For a while now I’ve been flirting with the idea of doing an ultra, the problem was always finding the race that would suit my triathlon season commitments. Some of you already know that I drive trains for a living, my main route is between London Euston and Northampton, I tend to work lots of early morning shifts and I often take train to be washed from Euston into this place in Camden, and from there a taxi picks drivers up and takes us back to Euston. Underneath where we wait for the taxi is the Grand Union canal path and I often look at it and think to myself: ‘this goes all the way to where I live’. One of those mornings I stared at it and thought I should run it; there and then the idea was born.
My last triathlon in 2012 was the Long Distance Classic, a ¾ Ironman distance in Essex in August, and rather than not having anything else to aim for in 2012 I came up with the idea of running the Grand Union canal to Leighton Buzzard in December. I shared my thoughts on Twitter and soon I had people interested in joining me. Once I was back from holidays I started training for it but I was still uncertain of the exact mileage, I had imagined 52 to 55 miles. Before the end of September I covered the route on my single speed bike (that was an adventure in itself) with my friend Colin and my Garmin clocked 60.5 miles (eeek). I had a chat with the other runners and the reaction was that we should aim for 62 miles (100k).
How did I train for it? Basically I borrowed the ideas from the book ‘Relentless Forward Progress’, but being a keen triathlete I had to keep up with the other two disciplines. So in my training plan I only wrote the schedules of the long runs, the rest of the training was very unstructured. To give you an idea, I did a couple of marathon distances training runs, a 33.5 miler and a few 18-12 back to back long runs. I only ran 3 times a week and my other sessions included fixed gear bike rides, long swims sessions, swim classes, easy turbo trainer sessions and weight training (low weight, high reps type). I hardly did any speed sessions running; sometimes I’d do 2 miles at marathon pace during a 5 mile run. The majority of the weeks I trained six times with most Sundays off. I regularly clocked 10 to 12 hours weekly and gave every fourth week a bit of a break and reduced the hours.
The biggest change for me during the ultra-training was nutrition, I was recommended by a friend a book called ‘Nutrition Periodization for Athletes’ by Bob Seebohar. Basically, Seebohar came up with a concept called metabolic efficiency, whereby you can manipulate the types of food you put together in a meal or snack in order for your body to be able to better utilise your fat stores. As I understand it the concept is about reducing your body insulin response when eating and thus allowing the athlete to transform from a carb burner into a fat burner. Bearing in mind that even the skinniest of the athletes have enough fat stores to keep going for a long time the idea seemed plausible to me and I was willing to give it go. Seebohar goes as far as saying that if you get your body in a metabolic efficient state there is no need to the usual carb loading before endurance events and the need to feed during races is reduced. I wouldn’t describe my new diet as a high fat diet although I do eat a lot more good fats, but it now involves managing my carbs, particularly what type they are and when to have them. Alongside this I was also recommended a sports drink which is made out of corn starch rather than refined sugar, an American product called UCAN Generation. The manufacturers claim that the drink doesn’t give you a fast insulin response thus allowing a more stable source of energy compared to the usual gel/sport drink. Now you might be asking what is the problem with the ‘normal’ gels/drinks that you find in the UK? Not too long ago I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic (genetic pre-disposition) so for me taking refined sugar in the form of gels/drinks was always a concern, also it is terrible for your teeth. Now when I look at a plate of food I no longer look at calories or fat content, I think about whether it will create an insulin response. What I can say is that with this new way of eating I have become better at managing my hunger cravings and I also look leaner despite losing very little weight during ultra-training. I would be curious at some point in the near future to have my blood tests re-done to check and see if my glucose levels have levelled out.
I treated every long run as an opportunity to test my nutrition strategy for the “big day”. I soon found out that refined sugar in the form of jam sandwiches and mars bars didn’t work well with my tummy so I tested other options alongside my new eating plan. The pace during these long runs was always much slower than my usual long run pace and I also set out a walking strategy, basically for the big day the plan was to run for 2 hours at the start then start a run 25min-walk 5 min strategy.
The big day soon rolled around and my confirmed running buddies were Stuart & Steve. We caught the 3h50 train into London and by 4:50 we were running, although it was very cold the forecast said no rain and after 10min or so we were warmed up. Leaving London we hardly needed to use the head torches with all the street lighting and sometimes the moonlight. I aimed at eating every half hour and for the first four hours I didn’t touch any sugar, I had cheese and ham sandwiches in halves, Pringles, UCAN sports drink and water. The pace was very gentle at around 10:30min/mile and we chatted the entire time, which made time fly by and soon it was getting light. I took charge of the walking breaks and we did them almost to a military precision. We were able to carry half of the water/food we needed for the day and my beautiful wife was summoned to crew for us at the 30miler mark, a very convenient Tesco’s car park in Rickmansworth. It took us 6 hours to get there, great pacing at that point.
We had a bigger feed there and probably stopped for a good 15min. We all found it a bit painful to start running again but within 10min or so our legs felt normal again. We carried on with our run/walk strategy, eating as we went and by then I had introduced some sugar in the form of peanut butter/banana sandwiches in halves, Nakd bars, coffee beans covered in dark chocolate and malt loaf pieces as well as all the other savoury stuff I had in the first half. My stomach felt fine throughout and as the miles ticked away the legs felt more and more ‘worked’ but no crash or bad patches at all, but every now and then a pain would develop on my big toe or my right hip. By mile 50 I could sense we would all finish and with about 10miles or so to go my tri club mates Alex and Colin were waiting for us with flat Coke. It was great to quickly catch up and get a nice caffeine boost along with a few photo opportunities.
Once on the move again the conversation between us reduced, by then there was a 15 metres gap between us, but we marched on taking our walking/eating breaks every 25min. Lots of things were going through my head by then but crazy as it seems I didn’t want the run to end. It was a good place to be in; I was running more than I have ever done in my life and loving every minute of it and I now get all the buzz of ultra running.
As we entered Leighton Buzzard my mate Phil was waiting alongside the canal with a torch and he ran another 2 miles with us. We started chatting more by then and we were all in good spirits and even Phil telling me Arsenal had lost to Swansea didn’t ruin my great mood. When we approached the big Tesco’s in Leighton Buzzard some of the friends from the tri club surprised us there clapping and cheering us on, it was awesome and gave me a boost of energy and with 5k to go my legs seemed to work like new. I was checking my Garmin and the pace was about 8:15min/mile, we were ‘flying’!
As I entered my road, my wife had Rocky’s ‘Eye of the tiger’ playing on the loudspeakers for our last few metres home and then we were done…. what an experience, this wasn’t a race, there were no medals, no goody bags, no timing chips, but I bloody loved it!!!
I have lots of people to thank, firstly my wife Anna and my girls for putting up with my training and still loving me. Thanks Stu and Steve for being great running buddies, I know a lot more about you guys now. Thanks Colin for riding that canal with me not once but twice, and also for helping us lots on the day. Thanks Alex aka The Fish for the support and help on the day and for the great pictures you took. Thanks to my club mates Diane + husband, Steve + his son, and Andrew for cheering us on at the end, that was so cool and I will never forget that. Thanks Mark for the many tips you gave me during the day and for cheering us on in that last km. Thanks Phil for running those two miles with us and encouraging us to finish. Thanks Dan, during these last few weeks I learned lots from you buddy, next time we’ll be doing that together. Thanks for everyone who couldn’t be there on the day but who have encouraged me in the last few weeks, and for all the lovely messages I received.
So what’s next for me now? I will be taking it really easy for the next four weeks, nothing long or high intensity, but in January I’ll start training for Ironman Austria in June, that’s my A race for the year. I want to earn the M-dot tattoo. I am also planning an autumn marathon, perhaps Amsterdam…
In terms of ultra-running I would now like to complete a 100 miles distance at some point, although I am not sure whether I will enter an organised race or create my own route again. That will probably happen in 2014 J
Some useful links: