Saturday, 3 November 2012

How NOT to finish an Ultra!

Best ways not to finish an Ultra

After my failed attempt to complete the North Downs Way 100 I further reviewed my training and plans for preparing for my future attempts. I am neither a scientist or a personal trainer, but felt as a slightly over weight runner I would share my views on "How NOT to finish an Ultra." In the hope this may in some way assist others in completing an Ultra and perhaps providing a few smiles at my expense :)

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

It may appear a really obvious statement to make, but without preparation you may not make the start line. One thing is for certain and that is the finish will become a distant unattainable fantasy. This is particularly true of anything from 100 miles, but also applies to the shorter distances.
I have heard so many cliche's like "Fail to prepare and prepare to fail." Cliche? YES! Irritating? YES! True? Absolutely!

The problem comes in how we interpret preparation. Should we run? Well yes absolutely everyone should run, but I don't believe that simply covering the mileage will constitute preparation.
It is clearly imperative to run often and run long. No one will tell you anywhere what the ideal training plan for an Ultra is. The truth being it appears no one is sure. What is generally accepted is that time spent running is more important than the actual distance covered. To this end a regular pattern of running that varies distance, pace and intensity will go a long way to that first stamp in the book of preparation.

So I'm running and feeling fit so surely I'm physically prepared? Not necessarily, don't underestimate the importance of strength work, particularly core muscles. Too many of us, me included, have assumed if I'm running then the relevant muscles are getting the work out they need. The fact of the matter is this may not be the case. Equally it's very difficult to apply the strain to the body that it will come under over the course of an ultra. The best thing therefore, in my opinion, is to have a good weight programme attached to your running programme. Utilise both to get the body into the physical shape required to run.

Ok so you've been running and lifting weights and feel good. So now your fully prepared? Not necessarily. Preparation for an ultra is more than just physical.
So what else? The list may vary between people, but for me the following other things need to be prepared and prepared well:

1. Kit choices
2. Nutrition
3. Course Awarenes
4. Race plan

If all of this is prepared then I think each individual can be confident they have prepared for an Ultra.

So given i see them as so important let's look at each one in turn.

1. Kit choices

There seems to be so much kit out there and every brand proposes they have the perfect solutions. The truth is that for every person who agrees a brand has the solution there will be someone who disagrees. It's important to research potential kit and try things on wherever possible, particularly with shoes. Once you find kit that works then stick with it, train with it and then race in it. Don't be foolish and gamble on new kit for race day.

2. Nutrition

Gels or solids? Which type of gel? Caffeine or no caffeine? Salt tabs or not? The list of questions goes on. With such an important matter it is essential not to be gambling and guessing on race day.

Once again the best preparation is to try things out in training. Everyone is different and some people are gel exclusive, whilst others are real food exclusive and others fall somewhere in between. Get it wrong though and this can end your race. Remember even if you are a gel person find a gel you like. After all you wouldn't say "I like solid food" and just assume it was all the same.

3. Course Awareness

You will hear it all the time that where ever possible it is valuable to recce a course. This is particularly relevant to trail running where course
Markings will be minimal. From a navigational point of view having knowledge of the course means one can know where they are going to go and relax. It also means you can plan the likely energy output at certain phases of a race, plus who wouldn't want to know when that last big hill was coming? With a knowledge of a course, your kit and nutrition planned then a race plan can be formulated.

4. Race Plan

A race plan, I believe, is absolutely crucial in utilising all other aspects of ones preparation. The race plan must reflect the runner and their needs. The plan should be tailored to them and their needs and ambitions. A plan formulated from someone else's race plan is a recipe for disaster. Every human is so different, what I love about the human mind and soul is we can all function in so many different ways ways independent from the way others function and yet because we are running a race together where we share the same ultimate goal of crossing the finish line we assume our race plans can be similar. Perhaps they can, but this should be by coincidence and not design. Find your own race plan!!! Research, research, research and the look at other people's views. From this information absorb what works and dispense with everything else. Your race plan is unique. Cherish that plan because it's what will get you across the line.

Preparation Done!

Wow it sounds so simple doesn't it. At this point the blog probably is reading more like a mini lecture on how to succeed in an Ultra. The truth is the above is my utopia. It is what I know I should do. Do I always do it ? No!!!
My running CV is short and fairly unimpressive, but my aspirations are great. If you want someone to tell you how it's done then you should be asking runners like James Elson, Mimi Anderson, Allan Rumbles, James Adams and Sam Robson to name but a few.

What I can discuss with some confidence is the reality most 'average Joe's' are faced with and that's "how not to finish an ultra." This is what this blog is really about!

Reality can be very different.

It still amazes me how easy it was to write the 1st half of this blog. Of course I know what i should do. This is no different to knowing McDonalds is bad for me. Do I still eat it? Of course I do. Is it because i like the taste? No. Is it because it's easy? Absolutely!
The truth of training for an ultra is there is nowhere to hide and no Drive thru's awaiting to provide an easy finished 'you' ready for racing.

So I know preparation is key and quality training is essential, but it's so much easier to sit on the sofa watching tv and staying in bed on those rainy mornings. The extra haribo tastes good too. I've
Done all these things and
Then convinced myself that a) there are plenty of days left yet to train and b) my base fitness is good I'll be fine.

The problem then with a) is that days run out and I've gone from "it's ok there's 100 days left." to "running out of time but still have 50 days left" and the excuses begin to fade. I'm then at a certain level at a start line screaming internally that I am simply not ready." the truth of b) is that my base fitness level will not be enough to complete an ultra.

In reality my biggest error is that which I believe is the same for many; the reality of hindsight. After a run or an event I find myself saying "next time I'll be better prepared, next time I'll be fitter." The truth is "next time" is like "tomorrow" in the essence that it never arrives. I am great friends with "tomorrow." A friend like this is a perfect example of how not to finish an ultra. For the point of finishing I need to make friends with 'now'

There are all too many tempting moments where making a difficult choice to get up to train is needed. Don't misunderstand me I love running, but general day to day demands mean its very easy to hit the snooze button on the alarm. Before you know it you have gone a few days without running and then you realise it's actually a couple of weeks. This is an action that left me completely under prepared for the North Downs Way 100 or before this the Beacons Ultra 2011.

Being totally honest I was chuffed to finish the Beacons Ultra, but there were moments where I knew that I was totally under prepared. The second climb up Tor y Foel nearly killed me. I overcame this and finished in 11hr29min. An achievement I am proud off and what should have served to spur me on to greater accomplishments. I'm afraid I now must stand on the confession box and acknowledge finishing my 1st ultra as one of the factors in not finishing my second. I had some complacency that the training in 2011 was enough so I could do the same again. The truth is a failure to recognise getting lucky over being well trained is a key factor in "How NOT to finish an Ultra." Perhaps a more general way to label point 1 then is,

Thinking you are a better runner than you actually are.

So if you are not properly trained then you are likely to fail or at least not do as well as you could. What constitutes "properly" trained is open for debate and will require more research from the reader and not something I can explore in this blog. What I can say is as the runner you must be honest with yourself about your training and your current running level. Without sounding like a moralistic teacher, if you cheat or lie about your training then you are only cheating yourself. This type of self deception will catch up with any runner eventually regardless of ability.

So let's assume we have learnt from that and are going to train hard and honestly. What else can cause us to not finish an ultra?
Looking at the points considered they are all factors that can impact us NOT finishing an Ultra. So let's consider them in turn.

1. Kit choice

Of course it makes sense to have tried and tested kit before we are at the start line on race day. This is a really simple plan and one that I follow. The issue then is that I hadn't until recently tested kit properly. The explanation links to the earlier comments about having not run enough.

Of course my kits lovely and of course it works. Without training enough I invariably can't test my kit enough to genuinely know if it works for me.

This type of naivety leads to being half way round the beacons ultra thinking your feet are sore or 52 miles into a race wishing you had found a better way to secure your hydration tube. Kit that can seem lovely one minute after 9hrs+ of running can turn out to need tweaking or worst case scenario become not fit for purpose.

So the best way NOT to finish an Ultra is to buy kit on the assumption it's great and then only test it properly on race day. If you want to finish an ultra then make sure you are so comfortable with your kit that when it comes to race day it is all second nature. On race day there is enough to worry about already.

2. Nutrition

The same applies about testing things during training. It's easy to assume that a nutrition plan is working because it has worked on an hour or two hour run on a lively summers day. The reality may be very different after 8hours on a grotty winters night.
Test products and plans thoroughly if you don't want to finish an ultra then not understanding your body and it's responses to such things as gels is a great place to start. The difficulty can be that gels are a great tool and for some cause no problems. Equally after hours of consumption they can make your teeth feel horrible and your guts do backflips. Not a great space to be in when running an Ultra. If you don't test products under lengthy conditions I have found the propensity is to exclusively listen to other peoples experiences. This can be a recipe for disaster. The mantra of everyone is different somehow gets forgotten. I ended up in situations where I have consumed more gels than necessary. The result a horrible sickly feeling and a sudden urge for the toilet. Ultimately don't know your body and your personal nutrition wrong and you won't finish an ultra.

Whether its solid food or gels or a combination unless you know it works for you then you are entering into a game of craps.

3. Course Awareness

Sounds like such an easy ideal to recce the entire course and to be sure of all directions. When life happens this is not always possible.

It's great to recce a route but some courses are far away or the simple reality of sacrificing a day at a time to become familiar is not something we can all do.
It's an unfortunate scenario therefore that a lack of course awareness has serious repercussions. The obvious being missed turnings. This in itself can be a game ender. I discovered this myself at North Downs Way 100 when at about mile 58 I took a wrong turn and did an extra 7 miles and in turn destroyed my legs and missed the cut off. The frustrating thing is such things are easily avoided. Not having course awareness can be a significant distraction from your ability to perform. Imagine getting into the flow and being knocked out of it every 10mins or so wondering if you are going the right way. It destroys your rhythm and can make the race seem a whole lot harder.

The reality is we can't all recce courses every time. We can all have maps though. Of course having a map means that you need to be able to read it and know where you are on the map. The best way NOT to finish an ultra is to get complacent and reliant on course markings. With the result being that when you need the map you can't find where you are on it. The other way to negate the benefit of a map is to become ├╝ber reliant on technology. A garmin plots a route well, however, they run out of battery, can lose signal and have a margin of error. A Garmin is an excellent complimentary tool to a map, but if you are unfamiliar with a route then ignoring the map is a great way to NOT finish an ultra. Trust me mine went in my bag at ndw100 and when required was essentially useless. So retracing steps was the only option and this means factoring in unexpected climbs, descents and unnecessary extra mileage. Dicing with cut offs and this will definitely end your race.
With course awareness and going wrong it's important to be humble. If you realise you have gone wrong or suspect you have then retracing steps is the only option. Reassurance you are going the right way or an avoided disaster are both great motivators. Do what I've done and keep running blindly whilst relying on garmin and you can end up doing several miles extra. Avoid this by being smart. Being stupid is a great way NOT to finish an ultra. If you think you have gone wrong check early as a few extra steps to confirm you are going the right way are better than a few miles travelled in the wrong direction.

So let's assume the kit, nutrition and course awareness are in researched and prepared a bad race plan is another NOT to finish an ultra. So let's look at that.

4. Race Plan

Knowing what you want to do and how you want to do it are great elements to preparation and a significant factor for an Ultra in the form of a race plan. Not having a race plan and being too rigid with a race plan are both ways not to finish an ultra.
One can become distracted from their own plan for a number of reasons. Perhaps the weather is not what you expected or you are feeling better, or worse, than you anticipated. The important to thing is to have a race plan that factors these things in. It's easy to be distracted by others. Perhaps someone appears fatter and less fit than you. The following internal monologue may occcur:

Surely they can't run fast?! Well fine I'm obviously going too slow I better speed up.

Never judge a book by its cover. You can't look at a car
And always know the state of the engine and so why do it with people. At the end of the day let everyone else get on with their own race plans. You have yours and swapping it for someone elses is a great way way to not finish an ultra.

You may also get distracted by the enjoyment of someone else's company. That's a nice thing, but if you damage your rhythms and focus on the race before you know it you are in a world of trouble. Making it clear to the other person you are running your race and they are free to get on with there's anytime including if that leaves you floating behind. This is better for everyone in the long run (pun intended).
Having a plan that is backed up by contingencies Is like a tightrope walker having a safety net. If something goes wrong you have other outs. A race plan is personal and as we let the "fat" man overtake so we should not dictate our plans based on other peoples plans. The plan is personal and should be kept so. Assuming you can have no plan or that someone elses plan will get you by are both ways NOT to finish An Ultra.

For me at my last 100 attempt I had a plan. It was a plan that in truth concealed a lack of preparation. More specifically a lack of understanding about how I best run. The plan was in place and I found myself about 7 miles in talking to a really nice guy. This was great, but what I then did was distract myself from my plan and soon there was no plan and at this point (in hindsight) my brain found that very difficult to tolerate.

Remember when it comes to Ultras little things become very big annoying things surprisingly quickly and that applies to the mental side as well as the physical.

All Prepared.

So you have good kit choices, nutrition sorted, course awareness and a race plan sorted. Brilliant. This must mean you will definitely finish an Ultra?! No!! There are so many anomalies that can stop ANYONE from finishing an Ultra. If you avoid my bad mistakes then hopefully you will finish and if you don't it won't be down to a lack of positive preparation.

At the end of the day all one can do is control the controllable and let the variables look after themselves.
Happy Running!

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