Category Archives: Training

The Essex 30

With the Berlin Wall race in August and then Spartathlon looming large I was hoping for a warm race for some good hot weather training. Fortunately the British summer delivered and the race took place in bright sunshine and warm still air.

The 30 mile race is organised by Challenge Running and takes place in conjunction with a 100 and 50 mile race.

Route

The race route is an out and back, and starts at Felsted Village Hall. After a short road section it turns onto the Flitch Way (a former railway line, so straight and flat). After 4.3 miles there is a checkpoint at the old Rayne Station ( now the Booking Hall Cafe) and then you turn around and head back to Felsted. The 100 mile race is 12 laps, 6 for the 50 and 4 for the 30 mile version.

Race day

I drove up in a relaxed mood looking forward to a good long run. With the promise of a flat route I was aiming for a solid steady paced run. I had no real pace plan, but wanted to run to feel and try and be consistent and run with no walk breaks.

I’d not expected to know too many people here, but met up with Gill and Ian Thomas and then Paul Ali at registration so knew I’d have some good company on the route. Before long we were off. I’d been chatting with Ian before the start and found my self on the front row of the start. However Craig Holgate shot passed me and was soon disappearing into the distance. Another runner (Mark Prigg) also passed me, but then we settled into a steady pace toward the Flitch Way. The route itself has a fair bit of shade from the tree cover, but it was already warm at the 9am start and the temperature was building.

Picture of the strat line

Race Start

By the turn around point I had passed Mark, but Craig had pulled out a significant lead. I’ve seen Craig race before and knew he holds the course record, and he looked like he was trying to improve on it!

Out and back laps are often perceived as dull because you get the same scenery again and again, but I do enjoy seeing other runners during the race, and everyone seemed to have a huge smile on their face and offer encouragement to other runners.

The first lap went well, and I managed not to go out too hard. Back at Felsted and Gill offered to refill my flask while I ate some fruit. Ian was just behind me, and he was running the 100, but I knew his target time so expected him to be starting fast.

Lap two was much the same as the first. I’d been focused on not going too fast at the start, but now I was relaxed and in fact ran this lap a little faster. However it was getting hotter and by half way through lap 3 I was starting to regret my kit choice. I have a good waist belt with a 600ml bottle, but decided that the sloshing noise of water in a hard bottle would be annoying. Instead I picked a small waist belt with a 250ml soft flask. For the first couple of sections this was enough, but now I was finding 250ml wasn’t quiet enough for the 4.3 miles between checkpoints. At the end of lap 3 I had to fill my flask, drink it and refill before leaving Felsted, and when I got to the turnaround point I stopped for a good few minutes to drink before heading back.

Two miles from the finish I felt a sharp stabbing pain on the top of my left foot. I stopped immediately and saw a wasp trapped under the tongue of my shoe, with his stinger jabbing into my skin. After flicking it away, hopping up and down and swearing a bit, I hobbled on. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have done much damage so I managed to run in to the finish.

Results

I was happy with my performance and pacing and I ran the entire distance with no walk breaks, although a few stops to drink and beat off predatory bugs. So a good day out.

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My lap times were consistent until lap 4 where I dropped a lot of time, but. that was mostly non moving time. My running speed was solid all the way.

1st place and taking 6mins off his own CR was Craig Holgate in 4:02:09

I finished in 2nd place in 4:49:28

It took a couple of hours and several pints of water, two McDonalds milkshakes in the car, plus more milk and tea at home to rehydrate, but when I finally cracked open a beer I could reflect on a good race. Thanks to Lindley Chambers and the team at Challenge Running for putting on a great event, and I’ll be back for more in future.

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Spartathlon training update

I’ve split my training plan into three main blocks:

July – Maffetone method base training

August – Strength training with some hills and speed work

September – race specific heat acclimitisation and taper

July

My Maffetone method training went well, and I managed to significantly increase my training volume. Historically I rarely run more than 65 miles a week, but I managed to complete a three week set of 75, 80 and 82 miles, and a total of 320 miles for the month. This is all uploaded via Garmin and synced with the ConnectStats app, which has a few good metrics, including the Performance Analysis chart shown below.

Data from ConnectStats

Data from ConnectStats

The increase in mileage left me exhausted, so I can confirm the Fatigue estimate (the red line) is probably accurate, but becuase I felt so tired it was hard to assess how it affected my fitness. At least I have survived without picking up any injuries, although there are a few niggles to monitor carefully.

To better assess fitness, I completed a MAF test at the start of July, and again on 3rd August, and these show a good improvement in fitness. At the same heart rate, my average pace is up from 7:59 to 7:34. Both tests were run on the same route.

August

The plan for this month is to add in some more strength and core training. I’ll also do some more hill reps to strengthen my quads for the long downhill road sections that feature at Spartathlon. We have a two week holiday planned, so that will be a good opportunity to add in some cross training (swimming, hiking, kayaking etc), but will probably mean a reduction in the volume of miles run, as I won’t do any run commutes.

September

I have a road marathon booked for Sunday 4th September, and will schedule a couple of tough weeks at the start of the month, before a two week taper going into the race. During this period, I’ll try to do some heat training, which may require running in woolly hats and jackets for a week or two.

 

MAF training for Spartathlon

I first discovered MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) also known as the Maffetone Method a few years ago. Created by Dr Phil Maffetone it advocates slowing down to improve your effectiveness in using the body’s stored fat as a fuel for endurance events. By running at a low heart rate (generally 180-age) your body is not forced to burn carbs as fuel. When I first tried this I found I couldn’t run quicker than 9:30 mins / mile without my HR going over 135. However after two months of almost exclusively running slow with a heart rate monitor, I was running at 7:45 mins / mile at the same 135 heart rate. Since then I have regular included month long blocks of training into my plan that focus on low HR. Only when I am aerobically fit do I start to add speed work and hill reps to build strength.

Phil Maffetone also writes a lot about diet. If you are training your body to be an efficient fuel burning engine, you also need to provide it with the right raw materials. I’ve always been a bit of a ‘foodie’, and I think I eat a good and well balanced diet, so in the past I have always skipped over diet recommendations.

4 mile MAF Test - 4th July

4 mile MAF Test – 4th July

However this year, with the thought of running 153 miles clearly in my mind, I have gone back and read some of the comments about nutrition, and decided to undertake the Two Week Test.

This is not a diet, but a test, to see how you react to different foods. It starts with a two week period where you eat zero sugar and no processed carbohydrates: no bread, pasta, rice. No starchy vegetables like potatoes or legumes. After the two weeks you can re-introduce these foods and see how they make you feel.

I’ll miss eating bread and pasta, and since I don’t suffer with random weight gain, bloating or any other GI issues, I’m not expecting to make too many long terms changes to my diet, but it will be an interesting experiment, and I’ll record my thoughts and findings here, along with a diary of what I have eaten.

One good thing – While a Gin & Tonic is banned because of the sugar in the tonic, a dry martini is fine!

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Fear and running

Fear is a bad thing isn’t it?

In our culture, we are all encouraged to be fearless. Admitting to fear is seen as a character flaw and a weakness.

fear-leads-to-anger-anger-leads-to-hate-leads-to-suffering-yoda

Kids want to be Jedis, not Darth Vader

But I think fear is a good thing. Without fear, how can you develop courage – your strength to overcome your fear. To quote Hunter S Thompson “I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on Fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.”

I think this is one of the reasons I run. No, that’s not right. Running doesn’t scare me, most runs are fun. Even with races, that feeling in the pit of yoru stomach before the race, is normally just nerves. I’m not scared of the race, just nervous about whether my performance will meet my expectations.

However every year I try and seek out a race that will challenge me, scare me and force me to confront the fear of failure. This year, I think I have hit the jackpot…

Spartathlon

Dear David Barker,

You can visit the Spartathlon website and login to your account or click Here and login. Please follow the instructions to fill the Entry form of this years race. Don’t forget to update your athletes profile.

Regards
The Spartathlon admin.

A very simple email, but all of a sudden this is real. My place is confirmed and I will be in Athens in September, attempting to run 153 miles in under 36 hours. I am a little surprised just how excited (and scared) I am about this.

Last year I entered TDS (74 miles in the mountains around Mont Blanc), and after receiving confirmation of my place, I wrote a training plan to incorporate a lot more hills, and then just got on with it (ok I did faff about with shoe selection, kit, nutrition etc. but i do this for every race). However the simple email above has had me reading over a dozen race reports from 2011-2015, studying the route and profile, and generally absorbing any information I can. I don’t think I have felt quite like this about a race since I entered the Centurion North Downs Way 100 in 2012. That was my first race longer than a marathon, and I had a real fear that I would fail. I guess this is the first race since then that I have entered knowing there is a real risk of failure.

While I was a little scared by this race before, the more the learn the scarier it gets. Here are some reasons to be fearful:

  • Average finisher rate 42% – more than half the participants fail to finish, despite the tough qualifying criteria
  • In 2012 the finisher rate was 23% – three out of four runners had a DNF!
  • Even those that finish struggle against the cuts offs – 50% take more than 34hrs

FinsiherTimes

  • The 36 hour permitted time, and the cut offs at each of the 74 checkpoints force runners to keep moving, and don’t allow time for a break to recover if you have a bad patch mid race

That fear of failure is a good thing. I know it can motivate me to train harder, and focus more on my preparation before the race. However I will need to deal with that fear during the race as it will also affect how well I perform, and my decision making during the race.

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do. Henry Ford

Training

When I progressed from running 26.2 miles to running 100 miles, I didn’t make too many changes to my training. I still do speed work, and hill reps. My training volume has increased a little but peaks at 60 miles a week. I added a few back to back long runs, and night / head torch runs. For Spartathlon, I don’t think I need to do much more running. If I increase my training volume too much I just risk injury. However running long distances is as much in the mind as the body. This is the longest race I have ever entered, so mentally I will feel stronger if I know I have trained harder. To develop that mental strength I will try and peak at 80 miles per week.

The main changes I need to make to my training are to make it race specific.

Roads – Spartathlon is a road race, with a few trail sections as you run over the mountain. I need to ensure I do more of my long runs on road, so my legs get used to the hard surface.

Heat – Greece in September has an average maximum daytime temperature of 27C, but it can easily be much hotter. The route itself is on the road and for the most part there is no shade, so on a sunny day temperatures can hit well over 35C. The race reports I’ve read are full of horror stories and DNFs caused by over heating. I’ll need to switch some sessions from early morning to mid-afternoon, and maybe wear more layers to simulate the heat.

Hills – It is not a flat race! Most reports focus on Mount Parthenio (the 1200m mountain that is climbed during the night), on which Pheidippides met the god Pan when he ran this route. That’s like running up Snowdon at the end of a 100 mile race. There are plenty of other hills too, and even the first 100km (which looks flat on the profile below) is described by most runners as undulating. Long downhills on hard roads can cause a lot of muscle damage, so I’ll need to incorporate strength training in the gym as well as downhill speed work.

contour-map

 

 

Reflections on the year

It’s been a great year of running, but looking back on the year, my best races appear to have come more by accident than design. In January I set out my goals for 2015 in a blog entitled “From hills to mountains“. My ‘A’ race for the year was TDS, and I’d also entered the Lakeland 50 to gain experience in mountain running.

All my training was focused on hills. Instead of planning a 3 hour or a 25 mile trail run, my goals became to climb 3000ft in the session. I even ran a few treadmill VKs! Yet despite all the hard work, my performance at these races was not what I had hoped for. Instead I surprised myself with my endurance on the flat. I had entered the Centurion Thames Path 100 on a whim and was amazed to finish in 3rd place. This success encouraged me to enter the Autumn 100, where I managed to run even quicker, finishing in just under 16 hours.

So what can I take from this, and in particular what worked well in training, and what should I change for next year…

Consistency

My training plan had blocks for speed work, hill work, base training etc. and I had planned a couple of increases in intensity to help peak for key races. However it was also very consistent, and I was running between 200 and 220 miles each month. Looking back at the data (see chart) I was far more consistent this year (in orange) than last year (in blue), and this has clearly paid dividends. Part of this has been a change in attitude to entering races. This year I entered one race a month: a trail marathon or 50k. However I took a more relaxed approach to many of these, and ran them as a hard training session rather than a full on race. Harder than a solo training session but not so hard that I would need to take more than a few days off to recover.

MonthlyStats

Monthly miles. 2014 v 2015

This approach has worked well, so more of the same in 2016.

Hills are good

This year I climbed over 230k feet, which is twice as much as any of the previous three years. All this climbing has improved my leg strength. Not only does this mean I can run well at the end of races, but also means I’m less prone to injury, so able to train consistently.

SPECIFICITY

Training should be specific for your target events. Living in the south east means I have a few hills to train on but no mountains, and eventually the scale of the climbs in the Alps as well as the heat were the factors I couldn’t cope with. If I decide to go back and try UTMB, I’ll need to plan some weekend training trips to the mountains.

In the meantime I’ll pick races that better reflect the conditions I train in.

 

 

Never underestimate a marathon 

With TDS looming large on the horizon and some summer heat finally forecast I decided a long and hot run was overdue and entered the Bewl Water marathon. This is a two lap race around the reservoir and mostly on trails. Obviously it’s nothing like TDS in terms of profile but there are a few hills but more importantly the forecast was for sunshine all day. Knowing it can get pretty hot in the Alps in August I thought this would be good practice to see how I cope with running in the heat. Unfortunately real life sometimes interferes with running, and a crisis at work meant my preparation was not ideal. Late nights in front of the computer, calls with colleagues at all hours etc. so race prep was non existent. After a brief conference call on Saturday morning while eating my breakfast, Sarah reminded me I should be in my running kit ready to leave. Bewl Water is only a short drive from Tunbridge Wells, so I was at the start on time but had to beg for some sun cream as I’d forgotten to bring cream as well as a hat.

The race start – photo by Mark Perkins

After a race briefing from Dave Ross (race director) we were off. No one was in any hurry to get underway and after the initial leader called out “I’ve led a marathon” and dropped back, I found myself alone and in the lead.   My goal was to run a 3:30 race (8 min / mile pace); hard work on trails and in the heat, but not so hard that it would impact my training too much. After running the first 3.5 miles to the aid station, I stopped for some water. I was averaging 7:40 pace, so decided to slow up a little.  There were 37.5 and 50 mile races happening too and those runners hadn’t done a 1 mile loop over the reservoir so I started catching some of them, but soon heard footsteps behind me. When the trail opened out another runner came up alongside me.

I recognised him from previous races (David Thompson), and although we’d never spoken before we soon got chatting. In fact we ran together for the next 2 hours chatting about past and future races. The aid stations were well stocked and I tried some of the racefood bars – like nougat. Tasty and easy to eat without being sticky and sickly. I’ll be adding these to my food bag on my next ultra.

Racefood - well worth trying

Racefood – well worth trying

We ran through the start / finish area and set off on our second lap, still running together and I was feeling fine after 16 miles, but as we came out of the woods and hit the road section and picked up the pace it felt harder than expected. At 18 miles I was feeling really weak and as we hit the hill up to the aid station I had to slow to a walk. I wished David well and muttered something apart catching him up in a minute, but knew that wouldn’t happen.

At the aid station I drank plenty and poured a cup of water over my head, before setting off again, but at a reduced pace. I was searching out every patch of shade, but fortunately much of the run is in the woods. At the final aid station i stopped again for more water, and two more cups went over my head.

With two miles to go I recognised where I was and made an effort to run up the final hill. I’ve had a run of 3rd place finishes recently, so decided I didn’t want to surrender my 2nd place.I couldn’t see or hear anyone behind me, but assumed there may be someone running hard, so pushed myself to the finish.

I finished in 3:31:33 in 2nd place, and picked up a lovely little trophy.

2nd place - my best result

2nd place – my best result

David Thompson was the winner in 3:24:33, so a minute a mile quicker than me over the last 6 miles. I’m not sure why I slowed up so much, but i’m guessing it was a combination of factors: heat, dehydration ( i drank over 2 litres after the race and still didn’t need the toilet for some time), starting too fast, or general fatigue from the training i’ve been doing.

However , when your main focus in 100 mile events, it’s easy to underestimate how tough a marathon can be, and next time I’ll treat the distance with a the respect it deserves.

Longman Winter Trail Marathon

The Longman Marathon promised an all trail route and plenty of hills, and it delivered in fine style. We were also blessed with some great weather. It was certainly cold and very windy on the more exposed hills, but the sun was shining and when off the ridge and running in the sun it was fantastic.

Running alone

Running alone coming back from Ditchling Beacon.

I had entered this race as a training event, so that meant no taper, and very little scheduled recovery. A day off, and then back into the routine of more hills and interval sessions. As a result I had set myself three goals:

  • Complete the event in 4 hrs
  • Finish strong i.e. run an even or  negative split
  • Don’t get injured

The race was well organised, and after a short briefing we walked across the main road to the start. With three races (10k, 10 mi, 26 mi) all starting at the same time and sharing the course for the first few miles it was a little hard to manage pacing, and I probably started a little too fast, but soon settled down to a comfortable speed as we looped around and over some hills south of Falmer.

As I reached a marshall at 9 miles, I was told to turn right, while the other runners around me were directed off to the left. I was enjoying the run and still feeling good, so felt happy to have more running ahead of me. I ran down a hill and recognised the SDW trail markers – familiar territory from last year. The route then crossed the A27 at Housedeam Farm where I grabbed a flapjack at the checkpoint, and headed up a steep hill. I walked this section, while eating my flapjack  in true ultra runner style, and watched a couple of people running up, but not really gaining much ground. There was then a steep downhill through the woods, before a long but runnable 4 mile climb to Ditchling Beacon. I had got into a conversation with another couple of runners at this stage, and that always helps the miles pass quickly, so it wasn’t long before we hit the last muddy track down to the Clayton Windmills. At the checkpoint here, we simply turned around and headed back the way we had come. 17 miles done, and unless I’d mis-counted, we had only seen two runners heading back towards the finish!

At this point I decided third place was much better than fourth, and so consciously picked up the pace a little to try a pull clear of the other guys. The runners in first and second place were too far ahead to try and catch for the win, so I didn’t go too crazy.

I really enjoyed the next few miles, as the sun was shining and the view from the ridge that the South Downs Way follows is fantastic. Running on my own also let me dwell on the last time I ran this route – very pleasant memories of running the Centurion SDW 100. I’d run up to Ditchling Beacon with Sarah and then carried on from there with Rebekah, and had a great time.

The other great thing was the support from other runners. I like routes with an out and back section as you get to see all the other runners and everyone waved, smiled or said something encouraging.

Back over the A27, and there was one final climb, before a fast downhill finish. Although I knew there was no-one immediately behind me, I still ran hard down the last mile to the line.

Third place, and a cup of Apres hot chocolate at the finish!

  •  3:48:34 finish
  • 4 minute negative split
  • Tired but no injuries

 

From hills to mountains

At the end of last year I decided to focus my goals on hills and mountains and not just chasing PBs. I ran the Brecon Beacons Ultra and really enjoyed it, and then entered the TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie). I was checking the UTMB website from 9am to check the results of the lottery draw, and when I finally managed to get the search page to work, I saw the good news that my application was confirmed. TDS is one of the five Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc races. The race is about 74 miles long with 24,000 ft of elevation gain over technically difficult terrain. I knew it would be tough when I entered, but now my place is confirmed, I’m starting to plan my training.

I’m not too concerned about the distance, but nothing I have run so far compares to the elevation profile for this race. My training log shows last year I averaged 9,700 ft of elevation gain per month, with a highest figure of 16,900 ft in June (11,400 of which was the South Downs Way). TDS is more than twice that with 24,000ft of climbing.

Garmin-Stats

If I am to stand a chance of coping with that amount of climbing (and an equal amount of quad trashing descents), I need to be running up and down a lot more hills. I’ve no idea where I will find them, or what sort of hill sessions I’ll run yet. That may wait for another blog.

However I know I can run 100 miles in a day, but I’ve never run a hundred miles a week in training. In fact I tend to peak at about 200 – 220 miles per month. So my best guess is that in order to ascend 24,000 ft in a day I need to aim to peak in my training at 48-50k ft a month.

I think if I can achieve this I will be strong enough to cope, and more importantly, I will have the confidence to believe I can finish.

There is still plenty of time to work out a plan to peak in August, but for now I’ll try to remember to take the hilly option when I head out of the door. So no more flat runs along St John’s Road, Mt Ephraim and Langton Road to the Hare and back.