How did 2017 go?

This is a blog I wrote about 2017, and had my coach comment on it before publishing it.

2017 has been a different year. On 1st January I was on the Polar Plateau of Antarctica, at 10,000ft having recently left the South Pole, 1,300km into our attempt to cross the continent under man-power alone.

My last race in 2016 was 110km around the Lake District, then I hugely reduced the amount of running I was doing in place of getting stronger, putting on a lot of muscle and gaining a lot of weight, setting off in Antarctica at 90kg. I spent the winter on skiis cross-country skiing across Antarctica, then the first sniff of running was at the end of the expedition in late January, where there was a marathon being held in Antarctica at the base we would fly out of. We joined in after the race directly kindly offered us a place. I was awfully injured and slow, but thoroughly enjoyed running again.

Philip: It was also interesting to observe how Ollie reacted going back to more solid foods. With clear sprints to the toilet stations every 10km and a good portion of time spent…not moving…this was not his finest marathons in terms of times, but for no specific running for several months and carrying injuries, we won’t blame him for coming in the ‘wrong’ side of  four hours. As a coach, this is certainly not the best possible training prescription…but sometimes, you have to remember that Ollie, like all of us do this because they love to run [insert sport preference!]. Antarctic Marathon – done. 

I had always planned to take February off and use it as a month to recover from the expedition, to do any rehab that I needed to and to gradually get back into it. When I first tried to run or even walk on anything harder than snow, my feet ached, my knees and hips hurt, everything was sore. I could hardly run at all. I managed about 15 minutes shortly after getting back. It was awful.

Ollie’s build back into Running using TSS as a measure of progression

As you can imagine for someone with Ollie’s drive and self discipline, holding him back and reminding him that there is a process, and not to expect immediate results was really important. Not to mention that he should also spend some time with his partner and also a long time TTH friend Gail. He still fit in a ski trip before restarting work! 

On the 1st March I went back to my day job and I’d started running a bit more. I could hardly fathom how I was going to get back to running properly. By April I was getting used to running more normally; I was in the gym a couple of times a week and trying to do a couple of speed sessions each week. I felt like I was making some progress. I was hitting interval sessions hard and finally felt like I could run again.

But with this excitement and progress I overcooked it and picked up a small tib post strain. A healthy reminder I was mortal. Scared to get injured, I immediately stopped running and spent the next two days off my feet and on the bike. I slowly got running again, gently, and after only a week off was back to normal.

Philip: This is where Ollie really sets a great example. Notice he said a small tib post strain, we know he has an abnormal relationship with suffering, he races ultra marathons, but only when he needs to. A really good learning point for anyone in the sport is to react to the information that a pain or a niggle is giving you. In this instance, Ollie’s medical training, and experience in sport helped him make the right decision (and talking to other people in his support network) This allows him to make the right decision, not one that will prove to be problematic later in the season.

We (coach sets them, I do them) started doing some longer runs on the weekends trying to build up my endurance. Going back to running 3-4 hours again was hard but I was enjoying them huge amounts. I’d craved these long runs out by myself taking in the New Forest trails.

In May I went out to Portugal for a Tri Training Harder camp. I’ve been out quite a few times before and this was the latest in the year I’d been out there. I had a blast. I spent the week running and resting, working hard then eating. I felt the fittest I ever have done whilst being out there, probably a result of going out with a few months training behind me as opposed to early in the season. I clocked nearly 200k in the week I was out there, and a few hours on the bike. We did a great mix of speed workouts and longer runs; I did my traditional run-to-Monchique whilst the rest of the group cycled it (I didn’t go nearly as far as them, I got dropped much closer!). I really felt like I was making progress and was loving every minute of it. Sharon, a physiotherapist from the Bosworth Clinic was out there and on hand to figure out why I was getting niggles and give me strength work to improve my form. I found it really useful having her see me train in person as opposed to listen to me describe my training or wrestling-octopus style running technique.

Philip: Don’t be fooled by the nature heavy training loads. This shows us just how important it is to get the support team right when doing these big weeks. Without the guidance of Sharon through the week, an over-load week could have resulted with a broken athlete. Sharon’s management allowed us to push hard without having any issues, it let us push the envelope of what was possible.

Shortly after I got back from Portugal it was my 27th birthday, so as a birthday treat I got up at 0300hrs and ran 27 miles before work. I felt great. I obviously fell asleep after my first beer at dinner but my running was clearly coming on.

My first race was Red Bull Steeplechase. A knockout event where you race between 4 Steeples (churches/checkpoints) and at each one the back end of the race get cut out. 400 starters, 40 finishes (20 male 20 female). I had done the race 2 years previously in the Peak District and was cut at the last checkpoint. Its an immensely fun race (obviously, its organised by Red Bull) and its tempo is wild. People don’t pace themselves; its a mad panic to get to each checkpoint to not get cut from the race. We set out at an insane pace but I kept my cool relying on having more endurance in the tank to pull me through.

Red Bull Steeplechase. Photo credit: No Limits Photography

After about 20 minute into the race I started taking places and this trend never stopped. I wasn’t overtaken at all from that point on. My places through the time checks looked like this: 63rd, 43rd, 41st, 26th, 21st.

I was in 21st for a while heading towards the final checkpoint, running as hard as a could searching for the guy in front of me. I finally saw my the first glimpse of him on a big climb right at the point I was about to give up the chase as I felt cooked. I kept pushing and eventually caught him as we raced towards the last checkpoint in the village. 50m from the checkpoint I managed to pass him and take the final place in the race to do the last section.

I was so pleased at that point as my aim had been to make the final 20, the final cut. My legs were cooked and I just wanted to enjoy the final loop. Slowly my legs came back to me and I took a few more places finishing in 12th.

Philip: Ollie is a natural racer. He loves it. I remember a training run where we ran together the whole way up a mountain and he decided to sprint the last 20m just to be at the car first. However, my learning point for you here is that he knew his strengths, and worked them to his advantage. He couldn’t really sustain the flat out fast runs, he had to stay within touching distance (that he did…just) but ensured that he raced his race regardless of what the others were doing. To nail the top 20 and get 12th was a fantastic result. As Jim Vance says, Plan, plan, plan….Execute, execute, execute.

My next race was the Serpent Trail 100k. Organised by Freedom Racing it was the first time this race had been put on. The organisers were a very friendly bunch and the course was delightful, if difficult to follow. I broke one of my number 1 rules of always doing a recce of the course before as I’d struggled to find the time to get across. My pacer suffered trying to find the route but everyone was in the same boat. Psychologically I found it hard as I’d been aiming for a quick time and clearly wasn’t going to make it on this course. Nevertheless I took an early lead and managed to keep it to the end. It was a great day out and I’ll almost certainly be back next year. I just need to recce the course first.

Finishing Serpent Trail 100k. Photo credit Freedom Racing

We went straight out to the Alps after this for a big week in the mountains which was amazing fun.
Alps trekking

More Alps

When I got home I had a busy and stressful time at work and picked up an injury. It was probably a combination of being quite physically fatigued, stressed at work and sleep deprived. I spent most of late July really struggling with the injury and it certainly didn’t help my stress levels. I was due to run Centurion Running’s North Downs Way 100 mile race, which was the first big race I had ever done. I grew up on the course and love both the course and the organisers. I got more and more worked up that I couldn’t train going into the race, and wasn’t sure whether to pull from the race. In the days before the race I decided I would do the event with the knowledge I may have to pull out very soon after starting because of the injury.

On the day I had a blast. I started really really easy. I made sure I started quite far back in the pack knowing I’d get stuck on the single trail forcing me to run easy to start with. I went through the first hour without any pain so carried on a little longer. This kept happening till I found myself 50 miles into the race feeling great, pain free, and in fourth place. I was surprised by one of my friends turning up to support at 50 miles and we shot out the aid station back onto the course. At about 70 miles I moved into 3rd. This was beyond my wildest dreams as I thought I was going to be stopping the race after only a few miles.

At about 75 miles I started to get some pain in my leg again, and my mind game fell apart. I wasn’t prepared to a difficult day mentally. I pulled the plug at 83 miles with a very painful leg. There was more of summer to run and I had another race only a month away, which I wanted to get rid of this injury and be able to race properly. However I do also appreciate that I bottled it, and wasn’t ready for a difficult day.

In hindsight it hurts that I didn’t finish that race, but with a really difficult few weeks building up to it I am amazed with where I got to. It was a very promising bad race, if that makes any sense.

Philip: This is up there as one of my proudest moments as a coach. A DNF. This is one of the hardest results to see as an athlete and it is equally tough to see as a coach and friend. Ollie was so ready for this race and he really wanted to see how he did compared to his first ever 100miler. However, it wasn’t to be. We spoke a lot going into this race and we both knew where he was at. A lack of recovery (reduction sleep and managing work/life stressors) meant that Ollie had picked up a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. Ironically, his training was at a point where it was the best it had ever been. Timing is never good for an injury [read about managing it here], but the key thing for Ollie was to not let a niggle become a season ending injury. We spoke about what the worst thing that could happen going forwards and being unable to run for several months as a result of pushing through was certainly the bad path. We had a strategy for the North Downs Way and we knew how to react to the different scenarios that could present themselves. In this instance, Ollie surpassed both our expectations and put himself into a great position, which made the choice to stop even harder to take. Yet, he acted with a cool head and made the right decision – look what happened next! The result was not what we had hoped for, but it was a huge step forwards as an athlete that was fantastic to be part of. We know he could have pushed on and finished the event, but that isn’t the point of why Ollie races.

Over the next couple of weeks I was able to get back to running again quite quickly and started to manage the injury. I went back out to the Alps for a big week of training and felt very good at the end of it, even if very tired.
Alpine running

Training in the Alps

My last race of the season was the 10 Peaks Brecon Beacons race. 89k, 4800m elevation gain. I went a recce’d a lot of the route the weekend before and was positive going into the race. I knew the route and I’d had a good few weeks of running a lot of hills.

The start of the race was pretty hideous. We got a battering from the weather, a harsh headwind battering us with rain before sunrise. We worked our way west across Brecon and I was feeling pretty low. I was somewhere just in the top 10; the leaders had shot off ahead but with the pace I was running it seemed I would never catch them. I had to give myself a serious talking to that I should be enjoying this running, put a chilled playlist on and just concentrated on eating and running with good form.

I slowly began to pass people and at the half way point I caught a glimpse of 2nd and 3rd about 10 minute ahead. We turned back to head east, starting our return journey and I began feeling good. I felt fresh and had about 45k behind me, along with having the wind to push me home.

Training in Brecon Beacons

We went over a few more fells, then as the sky cleared I saw the podium all running together in the distance. I started chasing and passed all three in one move at about 66k. I had a good chat with the chap in first before pushing on ahead. I felt on top of the world for the next hour heading towards the last checkpoint. This dream was unfortunately shattered when I got there and was told I was in third having not seen anyone pass me, and having not strayed from the course. I spent the next 2 hours pushing far harder than I thought I could chasing an invisible 1st and 2nd who were supposedly about 10 minutes ahead, until I finally caught them on the last descent. After 11.5hrs of racing we all finished within seconds of each other. I took 3rd with a race I am very proud of. They had taken a shorter and faster route after I had passed them, allowing them to gain that extra time. It turns out only the checkpoints are mandatory, not the route. Quite why we were following a route I am not too sure of, perhaps to help people make the decision about how to navigate across the fells. I had simply followed the route blindly, and maybe next time should instead make my own shorter faster route between the checkpoints. Nonetheless, I had the race I had been hoping of: I negatively split the race and finished with a strong final leg; I had also finished an hour faster than my best estimate on a dry course in god weather, let alone a boggy course in hideous weather.

Philip: Through every cloud, there is a silver lining. And what do you know, after the NDW, this result was a fantastic high to finish on. Could he have finished the 100 mile event. Certainly. Would he have finished the season on such a high if he had pushed on? Certainly not. Racing with your head and not your heart let’s you make informed decisions and in long distance racing, that becomes even more important – should I take nutrition at this aid station? Should I check my break isn’t rubbing? Am I going too fast?

I finished the season on that high, having reached my best shape to date. After a few weeks of eating pizza, croissants and Nutella I am already itching to get back.

Philip: And so am I!

One Comment on “How did 2017 go?

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