Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Conquistador Of The Useless

 I often think that when I get older, it won't be the things I've done in my life that I'll most fondly remember, but, rather, the people who I did those things with.

Over the years, I've been blessed that running has led me to a group of people who's friendship I cherish. A loose collective, we have differing views on most things, but a shared vision of where the elemental essence of 'running' really lies. On mountain tops, field paths, bridleways, moors, dales and fells, I spend time with these people and I always come home a better person for it.

Over the weekend of the Winter Soltice, I set off to run 90 miles from Hunstanton to Skegness - the length of The Wash - in the company of two of these treasured friends. When you're travelling on foot for 24 hours, there's plenty of time for talking. Sometime during our trip, Leon, Dave and myself got onto the subject of blogging. 'It would be a good idea to have some guest posts on The SJC site,' someone said. We all agreed that it would.

Two months later, I'd all but forgotten that conversation. What a pleasant surprise then last night, when amongst all the crap in my e-mail inbox was this little gem, sent to me by Leon.

In December 2013, Leon became the first person to complete the Lindsey Loop, Lincolnshire's best long distance route, in one continuous run during winter.

It was a remarkable day.

This is the story of that day.


                                        CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS 

                                                           Leon Hockham

Plodding on, I thought the monotony would never end. The golden orb ebbed over the horizon and still, enthusiasm and joy seemed like something only other people feel. Those feelings were not returning. I hoped that I was journeying towards them. The chatter from my friends was comforting, both Dave and Chris had done their job. Their endless prattle had mutated into simple sound - white sound. A friendly, reassuring sound. Like the muffled whisperings you hear on waking, when you can't make out the words but you know you are in a safe place in the company of people who care.

It had been a long day and here I was, 2 sunrises and 1 sunset later. Measuring time by celestial events. A man approached, or was it? I had been seeing things for a while, in that place where you are not absolutely sure whether what you see is real or a figment of an exhausted and confused imagination. Thoughts whirled around and I paced, 'One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.' He was wearing a discoloured fluorescent jacket. I didn't recognise him! It could be a farmer appearing over a rise in the barren field. 'One foot in front of the other', look up - he's gone. Must have been my addled mind, slaughtered by the relentless, monotonous, muddy fields that separated me from the start of my journey.

Time had ceased to matter, since I had no idea how to measure it. Clocks ticked slower. Distances that I had covered on simple runs over familiar ground seemed to go on forever. Distances that would have been over within a flash. Time travel. Was I moving? Or was I the observer? Either way, I was on my time; slow time.

The day had started with the usual nerves, following a restless night. Who needs sleep? Sleep is for wimps! My sister's arrival with her husband from Sussex had kept me up later than I would have liked. It was worth it. Rory was my road support. Reliable, dependable; Rory, the 'white van man'. I needed that van and Rory in it. It focuses me and reassures me. Waiting for that coffee and cigarette, ready rolled. Waiting for the banter and encouragement. Stepping stones on my Transit.

With everyone present, I was ready to start. Treana and Tam on the 1st leg. We set off plodding up the road. Treana and Tam seemed to be going off too fast, because they were. I had forgotten the map. I knew they would take the piss, but I needed that map. I knew the route but it would comfort me. As predicted, they took the piss. I was off again and I would try to catch the girls. Where were they? Too fast for me. I caught up with them on the outskirts to Alford and we were off. I was doing it. I had dreamed about this run. A loop starting and finishing on my doorstep. Adventure begins when you step out of your door. Saleby Jogging Centre had done it a couple of years ago, but he is a class runner, a hard runner, the 'real deal'. I'm an emulator, a pretender. It was hard to curb his enthusiasm for this route; he had been going on about it for ages, and had guarded that guide book, that coveted out-of-print text. It seemed so far - 97 miles, with nearly 2500m of ascent. Way out of my league. Chris and I had reccied it to death. On top of that, we had run it as a club relay, which was an awesome experience.

I don't know why but I got the idea to have a go myself. I have a bit more experience of big miles since my attempted BGR a couple of years ago. Now that was ambitious. My first ultra - one of the hardest in the UK. Whatever made me think I could do that? Like the first race I ever ran - a marathon?? Way too ambitious. I suppose I am vain. I suppose that I like to test myself and, after all, there is no point in attempting something that you know you can do. Or more to the point, you know how to do. After a couple of successful ultras, and a couple that weren't, I had more confidence. A winter Loop. I would give it a go. My previous limited experience had taught me that most of the running is in your head. 'One foot in front of the other'. Believe it, feel it and live it. One step at a time

It had been a busy year and the only time that I could fit it in was the winter. The first continuous winter Loop, as Chris had pointed out. (No pressure then!) I feel that the key to big runs is not to over-analyse and definitely do not stress. After a hard year, training had gone out the window. Virtually no running in the months leading up to the Loop. Would it matter?

The 1st leg, starting in the dark, flew by with only a couple of errors, like when I lost the girls - nothing serious. Missed Maz, one of my support runners on Leg 2. I could have waited, but didn't. I knew Chris would take him to the next village en route, and I was right.

Horncastle- the start of Leg 3. Lost Trena just before the CP and Maz urged me to run on while he went back for her. She wasn't far behind, just enough for me not to want to wait. On arrival at the CP, Maz and Treana were already there because they had taken a short cut to catch me up. Treana had done an outstanding job pacing me on the first 2 legs, a distance PB for her. I'm very proud of her and she will make a great ultra-runner. She's a Hockham and doesn't know when to quit!

Overwhelmed, I looked around me - the crossroads CP seemed massed with people. People I cared about and loved. This Is Your Life! Close friends and loved ones. I love seeing my family on these runs. They are fuel to me - they give me the strength and will to carry on. Dennis, with his inane banter. My Dad, with the not-so-wise words. Christopher Rainbow, who I am always happy to see. My inspiration and my safety belt. Dave and Deb travelling over from Lancashire. Christ - these people must actually like me! I am always humbled by the lengths friends and family will go to help me fulfill my dreams. Neil: a guy who's skill is easily outstripped by his confidence. A person I don't know really well, but hope to in the future. Real understanding. The kind that is forged and galvanised by being lost on a bleak hillside in torrential rain with only your mates to rely on. A trust and friendship that counts in the hills and is transported to the lowlands where our lives are played out. My Mum: supporting me as always, reluctant to smile in case she lets on how she really feels, always there, humbling me with her loyalty and forgiveness. Tammy: like me in so many ways, ocassionally too quick to say what's on her mind. Her blinding care and supprt, obvious, hard as nails - she can't fool me! The gentle and caring side that I can see in her eyes as she fusses around making sure everyone has what they need. My girls: the reason I get up in the morning, always there.

Confusion, the good kind. Where you don't need to understand. The kind that is brought about by pointless, empty, useless miles. The pain has gone, replaced with a feeling rather than understanding; an understanding of sorts, but not in the literal sense; understanding one's place in the universe, a sense of belonging to the animate and inanimate; the beauty, cruelty and, above all, the indifference of the universe. Indifference could inspire panic, it could make you seek a higher power. This is my church, I am the preacher; my supporters are my congregation, believers. There is no reason to believe, yet they do.

Sleeping on my feet; unbelievable until you have the experience. Somnambulism or noctambulism, a sleep disorder. In a state of low consciousness, sufferers perform activities that are usually performed in a state of full consciousness. Although their eyes are open, their expression is dim and glazed over. A sleep disorder.? No, running close to 100 miles in the winter is a disorder and somnambulism is merely a symptom.

The sound comes and goes. That haunting sound. I can't make up my mind whether I like it or not. It sounds familiar. My mind's playing games. South Thoresby - last leg, about 10 miles to go. Home may as well be on the far side of the moon. I don't like the sound, it seems out of place. Rory should be here somewhere...I'm impatient. I need to get to that van. That sound again - 'WATERLOO... WATERLOO...' Where is that rusty Transit? Turning the corner, Chris and Dave laughing. Then, the penny drops - Rory having an impromtu rave, music blaring from speakers. The Best Of Abba?? What else would you be doing at 4am on a lonely Lincolnshire road? I did not understand. No coffee stop this time. Dave looks disappointed; I an perturbed. I need to get home. Feeling like a child who is late for tea. My 24 hour, highly optimistic, unrealistic and masochistic schedule is out of the window. I don't care anymore. Got to get home. I'm waiting for a delivery.

The man in the coat, the bright coat, has gone to be replaced with three figures approaching. On towards Rigsby - village on a ridge, harking back to when the North Sea lapped against the white cliffs of Alford. To when Alford was an aquatic town. I will be able to see the windmill soon - the finishing line, something to aim for.

Getting closer. Still can't make them out. Focus has gone.The glazed expression; a symptom of my ultra-running disease.Who are they? There you are! My existential soul and my two reasons for getting up in the morning. My girls. The man in the van, wearing his sunshine jacket ,the uniform of the Transit man, he made his last delivery of the day. It is addressed to me. They are for me. A gift from the gods - to lead me home.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Slow Ultra-Training: A Paradigm Shift

'The Slow Movement is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail's pace. It's about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.'
Carl Honore, 'Slow'

It's 1986 and Carlos Petrini isn't happy. Fast food giant, McDonalds, are proposing to open a new store near the Spanish Steps in Rome, and it pisses him right off. So what does he do? He establishes a direct alternative to fast food - Slow Food - with an aim to promote local foods and centuries-old traditions of gastronomy, and to oppose the modern-day clamour for convenience food, along with industrial production and globalisation.

Starting out as a bit of 'a game', Petrini's Slow Food organisation touches a nerve and becomes more popular than he could ever have imagined. In 1989, the founding manifesto of the International Slow Food Movement was signed in Paris by delegates from 15 countries. Since then, it has expanded to include over 100,000 members with branches in over 150 countries.

Over time, the philosophy behind Slow Food has developed into a widespread movement that advocates a cultural shift towards slowing down life's pace. An internet search will provide details of how the ideas behind Slow have expanded to many facets of everyday living. Wikipedia gives details of sixteen Slow subcultures, ranging from Slow Cities, Slow Travel and Slow Design to Slow Parenting, Slow Education and Slow Science. What Wiki doesn't list, however, is Slow Ultra-Training.

That, dear reader, is where I come in.



Six months ago, a dog came into our lives. Elsie, a border terrier, quickly became a much-loved member of our family. In spite of many people reminding me of what a chore it was to walk a dog, I quickly came to the realisation that dog-walking, an activity I'd never really done before, ranked as one of the most enjoyable things I'd ever experienced. Equally, if not more enjoyable than running. (That's saying something.)

Whilst there's a definite joy to moving quickly over ground, the contemplative joys of life at 3 miles per hour are astounding. In no time at all, the dog-walk was the highlight of my day. (I lead a simple life.)

Over the Christmas holidays, I began to yearn for being out longer. My weekly plans for the next year, I decided, would include lots of running, but would be supplemented by a good deal of walking. Initially, this idea was inspired by pure enjoyment and the thrill of the detachment from the busyness of life that walking provides. Gradually, however, as I tramped through fields, lost in thought, Elsie by my side, I started to contemplate if a Slow method of training could be utilised to facilitate a 'fast' time in an ultra race. The outlines of Slow Ultra-Training began to take shape.

Common (Mis)Conceptions

In recent months, a lot of people I know have thrown their hats into the training ring with the 'science' camp. They're taking lactate threshold treadmill tests, following precisely engineered running schedules and running to heart-rate. Although I hold a degree in Sports Science and accept that this approach works in training for shorter long-distance races (marathon, 50k, 100k), I began to question if such an approach could ever work for super-long ultra performances (races such as TP184, GUCR, C2C Ultra). My conclusion was, most probably not.

Looking back on personal experience, when training for a super-long ultra, I've always stuck to the commonly-held conception of running a ton of miles at a moderate pace, with a couple of faster runs during each week, and a long run (5-6 hours) at the weekend. Off this sort of background, I've always done ok in races, but never come away feeling like I've particularly achieved what I set out to do. There comes a point when the sheer amount of time on your feet gets you. Muscles start cramping up, feet start swelling and aching, hips get tight, and you slow from a jog to a plod, done for.

My race experiences suggest then, at least for me, that the widely-accepted way to do things just doesn't work.

This nagging doubt is, perhaps, confirmed by the following information:

- In a typical marathon training schedule, scientific studies have shown that the quickest athletes do around 80% of their training at a pace under their race pace (steady or easy running), and 20% at a faster pace. Some marathon runners might stretch this ratio to 65% / 35%, but evidence seems to suggest that an increased amount of fast running doesn't necessarily correlate to faster race times.

- Compare this to a super-long ultra. If average pace per mile in a race is 10-12 minutes per mile (or slower), there's a good chance that by training in the conventional way, all of your training is done at  quicker than race pace.

Does this make sense?

I'd say 'No'.

An Alternative Approach

I'm proposing that the key to super-long ultra-training is not miles per se, but the amount of time spent on your feet and moving forward. Of this time, a good proportion (more than half) should be done at a pace slower than race pace, ie. walking.

Of course, this alternative approach has one serious drawback in regards to modern-day lifestyles, and that is the time needed to do it justice. To perform well on race day, you're going to be spending a vast amount of time outdoors. Most people don't have, or are unwilling to devote, the time that's needed to achieve a decent race performance. It's my theory that the reason runners train for super-long ultras in the traditional way is, almost entirely, because it takes less time than this alternative Slow approach.

So, What Is Slow Ultra-Training?

The Slow approach is best not viewed as a 'training regime' but more in terms of a 'total lifestyle overhaul'. Accordingly, it might not be for everyone.

Fundamental requirements include:

a) Lots of available time
                                     Slow Ultra-Training can't fit into the socially-accepted regime of work / leisure. In order to follow the approach properly, and still have time for the things more important than running (spending time with family and friends, for example), you might have to cut down on the amount of weekly time you spend at work. Drop down to a 4-day week or less. By working one less day, you might sacrifice 20% of your income, but you'll gain 50% more free time. Since this is a day you've gotten used to wasting at work, don't pencil in jobs or errands that you've never done on this day (because you're usually at work), use it to get outside.

b) A dog
              Slow Ultra-Training involves a great deal of walking. Whilst it might be unreasonable to take a dog along on a weekly 40 mile+ walk, shorter outings of 1 1/2 - 2 hours are always better with a canine companion.
   Bear in mind that the essence of Slow Ultra-Training lies in enjoyment of the present moment. The typical 'reluctant marathon runner's mindset' of 'I don't really fancy a training run tonight, but if I drag myself out the door now and get my head down for an hour it won't seem long before I'm back home in the warm' is a way of thinking that is totally alien to the Slow approach. A walk with a dog, I'm sure you'll find, is always a pleasure.

Once you've arranged to work less and bought a dog, you'll be ideally placed to embark on Slow Ultra-Training.

Getting Down To Nuts And Bolts

Let's assume you've decided to target a 150 mile race and aim for a time of 35 hours.

I'd suggest an average of 35 hours of training a week, starting from a base of 20 hours per week, and increasing incrementally over 6 months.

At least half of this time will be spent at training at slower than race pace, a fair portion of this being done with a dog in tow.

A sample mid-block week might look like this:

SUN  - AM: 3-4 hours hilly off-road run (steady)
            PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

MON - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

TUES - AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
             PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking

WED  - PM: 2 hour run-commute from work (easy)

THURS- AM: 2 hour run-commute to work (easy)
               PM: 1 1/2 -2 hours dog-walking

FRI - 12 hours steady walking (3.5 mph)

SAT - AM: 1 hour jog
          PM: 1 1/2 - 2 hours dog-walking                                   TOTAL- approx. 32 HOURS

This assumes a work week of Monday-Thursday. As can be seen above, much of my own running during the week involves commuting to or from work. Not only is this a tremendous way to start or finish your work day, it also saves you money on fuel and reduces your carbon footprint. If such a routine is impractical for you, I would suggest that you strive to run at different times of the day during the week. By getting your body and mind used to running both in the early morning and in the evening, you'll cope better in an actual race when you'll be running right through a night and day.

A Personal Perspective

I adopted the Slow Ultra-Training approach at the start of the year, and, already, I'm beginning to see benefits. On a typical Friday 12 hour walk, I'm finding my legs and feet are in much better shape at the end (and the day after) than they were just a month ago. Of course, if I ran a shorter race now, I'm sure my times would be well short of what I'm used to. This approach doesn't have the faster running required for a decent marathon / 10k etc. But, then again, focus is required. The aim of the approach is to complete a super-long ultra in as quick a time as possible, not to run a marathon PB.

I intend to dedicate this year to Slow Ultra-Training. At the start of next year, I have my eye on a race where I'll put my theories into practice. As of now, I'm confident of the outcome.

A Plug

Once I've personally proved the merits of Slow Ultra-Training next year, I shall be available for on-line coaching consultations at extortionate prices. Get your money ready.

Details to follow in due course.