Monday, November 18, 2013

The Spine 2014 Training Weekend

The Spine training weekend was held recently, and this should have been my blog of that. I had been really looking forward to catching up with old friends and my adopted family, and making new acquaintances.

Unfortunately, due to a rather large mental implosion on my trip to Hebden, I didn’t make it as such! Apologies!! For a small donation to charity, I will relate the details of my sorry journey and how to waste an entire day of one’s life. And a lot of petrol.

I had been looking forward to giving a short presentation on my experiences of The Spine but it wasn’t to be. However, I thought it might be beneficial to reproduce the presentation here. The presentation itself was mainly pictures only (the rest being in my head) so please excuse any ramblings!

I hope this is helpful or informative to some.

My experience:

2012: Entered The Spine v1 with no real idea what to expect or what I was doing. I DNF’d at 135 miles with significant hypothermia

2013: Entered The Spine v2 thinking I knew what to expect (I still didn’t). Finisher

2014: Entered The Spine v3. I still don’t know what to really expect.

Top tip No. 1: The Spine is not a race.

Who's that prat on the right??
It is an event, an adventure, a mini-expedition. It is many things but the last of those is a race.

There are only a very few who are actually capable of winning this event. If you go into it thinking of winning you will probably not finish.

The Pennine Way in January does not respect reputation. Big names have and will take a tumble. Competitors previously unknown to most will shine.

Last year, several people were in pieces at the first checkpoint (Hebden Hey). They had essentially gone off at 40mile race pace and their races were effectively over.

To give some perspective, I have run a flat, fast, trail 40 miles in the summer in just over 5:30. The first 43 mile stage of The Spine took me 14:30 in 2012, 12:30 this year.

Top tip No. 2: Do not think of the finish; go checkpoint to checkpoint.

Is that Gary or myself asking?!?!
Do not worry about the exact location of Greg's Hut until you are on that section. This question was given a lot of air time at the race briefing but only a small percentage of the starters got anywhere near it

This top tip is never truer than in The Spine. My advice is to treat each section purely as means of getting to the next section. Spend Day 1 concentrating on getting to CP1, day 2 on getting to CP2 and so on.

Do not think or plan too far ahead. Stay in today. How you feel, weather conditions, where you think you will get to at any given time will change. Don’t plan for how long you will stay at Greg’s Hut or CP4 until you get closer because you have no idea how much time you will need……and take that time.

Top tip No. 3a: If you see food, eat it

I had one these too - it was bigger than my head!

Top tip No. 3b: If you think of food, eat some

Breakfast in Gargrave Co-op. Truly a highlight of my entire ultra-career .
You need food for fuel. You need food for warmth. You need food to survive. End of.

One of my major learning points has been how much the role of eating plays in keeping  you warm, especially if you are a slighter build. Pie & chips vs. Merino. Discuss.

By all means have a dietary plan, but my advice is to eat as much as you can when you can. In the second half of the event, you body will be breaking down and calorific requirements escalate exponentially. If you don’t eat enough, your body will simply shut down.

When you think you’ve had enough, have some more!

Top tip No.4: It will be cold. It may be f@cking cold. You must keep warm.

This is my layering system from last year. 

It's not a biblical list, and I don't post it as such; it's purely what worked for me. Later in the race, you will really begin to feel the cold and may need more layers than you thought possible; as you can see I went up to 9 last year. Be ready!

Fewer thick layers vs more thinner layers? Work out what works for you.

Be prepared to layer up and down, and don’t leave it to late.

Always keep alert to how you feeling. Things can change very quickly so pay continual attention to your personal dashboard.

Which brings us to:

Top tip No. 5: Manage sleep. Make sound decisions

Not really looking at my best!
You will get very tired, physically and mentally. One of the hardest factors in The Spine is dealing with this whilst still making correct decisions.

What do I eat? Where and when? Where shall I sleep? How long for? Do I need to put on more layers? Do I shelter? Do I rest? Do I push on? Where am I? Which way do I go?

Get any of these wrong and your smoothly running race will quickly disintegrate into a DNF or worse.

Stay alert, listen to your body, be honest with yourself, make the correct decision for you.

Top tip No. 6: Look after your feet – you’ll miss them when they’re gone!

Easy one. Deal with blisters and hot spots quickly and early. The medically team are superb. An hour spent sorting out feet early on will pay huge dividends later in the event, and may be the difference between a medal and a DNF.

Top tip No. 7: It will be dark……. a lot. How are you going to manage this?

We can probably expect around 9hrs of light each day. That leaves 15hrs of darkness. That’s a lot.

It can be miserable. It can be lonely. It can be scary. Great progress through the day will suddenly slow right down. Spirits will drop and then rise again with the onset of dawn.

Recce’s go out the window. Those nice posts across bogs can’t be seen.

But it’s out of our control and can’t be changed. Just be aware and really consider the implications. At best, embrace it. Sorted!

Top tip No. 8: You will have good and bad times. Manage them.

Exhausted at Alston
Not having fun on Great Shunner Fell

Sunrise over the Cheviots 

The Spine.....bringing people together!

This is reproduced with kind permission from my blog of the 2013 event:

I was starting to really feel the cold. I could feel my energy levels dropping and my drive to continue diminishing rapidly. I tried to call Jenny but couldn’t get through. By now I’d quite frankly had enough of this stupid race and was fighting a losing battle with mind and body. Just before Greenhead, I was ready to quit. Jenny finally got a signal and rang. I burst into tears; she burst into tears.

R: “I can’t do it. I’ve had enough but I can’t fail again, I don’t want to let everyone down”
J: “You’re not a failure darling, you are the bravest person I know”

The medical team arrived, my rescue team, my way out of this torture – it was decision time”

You will have bad times. Deal with them. will have great times. You will make friends and feel part of a family. You will see things that make you gasp in wonder, that make you glad to be alive. Moments when you appreciate life at its simplest. Relish, enjoy and absorb the good.

Top tip No. 9: Do it on your own………or with someone else

Not really a tip. Whether by choice or circumstance, you will either be on your own or with others. Clever aren’t I?

My anecdotal observations are that you will generally cover the ground a bit quicker on your own. “Running your own race” and all that stuff. However, two heads can be better than one, and the power of companionship should never be underestimated, especially over an event of this time and distance.

Top tip No. 10: Finish! 

Because you’re worth it!

Need more incentive - they make this at the finish

Finally, and again with kind permission from myself:

“Please do not underestimate it ……trust me, it is brutal and will take you to places physically & mentally that you haven't been to before………. This is not just a long ultra, not just 268 miles. It's 6/7 days of continuous effort and concentration - managing sleep, food, the cold, your feet, trying not to lose focus but trying to make the right decisions, feeling so miserable, wanting to go home. It is tough and many will pull out in the first 2 days.

But …..this is a great race, is great fun, and is one big adventure. You will experience camaraderie, team spirit, a true feeling of adventure, being at one with nature, episodes of complete bliss.

And believe me, the joy of finishing is unparalleled in my sporting life. I love this race; it sucks you in, takes everything you have but gives back everything you could wish for”

I hope this may have been helpful to someone, somewhere.

See you all in January. I will actually get to the start this time.

Oh….. and to the finish.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In my mind, I am a Kenyan

There are many motivational running pictures doing the rounds on Facebook at present. Some hit the mark, some don't. I saw this one this morning and for whatever reason I saw it in a completely different way.
My immediate thought was ‘Why?’

Let’s examine a few facts:
  • Kenya is still a poor, developing country with a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.519, putting the country at position 145 out of 186, one of the lowest in the world.
  • About 38% of Kenyans live in absolute poverty. 53 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
  • A significant portion of the population regularly starves and is heavily dependent on food aid.
  • Kenya's capital, Nairobi, is home to Kibera, one of the world's largest slums. Between 170,000 and 1 million people are believed to live in this shanty town.
  • Many areas are isolated due to poor roads, an inadequate railway network, under-used water transport and expensive air transport and farmers often have to leave food to rot in the fields because they cannot access markets.
  • Child labour is common in Kenya.
  • Thousands of children are involved in full-time prostitution, and UNICEF has estimated that, in some areas, up to 30% of girls are subject to prostitution.
  • The life expectancy is approximately 55 years.
  • The infant mortality rate is high at approximately 44 deaths per 1000 children.
  • Maternal mortality is high, partly because of female genital mutilation. This practice is however on the decline and was banned in the country in 2011
  • Diseases of poverty such as HIC/AIDS, pneumonia, diarrhoea and malnutrition are common. HIV prevalence is about 6.3% of the adult population
  • In the 2007 elections, protests escalated into ethnic violence and destruction of property, almost 1,000 people were killed and nearly 600,000 displaced
  • In mid-August 2012, tribal conflict led to the highest death toll through deliberate killings since the last election.
  • Kenya has been the scene of several atrocities attributed to terrorist elements, most recently the Westgate Mall shooting which resulted in at least 72 deaths
  • However, the country is probably best known for its dominance in middle-distance and long-distance athletics. Kenya has consistently produced Olympic, World and Commonwealth Games champions in various distance events, especially in 800m, 1500m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5000m, 10000m and the marathon.

Be careful what you wish for……..

This post is not a dig at, or a critique of, Kenya and its fiercely proud population.
Kenya is one of the cradles of mankind and it supports an amazing variety of fauna and flora. The "Big Five" animals of Africa (the lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant) can all be found and Kenya is the setting for one of the Natural Wonders of the World – the great wildebeest migrationKenya has a rich and diverse culture.
This post is a dig at the so-called civilized or 1st world. We are often quick to make judgements on other countries not as ‘fortunate’ as ourselves, often picking out solitary facts without considering the whole picture. 
I understand the message behind the picture. I am a runner and, yes, part of me wishes that I could run “like a Kenyan”, because what I am being told is that "If I was a Kenyan I would a better runner because all Kenyans are good runners"
The logic is probably a little flawed! 
After all if someone said, “In my mind I am English”, would that imply that in their mind they were good at cricket?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The toughest one day endurance race in the world

I have just watched the (very limited) highlights of this year's Hawaii Ironman. 

The programme stated that it (the Hawaii Ironman) "really is the toughest one day endurance race in the world"


1. What's the finishing rate? 

This year there were 2131 starters, with 1964 finishers = 92%. 

I know competition to even get there is really tough which partially negates the "finishers rate debate" 

2. How long does it take? 

1508 of the finishers were sub 12 hours. 

What about the other 12 hours?

3. What's the total climb? 

Swim 0m. 

Bike 850m. 
Run 131m. 

However conditions are hot, humid and windy.  

4. How hot is it? 

Temperatures typically range from 27.5C to 35C, humidity around 90. 

Now don't get me wrong, I fell in love with this race in the 1990's when I was racing Ironman. At the time, Ironman was right 'out there'. It was great; people thought you were mental - no comment required please. Triathlon was the main, virtually the only, endurance sport and Ironman was the pinnacle. 

Ultra-running was an embryonic sport, almost pre-conceptual. I remember hearing about the Sydney-Melbourne race won by the great Yiannis Kouros. Now they really were mental!

The Hawaii Ironman was the pinnacle of the pinnacle and had almost mythological status. It was the time of Mark Allen and Dave Scott. At the Noosa Triathlon, I received my age-group award from one of my heroes the great Scott Tinley. I was so excited that I rushed up, and rushed back down again, forgetting to shake his hand. A lifetime of regret! 

There were less than 10 qualifying races for Hawaii and only one in Australia where I was living. I didn't ever qualify which at the time was one of my 2 sporting goals. Most frustrating was when I was a month short of my 30th birthday. I just missed a place in 25-29 age group but would have qualified in 30-34 age group. I still blame my parents for their lack of forethought.

A somewhat younger version of me
 finishing the Australian Ironman 1996 
What defines 'tough'? What makes one endurance race tougher than another. Finish rate? Time taken? Altitude, climb, temperature? 

Or is it just a gut feeling, a very personal thing based on our own personal experience However, our own internal marking system is clouded by how we feel on the day. On a bad day, a supposedly easy race can feel incredibly tough but on a good day, you may glide through a supposedly hard race.

I fancy that the Hawaii Ironman is "the toughest one day endurance race in the world" in the same way that the Marathon des Sables is "the toughest footrace on earth". They may well have been in their day but now only keep those titles in remembrance of the roles they have played in the growth of their respective sports. As we seek greater and greater challenges, tougher and tougher events are dreamt up.

What would you consider to be "the toughest one day endurance race in the world"?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Could you navigate in this?

Imagine the scene:

It's the 4th section of The Spine.

You're on top of Cross Fell. It's bitterly cold. The light is failing.

Your GPS, which should last 24 hours on a set of batteries, is only lasting 6 hours in the cold, and has just died. You've used all your spare batteries.

You are cold, you are tired and you are beginning to shut down. Your thought processes aren't quite what they should be.

So could you?

This was yesterday on the Kinder Plateau. It was sunny in the valley. Within about 500m, I had strayed at least 150m off line. I know this area really well having spent my formative years in the Peak District and fortunately I recognise some of the more minor features. However, 150m error in 500m equates to 300m in 1 km, 1.5 km in 5km........

Do not expect to rely on GPS because they will fail. 

Map and compass should always be your primary method of navigation

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The world is flat....well, it used to be.

I always read with interest, be that in the press, in books, or on Facebook and other 'social media', the ever changing and evolving theories on nutrition and hydration in endurance events. 

I'm obviously interested to read the science and how it might help me as an endurance athlete, and ultra runner. 

However what really fascinates me is the variety of theories, the perceived and logical correctness of each one, and the individual musings made. Each new theory makes perfect sense, but no sooner has one theory been accepted, then somebody else pops up with a new, totally contrary theory which then becomes the new norm. 

"If you are an endurance athlete, you must eats tonnes of carb and no fat" c.1990's. 
There were stories doing the rounds of the then elite triathletes draining the fluid off their low fat cottage cheese to minimise the fat further. Made sense to me! I didn't eat butter (dry toast with jam), peanut butter, cheese, salami's etc etc for years.

"You should base your diet mainly around carbs, but some fat is good for you and you must have protein" c.2000's. 
Ah, so I can eat a few of those naughty fats. Hello, peanut butter my old friend.

"Actually, a low carb diet, high in fats, is the way to go" c.2013. 
Bloody hell! Eggs and bacon, hello. Cheese, salami, nuts - yes please. Bread, cereal, pasta - don't be silly - that's carbohydrate. You know I don't eat carbs.

I had a conversation with someone at work this week who, when they found out about my running, said that I must eat loads of pasta. "Actually I don't eat it at all. Let me tell you about a low carb diet. It will make absolutely no sense to you"

Same with hydration. 

"Thirst is a bad indicator of dehydration. You must drink regularly; don't wait until you feel thirsty"

"Our bodies have clever mechanisms for looking after hydration. Listen to your body. Drink when you are thirsty" should drink when I feel thirsty and when I don't. Sorted.

And then the circle starts all over. The perceived norm is overtaken by another.

The world is flat. Well, actually it may not be, my friend.

The Sun revolves around the Earth. Well, you may be wrong there too.

Bottom line nobody really know! Well, I'm pretty sure the Earth is roundish.

Experiment. See what works for you. 

Saturday, October 05, 2013

“To run, or not to run that is the question"

The Merchant Marathon of Venice

OK, wrong play but I am pretty sure that’s what Hamlet meant to say.

As some of you may know, I have a place in the Venice Marathon at the end of this month.

There’s a bit of story behind this. A few years ago, Jenny and I went on a cruise that embarked from Venice. The day we arrived in Venice was coincidentally the day of the Venice Marathon. I may have possibly mentioned at the time that it would a great marathon to do.

As we queued to get onto our ship, the lady in front of us, with 2 young children in tow, was looking exasperated.  Eventually her husband arrived in his marathon kit. A heated discussion ensued – evidently he had not run as fast as predicted!

Fast forward and on my birthday this year, Jenny presented me with a place in the race. I was really chuffed.

I have only ever run one road marathon, back when I was 19, although I've done plenty as part of Ironman and ultra's. My aim for this race was always going to be a sub 3 hour finish which I’m sure I have in me.

So, why the doubt?

Well, with my bad Achilles I haven’t managed to do any faster running whatsoever, be that long intervals or tempo runs. I’d planned to gear my training towards this race following the Lakeland 100 but that hasn't happened due to my Achilles injury.

There is no way I will run sub 3 hours.

Of more concern is that my ankle, although seemingly fine in the hills, does not like running on hard, flat terrain at all. The Venice Marathon is a flat, fast course and obviously on the road.

So hence my question. 

I certainly can’t ‘go for it’ so do I run it slowly? That will probably infuriate me. Do I run it at all, because there is a very definite risk of doing further damage to my Achilles.

The hotel and flights are booked so we will be going to Venice for a few days regardless. Could just relax and enjoy the break and a few days with Jenny.

Relax? Quick let me get a dictionary. 

And one of these would be a nice addition to my collection.