Every finish is a finish

The Oxford English Dictionary defines perseverance as follows:

“Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success

This was planned to be a post about how I finished my 2nd North Downs Way in under 11 hours, knocking over 50 minutes off my time from last year. However, things don’t always go according to plan and this was one of those occasions as I finished in just over 13 hours, over 1 hour longer than last year. I’ll keep my race day summary short and instead focus on what I learned from the experience and how I think it can make me a better runner in the future.

Before I go any further though I want to say a huge well done and thank you to my running buddy and training partner Phil Hall. 1 year ago he drove me home from the NDW50 and I could tell from our conversation that he would enter this year’s race. He decided to do so shortly afterwards. Phil asked me to help him train for the race and worked so hard to get ready for this challenge. You did it buddy. Thanks for your company and support on a testing day in the running office yesterday. You deserved better but stuck with me. You are an ultra runner. It was never in doubt.

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Race day in summary:

Arrived at the start with Phil feeling calm, confident and ready to run 50 miles again. Met up with other runners I tweet regularly and/or have met at other races in the past including Stewart Leisnam, Martin Bamford, Matt Buck, Kevin Matthews, Ashley Hurd. Spoke with Simon Welch and Beth Pirie who I’ve had the pleasure of running with in preparation for this race. Walked down to the race start and chatted with Sam Robson, who has been very supportive of me and Phil in the build up and hopes to run with us (probably ahead though as he’s a quick runner) on our local trails sometime this year.

Started running. Ran steady, controlled and on target for 10 miles. Right leg started to feel strange after 8 miles or so. By 10 miles in I was limping. IT band problem. This led me to run/limp and hike the remaining 40 miles (well, 41 in reality) to get to the finish and from this point on my race was frustrating, painful, scenic, enjoyable (strangely) and, ultimately, rewarding. I did not stop (the dreaded DNF never entered my mind). I did not push on regardless and keep running to hit my target time, risking a long injury lay off in the process. I did finish. Was it unlucky 13 (my race number)? I don’t think so, even though I did end up taking 13 hours to finish.

After a hug from the one and only Nici Griffin at the finish line I thanked James Elson, Race Director for Centurion Running, for yet another fantastically run event. I told him about my IT band problems and the fact that I had run/limped and hiked it in. He replied:

“A finish is a finish.”

That’s exactly why I kept on going. I had trained so hard for this year’s event. I was in good shape. Until mile 10 anyway. Ultimately, the finishers medal I got from this year’s NDW50 (on the right in the photo below) means so much more than the one from my debut ultra last year. I had to work so much harder for it and mental strength was key.

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Belief is key

I listen to a number of running podcasts but mainly Ultra Runner Podcast and Trail Runner Nation. On a recent edition of the TRN podcast they focused on Lanny Bassham’s “Mental Management” techniques for building mental strength, with a particular emphasis on positive self image, visualisation and the ability to adapt to circumstances. I listened to this particular interview 4 times in the 2 weeks before NDW50 and this proved incredibly helpful when I encountered the IT band problems during the race. Not only did I have confidence in my race preparation and training but I never doubted that I would finish.

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“Things happen for you, not to you”

Lanny Bassham said this in the interview on TRN when sharing his journey from school sports reject to Olympic shooting champion and then entrepreneur and coach. Having had time to reflect upon how the race developed for me I have already taken several positives. If the race had gone to plan then I might never have considered these.

It really is 90% mental

I’ve heard it said many times that once you get into running the ultra marathon distances success – whether that be winning a race, setting a new PB or finishing – is 90% mental. I know my physical preparation for NDW50 was better than last year but can still be improved (some strength and conditioning work is definitely needed and this might have helped me about the IT band issue). My mental preparation this year was far better than last year. While I never doubted either last year or this year that I would complete the 50 miles of the race I was really tested on this yesterday. I don’t think I’d have been able to keep going last year if faced with the same issue. I like to think that I am now a calmer, more focused and rational runner than before but I know I am increasingly determined.

100 miles is definitely on

From the blogs and race reports of 100 mile ultra marathons that I’ve read (mainly for Centurion Running events) it seems that the majority of runners end up running (slowly) and hiking or walking the last 30-40 miles of their race. Having been though this for 40 miles yesterday I am better prepared for the challenges faced here. Slow progress can lead to frustration, panic about cut offs and self doubt. I know that I can keep moving forward and what it takes to do so in adversity. The forthcoming Endure24 race – a 24 hour trail event where runners (solo, pairs or teams) run a 5 mile loop as many times as they can (or want to) in 24 hours – was always intended to be a dry run for my SDW100 in June 2015. The challenge of running all day and through the night into the next day is not one I’ve yet had to deal with but I’m even more confident now that I can do it.

And finally

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Thank you for all of the support, encouragement and advice from everyone since I started my ultra running journey. There are too many of you to name but each and every text, tweet, Facebook comment and message makes such a huge difference. After a tough day yesterday to see the good luck messages and comments after the race was so uplifting.

Rest assured, I’m going to be back. Stronger. Fitter. Faster.

It’s all about the journey and I’m loving every single minute of it.

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Trail Team 2014

Now that’s what I call a great day out….

I’d been looking forward to this day since receiving the email from the Trail Running Team organisers in early April which started as follows:

“Thank you for applying to be part of the team for 2014. We are very happy to inform you that you have been shortlisted for the next step, and we’re pleased to invite you to attend one of our Trail Team Days. Congratulations!”

Having read the tweets, Facebook comments and blogs from those who attended the first event in Helvellyn in the Lake District I was even more excited about what was in store for us. I arrived at the Education Centre at Parliament Hill in London in time for a quick chat with some runners I know through Twitter and from the trail running scene and then the talks began.

First up were talks from 2 of the 2014 Trail Running Team sponsors, Berghaus and Torq Fitness. In my experience, runners discuss runing gear and nutrition almost as much as the joy of the trails and the challenges/races they have planned so this was a good way to start the day. The opportunity to win a jacket and some sports nutrition products in the raffle at the end of the day helped as well (I didn’t win). The fact that Berghaus is still perceived as a walking/hiking brand by most of the runners in the room was interesting and as a business lecturer I was keen to find out how they are working to build the brand and target the trail running community in particular. Clearly the fact that they are sponsoring the #TrailTeam 2014 is evidence of their ambition and desire to reach out to this market but having seen the Vapour Light jacket I don’t think it will be long before we see many more runners in their gear on the trails. I was really impressed by the grass roots initiatives that Berghaus have implemented, including the opportunity to receive support as an Everyday Adventurer as well as the sponsoring of runners such as Steve Birkenshaw and Philippe Gatta.

As far as nutrition is concerned, I know that I still have a lot to learn. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to discover that I knew more than I thought when this was discussed, such as how much carbohydrate runners should consume every hour during exercise (60-90g). All of this reading (and listening to podcasts) I have been doing about running and performance must be sinking in! However, I soon came to realise that my fuelling strategy for races needs reviewing. Having tried some of the Torq products – including gels which I have never really got on with in the past – I was impressed. Overall, this was an informative and thought provoking talk. It was a shame that LED Lenser could not be there to give a talk but Simon from the Trail Running Team talked us through the range of head torches they offer and Tim Ellis (Trail Team member 2013) confirmed to me over lunch how effective they were when he ran the CCC in 2013.

After a break for lunch and the opportunity to meet and chat with the wide range of runners present we settled down to listen to what I can only describe as a totally inspiring talk from David and Katharine on their 5000 mile project to run the length of South America. It was great to hear from two “ordinary” people (as they describe themselves) who decided to take on such an enormous challenge to test themselves and raise awareness of environmental issues at the same time. Seeing images and video of them running with parrots on their shoulders, observing snakes in the undergrowth (and under their shoes taking shelter!) and seeing a giant anteater up close brought home how different the environment was and how rich the wildlife is across the world (video here). I applaud them for their efforts to raise awareness, for venturing into territories where their lives were in danger and escaping unharmed (in the latter stages by their own admission becuase they looked so terrible!)and for making me feel better as a runner who often gets lost on the trails and ended up running further than planned (they ended up running 6,500 miles).

The last speaker of the day was Stuart Mills, an experienced trail and ultra runner. I first saw Stuart after the Steyning Stinger trail marathon in March – once when he came flying past me about 10 miles in (I had started early as I am not a fast runner) and then at the finish (he had to withdraw after turning an ankle I believe). I was aware that he had won a number of races and generally takes the “catch me if you can” approach to racing, setting off at the fastest pace possible in the hope (often correct) that he will outrun the rest of the field and build up such a large gap that even when he inevitably slows up in the latter stages nobody will be ble to catch him. It works for him but as a runner in the initial stages of my trail running adventures (having run only 2 trail marathons and a 50 mile ultra marathon) I think I’ll stick with the steady paced efforts for now.  I have been reading up on the mental aspect of training a lot of late and so I was fascinated to find out that Stuart’s talk would focus on this aspect of performance. It was encouraging to hear that Stuart is also an avid reader of running and endurance books and takes notes from the likes of Kilian Journet, Scott Jurek and others as he seeks to improve from race to race.  There was a great deal of food for thought in Stuart’s talk but it was interesting to hear him focus on the importance of setting realistic (but challenging) goals and the need to enjoy your running and especially the races rather than gritting it out. I know I can do better – after all, I applied for the Trail Team 2014 and the opportunity to spend 3 days running in The Alps – This chimes with my approach to running, as stated in this part of my Twitter bio:

Learn – Adapt – Improve – Enjoy – Repeat. It’s all about the journey.  

Finally, we got to go out for a 6 mile run around Hampstead Heath to end the day. This is what it’s all about. I chatted with a number of runners, from those fairly new to trail and ultra running (like me) to experienced ultra runners who have run races exceeding 200 miles in length. It was a glorious day and I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the trails in London. The view from the top of Parliament Hill looking down towards the City of London was amazing.

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I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. Whether or not I make the final team of 4 I have had a great day out, met some great runners, and am now part of a wider running community. After all, we run because we love it, don’t we? Any chance to meet new people, learn from others and push ourselves should be grasped with both hands.

Thanks to Trail Running Magazine, the team at Freestak who set up the Trail Running Team, and the sponsors of the #TrailTeam2014 for the opportunity.