Tag Archives: running

Ultra Marathon Races: Lessons Learnt

Why run an ultra marathon?

 

There is more to ultra marathon races than just completing the distance. More than just the finish line. Ultra marathons take you on a journey of discovery. You can learn a lot about yourself. Both good and bad.

 

This post isn’t the usual short tips and tricks on how to race an ultra marathon. These races can break us down to our core. The extras get stripped away. You can find out if you have what it takes… whatever that really means.

 

I have taken 3 key lessons from my ultra marathons

  1. Pain is information
  2. You can do more than you realise
  3. The body does have limits

 

Surf Coast Century rock scrambling

Pain Is Information

If anything is guaranteed, it is you will experience pain during an 100km ultra marathon.

 

Pain is powerful. It can wear us down or bring us to an abrupt stop. It can weaken our resolve, change our emotions or snatch away our goals. We don’t have to let pain have this influence on us. It may not be easy, but it is possible to change our response to pain.

 

I’ve learnt pain can be an amazing source of information. Assessing pain as it happens in an objective way, rather than responding in a subjective manner can make pain a useful tool.

 

Pain is a defence mechanism. It is designed to protect us from harm. The obvious example is if we place our hand on a hot stove top we will feel an intense burning pain. We’ll pull our hand away to protect ourselves from being burnt. When we push our limits in an ultra marathon it gets a little more complex.

 

If you listen properly pain can tell you a lot of things. We all know the burning pain from running fast, above our anaerobic threshold. If we experience this in the early stages of an 100km race it is telling us we are going too fast. Other times it’s not that simple.

 

Once past the 40km mark in my first 100km race (the Surf Coast Century) I developed a deep ache in my muscles. It was cross between the feeling of burning and bruising. This was the same pain I usually experienced in the late stages of a marathon. Just not quite as intense. What to do with this pain? I didn’t know. So I took note of it, tried to accept it and kept racing. Over the next 20km it didn’t change and didn’t seem to slow me down. When I had trouble later the pain changed. I discovered some pain may just be a reflection of effort and it is the trend or the way the pain changes that is more important.

 

Making the effort to understand the different pain experienced can be a useful tool. It can also be a way of handling the pain itself.

 

 

You Can Do More Than You Realise

Going into big races I have had some lofty goals. Do I truly believe I can hit those goals? To be honest  I’ve always had significant doubts. It is easier to write something down on paper than to actually do it. The doubts are a blessing and a curse. The fear of failure can be a powerful force. We often don’t know what it really takes to reach these goals until we have achieved them. Ultra marathons are really good at feeding those doubts as they reveal what it takes during the race.

Ultra marathons tear away your perceptions of how good you are. Each race has revealed the reality of what is required to reach my goals. Almost always it is harder than I hope. Every big event requires digging deep into my abilities. It is different each time. What has worked in the past doesn’t seem to be enough next time. This creates massive doubts before and during races.

 

Once the crutches and comforts are stripped away, you are left with the reality and doubt. Responding to these moments is what defines your races. It is a large part of why I race. In these moments I have discovered I am capable of more than I knew I was.

 

At the 55km check point of the Great Ocean Walk 100km in 2016 I felt destroyed. A combination of the brutality of the course, less than adequate training and going out too hard early didn’t get me to this point in good shape. My support team asked “How are you feeling?”

“Worse than I ‘ve ever felt in a 100km race,” was my answer. I still had 45km to go. The next 25km were considered the toughest section. How was I going to get through that? It didn’t seem possible. Yet I did. Better than just surviving this section, it was the closest I got to any goal times all day. I was able to do more than I realised.

 

 

Surf Coast Century 2012 Leg 3

The Body Has Limits

Ultra marathons are meant to test us. Many times our minds keep us in check or stop us from achieving more. Sometimes we discover our body’s limits. To truly know your limit you have to exceed them.

 

After discovering I could do more than I thought in the third quarter of the Great Ocean Walk, I found some limits in the closing kilometres of the race. My mind was strong. The pain was intense, but I had come to terms with it. As the kilometres ticked over, my muscles began to progressively fail. No matter how much I wanted to keep running. No matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t make my body do what I wanted. It had reached the point it was physically failing me. Running became impossible. Walking no longer resembled what it should. This race  brought me to and past my physical limits. I finished, but hours beyond my goal times.

 

The above is a safe example of finding those limits. A big part of racing successfully is we override our body’s defence mechanisms. Pain is now information. We find tricks and techniques to keep going. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets us in trouble. For this exact reason I have been taken off a course in ambulance. It is worth thinking about those limits. Having good support around you can keep you out of long term trouble if you exceed your body’s current capabilities.

 

 

Keep your running alive.

Training Recap October: Training To Train

Base Training

Working within my training limits I tried to set up a base to launch future improvements over the next few months. Many think of base training as low intensity and high volume. It’s not how I define it. For years I’ve run from the working definition of base training:

 

To develop a well balanced athlete capable of optimally responding to the stress of competition specific training

 

The aches and tightness from the previous month dissipated and my running felt smoother. My ego still tried to get in the way. It argued against dropping the volume on my easy runs. Yet dropping a couple of kilometres on those runs has made a big difference.

 

No monster sessions. They are still some months off. Instead, I’m creating habits. Trying to make my training a day after day thing. The volume will come out of consistency and progression. Not from pushing it crazy hard now.

 

Time management is important. I’ve let it slip lately. Over the last year I’ve worked on accepting last minute changes to my schedule because of kids, life and work. I’ve seen improvement in a lack of stress when I’m presented with changes. It’s also morphed into a lack of planning ahead. As a result I’ve lost a lot of efficiency. This needs to change if I want to increase my training. I need to get other stuff done. Life is more than just running.

 

Habits

Willpower is limited in how far it can take you over time. It can work as a bridge, but is almost impossible to rely on every day. Habits are more useful. The brain works well with habits. We become what we do. I use triggers and repetition to change and create habits. It takes some deliberate action and critical thinking. Over the last few weeks I haven’t been doing this. Time to start again and follow these general steps:

  1. Decide on the action I want to take and when.
  2. Use a trigger to prompt me to take that action.
  3. Develop a protection against negative actions around that trigger

 

It sounds simple, but it takes repetition to make it work. Procrastination is the biggest enemy here. It’s become a habit to procrastinate.

 

Running

The running bit wasn’t too bad. Each week I covered about 50-60km. Kept my long runs relatively short, but focussed on making sure I was running and not shuffling. I sprinkled in a few hill repeats, but mainly kept it all conservative. Most importantly I’m getting the right feel and flow in my running. It not just about the paces I hit, but how I achieve those paces. Anyone can force up the speed, but it takes a bit more time, patience and skill to achieve the speed and keep it relaxed. That is what I am aiming for. I’m just starting to see the early hints of it since coming back from injury.

 

Training Recap September: Return To Start

It has been an exciting month for running. It marks my return to racing and what feels like real training. The 4 months since May have been about rehab from a high ankle sprain after the Wilsons Promontory 100km DNF. It has been a slow process just to be able to cover some race distance.

 

The racing tests were poles apart. First I wanted to see if I could cover 50km of trail running. The speed wasn’t important, just the ability to cover the distance. Followed in a week with a 5km fun run to see if I could handle pushing some speed. Check out the race reports to see how these unfolded:

I learnt I have the ability to cover 50km slowly. It was certainly at the limits of my conditioning. It was survival, not running, and definitely not racing. I was pleasantly surprised I could handle a 5km race. Far from my best race form, but it felt good to run faster than 5:00/km. Something I haven’t done since before May.

 

Oliva Newton John Cancer Centre Wellness Walk and Research Run 2017

 

I Held Together

 

The day after racing 5km. I felt alive. A few sore spots let me know I’d raced yesterday. Nothing major. As an over all feeling I felt awesome. Everything was a little bit enhanced. I’d forgotten just how much I love racing. I also think my mind and body needs to go hard every so often. I went out for an easy 10km. There was definitely a bit of heaviness in the legs. My running felt a little strange. My legs didn’t want to run at what I thought was an appropriate easy pace. Instead they wanted to give me only two options:

  1. Run fast… like race fast again
  2. Shuffle crazy slow… even just walk

So I switched off from thinking about running. Interestingly that kept me at about the same pace for the rest of the run.

 

Testing The Next Training

 

Now to test out my next training cycle. I have proven to myself I can run a long way slowly. I also have a recorded 5km race time. That’s enough to plug in some potential training guidelines. Time to start working on getting fast.

 

Not running fast for over 4 months means there is a lot of conditioning I don’t have. I can’t just say I’ve recovered from injury and then hit the training crazy hard. Chances are I’ll break something else down. I decided to use this week to test the waters.

 

I calculated paces off the 5km time for my long run, a steady-kind-of-tempo run and some intervals. For the week I decided to only use the long run and tempo run as key sessions. Everything else was to remain easy, with some very short pick ups thrown into the easy runs. Out of the mix was the slow shuffle that had been the mainstay of the last few months. In some ways it felt good to be a little quicker. It became clear near the end of the runs my legs weren’t quite used to this.

 

The week went by. Some aches and pains developed. Nothing major, but it was clear there is a lot of conditioning of the connective tissues that is missing. Some tightness and weak areas have developed over the months from compensating from the injury. I’ve learnt the hard way in the past not to force the return. The week ended with a little 2km regeneration run. A total of 70km for the seven days. All a bit faster than most of my recent running. It felt good to pick it up slightly. It felt like real running rather than just covering some ground. I liked the difference. There is definitely a want to up the anti next week to keep chasing the feeling. But I do know better.

 

Listen

 

My body whispered at first. I thought the 2km run was enough rest. Then my body spoke up. The faster running has revealed tightness and some built up issues. More rehabilitation work needs to be in the mix. Over the last few days of September I have taken the safe option. I’ve backed off the volume. Kept the pace up a bit on most runs. Took an extra day off and threw in one super easy and slow shuffle.

 

I’ve found my current training limit. A training limit is very different to a racing limit. Racing limits are much higher, but training needs to be repeated each week. In racing you can afford to break down to get the result. Training needs to build you up.

 

Now to plan training for October.

 

For The Injured Runner: Make The Most Of Injury Time

How do you get back to running after an injury?
Running doesn’t always go to plan. This year reminded me of that.
Early in May I had some awesome plans to smash out 100km at the Wilsons Promontory Ultra with a few friends. Nervous and relaxed all in one had me on the start line. For the first 26km it was all awesomeness. Running comfortably down a moderate hill my left foot landed on a loose rock.

Rip and pop!

Two weeks of living in a moonboot and no running for four weeks. It sucked. I’m not going to lie. I got grumpy.  The injury was a high ankle sprain. There’s some potential ongoing issues with this. Running properly again takes time. I decided to make sure I rehab the hell out of my ankle. It’s crazy how many exercises you can do for your ankle and foot.
moon boot rehab
Moonboot & rehab
Not running gives you a lot of time to think about not running. The exercises, walking, physiotherapy, stretching and strength work are just details. Injuries suck. How do you make the most of your injury time out?

Change Your Focus

If you have the discipline to train hard and push yourself in races, then you have what it take in injury. You need to flip that discipline to doing the stuff that isn’t as fun and hold back. Structured rest is training.
You can still push yourself. It just has to be different ways.
  • Rehab exercises boring? -> use that to develop the ability to maintain focus
  • Have a muscle imbalance? -> work on strengthening the weak muscles
  • Core is weak? -> increase the time devoted to this

The list can go on and on. Use the injury time to improve what you usually think you don’t have time for.

Real Goals

This should be a two-pronged attack.

1. Big Goal

First decide on a big goal in the future to work towards. Something that drives you. A goal to fuel your passion. Choose a goal that will signal you are back in action.
I chose being able to run 50km as part of the Surfcoast Century relay. Not expecting to be fast. Just wanting to put in a solid effort and finish without breaking down. It was definite and timely. A 4 month time frame. I had so many moments when I couldn’t be bothered. A big goal reminds you of the bigger picture. It makes it easier to give your own a butt a kick. You can’t always rely on motivation. Knowing you have a deadline helps force you to do the training you don’t want to do now so you can do the training you want to do later.

2. Little Goals

Second part of the goal setting attack is use a series of little goals.
Often best worked out with your physiotherapist, doctor or coach. Create small goals to work towards over just a few days. Treat them as criteria you have to achieve before you can increase the training load. Having something clear to work towards in the short term makes it easier to do what it takes.
During the first couple of days of injury the goal can be as simple as don’t make it worse. Focus on that and it’s easier to rest, elevate and apply compression or whatever is needed. A few days later the goal might be to introduce movement without pain, or it might be get a follow up review with the doctor. Super simple. Focus on a small goal and make it the priority.
Further down the rehabilitation path you progress the goals. Some of mine over the weeks included:
  • complete 3×10 double calf raises without pain
  • complete 30 single leg calf raises without pain
  • complete 3×10 hops without pain
  • walk briskly for 30 minutes without developing discomfort over the next day
  • run for 5 minutes without developing discomfort over the next day
  • run at a steady effort for 60 minutes without feeling instability in my ankle

There were steps in between these goals. The idea is if I can’t achieve the current goal, my body isn’t ready to progress. You have to earn to right to train at the next level.

Extra Thoughts

Mentally it wasn’t easy. I doubted myself. Every week I wondered if I was doing enough. With no high end training I couldn’t see myself being race ready. I stuck with the plan. When asked how I was doing I made an effort to keep my reply positive. Even if I didn’t believe what I said. The power of repeating something can rub off. Maybe it’s a case of fake it until you make it. Little by little the training increased. Nothing fast, but I was happy with the mileage. The weekly totals turned out like this:

4-18-34-58-57-62-68-78-82-61-86km

Sometimes the pace crept up a bit too much in runs. Aches and feelings of instability let me know about it the following day. The final 86km was right on my limit. Soreness and failure in support muscles forced a couple of days rest afterwards. Right at taper time. Have I made it? Next Saturday will have the answer.
Injuries can be a good reason to review why we do what we do. You can do a lot in injury time.
How do you deal with injuries?
Make the most of injury time

Run Alive

Do you feel alive?

What does it take? What does it mean?

There is more than just ordinary routine. More than work, chores, bills, sleep and repeat.

Attitude plays a big role in what we get out of life. Some see family responsibilities as a chore, others as a blessing. Some are passionate in their work, others see it as just a necessity to pay the bills. Not everything goes our way. We spend more time on tasks we rather not. There are amazing joys contrasted with deep sadness and everything in between. This is normal, but sometimes normal is overrated.

It is in this interplay between failure and achievement that something happens

I have an amazing family, friends, a job I enjoy. I have exposure to experiences that have helped me appreciate the good, bad and in between. Many would say I’m lucky. I am, but the harder and smarter I work for it, the luckier I seem to get.

This brings me to why I am writing this post. Being the first post on this blog I wondered where to start. The answer was easy. I should start at why? Why do I do this? Why run? Why blog about it? Why bother?

There is a feeling I chase. I could be satisfied with everything I get out of the rest of my life. I could be. Knowing there is more, means I’m not. So I chase moments. Those moments where all the noise is stripped away. Those moments where it feels impossible. Those moments where time is distorted. Those moments where I am broken down to my core. This is when I feel absolutely alive.

Different paths can lead to these moments. Some achieve it through adrenaline style sports such as sky diving. Others in short and fast races. Some may reach them writing a book. Some by performing life saving surgery. Everyone has certain things that truly resonate with them. For me, I find it in running.

There are some common elements that usually lead to those moments of really, really feeling alive:

    • The goal has to scare me
    • It is at the edge of my capability
    • It induces so much fatigue my body feels like it can’t continue
    • The discomfort and/or pain feels overwhelming

Writing this list makes it sound horrendous. How could any of this be fun? If it involves running it somehow resonates with me. These moments push everything out of my head and I am left with being present only in the moment. It is in this interplay between failure and achievement that something happens. Everything is enhanced. I usually discover I can get more out of myself than I believed. In short, I feel alive.

It carries into everything else. I’ve been surprised it doesn’t mute everything. Instead it enhances all my other experiences. It seems to lift the base standard of life. This is why I do what I do.

Hopefully this blog can help others feel more alive. Follow along with me as I explore running, challenges and pass on what I have learnt.