Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Why?

A little note before I hit "publish" on this; I actually started writing this post over three months ago, just as I was getting properly back into my training, but I couldn't quite finish it for some reason.
However, now that I'm hobbling around a little after another long event, it seems an appropriate time to ask that same question again:


"Why?"
It's a word that any recreational runner hears on a fairly regular basis from those around them who don't run.
As an ultra-marathon runner, you get used to hearing it even more regularly. It's normally followed by a number of other words - sometimes including expletives - to form full questions about running. But the general theme to all of the questions - and sometimes the entirety of the question itself - is just "why?!"

For a long time I had no real answer, but recently I've felt the need to ask myself the same question.

I first started running because my girlfriend suggested I take part in the Great North Run half marathon. If I'm totally honest, I probably did it because she had already run it and, although she's always been considerably more sporty and fit than me, I really didn't like the idea of her having done something that I'd never even get close to.
So I guess I started running so that I could prove something to her and to others - which I then did.
I gave up on running for about a year after that race (which it turned out was every bit as hard as I'd expected and had led to me being unable to get anywhere near matching my girlfriend's finishing time!)

However, during that year off, a seed of future reasons for running was planted. I was back at university, where gradually, all of my friends heard about me having run a half marathon. All of them seemed to be impressed that I'd done it, and a lot started to ask that question; "why?"

It turned out that their incredulous question became a motivation in and of itself; I craved that look of surprise on people's faces when they heard that I'd run further than they'd ever considered.

The problem was that I went to Loughborough University - the premier sports university in the UK - so the number of people who were impressed that I could run 13.1 miles ran out rather quickly!

After graduation and moving in with my girlfriend, I got back into running again. "Why?" I hear you ask. This time there were some slightly more tangible (and maybe more laudable) reasons; I needed to get fit again, my girlfriend wanted to train up to do a marathon, and with both of us working hard at full-time (and often more) jobs, training runs provided a nice opportunity to spend time together.

This training led to a new reason; because I also wanted to run a marathon. Just one, you understand, I still definitely wasn't a runner - and didn't want to ever be one - but I wanted to prove to myself that I could run The Distance. That's not entirely honest of me, because I also wanted to prove to others that I could run a marathon, and I was beginning to really miss that incredulous look on people's faces as they asked "why?!"

I should explain why I think I desire this response so much - I think it boils down to the fact that I have a strong desire to have my ego stroked!

You see, I am an engineering and design consultant, and I'm quite good at it. I'll never win any major awards or be managing director of a major engineering company, but I'm pretty good.
I am also a hockey player. I'm not at all good at that, but I'm a pretty good club captain. Again, I'll never win any trophies or be a league top scorer, but I'm pretty good.

I love my job and my hockey, but when I tell people people what I do for a living, or that I'm club captain of a hockey club, they are neither surprised, nor overly impressed.
There are other facets of my life of course, but those are nearly all shared with the woman who is no longer my girlfriend, but now my wonderful wife. I love that we share those things, but I certainly can't take credit for them.

But with running, I had stumbled across something that elicited that shocked - and sometimes even impressed - look on people's faces when they found out. And even better, I didn't have to win anything in order to get that reaction; I just had to run further than people thought I was capable of.

And so, in getting this reaction from people, my addiction to running grew. But unfortunately it only continued to grow if I was undertaking challenges that I felt would elicit that shocked reaction, and that's a bit of a viscious cycle!

It started with that marathon, then migrated to assault course races and adventure races. 

Royal Marines Commando Challenge 2008

Helly Hansen Challenge 2008

Then in 2009, while preparing for our upcoming wedding, I mentioned to my wife the idea of running a bit further. "Maybe I could run the length of Hadrian's Wall? I've always wanted to walk it, but the cost of accommodation seems pretty high, so if I could do it in less days, I could limit the cost." There was at least a little method in my madness!

Unlike most fianc├ęs who are busily preparing for their wedding, mine actually thought it was a good idea to train for the toughest event of my life, and even better, said she'd run it with me. 

Hadrian's Wall Challenge 2010

The run was every bit as hard as I'd expected - maybe even harder, given that I was injured and prevented from most of the training. But as I ran the Great North Run on the fourth day since starting the Hadrian's Wall route (aiming to make it a nice round 100 miles in 4 days), people all around me commented on the distance I'd run. Looking at my t-shirt (showing the distances covered each day and the charities I'd supported) I started to hear that question again; "why?!" And unlike previously, this time even fellow runners were asking it. My body was broken before I even started those 13.1 miles from Newcastle to South Shields, but the uplift provided by those comments carried me to the finish line with the biggest smile I'd ever worn during a run.

I dined out on that feeling for quite some time, enjoying the fact that people were always surprised that I'd run from one coast of the UK to the other. 

However, as is probably inevitable, as time drew on and the run receded into history, that feeling started to fade, and I knew I needed a new challenge to feed my desire for recognition.

And so my 2012 challenge was born. I would complete a marathon and two ultra-marathons in three months. Even telling people what I was planning got the reaction I so craved, driving me out on those long, cold training runs throughout the winter and early spring.

The Greater Manchester Marathon in 2012 was a race that is widely recognised as one of the worst road marathons in UK history. Mention that day to anyone who was running that race and you will see the haunted look in their eyes as their memories take them back to the freezing cold wind, continuous torrential rain, flooded, muddy track sections (where runners were forced to shimmy along a fence in an attempt to save their shoes!), muddy finish area and lost finish-line bags. The experience for my wife and I (yes, she had stupidly suggested this run in the first place, so she had to join me!) was not much better. The absolute agony on my face as we crossed the finish line together made what will hopefully always be my least favourite race photo.

The finish line of Greater Manchester Marathon 2012

During the recovery from the race, I found myself frequently asking myself the question that I had previously so craved hearing from others; "why?" Why was I doing this? I had hated about half of the marathon, and was now due to run even further during both of the next months.

Strangely, the answer I found inside myself was still linked to the question; I couldn't handle the thought that all of those times I'd been asked "why?" and had replied with something about proving myself, because I could, or some other untrue answer, may have actually all been in vain, and that I would have to tell people that I had given up.

That fear drove me through the hilly Sanstone Trail 50K race in May, in spite of not really enjoying much of it at all.

Sandstone Trail 50K 2012

It also got me to the start line of the 45-Mile race I had entered for June. It also drove me through the first 30 miles or so of that race, up and down the steep hills of the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. But at about 35 miles I started to flag again, and decided to sit on a rock half-way up yet another steep climb, to consider why I was even doing this silly running thing.

As I sat there in the sunshine, panting for breath as I looked out over the azure seas, another runner stopped to sit alongside me and we got chatting. That runner was Daley, an American working in the UK who was also attempting the longest race of his life to date, and who was also suffering a little. We decided to stick together for the rest of the run, finding that chatting about our lives, friends, work, experiences of world travel and, of course, running made the last ten miles fly past.

Suddenly, I realised that I had another reason for running; one I'd never really spotted in previous events - the people. It turns out that ultra-marathon runners are amongst the most open and friendly people in the world.
 
This is something that I feel road runners and middle-distance runners miss out on (along with having an event that's basically a slow-moving picnic, in terms of what you eat and drink!) On the roads, we get absorbed in our own races, thinking about minutes-per-mile, distance to the finish, personal bests etc. That's fine if you're aiming for a specific race time, but it can sometimes ruin the fun of being out and about at a weekend with a load of like-minded people.
With ultra running on the other hand, half the point (unless you're a true challenger) is to meet new people, chat with them and keep each other going. It's the opposite of competitive, and I realised I now loved that even more than people's incredulity at what runs I'd completed.

Finishing Classic Quarter 2012 with Daley

After my events in 2012 I took a short leave of absence from long runs, while Clare and I took on the endurance event of our lives, by raising a baby through to toddler-hood. I ran a couple of shorter ultras and a half-marathon, but never really pushed myself as I had before.

But when, at the end of 2014, I decided I needed a challenge again, it seemed to make perfect sense to go back to the one which had shown me how much fun ultra running can really be - the Classic Quarter in Cornwall.

So the date was set, the holiday house was booked, and I couldn't wait for June to arrive. Any of you who've read my earlier posts on my fate on that particular day will know it wasn't my finest hour of running, and once again it caused me to question "why?"

I think my answer had changed yet again; this had always been about other people, and how they reacted to me, but now it was about me again. It turned out that I was comfortable telling people that I'd failed to finish, and that their opinion of me didn't decline. So now, my motivation is to beat that demon that is purely inside me; my failure last year.

To do that, I've taken on lots of new pieces of learning, changed my training entirely and entered "warm-up" events like the one I completed last weekend. My body will be fit enough, so now it's just about my brain.

But now I have the right answers for that point where my body is screaming at me, telling me to just drop out and head back to the sofa, and my head asks the question "why?"

  • Because I love finishing
  • Because I hate not finishing
  • Because all the people running are brilliant, and I like being with them
  • Because I want to be able to tell the war stories afterwards
  • Because 99% of the country wouldn't even have made it to the start line, let alone the finish
  • Because I'll love that hug from my wife and daughter at whatever point it comes, but when it's at the finish, it'll feel all the sweeter (and sweatier!)

 
My Two-Year Old Looking Fairly Unimpressed at my DNF in 2015

Monday, 21 March 2016

Race Review - Jurassic Coast Challenge

Well, that was tough!

I'm writing this on Monday evening, having finished my three days of pergatory along Dorset's beautifully brutal (or is it brutally beautiful?) coast line yesterday.

This weekend, I was taking part in the VoTwo Events Jurassic Coast Challenge; three marathons (we'll come back to that!) along the Jurassic Coast path around Dorset's coastline in three days.

First things first; this is a brilliant event. Very well organised, by excellent people, with well-manned and supported checkpoints and even friendlier fellow runners.

But now onto some of the details, this is a review after all!

Day 1:
The registration and briefing process was carried out at Portland's Sailing Academy, a legacy of the 2012 Olympics which is an ideal location. This process was both efficient and informative, with the race organisers giving good route details and the usual friendly banter that you expect from events like this.

Below is a link to my video blog that I made during day one, but in summary:
I loved the first half (up to about 13 miles), but found the second half (well, the 15 miles that remained of the 'marathon'!) a bit of a slog. 
 
One of the early climbs

With Charles, who I also ran with on Day 3
 
That was partly because I went through a personal low-patch, but also because there was nowhere near the beauty that I felt the coastline promised. Add to that the brutal distance along a shingle beach, and it was pretty sapping.
The finish line was brilliantly rewarding though, with the cup of delicious soup and bread being very welcome!

The day totalled just under 28 miles, with around 3,200 feet of climb, and I finished it in a total time of 5 hours and 37 minutes.

Anyway, here is the link to my video blog covering the day:

 

Day 2:

The second day of punishment dawned with the inevitable struggle to haul my stiff body out of my B&B bed for a quick breakfast of porridge and toast, before heading for another registration and short briefing session at the sailing academy.

Starting the run from near the academy meant there was no need to spend a lot of time in a minibus before getting going.
I had thought that would be a problem, as I wanted more time to recover, but actually it seemed to work quite well for me, and I really enjoyed the first half of the day, which was all around Portland.
Portland is a pretty bleak looking spot on a cold, grey afternoon like when I saw it at the end of day one. However, on the morning of day two, it was transformed to me, and I loved moving up and around its barren cliff tops, my legs protesting all the way!

The second checkpoint of the day was back in the Sailing Academy, on the way back across to Weymouth, and I left feeling quite good about how well the first half had gone.

Strangely, it wasn't the hills that came closest to breaking me on day two; it was actually the flat section through Weymouth and along the promenade. There's something about running along a flat section of straight Tarmac, where nothing seems to be getting any closer and is into a headwind, that seems to be an anathema to someone like me who likes trail running!

Fortunately, I fell into step with Emma, who seemed to be enjoying the promenade almost as little as I was at that point. She was clearly mentally stronger than me though, and I latched on to her pace, selfishly using her strength to keep me going.

Finally getting off the flat stuff!

Fortunately, within a few miles of us starting to run together, the hills started again, and I was back into my stride again. Now it became much more of a team effort between me and Emma, with me being strongest of the up and downhills, but her keeping me marching along the flat sections.

The beauty of the hills and cliffs

As a team, this worked brilliantly, and suddenly we found ourselves in some of the most beautiful terrain in the country. The last few miles were some of my favourite of the whole event, with an absolute sprint down the steps to the finish line.

Finally Starting to Enjoy Myself Again
 

Obligatory Durdle Door Selfie
 
A Slightly More Professional Effort!

In total, day two came in at 27.3 miles, with just under 3,800 feet of climb, and I finished in 6 hours 10 minutes, so I was pleased with that.

Again, I did a video blog of day two, which is available here:


 
Day 3:

Well, getting started was always going to be a problem on day three, but I was actually looking forward to getting back into the hills again, hoping for scenery like day two again.

After the 40-minute minibus ride up to the start line, it was straight into the climbing, with everyone quickly remembering the thigh pain of a truly steep hill, within the first half mile of the day!

It didn't let up from there either, with the steep ups and downs continuing for most of the morning. I ran with Chares for a couple of hours, enjoying his company and the pair of us feeding off each other's energy to keep a good pace up for the first 16 miles or so.

Me and Charles about to descend yet more steps!

Eventually though, I started to flag and encouraged Charles to go on, while I had a couple of minutes sitting and snacking while I admired the views. He eventually relented and cracked on, and I was in my own world of pain again for a few miles.

Eventually I worked through my low spot of the day and, having sat in the last checkpoint for ten minutes, I was ready for the final 10-12Km (again, marathon distances are always slightly vague when you're off-road!)

The last part of day three was tough, with tricky beaches, vaulting over groynes and one last hilly headland; but by then I knew I was done and would make it.

Struggling Along the Final Beach
 

Day three ended up being 28.5 miles with a brutal 4,300 feet of climb. Having finished it in 6 hours 29 minutes, I was ecstatic - as you can see in my video blog below:

This was a great event, with great people, both organising and out running. Officially it was three ultramarathons in three days, with each including climbing higher than a mountain!

Will I be back? I'm not sure. It was hard doing all of those days without having my family along with me. I feel I made some real friends over the weekend, but there's nothing quite like finishing a run with a hug from your family to make it all feel better.

Definitely worth the effort!


Monday, 29 June 2015

Failure, Frustration and Finding a Way Back

As anyone who has been following this blog, knows me, or just watched my vlog in my earlier post will know, three weeks ago I failed to complete the Endurancelife Classic Quarter ultramarathon, dropping out after 23 miles.

Since that point in time when I decided that it would be more sensible to stop than to continue, I have been continually analysing my decision, and having to justify it, not only to myself, but also to anybody who I have told about it when they've asked how I got on.

The bottom line is that it was a failure, and I've come to terms with that, I think.

However, I'm not used to failing at things, and I don't take it very well. That's a funny thing to find myself writing, given that I took 4 attempts to pass my driving test, and had to do resits in my first year at university until I found the right course for me. But when I have really, really set my mind to something, I have previously always succeeded, and to not do so this time has hit me pretty hard.


Fortunately though, over the past three weeks, I've come to terms with the failure of my run, by analysing the reasons behind it and planning a way of ensuring it doesn't happen again:


  1. I had to stop because my ankle was getting worse, not better
    I turned my ankle quite badly on a fast, technical descent near Keswick around 4 weeks before the run, and had thought it would be all better by the day. Unfortunately it wasn't, and actually was beginning to get worse, the longer I spent running on it.
    Now that I've had a few more weeks, that ankle feels fine when I run, which is really positive (unfortunately I also badly turned the other one the day after pulling out of the Classic Quarter, so am still letting that slowly recover now).
    Lesson Learned:
    Let the healing process occur, and don't expect things to suddenly get better.
    Next Steps:
    Spend time doing ankle strengthening exercises. Ankles take a huge amount of punishment on long runs, particularly trail runs, and so need to be stronger. I now have vowed to make mine better over the next few weeks while I'm unable to do some other forms of exercise (the reason for which is coming later in this post!)
  2. I had to stop because I was getting cramp on the steep uphill sections It's inevitable that you have to walk the steep uphill sections of a trail run. It's also almost inevitable that on a run which is as steep and technical as the Classic Quarter, you will get twinges of cramp at times. However, to be getting them after only 20 miles was a bit of a shocker for me, particularly as I'd been taking salt capsules and had drunk some electrolyte drink.
    However, I hadn't trained a lot on hills and I'd been unable to get enough food in (covered later in my lessons learned), so maybe my muscles were simply lacking the strength and energy for this kind of punishment.

    Lesson Learned:

    Train your legs for the kind of running you'll be doing.

    Next Steps:

    As part of my training for my running of the course next June, I have already booked in a 3-marathons-in-3-days challenge on similar terrain in Dorset. The idea of this is to get my legs a bit more used to the terrain and to help build my leg strength.
    I will also need to do more hill repeat sessions and more cross-training concentrating on leg strength.
  3. I had to stop because I hadn't got enough fuel in As I said in my vlog, I've never had a real issue with eating before, but I really struggled on the run. This may have been partly because of the heat, but given that it wasn't hot when the race started, I think it's more likely that it was due to the time of day. I heard a lot of other people saying similar things about struggling to get food down, so maybe it was something else, but training my body to eat earlier and on rougher terrain is something I can try and action.
    Lesson Learned:

    Eating early, little and often sounds very easy, but you need to train in doing it on similar terrain and at similar times of day to your race conditions to really understand what you want to eat and when.

    Next Steps:

    Use the training run in Dorset to practise eating while on similar terrain and train some very early runs as part of the overall training to get my body used to this.
  4. I stopped because I was feeling rough Notice that I didn't state that I "had to stop"; but I know this contributed to my desire to stop. At the time I thought that my feeling rough was primarily due to a lack of food and the heat of the sun. Since then however, I've started to think a bit more about this and it seems there was one element I hadn't taken into account; I always hate that distance on a run! Whether it's a long training run, either of the two road-marathons I've completed or any of the other ultras I've done, I always hate the section between about 18 and 25 miles. The weird thing is that I've never noticed this consistency before!
    Lesson Learned:

    I will probably always hate those miles in a race, and I'll be in a much stronger position to cope with that feeling and continue my race, if I simply acknowledge that, and try to remember that it does get better afterwards.
    Next Steps:
    I will do more of the "long" training runs (anything over 20 miles or so) as part of my training for next year's race, so that I can get used to this feeling and to build a catalogue of the good feelings from when I battle through it. I will also try to limit the various contributing factors to this feeling (I have already purchased a hat with neck protection in case of hot weather again, and have got a plan for dealing with my nutrition better).
  5. I stopped because I could The point at which I dropped out of the race was directly alongside our holiday house - it was literally a 20-yard walk to my bedroom. I had always known that this would be tough to push through, but knew that I could do so. However, with all of the other niggles mentioned above, the draw of a seat in the living room (or on my bed, as you can see in my vlog) was simply too much for me. This will happen again, assuming we're able to get the same holiday house, so I need to find a way of dealing with it.
    Lesson Learned:
    Having looked forward to sitting down for the past 5 miles, I found it very difficult to justify not stopping and heading for the house. If I am able to have a comfy-ish seat (camping chair) in the checkpoint itself that I can use to have a break and get some food, I hope this will remove some of this temptation.

    Next Steps:
    Make sure that next year we have a plan for me to sit down for a while in this checkpoint, in relative comfort, and then move on feeling stronger.

Ok, so now that I've learned all those lessons, I figured that this weekend was a good time to start applying them. I decided to work on my overall fitness and leg strength by running through an "Insanity" workout programme for the next 60 days. Not only would this improve my leg strength for hills, it would also improve my body's ability to handle short bursts of anaerobic work, while also getting me used to feeling rough and then getting over it.



I duly completed my first fitness test last night and then got up early this morning to complete my first "proper" workout. All was going well (although anaerobic work is hard after all my slow trundling runs) until about 20 minutes in, when I managed to recur a frequent previous injury by dislocating my shoulder while carrying out some enthusiastic Jumping Jacks.
I managed to get my arm back in its socket by myself (saving me a trip to A&E), but needless to say, this has rather put paid to that particular plan of getting myself into good shape... another failure to add to what feels like an ever-growing list, and not the best way to end a disappointing month fitness-wise!


Now I have to spend the next week or so resting my shoulder while the damage within it gradually starts to heal, before I can start some kind of fitness regime again (albeit one which doesn't involve any upper-body work, while I also work on stabilising, strengthening and rebuilding my ruined shoulder).


I guess it's just another bump in the road, but I'm determined to get back to my fittest ASAP so that I can truly enjoy being successful again soon.

Monday, 15 June 2015

EnduranceLife Classic Quarter Video Blog

Here is my video blog of my ill-fated attempt to repeat my success from 2012 in this year's Classic Quarter:

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Running Form - from Injury Woes to Injury Goes

Ok, first things first; you'll notice I didn't title this "Injury Gone", but "Injury Goes". Admittedly this is partly because it rhymes, but primarily it's because I don't think that many runners ever totally get rid of their injuries - particularly not those caused by running form - but instead, they learn to manage them so that they don't ruin their running. I also don't want to tempt fate, as I'm very glad to say that at the moment, I'm one of those lucky runners whose injuries are under control, so I thought I'd share a bit about how I've managed that.

Ok, now that's out of the way, I think it's best that I talk about what I think is the key to running injury management - running form.

Everyone has their own running form, pretty much unique to them. If you look at Paula Radcliffe at her peak, her running form was entirely different to that of Kenenise Bekele, or even of Mo Farah, let alone how different it was from the average Joe Public runner (and still is based on her performance at this year's London Marathon). There are hundreds of articles, blogs, forums and even entire books about running form, and I'm no expert, but I thought it would be good to share what I have learned about it from my own personal experience, and how understanding it has helped me to manage my injuries.

When I first started running back in 2005 I did what most new runners do and went out and bought myself a pair of cheap Asics running shoes from Sports Direct or somewhere similar. I mean, how hard can it be? We've all been running since we were children and we never needed special shoes then! I ran my first half marathon in them without any major incident (other than a horrific lack of fitness and race preparedness!) and then went back to university for my final year, which was spent primarily drinking and only doing a very short run on a very infrequent basis.

On graduation in 2006, I moved in with my super-fit and running-obsessed girlfriend (now my super-fit and running-obsessed wife!) and it became clear that I was going to be doing more running in the future, so I thought it would be sensible to get someone to look at my running style to see what type of shoes I should wear. We went to a running shop down near my sister's place in Brighton and the owner watched me run up and down the street in front of the shop in various different shoes while asking me how they felt and talking to me about what should work for me. To this day, this is the best gait analysis I have ever had (and I've had a hell of a lot, using some ridiculously high-tech equipment) as he fully understood my stride pattern, how the different shoes would affect it and me, and what should work for me in the long run. He pointed out that, probably due to my very low arches, I was an over-pronator (entirely new language to me at the time) which meant that my foot was landing pointing slightly outwards, on the outside of the foot and then rolling towards the inside of the foot as it went under my body and I pushed off. The chosen shoe to help stop this causing me too many issues was the Brooks Adrenaline GTS - a shoe that I still have one pair of sat in my wardrobe.

A few examples of my over-pronation and over-striding from events between about 2006 and 2012

For the next two years or so, I had pairs of Brooks Adrenalines as I worked my way up from half-marathons to off-road adventure challenges, Tough Guy challenges, Hellrunner races, and up to the London Marathon in 2008. I remained fairly injury-free and thoroughly enjoyed my running (barring the last couple of miles of the marathon, during which I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but in London!) However, in September 2008, my wife and I both decided to try some new shoes which had just come out on the market; the Nike Lunarglide. The shoe was billed as having an "adaptive midsole" which adapted to your feet and your stride in order to provide the support where you needed it.

Now, I should point out now that my wife has a pretty-much perfect foot-strike, with high arches, a nice mid foot strike and a neutral running gait. Not that I'm jealous or anything you understand... Except that I clearly am, and especially that this meant that the gorgeous-feeling Lunarglides were absolutely great for her.

My running form on the other hand, was at least one step beyond what the Lunarglide was designed to cope with, and I found that out the painful way. Within the first couple of months of running in them, I got my first 'proper' running injury, the classic nemesis of over-promotors; runner's knee.

A quick trip to the physio soon identified my issue as being related to my running form and that my new shoes didn't provide the support I needed. A month or two of additional physio exercises combined with a pair of off-the-shelf orthotic insoles seemed to do the trick though, and I was soon out blasting the miles out in my Brooks Adrenalines again.

This approach kept me going for a year or so of running back up to about half-marathon distance, but at the end of 2009, things started to go badly wrong. It started with tightness in my glutes and quickly spread to pain in what felt like my lower back. I went to the physio and was told that I had issues with my sacroiliac joint (the little joint joining your sacrum at the base of your spine to the ilium - the main bones of your pelvis). Basically, due to a muscular imbalance caused partially by my running style, the joint wasn't moving very freely and this was leading to a lot of pain.

When I say "a lot of pain", over the following 18 months it progressed from being an annoyance when I ran through to something that woke me up at night - I was literally dreading going to bed at one point because I knew what was coming. In spite of a lot of physio, lots of trigger-point dry-needling, some custom-made orthotics and the world's supply of stretching, the pain continued in one form or another, no matter what I did, through my "three ultra-marathons in three days" challenge along Hadrian's wall in 2010 and on to the Manchester Marathon, Sandstone Trail 50K and Classic Quarter 45-miler in 2012.

It was after finishing this that I decided that enough was enough, and that I would take matters into my own hands. Back in 2009 I had read Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run" - what runner hasn't read it?! - and had become interested in the concept that we weren't evolved to run in the way that chunky, foam-soled shoes allow us to. So, like any enthusiastic amateur, I decided to invest in some Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoes (review to follow) and give the whole barefoot running thing a try.

Needless to say, it was brutal and was a hell of a re-introduction to running; effectively having to re-learn how to run in a totally different way. With barefoot shoes on (or even totally barefoot as I tried once for about half a mile, generating 5 blisters!) you simply can't land on your heels with each step, because there's no padding there and it hurts! Instead, you learn to land on the ball of your foot, using the extension of your calf muscle and the muscles in your feet to absorb the impact. This, in turn, shortens your stride, as you need your foot to land nearer to underneath your body in order to foot-strike in this way, which lessens the amount of pronation your foot can carry out before it lands. That's the good side - the bad side is that you suddenly realise how little you used to use your calves with your old running style, and find that your calf muscles are burning and close to cramp within about a mile! Well that's what I found at first anyway.
However, it is worth persevering with this new style of running, because over time I found that my calves got stronger (or at least more used to the pain!) and I could go further, without having my normal sacroiliac joint problems.

Unfortunately though, I also realised that this wasn't going to get me back up to the sorts of I distances that I wanted to cover to run ultra marathons - my feet simply wouldn't have coped with that without some padding of some description, so I had to gradually migrate to wearing shoes, without losing all of my new hard-won change of running style.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy, as I bought some 'minimalist' running trainers and then gradually tried different pairs of shoes until I found ones that I could maintain my running style while also having some decent padding under the balls of my feet. This took some doing, and involved buying a few different pairs of shoes, but I figured that it was still costing less than physio every week would have done - plus, who doesn't like buying new shoes??

So now I run with my new style, but in fairly 'normal' trainers and - touch wood - all of my old over-use injuries are under control. This in spite of having trained for and run a 50K trail race and now being at the end of my training for a 45-mile run in a few weeks' time. Don't get me wrong, my new running form isn't perfect, and when I get very tired or am going down steep hills, I know that it gets worse, but it keeps a crippling injury at bay while allowing me to do what I love doing, and that's what matters.

A few shots of my "new" running form from the St Oswald's Way 50K Ultra Marathon in September 2014

So below are my compressed pieces of advice for trying to overcome injuries associated with running form:

1. Analyse your own running form.
I had lots of analysis of my running gait by all sorts of different experts, but what really showed me what I needed to change was looking at photos of me running, and looking at the soles of my shoes. These give really good clues as to how your feet are landing with each step. What you're aiming for is a forefoot to mid-foot strike, and this is where the majority of the wear will be, so the wear on the soles of your trainers is a really good clue as to how you're running.

A trainer from my "old" running form (left) and my "new" running form (right) - note the difference in wear to the outside of the heel.

2. If you're over-striding and heel-striking, try running barefoot.
A change to barefoot running will very quickly show your body how different it feels to forefoot/mid-foot strike. Don't expect it to be the final solution though, because it's not easy even for short distances, but it's a great training tool. Once you're back in normal trainers again, remember that feeling and keep your stride short to keep the best bits of both running worlds.

3. Take it slow.
You're trying to recover from an injury, so while changing your running style might help to fix yourself in the long run, don't think that it'll happen overnight, so take your time and enjoy being able to run again, no matter how long or short each run is.

4. Vary your running surfaces.
I firmly believe that changing my runs from being primarily on Tarmac to including various different surfaces including trails and hills has made a big difference to my running injuries. The variety of surfaces helps to force you to change your running style even throughout a run, helping to prevent repetition injuries.

5. Vary your shoes.
As a result of my trying of lots of different running trainers, I still have lots of trainers that I can wear at different times. I try to make sure that I wear different shoes for different surfaces, or for different runs within a week, so that my feet don't get complacent and I help to reduce my own overuse injuries.

I like a bit of variety!

6. Enjoy yourself.
That's why we all run after all isn't it? So try and find a way of running that both you and your body can enjoy, then go out and do it!


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

First post - and first race review

Welcome to my new blog - this is something I've considered doing for a long time, but have never got round to starting. So now that I've got a toddler, a house that needs lots of work, an ultra-marathon to train for and a hectic job, I figured it was the best time to find yet another distraction!

This first post is a bit of a post-race review of my most recent event - the Hardmoors Wainstones Half Marathon, which took place in North Yorkshire on Sunday April 12th. Apologies that this first post is a bit long; promise later ones will be more brief!
Now, any of you who happened to be in North Yorkshire on that Sunday will no doubt now be thinking "but it was bloody horrible, what were people out doing a half marathon for?!" Well, I can tell you that not only would it have been brutal conditions for completing a road half marathon on Sunday, but it was most definitely brutal up on the tops where we were completing one which included bigger hills than most hikers fancy covering in a full day - and don't get me started on the guys who were running a full marathon in the same conditions!

It's probably best that I start at the beginning; which for this race was back in about December when I entered the race as I knew it would fall at a decent point in my current training plan for the Classic Quarter Ultra Marathon in June. I figured it would be a good opportunity to run a decent distance in an event along with getting some much-needed hills in my legs. "Plus it'll be nice to see a bit of the scenery" I said to my wife... Oh how wrong I was on that front!

My training has been going pretty well, considering all of my other commitments at the moment, having done a 10-miler, 15-miler combo weekend the weekend before, so I was fairly confident I had the distance in my legs - I was just a little concerned about all the hills.

Now I'm not going to lie and say I did lots of prep for this race; I printed the maps out the night before and had a look at them briefly with my Dad (who I'd just spent the day tiling our kitchen with - more good race prep, going up and down stairs to our garage to cut all the tiles!), and then threw them in a plastic bag in case I needed them for navigation during the race (although I was also relying on my mapping app on my phone if I got really stuck).

On the morning of the race I bombed the 120 miles across to Chop Gate - a tiny village in North Yorkshire - and parked up in the field next to the village hall where registration took place. "Nice field" I thought as I got out of my car "but it's on a bit of a slope, I wonder what my car's like on slippery hills." Thinking no more about it, I got registered, had my kit checked (mandatory route map, waterproof, hat and gloves) and then hung around while we waited for the briefing and the off.

The briefing consisted primarily of Jon telling us all not to die anywhere we'd be in the way of other people and to try not to use the toilets part-way round, as these belonged to someone else. This was my first Hardmoors event, so I'm not used to Jon's briefing approach, but it all made sense to me, so was happy to be ready to set off... Until we saw that it had begun to rain in the meantime. "Ah well, that's why I've got my waterproof, a bit of rain never hurt anyone anyway" I thought as we all stood on the start line for the countdown; how wrong I was.

Once we started it was pretty clear that this really was going to be a bit of an endurance race (something you don't normally hear about half marathons!) as we immediately started to very slowly climb the single-track route up the steep hill towards Osmotherly Stones. I was happy though; I'd known it started uphill, and figured once we were at the top, we'd roughly follow a ridge-line around the rest of the route, so we were getting all the climbing out of the way early - naive, or just wishful thinking?!

As we made it to the top of the hill I fell in step alongside a lad running in Vibram FiveFingers. As someone who's got a couple of pairs of these myself and having trained in them a fair amount, it seemed a good starting point for a chat (I should point out now that I'm an ultra-runner who talks as a distraction from the pain; just ask my wife who I annoyed over the walkie-talkie for most of the last day of our Hadrian's Wall Challenge run a few years ago when I was running alone!) 

We struck up a conversation and the next couple of miles flew by as he told me about how he broke his ankle, fibula and tibia when he was in the Paras and now that he's out on civvy street he keeps his running going to keep fit. I was amazed that his recovery was that strong from such a horrific injury that he could skip almost barefoot across the slippery trail in the rain alongside me.

Unfortunately I was soon watching that skipping style from behind, as it was clear that in spite of his comment that he didn't want to go out too hard like he had on his previous Hardmoors outing, he was clearly going out harder than I was. This was fine though, I know that all races are made up of short sections, and if one of them passes in good company, it just all helps towards the finish.

And anyway, I had another distraction to concentrate on now; the weather. It had already taken a turn for the worse, with the wind having picked up dramatically and the rain now lashing across the path. It was also at about this point that I realised that maybe my OMM Kamleika jacket would've been a better call than my New Balance Shadow jacket - which I later found out is only rated as water-resistant and wind proof. But to be honest, it didn't bother me that much, I was moving enough to keep warm and my legs felt good. I took on board the first of my salt capsules which I was trying to see if they might hold off the dreaded cramps, had a few sips of water, an energy chew and dug in against the conditions.

Brutal wind, rain and hail on the up-hills and ridges

Over the next couple of miles, I found myself playing the typical leapfrog game with a few other runners, as we each either sped up or slowed down on our relative strengths and weaknesses of up-hills, down-hills and relative flats. I was always keen to pass an inane comment of some description ("nice November day they chose for this April race", "how stupid do I look wearing my buff like this?" or similar) and I was really pleased to find that almost without fail, the others seemed just as keen to chat as I was.

As we continued, towards around the six to seven mile mark, the weather got quite seriously worse. Whenever we were up high on the ridge, the wind was absolutely battering across our path, blasting a combination of enormous rain drops and tiny, sharp little ice-balls straight across us and threatening to blow us over one or two precipitous drops.

Strangely though, it was at about this point, just as I was heading up yet another enormous climb, that I realised just how good I was feeling. I mean, the weather was ridiculous, the up-hills were steep, the down-hills were soaking wet, slippery and very technical and I could wring the water out of my gloves just by clenching my fingers, but I actually felt really good. My legs felt strong, my kit was holding up well, my shoes were coping with the wet conditions and I was starting to pass people. That was what really made me realise how good I was feeling; suddenly I was only passing people, nobody seemed to be leapfrogging back past me anymore - even my friend in the FiveFingers got reeled in at about this point, so I knew I was doing ok.

Yes, I really did look silly with my buff up like that, but at least some of my skin remained attached to my face, rather than being blasted off by the hail!
 
This continued for a couple of miles until I caught up with a couple of guys who were on the full marathon route. The three of us ran together and joked about the conditions for about half a mile as we headed into a head wind and discussed how long it would be until we managed to make it off the ridge. I was glad to know that I'd be dropping down considerably earlier than the poor two lads I was running with and after a short time running together, I once again felt that I was running slightly stronger than expected and so I decided to take advantage of it and slowly worked my way ahead.

For once, I was really enjoying running on my own; it wasn't about it being me against my body, me against other runners, or even me against the course; this was entirely about me against the elements, and the best way for me to beat them was to go quicker and get down quicker, so I pushed on again.

Miles 10-12 went well, with me literally laughing whenever yet another hill came along, the conditions had gone from the ridiculous to the downright crazy, but now I knew how close I was to the finish and I knew I'd beat the weather and the course.

However, as I made it to the top of the last climb, the route levelled out and I saw the drop in the distance, I caught up with someone who wasn't in quite such a positive place as me. I ran alongside the guy who was walking a little. As I passed him slowly, I asked how his day was going and rather than getting the normal "oh brilliant mate, loving this weather" or similar, I heard "not all that good to be honest" so I immediately slowed down and asked him what was up. It turned out he was struggling a little and was feeling a bit dizzy. I asked if he'd been taking on enough fluids, to which he said he had, and that he had more with him. So I asked if he'd got anything with sugar in it. He mentioned that he had some jelly babies, so I told him to get some of them inside him as quickly as possible to see if the energy boost and a bit of a kick to his blood-sugar would help. Once I'd seen that he had got them out and was about to eat them he told me to get going and that he'd see me at the bottom. As I was about to argue I looked up and saw the marshall's jacket marking the point at which the path turned right to drop down the side of the valley towards the finish and so I told him how close it was and that once he got there he was as good as home.

I felt guilty about leaving him, but I justified it to myself that the only way I was keeping warm in my shorts and not-totally-waterproof jacket was by keeping moving. I'm not sure I'd do the same again, but the closeness of the marshall reassured me.

In a couple of minutes I'd reached the marshall myself and promptly turned right, heading onto the narrow path leading down the side of the valley. Dropping off the ridge and out of the wind was an amazing feeling and I have to admit I got a bit giddy as I started racing down the narrow, deep track with its high grassy banks, trying to catch the last three runners I could see ahead of me before the finish. Needless to say, I soon regretted my giddiness as my right foot caught a thick tussock of grass and I found myself heading downwards in a slightly more direct route to the ground than I was aiming for! Fortunately it was only a fairly minor slip, and barring a bit of a scrape to my shins from a rock or two and a couple of bumps that I was sure would make impressive bruises later, all was well, so I carried on.

Enjoying the down-hills!
 
Racing down the hill, I managed to catch the last runners I could see ahead of me and hared through William Beck Farm and down the track on my way down towards the finish. Having averaged around 11 minutes per mile up to this point, I suddenly found myself doing under 7-minutes for the final mile... I mean, obviously the hill helped, but I think the sheer joy of how good I was feeling and how much less windy it was were really powering me along.

As I ran through the final field (where the cars were parked) towards the finish line the rain was still pelting down, but I didn't care and almost sprinted towards the village hall to finish in a time of 2:32:36 - officially my slowest ever half marathon, but also not only my hilliest, but the one in the most brutal conditions!

As soon as I'd signed in and picked up my finishers medal and t-shirt, I headed to my car to grab my recovery shake and towel - fully intending to join the other finishers in the village hall. Unfortunately, my body decided otherwise once it had slid into the passenger seat of my gloriously dry car interior, and instead I found myself sat there drinking my recovery shake, eating my sandwich and watching the other runners coming in, running past my car as they headed for the finish.

I can't describe how happy I was to see the guy I'd seen struggling a little and feeling dizzy up on the ridge as he jogged past my car, looking fairly strong. I hope he managed to enjoy his last mile or so, but to be honest I couldn't get out to ask him, because that would have meant opening my car door, and the heater was finally making my fingers feel good again by this point!

After about fifteen minutes of slowly recovering, getting myself changed and getting some food in me, I decided it was time to make the 120 mile journey home to be jumped on by my toddler and help my dad with the last of the kitchen tiling. I got in the driver's seat and looked up towards the exit from the car park field, where I saw quite an impressive spectacle; a very large white Lexus wheel-spinning away as it tried desperately to get out of the field. "Ah," I thought "that's always the disadvantage of heavy rear-wheel-drive cars. Lucky I'm in a light, front-wheel-drive car with a puny Diesel engine." You'd have thought I'd have learned about feeling smug by this point, but it would seem not!

Long story short, it took 25 minutes for me to make it the 75 yards to and out of the exit from the field. During that time I did about three laps of the field looking for momentum to get up to the exit (90% of which were spent wheel-spinning), got out to help push the Lexus out (cue large sprays of mud up my freshly donned clean, dry clothes and shoes) and desperately tried to learn from the various mistakes and failures of everyone else trying the same things!

Having eventually got out, I had the 2-hour drive home to think about the race. What were my conclusions?
Well, it was brilliant... The marshalls, checkpoint volunteers and fellow runners were all friendly, the route was challenging, but enjoyable and well marked, the scenery that I saw was beautiful (admittedly all of that was within about 5 yards of my face due to the visibility!) and I genuinely felt good the whole way around.

Race Summary:
Distance covered: 13.54 miles
Elevation gain: 2,508 feet (though it felt double that!)
Gun time: 2:32:55
Watch time: 2:32:36
Overall position: 23rd
Category position: 7th
Garmin link: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/752348774

Nutrition taken in (reviews to follow in later blog entries):
3 x SaltStick caps
1/2 packet Powerbar Cola Chews
1/2 packet Clif chews
2 Haribo sweets
Around 500ml water

Kit worn (reviews to follow in later blog entries):
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 9
Socks: More Mile London
Shorts: Salomon S-Lab Exo Compression Wings Twinskin
Top: Compressport Trail Running Top
Jacket: New Balance Shadow
Race Vest: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra set
Hat: Adidas running cap
Buff: Original Runners Buff
Gloves: Ronhill Switch Running Gloves