Archives for April 2016

Plymouth Half Marathon 2016

Wisely or not I booked myself a spot on the Plymouth Half Marathon 2016. It was using a familiar route with a downhill start followed by a flat section, then a couple of climbs along Billacombe Road and into the grounds of Saltram House. The route finishes with a long climb from the Barbican back up to the top of the Hoe. A punishing end to reasonably fast course. The unwise element comes from the fact that just seven days before I was racing 84 miles in The Oner, along the Jurassic Coast, and my performance for the half marathon would be somewhat unpredictable. You can read about my epic Oner 2016 experience here.

I decided to do the Plymouth Half dressed in my ringmaster/magician top hat and tails. so I would have an excuse if my pace dropped away. It also ensured that I got lots of cheering to keep me motivated and moving. If anyone asked I mentioned St Lukes Hospice in Plymouth. I wasn’t raising money, but I figured that a little bit more public awareness wouldn’t hurt them.

Plymouth Half Marathon Route 2016

Plymouth Half Marathon Route 2016

The Plymouth Half Marathon 2016 was excellently organised. Local car parks were offering discounts for runners and travel information was provided in the Runners Handbook to help people navigate around the road closures. We pulled into Drake Circus car park at around 8am, used the Drake Circus toilets and then wandered the half mile or so to the Plymouth Hoe. We didn’t have to rush, because there was no registration required. Race numbers with built-in timing chips were sent out a couple of weeks in advance. It was simply a case of make it to the start line in time and run!

Before the start Before the start 2

On arrival in the start area bags were easily checked in and the loos visited. There were plenty of portaloos and I think that is the first time I have ever said that about a race! This meant small queues and also that they didn’t get grotty too quickly.

On the start line I went into the 1:30 to 1:45 pen and decided to hit my normal half marathon pace from the start based on my rate of perceived effort. My plan to cruise along at about 80% by feel alone, taking it easy on the uphills and not getting winded on the descents. I would then hang on as long as I could, not knowing when the Oner mileage would catch up with me. After a few minutes of chatting in the pen we were off.

Runners need to keep their wits about them in the first mile as there are quite a few speed bumps and bollards to navigate. Despite the road being packed with runners we were all cruising along at a decent lick. As usual a few numpties zigged and zagged about trying to rush through when there is no real need. I saw more than a couple of them trip over other people, but luckily there was no pile-up. The race soon spread out after the first two miles as the road widened. I carried on with my plan, just running along at my own pace.

Aid stations were plentiful, with only one of them in a slightly daft place. I refer to the one on the hill up Billacombe Road as everyone is puffing hard at that point, so it is hard to take on water or the lucozade offered. I grabbed a mouthful of water at all the aid stations except for the ones in the last couple of miles as I was pushing too hard at that point.

After the climb up Billacombe I consumed an isogel that I had carried with me and then cracked on. Going through the Saltram Estate  jelly beans were offered, but they were cold and quite hard to chew so I ditched them. This was the point that I was expecting the wheels to come off, but I was still going strong and from half way was able to push a little bit harder with my fastest miles coming on the descent through Saltram and the flat exit from it onto Laira bridge.

The most soul destroying part of the run is the section heading out along the Plymouth Embankment. Runners are looking for the turnaround point and it is a long time coming. Meanwhile faster runners are streaming past in the opposite direction. I locked on to another runner and just used their pace to get me to the turnaround. Once we got there I started feeling strong and pushed hard for the remaining three miles. I was near PB pace and was just about hanging in there.

At several points on the course there was music and it was great to hear, really adding to the atmosphere. The drummers in the first and last miles were particularly good. There were loads of spectators spread throughout the course as well, cheering and occasionally offering sweets.

In the last few miles people started falling by the wayside, clearly blown and struggling. I was particularly happy as I came into the Barbican and caught up with Robin Hood who had started at a cracking pace. I paced with him for a few metres to see if he would be able to keep up with me if I overtook. I didn’t want him sprinting past in the last two hundred meters. He looked cooked, so I overtook him and cracked on. The last mile is mostly uphill and is really hard work. I made a few places and also lost a few places as I just tried to hang on.

The crowds were thick as the runners turned onto the top of the Hoe and lined the last four hundred meters. The cheering was loud and everyone was pushing to the line. I had nothing left, so just tried to maintain my pace to the finish, crossing in 315th place out of 4721 runners in 1 hour 36 minutes and 44 seconds. Not quite a PB, but not far off it. I was extremely happy considering everything that had come before.

A big thanks to everyone that cheered me on. It was also great to see so many friends and runners there from my two favourite local clubs: The Erme Valley Harriers and Plymouth Triathlon Club. Well done to everyone that finished, you are all awesome 🙂 Hopefully see you on the start line again next year.

Thanks to my Mum for giving us a lift in her car, to my son Kristian for being very well behaved and to both of them for being such good supporters 🙂 Oh, and well done to Donncha who came with us and set a personal worst time. I’m sure you will do better later in the year 😀

Showing off my medal

Showing off my medal

Finishing an ultramarathon – A beautiful state of mind

mindFinishing an ultra is actually pretty easy. Bare with me, it’s true. It does require a change in mindset though, so stick with it.

An ultramarathon is technically any running race that is longer than a marathon. If a race is worthy of the title of “ultramarathon” then you have permission to change your race strategy quite significantly. You can slow down, walk the uphills, eat more food, chat with your fellow competitors and enjoy the scenery. If you do not then you will run out of steam by the end. You can of course go at marathon pace from the start, but when you “hit the wall” or “bonk” then you wont just have 5 or 6 miles to sob through, you will have ten or twenty or even more and it would be almost unbearable.

For experienced runners to finish a marathon it involves an almost all out effort right from the start. It is 2.5 to 6 hours of pushing pushing pushing. That really hurts, and most of us aren’t built to run that way. The human body is an amazing thing though, and if instead you ask it to chug along at a lower intensity for a lot longer then it is very happy to do so.

Runners can learn a lot from Sunday cyclists.

Just look at them. They get up bright and early and toddle around the countryside for miles and miles. Occasionally they have a sprint or push hard up a hill, but most often they are cruising along the flat or tucking in as they roll down a hill. That is some pretty low intensity all-day action right there. They also stop for coffee and cake. How many runners do you see do that? Why not? The reason is that often runners push too hard. When pushing hard not only does the pain become something miserable, but important things, like their digestive systems, stop working properly. Try doing a long run, but think like a cyclist. There is a key difference though. Ultra runners push on through the flats and downhills, they take it easy on the ups. Use an uphill as an excuse to walk, have a chat, eat some food. You are trying to prevent your heart rate from going too high, so you don’t burn out early. Look around at the view, talk to a sheep. You know you want to.

Roads vs Trails

Roads. Yuck. They are OK for a mid week training session, or for a little bit of speed work, but to prevent your body from breaking down from repetitive stress then you really need to hit the trails for your long runs. They don’t have to be muddy or hilly if you don’t want them to, but I’d recommend factoring in a hill or three to give yourself that chance of a walk. It breaks the run up a bit and you will be glad of the (uphill) break. The first time you incorporate trails they will likely tire you out a bit as they use a lot more muscle groups, but they will build your core, improve your proprioception, build your durability, and INCREASE your overall performance. You may even learn to like the muddy/boggy/rocky sections as they add variety and spice up the route.

Food and ultras

If running a shorter ultra, perhaps sub 40 miles, then you will probably get away with marathon style nutrition. You could try adding a bit of variety though, perhaps a packet of crisps or two, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich. At an ultra pace you can digest these easily enough. If you can’t eat them then you aren’t going at ultra pace. For longer races you will switch more and more onto savouries as the race progresses as that is what your body will crave.

Taking it seriously

Why would you want to do that? Who on earth would want to push so hard in a race that they either don’t enjoy it or are so fatigued afterwards that they can’t race again for months afterwards. This isn’t about peak performance, or setting a record. This is about finishing the course, having fun and encompassing running, staying fit, and eating huge amounts of food guilt free. It is about making running a fun part of your life.

Choosing a race

If you are new to ultras then choose a race that will challenge you, but not one that is so tough that you wont be able to finish it. Save that for later. Find one with a course profile that you like, at a distance you can manage, and of course one with amazing scenery. Twenty four hour trail races like Hope 24 and Equinox 24 are worth a look thanks to their low pressure, newbie friendly environments.  Once you’ve figured out what you like and discovered you can run further than you may have thought, and that your body will recover quicker than you ever imagined, then you can push up the bar and look to the tougher events if that is what you want. Races like The Oner with its tight time cutoffs, or multi day races, or one of the 100 milers. You don’t have to though. You could stick to cruising around beautiful 30 milers at coffee and cake speeds, soaking up the views and the atmosphere.

Intervals, HIT and Fartleks

High Intensity Training or HIT as it is known is not fun. This is effectively reducing your training down to extremely short and painful interval sessions to try and get the most training into the shortest time possible. You have to push so hard that you are practically sick by the end of it to see a decent benefit. It really isn’t worth it unless you are looking to win races. It takes the fun out of training and massively ramps up the pain. Just ask Chris Hoy….

Have you tried Strava? Instead of doing your usual speed session go on Strava and look up some segments in your area. These are sections of road and trail that folks have set times on. Figure out where they are and use them for your speed work. Run easily to the first one, give it some welly, and then cruise along to the next. When you get home upload your GPS data and see how well you did. You can then work out how you can beat it and climb the league table. Its like interval training, but more fun.

Running ultras for most folk is learning that:

  • Going slower allows you to go a lot further
  • Accepting that you will be on your feet all day (and sometimes all night and all day and all night again….) 🙂
  • Running on trails hurts your body a lot less, plus finishing a run covered in mud is extremely satisfying
  • You can eat real food while running
  • A lot of hills are rest breaks and a welcome change of pace. Oh, and a good time to look at the view
  • If your stomach wont allow you to eat then you are running too fast
  • Running is NOT all about pain
  • Enjoying running is not all about High Intensity Training (HIT)
  • You don’t have to continuously run massive high mileage weeks to be able to finish most ultras
  • Ultras often have awesome medals
  • Ultras may have fewer spectators but boy are they the best and most supportive of spectators 🙂
  • Walking is not evil

A beautiful state of mind

It takes a little while to figure all this out as it is very different to the way that runners normally treat running. Clubs are often speed/performance focussed. Many are just trying to hit their first marathon, not realising that actually doing their first ultra is likely to be a lot more fun, but only if you treat it like an ultra and not like a marathon.

When you do get there though it is wonderful. When you get your pace right then everything falls into place. The miles tick by, the views come and go. The sun rises, falls and sets. You turn your head torch on and catch fleeting glimpses of animals in the dark. You pause, turn your head torch off and gaze at the stars for a minute, listening to the sea or the wind in the trees. You watch the sun rise above the cliff tops, while eating a bizarre breakfast of cold sausage rolls, crisps and perhaps a jam tart. Why not? You run along a beach, the water cooling your sore feet, and eventually you see the finish. The cheer of spectators makes you well up. You are both glad and sad that it is almost over. It has been an amazing experience, with both highs and lows, and unlike many marathon runners you aren’t thinking “never again.”


The Oner 2016 – I did it!

The Oner medal

On my 3rd try 🙂

I shall jump straight to the punchline: On my third time of trying I have finally completed The Oner. 82 miles (84 the way I went!)  with over 10000 feet of ascent and a tight time limit. I wrote up my 2014 and 2015 attempts here and here if you want to see where it all went wrong before.

First things first, thank you to all of my supporters, training companions and friends that have helped me to this point. Your positive messages, shoulders to cry on and support have been most important. The biggest thanks of course go to my wife and kids who have stood by me all along and also to my Mum who crewed me on The Oner for the past two years. She was indispensable both times and I know she found it stressful, particularly that moment in the night when I head off in the dark to the blustery and slippery clifftop paths.

This is beginning to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, so I’ll stop blubbering on and get on with something you may find interesting to read…. Please do forgive any grammaticals or typos. It is the day after the race and most of my muscles simply want me to lie down and do nothing for the rest of the day, not sit up bashing away on a computer keyboard.

The race was organised extremely well. Claire and her team from Brutal always do a good job, but this year they seemed that little bit more sorted. The aid stations were excellently stocked with both home made and off the shelf food. There were also hot drinks readily available through the night and the Brutal crew/volunteers could not have been more helpful. Without fail they asked if you wanted anything hot, if they could fill your bottles, if you were ok, if there was anything they could do. It was extremely welcome and comprehensive support. They all looked as tired as the runners by the time the race was done, and on some of the checkpoints they had to battle some pretty torrid conditions. The wind in particular was relentless in places.

The weather conditions for the race were pretty good. It was forecast to be clear skies with rain clouds occasionally whoosing through and drenching everyone. The wind would be steady and picking up towards the end of the race. In other words bring all your kit and be prepared for anything!

My approach to the race was both more and less serious than years before. It was more serious as I was not in fancy dress, and I was a bit more prepared. On the other hand my race plan was a little more gung ho than I am normally used to.

The Oner course has some peculiarities that mean it needs a slightly different strategy to some ultras. For example trying to set an even effort pace from the start does not work that well, see my 2015 effort for proof of that. It is extremely hilly for the first ten miles, it is then fairly flat or rolling for about the next 36, before being epically hilly for most of the rest of it. It starts at noon, and all this combines means a couple of key things:

  1. You can easily blow your entire race by going out too hard in the first hills
  2. You hit the worst of the hills after it gets dark, when you are at your lowest

The boldness of my plan for this year was that I would be pushing pretty hard for the first 50 miles of the race. I’m not talking marathon pace but I am talking about pushing up the hills and keeping the pace up on the flat to try and bank as much time as possible. The end result was the first 30 miles finished over an hour quicker than last year and 2.5 hours ahead of the cutoff. I maintained this bank of time for the next couple of hours until the 50 mile checkpoint at Osmington Mills. After that the hills and my tiredness started to slow me down.

The next phase of my plan was to survive the night. This is easier said than done. The fatigue, hills, wind and occasional shower meant that runners were dropping like flies and being taken away from the checkpoints in nice warm mini buses. I have raced through the night a few times and am getting better at dealing with it. Specifically for the Oner I used running poles from the half way mark so I would have them through the night and over the slippery hills. I calculated previously how much caffeine would help and used a combination of caffeine gels that I carried and hot coffee from the aid stations to keep my brain functioning properly. If that wasn’t working I had some mantras ready to run through my mind and music on my phone that I could have played. I also promised myself not to dwell on the negative and didn’t talk myself down into a depressive state at any point. That last one takes practice and isn’t easy when morale takes a dive.

The final phase of my plan was to walk it in. I knew that if I had motored for the first 50 miles and then got through the night and the worst of the hills that I would be tired. Everything would be hurting and it would be easy to slow down to a nothing pace and time out with just a few miles to go. I was prepared to walk, but I planned to push it and walk as hard as I could. I would continue to push up the hills and I would keep the effort up on the flats.

So to sum up:

  1. Make hay while the sun shines (Old farming proverb…)
  2. Beware the sleep monster (David Berridge talks about his sleep monster encounters in his book Fartleks and Flatulence.)
  3. If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk…. (Thanks MLK, awesome quote 🙂 )

So, that is what I planned and pretty much how it worked out. I guess a part of that is from my experience of failing on the Oner twice before. I have also spent a lot of time working on my nutrition and now have a pretty simple policy of not having calories in my water, but eating little and often. I always have electrolytes in my bottles, but if I have carbs in my drink I tend to take on too many calories and my stomach gives up. Instead my preferred foods are isotonic gels, jelly sweets and Honey Stinger waffles. I also stash peanut butter and honey sandwiches in my drop bags. As the race goes on I use caffeine gels in the night and naturally switch to devouring savoury food at the aid stations. For me this means sausage rolls and crisps. I have some dietary issues which limit my choice at the aid stations. Claire and Brutal Events did a great job on the sausage rolls with home made ones at most of the aid stations and some store bought ones for spares. The jam tarts at St Aldhelms were a nice treat too 🙂

Weymouth is always a high/low light of the race. This time would be no different and the weirdest moment was when a drunk old guy stumbled in front of two of us, causing us to leap out of the way and mumbled “mMMm skiing.” We were both running with poles at that point.

I think I’ve written enough, so I’m not going to write a full account of the race for now. I would like to pass on my best wishes to Andy, who I met ran with for some miles, who had to quit the race at checkpoint 6 when one of his kids fell poorly and his wife called him home. I would also like to thank the supporters of the other runners for being so generous with their cheering and support, they really boosted the atmosphere.

Finally thanks again to Claire and Brutal Events for laying on a cracking race 🙂