd (yes, DNF is a verb) from a number of races in the short time that I have been running for. For lots of people, not having a single DNF to their name is a badge of honour. Do I care that I can no longer say, "I have finished every race that I have ever started?" No, not really.

My philosophy is that I think ahead to what Future Me would think of Present Me when he looks back. Would Future Me think I was a pussy? Would he be pissed off, and wonder why I didn't just grit my teeth and man the fuck up? Or would he be glad I was sensible and didn't wreck myself and stop him from getting his run in?

Here are my DNFs to date:
  1. Thames Path 100 2012: My first Centurion Running 100 miler, and I was really looking forward to it; only to fall off my bloody bike on some ice the week before. I hit the start line following some pretty aggressive emergency physiotherapy, but my hip went out about 75 miles into the race. I was in fifth, but dropped out to avoid making things worse.
  2. Lakeland 100 2012: I entered this race not expecting to get into UTMB. Just my luck, I got offered a place in both. I very nearly didn't even bother turning up, figuring that I didn't want to risk not making the start line for one of the biggest events in the ultra running calendar. In the end, I decided to use it as a training run, planning to just run the first half. I was so paranoid through the whole race, and twisted my ankle 30 miles in. Rather than risk making things work, only to pull out at halfway anyway, I wimped out early. This race is one of the toughest in the UK, and needs to be run with complete focus. I'll return, maybe next year, to see the rest of the course.
  3. South Downs Way 100 2013: I injured myself at Transvulcania earlier this year, and started the SDW with my fingers crossed that my knee would last me to the finish line. It didn't. To be honest I probably shouldn't have started, but this was supposed to be my focus race for the year and I was reluctant to miss out on an opportunity to race for the prize money that was up for grabs (babies ain't cheap after all).
  4. North Downs Way 100 2013: This was only a month after SDW, and again my knee wasn't quite right. I had been rehabbing it with only small runs and lots of cycling, and one 20 mile run the week before as a test. I started the race expecting to pull out at some point anyway (even going so far as to stash clothes at various points along the route just in case), and stopped before things got bad.
So quite a bumper crop really. Three of these were related to pre-existing injuries, and I probably should never have started in the first place. But as I say, I'm stubborn. In all three cases things felt okay and I was willing to see what happened, but as soon as it became clear that things weren't as they should be I pulled. I was disappointed, of course, but in all cases I was happy that I made the right call. I care more about running day to day than I do about racing, so it's important to me not to destroy myself. And for Lakeland, my eye was on UTMB the whole time.

Here's the thing; I have nothing to prove to anybody but myself. I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't some level of ego involved (blogging isn't exactly the most inconspicuous of pursuits), but honestly I prefer to do these things for my own benefit. Generally speaking I won't risk my health or my ability to run for any race, although there are certain things that might make it more likely for me to slog through to the end.

Firstly I am fine with pain, discomfort, misery, etc. (ordinarily this would necessitate an obligatory "I am married after all, narf narf" comment, but then most people aren't married to my awesome wife!). But there is a difference between the inevitable pain associated with long distance running and an acute injury. The best thing that I ever did to assuage my wife's fears of my crazy passion was to show her that I know the difference by pulling out of the Thames Path last year. She trusts that I will make the sensible decision.

Of course I would be more likely to push through things if I were running a particular race distance for the first time - I would have crawled to complete my first 100 mile finish if I had to. But would I feel the same for my fifth? Or if I was running a particularly high profile race that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to run again. I had a 10K death march at the end of UTMB due to some chaffing on the boys. As it happens, I thoroughly enjoyed the walk; chatting to various people, soaking in the atmosphere, and basking in the sunshine. The only thing that could have improved things was if my balls didn't feel like they were wrapped in sandpaper.

[Edit] Let me be clear - I am not advocating pulling out of a race because things have gotten "a bit hurty" (to paraphrase James Adams). Pain and discomfort are inevitable. A lot of ultra running is mental (in both senses of the word I guess), so being able to push through the bad times is a real skill, and one which I am typically very good at (being an idiot helps not to worry about things too much - I like to call it running stupid). This is how I have finished some of the toughest races in the UK, such as the Viking Way and the Piece of String. But what I am saying is that I don't go in for the "finish or die" mentality. I don't need to prove my resilience to anybody just for the sake of it. If there is a good reason to stop, I will. That way I can come back to play another day. My point is that I don't stress about it. If it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do. And you'll know if it was the right thing to do a few weeks later when you look back on it all.

In general, I want to finish any race that I start. I moan a lot if I don't, so it's really for my wife's sanity that I do it. But if there is some reason that I feel like the best option is to pull out, I try not to let it get me down. I'm normally too focused on the next one anyway! I actually enjoy running after all - even the more horrific parts of races like the Piece of String. So when you're in a position where you have to make that decision whether to DNF or MTFU, give a thought to your future self and what they may have to say about the matter. My future self is a dick, so I have to be really sure that he won't be pissed at me...

How do you decide whether to push on or pull out? Answers on a postcards!

Sunday 11 August 2013

North Downs Way Race Report (sort of...)

Wow! What a race!

Not from me; I pussied out after about 25 miles...

But the race itself was pretty much dominated by two runners; Ed Catmur and Anthony Forsyth. I have met Ed at several other Centurion events, and he always runs a great race. He led the 2012 NDW100 race to the halfway point, and finished in third in the end. I met Anthony through Facebook, and knew that he was out to push for the win. He had completed the NDW50 earlier this year, and had clocked up some really high mileage out on the course. But this would be his first 100 miler, and many of us know that a 100 mile race is a very different beast to a 50 miler. What would happen when they pushed each other?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The weeks leading up to the race had been pretty poor for me in terms of training. I was still suffering the effects of my injury from Transvulcania and hadn't been doing much in the way of running. But things were much better, and I had managed a good long run a couple of weeks before with no real issues. So I decided to give the race a shot, knowing that if things got bad I could pull straight out before any serious problems occurred.

As with the SDW100, the start of the NDW100 is close to my parents, so we decided to head down south for the weekend. I left Jen and Lottie in the capable hands of my parents and headed to meet Dan Park in Farnham. Dan attempted this race last year but unfortunately had to pull out early due to problems with his ankles. This year he had a score to settle.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

North Downs Way Preview

Just a quickie today. This weekend is the North Downs Way 100 miler, another Centurion Running event following along the North Downs Way from Farnham to Wye. I helped out James at this race last year, so got to see just how tough it actually is. Whilst the vertical ascent is less than the South Downs Way (9,930 ft vs 12,700 ft), most people that have done both agree that the NDW is the tougher of the two. It doesn't have as many rolling hills, but it does have lots of steep and punishing climbs and generally much tougher terrain.

I have unfortunately been suffering from injuries, essentially since Transvulcania in May. Since attempting the South Downs Way in June, I have been pretty much unable to run at all, so my training has not been - shall we say - ideal. The main problem has been my right knee, but this has thrown all sorts of things out of whack with my gait, leading to issues along my left tibialis anterior and also some plantar fasciitis which I haven't really been able to shift. When it rains it pours! But the main thing is that it doesn't appear to be anything serious, so I have just been sensible and stuck to running no more than a few miles at a time. Plenty of cycling should hopefully have kept my fitness levels up.

Whilst I'm not really feeling my most prepared, I am going to start the race but with no real expectations. I'm just going to run whatever I can, and if the injuries flair up I will just pull out and help out at some of the aid stations for the rest of the race. Hopefully that won't happen of course, and I'll still be able to get a great race in, but whatever happens I'm out to have a fun weekend! These events are always a bit of an ultra-party, so it's going to be great fun catching up with everybody.

See you out there - if you see the sideburns, say hi!