Have Fun, Enjoy Life and Run Ultras!

Training for ultras can and should be as varied and wide as the sport itself. There really is no ‘right’ way to train for running ultras; there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ training plan for 50km, 50 mile, 100 mile and multi-day events!

How could there be? You could be running a 50km like Speedgoat that is at altitude and records 11,000ft of elevation loss/gain, or you could be running the Royal Parks Foundation 50k that is run through the relatively flat and benign parks of London.

You might be training to run a 50 miler in the middle of summer in the heat and humidity of South East Asia, you could be training to run a 100 miler in Alaska…in winter, oh, and you might have to navigate too! As for multi-day events they can throw anything and everything at you over the course of 3, 6 or maybe more days – you may have to carry all of your own food, you may have to set up your own camp at night, you might be at altitude for some or all of the event, you might be traversing a desert or crossing the Italian Alps!

Anyway, you get the point – ultras cover all type of terrain, in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of conditions. This post isn’t meant to be a ‘how to’ because I think I’ve made it clear that there is no one way to go about this! I mean, obviously, research your race and train specifically to deal with the conditions you might find as best you can, with what you have but in general what you need to run an ultra of any kind, anywhere is strength, determination, an endurance base and the mental toughness to say ‘This will not beat me today’ (sometimes over and over and over again for 50 or more miles!).

I think the basics of training for ultras, without race specificity, are pretty simple and will be familiar to anybody who has run a marathon, competed in triathlons or been involved in adventure racing:

  1. Hills, hills and more hills. Up and down, up and down. And…repeat!

Hill repeats are great for strength, power and endurance and they are also great for mental training – it’s hard to keep motivated when you’re running up and down the same hill section over and over! Good, because it’s hard to stay motivated to keep moving at mile 40 of a 50 mile race when the aid station looks so comfortable, well stocked and inviting! Ultras often have hills and often they can be fairly long ascents – it’s good to know you can keep your legs turning if you’re feeling good but it’s also good to have practiced the power hike, if the going gets tough or it’s too steep to run then lean forwards put your hands on your quads and get moving! Also, what goes up must come down and often in races this is going to happen over and over and over again – UTMB or CCC are good examples that I hear often – if you’re not used to running downhill then you really should start practising because when your quads blow it makes the remaining miles that much harder!

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5.

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5, South Downs Way 50 2015.

  1. Round and round you go!

Intervals are great for building speed and an endurance base. You don’t have to use a track, I don’t. A looped stretch of road or trail will do just fine or even an out and back. The more you do them the more confident you’ll feel to push it later on in a race – you might be racing for a certain time or you might be racing to see where you can place but when you’re tired it’s good to know you have a bit of extra speed saved up.

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

  1. Run far. Find a route, take your gear and off you go.

A staple of anybody’s training plan be that for 10k or 100 miles. Long runs are particularly important for ultra training in my opinion. They are a great way to test out what works for you when it comes to kit, hydration and nutrition and they are also good indicators of fitness and endurance levels. Long runs don’t have to be super long either, if you’re training for a hundred miler then maybe 35 to 40 miles in one shot could suffice but then again maybe that’s not for you – in that case back to back long runs could be the way to go. For instance you might run 20 miles at above race pace on Saturday and then on Sunday you’ll go out for another 20 miles but this time your legs are going to feel tired and heavy and you might find it difficult to go the distance mentally – good! This is how it may feel at mile 80 of your 100 mile race or on day 3 of 5 at your multi-day stage race!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run...running back up later is the challenge!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run…running back up later is the challenge!

  1. Do you even lift bro? No? Well, you should. Not much but enough to strengthen the core and the legs.

Good runners don’t just run. They look after their bodies and strengthen those parts of it that are likely going to take a sustained battering of the course of a racing season! You don’t have to do too much; you’re not looking to bulk up! In fact you’re pretty much looking to tone what you have. A strong core and strong legs will help you to keep good running form as the miles (or days) go by. I only recently started regularly working on this and the difference I’ve noticed is quite spectacular – mentally my last 50 miler was tough but my body felt so much stronger and less battered than the 45 miler I ran a few months before! I would recommend taking up a gym membership, even if it’s short term, just to get advice from somebody who knows about strength and conditioning and then either keep on gyming it or apply your learning at home (as I do).

Dost Thou Even Hoist?

  1. That’s right, not only should you be strong but bendy too! Take up yoga and/or pilates.

Flexibility is important when it comes to avoiding injury. Again, this is something I only took up recently but over the past few months I have not suffered so much with tight hamstrings, hip flexors or any of the associated aches and pains that come with racing often and training regularly. I put this down to yoga and pilates practice! I cannot recommend it enough, the best thing is you can do it from home and it is great to practice on rest days or during down time – not only does yoga and pilates increase flexibility it can also help to relax the mind and give it a rest from worrying about training and, indeed, life in general! Oh, both yoga and pilates are great for core strength too.

Namaste

  1. Enter races of varying distances; it’s good to be diverse!

I’m not saying race an ultra or endurance based event every weekend here! That would be unsustainable for most mortals! What I would suggest is picking an A-race or maybe two in the year and then adding in a few races prior to that. For instance, my A-race this year is a 70 miler at the end of July and to train for it I have entered a 56km race at the end of May that is over similar terrain and then a five mile race about a month before which is over similar terrain – the idea is that it will keep my mind and body in racing shape. Not only that, let’s face it, going to races is fun! It’s a chance to go somewhere new and to meet and hang out with people who have similar interests!

  1. Cross train…or cross race!

Running is great for the mind and the soul and to some extent it’s great for fitness. But sustained training and racing can and likely will impact on your body over time. A lot of ultrarunners have come from an adventure racing or Ironman/triathlon background and I think it would be safe to say that their varied focus in training for these particular events promotes longevity in the sport of running! Once in a while it’s good to mix it up – variety is the spice of life after all. I would highly recommend building in some kind of aerobic/cardio cross training either as part of your weekly workouts or maybe on a less frequent basis. Take up swimming, hit the trails on a mountain bike, visit your local climbing wall or commute to work on a road bike – it’s all good training for strength and endurance and it keeps things interesting!

  1. Listen to your body – it’s always talking to you and it has a lot to say!

This really is a given. It’s a standard piece of advice given to everybody who starts training seriously for any kind of endurance event. It took me many years to take up the advice and as a consequence I suffered from burnout, constant tightness in my muscles, a trapped L3 spinal nerve and a stress fracture! Since I decided to actually listen to my body I have suffered from none of these things – if my body is giving me signs that it needs a rest, some massage or some time away from running then I listen to it and focus on the area that needs attention!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

  1. Experiment with what works – talk to other runners, make friends but go your own way!

As I said at the start of this post, this is not a ‘how to’. It’s a guide. I’m sharing what works for me and you’re welcome to see if it works for you – if it doesn’t then don’t be afraid to change it up and explore a bit. Read articles, read blogs, talk to other runners but don’t take anyone’s word as gospel! Just because it works for me doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you. There are training plans out there for ultra-distance races but, for me, they’re too rigid and formulaic for a sport that is so fluid and diverse! I train on feel and through trial and error and that works for me, I enjoy it but you might like the rigidity of a set plan – give it a go, see what you think. The same can be said for shoe choice, pack choice – any kind of choice from gels to socks, water bottles to bladders, sunglasses to hats. Try different stuff, experiment in training, experiment in your races (but don’t try anything new on race day!) and enjoy the learning experience!

  1. HAVE FUN! ENJOY LIFE!

If you want a sport that will constantly challenge you, give you experiences and opportunities then ultrarunning is the way forward, it’s a sport for life. You’ve got time to find what works for you; you’ve got time to learn from others and from your own mistakes and you should embrace this side of it. Don’t rush! Ultrarunning is certainly not about instant gratification – it’s about the joy of movement, of being outside, of seeing new things, meeting new people and pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. It’s about redrawing your boundaries year on year.

Running Towards Recovery

I’m going to make an assumption that we all know that running is great, not just for our physical but also our mental health. A lot of runners took to the sport as a way to escape the stresses of everyday life and it seems there are a fair amount of ultrarunners out there who have, at one time or another, struggled with depression and even addiction.

I know this because I am one of those runners. I took up running in April 2011 after realising my life had become a little chaotic – on the surface it looked like I was doing okay but inside I was hurting and to deal with that I was increasingly turning to drinking too much, smoking too much pot and taking other recreational drugs just to cover up my real feelings. At the beginning of that month I walked away from a Social Work masters degree unsure that I would ever return to complete a masters program, let alone one in Social Work. It turns out that I did return to my career path and to a modified social work masters programme, eventually graduating in July 2012 with an MSc in Social Studies and now, as this blog attests, I am happy runner so this post is certainly not all doom and gloom!

I had been smoking cannabis, heavily and pretty much everyday, since I was sixteen years old and then around my 21st birthday I discovered I had a penchant for taking recreational drugs like ecstasy, speed and later on cocaine. With the drugs came drinking and with a family history of alcohol addiction I was on a slippery slope by the time I walked away from my original masters program in 2011 but looking back I was on a pretty slippery slope from the moment I took my first ecstasy pill and began chasing the weekend – I’m not saying I was your ‘typical’ addict (there is no typical addict) but I was definitely addicted. I found the competing pressures of study, family strife, girlfriend, work, bills and rent far too much to handle unless I had a joint in one hand and a beer in the other with a decent plan for the weekend’s stimulant based activities in place. I really struggled with automatic negative responses and thoughts to life’s smallest problems and that was with or without a drink, a joint or some other drug!

I don’t have much recollection of how I got through my undergraduate years and came out of the other side with a 2:1 but I did, even after a year’s academic suspension at the end of my first year. In short the drugs and drink masked my underlying depression, my sense of being worthless and having no direction even though, as I mentioned above, on paper and on the surface everything looked like I was doing okay; friends, social life, good degree, career path. I kept my inner turmoil to myself and the bits that I did let slip I did by making light of. That pent up turmoil came to a head whilst I was undertaking my final social work placement in children’s services. I had 30 days to go until the end and it looked like I was going to fail. For the first time in my academic life I was going to fail and I could not handle that idea. I had a conversation with myself and asked why I was going to fail. The answers were many but two stuck out: I said to myself I was going to fail because I didn’t want to pass, I didn’t want to become a social worker and when I asked why that was the answer I got from myself was unexpected and profound. I said to myself you don’t want this because it’s stressing you out to the point where you are drinking four to six cans of beer every night, to the point where all you can think about most days is when you can go home and have a joint (or two or three), to the point where you’re consuming more cocaine on the weekend than you ever have. What are you going to do about this then Al? The answer at that point was to walk away. Fuck it I said. The process was pretty quick and I found my university to be very supportive – I thank them now for not letting me throw it all away completely. They could obviously see I was troubled and needed some time and space to either address my issues or reconcile myself to a different life.

Well, I did a bit of both. I took time from April 2011 to January 2012 to address a whole heap of underlying issues and then whilst in the process I reconciled myself to the idea that my life was going to be different but in a positive way. This didn’t happen overnight. One of the driving factors behind this was a friend of mine reaching out to pull me out of the malaise – there was no sympathy, no indulging of my wallowing in self pity – he just came into my room one afternoon and said something along the lines of “You had better sort yourself out because we’re going to climb a mountain in Switzerland in September.” He then handed me a return plane ticket and left! This was the kick I needed – I now owed my friend for a plane ticket and had a challenge laid at my feet that I didn’t really know how to get my head around. April went from being a black hole into which my life was disappearing to an opportunity to turn my life around. I got a job as a Caretaker towards the end of the month and began looking at how people trained to go to the mountains. This is how I found running. I hated it at first, I had never in my life done any strenuous physical activity and it took me a good while before I could run 5km without stopping, throwing up or getting cramp!

Anyway, I’ll move it on. Once I settled into running I began to love the quiet time it gave me to reflect on life and to plan for the future. I relished the sense of accomplishment I got during and after each and every run. I gave up smoking cigarettes and realised that running became instantly more pleasurable – I could run further and faster and it was great. I went to Switzerland in September of that year feeling fitter than I ever had, I’d kicked cigarettes and I had bought my drinking right down to an acceptable level. I still drank but I wasn’t drinking to forget, to ‘cope’ or to get drunk – I was drinking socially, at home over meals and moderately and at weekends (but less moderately). On returning from Switzerland I decided that I really wanted to focus on making my life work and for me that meant I embraced running wholeheartedly. Those of you who are regular runners and those of you who race will know that when you embrace the sport it becomes a lifestyle and one that returns that embrace whether you run solo, with friends or with a club! It was from here that I changed my diet, I stopped eating processed crap, I cut out dairy and I began to eat as much whole food as possible – I didn’t assign a label to myself like ‘vegan’ or ‘paleo’, I just ate whatever was good for me and I continue to do that to this day. After running my first 10k race in May 2012 I got the racing bug, I ran my first half marathon in June and then finished 12th at my local 10k in July! It was at this point that I really, really embraced the sport. I began to think about which races I wanted to run, I briefly joined a running club (club running isn’t for me I’ve found) and I spent a lot more time training. Although I had turned my life around and it felt like I was on the right track I still had a love/hate relationship with drugs.

Towards the end of 2012 I managed to stop using ecstasy and MDMA and this started a chain reaction. I tried and failed a number of times from this point to stop taking cocaine and to stop smoking cannabis but the point was the longer I abstained the better my running became and the better I felt mentally. I can’t remember my last ecstasy pill, MDMA ‘bomb’ or line of cocaine – the ecstasy thing was sometime around December 2012 and I finally kicked the coke to the sidelines in August 2013. I do remember my last joint though because it was my one and only relapse. I stopped smoking cannabis for what I thought was for good in April 2013 but on Christmas Day that year I ‘had a smoke’ and pretty much instantly regretted it so I haven’t touched it since! So, when I finally did stop taking drugs altogether my world changed and that was difficult to deal with – I found it tough being around people on drugs and so I stopped visiting friends who recreationally and habitually took them at weekends or smoked cannabis during the week. My circle began to shrink but the running community was right there on the roads, the trails, at the track, at races and through blogs and the internet! What I’m left with is a core of friends who respect my decision to be drug free, friends who share my passion for running and with the people I learned to make friends with at work as I found I had something more to talk about other than ‘the weekend’ or what was on TV any given night of the week. Not all of my friends are runners, in fact few of them are but I know for a fact that we’re friends because we understand and respect each other for the people we actually are and not the people we present to ourselves through the haze of drugs, drink and depression.

My career has been back on track (pun intended) since August 2012 and my current role has put me in a position where I work with people in long term recovery from addiction – mostly alcohol but also crack, heroin and other drugs. Sometimes drugs and alcohol. Sometimes with other lesser known addictions thrown into the mix too. On Thursday morning I will be chairing ‘Thought for the Day’ which is a forum for staff members to share thoughts on recovery strategies and sometimes anything which might come to mind with clients – it’s a place where people in recovery learn to manage disagreements and to harness their communication skills. I was going to broadly speak about running as a strategy for good mental health and addiction recovery using the examples of Timmy Olson and Nikki Kimball amongst others when it dawned on me that as well as these guys I could really use my own story as an example of transition and change through running. I’m looking forward to the discussion and I’m hoping that at least one of those present might consider lacing up and going for a run over the weekend!

Peace & Blessings

The relationship between me, running and my profession…

I’m never really sure how much I should write about my work but sometimes it’s unavoidable to mention it as, like so many of us, it plays such a big part in my day to day existence. This will be the first post where I have written at any length about my work and about how it goes some days.

I got up knowing that I would be attending a meeting later in the day with a client, his community psychiatric nurse and a psychiatrist – in all likelihood this meeting was going to end up with my client going for a stay in a mental health hospital either voluntarily or under section. It’s never nice heading out to these kind of things with the knowledge that what your client is experiencing is very real for them and that no amount of explaining on their part is going to avert the almost inevitable stay in hospital. The meeting went ahead. It was quite tense for all concerned and emotional for the client (and to some extent myself as I can be quite sensitive). The inevitable did come about after around an hour of discussion and thankfully my client chose a voluntary admission with a view to accessing some psychological counselling as well as trying out a different course of medication in an environment where, to a large extent, the variables can be controlled.

I cannot begin to imagine how this makes my client feel as it seemed to me, as it so often does, that he was faced with a rather impossible choice – ‘voluntary/informal’ admission, or admission by section under the Mental Health Act thus curbing his freedoms greatly. In the end, my client knew that it would be in his best interest to submit to a voluntary admission thereby allowing him a greater freedom of movement and also a greater say in what medication he would or would not allow to be used. As the working day was coming to an end for the psychiatrist and community psychiatric nurse a bed was found for my client and, because I’m subject to a shift pattern, we were sent away to prepare for an evening admission. On the way back to the Project where I work and where my client resides it became apparent that he had given up all hope of seeing out the year in relative freedom and it was very strange to see this usually intelligent and thoughtful man become quite withdrawn and submitting to a fate he felt he had no control over.

It was quite a quick turnaround on getting back to the Project, I had about an hour to process what had just occurred whilst my client packed a bag and prepared to travel over to the hospital. I wrote a quick report and before my client and I both knew it we were on a bus taking us to the unit where he will now be staying for anywhere from a week to six months depending on how things go. Whilst sitting on the bus my client sat quietly and contemplated his thoughts and watched everything go by. I sat nearby and couldn’t help but notice all of the night time runners out on the pavements of London – some obviously training for something or other. I began to feel jealous of them out there running freely and happily, I often get like this when I’m injured and I can’t run but it held an extra significance today – I began to wonder what my client must be thinking and feeling as he watched the London populace go about their business freely whilst he headed towards yet another hospital admission that will likely see him unable to go about his own business so freely for some time. If I’m jealous of seeing people running and I’m only out of action temporarily and due to a physical ailment, how must my client feel sitting on the bus burdened by the weight of a clinical diagnosis that will be hard for him to shake for the rest of his life – how difficult must it be for him to see ‘normal’ people go about their business day in, day out?

I’m going to abruptly halt talk of my working day right there. I think I’ve conveyed quite adequately the reasons why I often need time to run freely and, consequently, to have some time to process thoughts and feelings that can sometimes become slightly overwhelming! I wish that running was a simple solution to all of life’s problems and I really wish that sometimes my clients would even give it a go and try to free their minds – even if it is for half an hour, once a week. Running has saved me from myself a number of times, that much I know. I just wonder, would it help some of my clients free themselves from the mental prison they find themselves in some days? It probably would but the sad thing is, for the vast majority of them, the moment is not now and I don’t know if the right moment will ever present itself for some of them.