FROM RUGBY PLAYER TO ULTRA-RUNNER – ADAPTABILITY AND DETERMINATION
Evolve and stay passionate.
0750am – I’m standing in front of a big inflatable arch emblazoned with brand logos and the word
START. The start of my 100km ultra-marathon. There were a pair of overly enthusiastic ladies leading a warm up, which I was trying to pretend I was relaxed enough to partake in. The overriding feeling was certainly doubt. At 95kg I stuck out like a sore thumb, looking round at everyone I certainly didn’t fit the archetypal ultra runner shape. All the questions, that I’m sure many people ask at a start line, were flooding through my brain – am I fit enough? Will I be able to finish? Will my knee flare up and leave me with a dreaded DNF? Did I eat enough porridge this morning? (Particularly after being up the night before throwing up all of the rice that I had forced down in an effort to carb load). Anyway, underneath all the doubt and nerves there was an underlying confidence in knowing I would leave everything on the trail and if I DNF’d it wouldn’t be through lack of effort.
To give some context I need to rewind 16 months. I am 110kg (17 stone) standing on a wet rugby pitch, playing as the 1stXV captain at Reading University. I played rugby for 18 years, however due to a series of shoulder dislocation and a failed operation to reconstruct the joint I had to hang up my boots. Devastated by the loss of what had up to this point defined much of my life, I started to run.It started as a distraction, pick up a something I was terrible at and channel my efforts into it to switch off. However that was just the start, I very quickly found a passion for the sport and before I knew it I was running four times a week and shedding weight quicker than I knew what was happening. The moment of madness came after I finished the Keswick 15km trail race, during my post race endorphin rush, when I decided to sign up for the Brighton marathon and the South Coast 100km Ultra. My thought process went along the line of doing something incredible and raising some money for an incredible cause. I lost my grandmother to alzheimer’s a few years prior and my girlfriend lost her grandmother to the terrible disease this year. Working as a clinical pharmacist in a hospital I also saw the devastating scope of the disease when working on some of the elderly care wards.
My training started off in a generic template that most new runners start with; one short anaerobic threshold run, two medium length runs and one long run per week. I was able to build the distance nicely meaning after just 6 months I was logging some 20 mile long runs. However my weight loss plateaued at around 93kg and I soon realised that I was never going to be a light wiry runner, suited to long distance running. I was also missing my sessions in the weights room after so many hours spent there during my rugby career. This is where I decided rather than just accept this fact I was going to use them to my advantage and work to understand and test the limits of combining strength and endurance in ultra-running. As I would discover, this certainly has its challenges.
It all went downhill after Christmas, when I picked up an extremely stubborn case of ileo-tibeal band syndrome.
It was after a heavy weekend Brecon Beacons, including a 16 mile route around the Pen y fan horse shoe, with 1600m of climbing and a 12 mile hike the day after. The following week I set off out the door for a quick run before work but only got half a mile down the road before I started getting a sharp pain along the outside of my knee. Skipping through the boring stuff ITB syndrome kept me off running for the best part of three months. I was absolutely devastated when I had to drop out of the Brighton marathon and I was getting serious anxiety the same would happen with my ultra. Fortunately some dedicated rehab and a lot of help from the legends at GoPerfom in Reading got me back on my feet just in time. During these months of no running I developed a training method that I am calling non-specific endurance training. This for me was a method of building a strong endurance base through non-running training; which, once I had recovered from my ITBS I could refine through running specific training. For me non-specific endurance training was not just cross-training but instead included a range of training methods (including swimming, cycling, weight training, interval training etc.)
Once my IT band decided to play ball I could continue training with this method but build in some specific running training. I found I could very quickly increase the distance and before I knew it was able to build up to 20 mile/15 mile back to back days and a 35 mile training run which both felt great! I felt much stronger, more durable and more confident in pushing my boundaries. Whether it was because of a successfully built endurance base or just because I was used to doing stupid things when I was knackered I was feeling better than before, even right at the end of my long runs (my last 5 miles of my 35 mile training run were negative splits finishing with my fastest mile being my 35th).
HUGE DISCLAIMER – This is purely theoretical and not founded on research, however it is a method which seemed to work extremely well for me. It allowed me to keep the weight bearing training low and reduce injury frequency whilst building a strong endurance base to work with. Im also sure it has been done before, Ross Edgley has reported on similar methods in his recent book. My recovery from ITBS and return to running took much longer than I had hoped, meaning despite my conceived training method, I felt terribly under-prepared at the start line. I started off super slow, easing myself into the race. The course climbed early to get onto the coast at which point I soon hit the seven sister and when I say I took a beating from each one of the sisters I mean it!
The route was absolutely incredible and gave a much needed source of distraction. My focus for the first half of the race was on keeping a steady pace and keeping my hydration and nutrition levels up. I aimed for approx. 300-400kcal and 500-600ml every hour. On the whole I have a pretty solid stomach so this wasn’t too much of a struggle for me. I made a concerted effort to keep my food varied and not rely too much on one source, for me this ensured I didn’t get bored and kept eating (this was made easy by the cray selection of food at each aid station). Hydration was absolutely vital for me, as in my two previous long runs I pinned my lowest points on dehydration. By the time I waddled into the 50km aid station in Brighton I was pretty knackered! My feet were pretty battered, I was suffering with cramp in my quads and I had let my nutrition slip a little. I took half an hour to get some food on board, change my socks and massage my quads out. Once I got going from here I felt much better.
The next 20km flew by, legs felt good, scenery even better and the nutrition and hydration were all ticking along nicely. That all changed between 72 and 73km, when I was descending a hill and felt the all to familiar twang of pain down the outside of my right knee. I was able to get back on flat ground and it seemed to settle down until almost dead on 80km, where my IT band decided it had had enough.
The last 20km were a struggle of very slow jogging and power walking. In all honesty it should have been something that ended my race, however I was determined to finish and knew I had plenty of time to rest and rehab after, so I got my head down and kept grinding through the pain. The reward was definitely worth it! For the last kilometre I gave it everything, I even attempted a sprint finish but it was definitely just a strained waddle! Never the less, I had finished my first ultra marathon (and marathon – 2 for 1!) and it was an absolutely incredible feeling. The action challenge events are incredibly well organised, I cant praise the organisers enough. Well stocked aid stations with first aid and helpful volunteers made an incredible difference.
I absolutely loved the ultra from start to finish and am already formulating my plans for the next one. Next time I hope to train without taking 3 months off running, although I will definitely be continuing with my ‘non-specific endurance training’.
My lessons from 100km of running:
- Training needs to be holistic towards the goal of preparing your body to perform and function at a level for long periods of time. Spend long periods of time on your feet when training, learn to work when you’re knackered and do plenty of core work!
- Set backs in training (and on the day) are bound to happen, be adaptable and be prepared to change your plans. Evolve!
- Eat, eat and eat. Every time I was starting to feel a bit rubbish, I stuffed something in my face and had a drink and perked up in no time. Failing that caffeine is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Keep the caffeine coming!
- Make friends along the way. I met two lads on the road who were about the same pace as me and we stuck together for much of the second half. The company in absolutely invaluable! As the guys at Evossi are always championing – running is a team sport.
- Listen to your body but be absolute in your desire to finish. Never underestimate your bodies ability to respond and adapt! Explore your limits and redefine your normal!
- Most important of all – always stay positive and passionate.