Throughout life you have a choice:
– a tiresome life full of frustrations
– an amazing life full of opportunity
Balance ability and enthusiasm. Build awareness. Live authentically.
Sitting in a metabolic chamber in Coventry having everything from my intake of food and air to my activity, blood and urine monitored gives me plenty of time to take a look back at this year’s running, and have a glimpse at what next year might hold.
Last year finished with a 100 miler (Autumn 100, 18hrs43) , the same race which I returned to just this weekend but supporting this year. Being in and around the race made me really miss trail running, and want to get back out there.
After that was a sharp change to preparing for the final selection stage for SPEAR17, the Antarctica expedition. 2 weeks in Norway later and a fair amount of pulk-hauling under my belt, I came back to a series of small events on the weekends to keep me running whilst tackling the last few months of med school:
After finals I went off for a month of relaxing and running in the mountains, getting in some well overdue time in the hills, a peaceful way of life.
I came straight back from the Alps to race in the Lake District at the last race of the season. Racing in the mountains isn’t usually my forte, but I was excited heading into it after a few weeks of hills.
I was very pleased with that race, I finally felt like I could run again.
I figured 4 months was going to be just enough time to prepare specifically for the Traverse attempt, so I stopped running/racing after that race and switched to more strength training and putting on weight.
I’m now in no shape for running far and fast, but good shape for the expedition.
Next stop, Antarctica.
Busy few months. Understatement.
Grab a brew, have a read.
The first half of the year was mainly spent working towards passing final exams for medicine and my ‘A’ race: 110km Ultimate Trails in the Lake District; whilst finding commercial sponsors for SPEAR17 and planning all the nutrition for the expedition… I had to be pretty sensible and prioritise medicine, and with the Antarctica Traverse looming, training for the race was going to be a bit different.
A few things had to change:
So we had a bit of a challenge; to try and make best use of the little time that I had to train for quite a hefty ultra whilst not impacting on studying. I had to be quite disciplined to make it happen, as I eluded to in the Week in a life of blog, and concentrate on keeping healthy by eating and sleeping well.
In the weeks leading up to finals I ran the XNRG Pony Express , a 60mile 2day race in the New Forest. It was there more for enjoyment and to have something to concentrate on other than studying, after which I could put running to bed for a few weeks during exams. Unsurprisingly I didn’t feel fit at all during it, and it was struggle both days. I came 4th by 5mins, which, given the circumstances, was OK.
After that we were straight into finals, then all of a sudden I’m walking away from my final exam, after 5 years of medicine, 8 years of university and, unless I’d failed, soon to be starting in the real world.
I’d picked up a dodgy hip during exams – I blame all the sitting – which was annoying as I’d planned to spend all summer running in the mountains. I had a couple of visits to the Bosworth Clinic to try and get it sorted, and head to the mountains anyway. What ensued was pretty much a month of running more and more in fantastic places, in what can only be really recorded in photos:
Time spent in the Peak District, Brecon Beacons and 10 days of hard training in the Alps got me in pretty good condition to head into the Lake District 110km race, which although I was much heavier than I’d like to race at, I felt very fit for.
Setting off at midnight I’d planned to cruise for the first 50-60km, before putting my iPod in, slowly winding up the pace and attacking at the back end of the race. I was confident I could get a good performance out of myself after those long days in the Alps, and wanted a top 10 finish, but didn’t know how long it’d take to get round the course. Usually, training in Bournemouth, the climbs would’ve been a huge worry, but having just spent a fortnight on much bigger climbs I was actually quite excited to get stuck into them.
I stuck exactly to plan and settled into a comfortable pace for the early hours of the morning. A lot of people set off fast, what seemed unreasonably fast. I knew there would be some good runners here, but this amount of people at that pace was ridiculous. I didn’t worry myself with what everyone else was doing, and enjoyed cruising around during the night. We came off one climb about 2/3am and one of the volunteers at the aid station asked how the ‘brutal climb’ was? This gave me a lot more confidence – it was pretty chilled! Clearly working hard day-in-day-out in Chamonix on course like their vertical km only that week had put me in great shape.
I came through the first couple of aid stations in 30th ish place, didn’t panic and kept at a relaxed pace. The sun slowly came up showing off the lakes and bit by bit I took places. The weather was pretty harsh at times, with very high winds and cold piercing rain up top, but I was in pretty good nick. I kept eating and drinking and cruising.
When I came into an aid station just after half way, the volunteer told me I was 6th, and 5th was only a couple of minutes ahead. There were awards for the top 5 (as if I needed more motivation to catch him…), so I put my iPod in at this point. I caught him on a climb then put the hammer down to go past. I had a huge running high at this point and felt like I was FLYING! Amazing to feel like this again. I hadn’t felt this good in such a long time, especially when racing. I finally felt like I could run on and on.
The difficult part now was I still had about 50km of pretty difficult terrain to get over, and had 4/5 people nipping at my heels the whole way. I had some pretty low moments in the last 30km where I felt I could hardly move and just wanted to lie down and go to sleep, but knew I’d let myself down doing that. The weather kept switching between downpours and the high winds stayed to keep us on our toes over the high, wet slippy ground.
I was still in 5th coming into the last aid station with about 10km to go, and aid 6th and 7th come in immediately after me. They looked pretty fresh, but I knew I could dig deep to the end. I was hoping to a fast and flat run into the finish, which wasn’t the case. Each step hurt; I had a blister on one of my toes burst with about 5k to the finish. It was a sudden sharp and burning pain, making me run funny for a while, pushing my legs closer and closer to refusing to move and stiffening up, with the soles of my feet so sore from all the sharp rocks of the day.
As I descended into Ambleside I had another huge running high, and even though there was no-one around to share it with, I came into the village with a lot of pride as it’d been a hard day out but I’d got through it in a good state. I thought about my Dad a lot during that race, and imagined him coming out to see me run well and support me. He passed away last summer, but was my biggest supporter and had helped me from the beginning of this strange hobby, even though he had no interest in running.
After the race I had planned to take a week off before turning all my concentration towards Antarctica. I popped over the Iceland to help out Olly Hicks with some logistics on his Greenland to Scotland Challenge, so spent a week driving round Iceland in a 4×4 exploring the place and sleeping in my small racing tent. Stunning country.
That takes us up the end of July, as I start work in the real world. A week of shadowing and inductions as a junior Dr: so far so good.
I’m very glad I spent that time off well; I went to some amazing places, and thoroughly enjoyed running properly again. Now we’re 100% focussed on training for Antarctica, back in the gym working hard and eating hard to get strong enough and fat enough for the Traverse…
Finally, a huge thank you to the Bosworth Clinic for keeping me healthy, Tri Training Harder for coaching and supporting me, High5 for providing racing fuel and VeloChampion for clothing me, I couldn’t do it without you all.
As part of a series of blogs from the Tri Training Harder Race Team athletes, we’re giving a sneak preview into how we go about organising training around our lives (or visa versa).
I’ve tried to give an ‘average’ week here, but each week is a bit different depending on what placement/hospital I’m at, accessibility to gyms, races in the area and fatigue levels etc…
Anyway, it usually looks something like this:
Rest day. We’ve started the week well!
If i’ve not had a big weekend, then I’ll go to the gym in the morning, so:
0600: up, coffee, smoothie, jog to the gym (20mins)
0645-0745: gym – strength phase for now. Low reps, high weight: back squats, front squats, chest press, bent over row, bavarian split squat. I need to earn some strong legs.
18/1900: jog home
I’ve just started doing a yoga session on Monday evenings. I’m known for awful flexibility, so can be quite amusing in a yoga class. However its great and is set up for cyclists, not expecting gymnast level abilities, and works on proprioception/stability too. Its also really good for having a wind-down and relax. Feel a million dollars after.
A key here is not increasing flexibility too quickly, and making sure you have the strength for whatever flexibility you do have. Its all well and good being able to touch the floor with you hands and tie yourself in knots, but if you don’t have the strength and stability in those joints, you’ll run into a lot of trouble. Mobilise, stabilise, strengthen. Don’t neglect any of those.
0700: up, coffee, smoothie, 15-20mins core/mobility/basic strength work; jog to the hospital (20-30mins)
1700ish: jog home
Fartlek session – approx 2hrs
0700: up, coffee, smoothie, 15-20mins core/mobility/basic strength work; jog to the hospital
1500: jog home
Drive to work (approx 1hr30)
1800: gym – concentrate on deadlifts here as there’s no squat rack
2200ish: drive home
0700: up, coffee, smoothie, 15-20mins core/mobility/basic strength work; jog to the hospital
1700ish: jog home
Hill reps session – approx 2hrs
0600: up, coffee, smoothie, jog to the gym
Gym – strength
1800ish (hopefully earlier…): jog home
I often work weekends but have reduced the amount I’m doing as medicine heats up. This is a non-working weekend:
0730: up, moan, coffee, smoothie
0800ish: head out running
0900: ParkRun —> this is one of my favourite runs of the week. I adore ParkRun – it has got SO many people running that previously weren’t active, and I love that people of any ability can come for a walk/jog/run/race on a saturday morning, all for free.
The rest of the day is usually spent doing some work interspersed with popping out for a coffee/lunch/socialising in the evening.
This completely depends on whats going on in the area, but I try to enter a local run, around the 40-50k mark.
A few sundays ago I did the Portland Coastal Trail Marathon (1st), then the LDWA New Forest Marathon last weekend (1st).
Its hard to get a weekly routine at the moment as I’ve had a lot of exams on and changing hospitals and placements, so a lot has to be played by ear.
I’ve just started at a new hospital and I’m now largely living at the hospital, negating the need for the run commute, so I’ve been heading out for easy runs at other times. I’ve also been staying much later some evenings meaning I can’t do some of the speed workouts, and haven’t got a gym sorted in the area yet.
You MUST be flexible with training and adapt to circumstances, otherwise you’ll force workouts when your body isn’t ready to deal with the load, earning yourself and injury or illness.
I’ve come to learn to read my body better over the past few years, so know when I’m really feeling drained, versus when I’m just being wet and need a pint of tea to get me out the front door. I’m still no master at this, but we’re getting there.
Notes on daily routine:
Most free time is filled with studying at the moment heading towards my final medical exams, but I do take some time off to relax and unwind. As much as I like to think that training is my downtime it is obviously another stressful stimulus, as much as I enjoy it, so building in some proper time to relax is key. Even if its only a small amount squeezed in…
Pre-bed: I try to read something non-medical before bed. Reading, as opposed to watching netflix / staring at your phone, is much more conducive to falling asleep more easily and is a healthy habit of good sleep hygiene.
Pre-run: I’ve got into the habit of always doing some activation work before heading out running, to make sure my muscles are firing properly and nothing is too tight. It also wakes me up well first thing in the morning. All single leg work – calf raises, squats, glute bridges etc…
This weekly routine will differ to fit with different training cycles and other pressures (exams etc), however hopefully it gives you a bit of an idea how you can fit in running ultra-marathons and having a part-time job around studying medicine.
By this time last year I’d been running hard for 4 months, had the race of my life at Country to Capital, raced OK at XNRG’s Pilgrim Challenge and been out for the Tri Training Harder Team launch in Portugal.
This year has been very different.
In January we went to Norway for the final phase of selection for the SPEAR17 expedition, so I had to train very differently. I finished Autumn 100 in October reasonably fit (and very tired) but I needed a lot more strength if I was going to survive selection for the expedition team.
After a bit of a tough year I needed a fair amount of time to recover, mentally more than anything, and get to grips with medicine to do this degree some justice. I started working on movement patterns to lay the foundations to become ‘anti-fragile’, then got back in the gym to build some strength. I slowly brought a little running back in to tick over, not that I needed to be a fast runner for Norway, but I needed a solid CV fitness and wanted to regain some ground ready for the year’s racing.
For New Year we stayed in the Lake District in a youth hostel with a group of the better half’s family friends which was great fun: as an outdoorsy bunch we hit the fells for a good few hours of toddling around every day, and served as a reminder of how much I loved off-road running, fells and endurance.
My body (I?) seemed to quite enjoy strength training and being more relaxed about eating; I put on muscle quite easily, and didn’t seem to put on much more fat. It was great not trying to loose weight over christmas and made the whole affair much more relaxed. January last year I was at my lightest and fastest ever, but the cumulative stress of trying to shed weight + all sorts else was just too much and pushed me over the edge. Since then I’ve pretty much maintained the same body composition, until trying to put on muscle recently.
I also started getting very interested in carbohydrate vs fat metabolism, and the potential benefits of becoming “fat adapted” for low intensity endurance exercise. I won’t be geeky here. For the geeky version, have a listen to the second InDurance podcast (alternative fuel for sport health & performance) :
In short, I switched my diet to ‘High Fat Low Carbohydrate’ (HFLC) which is a pretty trendy thing at the moment. Anecdotally I found I could maintain energy levels for longer, but couldn’t do high intensity stuff. Thats pretty much the consensus in the sporty scientific world about HFLC; it could just be a trend at the moment but there is a lot of interesting questions to be asked here.
I had a toxic mix of excitement and nerves leading up to this. I had a fairly important medical exam the day before we left, but this was completely overshadowed by my apprehension about two weeks of Arctic training in Norway. I’d never operated in that kind of environment before, let alone performed.
The purpose of the exercise was twofold:
1: learn polar routine
2: final team selection
A lot was riding on this. I’d been working towards getting on this team for a long time, and it will be a life changing experience. We had 9 people going to Norway, but the expedition plans at the moment are to take 6; the boss had to choose who the 6 would be, and who would be the reserves ready to step in if something goes wrong.
It was a pretty punishing two weeks. Daily routine pretty much went like this:
This routine was quite taxing and soon our appetites had sky rocketed. We wanted to eat everything in sight. I was pretty happy I’d filled my grazing bag with fatty foods (nuts, dark chocolate, biltong) but craved variety. I had measured everything out before I went and split it into separate identical bags, each with 3267 kCals, which I got closer and closer to finishing as each day passed. Some other guys had taken salami and cheese, which usually wouldn’t turn my eye, but I found myself craving it. I didn’t crave sugar at all, maybe partly to do with having such a low carbohydrate intake leading up to the exercise, or the fact that our bodies were tuning into the low intensity for long periods fuel of choice?
Anyway, I managed to get onto the team, am now back on solid ground and pretty much recovered from my zombified state. I had another rather important exam when I got back, so have been non-stop on the go all January. So some well deserved sleep is in order, and I’ve started running again which feels great.
With a big order put in with High5 today, and an appointment booked at The Bosworth Clinic for some prehab / maintenance, its time to switch focus to running again. The main focus over the next few months really needs to be medicine, it’d be silly to ruin it all with only a few months to go, but I’ll be keeping my sanity with some training ticking over.
Its good to be back.
A hard end to a hard year.
Autumn 100 is a trail race held in the UK based out of Goring & Streatley that takes you along the Thames Path and the Ridgeway national trails. Lets have a quick look at the numbers:
As far as these races go, its quite flat and fast course, and as my last race of the year I was hoping to nail a fast time and place highly. I’d had a great build-up to the race, was in the shape of my life with a lot of speed and endurance in my legs, but come the day, I just didn’t have it.
I was emotionally spent. Its been a very long and painful year. My Dad had been suffering from bladder cancer, and became very unwell last winter. I moved home in February to spend some precious time in his final weeks with him. Like the trooper he was he fought on for an incredible amount of time, passing away in late May. He was an inspirational man and I truly miss him. He was my original and biggest supporter, crewing all of my early races, and I spent a lot of Saturday’s race thinking about him.
The week before Dad passed away, our dog of 10 years and my running buddy suddenly became very unwell one morning and passed away that evening, most likely from a brain tumour.
Just after Dad passed away, Mum was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. She had just dedicated her life to looking after Dad whilst he was unwell, so this felt even more raw. She is currently having chemotherapy and handling it all really well.
Cancer and I aren’t friends.
The week after Dad’s funeral I had to move into a new flat to start my final year of medical school, when one of our race team members, Katie, was tragically killed in a car accident.
So its been an awfully draining year, and between all this suffering and trying to become a doctor, I’ve been using running to keep me sane and keep enjoyment in my life. So in hindsight, its no surprise I was pooped for this race, but still love running and all the great it brings.
Anyway, heres how it went:
Exciting start to the race, James Elson, the race director, would be running the race too. The field was already deep with some extremely talented runners, and with James joining us, we all knew it would be a great race.
As always, some runners shot off the front of the race at a very fast pace, most of which we knew it wouldn’t be sustainable for. Predictably, most slowed a lot. I settled into a comfy cruise and spent a lot of the leg running with James; I was running with a celebrity!
Although I felt like I was cruising, I didn’t feel particularly springy or energetic. My right knee had started hurting that week as I swopped bike for trainers in my commute (damn cycling!), and was already quite painful. It was like having a screwdriver being driven into my knee. Not the best.
Heading back on spur 1 was great as, due to the out-and-back nature of the course, you got to see all of the runners in the race. Makes for a great atmosphere!
Back into Goring at the 25mile point I was feeling quite comfortable. Saw my crew of Gail and Goose and set straight out for the next 25.
This is where the suffering began. I just felt rubbish and couldn’t get my head in gear. Nothing was particularly wrong: I wasn’t vomiting or having diarrhoea, my knee was hurting but wasn’t that bad; my legs just felt kinda stiff and I was pretty grumpy.
I slowed the pace down and just concentrated on eating, drinking and cruising. I was running by myself for this and just wanted to settle into an easy rhythm, and practice some damage-control for the second half of the race. I saw James heading back, who’d picked up the pace and had already overtaken the front runners and looked like he was flying. This guy’s running was incredible all day. He flew in to set a new course record in a epic masterclass in ultrarunning.
Met more of my friends who’d come to support, got handed a double espresso, and wanted to enjoy this running party. Pacers are allowed after 50 miles, so from now I was always going to be running with a good friend. Hopes of getting a fast 100 were pretty much out the window, and I just wanted to enjoy it as much as I could and try to get a reasonable time in the process. Night fell, the temperature dropped, wind picked up. I felt flat; no race in me at all.
Turning round at 62.5 miles I started really suffering. Everything hurt. A lot. I’d intended to get to this point in great shape, and let if fly back to Goring, attacking the last marathon. I wasn’t sick, the knee was hurting less (amazing how powerful the brain is), had great company, but no race in me. Demons had started haunting me, telling me to drop. I’d had enough suffering, and just wanted it to be over. I’d been a very long year of suffering, and I wanted it over.
When I got to 75 miles I told my crew I was dropping. A second DNF in a couple of months. I was done for. Not physically broken, just emotionally completely exhausted.
The only problem was they wouldn’t let me drop. Point blank refused, fed me red bull and shoved me back out the aid station. I begrudgingly agreed and put a game face on, but felt a bit miffed at the time. In hindsight, its all quite funny and I’m very pleased they did! Gail was the main orchestrator of this, saving herself me moaning and sulking no end for months if I’d dropped.
‘Running’ to Reading was more of an awful hobble. My conversation was dropping off completely. I was telling myself 100 milers just weren’t my distance and to only do shorter races. I wanted out.
Hitting Reading was a bit of a lift. The final ‘out’ section done, and now all I had to do was run 13 miles home.
The pace on the way home started picking up. I was searching deep inside the hurt locker for the will to run faster. Just get back to Goring. Completely non-verbal. It was a very painful slog home.
A lot slower than I wanted, and a hell of a lot more painful that I wanted. Of course it was going to be painful, but I thought I would at least have enjoyed some of the running and felt like I could race.
I shouldn’t be disappointed with this race, as its still a pretty reasonable effort, and is a personal best for me. With time from the event I feel better about it, and I think I’ll feel quite happy with it in a few months. The part I am most proud of is that I survived slogging it out for such a long time. The urge to quit was overwhelming, and I obviously got pretty damn close. This will be a memorable race, maybe just for the wrong reasons.
It only took a couple of days for me to be tempted to crack another 100 next year for redemption, but I won’t allow any decisions like that to me made so soon. I was telling myself shorter and faster for next year, maybe I should listen?
Rest for now, then time to switch focus onto training for the Polar expeditions. That should give me a decent break from running 🙂
T-3days until Centurion Running’s Autumn 100.
My final race for the year. The race where I hope to get the best out of myself.
I did my final bit of ‘training’ this evening, a short interval session, and all thats left between now and saturday is some easy commuting on the bike, a short run on thursday, a lot of relaxing, eating, sleeping, stretching and studying.
Its been a long and tiring season, but the end is in sight. I’ve had a good block of training over the last few months: some stunning days in the Alps, exploring the Dorset hills, going back to routes in on the North Downs, and recently some back to back marathons along the Ridgeway and Thames Path getting a look at the course for the race.
I’m looking forward to a change in focus after this race: a break from running, a justified relax, but also a complete change for the winter, preparing to go to the Arctic in January for the final team selection for the Antarctica expedition. It’ll be a good change and I’m sure my body will be very pleased with me for giving it a break; a break from intense running at least, a different focus with a lot more strength needed for the Arctic.
But before that happens, I’m going to put myself on the line this weekend, and give this race a massive final effort. Put into motion all the hard work from this year. And I’m excited.
Will I do well? No idea. That depends if I pull it out the bag on the day, and who else turns up. I cannot control how fast other people run, or if I feel great on the day, but I can control how much effort I put into it, and I’m sure as hell going to nail myself in the process. Thats all the satisfaction you need.
Relaxing ahead of the race gives you time to think deeply about why you are about to obliterate yourself over 100 miles of trails. Are we trying to prove something to other people? To ourselves? Is there anything to prove? What are we searching for? Or is it just that we enjoy having to dig deep and execute a well crafted plan, years in the making. Its healthy to have these conversations with ourselves, and affirm what is at our core (something Mark got me to do). As the layers get stripped back this weekend through shear attrition, you’d better have a solid core if you want any chance of making the finish line.
I want to enjoy this weekend. Enjoy running for the sake of running. Enjoy putting yourself up against something so demanding. Enjoy doing something that scares you. Enjoy the freedom of being brought back to the basics of what we have evolved to do.
See you on the other side.