Preparing For An Ultramarathon (Part 1)

New post at The Running Bug, ‘Preparing For An Ultramarathon (Part 1)‘.

Following a blog posting that I read by fellow Running Bug blogger, RunDeeMc (love the name!) I thought I would share some of what I have pieced together in terms of planning for an ultramarathon.

Other than a real inclination to get out there and test yourself there are 4 main elements that I have identified on a personal level that are crucial to getting to the ultra finish line.

Just by way of a disclaimer, all of the following is based entirely on my own personal experience, that of a ‘plodder’ whose main aim is to finish. What works for me may not work for anyone or everyone else but my 4 main elements are sufficiently broad that they should be applicable to all in some way.

My 4 elements are as follows:

  • Training
  • Nutrition
  • Kit
  • PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)

The Training

It stands to reason that you need to put the miles in to be properly prepared for an ultramarathon. If you are anything like me then you will have had a less than athletic past and, as such, your ultra progress will be down to sheer hard work, stubbornness and, as some of my friends and family would say, stupidity! It’s something that you will likely experience as an ultra runner – people do tend to think you are nuts, especially when it comes down to discussions of mileage, time spent training and injuries and niggles.

As I have found to my cost, you will not perform to the best of your ability if you turn up to an event having only run a fraction of the overall completion distance. I found this out at the 2011 D33, a 33 mile ultra. Up until the 18 mile point I was doing great and was looking at taking an hour off of my PB time from the 2010 D33. At mile 18, as the temperature crept up, my race fell apart and I barely improved on my 2010 time (5 minutes off). Coincidentally, in the run up to the race I had managed only 1 long run – of 18 miles! Retrospectively, hardly surprising that things did not go to plan!

Where I live is remarkably flat. As a non driver (I really should learn to drive!) I am limited by what surrounds me when it comes to training (other than those times where my wife and/or friends drive me to hillier surrounds). Despite logging some serious mileage in the run up to the 2010 Montane Highland Fling (53 miles along the lower portion of the West Highland Way), I was not training specifically enough for the course. Not only was the terrain often a lot rougher underfoot than I had trained on. It was also considerably hillier. As a result, again with unseasonably high temperatures, I found myself near to meltdown by the time I came down off of the main climb in the run (Conic Hill, approx 1150 feet). By mile 28 I was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – My first and to date only DNF but one that haunted me regardless. My training for the 2011 Montane Highland Fling involved a lot more specific hill training and, despite even warmer conditions, I came off of Conic Hill in a far better state and went on to complete the race.

A final word about training: Once you have built up a good base and have got the legs used to running long distances, don’t let all the hard work go to waste. Don’t kid yourself that your fitness will last the winter without a good helping hand along the way and, perhaps worst of all, don’t kid yourself that your endurance fitness will continue to hang around just because you are ‘still putting the miles in’ when your mileage is in fact as a result of lots and lots of short runs. Regardless of the weather/work/family/any other constraints, you need to find the time to get out there and keep up the long run endurance.

How do I know this? After the long hard slog of the 2010 ultra season, I ran the Loch Ness Marathon in October as my last race of the year and then, in the absence of a goal, lost direction! I am determined that I will not repeat this as the feeling of starting over is not one that I intend to repeat.

The Nutrition

This aspect was made all the more difficult for me because I hate eating and running. On the one hand you need to avoid the situation where your stomach is overly full or sloshing around from having taken on too much fluid. However, you also need to eat and drink enough to keep you healthy and moving.

My first ultramarathon was the 2010 D33. When I crossed the line I had the most unusual feeling. You may have seen one of those cartoons where the character gets shot with a cannonball and it goes right through them, leaving them staring down at this huge space with the background showing through. That is the only possible way that I can describe how I felt. All I could feel was this vast expanse where my stomach was.

Emptying my bag it was all too clear what had contributed to this. I had an array of nutrition, mostly gels and bars, all of which had gone untouched! The only thing worse than not taking enough food with you is surely carrying it all around with you!

Since then I have made a point of working out a nutrition strategy, working out approximately what I should have taken onboard in terms of food and drink and by what stage in the race. If you are fortunate enough to be in a race that makes use of drop bags, it is advisable to spend some time planning what you will put in to each one.

I would also suggest putting in a variety of things as you just never know what you will want to eat and/or drink. Ultra forums are full of all kinds of strange drop bag contents. You will likely have a lot of waste, especially until you work out what works for you, but it is better to have an element of wastage than to have too little food and/or drink. Most drop stations will add whatever you leave to the large pile of whatever everyone else has left which is then a free for all to anyone arriving at that aid station. Occasionally you may even get a chance to reclaim the contents of your bag after the race has finished though this is can be a nightmare for organisers to sort out and, thus, is less frequent.

One thing I would suggest you steer clear of is banana sandwiches and especially when you have to make them the day before. Back in the 2010 Fling these were a staple of my drop bags and, I have to say, there is nothing more unattractive than a day old, warm, banana sandwich, especially when the banana is far from yellow! I certainly couldn’t stomach it on the day.

I have seen myself eating everything from small portions of pasta to salted boiled potatoes, energy bars, gels, fruit and nut trail mix and bananas.

Note that some people take on very little at the aid stations whereas others will pack in quite a lot of food. I now fall in to the latter category as, being of a lager build, I do find that I need to ‘feed my body’ and, since I adopted this approach, my enjoyment of events has improved considerably.

In terms of what you drink, I would suggest that you separate your salt intake from your fluid intake. You need to avoid hyponatremia (an electrolyte disturbance in which the sodium concentration in the serum is lower than normal). Particularly on hotter days or when your exertion levels are considerably higher than normal, it may be difficult to keep your body’s sodium concentration at a good level using drinks alone.

This happened to me at the 2010 Highland Fling. Conscious that I was sweating buckets because of exertion and heat, I was drinking more and more to stay hydrated. However, large amounts of water and/or sports drink will often not provide enough sodium to replace what has been lost through sweating. As I found that day, the huge fluid intake simply left me with a stomach that was sloshing around as I ran. After my D.N.F. I did some more research and, at this point, discovered Succeed S!Caps to help restore my body to balance. Using S!Caps, taking 1 S!Cap approximately every hour, let me focus on drinking an amount that felt comfortable for the conditions.

At this point I realise that the above has turned into something of an ultra read and, as such, I will save points 3 and 4 for my next posting.

Hoka One One Mafate

Thanks to Steve from Hoka One One, I now have a pair of Hoka One One Mafate shoes to try out and I look forward to putting these through their paces. They certainly look and feel different and, with their impact absorption, will hopefully help minimise injury and help me along the way to achieving my 7 ultras goal for 2012.

Devised by Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud, the shoes are intended to remedy the problems of fatigue, impact and muscle strain that challenge runners. The word Hoka is derived from the ancient Maori language and roughly translates to “now it is time to fly“.

Karl Meltzer ran the 2,064 mile Pony Express route in Hoka shoes and the final instalment of the run can be viewed on You Tube (watch out for the Hokas at 1:17). 

More information about Hoka is available online

”Now It Is Time To Fly”

I spoke too soon when I said that things would be back to ‘normal service’ last week. Turns out that I had not in fact kicked the chest and throat infection and it did indeed return for a further few days to give me a kicking!

Despite this I have still managed to keep up the Movember pledge to run every day through Movember and my tally for the month is currently sitting at 80 miles, all of which has been done on the confines of the treadmill!

I use a program called SportTracks to keep tabs on my running and I have to say that this is a real boost to my running. When I am in the mood to run, it feels great to log the miles and compare how I was doing at this point last year… and when I am not in the mood to run, it is equally constructive to look at the monthly mileage and how it compares to other months and, again, how it compares to last year. That is usually enough of an incentive to get me back in the mood and, more often than not, I am usually glad that I did run.

Looking at the stats now, I will soon hit a ‘double whammy’ – 80 miles more will see me surpass both last year’s total mileage and also 2500 miles in 2 years, something I would never have dreamed of only a few short years ago. In fact, that’s probably more than I even travelled a few years ago, never mind being how far I have run. That equates roughly to me running from my home in the North East of Scotland to London and back 3 times, or to running to Madrid and back, or to Rome and back! And so on… but suffice to say I would really recommend logging the mileage as it is something that you can really look back on whether it be in some useful fashion or as a flight of fancy!

2012 is well and truly shaping up as being an excellent year for ultras and I am just waiting on the remaining 3 races opening up entry for next year. The West Highland Way Race, as expected, now has more applicants than places. After the initial flurry of applications (111 on day 1!) it did indeed slow down but surpassed the 200 mark with half a month of entry time remaining. As such it is time to cross my fingers and hope that I, along with all of my running friends, am fortunate enough to get a guaranteed place.

If you read my last post you will recall I mentioned the new sponsor for the Highland Fling – Hoka One One. Steve from Hoka very kindly provided me with a pair of Mafate shoes to try which arrived just a couple of hours ago. I will soon be heading out for my first non-treadmill based run this month and can’t wait to try them out. I think I am going to be spending a fair portion of this weekend out on the trails, both enjoying being back out in the fresh air and testing out the new shoes.

The word Hoka is derived from the ancient Maori language and roughly translates to ‘now it is time to fly’, hence the title of this blog posting as it will indeed soon be ‘time to fly’ for me.

After Hoka got in touch I did a bit more investigation on the web and found this remarkable video of Karl Meltzer completing the 2,064 mile Pony Express route – it’s well worth watching

So that’s where I will leave it for this post, heading off out for a run to herald the start of the weekend.

Wherever you are, regardless of how far and fast you run, be sure to have a good one :o)

Planning for 2012 – The West Highland Way Race

New post at The Running Bug, ‘Planning for 2012 – The West Highland Way Race‘.

I am thankfully back on track (not literally!) and hope to be back to ‘normal service’ soon having just about kicked the chest and throat infection that has laid me low for the past week. In keeping with my Movember pledge, I have continued to run each day, albeit at a vastly reduced effort and mileage, and have in fact found that this has helped to ‘clear the airwaves’ somewhat.

Despite my relative physical inactivity, I have been ‘busy’ in a planning sense, having had plenty time this past week to reflect on 2011 and to consider my running goals for 2012.

At the beginning of the month entry to two of my favourite races opened up – the 55 mile Cateran Trail Ultramarathon and the 53 Highland Fling.

The Fling, much to everyones surprise, has a new sponsor as Hoka One One takes over the reigns from Montane.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thanks to Montane for their sponsorship of past events and also welcome to the new race sponsor. Without sponsorship I am sure that a lot of events would not be able to take place, and certainly not without a sharp increase in the entry fee levels given the relatively small scale participation in ultra events.

The new sponsor certainly got people chatting on Facebook. Other than the general shock at the change of sponsor, the nature of the product also resulted in considerable comment. As more and more people, myself included, are looking to minimal footwear for their running, the emergence of a sponsor whose products appear to have gone in the opposite direction came as a bit of a shock to all.

If you are not familiar with the product then head over to http://www.hokaoneone.com/ to see for yourself.

Aesthetically, the stand out point with the Hoka One One has to be the sole. The shoe itself is billed as being lightweight, with increased stability due to a 35% wider platform and the sole, as might be expected given the look of the shoe, uses up to 2.5x the volume of EVA in the midsole compared to standard running shoes.

The marketing has got me interested in at least trying out a pair of the shoes:

“The word Hoka is derived from the ancient Maori language and roughly translates to ‘now it is time to fly’. That’s just how it feels to run in a pair of Hoka One One shoes; with each and every step your foot takes flight.”

That sounds like just the ticket for ultra events and further exploration of the site highlighted that the shoe certainly seems to be making inroads in the long distance market with, amongst others, Karl Meltzer wearing the shoe.

Anyway – I digress – back to the results of my planning.

I intend to again run the 6 ultramarathons that I completed in 2011 – The D33 (33), The Highland Fling (53), The Cateran Trail (55), The Clyde Stride (40), The Devil O’ The Highlands (43), & the Speyside Way Race (36.5) – and to hopefully improve on my times for each of these events.

I have also applied to enter the 95 mile West Highland Way Race – this will hopefully be my main focus for 2012.

Entry to the West Highland Way Race opened on the evening of 31st October. By the evening of 1st November, over 100 people had already signed up and there is every chance that the final entry list (restricted to 200) will be decided by ballot. Entry is open for a month and is not determined on a first come, first served basis so there was technically no need for all of those entries in such a short space of time. However, the volume of entries in such a short space of time and the buzz on the forums and social networking sites is testament to the high esteem in which the race is held. It is the pinnacle of the ultra running world in Scotland and those who are fortunate enough to last the distance are affectionately known henceforth as one of ‘the Family’.

Starting at 1am on Saturday 23rd June 2012, competitors have 35 hours (until noon Sunday 24th June 2012) to cover the 95 miles of the complete West Highland Way and this includes 14,760ft of ascent. A good portion of the run, including Conic Hill, will be run in darkness by torchlight and, in the past few years, competitors have been subjected to extremes of weather. As an added bonus, the race provides 4 qualifying points for UTMB (Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc) which is useful for those people who fancy turning their attention to surely THE ultra race in the world.

Is it too much? Have I bitten off more than I can handle?

There is definitely a school of thought that would say yes, absolutely. However, from time spent this past week reading the forums (even illness has a silver lining!), it is obvious that the jury is out on this one. Given that, technically, 6 ultras is regarded as ‘too much’, I am going to side with those who say do what you feel comfortable with and that you feel that your body can handle. I am not ‘racing’ these ultras as such. Completion is the main aim, albeit with better times than previous years.

Only time will tell – and in the meantime, that potentially gives me a lot to write about!

Confessions Of A Treadmill Lover

New post at The Running Bug, ‘Confessions of a treadmill lover‘.

You just can’t beat getting out into the fresh air for a run, especially when you are fortunate enough to live so close to some cracking forest trails and to an old railway line that takes you right out into the countryside far from any traffic. The chances of spotting any wildlife from the treadmill are also considerably less save for the errant spider that occasionally makes its presence known!

When it comes to the weather, I take it as it comes as far as running is concerned.

Rain: I love running in the rain. Just as well given that I live in Scotland! Some of my favourite races (The 55 mile Cateran Trail Ultra in May of this year springs to mind) have been run fully or partly in torrential rain conditions. What I do hate however, is starting a race in the rain and this is especially true when it involves a great deal of standing about waiting for the designated start time, getting increasingly wet.

Snow: You just can’t beat the extra tough workout that running on snow provides. Even better, strap a head torch on and head out for a night time run in the snow. The ‘warp speed’ light effect is mesmerising! (If you don’t know what I mean, try it for yourself one snowy night. The way the weather is going, you will not have too long to wait for the opportunity to do so!)

Sun: funnily enough this is my least favoured running condition, most likely due to my size and propensity to sweat. However, as long as the temperature is not too high, or as long as there is an accompanying cooling breeze, this is probably everyone’s favoured weather condition. Hopefully my recent weight loss will help to reduce the sweating.

At this point, I am going to throw in a curve ball. Having extolled the benefits of getting out for a run, regardless of the weather, it is time for a confession – I like treadmill running. There, said it.

I know that many people probably rate this on a par with some hideous torture but sometimes you just cannot beat the treadmill.

There is, as far as I am concerned, a time and a place for the treadmill and that is why I was quite so gutted when my trusty treadmill stopped working at the beginning of September. After 3 and a half years of loyal service my treadmill was no more!

That alone would have been bad enough but add in to the mix that this was accompanied by some of the crappiest weather in a long time and came at the start of the month in which I had pledged to run at least 5 miles every day. To say that the timing of this was somewhat off would be an understatement.

Looking back, I am surprised it lasted as long as it did. Unlike many home treadmills, this one saw regular and often brutal use. I even did a 4 hour training run on it one day, something I would likely never repeat under circumstances short of house arrest! However, at the time, it was really convenient and, if I recall correctly, it was so that I could kill two birds with one stone by getting a long run in whilst watching the F1!

It has been almost two months now and, faced with the prospect of getting a run in every day of both November and December (Movember & Marcothon), I finally gave in and ordered a replacement machine which I am looking forward to taking delivery of on Monday.

Over the past two months I have done a considerable amount or running outside, come rain or shine, including 25 days in September. As I look to build on this and to bag not one but two complete months of winter running, I will be so glad to be able to step on to the treadmill.

It will be good not to have to layer up each and every day, with its huge impact on the laundry. It will be good to fit in quick runs, grabbed at short notice with no preparation whatsoever. It will be good to keep a steady pace (and indeed to push the pace) knowing that the treadmill will ensure there is no slacking off on those days where I feel lethargic. It will be good to jump on the treadmill, switch on the trance music, and switch off the brain, safe in the knowledge that I can just run without fear of tripping on roots or rocks or whatever!

It will, once again, be so good to have a treadmill there for me, at my beck and call, when I just don’t have the time or the desire to face the elements.

Read about the pros and cons of Training on a Treadmill.

It Sucks To Be Ill!

New post at The Running Bug, ‘It sucks to be ill‘.

I am ill, and boy do I feel sorry for myself. Like a typical male, I don’t do illness well!

Having spoken with the doctor, it would appear that I have had some kind of infection for at least the past month which, at least, explains the ups and downs where my health is concerned. If that wasn’t bad enough, at the beginning of the week, I started to feel really ill, with the kind of excruciating throat pain that makes swallowing agony. It appears that a number of factors may have conspired against me. Anyone who has read this blog before will know that my trusty treadmill gave up the ghost at the beginning of September, just in time for my planned September daily run routine which saw me run an eventual 25 out of 30 days. As a result of this, I ended up running outside in all weathers. Normally, I would have mixed it up a bit more with some outside running and some treadmill running.

It would appear that my running style/technique may have had something to do with my illness. I had not really thought about this before but, when I run, I breathe almost exclusively though my mouth and, as the doctor pointed out to me, this means that the air misses out on the filtering that nasal hair offers. I have tried to breathe in through my nose but, for some unknown reason, it does not come naturally to me at all! As such, I might have to employ some kind of shield whilst out running on the colder days. An internet research opportunity lies ahead.

Sitting here writing this post, I would just be happy to be able to breathe through my nose and I look forward to the day where I feel less congested. In fact, thinking about it now, don’t you just love that feeling that follows being ill – you may know the one I am referring to, where you wake up one day and realise that you feel great again, almost superhuman, having previously been dragged down by the lethargy of illness.

If you have read my previous posts, you will be aware that I pledged to run every day in November (for Movember) and in December (for Marcothon). As ridiculous as it sounds given the above few paragraphs, I have remained true to my pledge. Fortunately, my replacement treadmill arrived on the 31st, just in time for Movember. Given my ailments, my running has understandably been confined to the treadmill and I will certainly not break any speed or distance PBs right now. However, regardless of how crap I feel, I am determined to stick to my running pledge.

If the truth be known, it actually provides a bit of a lift, possibly through the release of endorphins, but most definitely in the form of a temporary reprieve from the general bunged up feeling that I have in my head.

Hopefully things will be back to normal in time for my next post. In the meantime, feel free to share any thoughts on the merit (or otherwise) of running whilst ill. One thing that is far from normal is the growth on my face, again as a result of a pledge for Movember. I have the semblences of something recognisable as a moustache forming. I am still far from convinced that I suit a moustache, but it is early days – 26 days in which to grow to love it (unlikely), or at which point I can shave it off (almost certainly!)