Friday
Nov222013

How I learned to stop worrying and love the ultra-marathon.

That is the title of my next book (so don’t steal it). Obviously I need to get my current book out which should happen soon, I have contracts with the printers now.

Anyhoo this is to let you know about a talk I am giving next month which I hope you can attend. It is with mark Hines who is a bit of an explorer himself and writer of many ultra-marathon and nutrition books. I recommend reading them if you are interested in running in extreme climates or have an interest in the science bit.

Mark will be talking about injury with a focus on prevention which I think will be of great interest to all runners.

I will be presenting a story of what I have learned about the human brain while running. I have been running ultras for about 7 years now and when I got into it I didn’t appreciate that I will be participating in an intense and long term psychological study of one but that is what I have done. The past couple of years I have been reading and studying psychology and when reading through the text books I look at some phenomena and say “I remember that”.

I think anyone studying psychology should spend a summer running across the States as I reckon you learn more about the human brain while puking your guts up on the side of a road in New Mexico than you would in a lecture theatre.

The talk is going to be a combination of the stuff I have run and what I learned about my brain in the process, including;

  • What motivates it in general and throughout a race
  • How to deal with stress and paranoia that will attack you in a race
  • What to do when the task feels overwhelming, or boring, or pointless?
  • How to use your mental training to deal with novel event that might pop up in races
  • Some general tricks on making yourself feel awesome

 Ultimately I hope to answer the question “Why I bother?”

Hope to see you there.

Tuesday
Nov192013

Simon Cowell is killing running

I get quite a few emails asking whether I’d like to test kit. On the face of it this sounds great. Free stuff, awesome. However I am keen to avoid becoming a cog in a marketing machine.

The latest things I got sent yesterday were a new type of shoe, released in spring that have a bent up toe and will guarantee to increase my speed. The second was some sort of electrode that I attach to my leg after a run that is supposed to increase the speed of my recovery. Both promise instant results for no work.

These sound less ridiculous than some of the other things I have received in the past. I got an offer to test some necklace that emits ions that is supposed to align my energy chakras or something. Disturbingly I got sent a link for some sort of torture device that is supposed to increase ones height. It looked exactly like a medieval rack.

I know running and runners and have read and learned a lot about how to run. I have discovered a truth that I have yet to see disproven and I would love for someone to try and discredit it. Here it is.

Once comfort is taken care of; never in the history of running has a bit of kit made anyone faster. Ever.

Sure wearing a pair of shorts made of sand paper will probably slow me down and you could say that some fancy new pair of shorts will make me faster. However once I find a pair of shorts that feel nice, a comfortable pair of shoes, a jacket than keeps off the rain and a bag that fits well and carries flapjack there is nowhere else  to go in terms of buying kit.

Comfort includes some “function” aspects. For example a rain jacket that keeps you dry or some gloves that keep your hands warm. I know a lot of work goes into making products that allow us to run in the elements better. Making rain jackets lighter or sleeping bags smaller and such open up opportunities for me to run in places that maybe were inaccessible before. These are great and any genuine innovations should be commended.

Just don’t bullshit me that your compression guards are going to shave minutes off my marathon time. Or that your potions containing hornets honey will eliminate any discomfort with any run I ever do. Or that you have developed a new shoe in a lab that allows you to spring from the ground with more energy that what you hit it with. Give me evidence that it works in practice with actual athletes using it in actual races or piss off.

Here is a pie chart regarding what “matters” in an item of kit.

Why does this happen and why do we fall for it?

I love this quote here from Dave Grohl about the state of music. He said that the way he got good was by practicing with a load of friends for years and years. He said that for years and years he sucked and so did all his mates. However it was only after years of practice that they got any good.

 

But there is more to it than that. He actually enjoyed sucking. The simple pleasure of being with other people playing terrible music was satisfaction in itself. Had he never made it big as he has done he would still look back at that time he spent in that garage as time well spent. He enjoyed what he was doing for the sake of it, not because of the results of it. This is what is known as intrinsic motivation.

Take running then. What do you want from a piece of kit? Do you want something that will increase your intrinsic pleasure of running? Such as a water carrier that allows you to go further, or a GPS device that allows you to explore more adventurously or a coat that keeps you warm in cold weather? These are the things that I think are valuable. The things that allow me to increase my pleasure from running are the things I am likely to buy.

If someone said that a pair of shoes or a drink will guarantee me a 5% improvement on my time why would I take it? If someone just waved a magic wand over me that made me faster and then I got some great times would I be able to claim that victory as mine? Would it feel as good? I doubt it and I will never know anyway because none of this shit works.

So back to “why do we fall for it”? Running attracts a lot of people who like running but also a lot of people who don’t like running but like the results of running. There are 1000s of races now each which are sub divided into categories allowing us to claim “First Male 35-39” and such things. There are websites that list your speeds against the hypothetical fastest you can run allowing people to degrade themselves against each other.

This is not a bad thing and this is where most of the elites would be, however this extrinsic motivation is clear in many new comers to the sport who want the results without the work. They have been watching X Factor for too long and think the way to become a good musician is to get lucky in front of Simon Cowell rather than just work at it.

You can be results driven AND work hard, you can say you want to be the best and then strive to put in the effort but most of these products are aimed at people who want to claim they are better than others without putting in anything. There is so much crap you can buy now it is confusing to know what might help.

If you were concerned only with results and glory and someone said they could improve your speed with a shoe insert or a magic cream would you take it? Probably. And that’s how these companies gain traction. Simon Cowell and his ilk are destroying music and companies pedaling this shite are doing the same to running. However I don't think most people are motivated by unearned improvements.

So to bring this to conclusion I think we should warn people more about the charlatans who are out there promising great things to those who might not know better.

I would suggest you ask yourself before buying something "is this promsing to improve me independently of my own effort?" If the answer is yes then I would not buy it as I would get no satisfaction from the results it claims.

And it probably does not work anyway.

I suggest avoiding any product that sells itself using any of these key words;

Optimise, Eliminate, Scientifically proven, % increase, % decrease, % improvement, advanced, engineered, revolution, harnessing, synergise, harmonise.

If you want to sell me something, tell me your shorts are comfy and don't rip my balls off, or that you head lamps fit snuggly on my head and light the way, or that your bag allows me run run and carry stuff without shredding my back or that your watch will allow me to tell the time and I may buy.

Monday
Oct212013

The Story of the Human Body - Daniel Lieberman

You may remember Daniel Lieberman from such books as “Born to Run”, a book that many a runner (including myself) put down and immediately vowed to eat only turnips and run barefoot. That book was responsible for the sale of millions of pairs of latex foot gloves at £100+ a go.

Leiberman is an evolutionary biologist which means his area of study is about “why” humans are the way they are. What events happen and what adaptions we made such that now, 4.5bn years on from when the Earth was formed (or about 6000 years depending on what books you read) why humans seem to fair well at survival.

Now it is silly to suggest that somehow humans are at the top of some sort of evolutionary order (if you measure success by the amount of biomass a species occupies on earth then ants win by some margin). However what is clear that over the past few million years where humans speciated from common ancestors share with chimps and other apes “we” have adapted to life on earth in a way that is fairly unique. We live longer, have low infant mortality, spend relatively small amounts of the day ensuring we have enough calories and are unique in the animal kingdom in having offspring that are completely helpless until the age of about 18 years.

The main drive of the book is that while there were an number of things that we evolved to adapt to certain climate and food situations (such as bipedalism, larger brains, longer child weaning times, hands and so forth) that the change in our situations over the past 13000 has developed far faster than our bodies can adapt. We adapted to the dwindling forests over millions of years by walking out on the plains. We adapted to warming and cooling by very gradually growing hair and losing hair.

However there have been two changes over the past 13000 years that have changed human lives too fast for our genes to “keep up”. The first is the agricultural revolution of around 13k years ago and the second was the industrial revolution around 200 years ago.

Humans as well as all life on earth usually have to play a balancing act between getting enough calories out of the earth and then investing effort into reproduction. You can’t spend all time eating and then reproduce but then you can not reproduce and pay the heavy costs of child rearing without energy. This is a trade off that generally keeps animals on the edge of existence, keeps their bodies lean and mean and specialized in whatever environment they are currently in and to deal with whatever predators and prey are around.

Human hunter gatherers were estimated to run/walk around 15k per day in pursuit of this energy that allowed them to invest in reproduction however the invention of farming changed the foods we ate and reduced the energy issue. Farming was still an intense physical activity and so we still burned a lot but the insecurity around food was reduced massively as we started to eat more grains and roots.

Up until 200 years ago to survive you still had to work pretty hard. That changed during the industrial revolution where labour intensive tasks were replaced by machines and now in 2013 we end up doing most of our work at a computer, burning very few calories at all.

So here we are, a product of evolution that survived ice ages and deforestation but now has too much food and does too little work. The result of these are what Lieberman describes as “mismatch diseases”, not typical infectious diseases that we risk in nature but ones that are common now due to us spending so much more time sitting around and having an adundance of food. He argues that many diseases are not inevitable sign of aging (hunter gatherers lived long lives too) but the way we live now.

Cancers, diabetes, heart problems and mental health problems can all be explained to some extent by the massively different life we live now vs 200 years ago and 13000 years ago.

It is not a suggestion that we should all go back to the stone age and eat worms, lick rocks and wear vibrams but it is a great account of just what our bodies were designed for and what we are using (or misusing) them for nowadays.

There are a number of other books I would recommend that give an interesting account of the human body. Waterlogged as well as being an epic rant at the sports drink industry contains a lot of good stuff. I would also recommend reading "Anti-fragile" - not at all focused on running or the body but it gave me a different way of thinking about medicine and food.

 But part of me kind of hopes for an apocalypse situation where maybe the seas rise or the forests dwindle. At that point only those who can adapt the best will be able to survive. I doubt those are the same people watching Dance Factor or getting on an elevator and pressing 1.

Sunday
Oct132013

Greensand Marathon 2013 - (No Fair Weather Fairies)

So my last couple of posts have been suggesting that some runners have gone soft and often look for excuses to bail. All that was behind me though as I headed to the start of the Greensands marathon on a miserable morning in pouring rain.

Half the people registered didn't turn up.

This was the smallest field at Greensands I have ever seen in my 5 years of running this amazing event. I suspect Dr Robert sold his soul to the weather God over the last few years to ensure the glorious days we have had in the previous 4. However last week it looks like he hit some debt ceiling and now good weather had been shut down.

As usual we badly sung Jerusalem which was typically British, just like the weather and my train journey here which involved a rail replacement bus. I find that a rail replacement bus is rather like a breakfast with a sausage replacement mushroom.

At the start a load of people commented on my shiny spanking new Salomon Sense Mantra shoes which they sent me to try. They looked very nice but I couldn't quite figure out the lacing until my friend Michael (who I used to work with and probably helped him to get involved with this stuff) showed me how to stuff the lace wire things in under a flap on the tongue. Genius idea. People looked and laughed at this idiot with all the gear and no idea. They are right, except that usually I don't have the gear.

Off we went, up the hill and then into the melee of people only this year since there was only half a field it felt quite spacious. It was a bit cold and had been pissing down all morning but I soon got a bit warmed up. There was the usual "dance of the puddle dodgers" which makes me laugh. With water falling from the sky, falling from the trees, soaking the ground and even leaking from our skin why do people try and avoid puddles? Perhaps they are from Surrey.

Anyhoo as I said earlier I was testing some shoes and I thought of myself as having a job to to. Would Salomon prefer me to prance around in them like Nuryev or to smash through obstacles like a tank with no brakes? Well I was not really feeling like a ballerina so I had no choice but to plough through.

Leith Hill is the first sharp climb of the race at about 10k (after about 3 miles of gradual climb which you don't really notice because you are too excited). You have to get there in 70 minutes. A chap asked me how long it took as he had forgot his watch and I said I don't know as I didn't forget not to wear a watch but my guess is that it was about an hour. Then another chap with a Garmin turned and said it was exactly an hour. Yes, £300 saved by me again. WIN.

The course is a beautiful (even in these conditions) and is an out and back which means you get to see everyone ahead and everyone behind you, which is kind of cool except you feel compelled to say "well done" to the other 100 people in the race.

The first person heading back in the other direction was Ed Catmur, super nice guy, winner of the North Downs 100 earlier this year and on his way to a super fast 3.03 finish, probably because he was rushing to his nieces birthday party. While winning the race he has to say "well done" to 100 other people. It must be exhausting.

He was miles ahead and then a steady stream of others came splashing down and the "Well Done, Well Done, Thank You, Looking Good, Hi Mum" went on for quite a while until the turn around and then back to say "Well Done" to all the people behind. I saw Dave Ross who had not got last at this stage and soon after saw Oli Sinclair who would end up coming second and winning a bottle of wine which he would never hear about as he left too soon and it was given to me and is being drunk as I write this blog. Oli I owe you a bottle of wine :)

A minor embarrassment when I stopped for a wee and just went at the side of the trail facing the direction I was running, but then a runner come back the other way while I was effectively flashing him. "Pardon me" I said with a smile. "I was going to say well done but you might take it the wrong way" he replied. I laughed and thought to myself that in this cold weather there is nothing to celebrate here. Finally it stopped and I was treated to a lovely section where I was just jogging along on my own.

This is what I crave sometimes. Any man who has been married a long time will tell you that once married he often has to ration certain pleasurable activities, probably most significantly one beginning with "S".

But here I was now actually doing it. I was enjoying the best silence I had done for a long time. There was no one around and I was just running along in the pouring rain on beautiful trails and loving it.

The shoes were actually working out really well. I was not slipping all over the place and they actually feel very comfortable and the laces had not come out at all. I don't currently have a preferred trail shoe so am pleased when one works. I don't actually have a preferred road shoe now that stupid Brooks discontinued the green silence and replaces them with "pureflow" which are pretty much the same except about 3 inches taller. Anyhoo, so far so good with these shoes.

I ran a little with Dan De Belder and we spoke about how some of our friends here have improved massively. "Makes me angry when people improve, why can't we all just get along in a perpetual state of mediocrity". Both of us want to improve though neither seemed arsed enough to work for it.

Not long after Justin overtook me looking pretty solid, he was another one who I might be slightly responsible for here. I promised him it would not be very muddy and it was quite muddy. It wasn't Rotherham though.

Hmmmmmmmmmm Rotherham.......

Justin passed me without much effort but a few miles later I caught him again as he had knackered his ankle. He is too new to this game to have thought of excuses for quitting so it was obvious that wasn't going to happen. Luckily we were only about 3 miles from the end.

Those three miles you are reacquainted with the stuff you forgot in the first three miles cos you were too excited and involves steps. By that point the deal is done and it's just a nice downhill mile or so to the end where Dr Robert greets you with a carrot. I ate the carrot, it was the first fruit I had in ages. The fry up later was better.

So that was the 5th time I have done Greensands and I never regret getting up early in the morning to get out here and do this. It is an amazing race and I really hope it rains for 6 months now so that I don't get too crowded when out for a jog :)

Saturday
Oct122013

My DNF was actually all your fault

OK, I write a blog which is an honest reflection of what goes on in my mind when I DNFed. I put it out there that most DNFs are of a similar nature and then my blog gets hit more than it ever has done before. More than running into New York, more than finishing Badwater, more than my three Spartathlon finishes combined and more than this video.

I asked for comments and I got lots confirming my hypothesis that most DNFs are lazy and cowardly. There are a number of reasons that lead up to being in this mindset and I seek to find answers and strive for this to never happen again. To do this I need to train harder and read much more about what goes on in the head. I am really interested to discover all that it takes to maintain mental toughness to get through physical efforts like this. This is going to be a journey.

However I believe I have uncovered at least one element to the solution. I think there is at least one thing that can be changed fairly quickly and even without much effort on my part. The problem is, in fact, it's you lot. It's all my friends and all the people who read and comment on this blog and on facebook. You are all too "nice".

Before I alienate some people here, I LOVE ultra running and most of the ultra runners I know. My life has improved massively since I ran my first, mostly because of my ever expanding circle of friends who are really keen on challenging themselves, pushing limits and having adventures. I am thrilled that this is my hobby and you are my friends more so than being involved in anything else.

But I think we have become to regard our own group too highly in comparison with others (non-ultra runners) and also being too soft on each other when things go wrong. Not a day goes by when some patronising "WE ARE ULTRA RUNNERS WE ARE AWESOME" meme is posted on facebook instructing us that every run we do we are still lapping everyone on the couch or some such vomit inducing drivel. It seems there is a movement to seperate those who do ultra running as a hobby into "us and them". That's how war starts.

It gets worse. I think the worst consequence of this is that within this group we have created an environment where we are unduly soft on each other as if we are protecting ourselves from the "others". Like politicians all bungling together whenever someone is caught with his pants down in Clapham Common or yells Pleb at a Policeman we seem to all offer support and encouragement when perhaps a telling off is required.

Gemma (my wife) who was out at the Spartathlon supporting said that if she was there when I DNFed I probably wouldn't have. She was asleep and if she was there she would have said something like "just fucking grow a pair and get on with it" but instead I was listening to you lot telling me I am still awesome and I have already beaten this race before and only I know whether it is the right decision.

If those voices were saying things like "are you really that bad?" or "stop f****g moaning and get over the mountain" I might have carried on, I might have got out of it. I might have finished.

Obviously I can't blame you for the things I invent that you say in my own head. What goes on in my head is my responsibiliy and I need to manage that better.

So the first thing I am going to do is to encourage people to be harder on me with feedback on what I am doing. I know most facebook updates contain what are know as "Ulterior transactions" where you say one thing but want someone to read another. You say "I am terribly gutted by my DNF, I am weak, I am pathetic I am going to quit running". What is actually said in an ulterior way here is "please tell me I am awesome, that I am still better than you, that I can bask in the shadow of yesterdays glory". Those will be the first dozen comments on any such post. Why not just wade in there with "yeah, you are probably right. What are you going to do about it?"

There was an interesting story in the Spectator yesterday about how Doctors are feeling that they can not call a patient "Obese" because it might hurt thier feelings. There is no doubt that this will lead to more obesity. I believe the same to be true of DNFs, the more we pussy foot around as to the reasons people quit the more we will do it.

If you break a leg or get some kind of heat shock then yes, that is a valid reason for not finishing. You shouln't run yourself to death. But I ask others to ask others really what went on when they DNFed, stop being so bloody nice to each other. It's not helpful.

What do you think of this post? Tell me it's awesome.