Monday, 10 October 2016

Spartathlon 2016 Race Report. End of Season.

In 2007 whilst working full time and attending Uni in the evenings I put on a bit of weight; there just wasn’t time to exercise, or so I thought. I got the shock of my life when my favourite pair of jeans no longer fitted and I decided to do something about it. Ryan Spencer sold me my first pair of running shoes and he was also responsible for planting the seed of ultra-running in my brain even before I had set foot on the store's treadmill…

So I lost the extra weight with the running and I was awarded a degree and since then I have completed a lot of endurance challenges. I can't quite remember when I first heard about the Spartathlon but it goes without saying that it is an iconic race because of its history and difficulty. Last year I was lucky enough to meet their qualifying criteria and I felt even luckier to be successful in the ballot for a place this year and have a chance to represent Brazil.

So what is the Spartathlon? It’s an annual, 246 km race (153 mi) in Greece since 1983, retracing the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus in The Persian Wars, arrived in Sparta the day after he departed. Herodotus wrote: "On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens." Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden MBE and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden , John Scholtens and John McCarthy. The following year a team of enthusiastic supporters (British, Greek and other nationalities) based at the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens and led by Philhellene Michael Callaghan organised the running of the first Open International Spartathlon Race. The event was run under the auspices of SEGAS, the Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association.
Following my success this summer at the double Ironman in Slovenia, I had 7 weeks before the Spartathlon to recover and get ready for the race. I was careful with my training, as there was no point in training excessively as the risk of injury was high. What I did do was to include more undulating road running to try mimicking the Greek course and since we lack the sunshine in the UK I used the sauna a lot, as I've read it can help you acclimatise to warmer weather. Whether that is true or not I am still not sure but it did boost my confidence that I would be able to cope in the Greek sun.

Things went smoothly and with two weeks left I began to taper for the race and start packing for the trip.  Unfortunately, it was then that I realised that with my eagerness to have everything ready months in advance, my medical certificate had now expired! Panic set in when my local doctor was fully booked. I emailed the organisers to explain my situation and got a lovely reassuring reply that I was not to worry-phew!

Before I knew it I was in the Acropolis, with only a few minutes left before my long journey to Sparta. I wasn't worried about the distance, the undulation or the 36 hours cut off. What worried me the most was the heat and the pressure of having to stay ahead of the death bus. For an athlete of my ability there wasn't a lot of room for error in the first 100k of the race.

As the race started I let my legs dictate my pace, I didn't have to put in any effort to run at 6 miles per hour.  Leaving Athens was chaotic, with lots of cars and fumes and it was probably the part I enjoyed the least. I was glad to leave the capital and to start running along the coastline, the temperature rose and I remember looking at the water and wishing I could dive in. Once it warmed up I started with my strategy of soaking my hat in cold water and immersing my wrists/buffs in the ice at every check point I went through. I made it to the marathon in roughly 4:10 with 30min to spare. Next goal would be the fifty mile mark then 100k. I made it to those with 40min to spare and I was already looking forward to the cooler night ahead.

As it got darker and the temperature dropped I started to feel more comfortable despite my fatigued legs and with each check point my spare time increased which naturally boosted my confidence. Nutrition was going really well and during the day I only consumed the Generation UCAN which I was carrying, some peach juice mixed with water and the odd cup of coke. It was late at night when I had my first solid food, half a cheese and ham sandwich.

I noticed that pretty much everyone else were wearing a warmer layer and hat and gloves, however I felt really comfortable just wearing the short sleeve top I started in. The sky was clear and simply stunning, filled up with stars and I’m not sure I was hallucinating but I swear I saw a shooting star. At around mile 99 the race takes you up a winding road which goes up nearly 1000m, this was the first time I walked lots and it seemed to go on forever. Once at the top you have simply arrived at the mountain base check point. I wasted little time here, just refilling my bottle before I began the treacherous and narrow loose shingle path to the very top. I really didn’t like looking down and seeing the light dots in the distance, one wrong step here and it could all go very wrong for a tired runner. When you reach the top, you still need to go down a zig zag path and care must be taken before you joined the paved road again.

Passing the 100-mile mark with around 100min from the cut off was great, in my head I now ‘only’ had over two marathons to reach Sparta; I had done that in the double Ironman so surely I could do it again. I was tired but there wasn’t anything wrong with my body, I just needed to keep one leg in front of the other.

As the sun came up my hands felt cold and I wore my gloves for 30min and grabbed a cup of soup in one of the aid stations. The terrain seemed flat for a while and the miles ticked along nicely, I was making the most of it before the temperature went up again. I remember arriving at one aid station thinking I had only 30min left before the death bus reached me. I was fucking livid, how did I drop down from 100min in such a short space? I ran really well to the next aid station to find that I had 100min once again. I can only assume that my tired brain misread the previous board!

As the heat started to rise so did the roads, to be honest I was mostly power walking uphill at this stage and it felt like a rest, running downhill had started to hurt. I was again soaking my hat and buffs in cold water at each check point to try and stay cool. I didn’t fancy solid food anymore and was once again drinking peach juice mixed with water and coke, and watermelon tasted amazing whenever I found some. I really wanted grapes, aka “nature’s little gels” as another runner called them, but I couldn’t see any.

By the time I had a marathon left, I started to sense that I would conquer Sparta, I had maintained my  spare 100 mins and I was moving fairly well, overtaking more runners than the other way round. Before the race I had told everyone I would be a happy man to be the last person the touch the statue in Sparta but my calculations were now indicating I could do better than that.

With each checkpoint gained there was a small victory, another step towards Sparta, just repeat this routine each time- fill the bottle, soak the hat and buff and don’t stop! It was mostly downhill by now and my quads were screaming at me. From time to time they would lock and that started to worry me: ‘what if I fall so close to the finish?”. Emotions were running high as I thought about my girls back home, the imminent desire to quit ultra-running as soon as the race was over, I also felt sad I couldn’t ring my mum to tell her about the race and with less than half a marathon to go it could still take me hours if I was reduced to walking the rest. Too much time to think!

People often ask me why I enjoy running these silly distances. There are many reasons, but the emotional rollercoaster you go through are food for your soul, and without a doubt it makes me a much better person.  It has the ability to make you appreciate the simple things in life like a hot shower, a cold drink, etc.

With Sparta on the horizon I caught up with an Italian runner, by now we were both running downhill like a couple of penguins. I said that to him and we had a good laugh and he said it was his second and last Spartathlon, we shook hands and smiled and made our way together down towards Sparta.

With 6 miles to go I had worked out that if I only managed 20min/per mile there would only be 2 hours left of this torture. I turned my watch back on and started the countdown; with a mixture of power walking and penguin style running I logged 13min/mile for the next four miles, woohoo I was ‘flying’. We had arrived in Sparta and my competitive spirit returned, I approached a group of athletes who were walking so I increased my pace and beat them to the last check point before the finish line. I quickly removed my Brazilian flag and wrapped around my shoulders and a small boy on his bike guided me towards the statue; it felt like it went on forever and I kept asking him ‘are we there yet? Much to my annoyance I glanced over my shoulder and the guy I had overtaken was now running well and catching me up. Knowing I wanted this moment all to myself, I pushed on harder, wishing I hadn’t wrapped myself in a swathe of boiling hot polyester flag.

Finally I could now hear the announcements over the microphone and I started seeing all the flags and glimpsed the statue of King Leonidas. I had made it to Sparta from Athens and my eyes filled up with tears. What an absolute dream to conquer the Spartathlon in 34h and 23 gruelling and unforgettable minutes, without a doubt my hardest and proudest athletic achievement. After kissing the foot of Leonidas and posing for a photograph I was led to the local infirmary where my feet was cleaned, my blister was popped and I was so overwhelmed with relief and happiness that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was desperate to ring my wife and share the moment with her and my girls. One thing I do regret from that call is telling her that I wouldn’t do the Spartathlon again as I’m now desperate to enter the ballot for 2017.

A super thank you to all my Brazilian teammates, who provided great company and banter during those days in Greece.  Also thanks to the British team, seeing some familiar faces and all their words of encouragement during the race was appreciated. The people of Greece were wonderful, thank you and I will be back for more (permission from my wife is yet to be confirmed).

Huge thanks to Skechers Performance UK for supplying me with my favourite shoes this season. I wore the Skechers Go Run 4 for Spartathlon, and only one blister after 153 miles is truly amazing. I just love those shoes!

This is now the end of season for me, I’m now a double Ironman triathlete and a Spartathlon finisher, how cool is that? I did have a hiccup not finishing the Grand Union Canal due to a stomach virus in May but there wasn’t much I could do about that at the time. Another year injury free, a lot more experience accumulated and still happily married.

For 2017 my goals are: to improve my 100-mile time at the Thames Path 100 at the end of April and to finish the Thames Ring 250-miler at the end of June, eeek! I now just need to work on my wife so she can let me return to Greece in September. J

Friday, 2 September 2016

Double Ironman Ultra Triathlon Race Report - Bakovci 2016.

Shortly after completing my first Ironman in Austria in 2013, I had already set my heart on doing the double. As I’m not someone who rushes into making hasty decisions, I thought I’d be wise to gain some more experience first.  In 2014, I went to Sweden to race the Ironman again and since then I’ve got completely hooked on ultra running.

The double Ironman wasn’t going to escape this year; I picked a race in Bakovci, Slovenia mainly because the dates suited my other racing commitments. Being in Europe also meant I was able to drive there and also combine it with a family holiday in the area.

My season started in Nov last year, with my first “A” race in May at the Grand Union Canal, a 145-miler ultramarathon. My schedule involved running roughly 4 times a week, biking 3 times a week and swimming 2 to 3 times a week, also complementing my schedule with weight training at home. Winter training went really well; week after week I logged consistent training hours even achieving a cheeky 50 mile personal best in a muddy Thames Path 50 in Feb.

As spring approached my stress levels started to rise fast, we have also been busy having a big extension built at home, the works have been going quite well to be honest, the builders are great but we have had to deal with very difficult and petty neighbours week after week, which has caused our family an enormous amount of stress. To make matters worse, at the beginning of May I went out for a ride and was hit by car head on. Luckily I only suffered some bruising to my ribs and soft tissue damage to my right shoulder, but my beloved Cervelo was a write off.

I put all those problems behind me and was super excited to race the Grand Union Canal at the end of May. I thought I had managed to escape my daughter’s stomach virus that week, but by mile 30 of the GUCR I began vomiting. I managed to go on till mile 50, but after a chat with my wife (who was also now very ill too), I decided the best decision would be to stop rather than cause myself lasting damage. Realistically there was no chance of covering another 95 miles feeling like that and not even being able to keep down water. I spent that night taking turns with my wife hugging the toilet bowl and feeling very sorry for myself. I moved on from the disappointment of the GUCR but was becoming very frustrated as I didn’t have a racing bike yet; the insurance company dealing with the claim really took their time and in the end I opted to purchase a new bike on finance until they settled my claim, thankfully they’ve finally paid up!

With about 8 weeks to go until the double I finally got my new bike to train and get used to before the race. By now I had reduced my running training to 3 times a week as I had a great base from the first six months and started biking 4 to 5 times a week and swimming 3 times per week. Despite the building works and the ongoing issues with the neighbours from hell, I had trained consistently for a number of weeks and by the time I got to Bakovci I was confident I had done enough to race well.

The race - consisting of 20 laps of a loop in the local lake (4.8miles), then 76 laps (224 miles) of the bike course (which as a bonus was closed to normal traffic) and to finish, 56 laps around Bakovci, equalling two marathons (52.4 miles).

Race day finally arrived and it was perfect, sunny but not too hot, the lake looked very inviting and I couldn’t wait to start. My wife tried to close the wetsuit for me several times and each time the zip would split, as she stressed a bit I told myself that the worst that could happen was me having to swim without a wetsuit. Eventually the zip stayed up and we were on our way. I steadily completed each lap in just under 8 minutes, I felt relaxed and knew there wouldn’t be any surprises during the swim other than the wetsuit unzipping! I stopped for a feed at the hour and two hour mark, with my girls meeting me at the pontoon nearby. I slowed down a bit during the last few laps but felt fresh coming out of the water in 2h46.
Bella was amazing supporting me throughout the Double

Feeling fresh after the swim, the hard work was about to start...

Very quickly I was out of T1 and on my bike. I had a plan, first I didn’t want to get too carried away during the bike start, I knew I had the endurance but speed was lacking; I also wanted to have a good run and  if I overcooked on the bike I knew it could turn into a disaster. Because of the distance my plan was to spend 30min at the aero position and 30min sitting up to spare my neck and back from aching too much. It may sound soul destroying to do the same lap over and over but I didn’t find that at all. There was support from the other competitors as we passed one another and I also enjoyed high fiving the local kids at the end of each lap. Every now and then I would see my family (who had kindly set up the boot of the car as an aid station) to swap my water bottle over, or offer me something different to eat and mostly importantly cheer me on as I went past.

I must admit that at times I felt a bit disheartened being lapped by the other athletes on the bike course but I reminded myself that it was a long race and my plan was to save my legs to run well. 

As the evening approached we were asked to have our headlights ready. I was over halfway on the bike now so I took the opportunity for a quick stop to fit the lights, swap my drink bottle and say goodnight to my wife and kids who were off to the apartment for a well-deserved rest. 

As it got darker the local kids disappeared but a few houses were enjoying the nice evening, barbecuing, drinking and cheering us on. The temperature dropped but the advantage of training in the UK was that I didn't feel the need for another layer and pushed on. I could no longer watch the bike power data in the dark and my riding was purely done by feel but I made sure I kept a good cadence and switched from the aero to the upright position as I felt like it.

Three quarters into the bike segment I made another quick stop to swap my drink bottle and had a cup of homemade chicken and vegetable soup with broken bits of potato crisps in it. It went down like a treat and I could now feel the end of the bike fast approaching.
With three laps of the bike to go my bike lights stopped working! Doh, it was so annoying but I made another quick stop and swapped the battery pack. For a race that long I came prepared for any bike issues so had spares of everything-luckily I didn’t need anything other than batteries.

The bike was over in 13h32 and I was looking forward to run, by far my favourite part of any triathlon. My car now became T2. Thomaz, one of the organisers kindly took my bike to the race headquarters and I quickly changed into clean kit and started running in no time. I was still benefiting from the high cadence and the first 4 miles felt very quick at around 9:30min/miles. My body naturally slowed me down after that to 10:30min/mile until mile 15 or so. It was still dark, Bakovci was now asleep from the all the partying they had done the night before and all the competitors were subdued, and maybe out of respect to the residents we kept the noise down. Even though I slowed down to 11min/mile from mile 15 I was really enjoying the run and my confidence started to grow as I kept lapping some of the guys that had been quicker than me on the bike and swim.

The sun came up and it started to get really warm, we made it through the night and I managed to finish the first marathon in around 4h40. I had told my wife to arrive after 9am and started to look forward to seeing their faces again.  Needless to say the second marathon got really tough but lapping the others encouraged me to keep running at whatever pace I could. I also started using simple tricks to distract my brain from the pain I was going through. I remember noticing some of the houses had the exact same window shutters my grandma used to have in her flat and I spent ages thinking about my grandma and my two aunties who lived with her, and how she would tell me off for playing with the shutters. I then started to notice the lovely vegetable gardens some of the locals had and I tried to imagine the taste of the various vegetable and fruit I saw- tomatoes tasted especially great in my imagination. Every now and then I would reward myself with a 50m walk, but it had to be a powerwalk and I tried to do it when no one else was looking.

My family had now arrived and I had around 20 miles to finish. My first request was my running cap and sunglasses. It was so great to see them. My daughter Bella said she wanted to run a lap/mile with me and it was great to talk to her and find out what they had been up to and how my race was going, etc. The miles seemed to pass very quickly with their presence, I wanted to finish quickly and make sure they could start enjoying their holiday soon, as up till now it had been all about me.

Bakovci was now in full party mode with loud dance music being playing and I could now feel the finish within my reach. As it was hot my wife would throw some cold water over my head and it was a great relief, it is amazing how little things make you so happy when you’re suffering. With 5 laps to go I passed the timing mat with Zoran from Croatia and he was one lap behind me, he had a quick chat with the referee and then said to me there had been an issue with his timing chip. I then assumed that we were probably on the same number of laps and a position was at stake. He then upped his pace and I decided to follow him. We followed each other neck on neck for the next four miles averaging around 9min/miles which felt ridiculously fast at that stage of the race and on very tired legs, it was fantastic sportsmanship. To my relief as I passed the timing mat for my last lap Zoran still had two laps left and I could finally enjoy it. Bella joined me for the last lap and I started to get that tightness in my throat and the tears flowing from the corner of my eyes. We had to run the last lap in the opposite direction and I had the opportunity to wish the others well for rest of the race. Katie, my four-year old then joined us for the last 100 metres and we crossed the finish line together in 26h28min38sec, 6th overall with a double marathon time of 10h10. Wow, from dream to reality, I’m now a double Ironman, what a cool title to have and memories I will treasure for a lifetime.

So lucky to have them there with me for the finish!

To my wife’s complete despair I now wish to do the Triple Ironman!

Nutrition – I have now been a metabolically efficient athlete for over 3 years now, meaning that my body excels at burning its own fat stores as fuel.  Nutrition was the easiest part of the double Ironman in Bakovci because I didn’t need to eat much during a race like that and as a result I never suffered from any stomach problems, I never felt low in energy and I didn’t need to constantly remind myself to eat. It is that simple. I don’t know how people claim to eat in excess of 300 calories per hour and not feel sick; do they bring toilet paper with them too? Metabolic Efficiency is a concept developed by Bob Seebohar, whereby you manipulate your daily nutrition in order to maintain blood sugar levels and keep insulin spikes to a minimum, by doing this over a period of time you will adapt your body to be able to use more of its own fat stores and as a result you’ll require less calories during racing and training. Other than being able to use less calories when training and racing I also benefit from better sleep, better insulin levels, improved fasting blood glucose levels, body fat loss, reduced sugar cravings, better concentration levels at work (I drive high speed trains for a living so concentration is paramount) and improved blood lipid profile.

Just out of interest for some of you, I consumed two scoops of Generation UCAN during the swim (160 calories), during the bike I consumed another two scoops of UCAN, one avocado and ham wrap in halves, some ginger beer mixed with water, 2 cashew cookie Nakd bars, 4 jaffa cakes type biscuits, one cup of hot chicken and veg soup with potato crisps broken in it and Coke mixed with water during the last few laps. During the run I consumed 2 jaffa cakes at the start and then I consumed grapes and watermelon and either coke or ginger beer mixed with water, I really didn’t have the stomach for any solids in the heat but I wasn’t worried, there was plenty left in my “tank”.

A big thank you to the organisers, they really did look after us brilliantly, a special thanks to Thomaz, Miran, Alex and Nina for looking after me and my family. Also a big thank you for all the other competitors, lovely racing with you all, great banter and camaraderie throughout the event.

A big thank you to Skechers Performance UK for supplying me with my favourite shoes for the 2016 season. I wore the Skechers Go Run 4 for the double in Bakovci, although I had the Go Ride 4 as a spare but didn’t feel the need to change during the run.
And a MASSIVE thanks to my wife and daughters for being there for me on the day (and a bit) and offering me all your love and support. It was SO special to have you there with me to witness my success. I couldn’t do it without your tolerance and support of the long hours of training involved.

Just one more ‘little’ race for 2016 left and I’m super excited to be travelling to Greece at the end of September to challenge the mighty 250km Spartathlon ultramarathon.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Healthy Oat Cookies/Macaroons

During half-term, I was trying to find things to do with my girls and baking is always a fun and educational option- even the littlest one can help with measuring and mixing! I have been experimenting with different recipe ideas lately and I think I have come up with one that tastes great and is packed with healthy fats, protein and fibre. These are type of macaroon-cookie hybrid without all the junk! The kids and wife liked them  and the nutritional content means they are not going to go sugar crazy like with other types of cookies. 

·         250g of mashed ripe bananas
·         80g ground almonds
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         200g of rolled oats
·         ½ cup of desiccated coconut
·         50g egg white powder
·         100g of chopped 85% dark chocolate
·         ¼ cup of extra virgin Olive Oil (or softened butter)
·         1 tablespoon of raw unpasteurised honey

Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands mix and squeeze all the ingredients together.
Once combined make balls slightly smaller than a plum and place them on a baking tray, using the back of a fork flatten the mixture a little so that it resembles a cookie.
Repeat the process until the mixture is finished. I managed 16/17 cookies.
Bake them for roughly 25min.
Tip: My girls enjoyed them for breakfast covered with warm milk and some fresh blueberries and strawberries. They can also be packed in their lunchbox as a fast snack or even breakfast on the go!

Monday, 25 January 2016

Nutty Protein Bar Recipe

Here is my new recipe for a nutty protein bar: 

·         1 cup of ground almonds
·         1 cup of desiccated coconut
·         60g of free range egg white powder (unflavoured)
·         1 cup of sugar free peanut butter (or almond butter)
·         2 tbls of chia seeds
·         1 tsp of cinnamon
·         1 tsp of sea salt
·         2 tbls of raw unpasteurised honey 
·         ½ cup of boiling water
·         75g of 85% dark chocolate

Grease and line a slice tin, I used a 25cm/19cm one. 

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in the nut butter. Dissolve the honey into the water and then slowly add to the mixture until the right consistency. If it seems too sticky then don’t add all the water or if it seems too dry carefully add a bit more. 

Break the chocolate into pieces and place them in a microwave safe bowl and melt it in the microwave for 30 secs, take out and repeat until completely melted.

Put the mixture in the tin, pressing down using the back of a spoon. Then pour over the melted chocolate, rotating until it is covered.

Place in the freezer for 30min. Cut and store in an air tight container in the fridge. I got 20 fingers-sized bars.

Someone certainly enjoyed helping and licking the bowl clean afterwards.