Like most of us, I’ve read a fair bit about ultra running. Other people’s blogs. Books. Articles in magazines and on the internet. I’m reasonably confident, therefore, that in preparation for a 95 mile ultra-marathon you are not supposed to:
- Go out running approximately 2o times in the 6 months preceding the race;
- Completely change your running style 6 weeks before the race;
- Change to a never-before tried make and style of shoe 4 weeks before the race;
- Completely change your diet 2 weeks before the race.
Through a combination of accident, injury, laziness and coincidence I ended up doing all those things and survived the race (my 4th WHW) and set a PB. Here, by way of anecdote rather than science, is a little bit of the story behind those 4 things and what I now draw from them.
(Very) limited training
I ran the Spine race in January 2016. It was, by some margin, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If it had been 1 per cent more difficult I certainly wouldn’t have finished it and may possibly have come to serious grief. On the final night, when temperatures dropped to minus 15 degrees centigrade, and I staggered through the Cheviots on less than 11 hours sleep in 7 days, things got pretty hairy. I had booked a week off work to recover from the race. It took me much longer than that. It took me at least 2 weeks just to regain control of my core temperature. I was on antibiotics for quite a while. My sleep patterns were disrupted for a month. Indeed, if the theory that it takes one day for every mile of an ultra-marathon to recover is correct, then, at 268 miles, I’m still not recovered from the Spine! All ways up it was the end of February before I attempted running again.
In training for the Spine I developed Achilles tendonitis. Unsurprisingly, covering 268 miles in 7 days, with over 10 000 metres of climbing, didn’t cure it. Afterwards, I hummed and hah-ed about getting it seen-to but concluded that any physio or doctor was likely to tell me to rest it which, with the WHW looming, I couldn’t afford to do. So, when I eventually got back to running around the end of February, I was constantly nursing an injury plus the residual fatigue from the Spine. I also entered a very busy period of work, often leaving the house at 6am and getting back after 7pm. I’ll confess that – injury and fatigue aside -there were many, many evenings when I just couldn’t be bothered pulling on a pair of shorts. Hence, my reckoning that in the calendar year 2016, I went out running around 20 times up to the date of the WHW.
I take the following lessons from this.
If you have limited time to train it needn’t be fatal. Make sure that you prioritise your long slow (weekend) run. I tried to do a 20 mile plus run every weekend.
Once you have a certain level of base fitness, you don’t have to do a great deal to maintain it.
Under-training might be better for you than over-training. I’d love to know how many of the people who didn’t make the start line at Milngavie attribute that to over-training injuries, compared to the number who say it was through under-training. My suspicion is that the former outnumber the latter.
A changed running style
The lack of running and nagging Achilles meant that I somewhat lost my mojo. In a last ditch attempt to get it back I re-read Born to Run by Chris McDougall. I began to wonder whether forefoot running might put less stress on my sore Achilles. The jury is still out on that: my Achilles still hurts every morning and still hurts for the first few miles of any run before abating. However, what I did find was that forefoot striking had noticeably lower impact on my big leg muscles (quads and hamstrings) as well as my hips. Whereas, these bits would usually begin to complain around the 18 mile point, with forefoot striking I could get to 30 miles before the pain began. I did a 50 mile training run at the end of May (only 3 weeks after I’d begun forefoot striking) and found that I was still running, without breaks, at the end of the run. This never used to happen with heel striking.
If anyone is interested Chris McDougall’s book sets out a lot of the theory behind forefoot striking. The same theory is all out there on the internet for free.
I taught myself the style by going out running in my Converse sneakers. If you run in something with no cushioning it is pretty much impossible to land on your heel. My calves were in bits for the first couple of weeks but soon got used to it.
What I learnt from this: sometimes it can be good to try something new. I’ve been running, on and off, for nearly 30 years. I’d always been pretty cynical about forefoot running. I can’t claim that it is the right way to run for everyone. But just trying it re-enthused me about running. I was suddenly excited about trying out this new technique over the full distance of the WHW.
To my slight surprise, I managed to run the WHW with a forefoot strike, only 6 weeks after starting to learn the style. I got a PB (albeit only by 8 minutes). I felt more comfortable during the first 50 miles that I had done in any of my previous 3 WHWs. I felt stronger over the last 45 miles than I had ever done before. For most of this year’s WHW it looked like I wasn’t going to match my last year’s time. In the final section, from Kinlochleven to Fortwilliam it began to look like I might just be able to beat it. My brother, who was support running with me by that stage, said that if we could get to the fire road with 45 minutes to go, then we might just be able to do it. We got there with 40 minutes to go, to match my 2015 PB. It’s around 4 miles to the leisure centre. I ran them in 34 minutes. I have never run 4 miles without a walk break at that stage of an ultra before. In my view, it was thanks to the forefoot striking that my legs able to keep going.
I have been using Hokas for my ultras for about 3 years. Like many users, I find the one down side is that they pinch my toes. This problem was exacerbated by forefoot striking. It inevitably drives your toes into the front of the shoe. Therefore, once I’d committed to the idea of forefoot striking I decided I needed to look for a different shoe. My good friend and running buddy James is one of those who has tried everything over the years. If someone wrote an article suggesting that clown shoes were the way to go, he’d want to try them out. He told me that he had a pair of Altras which he didn’t like. I knew that these, like Hokas, have significant cushioning but, unlike Hokas, have a wide toe-box. James lent his pair to me and subsequently gave them to me. For my current running purposes they are near perfect. The cushioning protects my feet from the rocky ground. The toe-box is lovely and roomy. The one down-side is that they have rubbish grips. They are designed for American hard-packed trails rather than good old British mud and slippery stones.
What I’ve learnt from this. To be honest, I’ve never really bought into the mantra which says you shouldn’t buy new shoes before a big race. When I used to use Hokas, I’d often treat myself to a new pair just before a race to get the maximum benefit from the fresh cushioning. Modern shoes are mass produced and very consistent in manufacturing standards. If you know that a particular make and model (and size) of shoe works for you then there is no reason that a new pair of the same make, model and size should suddenly start causing you blisters or other problems. It was a bit risky to switch to a new make and model of shoe just before a big race but I put in enough miles to be confident that they’d work for me. I also had my Hokas in my support crew’s car, just in case.
So 2 weeks before the WHW I went from being a full blown omnivore to a vegan. I am still in the early days and still haven’t committed to it forever. However, on a bit of a whim, a fortnight before the WHW I signed up to a 30 day vegan pledge.
What I have learnt. If I had felt, in any way, that my new diet was jeopardising the WHW I would have given it up (the diet – not the WHW. Never give up the WHW!). I am not doing it out of any sense of principle. I am doing it to see if I can drop a bit of weight. Far from jeopardising my race, however, I can say that within 3 days of trying out veganism I felt absolutely magic. Now, on day 24, I continue to feel brilliant. It is just coincidence, in my case, that I made the switch so soon before the WHW. I couldn’t possibly advise that anyone else try that. What I can say, is that in my case it didn’t stop me finishing and getting a PB. What I can also say, is that I have been astonished by how much better I feel 3 weeks in.
In years to come those of us who took part in the West Highland Way 2016 – whether as participants, finishers, marshals, support crews or spectators – will share a common bond. Something the rest of the world will never understand. We will try to describe it. But we will fail due to the inadequacy of the spoken word. We will become like haunted Vietnam veterans. When we try to describe the horrors of the midges we will end up staring vacantly into the middle distance and mumbling ‘You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there’.
As I’ve said above, this was my 4th year at the West Highland Way. I love it. I love the people, the scenery, the ethos and the history. This year, though, the midges were not to love. And if you don’t believe me … you weren’t there, man.
As well as landing, in their dozens, on my eye balls and nearly blinding me, the accursed midges caused me to suspend my new-found veganism. I must have eaten several million. I was vaguely surprised that I hadn’t put weight on when they weighed me at Auchtertyre.
One thing I didn’t change
I have been very fortunate to keep the same good-humoured and loving support crew on each of my WHWs. My wife and youngest brother (who has flown in from Northern Ireland in 2015 and 2016 having moved back home) have cheered me off from Milngavie, met me at all the official and unofficial checkpoints, put up with my grumpiness, finger-fed me exotic fruit, patted my back as I puked up exotic fruit and, with no sleep themselves, taken it in turns to support run with me over the latter stages of the race. I am extremely grateful to them both for making my annual attempts at the West Highland Way possible.
That said …
… you lovely people who turn up every year at the WHW and make it such a moving, supportive, ‘family’ race, have something to answer for. In 2013, when I first ran the WHW, my wife had her first experience of crewing. She had never crewed, let alone run, before. She was so blown away by the atmosphere and camaraderie at the checkpoints that she decided to try a couch to 5k programme. Less than 3 years on, in April of this year, I supported her when she successfully completed the Hardmoors 55. She now has her heart set on getting a WHW goblet of her own. Apparently, if her entry is accepted, she even gets custody of my brother as a support runner. One way or the other, I intend to be back in 2017 for the 5th year on the trot. Whether I’m a competitor or crew remains to be seen.