Running and the moments that make up your life

Since Atacama (and a spontaneous marathon in Chile the week after), my legs haven’t really wanted to start training again for next year’s races. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with running, rather, my body and mind have just needed longer to recover than usual, which I suppose is to be expected after taking on a race of such magnitude.

Not running over 60 miles a week frees up a lot of hours, which have come in handy. I’ve had time to focus on my side projects and coaching. I attended Jasyoga’s Monday Night Reset, which I can’t recommend enough to runners looking to undo some of the issues that come about from constant forward motion in a single plane. Erin is a brilliant teacher and the sessions were also a great excuse to hang out with friends and make new ones. After the final class of the three-week course, we headed to the pub to thank our bodies for the things it lets us do in a different way by feeding it with beer and burgers, while discussing our upcoming races.

It’s not often I want to do the same race twice, but in just under six weeks, I’ll be running from Wendover to London again. Country to Capital is basically a 44 mile race to the pub in Paddington, but this time around I’m looking forward to taking it easy and running with friends. It’ll also be one of my longest training runs for next year’s big race, Trans Gran Canaria.

Jurassic coast1

On Sunday, I headed to Dorset to run with two friends I met at a race last year. Susie and Gemma are both incredible ultra runners, with races like Marathon des Sables and UTMB under their belts. I think it would be fair to say that, like me, both have discovered running later in their lives, but have completed some of the toughest events in the world, which really proves you can do anything you put your mind to in ultra running (and life in general).

The run was my longest since Atacama and my legs really felt the miles; there was a lot of mud and nearly 1,000m of climbing in total over the 20 mile coastal route. But I came away from the trip not worrying about the fact I’d found the hills and terrain tough, but grateful to have had the opportunity to run in a beautiful part of the country with friends. It’s experiences like this that keep me excited about running long distances.

For me, running has always been about having amazing experiences with like-minded people, and Atacama and the past month have really reinforced this. So next year,  I’m planning a social trip to Fort William to do just this, for a weekend of training in the Scottish Highlands. It’s open to anyone that’s free on 7-8 February and doesn’t mind staying in no-frills settings while doing a lot of running. If it’s something that sounds of interest then drop me an email and I’ll send out more detailed plans.

Atacama Crossing training – tapering

Cat Kent Coastal

Over the past few weeks, the enormity of what I’m about to take on has started to hit home. I did the serious but boring stuff that cost even more money than I’d already spent, like sorting out a medical certificate and insurance. I fiddled around in the kitchen and concocted a high calorie meal replacement shake for breakfasts in the desert, and organised my food for each day into large, ziplock bags, with the contents and calorie content written on the outside.

My training peaked a couple of weeks ago, when I ran 28 miles then an (organised) marathon the following day, both with 6-7kg (close to full race weight) on my back. I hit a decent pace on both days (around 9:30 minute miles), finishing the marathon in 4 hours and seven minutes, feeling strong and grateful my body was coping so well with not only increased mileage, but increased mileage with added weight on my back.

When the Kent Coastal marathon organisers spotted me finishing the race in full desert gear (tight X-bionic kit, rucksack, front water bottles), they called me over for an interview over the tannoy. Having spent the race feeling a bit over-dressed, I was glad for the opportunity to explain that I was training for a 250km multi-stage, self-supported race in the Chilean Desert. They seemed surprised by how heavy the bag was that I’d just run with and I explained about the rice bags. I’d barely noticed the pack on the race, and took this as another good sign that I must be in peak race form.

After the race, I went out and drank beer with my family on Margate’s harbour arm. I rested the following day, returned home to London, then woke up the next day with a slightly sore left ankle. It felt like a really mild sprain, nothing to be overly concerned about, but maybe an excuse to start tapering a bit earlier.

I haven’t run since then, other than a short two mile ‘test’ jog to coach my club’s junior athletics session. My ankle felt fine – no better or worse – but still a bit sore. I want to run and I feel like I could, but don’t want to risk setting my body back, having come so far.

I don’t feel like an injured runner. Maybe I’m in denial slightly, but I feel that being injured is a state of mind, in a sense. I’d be lying if I claimed not to be a little bit daunted by the prospect of what’s ahead of me, given my recent physical worries. But a quick check in today with friend and sports massage therapist Simon Lamb helped to dispel some of mental niggles that have emerged as a consequence of not having run for nearly two weeks. This time next week I’ll be on my way to Chile, and on the 4th October I’ll be taking on a race that I couldn’t be more excited about. And while part of me wants to squeeze in a run before then, another part knows there’s still a lifetime of adventures ahead.

 

Atacama Crossing: Week 2-and-a-bit training

Warning: Contains geeky spreadsheet stuff, obsessive kit weighing and tales of cutting toothbrushes in half.

I learn a lot of stuff this week and had a pretty epic week (and a half) training for the Atacama Crossing.

  • I started training with a weighted rucksack. Possibly a bit late, but I’ve been run commuting for a few years and am used to carrying stuff around with me on runs. So I headed to the supermarket and bought six one-kilogramme bags of rice to carry on training runs (as you do), starting with three bags and gradually increasing to six. And the bonus of using rice, over other heavy items (like rocks or bricks, not to mention being kinder on my back), is that I can eat it after I’ve finished training (if I want).
  • On Thursday night, I went to a social hosted by Racing the Planet, who organise the 4 Desert race series (Gobi, Jordan, Atacama and Antarctica). We drank lots of beer and discussed stuff like what food has the highest calorie per gramme ratio (ie how to meet the calorie requirement of 2,00okCal per day, while carrying as little weight as possible. Some food I’ll be taking with me includes:
  1. Go Noodles: 5.7 kCal/g – these are actually more calorie dense than expensive, freeze-dried meals
  2. Peperami: 5 kCal/g –  not something I usually eat, but I imagine they’d taste heavenly when you’re tired/hungry/craving salt/protein
  3. Peparami peanuts (YES!): 5.4kCal/g – I’d love to meet the person that invented these because I think we’d get along very well.
  4. Clif Shot Bloks: 3.3kCal/g – not so high, but I’ll be taking them as my sugar source because I know they work for me on long runs
  5. Cashew nut butter: 6.4kCal/g – very high, I’m tempted to decanting around 30g a day into zip lock bags as a treat.
  • I made a kit spreadsheet to ensure I’m not carrying any more than I need to be, and have managed to get my total pack weight down to around 5.8kg (before water). This will comprise of 500g food per day (mostly high calorie items) and not much more than the mandatory kit. The only luxuries I’ll be taking include ear plugs and sudocreme (will blog a full list of things once I’ve worked everything out).
Atacama kit

Take the metal ring off a compass and cut your toothbrush in half!

  • I also spent an evening weighing various bits of kit and finding ways to make them even lighter, like cutting a toothbrush in half and decanting sudocreme into a small ziplock bag. I even laminated a small square of tin foil to make a mirror (on the mandatory kit list to attract attention in case of emergencies), which I’m quite proud about (full credit goes to friend Matt for suggesting this one).
20140816_103351

Ride to Box Hill

  • I did a bit of light training throughout the week, including CrossFit, some high intensity circuits and a reformer pilates class, topped off by a day cycling 50 miles in Saturday on a trip out to Box Hill. On Sunday, I joined Jon on a marathon near St Albarns, with mostly Hundred Club members. The event was in memory of a member who had recently passed away with cancer, and it was a real privilege to be among such amazing runners. One was completing his 999th marathon and there were others who’d run 500+ marathons, yet you wouldn’t have thought it by being around them. They really are some of the most humble, unassuming and unsung sports people out there.
  • I ran this marathon with 5kg on my back (including pack weight and water). Then I headed out again on Monday to run 20 miles with a similar weight pack. This was hard, hard, hard, but it’s the tough stuff that’ll make me a much stronger runner (both mentally and physically) when I take on 250 kilometres across the desert.
  • Because I wasn’t sure if that was enough, I cycled to Box Hill again on Tuesday with my brother Edward. We met at 5:30 to ensure we were back for 9am, but road closures (due to landslides after the bad weather) meant we had to go a very long way around, were both late and covered 55 miles. Ouch.

If you’ve got any tips for surviving multi-stage endurance training and events then please share them with me!

 

Atacama Crossing training: Week 1

The Atacama Crossing isn’t very far away now. I’d envisaged a solid four month period of training, but with other big events like Race to the Stones and the Thunder Run in the middle of this block, two months of focussed training is looking more realistic.

I recently qualified as a personal trainer and wrote an upper body focussed strength and conditioning programme for ultra runners like me in mind with weakling upper bodies, to help with the task of carrying six-plus kilogrammes worth of kit, fuel and water across a desert for six days. So that’s one less thing to worry about, hopefully. In reality though, I’ve been attending lots of fitness classes with my new job instead – HIIT classes, reformer pilates, spin. Even the activity that I may have once referred to as CrossShit.

And fortunately, when I entered the race at the end of last year, I excitedly impulse-bought most of the gear I needed. My OMM rucksack has been getting a very good run for its money; I’ve used it solidly for over six months and know it’ll be desert worthy (if it hasn’t fallen apart by then from overuse). I’ve resisted camping in the garden to test out the mega-lightweight-but warm sleeping bag I bought myself back at Christmas, instead taking it on its first outing a couple of weeks ago at the Thunder Run. When I found the X-Bionic Fennec top for a bargain online, which other desert-racers have raved about, I snapped it up too.

The cost of these events can really rack up, so as well as being my own PT (I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have yelling at me to do more burpees), I’ve taken to asking others nicely for stuff that I’ll probably never use again. Like the fetching legionnaires hat, a peaked cap with a neck flap to shade the neck and shoulders, that friend Susie Chan lent me. All that leaves now is gaiters, which I’ll have stitched on to my shoes just before the event.

With kit mostly sorted, that just leaves fuelling. After friends reported back from another 4 Deserts events (who also organise Atacama) that many of the lead competitors had opted for instant noodles over expensive freeze-dried meals, I’ve taken it upon myself to sample all the delicious flavours of supernoodles available. With competitors having a minimum daily calorie requirement, I’m yet to work out exactly what I’ll take to make this up, but it seems to be about striking the balance between convenience and food that motivates you sufficiently to run 250k in extreme heat and altitude. (Apparently one competitor carried a six-can pack of coke across the desert with him – while I love coke on ultras, I don’t love it that much.)

Going into the next two months of training, I feel I already have a good endurance base to work from. The plan is to slowly build up the miles, without panicking and taking on too much too quickly. Two weekends of long, back-to-to back runs are scheduled, with my long run distance peaking at 30 miles – any more and I’m worried I’ll sacrifice quality training for extra time on my feet that I just don’t have time for right now.

After all, I’m about to take on the race of a lifetime, and the last thing I want to do it get myself injured. And for the record, I think I quite like CrossFit.

Atacama crossing

Pic from 4 Deserts

New running adventures and Parkrun tourism

I live in the best part of London to be a runner. I’m not biased or nothin’, but living a mile from the Thames towpath, two kilometres from Richmond Park and a couple of hundred metres from Wimbledon Common, when I lose my running mojo I can hardly blame it on lack of inspiration for running routes. Granted, when it’s winter and dark in the evening not all these places are accessible, but for long weekend runs I’m spoilt for routes.

The Thames Path served me really well last year when training for flat ultras and Richmond Park will always be my spiritual home, but I must confess that running multiple laps of it in an attempt to simulate the hilly conditions of the South Downs Way 50 miler has been driving me a bit mad recently. Although the park initially seems huge, the seven or so miles around the circumference can start to drag. 

So on Saturday I headed out on a new running route, along the Wandle Trail. My Dad invited me down to his local Parkrun for their 150th event, and with the last long run planned before big race day on 5 April (and as someone adverse to public transport), it made perfect sense to run there. Kill two birds with one stone, I thought as I ran there. There’ll be cake and beer, my Dad said, and with these words ringing in my ears I set out with a map, guided by my stomach and a questionable sense of direction.

‘A local parkrun for local people’ also rang in my ears (in a Tubbs from The League of Gentleman voice, of course) as I ran there: Dad runs or volunteers nearly every week and has often spoken about the great community spirit and friendly people (not because everyone is married to their siblings or just generally a bit strange, as in the TV series). And he was right. The journey took longer than expected – despite setting off at 6:15am I only just made the 9:00am start. A couple of wild toilet stops, orientation wobbles and a great big hill to climb at the end all added up and the 16 miles took much longer than they should have.

I arrived at 8:59 on the nose, with dead legs after climbing said hill, and proceeded to run my slowest Parkrun to date, in 26 minutes and 35 seconds. The weather was grey and blustery, but being perched up on one of the highest vantage points in the area with spectacular views across the Surrey countryside, it felt like an exciting sky-running adventure (albeit that the actual Parkrun route was pretty flat).

Afterwards we headed to the pub, as promised, for cake and a pint (although it was before 11am, having got up at 5am it felt like late afternoon). It was great to get involved in a new Parkrun community, and I’ll hopefully be joining the Riddlesdown gang again when my Dad runs his 50th event in a few weeks.

For anyone looking for a new running route, the Wandle Trail follows the river of the same name for about 14 miles from Wandsworth to Waddon (near Croydon). It’s a flat route on 50:50 tarmac/packed trails, which isn’t the most scenic and parts are a bit industrial, but it’s peaceful and well signed. For a map see here: http://www.merton.gov.uk/leisure/visiting/attractions/wandle_trail-4.pdf

Riddlesdown Parkrun’s website is here: http://www.parkrun.org.uk/riddlesdown/

Photo credit: Dad (http://notjustanotherrunningblog.wordpress.com/)

(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.

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.

 

Is it really all about quality over quantity?

The expression ‘quality over quantity’ is frequently used where running and exercise are concerned, and why on earth not, you might say. We’re all busy people, so it makes sense that we use our time as efficiently as possible. Plus, by following this approach, we reduce the risk of injury through overtraining and increase our chance of meeting our training goals at the same time. What’s not to like?

Well I’m not so sure, and am starting to wonder if following this mantra could even be counterproductive. The thing is, it implies that it’s better to opt for an interval or tempo session over slower, steady pace runs. It suggests we should push our bodies to the limit. We should ‘go hard or go home’.

I’m not a huge fan of speedwork and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who dreads this cropping up on their training plan. I know runners that thrive off it and to be honest, I’m jealous. I only wish I could learn to love it more. I’ve tolerated it in the past. I’ve slogged it out on a track, trying to run so fast that my lungs burned and I felt like I was going to trip over my feet.

Sure, it felt great afterwards. It felt like I’d accomplished something really beneficial and grown as a person by doing something I hated. All that stuff about ‘great things never happen inside your comfort zone’ is true. But on the other hand, doing things that I ultimately don’t enjoy just isn’t the way forward for me.

The thing is, I feel this ‘quality over quantity’ mantra neglects our emotional wellbeing. By constantly pushing ourselves to our physical limits, we can forget to take care of our minds, which is when things fall apart. Why should it be a luxury to just run for the fun of it and enjoy ourselves, rather than having to make each session count?

Ultimately, we run as a hobby; after all, it’s unlikely any of us are ever going to be athletes. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way; in fact, it’s something I frequently remind myself of when I get too carried away and it provides the reality check I need. I run for fun. I run as a release. I run because I love it. And because I enjoy it, I do it more. I put more effort in, I run more and I get better as a result.

To me, this makes much more sense than doing things I hate just for the sake of a few seconds off my PB. It just so happens that I’ve run most of my fastest times when I was happy and enjoying myself: a 10k PB the morning before meeting friends for a boozy birthday lunch. A marathon PB on a scenic course with a friend. Chatting away, I barely noticed we were pushing the pace and when we crossed the finish line in under three hours and 20 minutes, I couldn’t quite believe it.

I only mention this because I think it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. To me, a quality run doesn’t have to be one where you hate every minute or you’re going so fast you feel you might vomit. It’s about running because you can. It’s about enjoying and appreciating the moment and the scenery. It’s about learning to love something so much that you become good at it without even trying.

The Toad – T minus two days

I don’t often write about big races before the event. Although I wouldn’t say I was superstitious, I suppose it can feel like I’m tempting fate a little by committing thoughts to words.

On Friday, I’ll be embarking on my first ever multi-day ultra race. I’ll be spending the day on my feet, fuelled by carbs and sugary drinks, before bedding down in a sleeping bag, then repeating it all again the next day. And then again the next day. Covering on average thirty miles each day for three consecutive days, it’ll be the longest (and toughest) race I’ve done to date.

The race is rather charmingly named ‘The Toad’ and starts in Oxford, taking in the length of the Thames path before arriving back in London, pretty much. It’s funny, because last year I paid similar amount of money for a ticket to Reading festival (which coincidentally was on the race route), where I also survived on food and beer carbs for three days and snuggled up in a sleeping bag with foam plugs in my ears for good measures each night.

At least this time there will be showers, flushing toilets and a roof over my head. In the past month leading up to the race I’ve been feeling fairly relaxed and even a bit excited at the prospect of taking on big, new challenge. Coming away from a couple of successful marathons with a few hundred miles of training under my belt, tonnes of yoga and having trialled out new fuelling methods (hello, baby food and jaffa cakes) on long runs, I suppose I should feel reassured and as ready as I’ll ever be.

But in the past week, reality has started to hit home and I must confess I’ve been feeling a bit daunted by the prospect of running 90 miles. Although I guess I’ve come a long way, it still feels like I have a massive mountain to climb.

I suppose that’s not really the case; the race follows the Thames downstream so technically it’s downhill all the way to the finish line (focus on the positives and all that). But as the pre-race prep starts: the packing, the tapering and just generally getting organised, I think the excitement is starting to return.

Laying out all my race kit, ready to be packed (premature, I know). Digging out that sleeping bag and cleaning my water bladder. I suppose it’s only human to be anxious about a big race. All I know is that it feels like I’m about to dip my toe in a new, exciting world and I can’t wait for Friday to come.