It seemed like a good idea in the morning aka Gozo 55k race

Couple of miles into the race

Couple of miles into the race

My thoughts a couple of miles into the Gozo 55k race and on a rinse and repeat cycle throughout the race, in no particular order:

  • Living and training in Bloxwich (pancake flat area of West Midlands in the UK) is not ideal preparation for this race. But then again, I’m not sure what would help, except for living here and methodically covering bits of the trail week by week.
  • I can now understand what they mean by advising trail runners to practice the downhills as much as the uphills as my quads are on fire. That hill by the Walsall Arboretum where I thought I was doing my hill training? So lame. But then again, the quads will actually seize to be a problem in later parts of the race where I resort to power hiking rather than running. Or power-sliding down my bum where the gradient feels like 90 degrees. OK, maybe 85.
  • This is possibly not the best race for somebody with a fear of heights. Don’t look left, don’t look left. Just don’t. Although the views are gorgeous and I can’t believe I am running so close to the edge of the cliff and all I can see is the expanse of blue sea in the distance. Good job that I managed to fall over where there was a bit of path as opposed to falling over where there’s just the cliff.
  • If this was the UK, the risk assessment would be hundreds of pages long and then the decision would be to ban the race. We did sign a legal disclaimer in the morning saying basically we’re choosing to do this out of our own volition and if anything happens, tough. Wonder how valid that would be in court…
  • I can’t believe I am actually going to run round the entire island. Or at least cover the distance of the entire island.
  • Sometimes ignorance is bliss. The pictures on the race website showed happy people running on a relatively wide path. It didn’t show people scrambling over boulders and climbing up extremely steep hills where there’s enough space just to put one foot in front of the other. Hint: that bit of the path where they took the pictures? Well, that’s where the photographer could get to. Other bits? That’s where they decided it was wise not to. Except for the runners of course.
  • The course is breath-taking. As in literally. As in, trying not to have a panic attack as a result of previously mentioned heights situation and the running right to the edge of the cliff issue.
  • I’ve never done anything like this. When I first read, 1400m total elevation profile, I happily thought to myself, oh yes, I did that once, the Malvern Midsummer marathon, that had exactly 1400m elevation, I know what to expect. No, I didn’t. The Malvern marathon is like a gentle jog in the park in comparison.
  • Thank God for that local bloke that in the first couple of miles rescued me and a fellow Belgian runner from getting lost and missing a marker
  • I can’t believe how beautiful it is. And I can’t believe I’m doing this. Although I’m not sure I will want to repeat the experience.
  • I’m a Swift. Birmingham Swift. Birmingham Swifts don’t give up. Not even when they have to conquer yet another hill. Or downhill, for that matter. #swiftsahoy!

And so it continued all throughout the nine hours that it took me to cover the 55k around the island of Gozo, Malta’s neighbouring island. This was the third time my wife and I visited Malta, a place we discovered through a combination of my other half watching a historical programme and me discovering there was a marathon at the end of February,  which  I first ran two years ago, my third one (or second, if you discount Manchester which should have been my first one in 2013…). We came back last year, I ran the marathon again in pouring rain and we felt it may be good to adjust the timing of our holidays to a slightly warmer season. It wouldn’t be a proper holiday without a race so when I found out about Gozo 55k, that sealed the deal. Plus, last year we took the ferry over to Gozo and explored the island on the tourist bus, I admired the cliffs from the distance and was really drawn to the before mentioned pictures of happy people running on Gozitan trails…

I was up bright an early on race day as had to catch the 5:45 ferry from the north of Malta where we were staying across to Gozo to race pick-up point. I was very happy to see some fellow runners and exchange the usual pleasantries, including a discussion about the joys of being able to poop before a race (as opposed during the race). The race HQ was at Ghansielen square, slowly filling with the runners and mountain bikers participating in the non-competitive race. A quick race briefing, including advice to pace ourselves and enjoy the day, bit of a warning about the terrain and we were off, the first couple of miles on a relatively decent bit of trail until all hell broke loose. As in, the track became decidedly narrower and steeper and my goal for the day changed to survival and completion, no matter how long it took, as long as it meant I made the 10 hour cut-off. That good old piece of advice about running the flats and the downhills and walking the uphills? Well, it works if the flats and downhills are runnable, I quickly decided it was time to switch on my power-hiking mode and carry on, preferably without getting lost.

There are four checkpoints along the route which had some basic provisions – water, bananas and apples, salt crackers and cookies. I was very happy alternating my peanut butter sandwiches with salt crackers and an occasional jelly baby, I have found quite long ago that in an ultra, as long as the body says “I’m hungry”, that’s usually a good sign and it should be followed even if the resulting combination is slightly weird and does not really conform to the official advice as in the bit “though shall consume 30-60g of carbohydrates, preferably in the form of gels”. This was more like a powerhike so my stomach would be relatively OK with actual food and the craving for salty crackers was probably related to the rising temperature and decreasing levels of sodium or something along those lines.

The other bit of ultra advice is that these races are often run with the mind, rather than the body and this turned out to be very true for this particular event. I was feeling completely out of my element and overwhelmed by the elements as well. I was equally scared and in awe of my surroundings and even though I felt slightly disappointed about the fact I had to resort to powerhiking (I signed up for a running race!) at least it was a strategy which allowed me to finish well within the cut-off time and actually take in some of the beauty of the area, at least when I wasn’t purposefully avoiding looking to the left and noticing the drop of the cliff… But I was a very happy Swift when I finally caught sight of the ferry terminal which meant that the end was near as the finish line was about a 20-minute walk from the ferry. Funnily enough, I managed to get lost for one final time just before the finish line but averted the crisis thanks to very friendly locals and triumphantly ran through the finish mat a little over nine hours I started.

The funny thing is, my wife says that the first thing I said after coming back to the hotel was “I’m not doing this again. But I really enjoyed myself” in precisely that order. Guess I found my limit and now the idea of running around on a track for twelve hours or so, something I am hoping to do in the near future, sounds like bliss.


Running lately

In terms of this – I am in a funny space at the moment where I am building up to the Gozo 55k but running a bit of a personal experiment. As in, what will be the outcome of running training which consists of:

a/ a running streak – I have been running everyday since the beginning of the year so that makes over ninety days now with at least 5.5 miles everyday and well, all I can say is that I can really feel it (and I will come back to that)

b/ an approach where my longest run will have been the Coventry half-marathon a couple of weeks ago which went relatively well all things considered, I came within 11 seconds of my PB and was absolutely fine the day after. Damn 11 secondsJ

c/ in terms of speedwork, I have been religiously doing parkrun every week and managed to clock a PB of 21.08. Oh and I also got a 10 mile PB of 1:12 and change, don’t remember the seconds thing

d/ very reduced number of races, at least in comparison with previous year where I ran quite a few marathons at the weekends but then again that was my only running as I would only be occasionally doing a speedwork session with the Striders, and not very consistently and then doing parkrun and a marathon/double marathon at the weekend but at the moment I am doing 40+ mile weeks which is pretty much what I was doing previously except doing all of that at the weekend

d/ I dealt with an injury at the beginning of the year where I managed to mess up my hip after the from Sunrise to Sunset race (not the brightest idea to do an eight hour race six weeks after completing my first 100km, that’s all I have to say). I was given stretches to do for my hip and for my calves and for the first time in a couple of years I feel that I am running pain-free and I was struggling pretty much constantly since 2014 Malta marathon so that is something

e/ I continue with cross-training and do at least one 45-minute class between Monday and Thursday – BodyCombat, Metafit, VibeCycle and LBT/SweatBox although these two are not terribly inspiring and I am actually thinking of ditching them. I haven’t been able to implement yoga into the mix and this remains on the list of things to do

Because at the moment, a-e combined mean that I am feeling very stiff and very tired. Not to mention very hungry (although I had some minor successes on the weight front and after carrying a couple of extra kilograms around from the ultramarathon training, lost about 3kg in the last four months, basically since starting the daily running combined with classes). I am thinking of throwing massage into the mix and then the plan for later in the year, in between the four marathons and the 12 hour race (or following the 12 hour race) is to use one of those yoga passes for a 20-day challenge or similar but basically have a period where I drop running for a while and do yoga combined with doing something like Whole30 or metabolic efficiency as I am fairly curious what the outcome would be but not that keen to try and do that whilst at the height of training. Basically, I am also trying to think of a way to “hack” my training – I know that the traditional training plans are all about progression and what not but I thrive on routine, stability and predictability except at the moment I am struggling a bit in terms of the routine I devised for myself and need a way of turning that round. Because I had a thought during one of the classes this week and that was related to what I would ideally like to try in the run up what will be my first 24 hour race – and I would like that race to be in Poland (this year I would like to do two 12 hour races and I know of a track race in Barcelona, eying up the 24-hour one but there is no rush to do that and I am a bit concerned about doing my first 24 hour on track and without support, in a foreign country) and it looks like there is a 24 hour race every year in Poland anyway so that should be OK and then I would ask my mum for help and combine that with going to Poland so at least there’s that. But the thought is as follows – I would ramp up my morning runs to about 8 miles everyday (come back via the canal) and Mon-Thu come back from classes running so that is an additional 2.5-3 miles everyday which brings us up to 10.5 miles Mon-Thu (42 miles); Friday could be a short day of 5.5 miles; then Saturday is about 10.5 so that is 58 so far and then I would be going out with Sneyd Striders on Sundays and these are anything between 10-20 miles so that would bring me up to 70 plus miles and I would continue doing one class per day between Mon-Thu, possibly dropping metafit and focusing on things like VibeCycle and BodyPump. Now, my current plan of 40 plus miles with classes is one that I find myself struggling with so then the question is, how do I execute the proposed one which sees me running thirty more miles per week on top of everything? I am hoping that by throwing massage into the mix I will be able to help things somewhat but it feels it is such a battle between training quality, nutrition and being able to keep at my maximum. Something that I have enjoyed over the past couple of months is that I considerably sped up at parkrun but at the same time I do need to recognise that when I was able to achieve my PB it was after having a day off and feeling reasonably unstressed as a result. The last two weeks were a bit disappointing but I was coming off a cold and then the other thing is, results around 22:20 are a disappointment now – but last autumn, this would have been a very speedy day indeedJ Oh and the other thing with wanting to do a 24 hour race in summer/autumn is that the plan of doing 8 miles in the morning and also doing more miles in the evening does depend on the sun being out there so is really only feasible between April and October, otherwise things do become really miserable and that’s kind of not the point. Especially as recently I’ve realised that I deferred three races (Manchester Marathon, Coventry Way and ironbridge Half), and don’t really feel like racing that much anymore, I want racing to be more special and something that I build up to rather than spend money, stress about getting to a place, then work myself up whilst there and well, the whole thing about using things as training runs – it just feels frustrating not being able to give my 100% and so in terms of training races, I would rather use things like running with Sneyd Striders for free (well, the £25 membership fee) rather than collect medals that collect dust. And then there are some races like the Coventry Way that make me feel stressed just thinking about them and trying to do the navigation so maybe the fact that I cannot do it as tomorrow I am flying to Spain is a bit of a blessing in disguise. And this does marry with my overall goals for the year which is not to spend money stupidly and stop as much as possible doing things I don’t enjoy. So why the hell should I be paying to do races I don’t enjoy?

So in terms of thinking about all that, I want to find a way of properly tapering and getting to a race with the right frame of mind. Something that came to me today whilst at parkrun – I quite often try to think, either when overtaking people or when trying to catch up with somebody (essentially using them as my pacerJ) is to take advantage of their energy and something that came to me today was literally wrapping myself up in their energy field, I imagined the energy around us being a bit like a figure of eight or maybe the infinity symbol where all I needed to do was to make sure I was close to them enough so that I could remain inside their field and be wrapped up inside that figure of eight but the whole point was to see them as a friend, as someone that would give me energy and I would give energy to them rather than my rival or competitor and that felt really nice and quite powerful and something that mentally I would like to experiment with more. Because something that I have been struggling with quite a lot recently have been issues around focus and anxiety and at least running is one place where I am able to have that focus and have that energy so maybe that is a good start? I still can’t get over the comment I had from my writing group where one person said – if I apply myself to productivity and writing the way I apply myself to ultrarunning I will be unstoppable and I would like to hold on to that as I move towards meeting my long-term, long-distance goals. And this is why I would like to try the approach of lengthening my morning runs and the double runs as I am not really that keen on losing an entire day to travel to and from a marathon as this is what happened a number of times last year and the previous year, in retrospect it just feels really wasteful to spend 80 pounds and a full day of travelling (three hours there and three hours back) to run 26 miles when I could run 20 miles here for free and be done and dusted by ten o’clock. And I want to be able to revisit that moment of focus and peace as I was making the turn into Blizanow, 99 kilometres into a hundred kilometre race, knowing that I was able to finish something that was extremely difficult and where thirty kilometres earlier or so I had wobbly legs, was hallucinating and imagining I was running with a fellow angel and fantasising about an ambulance coming over and rescuing me. But the peace and quietness of that final stretch, that was one of the most focused moments of my life and a place of strength, and there were so many other places of strength that I have taken from all sorts of running experiences, and I still remember feeling tearful at the end of the Leicester Marathon telling myself like that winner of the Bake-off “I will never say I can’t” and finishing off in style with a sprint (which earned me special attention from a race volunteer at the finish but that is a different story…) and with tears in my eyes, building up on something I had felt really strongly in the Chester marathon two weeks prior where I was telling myself “I choose joy, I choose life”. But as it turns out, I am able to have those transformational experiences at my local parkrun – even though my ego is bristling at what feels like me slowing down… so maybe the message is, I continue to be inspired by my running, I need to find a way to express that inspiration and share it with others and focusing on the time is kind of detrimental to the joy at times, I so much prefer to focus on effort and that quiet feeling of contentment (and here reminded once again of that writing course where flow was described as something that is fairly even and not about highs and lows and elation and the drama – and maybe it is more about what I felt when finishing in Kalisz?)

PB parkrun


In some ways, I am completely not doing this right – as in, my only speed work during the week is actually the parkrun, and then the rest of my runs consist of a 5.5 mile route all the way into my nearest town and back (and whenever possible, I like to speed up in the last half a mile although speeding up at six am whilst running without breakfast will mean something more along the lines of an eight minute mile rather than the sub-seven minute miles I’ve been doing most Saturdays at parkrun to be consistently getting sub-22 minute results, culminating today in 21:15, and that is going from getting a PB in December last year of 21:46, finally beating an April 2014 PB that just wouldn’t go down, and then there was a 21:23 in between… In all cases, I wasn’t really looking at the watch or running according to a prescribed pace. I was just running, yes, getting close to that pukey-all out feeling that is so close and yet so far from that peace and transcendence at the end of a reeeeally long run, thinking here of the quiet peace that was with me as I was making a turn into Blizanow, jus one more kilometre left before completing my first 100km race.
Completing a 5k is very different and very alike, it’s not just that the discomfort is so much more acute but I think what is similar is the feeling of being connected to others and that is why I keep coming back to parkrun and have moments like I did last week at the cannon hill parkrun (and that is possibly another thing that could be helping with the PBs is that essentially I’ve been having one easy parkrun a month and I must check that but it could be that the improvements came a week after doing the slowerparkrun. And then there is the fact that I recently took up spinning at my gym and that could be helping with the leg turnover, I am doing sprints as part of that and intervals and I do remember hearing on ultra talk that this is a good way of cross training so there is that. But I started talking about the Cannon Hill parkrun, is to there before my coaching meet up and as I was leaving last time I was looking at people coming in ten-fifteen minutes after me, looking just as shattered and focused as I do after a really hard one and then it is amazing to see what feels like a culmination of hard work, grit and determination – and their effort is just as valid as mine. I mean, yes, I do like PBs and I love it when the text message from parkrun tells me I got one but I seem to be arriving at them in quite an unorthodox way. I mean, I know I should be doing intervals, and speedwork and what not, I should be running according to a specific pace and keep looking at my watch ensuring that I stay within that pace.
Instead, I don’t look at the watch and keep running at what feels the best possible effort. I also like to pick somebody as a pacer and then part of stick with them. Oh and I like to try to ensure I run as fast as possible at the end and it does help that the end is all the way downhill… At the same time, the thought of doing I don’t know, a structured sixteen week training plan to get to a specific time on a marathon starts feeling less and less appealing. I like doing my classes, I like doing my morning runs, I like the idea of experimenting with double runs in June/July at the weekend to prepare for the four marathons followed by a twelve hour two weeks later and then look at talking September off for the most part and then do the Birmingham half marathon for sentimental value so to say. I am doing Coventry half marathon in a weeks time and really wondering what I could get down to – but then the thought of grimly sticking to a specific pace just doesn’t appeal that much. Instead I would rather go with whatever feels good on the day and just go for it as I did for bloxwich pudding run. At the moment I am doubt about 45 miles per week so there is definitely room for increasing volume in the summer, maybe by running with the local club? Well see…but things feel like there is potential yet and it also feels like the sub-21 parkrun is achievable…

Thinking aloud and planning

Thinking about where my running is and where it should go next – something I have been looking at very longingly is fixed time races, 24, 48, 72 plus hours if going round and round and round… There is a race in Belfast that I really fancy doing although I might start with a 100km first which in a way is ironic – thinking of 100km as a short one… But there is a definite appeal in building up all the way to a six day race and I have seen things like six days of Pantamo or six day races in France and that is the other thing that quite excites me about this, that is being able to combine things with learning the language – two years should give me enough time to get my Italian to a reasonable standard so that in a couple of years when I do the six day race I can actually talk to people in Italian. So I find myself dreaming, and dreaming quite big – but that makes me quite happy and focused and gives me a purpose.

Training wise at the moment I am running about 45 miles per week, funnily enough that is more than when I was in the heavy phase of ultras but the way I am doing it is by running pretty much every day – doing 5.5 miles in the morning Monday to Friday, then do the parkrun combined with running to and from parkrun on Saturday and then about 7-8 miles on Sunday. The next ultra I have scheduled isn’t until beginning of April and in the meantime I have a half marathon in Coventry, one thing which will be interesting will be to see if my speed at that distance has improved – I have definitely improved when it comes to parkrun as since beginning of January all of my parkruns were under 22 minutes and even in days when it sort of felt like I was “off” that still was happening, so that effectively means I am capable of holding sub-seven minute miles. Whether I am able to do it over 13 miles remains to be seen… I did transfer my entry for Manchester marathon to next year, in some ways the idea of racing a marathon at the moment doesn’t quite appeal although I may yet to be convinced… So the rough plan is – key races will be Gozo 55k at end of April, then 100km at end of June, then the quadrathon in mid-August and then would like to do Birmingham half marathon and Florence marathon. Was thinking to myself if should do the Wolverhampton marathon and use the fact it is at home to try for a PB but that sort of doesn’t appeal… And then next year would have a stab at 24 hour race, maybe in Poland? Then there is Valencia marathon that has been on my list for a long while and that could be next autumn in terms of working towards getting some speed and then look at 48 hours in 2018 and then well, 6-day race by 2020? A four year plan?

Something that I am keen to explore in terms of training is doing double runs at the weekend – this is something I read recently in terms of the training that the female 100km world record holder does, Camille Herron, she mentioned that her training consists of doing 40-50 miles over the weekend broken up into four runs (she runs 12 times per week on average and works full time so that feels hopeful:) in the last two years when training for ultras I did do a bunch of marathons but at the moment it feels like yes, more mileage is helping but I no longer feel it has to be in the form of a marathon if that makes sense, for one thing, I now do run more during the week and that gives me the confidence that I can tackle the longer distances and no longer feel the need to go really long at the weekend, it made more sense when I wasn’t really running during the week but only did classes. I do classes now, but apart from metafit, there is very little that is high impact, taking out BodyAttack has made quite a difference I believe.

And the runners go round and round, round and round

sunriseI ended this year of running on quite a high – my first timed event with a twist, do as many laps of a rather hilly 0.84 mile loop as you want/can from Sunrise to Sunset on 27th December, a mercifully short day, still 7 hours 41 minutes of running round and round, round and round… It was an event that I ran for the pure enjoyment of running, even though technically it was more of a run-walking affair as the loop has two inclines and so from the beginning, I followed the good old ultra strategy of walking the uphills and running the flats and the downhills. At the same time, whilst the enjoyment of running was a key motivator, I must admit I was slightly nervous coming into the event, as is quite often the case with me – after all, I can get somewhat antsy even about a parkrun, especially when going for a quick time (and there have been a couple of quick times recently which I am very pleased about, the “run more, do less high impact classes” strategy is definitely working, as is being at home). Since the Kalisia supermarathon, I haven’t done a continuous run longer than ten miles and that was the Bloxwich pudding run. Funnily enough, I have been running more consistently and more often than when I was training for the 100k in the summer but that is mostly because I have been waking up at 05:30 everyday to support my other half and then seeing as I was already awake and only needing to be ready for the bus for 07:30, running a quick 5 miles every morning, doing some classes at the Sweat Union gym, mostly of the HIIT variety and swimming, in addition to doing a parkrun on Saturday and that has brought about a parkrun PB, something I haven’t been able to accomplish since last April (!) and in the past two weeks I did a 21:46 and 21:51 parkrun; a 10 mile PB by a whopping four and a half minutes and also a general feeling of really improving my core and getting back some strength. At the same time, this isn’t exactly typical preparation for running around for close to eight hours and I was also conscious of the fact that after Xmas I want to start working towards beating that 3:27 marathon time from two years ago and ideally dipping under 3:20 and my Bloxwich pudding run is giving me hope that this should be a possibility, plugging the 1:12:33 result into the prediction calculator gives a predicted marathon time of 3:21 and I know I get relatively faster over longer distances and can speed up towards the end.

Sunrise to Sunset was a relatively unglamorous affair, with a little over a hundred runners, most of whom were doing the marathon distance and I guess using the time between Xmas and New Year to get another notch on their belt, or rather another marathon that would count towards the 100 marathon club or 100 marathons and beyond, there was somebody yesterday who celebrated their 200th marathon. As I said previously I might end up becoming a member as a side effect from doing ultras but overall, not that keen on doing loads of slow marathons just for the sake of completing them. At this point in the game, I know I can – and I want to see how fast I can do them in. Which to an extent was my difficulty yesterday, I really didn’t want to overdo it and mess up my marathon training for the next couple of months. I wanted to finish and I did go in with a target in mind which turned out I didn’t reach, I initially thought I would be able to complete 50 laps but completed 48. Will take that, not sure whether I would be up for another go (although that probably might be famous last words…). Mentally and physically, there were some difficult bits as my hips started hurting after a couple of hours on the loop and there was the unmistakeable ultrarunning achiness; I think when I first started running ultras I thought that training would allow you to run without the achiness, now I am beginning to realise that you merely postpone it and train yourself to run despite the pain but that the low-level pain is probably inevitable. Now I know I need to work on embracing a different kind of pain as well, that of lactic acid building up at the end of a parkrun to be able to do a spectacular sprint finish and gain those valuable seconds at the end but that is a different running story…yesterday I did have the familiar wobble around mile twenty or so – somewhere round the halfway mark, I remember looking at the watch and we were about three and a half hours in and it felt quite overwhelming knowing that there were still almost four hours to go till sunset. But in some ways, to literally spend the whole day running felt quite magical, especially towards the end as the sky started going darker and I was banging out a couple of last laps, hoping to get as close to fifty as possible and thinking to myself I had a sunset to catch. It was nice to keep seeing people on the course, exchange some banter with them, or not; I was thinking yesterday this was the perfect introvert sport as you could choose to talk to others if you felt like it but equally, you could just stay silent, enjoying the run and the slow passing of miles. I ended up doing almost forty, which given that I completed not so long ago 62 miles in a little over 10 hours did feel slow but there were moments of clarity, moments of calm which I guess is something that keeps me coming back to those events even though there are times, including during the event, that I am not so keen and quite anxious to finish or just to stop. And the temptations to stop yesterday were very frequent and presented themselves every 0.84 mile… But at least I know now that I should be fine with a timed event and will want to try maybe a 24 hour one or maybe a 12 hour one to start with (there is a 24 hour one in Kent area that feels really tempting…). I really enjoyed the support from the bloke who came to support his wife and him and his kids did some silly cheering in the final hours of the event, every time an ultra runner came through. And yes, I do enjoy big city races, I do enjoy going down the finishing chute but it was just as exciting yesterday to see if I could do yet another lap before the sunset so maybe the lesson learnt is that there is joy and newness in all sorts of unexpected places. I also learnt that there may be chafing in all sorts of unexpected places – and by that I mean the back of my ankles where I got rubbed raw from all the mud, the bra lines and the usual suspects were well covered with Vaseline and protected but I didn’t really consider the dangers of the cross-country nature of the terrain. Ah well, you live and learn! I also learnt that Pop Tarts make a very good pre-run breakfast, completely devoid of nutrition but so full of lovely simple sugars and fast-hitting carbs so I might be getting some more for future races.

So all in all, a good event and a good  way to finish off a year which was quite challenging in all sorts of ways, and finishing off on a high – as mentioned before, December has brought about two PBs in shorter distances, November was all about the 100k and 2016 – well, we’ll see but I do have that half and full PB to beat and would love to have another go at a 100k and maybe a timed event again. I do think I may be running fewer marathons in general and just sticking to some chosen ones, as I do get somewhat antsy before races and want them to be special occasions. It should be easier now that I can am actually in a much better head space to enjoy running and being out there with my thoughts, which for a whole slew of reasons was difficult whilst I was living in Sheffield and struggling on the job market. So here’s to a new year, full of running and hopefully PBs!

I made it!


Halfway there…

The picture I took the morning of the Kalisia Supermarathon at 04:30a.m. is a mixture of concern, sleepiness with a hint of panic. I was slightly distracted by the need to get myself some breakfast and navigate the logistics of getting to the race, hoping that the taxi I booked would actually show up. I tried not to think too hard about whether I would actually be able to complete the distance of 100km/62 miles, my first race of that distance. I also had a very painful memory of completing 50 miles twelve months previously, which rendered me somewhat unable to walk or raise my legs for a day and tried not to think about that too much, either. The 100km has been on my bucket list for almost a year, I remember reading the race reports from Kalisz and I really wanted to partake in that experience myself, not to mention the fact that in a weird way, this year my ultramarathon training took place alongside a very long and drawn-out job hunt and when I finally nabbed that longed-for position mid-September, I wanted something that would help me draw a line between the old and the new and signed on the dotted line, so to say. I did have some plan B ultras in mind just in case I wouldn’t be able to make it to Poland (as in not be able to afford it due to uncertain job situation) but the dream race all year has been the one in Kalisz. Once again, similar to my approach for Ladybower, I trained by running marathons and shorter ultras every two or three weeks combined with parkrun and loads of Les Mills classes (BodyAttack, BodyCombat and BodyPump). Somewhat unconventional but seems to be working in terms of giving me endurance and the ability to churn out miles “like a machine” as a parkrun friend says. Speed is a different story but I do plan to work on it over the winter.

I travelled to Poland on Wednesday as the race was to be interspersed with visiting family mostly in the South-West of Poland and quite conveniently, the nearest airport to Kalisz is in Wroclaw where quite a lot of my relatives happen to live. On Thursday, me and my mum who very kindly offered to provide support, travelled on the train to Kalisz, a little under three hours on the so called regional train. We stayed in a self-catering apartment at the Baba Hostel which worked out brilliantly in terms of central location and being able to cook. Whilst it turned out that there is a gastropub literally a couple of doors down from the hostel open 24/7 and serving quite decent grub, it was still nice to be able not worry about being able to prepare my pre-race breakfast from especially as Kalisz is quite a small town. Charming, though, which I could verify on Friday as we explored the Museum showcasing the past of the area and had a short walk round the park before collecting race numbers from the race HQ at the local council building. Race number in hand, we went back to the hostel to watch some rubbish TV and get some sleep – I needed to be in Blizanow for 6 a.m. the following day. Quite a few of race participants actually stayed there overnight as the race organisers offered an option of overnight stay in the primary school but I didn’t feel up to sleeping in a room full of strangers, maybe next time?

The taxi did show up on time and I made it to Blizanow by 5:45 a.m. My pre-race nerves weren’t helped by a weird cramp that suddenly gripped my legs as I was getting out of the car but thankfully, it disappeared after a couple of minutes, never to return. I went inside the school to see runners finishing off their pre-race morning rituals and chucking race provisions into the boxes that would be put at the aid stations in Blizanow, Jarantow and Brudzew (every 5k). I added my gels as well as some Cadbury’s chocolate pretzels to the box destined for Brudzew which ended up being my special treat during the race. At six, we all got on the buses that would take us to Jarantow, 5km away from the starting line which meant that the first loop was 10km taking us from Jarantow through Brudzew and then back to the starting line in Blizanow, after that we would be doing six 15km loops, with an option to retire from the race after four loops (for a 70k distance) or five loops (for 85km distance). Really dangerous option, so tempting in the later stages of the race as it is available to 100k runners as well. After we arrived to Jarantow, we had about 20 minutes to kill, fortunately the local supermarket happened to be open and the manager didn’t seem to mind having about half of the running party, fifty-odd runners huddling inside for warmth. There were a lot of bad jokes about downing a “setka” (i.e. a 100ml shot of vodka), given that the name of the race is “Kaliska Setka”, literally “Kalisz one hundred”. Needless to say, no alcohol was consumed but there was plenty of last-minute carb-loading. The start was a very unassuming affair, a quick briefing about the need to watch out for the cars as the roads were only partially closed and we just counted down from ten to one and then off we went. The first 10k were rather uneventful, I chatted briefly to a couple of people and in general enjoyed listening to other people taking about the Polish ultrascene, something completely new to me and there are some events such as the Szczecin to Kolobrzeg (147km) ultra that definitely piqued my interest.  As always, there were some interesting characters out there, for instance I chatted to a bloke who was an Ironman triathlete but entered the 100km because he saw somebody in a “Kaliska Setka” T-shirt at a race and decided to embrace a new challenge (and ended up being successful, even if his originally planned sub-10 hours time did not happen because his quads decided to give up after the fourth loop). As for me, I really had no idea what do expect, I did have a dream goal of sub-10 in the back of my head but halfway through the race that shifted to “just finishing would be great”J I did enter the race with a bit of an alphabet soup of goals – the “A” goal was the sub-10 one (the super, super dream goal is of being able to break 9:30 at some point in the future as this is the current 100km female record held by one of my fellow club runners and she is total legend, at the moment in her sixties and still running really strong). The “B”-goal was sub 11 (and I exceeded that by quite a lot), the “C”-goal was sub-12 and the “D” goal was well, just to finish within the cut-off which was 12 ½ hours (but I don’t think they were terribly strict on that as I saw some finishing times that were at around 13 hour mark). My survival method during the race was to think in terms of getting from aid station to another, sort of just another parkrun to go thing and make sure that I was eating and drinking. That bit was easy as the aid stations were manned by ever so helpful local primary school pupils and stocked with water, Coke, sweet tea and coffee and a real smorgasboard of refuelling options, some of them well, interesting. As in, there were sandwiches with fish paste and luncheon meat which felt a bit random, as did what looked like the Polish version of split pea and ham soup. There was more “regular” (whatever that means in ultrarunning context) fare as well which included an unlimited supply of Prince Polo wafers (Polish equivalent of Kitkats), raisins, chocolate, biscuits and so on. I could have done with some crisps but at least I’ll know for the future to bring some of my own provisions. Because yes, I am hoping to show up at the start of the Kalisia Supermarathon in the future.

The first two loops were a bit of a warm-up, and on the third one I really felt like I was flying and really enjoying myself, and making sure to remember the good times for when the bad times inevitably would come – something that ultras have taught me is that neither good times nor bad times will last indefinitely, so might as well enjoy the good patches while they last… And indeed, it felt like I started crashing really badly on the fourth loop which was the start of my first wobble but managed to pick myself up, changing from wet shoes into dry ones also helped as I started to feel some blisters coming on (but that was mostly my own fault, initially went with socks that were slightly too thin, a very painful lesson learnt!) due to soggy shoes as it rained intermittently. After the fourth loop, having covered 60km, I thought to myself “only a marathon to go”, funny how distance gets all relative… but having done a bunch of marathons as training runs in preparation for the 100km I knew this was a distance that felt familiar, even though I would shortly enter into a very unfamiliar territory as I had never covered more than 50 miles (about 80km) in race and was about to enter that foreign land towards the end of my fifth loop. That was also when I started hallucinating slightly, or at least mistaking lamp posts and road signs for people. Probably a by-product of the loneliness of the long-distance runner as from the third loop onwards I was mostly on my own and came in contact with other human beings only at aid stations so I am guessing my brain compensated for the need for company. At the 80km mark, as I entered the realm of previously unimaginable distances I somehow convinced myself to break the remainder of the race up into two 10ks, and just focus solely on what was ahead of me rather than the distance I had just covered as I stopped being able to comprehend how I was still capable of moving. A couple of times I felt like just letting my legs collapse and then the rest of the body would follow, but somehow knew I needed to stop entertaining those nice fantasies of ending up in an ambulance, no matter how tempting that felt at the time. The other thing I knew from all the previous ultras was that once I entered that level of pain, as long as it was only the dull pain of pounding my body against the pavement for hours on end, I was capable of going on for quite a long while. After all, I remember the pain coming on at mile 25 of the Run to the Castle ultramarathon, and somehow covering the remainder of the distance all the way to mile 42, just moving one foot in front of another, and actually mostly running as I knew from experience that the pain wouldn’t be any different if I started walking, the only difference was that walking took considerably longer (not that I am dismissing walking during ultras, I do subscribe to the principle of walking the ups to conserve energy and will definitely walk in a trail ultra). So I somehow kept going, from aid station to aid station, thinking to myself, OK, this is the last time I will see this aid station today, thinking to myself, I’m eating and drinking and moving forward and somewhere after Jarantow, 91 or so kilometres into the race, I once again thought to myself, the only thing that matters is what lies ahead and in that moment, this seemed to make some sort of profound sense. And then once I got to Brudzew and hit 95 km I knew I only had a parkrun to go and somehow knew I would be able to finish and started “speeding” up (in reality, probably going from something like over 10-minute miles to 9-minute miles or so, nothing to get too excited aboutJ) but I did overtake a bunch of people, including a pair of guys who looked at one another and I passed them, I overheard one of them going “a girl overtook us”, well, the pleasure was all mine. And then I got to the bit where you turned left to go into Blizanow, probably less than a kilometre left to the finish line, it was getting quite dark as it was after five o’clock already on a November evening and I was saying to myself “remember this, remember how it feels to finish your first 100km” and I kept running along the empty street, passing the buildings I saw many times that day, getting closer and closer to the moment where I could legitimately say I finished the race and there it was, the finish line, where my mum was waiting for me. Funnily enough, I stumbled into the aid station and grabbed some tea and bananas and the bloke there tried to encourage me to keep moving so that I didn’t stiffen up too much before my last loop to which I proudly showed him my medal and explained I wasn’t planning on any more running that day. My body wasn’t really on board with any walking either, as I quickly started stiffening up but fortunately, I wasn’t injured (I ended up at Ladybower 50 with a groin injury, something that I was really afraid of would reoccur if I ran a similar kind of distance again), just really trashed from running for over ten hours on roads. The night right after the race was quite painful and I did regret not having any painkillers with me as I found it really difficult to get comfortable and only got a couple of hours of fitful sleep. But overall, I was amazed at how quickly I bounced back and was able to move more or less normally after only two days and was back to running (only a couple of miles at a time) a week later and did my first post-race parkrun yesterday, i.e. two weeks after the race in a time that is relatively decent for me. In terms of future plans, well, that is a subject of another post but the next race is going to be a nice and short 10 mile Bloxwich Pudding Run, nothing too extreme…




Double trouble

I remember that when I first tried finding any information online on how people survived double weekends – as in, two marathons or even two ultras in two consecutive days, there was very little. I do remember coming across a post that essentially said (a very belated thank you to Traviss Wilcox for inspiration! Here’s a couple of other useful posts I found since: training for a double marathon and an account of doing a double) – second day is going to hurt at least starting out but once you get over it, it might even get better and that has been my experience of doing relatively heavy weekend mileage in September- the JW ultra on 12th September followed by a double (Birmingham Canal Canter on 19th September and Chesterfield marathon on 20th September) and then two weeks later, the Heart of England Forest marathon on 3rd October followed by Chester marathon the next day, 4th October). So one thing that might need to be part of disclaimer – it was a trail marathon in both cases followed by a road one, not two road ones – not sure whether that would have made a massive difference, perhaps some in terms of the pounding on the joints?
I finished all of them, with decent road times and with Chester even managing quite a decent negative split of about four minutes so not too bad:)

The anticipation was probably one of the worst bits. I remember starting out on the Birmingham Canal Canter and feeling quite sick, literally, mostly with anxiety – will I be able to make it through a fifty plus weekend? And it didn’t help that I had a really shitty time previous week on JW ultra which does run through some of the route of the Canter so that didn’t help at the outset, covering the same space where things didn’t go great, and partly psychologically as well. Although things did pick up for me once my focus became about getting to the cake station at mile seventeen or so, had some lovely strudel and perked up pretty much immediately. Well, must have been hungry… Something that I learnt from JW ultra was that chocolate works quite well – and mostly learnt it because I didn’t have any and was desperate for some:) and then it was nice to see people I know and then match some names to faces I sort of knew, like the bloke called nick that did say we seem to be bumping into one another at a lot of events. So got that out of the way in respectable 4:19 which would have been bang on ten minute miles. Went back home, had late lunch and got myself to Sheffield in the evening. Was freaking out about the morning also because my plan of getting to Chesterfield involved Uber and I hadn’t done that previously so didn’t know how reliable that would be etc. which meant that I got there ridiculously early with over an hour to spare. At least could have a coffee without being too rushed. There were some really beautiful views especially when going downhill although wasn’t that keen on the dual carriageway running and it was quite a small race, I was often on my own in the second half plus the fact that my 3:51 time got me sixth lady finish, I mean, seriously? I even managed to bump into somebody from work, small world and all that. I did finish strong, speeding up somewhat and overtaking at least two women bad then there was the interminable stretch through the park, first the outer loop, then the inner loop and then finally finish- a walk back to train station and the long awaited meal at the Polish restaurant where I was the only guest enjoying a well-earned pork chop. Importantly, on both days was making sure to have a chocolate milk right after the event, not sure if it massively helped but didn’t hurt either. I didn’t take that much time off in between, still went ahead and did the classes I normally do and weirdly enough, I think in between those two double weeks I did a really good parkrun time…

The next double was Heart of England marathon followed by Chester which was a bit of a feat of logistics- had to get myself to and from Henley in Arden on Saturday morning and then take myself to Chester Saturday evening which involved spending quite a lot of time at Birmingham New Street… The Heart of England race was OK-ish- some wonderful views and gorgeous autumnal landscape and running somewhere I wouldn’t get the opportunity. At the same time, there was the niggly fear about navigation and I tried sticking with people as much as possible but I’m just not really a fan of trail running in general. I remember running Chester the day after and thinking to myself how much happier I felt on the road where I could get a nice rhythm and not worry about navigation. Had a little too much cake at the 23 mile stop (OK, that may be one redeeming feature of trail/LDWA races – there is no cake on road marathons!) but then that actually worked out in my favour- gave me a boost towards the finish and then when I got back to the school which was the HQ/finish I realised I still had a chance to catch the 14:41 train if I hurry up and so I turned back and ran to the train station, having just ran for five hours… Made it home, had late lunch/tea and cooked off pizza for the train journey. Got to my airbnb shortly before ten, made some small talk and fell asleep pretty much straight after. Got myself nicely to the start, picked up race number and proceeded to have an excellent racing experience – much better than in 2013 where I went off too fast and was dying at mile 16. This year felt so much stronger and in control of the race overall, with a strong finish. In terms of fuel at the road marathons, I relied on a combination of my own gels and jelly babies from kind strangers, for some weird reason there always seem to be people standing on the side of the road with a bowl of jelly babies and what not, I just try not to think about what was on the hands of other runners who dipped in before me. At Chester, I also experimented with some Nakd nibbles (essentially dates with nuts) which surprisingly went down quite well and might take them with me to the 100k.  I would also strategically use energy drinks that were provided by the organisers, I quite liked the Lucozade they had in Chester, don’t think there was anything in Chesterfield, though. When I calculated the carbs/calories for both double weekends, it worked out to pretty much 120 calories/hour, roughly 30g carbs per hour give or take which is on the lower end of the spectrum (I’ve seen recommendations as high as 90g/hour , especially for later stages of ultraracing) but seems to be working for me and seems to be giving me enough energy to pull out a “sprint” finish or at least a negative split. After all, I am on the smaller side and the other thing is, most of the time I’ve felt fine with the strategy I am using, only experiencing some mild discomfort once or twice, mostly due to gels – so I must be doing something that’s working.

So to sum all of that up in terms of learning from the experience – the fear of doing a “double double” was probably worse than actually doing it. I did learn a lot about fuelling, logistics and planning and I also confirmed, I think, my overall preference for road events and that I do enjoy the marathon distance and in fact, after I’m done with ultras for this year (ignoring the sneaky little one I am doing at the end of December, from Sunrise till Sunset) I actually want to focus on training for a faster marathon, in build up for another 100k in July, hopefully there will be another edition of the Keith Whyte 100k in County Cork as that looked like my kind of race, loops on a road:) I also learnt how to play the marathon more strategically and perfected the art of negative split and speeding up in the “second half” – seasoned runners say that marathon is divided into a 20-miler and a 10k and there is  a lot of truth to that, and also learnt a lot about using mental techniques to distract myself in what sometimes feels like the really dark time, at least to me, the bits between mile 8-16 and then 16-20 which feel like my mental markers. Less than two weeks to go till my race!