Ultra running is stressful on the body; repetitive movement, high milage, arguably not enough rest and a gritted determination to never give up. Over-use injuries are probable rather than inevitable but it takes some sensible management to avoid them. I’m not always sensible with myself, yes, happy to advise others on what to do and not to do, but occasionally I should apply that knowledge to myself. So eventually I found myself gym bound due hamstring tendonopathy. I’ve managed this for over two years now but it raised its head again during an interval session in July during which, when the pain level started to creep up, I failed to quit from. I can beat myself up about that for eternity, but that doesn’t get me better and will only get me down so my thoughts turn back to a physio friend of mine who once told me that the best physio is often rest. After an Ultra in Sept and trying to run through it in Oct, I decided to take November off, made a rehab plan and got stuck in.
So for the last month I’ve done all the things which, as a PT I tell other people they should be doing, cross-training and strength work. I’ve run numerous boot camp sessions in between house moves (we are a mobile family) and have always convinced myself that they count as my strength work alongside a few exercises after each run. No doubt, doing the amount of squats, dips and burpees I get to do whilst running sessions is pretty useful but my indifference to the gym was always going to catch up with me. I needed, and have always needed specific strength sessions where the only focus is weight training and plyometrics, not a few (well thought through) exercises shoved on the end of a run. November was the time to reconnect with the indoor gym and, alongside a running buddy, we have ran through every running strength exercise I could think of.
On top of that I’ve got amongst some Sufferfest on the spin bike, I’ve invested in and started using a skipping rope and I’ve even ventured into a pool. I’m not convinced that appearing on the side of the pool wearing my 8 year old sons goggles and clutching his float was the best look, but my swim time is 0600hrs so I guess no one is ever awake enough to bother looking.
And now I find myself at the end of November, I’ve gone beyond the usual body weight exercises and kettlebells which I rotate around after each run, I feel strong, I feel as though I’ve got a spring back in my step and yet there is something hanging over my head. I’m scared of what that first run will feel like. I’m walking pain free and have made sure that I’ve done a week of being pain free before running again so why am I scared?
I’m not worried that my CV will be shot, I’ve done enough on the bike and I’m experienced enough to know that it will always improve again. I guess that I’m worried that the pain will come back and that I will be back to square one. I’m scared that I’ve grown a bit too accustomed to the nice warm gym and that the biting cold will be just too miserable, I’m worried that I’ve left it all too late and that my training program isn’t enough to cope with next year.
So, what to do? I’ve recruited my one and only running buddy for my first run out so that I can be distracted and not focus on my niggling hamstrings, I will try a bit of mindfulness and attempt to concentrate on the ‘now’ and not on what pain might be around the corner and I will have faith in my training program. At the end of the day, I don’t earn a living from running so why feel so pressured. I have numerous friends and ex-colleagues who have returned from military Operations missing limbs so I feel enormous gratitude for everything that I am able to do. I will go out and enjoy running in the cold, soak in the beauty of the last autumn leaves clinging on to the frozen trees and be thankful that I have running in my life at all.
So, Sophie T at http://runningonfullblog.com asked ‘Shall I run another Ultra.’
‘Yes of course’ was my reply, but why. Any Ultra takes you to a pace where you can test yourself so why do more than one or two. Why do I run Ultras. Two years ago I re-engaged with x-country and did pretty well against a significantly younger field. Last year I ran Avebury 8 (which is annoyingly 9 miles) coming in as first female. So I clearly still have some pace in my old bones so why do I want to spend all the time and effort training for and competing in Ultras and could some of these reasons inspire others to get into this sport?
Gotta be easier than Short and Fast
Firstly I think that Ultras are, in many ways easier than the shorter distances. I get to eat, chat and walk up hills. After the Avebury 8, I was ill for a week, it completely wiped me out. Running through thick mud over tricky and hilly trail with harsh November winds whipping past is hard work on any day. But combining that with a 07.30 min mile pace and steely eyed competition was tough:, although it gave me the fast work out I was looking for, the following illness put me back for weeks. Yes, SDW100 destroyed me but I find the shorter Ultra distances put far less stress on my body than fast 10-20 milers. The thought of doing a proper road marathon doesn’t feel exciting to me now, it just looks like hard work.
The mental battle
Road marathons are all different, I get that. For me, I know that I can run that distance but Ultras have put me in lots of different mental places; can I run 38 miles, can I run 50, can I run 100? And then there is the crazy variety of terrains which trails can throw at me, the up hills of Apocalypse 50, the down hills of SDW100 and next year it will be the flat and fast of TP100. Running on empty, on my own in the dark muttering ‘left foot, right foot, repeat’ pushed me physically but also threw me a mental challenge far tougher than anything the army, biathlon or road running ever put me through.
It’s all about the Trail
I was lucky enough to have a great chat with the sports psychologist Evie Serventi (http://evieserventi.com) a few weeks ago when I found myself explaining how I wasted my University time boozing, doing a few jogs and not getting onto the track as I had intended. Evie examined many of the things which I had told her and recognised that it is being in contact with nature, a love of being out on the trails and feeling free from the daily mundane which actually motivates me. This explains why I have such high anxiety about so many things but why it all disappears when I cross the start line of an ultra. It also explains why the marathon runners who I’ve pursued to run an ultra will say ‘glad I did it but never again’. They may not get the same buzz from nature that I do but get their running happiness from roads or the familiar feeling of competing in a road marathon.
This is the key to it all for me. The ultra community is still pretty small. You are likely to recognise half of the field of an ultra if you have been a member of any of the FB pages dedicated to the sport (why are there so many pages when we are all members of all of them). Shorter races see people toeing the line, barely looking around, plugging themselves into headphones before they charge off to beat their PB. I totally respect this and am vaguely jealous of a PB goal but, as I get even greyer, I enjoy start lines where people chat or ask you about the kit you have on. As the race starts I love that the chat continues, people hold open gates, pick you up when you fall and volunteer to walk with you for a bit if they see you struggling.
James, the RD at Centurion started SDW100 with the words ‘We will look after you at the check points, but you know the score, we rely on you looking after each other in between’. This sums it all up really.
So in summary, if you enjoy eating, admiring a nice view whilst chatting away to fellow running loons, Ultra Running is probably for you. If secretly want to know just what your body can do over new terrain and over new distances where PB’s are largely irrelevant then Ultras are definitely for you. Even if you only do one, you will never regret pressing that Enter Now button.
The school holidays dawned, I had recently completed SDW100 and was therefore completely indestructible, I put myself onto the waiting list for the CW50 to give me a summer holiday goal to train towards, I got all place; all was good with the world.
….then I went training with the local athletics club, a really good half mile interval session with some great runners. I was indestructible remember, so when my hamstring tendonopathy started to play up, it didn’t matter because I could take on the world: I didn’t stop, I had to finish the session. As a result of those intervals I couldn’t walk properly, run properly do anything properly. I am clearly an idiot. I tried to give the place in CW50 back so that someone else could run this incredible route, but it was too late. At this point I had a proper girly strop at Supportive Husband who made appropriate noises to try to make me feel better before I looked properly at Nici’s response to my request to give the place back…it was too late, but she was sure it would all be ok and that she would see me at the start line. Right, strop back in its box and determined head back on, rehab, here I come.
Before I knew it I found myself in Goring Village hall happily absorbing the greetings, running banter and general positive vibe which Ultras seem to bring. I was facing 50 miles of Wonderland; muddy paths, woodland trails full tree roots, some stunning views and a few obligatory hills. The weather was looking good allowing me a bit of stretching in the Autumn sunshine knowing that rain was due in by the afternoon. Standing next to the Thames (the hilly bit apparently), I decided that I don’t much like rain so had best get as much of the course done before it came in, the starter horn went off and I committed to keeping up with what can only be described as a cheeky pace.
I felt surprisingly relaxed, I hadn’t done any of the planned training, I hadn’t done my usual build up to a race but I had done something I don’t usually do, I had rested. I was puffing like a steam train, probably because I hadn’t stretched my lungs for a while, but my legs felt strong. I soon became aware of Charley behind me, the pace was pretty tough and I was willing her to just get it over and done with and overtake. Half way to CP1 a bunch of us found ourselves simultaneously shouting to the pack in front that they were going the wrong way leading to us all confessing that it was quite a tasty pace but we were all chasing the rain.
CP1 arrived surprisingly fast, hamstring felt like it was about to explode but somehow I knew it would ease. Centurion events stand out with their well stocked stations and unbelievably encouraging crews, I imagined all Ultras would be like this but my small experience has shown me that they aren’t which is what makes the Centurion CP’s so special. Before I knew it, my water container had been stocked, I had shoved some food in and was off.
It’s at this stage where I would love to give a blow by blow account of where I went and what point I arrived at which CP. The truth is that it all has all blurred into one, I’ve seen photos with me in them and have no recollection of where they were taken. The pictures I have in my head are of tree roots, a windmill at the top of a stinker of a hill, some views which we all said ‘wow’ at the same time, the back of Jim and James’s trainers, some steps which none of used words to describe (just lots of ‘ouch’ ‘ooh’ and ‘aghh’) and an extra hill.
Yes, an extra hill, thrown in totally for free….and we weren’t the only ones. The brilliant things about Centurion events is that the routes are really well marked, so a lack of markers should be an indicator that all is not well. It took us to the top of a nettle infested hill to figure it out, but it was a mark of just how we were carrying each other along when we shrugged it off and cracked on trying to find the right route.
But this day wasn’t about where we went and how I felt at each point, it was about two things for me; the magic of trail running and people. The route was fantastic, how on earth did they find these glorious twisting paths linking the Thames Path, the Chilton Way and the Ridgeway. I love nothing more than running through woods and on muddy paths where I can lose myself in my thoughts and feel a bit more connected to nature. This route had that in bucket loads. The nettles were in autumn mode and couldn’t really be bothered to sting properly, the hills were so scenic that they were worth all the climbs, even the mud felt manageable.
And then it was about the people. Charley, Jim and James. I couldn’t tell what we chatted about but we chatted for about 45 miles. We laughed at downward steps and me confidently turning right having been told ‘it’s left here’. We all took a tumble at some point and we checked on the tumblee. We got over the extra hill and congratulated ourselves on our extra milage. We waved heartily at the lovely supporters who weren’t there to support us but cheered us anyway. This is the Centurion Army, not just the people who refuse to let you stand on your own at the start and insist on chatting to you, but also the people on the trail who look out for you. These are the strongest memories for me.
Coming into Goring we realised that it was actually a race and so Charley and I upped the pace only to hear a shout from behind ‘you need to turn left’, luckily I got it right this time and we embarked on the dog leg around the back to the village hall. We had clearly gone off too fast but Charley can shift rapidly and still find the energy to chat positive words. The sprint in was brilliant, not what I expected to be doing in a 50 miler but to come in with under a second between us was incredible.
I always learn something from races. This time I learnt just how far I can push myself when I am surrounded by hard runners who don’t take prisoners. There were lots of opportunities to lose the route on this race and I knew that, if I dropped back, I was liable to get very lost and disheartened so motivation was high to stick with this incredible group of people who just kept driving hard. I stupidly asked near the end if the upward slope we were on counted as a hill (and therefore could we walk) and was told in no uncertain terms that we were too close to the end for much to be counted as a hill and that we just needed to run hard from there on in. Yup, they were a tough crowd.
In summary, it’s the best race I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of. It was such an enjoyable day due to the route, the organisation and obviously the people; running, supporting and volunteering. Anyone looking for an Ultra, this is definitely one for the list.
Monday. After a pretty mad weekend crewing for my amazing husband on Trailwalker we were all pretty shattered. I’ve always appreciated the hard work that CP crews put on on Ultras but on TW teams take their own CP crew around with them; it’s hard work but really rewarding to see folk you love and admire succeeding due to hard work and a few jelly babies given to them by you. But arriving home at 0200hrs after a 0430hrs start took its toll so it was nice on Monday just to go for a gentle 5 miler.
Tues was a busy day with the kids so I got up early for a bike session on the turbo. When I’m stuck for time, interval training is generally the answer. 16 x 1 min reps with 1 min recovery between each was a great session, quite tough but easy to fit in early in the morning.
On Wednesday I had planned some compulsory fun for the whole family out at a NT property, clearly an excuse to get the kids out running about and to get myself out too. Ideally I would have liked to have had a nice long, steady 8 miler but rain was forecast and I knew that the family wouldn’t want too long running around in the rain so I settled on another interval session; 8 x reps up and down some cheeky steps which I had seen on a previous visit.
High Intensity training is exactly that, high intensity and requires 48 hours of recovery. I know that and knew that yet another interval session isn’t what I needed but, it fitted into the day and that’s what training through the school holidays is all about. My mantra of ‘Any movement is good movement’ is relevant at times like this. I definitely wasn’t working as hard as I should have been, yet I was working as hard as my legs would let me. It’s symptomatic of doing too much at the hard end of the spectrum and not going properly easy on the easy runs; it’s the reason that I wear a HR monitor (when the blinking battery hasn’t run out of the belt). So it wasn’t the session I should have done but it was a session none the less and one which I had wanted to do when I had first seen those steps so I felt ok about it all.
By Friday, my hurty hamstring was aching. Still kicking myself for not stopping half way through the interval session with the athletics club last week so Friday was stretching, meagre attempts at yoga and a bit more stretching.
But week two done. I’ve managed another week of maintaining my fitness and had some fabulous fun with the kids, I’m a pretty lucky person.
Plans for next week; holiday with the family, a fair amount of red wine and some gentle trails.
Training during the school holidays isn’t easy; kids are around when you are used to them being in school, the house is a constant conveyer belt of kids dropping stuff, you tidying, they constantly need feeding and you feel more shattered than normal because kids are tiring.
I adore my kids, I love the fact that they are fit and active, but they are like big spaniels; need lots of cuddles and tonnes of exercise. In fact I largely have to run them into the ground every day which involves being outdoors at various parks, National Trust places, bike rides etc. This is all fabulous and it’s exactly what I want for my kids but (rather selfishly) it limits my running time and I really need to get training planned or else ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘can’t quite be arsed’ will kick in and I wont get out.
This week has been good, luckily I’m a morning person and I love the summer daybreak so a 0530 start on Monday morning to get out running before Supportive Husband leaves for work wasn’t too much of a hardship. I had messed around trying out a new energy bar which I ate before I headed out which was ok and I had loads of energy out there. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/chewy-no-bake-cereal-bars
Tues, I went out with my local athletics club who I haven’t run with before. Fab bunch of people but 7 x half mile fast reps on hard concrete really hurt my hurty hamstring so I’m not convinced it’s a long term option as I think I will struggle to keep that kind of inflammation down if I do it week in, week out.
Weds I completed a tabata session which I’ve laid out below. Easy to run a warm up loop around the block before Husband left and then into the garden for the session. Tabata is a HIIT workout designed by Dr Izumi Tabata and is designed to improve both the aerobic and anaerobic systems as well as strengthen the muscle groups each exercise is aimed at. I have run this session with a couple of my Bootcamps so I know that it’s a short but effective work out.
Each set is 20 seconds hard work followed by 10 seconds rest repeated for a total of four mins. Google tells me that I should have a Tabata timer to help me keep track of the time but I found that the second hand on my kitchen clock and a stop watch timing the four mins worked for me.
I did the following exercises because they didn’t affect my, still hurty hamstring and were a decent all over session (photos by my 8 year old, hence the slightly shaky focus).
Squat and press using a kettlebell.
Single leg squat
By Friday I was feeling pretty strong but hurty hamstring stopped me running so an hour on the turbo trainer was great. Four reps of 4 mins temp, 2.30 mins hill reps.
So lots of interval training this week, easier way of training when time is an issue. The aim for the school holidays is to keep on top of my fitness and come out still feeling strong in Sept
When I first decided to start running longer races my google searches kept coming back to The Green Man Ultra. From this initial research, it seemed to be a no-nonsense, fun and somewhat iconic race: ‘Distributed woodland of community forest path’, sounds idyllic… ‘anybody who completes the challenge is termed a Woodwose’. More reading revealed that a Woodwose is the name for wild men and woman who hunted in imaginary forests of medieval England; an image of a lovely jaunt through England’s green and pleasant land inhabited by pixies and imps flittered through my mind and I couldn’t wait to sign up. Unfortunately on my first attempt to enter, the race was full, on the second attempt I had a hurty hamstring. However, by year three, all was well, I got a place and started training.
Slightly late in the day I found the Facebook page and discovered lots of chat about mud, more mud and shoes to cope with mud. What happen to the English idyll inhabited by mythical wood creatures, however, it did give me my first major race dilemma; use my rubbishy but reliable old trails shoes (my lovely Training Hoka’s were not going to cut it) or buy some new Mud Claws risking foot rubs and breaking the most fundamental rule of running; never race in new kit.
I decided to ignore the deafening calls of ‘make sure you wear Mud Claws everyone’ shouting out from the FB page and decided to wear my old faithful shoes which, if the truth be known, I bought in a rush ages ago and have never really liked. Alongside these I also went for my cold weather running kit. The weather forecast was ok but I was questioning the wisdom of the BBC weather service on the drive down to Bristol as my car was rocked by high winds and lashing rain on the M4 and I was forced to slow to 50mph due to poor visibility.
So the day of the race dawned, cold but ok. I put behind me the thoughts that I had moved house three days earlier and hadn’t really slept in a week and parked up, glad to be back in the company of trail runners. After a good walk to the start and a pretty thorough race brief we were off, at quite a fast pace I must just say. I stuck to my plan of being in the following pack, got past the canine-cross runners and started to enjoy the trail. The only significant hill arrived pretty early on, I love going up so that was fine. But my troubles started soon after that.
Most Ultras are all about following the trail; hopefully a well marked trail backed up with a map and compass. I had a map, route directions and the route on my watch but still managed to end up in someone’s back garden before CP1. However I soon recovered (I think one guy did a river crossing at the end of said garden but he was clearly braver than me) and was soon into the CP. I had opted for the raw route so was only able to pick up water for my Tailwind which is a plan I was happy with. Frustratingly the water was in a container with the worlds slowest tap so I stood there watching fellow runners come in, grab a snack and run out again.
CP 1-2 revealed just how hard the nav on this course is. I had met up with a fellow runner Jon after my first garden detour, had a chat before I scampered off only to see him overtake me in CP1 as I was struggled to fill my water container. My next few detours also resulted in me finding him in front of me every time I got back onto the route, I only found CP 2 due to a shout from Jon which made me turn around to see him pointing in the correct direction.
By CP 3 I was totally spent. The old faithful trail shoes were even more rubbish than I remembered, yup no blisters but that would have been preferable to the constant backwards slide I was getting with every footstep through the most hideous mud the South West has to offer. I could almost cope with the ankle deep stuff and the stuff which was more cow dung than mud because everyone found that hard. It was the constant slipping and sliding on the normal trails, especially the steep tree root infested downhills. The pixies and Woodmen of Bristols forests must have been wetting themselves with laughter at the sight of me. By this stage I had run most of the route by myself which was really bringing me down, in addition it was either bright hot sunshine which made me bake in my winter kit or freezing cold; my bottom lip was about to start wobbling. After a big dose of Man Up I tottered, rather pathetically out of the CP and onto another few hours of trying to figure out where the heck I was.
After overshooting the route yet again, I found myself alone, on a track with a blank screen on my watch. A desire to stamp my feet and shout ‘it’s not fair’ was almost overwhelming but I managed to take a big deep breath and focus on the problem at hand. Out came the map and instructions and I attempted to figure out which motorways I had gone under by this stage and where I was. I decided to head onto what looked like a bigger track which turned out to be the correct route when out of a tree line Jon appeared, I could have hugged him. He told me that he was pretty spent and was doing a bit if a walk / run and that I would be better not sticking with him. I pointed out that, not only was I shattered but I didn’t have a clue where I was or where I was going and, that if it was ok with him I would rather not leave his side.
And from then on all was right with the world, I had someone to run with and the loneliness went, he knew the route and getting lost was not an option and most importantly, he was a brilliant bloke and we spent the next few hours chatting and actually enjoying the race. CP 4 arrived and I was greeted by Brilliant Bristol Mates who had bravely agreed to look after the kids (Supportive Husband was supporting from a ski slope somewhere in France). Enthusiastic Child 1 and 2 held my hands into the CP creating a moment which I could put in a box and treasure forever, capped off my EC 2 saying ‘come on Mummy, keep running…running’s good for you’ (what have we created!). However, Jon wasn’t hanging around and, as I saw my only means of reliable navigation bound up the hill and out of the CP, I had a quick hug with the kids and hurried after him.
Before The Downs I finally knew where I was and we both noticed that we had recovered a bit and were doing a decent pace with a bit of a spring to our step (a very little spring). By the Suspension Bridge we knew that the finish was nearby and were able to saviour the view for a few seconds before heading back into Ashton Court and finally finding the finish line, third female for me and a PB for Jon.
So what can I pass on about this race. It’s certainly not a lovely jaunt on a well marked trail with imps and pixies cheering you along. It is a brutally muddy trail with a few trail markings along the way. I’m ok at map reading but the detail required to get around the trails, roads and woods is something else. However these are just the things which make this race so brilliant; it’s old school ‘do a recce’ trail running, it’s mud which makes you crave summer (and better shoes) and it’s full of the wonderful people who thrive on such challenges as well as a bunch of crazy volunteers who give up their weekends to brilliantly look after runners and support us all in our individual endeavours. So, if your google searches turns up this race, go for it. Just don’t move house the week before it, do a recce or find an experienced Bristolian to run with and listen to all cries of Mud, Mud, Mud.
Photos largely from the Green Man FB page and https://www.flickr.com/photos/115471567@N03/albums/