Recovery

It is more or less 4 weeks since I ran the Madeira Island Ultra Trail which took me the best part of 30 hours.

I still have a little numbness in my toes and the remnants of my blisters are still visible and finishing the healing process with new skin growing in.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to consider that if the outward signs of damage take this long to repair, then the invisible damage to muscles, chemical imbalances and general fatigue of the energy systems may also take that long to recover.

Too many people are running too far too often and burning out.

Maybe, just maybe, I will add a new check: if you can still see or feel any damage from a previous race, then you aren’t ready to work hard again yet.

Motivation

I have been thinking a lot about motivation recently.

I find running really difficult and many times not particularly pleasant experience, so why do I keep doing it.

Motivation is one of the four legs which support the ultra running table upon which we dine –  Motivation, Resilience, Training and Execution.

Take away any one of these and unless the others are unusually strong, that table is likely to fall over.

Take away two of these and that table is more likely than not to fall over.

Take away three of them and unless the last one is massive that table is on the floor.

Motivation is inextricably linked with the other three legs holding up this table. If you are not motivated you will not achieve the consistency or quality in your training required to give you the fitness and skills required to finish your chosen course.

If you are not motivated then your resilience will be compromised. You will have fewer reasons to keep going when things get tough, and as we know, at some point in an ultra, things are going to get tough.

If you are not motivated it is highly unlikely you will have the focus and concentration needed to make smart decisions and execute your race properly.

When I think about my own running, motivation is very important to me.

In the small self selecting group of weirdos who run ultras, ie most of my friends, running stupidly long distances every other weekend is seen as normal.

Unfortunately, I do not have those genes or that natural ability. For me, running long distances is a big deal. I can’t just go and knock out a 30 mile run for the fun of it. I need something to get my adrenaline flowing because without the adrenaline the running becomes a chore.

Before I list the things which motivate me, perhaps I should first list the things which don’t motivate me. Races which involve the following things just don’t do it for me at all, despite being hugely popular with some other people

  • running in circles – I cannot do looped races, they just mess my head. Running is not enjoyable enough to do it for hours and end up back in the same place
  • low key marathons on open roads – without the crowds, how is this different from a training run?
  • short ultras – too long to run fast, too short to run slow, they are just pointless and they hurt
  • FOMO –  running a race just because everyone else is doing it
  • Races at the wrong time of year – if I am not fit, running is going to hurt more than usual, so why do it.

If those things don’t do it for me then what does?

  • the journey –  I like the feeling of going somewhere in a point to point race
  • Big mountains –  the bigger the scenery the more my motivation
  • Support Crew – I like the feeling of having my trusty crew to run towards, knowing they will look after me no matter what
  • Epic Adventures – big and scary, stepping into the unknown in terms of my capabilities. The sort of races which take over your life for 6 months
  • Travel – racing in new and different places
  • Razzmatazz – I love big city marathons, crowds and race expos
  • Logistics –  races which are big enough to require serious planning
  • Breaking new ground –  finding new races which are a bit off the beaten track
  • The Classics –  chasing qualification and then running the big classic races
  • Competition – maintaining your place in the private pecking order which exists inside your head
  • Failure –  or more specifically fear of failure
  • not being very good –  if I ever actually became any good at it, I probably wouldn’t have any reason to keep doing it

Races which combine some or all of the above are the ones which light a fire in me, which give me a target to chase, which get me out the door on cold winters morning and which give me the motivation to keep going when things get tough.

The psychologists talk of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. The extrinsic motivators are those external things: the prize money, the medal, the praise for doing well. While it is nice to get a pat on the back from your peers when you run well, I am never going to win anything so there are few extrinsic motivations for me.

The intrinsic motivations are the ones to do with sense of achievement, enjoyment, curiosity, self esteem. Why am I doing this? what do I want to achieve? Why do I need to finish this thing? The intrinsic motivations are the ones which I suspect are linked to greater resilience. One of my favorite lines is a quote from the movie Chariots of Fire, attributed to the Flying Scot Eric Liddell: “Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within”

We are all different and I am sure we are all motivated by different things. The one thing we all have in common is that no matter how talented you are, without motivation you are not going to get very far.

Motivation is about finding that power within you to make you want to make it to the end of the race.

Don’t be fooled by the weirdos, if you are a mere mortal, running long distances is hard and you need to have a reason to make you want to do it, because it is going to hurt.

Postscript

After writing this piece I had a Facebook conversation with Murdo the Magnificent which adds some more colour to this subject. I add it below for completeness

MtM: You mention competition. Is this more “against yourself”; or against peer group rivals who you sometimes finish ahead of / sometimes not?

Me: an interesting question and one which I realise I hadn’t fully explored. It is a bit of both. It is about competing against yourself to finish in a given time or in the top 20%, 50% whatever. It is about competing against the age graded percentages. It is about racing your PBs from previous years or beating as many younger people as possible. It is about staying ahead of some peers in the performance stakes (this is not necessarily a particularly nice trait) . The actual in race competition against peers is mostly sport and while it can spur you on to a performance on the day, that is a short term motivation and isn’t strong enough to sustain the effort required to prepare for some of our more arduous adventures.

MtM: I’d agree with all of that. And possibly add a distinction between this competition element during the lengthy training period, and the competition element on “race day”. With the latter, part of it will depend on how the training has gone, and how intact / uninjured you are as you toe the start line. All good stuff to mull over

Me: yes I agree, my race day motivations are very much dependent on the possibilities for performance – going into a race well prepared, fit and in a good state of mind creates the possibility of a good performance. When this possibility exists I am more motivated to focus and suffer.

…and I’ll take the Low Road

On a rainy Saturday morning we took a wee trip to Rowardennan. The West Highland passes through Rowardennan before heading off into the relative wilderness of the East side of Loch Lomond.

After many years the “Low Road” has been cleared, the path upgraded and it is now open to walkers and runners once more. I was last on the low road nearly 20 years ago when I walked the West Highland Way carrying heavy rucksacks with my son Hamish who at the time was only 8 years old or so.

This time the point of the trip was to run to Inversnaid and back, carrying out a recce of the Low Road as I expect to be “racing” on it in June. I put the word racing in quotes because I always find that I am pretty wrecked by the time I get to Rowardennan about 26 miles in to the route regardless of which race I am doing. Fortunately I usually recover later on, but the prospect of actually racing at this point is unlikely!

The total distance from Rowardennan to Inversnaid is around 7.5 miles. It is described on the official WHW web site here

The first section is along a good road which works its way past the Youth Hostel until it bears right and starts to climb uphill through a gate just after Ptarmigan Lodge.

The first section can be seen in the following short video clip

About 300m after the gate the new low road drops sharply to the left at a big bend in the road. It is likely that this route will be used by the West Highland Way Race this June (2016). The Highland Fling race will continue to use the “High Road” so Fling runners will not turn on to the low road but will continue up hill for another 2.5 miles. The Fling route is easier running but not nearly as interesting as the Low Road.

The Low Road can be seen here, slightly speeded up. Apologies also for the slightly jaunty angle of the video at times. Either my camera was squint or my head was, not sure which.

 

The Low Road joins the High Road once more and descends to the lochside for a nice 2.5 mile run through some nice forested trail with the odd waterfall to skip through for good measure before finally arriving at Inversnaid Hotel and the spectacular waterfalls there.

Inversnaid is a pretty god forsaken place on race day. Most people arrive there feeling horrible, there are very few supporters because it is too far to get there by road. It is only 7ish miles by foot and more than 30 miles by road. When you arrive in Inversnaid on race day you usually find the midges have already eaten the contents of your drop bag, and you have only the slowest most technical part of the course still to come in the next 6 miles to Beinglas farm.

Despite the rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my wee jaunt on the new improved Low Road and I didn’t even mind the run back to Rowardennan up the hills of the high road. And anyway, all roads lead to Milngavie in June.

I have posted other videos of the route from Derrydarroch to Tyndrum on this page

and more videos of the Rollercoaster here

Are you sure you want to enter that Race?

Ultras are usually quite complicated logistically. They are usually also longer and harder than you expect. Here a few questions to ask before you enter your next Ultra. I go through this list every time I want to enter a new race

  1. Where does it start?
  2. Do you actually know where that is?
  3. Are you sure?
  4. What time does it start?
  5. How will you get to the start?
  6. Where does it finish?
  7. Do you know where that is?
  8. How will you get home?
  9. How far is the race?
  10. Do you have a reasonable hope of training to run that far?
  11. Does the race have cut offs?
  12. Are you likely to meet the cut off time?
  13. Do you know what the terrain is like?
  14. How hilly is the route?
  15. Do you still have a chance of making the cut offs?
  16. How long does it take the winner/mid pack/last finisher to complete the course?
  17. Still think you can finish within the cut offs?
  18. What time of day are you likely to finish?
  19. When you finish, where will your clothes/car keys/car be?
  20. Will it still be daylight when you finish?
  21. Do you need a support crew?
  22. Will you need drop bags?
  23. Do you know what the drop bag rules are?
  24. When does race entry open?
  25. How do you enter?
  26. How quickly did it fill up last year?
  27. Does the race have a web site or Facebook page?
  28. Have you read either of them?
  29. Does the race fit round the other races in your schedule and give you time to train/recover?
  30. Do you know why you are entering this race?

My Shopping List

I am lucky enough to have built up a good selection of ultra gear to mix and match which is versatile enough to do me for most types of races, so I no longer need to go on a shopping spree every time I enter a big race. My most used kit currently is

  • Jacket: OMM Kamleika smock or OMM Cypher Event jacket
  • Trousers: OMM Kamleika Race Pants or Raidlight Surpantalon Ultralight
  • Base Layer: Helly Hansen or OMM Vector Zip
  • Shorts: Ronhill Cargo Trail or 2Xu Compression
  • Hat: X-bionic Soma Cap
  • Calf Guards: Compressport or CEP
  • Socks: Compressport ProRacing High Cut or Drymax Trail Running Socks – 1/4 Crew High
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction PB Vest or Raidlight Olmo 20l
  • Gloves: Sealskinz Nordic ski Gloves or Asics winter glove

Some of this stuff is quite expensive, but by patiently watching for sales, taking last year’s model or by  Santa being generous I have rarely paid full price for it.

Throw in and an assortment of buffs and t-shirts and I am pretty much good to go most places.

There are however, still a few bits of kit on my Birthday, Christmas and lottery win list.

Headtorch

What I need it for

You don’t need  much of a head torch for summer running in Scotland so for races like West Highland Way or Great Glen Ultra pretty much any head torch will do. Running in the Alps in late summer is a different matter and with TDS coming up this year I need something which will give me a good bright light for up to 8 hours at a time.

What I have:

I have various head torches which work pretty well to a greater or lesser extent. My main torch is a LED Lenser H7R

ardvark_h6_h6r

It works well and gives a nice big beam especially in darkness. It represents very good value for money and a good balance between price and brightness, especially as I got it in a sale for about £35. Having had it for a few years, I am beginning to wonder if it has seen better days as batteries seem not to last very long any more.

I have run out of patience with batteries –  I have tried just about every kind under the sun and still have to change them every few hours. They are worth a separate post of their own…..

I also have the Alpkit Gamma which is the best value head torch on the market, mainly because it is so ridiculously cheap at around £15 but with a good wide beam and decent battery life.

1408890332-54693200

Another very useful piece of kit is the LED Lenser Neo. This is a very small lightweight torch which is perfect as a spare or backup torch and with enough light to get you out of trouble. The battery life is very good indeed so you will get a good 12 hours out of the torch without having to change batteries. Again a very reassuring feature in an emergency backup.

 

What I want:

I might pick up one of the new model Alpkit Gammas or I might explore some of the high powered LED Lenser torches but I would always end up coming back to the Petzl Nao

Petzl Nao

nao_page_nao_photo1_enThis light isn’t cheap at over £100 and I have resisted the urge to buy one so far, but the brightness and battery life are very good and having borrowed my lovely wife’s one I have to concede that it is better than anything I have at the moment. Any torch that you can actually programme from your computer has to be good! If I was buying one I would probably also buy a spare battery for flexibility and to cover those very long races where you might be out for two nights. Again at £25 a go the spare battery isn’t cheap but better to be safe than sorry and with a spare it could be charged up on the go in your pack with a portable charger.

Poles

What I need it for

Poles are not allowed in Scottish races so it is really just for overseas ultras that I need poles. There is always a debate about poles but once you have used them in the big mountains you really feel the benefit of them. With more adventures in the Alps planned, I am looking for a pole which is very light weight which obviously means less weight to carry, but also means better balance when running with them in your hand.

They need to be strong enough to survive me being hashy with them, and they need to fold up small enough to fit inside a backpack or strap tightly to a running pack without flapping around. Ideally they will be easy to assemble and take down, especially with cold fingers and in a perfect world the length would be adjustable to allow for different types of terrain.

What I have

I have an old pair of Leki lightweight titanium walking poles. These were top of the range when I got them many years ago. There really isn’t much wrong with them. They are quite robust, are adjustable in height so can be altered depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill. They are pretty light. You notice you have them in your hand but not enough to imbalance you. I used these on the CCC race and never put them in my pack once, but strapping them to your pack can be a bit of a guddle especially when your fingers and brain are a bit fuzzy.

What I want

trailblaze20carbon-560x560

I am still undecided. I am tending towards the Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Carbon. This has the attraction that it is very light at only 106g per pole and by folding into 4 sections it will stash away easily and securely in my pack.

At around £90 per pair it feels like a lot of money for a piece of kit which I worry might be a bit flimsy, but the convenience is tempting.

 

634207454b51dee34548The other pole which catches my eye is the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. This has all the features I am after but while lightweight it is heavier than the Mountain King and it is significantly more expensive at £130-£150.

It is probably more robust than the Mountain King, has a sturdier handle and has the big advantage of being adjustable.

A couple of other alternatives come in to the mix as well. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Pole which is similar to the Mountain King, but possibly a bit more sturdy if heavier.

The final one which caught my eye was the Raidlight Carbon Trail pole. A bit heavier than the others but still quite attractive and I am a fan of Raidlight gear.

Hard to choose but on balance I would probably go for the Mountain King over the Leki, just because it is the lightest, cheaper and less complicated.

 

Gaiters

What I need it for

This is a slightly mundane item after the previous two things on my shopping list but a decent pair of gaiters really does help keep dirt and stones out of your shoes. I also need a gaiter which is robust enough to keep excess water and snow from getting in to your shoe and which will give a bit of protection to your ankles from rocks and the odd time you kick yourself.

What I have

I have tried a range of different gaiters. The Dirty Girl ones are quite pretty and keep the dry stuff out, but I find they are a pain to attach to your laces and you need to velcro them on which is also more effort than I can be bothered with. They are thin so they do get wet.

I have tried the Inov-8 sock with the built in gaiter. These are ok, but the socks aren’t my preferred sock so that isn’t a solution on a long race where you might want to change your socks. I have also tried the Inov-8 race ultra gaiter but they have attachments for Inov-8 race ultra shoes and don’t fit other shoes well.

My favourite gaiter so far is the Inov-8 Debris Gaiter 32. This is a thick gaiter with a sock cuff, which covers your laces and which keeps water out as well. My pair has seen better days and the elastic straps which hold them on have worn out, so it is time for a new pair.

What I want

61regmy5awl-_sl1000_The easy solution to this is just get another pair of the Inov-8 Debris gaiters. There is little to fault them and at around £15 are not going to break the bank.

 

 

1394450414-52282600I am also quite fancy the Outdoor Research gaiter. These are a bit more expensive but might do the trick in very gritty conditions. At nearly £30 these are pricey for a pair of running gaiters.

 

 

stop-run-gaiters

The final pair on my list is the Raidlight STOP RUN gaiter. This is probably the main contender to replace my Inov-8s. It is pretty robust, and claims to be waterproof and has the added benefit of a wee bit of padding round the ankle bones. At about £20 it is not too expensive

Be Humble

Be Humble

That way you won’t be distressed when that old guy comes floating off the hill on another path and hands you your ass on a plate.

Even though that old guy is probably younger than you

Even though you are 3 hours into a long run and he probably isn’t long out the door

Even though you have just done a killer hill session and your legs are trashed

Even though you are deliberately keeping your heart rate low.

Even though you a running your own pace and have no reason to be competitive

Even though you let him go because you know you couldn’t keep up without looking like a twat
Even though you just know that any other day you could take him

Learning Lessons

It has been a while since I have written something here, mainly because I didn’t really have too much to say.  This year has been a bit of a write off on the running front, which is OK I guess as we can’t keep going further, higher, faster forever and sometimes life gets in the way.

Not running much means that Helen and I have spent a lot of time this year helping out at races either marshaling, sweeping or just generally doing what needs done to make a race happen.

I am lucky enough to have some interesting races lined up for next year:  London Marathon, Miwok 100, and West Highland Way take care of the first half of the year. Hopefully another trip to Chamonix for UTMB week in August as well. This has helped restore my motivation, and touching wood, I have had a consistent few weeks slowly building a base for next year’s big efforts.

A couple of hours on the trail yesterday gave me the headspace to reflect on what I have learned this year from all the watching I have done. So what lessons have I learned about what makes successful ultra runners?

  1. Unless you are at the very sharp end success is not defined by where you finish, that is often down to age and genetics, it is how you finish that defines success.
  2. You can’t bluff it. If you haven’t done the training, it will come back and bite you on the bum.
  3. Happy runners are successful runners. Those who smile and chat and enjoy the experience do much better than those who huff and puff and toil.
  4. Successful runners plan carefully, but are flexible and roll with whatever the day throws at them. They don’t over think kit and nutrition.
  5. Stress kills performance. Doesn’t matter whether it is work stress, personal stress or race stress, but too much of it and you can’t train or race successfully. See point 3.
  6. Successful runners are lean. No getting away from it, excess weight kills performance. That doesn’t mean you have to be skinny to run, and plenty runners carry too much weight (me included), but being at your optimum weight undoubtedly helps.
  7. Successful runners race judiciously. Too many people suffer from FOMO and do too many races or races which are a step beyond their current capabilities. See point 5. and point 2.
  8. Successful runners are consistent. They train consistently and build up carefully and steadily to their races. Too many people end up in a cycle of boom and bust, playing catch up from injuries, doing too much, then getting hurt or burning out. See points 2, 3, 4 and 5.

My prescription for myself for 2016 therefore is:

Train patiently, manage work/life balance better, lose weight and the hardest of all – smile more and enjoy it!