Ten things you learn by running 100 miles

1. Hard work pays off. It doesn’t have to be 100, or even 60 or 70 mile weeks. But it has to be consistent and most importantly, it has to be enjoyable. I broke my self-imposed ‘one 100 per year’ rule after recovering quicker than expected following the SDW100, and wanted another crack at running 100 miles, ideally a bit faster. I had a great block of training leading up to the A100 and enjoyed every run. There’s absolutely no shame in putting your heart and soul into something you love doing.

2. You have to run your own race. Always. I knew it was unlikely I’d be able to keep pace with leading ladies Susie and Jess (who finished in an incredible 15:22 and 16:42 respectively). But I knew that if I raced smart, didn’t go out too fast and didn’t lose too much time at aid stations, I’d be OK. My crew were brilliant – as I approached them I’d hold out my empties and swap them with my Dad for full water bottles and food. I think it’s fair to say that we nailed the F1 pitstop style hand over.

3. Always have a plan. I went in with a similar race plan to the SDW100. I secretly wanted a finish time starting with an 18, which was a scary prospect, but I figured if I ran the first 50 miles in 8:30 it would be achievable. Running out to the Ridgeway from race HQ at Goring on the third spur of the race, as my watch clicked over to 50 miles in 7:57 (nearly a 40 minute PB!), I knew I was well on target and deep down a 17-something finisher time also seemed like a possibility.

4. Stuart March takes the best race photos.

5. 100 milers inevitably hurt, but personally the first bit is always the toughest. Regardless of the distance, whether it’s a marathon, 50 or 100 miler, I always find the initial onset of fatigue and soreness in my legs at the 15 or so mile point stresses me out every time and makes me doubt my prep and the race ahead.

6. Falling over while running downhill on the Ridgeway at mile 70 was predictably messy but didn’t hurt as much as I expected. It did result in some impressive war wounds on return to race HQ at Goring and a nice big stratch on the casing of my new Suunto Ambit though.

7. Feeling a bit nauseous is inevable and not necessarily a cause for concern; running 100 miles fuelled by baby food, some fruit and few mars bars could be the reason for that. But it doesn’t mean you’re actually going to be sick, it just means you have to count from one to 100 (and keep on running, of course) and have faith in your fuelling plan.

8. It’s just running all day. And eating. I love doing both these things. Once I realised this the nerves melted away on race morning.

9. Out and back races were you can see and cheer on the rest of the field are also a fantastic experience, and it was incredibly inspiring crossing paths with Susie and Jess on each spur and realising that I was sharing the experience with some phenomenal runners.

10. I couldn’t have run a 100 mile PB of 17:24, coming 3rd lady and 11th overall, without the help of my amazing Dad. Thanks also to my brother who crewed for the first 50 and to James, Nici and all the other staff and volunteers.

All photos by Stuart March and my Dad.

The journey to running 100 miles at the North Downs Way 100 

Cat and Keith NDW100

October 2014 Run the Atacama Crossing in Chile and finish as 2nd female. Race a marathon the week later (also in Chile) and finish as 3rd girl in 3 hours 23 minutes. Win £300 cash. Feel a bit invincible.

November 2014 Return to the UK suffering from a severe case of the post-race blues and in need of a new, big challenge/adventure to cap Atacama. Enter TransGranCanaria 125k (129k?) ultra-hardcore mountain race and North Downs Way 100 mile race.

December 2014 Start training again. Right hip hurts when running over eight miles. Simultaneously ignore it/worry a little.

January 2015 Run 43 miles at the Country to Capital race with friend Susie. Have a laugh but hip feels a bit sore. Somehow beat previous year’s time.

January-March 2015 Carry on tentatively training. Self-diagnose hip pain as possible burstitis. Pain never gets above 2-3 out of 5 on long runs, so cross fingers and carry on.

March 2015 Fly out for TransGranCaria. Run around 70k of 129k before DNFing with a sore hip/bad stomach. A nice Yorkshireman in his early 60s takes me under his wing. He tells the nurses in the medical tent funny stories while I cry and be sick. He lets me sleep on his sofa.

April 2015 Take my hip/legs to see Simon Lamb, then an NHS physio, who diagnoses possible gluteal tendonitis. Prescribes rehab (squats!) and gentle running.

May 2015 Continue to train/rehab hip. Volunteer at the North Downs Way 50 mile race. Spend the day feeding ice cream to ultra runners. Have an great day. Resign myself to probably doing this at the North Downs Way 100 in August, rather than running. Feel OK but a bit sad. Email Centurion Race Volunteer extraordinaire Nicky to register as a volunteer.

June 2015 Have a long-overdue ultra-sound scan on hip. No tendon damage detected. Coincides with running without hip pain again. Feel relieved/a bit worried about having enough time to train for impending 100 miler.

June-July 2015 Squeeze in two 30-ish milers, one along the North Downs Way (where I get very lost) and one at Race to the Stones 50k. Have a bad day at latter and hate races. Never want to do another one. Moan to the marshals about running 100 miles in a month.

July 2015 Walk nearly 30 miles along the NDW three weeks before NDW100 with some friends. Feel a bit more confident about not getting lost on race day.

T-2 weeks Spend lead up to the race in complete denial. Don’t want to talk logistics with my crew.

T-1 week Have crippling fear about running 100 miles. Realise my Dad can’t crew and pace. Realise I really need pacers too. Luckily I have superhero friends Susie and Gemma on hand to help.

Race day Get to the race start OK. Aim to just get between checkpoints, rather than focussing on the overall distance. Scenery is amazing. Weather is perfect. Hills aren’t as bad as I expected. See friends along the way. Feel good. Get to 50 miles in ten hours, bang on target. Eat some pasta. Pick up my first pacer, Susie, then Gemma at 60 miles, then Jon at 72 miles. It gets dark and realise that running through the night is a lot of fun. Don’t eat enough. Opt for Frijj chocolate milk to get some easy calories in. At the 82 mile checkpoint, Jon tells me we’re finished with the hills. Then we immediately have to climb another huge one.

Race day plus around 24 hours The sun comes up. We still have another ten miles to go. Reduced to a power hike. Want to get it over and done with but running hurts. Stomach hurts. See Dad two miles before the end. Cry a bit. Cross the finish line in 25 hours and 34 minutes. Cry a lot. Sit down and try to eat a bacon sandwich. Can’t get up again.

Post race week Live in my race t-shirt. Take race buckle everywhere. Can’t believe I ran 100 miles. Think I like 100 mile races. Maybe it’s ‘my distance’. Dream about running sub-24 hours next time.

2 weeks after NDW100 Sign up for South Downs Way 100 next June.

Team RTTS100 x The North Face take on Race to the Stones!

I blogged a while back about an exciting ultra project I was involved in with Soph at Pretty Fit and global mega brand The North Face.  Fast forward a month or so and the team has been selected. A colourful but slightly scary looking training plan has been put together with running coach Karen Weir. We’ve got a blog and are on twitter, and the very exciting journey to Race to the Stones in July has begun!
Here’s a bit more information about our team members, who will be regularly blogging about training and stuff, and giving an insight into what it’s like to train for a 100 kilometre race. It’s the furthest I’ll have ever run in a single stage event too, so I really am thrilled to be involved in something that will hopefully open up ultra running and other endurance sports to more women, and show they’re more accessible, less scary and a lot of actual fun!
Susie Chan
Susie
My name is Susie Chan, and I am an endurance runner. I have been running since 2011, when I got talked into a half marathon by my brother. I had never run before, did modest training, and managed to stumble over the finish line in quite considerable pain. Since that first medal went round my neck I have been running more and more and further and further. I run because I love it, and I love the people – they are my sort of people, and because I like eating crisps.
My race CV highlight is the Marathon des Sables, and 2014 sees me tackling Boston Marathon and Thames Path 100.
My favorite races are Multistage races, spending days with like minded people, doing the thing I love.
I have never attempted a 100K before or raced as part of a team, so I am very much looking forward to doing both!
You can find me warbling on about all of this and more on twitter @starterfour10

Kabuki Snyder 

Kabuki

Born in Ghana, Kabuki has travelled around the world since the age of 16 for her education, work, and recreation.

To keep healthy and tame her monkey mind, Kabuki actively took to running in 2008.

During this journey, she was inspired by a friend’s courage to run (and complete) the 4deserts and this provided the motivation to sign-up for two ultra’s in 2013: the London to Brighton 100km and The Thames Path 50km. Training and competing helped her to discover peace and mental space that was vital to keeping life balance in check and the distance forced a welcome focus on how to respect the body.

Kabuki’s dream now is to extend her running to ultra distance challenges around the world and to fully embrace the tranquility that she’s found in endurance activities.

Outside of running and walking their dog, Kabuki loves cooking, photography and experiencing the creativity of chefs around the world. Her holidays are spent travelling with her husband Ken to destinations for runs coupled with some food- based exploration.

Professionally, Kabuki works for Universal Music Group International where she is a Senior Vice President responsible for digital distribution of UMG owned and distributed content for all territories outside of North America and Mexico.

You can follow Kabuki on twitter @kabukisnyder

Lucja

With a fairly new found love of ultra running, or just running for that matter, I have also found a confidence and competitive streak that I didn’t know existed previously.

I’ve been running for about 6 years taking it up originally as part of a weight loss plan and now addicted to the endorphins & awesome experiences I get through running.  I built up from 10km to my first marathon in Amsterdam in 2010, and I could never have imagined that I would ever call myself an ultra runner, I hadn’t even heard of it! Now with a couple of ultras in the bag and with a highlight of coming 2nd lady (and 16th overall) in South Africa’s Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (250km self sufficient race over 6 stages) in 2013, I’m off to compete in the 29th Marathon Des Sables. It doesn’t stop there, with my 2014 plans including Edinburgh marathon in May, my first non-stop 100 mile race over in Ohio in June; Mohican 100, Race to the Stones 100km in July, Clyde Stride 40 mile in September and perhaps a return to the Kalahari desert in November.
I’m so excited to be selected to be part of the North Face ultra team with a group of fantastic & inspiring ladies, some of whom I’ve already had the pleasure of getting to know through the power of twitter, and even run with already.  It will be great to learn from the awe inspiring Lizzy Hawker and share training plans and stories with the gang, all supported by the great North Face brand.
Read more about me & my stories at my blog www.runningdutchie.wordpress.com and follow me on twitter @runningdutchie.

Hannah

Hannah is a 23 year-old self-professed mathematician and former Newcastle University graduate, who is now lucky enough to call London her home.

Prior to University, she spent 5 years with the Air Training Corps where weekends were spent roaming the Scottish Highlands and developing a love for the outdoors. Whilst studying she started rowing, practiced yoga and trained with the AXC Club whilst dipping in and out of running. Since summiting Kilimanjaro her most recent challenges include Tough Mudder and completing her first half marathon.

When not on board the Buying Team to the UK’s largest Specialist Running Retailer, Hannah will mostly be found in the kitchen. A creative and aspiring foodie, she is incredibly passionate about holistic wellbeing and a firm believer that the first step in fuelling the strongest most healthy body and mind is eating organic wholesome foods.

You can follow Hannah over at @iamhannahwalsh

 

Louise

Name: Louise Ayling
City: London
Occupation: Teacher

Years running: 4
Years running ultras: 1
PBs: Marathon 4:24, parkrun 24:56

Favourite running surface: Woodland trail.
Running achievement I am most proud of: Earning my parkrun 50 club t-shirt within 12 months of running my first parkrun.
Typical training week: 5 running days, 2 rest days, 40 miles.
Injury history: Stress fracture of foot due to gross stupidity.

Favourite running food: Jaffa Cakes
Favourite running drink: Water
Things I like most about running: The people
Things I hate most about running: The chafing
What got me started running: I thought it would an activity I could fit in during my commute.
What kept me running: My parkrun addiction.
What made me want to do ultras: I wanted to get to the point where it was “only a marathon”.
Go hard or go home: Go home.

Sorrell

My name is Sorrell, and I’m a 23 year old Mancunian living in London. I co-lead the Manchester based running crew Still Waters Run Deep, love a good pint, cake, and running running running.

After being inspired by my brother for completing the London Marathon, and wanting to lose some lingering mince pie pounds, I started running regularly in 2010. I signed up to a 20 mile race the following year, and haven’t thought about stopping since. From my first marathon in 2013, to joining the Run Dem Crew Elites in summer, I found myself running my first ultra-marathon in January, and loved every minute of it.

I’m continually inspired by running as a route of progression. People might think it’s a bit mental when you choose to run so much, or so often, but for me it’s a way to gain balance. It’s a way to focus, and it’s a way to set yourself goals that then thread into other areas of your life, and the more people that feel this, the better.

Race to the Stones will be my longest distance yet, and I’m proud to say that I’ll be part of a team of 10 strong women.  #Elevatewomensrunning

You can follow Sorrell on twitter @sorrellve

 

 

 

Maja

I used to play basketball. A lot. I hated running anything longer than the length of the court and preferred short sprints over anything else. I’m not sure how that led me to long distance running – but here I am.

Since struggling to run a 10km race in 2008 (I had to stop 3 times to get through), I have gone on to find a capacity reaching far beyond what I ever thought possible. It’s safe to say that running is more than just exercise, it’s a way to let my mind breathe and recover and find energy for the other things in my life. I love the peace that sets in when body and mind get into sync and movement was never more natural.

Over the last 6 years I have run longer distances, smashed PBs and found a joy in sharing runs with close friends and complete strangers. But I have never run farther than a marathon, and my only longer distance foray was a crazy plan to walk from London to Brighton in a day without training for it. We made it to 65km or so and returned some weeks later to complete, teaching me a fair bit on the respect-the-distance front.

And now I’ve only gone and signed up for a 100km race.

I love finding space and calm by getting out into nature and nothing beats exerting myself in the fresh air of woods, meadows and seasides. I’m looking forward to what I might find on the journey towards RTTS and on the day itself…

Come run with me on www.runurb.tumblr.com and talk to me on twitter: @runurb.

image

Cat

Hi I’m Cat, and I’m a seasoned runner with a penchant for overseas race trips. I’ve run races in many cities around the world (including Marrakech, Istanbul and Berlin), getting the bug four years ago after joining my husband (who has run 97 marathons) on one of his many foreign races, and have completed 14 marathons and four ultras to date.

I recently got into trail ultras after running The Toad Challenge last year, a three day, 90 mile race along the Thames path. Since then, I’ve completed a couple of longer, single stage events, and most recently ran the Centurion South Downs Way 50 miler, up and down the hills on the south coast. Running lets me take stock of everyday life, spend time outdoors in beautiful places, and hang out with amazing, inspiring people that do epic shit like run across deserts and up mountains.

I’m gradually working my way through my race bucket list and will be doing the 4 Deserts Atacama Crossing in October, and hopefully one of the UTMB races next year (probably the CCC). I’m so excited to be part of this team of ridiculously talented runners taking on Race to the Stones and cannot wait for July!

 

Karen

Karen trained for and ran her first marathon in 2003. She then swore never to run again! However a seed had been sown and gradually running became a habit she couldn’t kick. Over the next 11 years the habit turned into an obsession and she began taking on ever more challenging endurance events including the Comrades ultra-marathon and the Jurassic Coast Challenge multi-stage event. Six years ago she incorporated swimming and cycling into her training and completed the Arch to Arc Enduro Challenge as part of a 6 man relay team and became an Ironman (twice!)

Karen’s own personal experiences from running and participating in endurance challenges were life changing and when she was made redundant from a city job in 2008, her passion for running and helping others achieve their own endurance goals led her to set up Run with Karen, a running coaching and consultancy business with the sole purpose of bringing running to as many people as possible. (www.runwithkaren.com)

Karen has coached over 75 athletes, including some famous faces; many of whom were new to running and helped them go on to achieve their goals and experience their own life changing events. She is also a volunteer Event Director for the massively popular parkrun, having started the Richmond parkrun in 2007. Karen is also a parkrun pioneer as she was one of the 13 runners that ran the very first parkrun back in October 2004. Karen is really looking forward to the challenge of Race to the Stones, 100km non-stop will be a whole new experience and sharing it with a fabulous group of ladies will make it even more memorable and rewarding.

Soph

Hello, my name is Soph. I am 24 years old and I love running. I also love marshmallows and coffee. I live in London and by day (and night, and sometimes weekends) I work as a lawyer.

My relationship with running started a few years back while I was studying at university. I was suffering with an eating disorder and started running as a way to burn up the minimal calories I was eating and whittle myself away. Somewhere along the line my love for running overtook the hatred I had for my body; I wanted to run further and faster and knew I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t get better. Running taught me to love and respect my body and I have been hooked ever since. I have now completed three marathons and 10 half marathons and don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

I am so excited about the RTTS100 project and am particularly thrilled to have the support of endurance running experts The North Face, and to be running with a group of such amazing women. This will be my first ultra and I couldn’t ask for better support to take on such an amazing challenge.

You can follow me on twitter @BePrettyFit and over on my blog, beprettyfit.com.

Race report: The South Downs Way 50 miler

It’s taken a while for the events of the weekend to sink in and it was hard to know where to start with this. Although I like to think I can do most things I can put my mind to, running fifty miles on Saturday was no small feat. I was pretty shit-scared the week leading up to the event and genuinely wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew this time around. Training had been a mixed bag, which I’m going to bullet point to save waffling:

Good: running my first long single day ultra in January (Country to Capital) and finishing in a pretty decent time.
Not so good: the fact that my legs were in agony for the last ten miles of this race and mentally losing the plot towards the end.

Good: running a strong race at the Seville Marathon in February and pushing the pace more than I though I could.
Not so good: this was my longest training run during my SDW50 block, and as a flat road marathon, it didn’t exactly replicate the hilly conditions of the South Downs Way.

Good: having a decent taper period and going into the event feeling well rested.
Not so good: a few training wobbles, aborted long runs and heavy legs on off-road, hilly runs. Not getting to recce the course. A head full of self-doubt the week prior to the race.

A lot can happen over 50 miles and a race goal was hard to set. Based on my C2C time (6:56 for 44 miles) and the SDW50 female course record (8:23), I aimed to finish in as near to nine hours as possible, but nine hours thirty would be fine. I wanted to run (well, shuffle) as many of the hills as possible; the course was such that walking all of them would add on too much time. Not a lot of hills had featured in training, but I’d been doing regular threshold sessions in the hope that the mantra, ‘hill training is speedwork in disguise’ was true in reverse.

After the mandatory kit check and pre-race brief, we were off at 9am. The first six miles before the course joined the South Downs Way were hilly, and by about 13 miles, my legs were already starting to feel a bit knackered after powering down a few hills in an attempt to maximise the effect of gravity and make up for time lost going up.

The first two aid stations were a blur and I pushed through; stopping at checkpoints isn’t something I like to do, as it’s easy to lose time and rhythm. But, on arriving at the third at 26.6 miles, five minutes ahead of schedule, I had the urge to stop, refuel and chat to my Dad, who was informally crewing for me. Knowing he was 100% behind me made me feel immensely grateful, strong and positive.

From that point on, I stopped for a couple of minutes at each aid station, and I’m pretty sure it did my race the world of good. They helped me to refuel both physically and mentally and I didn’t experience any wobbles or feelings of self-doubt. There were long, flat stretches across the tops of the Downs, with clouds rolling over the hills, where reining in the miles with the Sussex countryside set out below was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever experienced. Why had I been so nervous about doing something I loved so much?

When I came through the next checkpoint at 35.5 miles, the though of running another 15 didn’t phase me one bit. My Garmin read about 6:30, and finishing in eight hours and 30 minutes seemed a possibility. Ten miles later and we hit the final descent into Eastbourne, down a slippery, narrow track, and on to tarmac for the final few miles. My watch read 8:20 and I pushed on, sub-eight minute miles feeling comfortable. I was completely focussed on getting to the finish line, following the orange arrows on the pavement and not letting up on the pace.

I arrived at the athletics track for the race finish just my Garmin died a death on the final lap. Crossing the finish line in eight hours and 33 minutes, as the fifth female finisher, nearly half an hour quicker than my goal time, I felt broken but elated.

On hearing how other ultra friends got on, I was truly blown away. There were some fast times run out on the Downs on Saturday, and to have trodden in the footsteps of some extremely talented runners made me feel very excited indeed. I really feel like this scene is a great place to be right now and I feel very privileged to be able to call myself an ultra-runner too.

 

The North Face ultra team – join us!!

Today I’ve got some really big news to announce. Since getting into ultra running in the last year, it’s been such a blast that I really wanted to share the love. So me and my pal Sophie, over at Pretty Fit, have teamed up with mega-brand The North Face and are putting together a race team to run an ultra marathon. Weeeeee!

In July, we’ll be taking on Race to the Stones, an epic 100 kilometre race that follows the iconic Ridgeway route, and are looking for eight female runners to join us on this amazing adventure.

You’ll be kitted out by the North Face and receive training tips from the one and only Lizzy Hawker. We’ll train together (mostly virtually, with a couple of real-life meet ups before the big day), blog together and you’ll get all the support, high fives and cake you need to take on this heroic feat of endurance. You’ll also have a training plan to follow from a running coach and get fuel and nutrition support.

You’re probably thinking, ‘what an amazing opportunity, how do I apply to be part of this?’ We know, we know, we’ve been planning it for months and are super-excited to be finally announcing it. To apply to be part of our race team, please drop an email to TNFultrateam@gmail.com,with the following details:

Your name
Your blog (if applicable)
Your twitter handle
Distance running experience
A little bit about you and why you’d like to be part of the team (200 words max)

The deadline for entries is 23 February 2014

Cat and Soph x

The small print stuff: We will be running the 100k non-stop course over one day. Entrants will be expected to pay for their own race entry (£99) as well as travel and accommodation. You don’t have to have a blog to enter, but you will be required contribute to the project on social media.

(No) need for speed

Long distance runners still need to do speedwork, right? Yes and no, I think. While I feel speedwork is beneficial , I’m going to put it out there that it’s by no means a quick fix solution to getting faster.

I’m not overly enamoured with speedwork and hate the ‘go hard or go home’ rhetoric that comes with it even more. All that one-upmanship can do one; in my opinion, that’s just not what running’s about for me. Save your motivational bullying for someone else that likes that sort of thing.

As I’ve started running longer distances, I’ve tried to maintain an element of speed in my training. I suck at doing traditional speedwork, but I’ve stopped beating myself up about it and started putting this negative energy into actually making running work better for me. Yes, training at the same pace all the time gets terribly boring and I wouldn’t recommend it. What works for me is sneaking tougher sessions in in other ways, such as pushing the pace on the bike when I cycle to work, partly because it means I can spend more time in bed, but also because being outside with the wind rushing by wakes me up and makes me feel alive. When I run to work I sometimes challenge myself to beating my previous times, which breaks the monotony of running the same route repeatedly.

I do speedwork with my weekly beginners’ running group too. Their objective is to be able to run 5k without stopping, and understandably, they sometimes question why they need to do faster sessions. I explain it will ultimately help them to run more easily over a longer distance, and while I realise this probably sounds a bit vague, I don’t want to confuse they by talking about lactate threshold or wade into an area that, to be honest, I’m not an expert in.

But I feel that too many coaches use speedwork as a sticking plaster on training plans that don’t pay enough attention to a client’s individual needs and preferences, and too often, factoring in longer sessions at race pace is neglected.

Sadly, speedwork isn’t magic, and to use a popular office phrase, it’s all about focussing on the bigger picture. If you want to run a sub-4 hour marathon then it’s going to be a lot easier if you’re doing the majority of your training at this pace. I’ve recently run several marathons in around 3 hour 30 minutes and done so fairly comfortably, which is something I largely put down to doing *plucks arbitrary figure from the air* 90% of my training at this pace (you get the gist though). I do my long mileage weekly runs at this pace and I know I can maintain it for a long period without burning out. I’m no pacing expert and see every race as a learning curve, but take it from me, I’ve set out on marathons too fast and had to hang on in there for the last 10 miles as a consequence, which ain’t fun. Sure, so there are some people that relish the burn of pushing the pace over a sustained period and can tolerate it when their whole body is hurting, but that’s not the norm.

It’s also no great secret that the health and fitness industry is largely built on false hopes of cutting corners and taking an easy route to success. So I suppose it’s no great surprise to see that a lot of runners expect the answer to getting faster at long distance running is by knocking out a few interval sessions (I’ve certainly fallen into that trap in the past). But the more I run, the more I realise that there is no magic bullet. It’s about shifting all your training to a faster pace over a longer period of time. It’s about consistency, balance and not taking shortcuts. It’s about playing the long game, taking a sustainable approach and working pretty damn hard.

This is an opinion piece and I’d really love to hear what works for everyone else.

Race Report: Country to Capital ultra

Entering an ultra race a couple of weeks after over-indulging during the festive period is a great idea, right? I’m sure there were others questioning their decision to sign up for a 43-ish mile race as we gathered in a pub car park in Wendover, ready to tackle what was expected to be a very muddy course.

And it was. I spent most of the journey to the start trying to make an informed decision about footwear. The 7:12am country to capital express from Marylebone station was packed out with runners and smelt of deep heat, and after several changes between road and trail shoes, I opted for what I thought would be comfiest – road shoes. Plus, with so much mud anticipated, trail shoes would probably still be slippy and not best suited for the second half of the race along a canal path.

I had some vague race goals, mainly don’t face-plant in the mud or fall in the canal, but also:

A goal – run roughly 9 minute miles and finish in about 6 hours 30 minutes (after a 35 mile training run in 8:40 min/miles this didn’t seem wildly optimistic)

B goal – finish before it gets dark in around 7 hours 30 minutes

C goal – finish in time to have a quick shower in Paddington station, next door to the race finish, before heading over to a comedy night in Camden at 7:30pm – 8-plus hours

The race can be split quite nicely into two parts. The first half was hilly, across fields and trails through the Buckinghamshire countryside. There was a lot of sliding around in the mud, running through waterlogged fields and a couple of flooded roads. This served the purpose of washing the mud off my trainers, ready for the second half of the race along the Grand Union canal into London. Very nice.

Photo credit: Dad

I didn’t get lost on the first half of the race, which wasn’t due to any skills on my part, but by just happening to follow people that knew where they were going. I’m pretty sure I could have navigated if I wanted to though. Honest. The hills made it hard to maintain a steady pace and some really muddy stretches meant putting in double the effort. But overall, walking up them probably helped save my legs for the second half, which was  along a flat, straight canal path. It was impossible to get lost on this, although slidey in parts and I nearly fell in a couple of times.  When I tired towards the end, I wondered if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as I’d have a valid excuse to DNF, which seems a little extreme now.

It was easier to get into a rhythm and zone out for this part of the race. At the 35 mile point, when the runner ahead of me took a phone call (as you do while you’re running an ultra) and told the person on the other end that he’d be another hour and a half, a part of me died inside: I was feeling tired and was in denial about how far was left.

But fortunately, it didn’t take that much longer. There were a couple of killer bridges just before the end, which I walked over. My Garmin decided its laps database was full and wouldn’t show me the time for the last few miles. So it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line, when someone handed me a piece of paper with my time and position on it, that I realised I’d finished in 6 hours 56 minutes, in seventh female position (that was after getting a bear hug from my sports masseuse extraordinaire Simon Lamb and nearly breaking down in tears out of relief that I’d made it).

And what a long, fun, slightly painful journey it was. It was great to finally meet internet buds like Paul, not to mention other familiar faces on the ultra circuit. With the longest stretch of the Atacama Crossing being a similar distance, it was also good to get a feel for this. And while it felt pretty effing painful, if it was easy then the beer waiting at the end wouldn’t have tasted quite so good.

2014’s A-race

As 2013 draws to a close I’ve been reflecting back on the year. I’ve raced in some amazing European cities like Venice and Budapest, taken on an epic 100 mile bike ride through the beautiful Surrey Countryside, and run a similar distance multi-day ultra along the Thames (to mention just a few things). I’ve met some amazing people along the way, some of who have become good friends.

All this navel gazing took me back to the last part of the year and running lots of marathons in September and October (five in total). It’s been great doing the marathon tourist thing. I like marathons, but possibly overdid the supportive wife thing accompanying Jon on so many races. I don’t want to say I got bored (of the distance, rather than of Jon), as that sounds terribly flippant; running 26.2 miles is a massive achievement. I’ve learnt something incredibly valuable each time and lining up at the start line of each race was still a nerve-wracking experience.

I’m eternally grateful to the running gods for getting me through all these races uninjured and with all my toenails still in tact. But, like a lot of things in life, when you do them repeatedly they start to feel more comfortable. This can be nice to a certain extent and if everything in life presented a challenge then the prospect of getting out of bed every day would be mentally exhausting. Once you’re in your comfort zone it can feel warm and fuzzy, and it’s hard to leave. But it can also leave you feeling a bit stagnant and frustrated, without really being able to put your finger on why.

So to well and truly drop-kick this feeling up its backside I signed up for a new, big challenge in 2014. In October I’ll be heading over to Chile to run in the Atacama Crossing, a self supported, seven day event covering 250km through the desert.

It’s by no means a rash decision; rather, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last few months, but procrastinating about entering due to sheer terror. But after the ballot for the West Highland Way race didn’t turn out in my favour, maybe I felt even more spurred on to enter, or maybe it was that there was a big race-shaped hole just waiting to be filled in the 2nd half of 2014.

It’ll be a huge undertaking and I’m still digesting what it will entail. But once the shock has worn off (partly due to the big dent in my savings account) I can’t wait to start training.

Because while it’s easy to get into your comfort zone, it’s just as easy to leave it again.

The best of both worlds

 It can be easy to get carried away and enter ALL THE LONG RACES, as I seem to have been doing recently. But there comes a time when you realise you can’t get by just talking about running. No, you have to actually get out there and put in a lot of mileage in preparation.

I don’t generally have a problem fitting training around my life and I wouldn’t say I’m making a sacrifice – I prefer to look on running was a choice and all that. After all, I like it (most of the time) – if I woke up one morning and realised I didn’t I like to think I’d try to find a new hobby.

But while I tend to fit a lot of my week time training in by running the seven miles to the office (and back home again), it can be trickier to set aside time at the weekend. It seemed hard enough for marathon training, when long training runs of up to 22 miles meant taking three to four hours out on a Saturday/Sunday morning (not to mention the rest of the day set aside for eating/recuperating/feeling smug).

On Saturday, I set out for my longest run to date, a 35 miler along the Thames towpath. After digging my water bladder out of the freezer, where it’d been housed for the past three months to deter the growth of mould, and packing up a rucksack with emergency money, an oyster card, food and drink, I headed out the door.

“I’ll be gone for about four to five hours”, I told Jon, realising this was probably a conservative estimate. I hadn’t really thought through how long 35 miles would take to run, preferring to be in denial about this. I had also guesimated the fuelling requirements; it turned out that a pack of Clif Shot Bloks, a pouch of pureed apple and pear baby food, a nut butter and raspberry jam sandwich cut into little squares, and a litre water bladder containing an additional energy gel and two electrolyte tablets was only just enough.

Being out with no music or company for just over five hours seemed like a long time, but it was nicely broken up by eating and drinking at regular intervals; something I was in dire need of rehearsing for big race day. It felt like I was running with a purpose on one hand, but in the most relaxed definition of the expression.

Over the past few weeks I’ve really enjoyed spending time running with friends, and also rediscovering running with music at a faster pace. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t daunted by some of the races I’ve got on the horizon. But at least I’ll be approaching them safe in the knowledge that, come 11 January when I take the Country to Capital express to St Albans before running 45 miles back to London, I’ll be as prepared as possible but I won’t have missed out on too much fun along the way.

 

Book review: Running with the mind of meditation by Sakyong Miphan

I picked up a copy of this book back in the summer after excitedly entering a few ultra marathons and then subsequently feeling daunted by the prospect of running a race longer than 26.2 miles. Despite feeling ridiculously enthused by the thought of taking on a new challenge, niggling away in the back of my mind was the fear that running for five-plus hours could get really boring.

And that’s just the event itself, not the months of training: pretty essential to prepare for a massive long race. The 30 mile training runs, the long back to back runs on both days of the weekend; somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I was going to have to retrain my brain to find running less, well, boring.

Enter, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. The book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when I started reading it. I suppose I presumed it would talk about meditating while running or suggest that you should meditate to become a better runner. But instead it draws parallels between the two completely different disciplines and highlights similarities between them.

Breathing is the key thing connecting the two activities. In meditation you’re encouraged to start with a clear mind and to focus on your breath. If the mind wanders you bring your thoughts back to your breathing and pay attention to this. For those that haven’t come across the concept of ‘being present’ in the activity you’re engaged in (unlikely if you’ve ever read this blog, as I go on about it all the time), this is essentially it.

By being conscious of your breathing you’re basically anchoring yourself to the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ of what you’re doing (ie running), focussing on this rather than on the past or the future. I’d puzzled over this concept of ‘being present’ previously and wasn’t sure how it really applied to running and life in general.

But it turns out that when the mind is completely focussed on the activity it’s engaged in it’s much easy to apply 100% effort, rather than worrying about what’s around the corner. For me, it’s about letting go of things that aren’t relevant to the current moment or that are outside of my control. For instance, I frequently trouble over things like an exam that’s looming or an exchange I had with someone earlier in the day, despite knowing that it’s counterproductive to focus my energy on things that I just can’t change or influence (not by worrying about them, anyway). Running should be a time when we’re allowed to let go of the day’s stresses. Focussing on breathing helps facilitate this and to relinquish the things that are weighing down our mind.

By following this approach I’ve genuinely found running has been much more enjoyable. My brain gets bored a lot less easily (quite helpful when your short runs are rarely under 10k and long runs are anything up to 35 miles) and I’ve found my mind wandering into a state of peaceful transcendence on long runs. I stopped listening to music about four months ago (coinciding with reading the book) and much prefer being able to hear my breathing and natural running rhythm. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having tunes on runs but am starting to wonder whether being more aware of your running form and technique could even play a broader role in injury prevention.

Speaking of injuries and niggles, another part of the book I found particularly interesting was the section about dealing with pain. Our reaction to pain or discomfort on a run can be to try to block it out or focus on it to such a great extent that it effectively ‘steals our mind’. Both these tactics create a whole load of mental pain and worry which only serve to exacerbate the problem and result in a downward spiral in our mental and physical wellbeing. I’ve certainly been there and have blown feelings of minor physical fatigue into a huge mental maelstrom when it really needn’t have been, and afterwards felt like I’d wasted three months of hard training needlessly.

Sankyong suggests that we first acknowledge that we’re in discomfort, rather than objectifying the pain and blaming it for our suffering (I mean, getting all ragey at something which is essentially a projection of our minds just isn’t cool). By recognising it we have the opportunity to accept it is there which effectively disempowers it, allowing us to return our focus to the race. This might sound a little wacko but trust me, it really works.

And lastly, although this post refers a lot to ultra running and long-old distances, it’s definitely a book I’d recommend to runners of all distances. Sakyong’s wise words and useful tips are accessible to everyone (not to mention broken down into easy to read sections, making it easy to pick up and put down). What I liked the most was the fact that it doesn’t really suggest changing anything you’re already doing. It doesn’t ask that you alter your diet or even buy new trainers. For me, it really helped shift the paradigm from tolerating running to loving it. Which is pretty OK by me.

Running with the mind of meditation is available online here.