Training, Racing & LCHF Fueling For Skating And Endurance Sports
“On shaky legs, I stumbled to the finishers’ tent and received a ribbon and a few handshakes and slaps on the back. Then I lumbered painfully to my car… Something wasn’t right. Then, without warning, the quadriceps and calf muscles of both legs seized in wicked cramps. The pain was mind-bending, pounding, entirely owning every drop of me.
“Suddenly my mouth opened, and projectile vomit began streaming out. I tried to tilt my head downward toward the floorboard, but I was completely incapable of altering the flow of things. I must have looked like Godzilla blowing fire into the air. It lasted maybe thirty seconds. When I’d run dry, the entire dashboard and steering wheel were covered in vile sludge. The cramps were still so severe that all I could move were my eyeballs.”
— Dean Karnazes, The Ultramarathon Man describes the immediate aftermath of his first 50-miler.
So, it is done. After 51(ish) miles, 5,000(ish) ft of vertical, and 10(ish) hours of relentlessly running, hiking, and occasionally crawling forward I guess I can officially call myself an “real” ultrarunner now. I certainly feel like one – quite literally.. ‘cos this DOMS is going to last for frickin’ weeks!
And – spoiler alert! – unlike Mr Karnazes, I did manage to hold onto the contents of my stomach for the whole of a very memorable day…
2015 was the inaugural year of the 9BAR 9×9 Trail Running Festival, set up on a 9km loop around Losely Park in Guildford, Surrey, with various distance options of 27km/45km/54km/81 km, as well as 2 or 3 person relay options at the 2 longest distances. A pretty diverse array of race options to suit just about any trail running enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Although 54km and even 45km would officially qualify as an “ultra” I wasn’t going to have any of that for my first foray into dark side… no, no, no! This was going to be a proper leap into the unknown, and nothing less than the full 81 km (50 mile) option would be deemed good enough to break my duck.
To be honest, in the days leading up to the race I was mightily worried. Terrified, even. I couldn’t seem to find a “Couch to 50 mile” app, so was pretty much making it up as I went along. My training cycle had been quite short, and I never felt that I had put in the sort of volume that I should have.
My weekly mileage is usually around 40 for a typical week, and peaks between 50-60… yet many ultra runners push double these sort of volumes. In terms of terrain specificity, I had put in some limited efforts on the trails of Wimbledon Common, but in all honestly these are rookie-standard I could have done with a lot more.
In addition, I didn’t feel like I was getting much faster. Stronger, yes. More robust, yes.. but I don’t think I’ve improved my speed as much as I would have liked this season. I have plans to work on that next season, but it was too late to do anything about it for this season-climax race. I’m heading in with a 9:20min/mile MAF pace. However, as became clear, to do well in such a race takes a lot more than just a good aerobic engine.
The 81 km/9-lap contingent gathered at the start for the 8:55am race briefing – a gnarly classroom-sized bunch of committed ultra runners – or soon-to-be ultra runners – sporting real life ultra-running beards. The seconds tick down to 9:00 am on the dot, and we are GO! I shuffle forward into the unknown, and already the dew from the grass is soaking through my Merrell Trail Gloves and I can feel the damp on my feet. Of course, I try everything to keep my pace as slow as possible, walking the uphills and telling myself how delighted I would be if I was still maintaining this sort of pace at mile 49. No heroics allowed. Not yet. The first lap is just a reccie – get warmed up, size up the course, and get one lap on the scoreboard before you even start to think about anything else.
The big points of note on this course are the 500m 15% climb up the North Downs, the equally steep descent back down, and one more super-steep climb of about 100 meter and 20-25% gradient which I would personally dub the “hill of death”. The pre-race notes said that each lap had 196m (607 ft) of vertical. 9 laps of that is almost 5,500ft… which, in general parlance, is a shitload of hills.
As I came round to complete my first lap, I had a chance to eye up the refreshments tent that had been set up to accommodate all the runners. As expected, it was stocked with 9-bars by the bucketload (yay!), pretzels, wine gums and the usual sugar (bleh!), and, lo and behold, also CHORIZO – tonnes and tonnes of chorizo! Amazeballs! I would happily take a handful of this godsent nutritional superfood each time I passed through. Small wins on days like this are everything.
The various different distance races all had staggered start times, and as I went through to complete my first lap in 59 minutes plus change, and I could see the 54km runners being given their brief and about to be released on the hour. As I started my 2nd lap the faster 54km runners began to fly past me. Due to a bit of “mindlessly following the runner in front”, a few of us suffered the ignominy of wandering off-course in a loop race, but as soon as we realised we turned back and rejoined the proper route – just a few extra hundred meters added, and no real harm done.
They say “Nothing New On Race Day.” Everyone knows that it’s the numero uno rule of racing. Pft. What do they know? Today I was going to smash that rule. Today I was trying Tailwind Nutrition for the first time in anger. Tailwind is a sport drink mix of simple sugars and electrolytes which has taken the trail-running community by storm in the last 4 years, and now has a UK distributor. I ordered a large 50-serving packet which arrived on Tuesday before the race. Of course, I had at least performed a taste check, and decided to just go for it. Tailwind has been the headline sponsor of Trail Runner Nation, the quintessential Trail Running resource, almost since day 1, and as I basically trust The Nation with all things trail-running, I had no qualms at all about filling my 2ltr camelbak up with berry-flavoured Tailwind.
The plan, in accordance with my In-Race Fueling protocol, was to sip frequently on the Tailwind, and quaff down a 9-bar or something similar every lap to keep my calories coming in at a rate of about 250-300 kcal/hr.
Well, there was my nutrition plan in a nutshell. The cardinal rule of racing already broken, but I still have to think that it was a better one than that of the fellow competitor who I travelled down the train with who took the effort to explain to me his plan of 4 GUs per lap (so probably just as well he was only doing the 5-lap distance). I maybe could have blown his mind by telling him about about fat-adaption and real food fueling, but decided that today was probably not the best day for it.
The first three laps were ticked off at a metronomic rate of 1 lap/hr. Nothing too exciting to report – at this stage the finish line was still a distant speck on the horizon and the aim was solely on making steady progress while taking as little out of myself as possible. Nonetheless, even with barely 1/3rd of the race distance covered, the aches were setting in and I could slowly feel my exertion levels beginning to rise in sync with the hazy afternoon sun.
Being an early start, Nati had not travelled down for the start with me, but had now arrived as I began my 4th lap! I was delighted to see her and it gave me a mental lift that you need when you are feeling tired and not yet even at half-way! Just as well, because things were about to get a bit darker…
Somewhere on the undulations of lap 4 I had my first real wobble. I have enough experience in long races of various flavours to know that energy levels can fluctuate wildly from one moment to another, and this just happened to be the first low point for me. What caused it? I’m not really sure. Maybe I had not quite been staying on on top of my nutrition and hydration, so I scoffed on some more 9-bar and sucked down more Tailwind. I dropped my pace slightly but marched on.
By now the hills were becoming quite painful. The DOWNHILLS, that is. If you are not familiar with running trails then you might think that uphills represent the biggest problem, but in reality it is the long descents that will destroy your quadriceps and wreck your day. The long 600 meter descent off the “Hog’s Back” section was the worst point of the course in this respect – a complete quad-killer if ever there was one!
Despite the hills, the course was really very pleasant, and not very technical at all. The last rainfall was late on Tuesday, so the ground was pretty firm underfoot, and there were thankfully no real loose or slippery surfaces.
Completion of lap 4 was rewarded with a banana. It was a 70 minute lap, fully 10 minutes slower than what I had been doing up to this point, although realistically I knew that I was going to slow down at some point it was still disappointing to see such a large drop off in speed. I was still not feeling great, and so swapped the 9-bars for something a bit more high-sugar, and carried around a bag of “yoghurt-coated” raisins for the next lap.
Lap 5.. I’ve been in this low patch for an hour or more, but at last I feel that things are beginning to turn around. I begin to feel a little more together mentally and physically I’m sure there is some physiological changes going on in my body as I seem to have more energy to lightly jog the inclines that I walked the previous lap. My feet ache like hell – I have brought a different pair of running shoes with me in anticipation of this, but somehow keep forgetting to change into them each time I pass through the drop bag area. Argh! Lap 5 is reeled off a couple of minutes faster than the last lap – a reassuring sign. But there is still long, long, lonely way to go.
I say to Nati that “I don’t know how on earth I’m going to do FOUR more laps” as I jog through to begin lap 6. But almost immediately I realise the key to completion once again lies not on focusing on what lies ahead, but what is immediately at hand. I can’t worry about lap 9 just now, or lap 8, even even the next lap. I must keep my focus on the NOW, and on staying in the moment. I tell myself once again that:
“You signed up for this; no one made you do it.”
“You think you’re the only one in pain and discomfort right now? You are not special!”
By now I was officially into ultra territory. The GPS announces 50 km.. 55km… quite matter-of-factly. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but in my mind I recited my own journey from being a no-hope non-runner 2 years prior, to this point I was at on this particular day at this particular time. It was comforting and reassuring, and, dare I say, a little inspiring.
Slipping in and out of that dark place over the next couple of hours seems par for the course, as I caught and passed some other runners who were evidently going through similar hardships. We exchange brief words of encouragement with one another and continue to run our own races. I can’t help but notice that the people I’m overtaking are actually still running faster than me.. when they are actually running, but they are also walking an lot more than me – all the uphills and even some of the flats. By contrast, I’m constantly moving along an a steadier pace, and only walking up the steepest hills. Even while climbing the hills I often break into a little run-burst of a dozen paces every now and again. It all adds up to keep your moving forward.
Laps 6 and 7 are reeled off, and I don’t feel much worse if at all than what I did 2 or 3 hours ago. With only a couple of laps to go – that’s less than half a marathon! – I feel like this is going to happen!
Although my quads are completely trashed – or perhaps because my quads are completely trashed – at this stage, my gait feels strangely smoother. My theory is that the brain has altered my running stride to become less reliant on the quads and more on the hamstrings. Like the Tarahumara. It’s just a theory, but a plausible one. Hell, many things seems plausible when you’ve been running solid for 7 hrs+.
I am still focussing on staying in the moment, counting every ten strides only before starting over again. All I am concentrating on is the ground immediately in front of me, not the ground behind me or that which is around the next corner.
Nonetheless, the penultimate lap seemed to bring fresh impetus to my stride, now increasingly confident of going the distance and knowing that the next time around would be my last. I begin to increase my pace; if I had anything left in the tank then this was the time to deploy it.
Although not really racing anyone, I still always want to give it my best effort and leave it all out there. Despite sensibly having no real pre-race expectations, as the race progressed I’ve been doing the mental arithmetic and could see that a sub-10hr finish was very doable. I remind myself that this was everything I had been training for all year – there are 47 weeks of training and racing behind my this season, but in under 2 hours then it would all be finished… so push on now, and push hard!
The nutrition plan had worked wonderfully. I couldn’t have been happier with the Tailwind, and that everything I stuffed down my foodpipe stayed down. I’m not a fussy eater in general, and that goes double on race-day. As the day gradually progressed, I had been drinking and eating a bit of everything from the refreshment table that took my fancy – lemon squash, orange squash, cola, mini sausages – it’s all good. Together with good fat-adaption, the ability to eat from a wide selection of foods and avoid any GI issues are massive advantages for any ultra athlete.
At the start of my final lap I quickly return to my drop bag to put on my head torch, which I realise is woefully inadequate for the task at hand, providing about a candle’s worth of light. At the moment we are still just about clinging onto daylight, but I know that the darkness will fall fast when it comes. I reckon I’ll just about make it round before it gets really dark, so I head off on for one final lap – this is it! Off we go.. I quickly realise that I still haven’t managed a change of shoes.
Part of me wanted to just enjoy the trip around in the fading light. Up until now I have spent all day becoming intimate with the trail, and now as I pass through it one last time, it seems to whisper hauntingly to me. There’s fewer than 30 runners still out there, I’m guessing, and I feel like have come to know every twist and every rock on this course – where to push, and where to hold back. But slowing down to soak it in the atmosphere of the trail was not on the agenda, it really was getting dark by now and it was a race to finish while there was still a hint of daylight. Halfway around the lap my camelbak ran dry, but I did not care at this point – I was going to finish strongly, and this was not going to prevent it from happening!
Finally, at 7:45pm, 9hrs and 45 minutes after I had started, I rounded the last bend. I took the time to thank all the volunteers at the refreshment table, and fist pumped over the finish line.
What a feeling!
I was beaten up and tired, no doubt, but I felt amazing! The adrenalin was flowing, and if I had to do another lap, or another 5 laps, I am 100% certain that I would have done so. The body is amazing, but what I had learnt in the last 10 hrs was that the real limiters we place on ourselves are all in our mind. By definition we can’t all be the fastest or the strongest, but we can all go much further than we ever dream possible.
In keeping with the ultra way, everything was very low key. A complimentary coffee & slice of cake, and it was a job done – that was ample reward in itself. Tasting like a human pretzel, I was bundled into a cab back to the station, went home, and went to bed.
So what did I learn from this experience?
I have no great insights into ultra-running that many great ultra runners or philosophers have not already expressed far more eloquently than I ever could. The body is amazing, but the mind is even more so.
I have said that I am not a natural runner – I’m far too bulky, flat footed and bow legged to be anything other than middle-of-the-pack at best. Yet I run because in today’s modern world there’s something hugely satisfying about travelling great distances on foot just for the sake of doing so.
There’s no secret to running a long way – you have to just enjoy the struggle, persevere through the hills and obstacles in your way, and recognise that the satisfaction is always in the journey and rarely in the final destination.
51 miles, ~5,500 ft vertical
9h45:40 total time
9-bars x 6
Banana x 2
Yoghurt-coated raisins – 100g
Chorizo – 200g
Tailwind x 10 scoops
Beet It shots x2