Three months in and 2016 has been a crescendo of waves. Never have I been one for self-pity so the violins can stay firmly shut in their cases. Instead I am blessed with perspective and have the ability to dig deep and look forwards. But even I have been found curled up on the sofa and trudging round the house trying to find the oomph to take on the challenges of the day. I have a wonderfully supportive family and some amazing challenges in the year ahead but in the early part of the year I struggled to get out of bed as the rain lashed down outside and the cold nipped at any bare flesh as I attempted to hide back under the weight of the duvet from the tasks ahead. For me ultra-running is fundamentally intrinsic. The need to avoid the negative feelings of not going out there and doing the required session or not digging deep when it is really needed, is far outweighed by the grit to get out and get the job done. But here laid my issue.
In essence I try not to think of motivation as ever being an issue. I am grateful for each day I am able to run. To take a step out in the climes and experience life in its purest form stripped back and living completely in the moment as you breathe in the country air with only nature or company. Yes, I massively use running for self-reflection, dealing with or resolving issues and then leaving the stresses on the trail to come back home with a clearer perspective. That is what is amazing about our sport and I do struggle to comprehend what I would do without this period in day to day life to at least temporally soothe these moments.
However, after some personal issues and a stint of minor physical illness it felt like the carpet was swept from under my feet. I seemingly hit the proverbial brick wall. The thought of taking my body training was almost impossible and my mind toyed with questions, “Was I physically ill?”; “Why couldn’t I muster the strength and will to leave the front door?”. These questions juxtaposed with the thoughts of an exciting race year ahead full of humbling and privileged opportunities and experiences that I needed to embrace caused confusion and all I could tell myself was to get a grip and tough it out. But this was easier said than done. I had gone from being at the peak of my physical fitness and relishing the challenge ahead to completely withdrawn of strength, will and resilience and scared of the daily challenges be it work, family and running.
I self-medicated. I got out the house. No matter how slow, how painful, how empty I felt I put one foot in front of the other. I took away the outcome and just jogged, shuffled and sometimes ran till it got better. Till I felt better. Maybe it was the motivation of the challenges ahead, or the process of just being out there but things did improve. It got easier to get up and get out the door again. Sometimes we talk in percentages when we refer to training and being at 80, 90 or 95% during a training block. I was certainly below 30 at the start of January and somehow throughout the coming weeks, through pure hard graft, resilience and possibly escapism, I got myself to 70% ready to face the challenges ahead and prepare myself for some specific training despite the contradictory messages between my mind, body and spirit. I know I am lucky to be able to run and that privilege is one I am grateful for.
During this blip I was lucky enough to experience the amazing news of being selected to represent my country in the Anglo-Celtic plate at the International Governing bodies standard distance of 100km at the end of March. This is what I have dreamed about as a child as myself and my twin brother pretended to play in the world in various guises as Lineker, Ian Wright and even Tony Adams! While I turned out to be no David Beckham, I have clambered up the ranks more like Jamie Vardy and found myself in this exciting position as an ultra-runner instead a sport which I am truly passionate about. Amazing. I was fortunate enough in my early ultra-running to be selected to represent England but some unlucky injuries followed, and a serious car accident followed by my transition to ultra-trail and multi-day running. But these lofty ambitions still remained despite my subconscious focus on the intrinsic satisfaction I gain from our sport. My focus remained on improving through self-discovery, constantly learning and allowing factors out of my control, such as selection, not to be primary factor in my daily running. Thankfully I have managed to be blessed with this opportunity again. However, I must say during this period it was almost a contradictory blessing. How I could I embrace the excitement of this opportunity when I was in such opposition physically and mentally with running? I knew who the winner would be deep down and I fought my way through these demons with the help of my family and an amazing opportunity to run in Global Limits Wild Elephant Trail stage race in Sri Lanka which I was to use to prepare for the 100km during my peak training weeks. Albeit a very hard training week!
I never thought I would ever get to experience the world in its vastness of cultures and nature but through running in the last 6 months I have been lucky enough to take in two hugely different continents, cultures and ways of life running. I was sure a week racing through this amazing country and pushing myself through sleep deprivation, difficult environmental conditions, and being away from my beautiful family was going to be a challenging but the step I needed.
After four or five weeks getting back to some kind of physical and mental strength and fitness I transitioned into six weeks of specific training (preceding my two week taper for the 100km on my return). At the end of the six weeks was the stage race in Sri Lanka and I planned two weeks steady with a few low key sessions on my return to tick me over to the 100km. The training was challenging. Back to back 4 hour runs, intervals, extended tempos, circuits, core work and double day training was a battle for the contradictions of my mind, body, and hearts arguments. It is at these points I believe we are at our most vulnerable training as athletes to fall into the trap of over training. When does training become not training but merely a period of self-flagellation and escapism led by the need to get out and get the job done rather than satisfying the direct purpose of a specific session in a program? Where you get out and train despite the body and mind needing a lighter day or rest to allow adaptations to take place. I have fallen into this trap multiple times and I am sure will do so in the future. We are much better at reflecting on the practices of those under our guise as a coach, teachers or just provider of advice to friends and family. But following our own logical advice is much more complicated. After the problems in early January I was in danger of falling into this trap. However, I tried to listen to myself, rested as much as I could and after a blast round a local trail race after a 150 mile week I got to Sri Lanka, nervous, a little tired but ready to confront the challenging race ahead but with the 100km firmly on my mind. Don’t get me wrong I didn’t approach it as just training. I had my race head firmly on. I had significant plans in my head for the England international ahead and had to keep myself under control for the week.
Most people had said to me you cope great with the heat. Surely it wouldn’t be as hot as South Africa. Peaking only in the mid 40s was harsh enough but the humidity was signifying factor . Again I had prepared with an indoor heated room on the treadmill (thanks to my friends parents Mr and Mrs Chris Morgan!). Each session I sweated like a pig in a shell suit for up to 100 minutes and managed to somehow blow out three extension plugs with the radio, storage heaters and the treadmill blasting out. For me these sessions helped to psychologically prepare me for the heat and humidity as well as the physical benefits. The issue with humidity is how the sweat used to cool the body doesn’t evaporate because of the moisture in the air. Temperature regulation is then inhibited and internally you overheating occurs raising the rate of perceived exertion but also physically raising the heart rate, chemical reactions in the muscles and making relative speed feel much harder than it should do. This amongst the other challenges and variables I had to deal with. I will not say overcome. But rather manage and cope through listening to my body and utilising pre-planned strategies. Again, I was pleased with my A and B fueling plans but each day recovery was difficult as struggled to sleep instead resolving to eat through the night and read a random ebook I accidently found on my phone, an free download from a starbucks free app card proved a gift in the small hours as sleep evaded me.
As a semi supported event, we had a bag transported between stages. While I kept to my 10kg limit in my Ultimate Direction Fastpak I am sure others had packed for a holiday with feasts in their suitcases! During the week I used my Scott Jurek Ultra vest for the first time courtesy of Neil and Anna at XNRG and MyRaceKit and this a great piece of kit for accessing my fluids, fuel and carrying the mandatory day kit in each of the stages. It all fit comfortably on the upper back without bouncing allowing your hips to move freely and arms to flow without any shoulder tension and therefore minimising energy wastage.
Each day provided its own challenge. I believe lots of people struggled with jetlag and humidity on day one and while I did too I believe my two jogs on arrival in the days preceeding the race helped me acclimatize and hit the ground running. Like with all ultras bad patches are a given. If you prepare yourself that this will happen you can come up with strategies to overcome these throughout the races and rather than let them control you, you take control and get back on track. Mine were daily and multiple, But I got through them. On day three during a bad patch I wondered disorientated off track across a paddy field running head first into a tree branch as locals shouted at me from behind to get back on track. However, after a couple more miles I got through this and was able to finish strongly on a 6km climb to a temple before the turn around to the finish. The longest stage at 54km I knew would be challenging. Not through distance or fuel but rather the humidity and heat. With the help of some surprise buckets of water unsuspectedly thrown over me from some waiting locals I got through the day without resorting to the dreaded plan C(that I shall not reveal!).
With Global Limits events, race organizer Stefan really enables runners to embrace theculture of the country they are visiting as we were rested overnight in local villages in locals houses, in tents on the grounds of Buddhist temples and in outdoor shelters in view of monuments. While I didn’t experience the best sleep over a week, I felt extremely humbled, lucky and fortunate to experience a country in so much depth despite being a runner chasing through the pastures. Significantly, the race ended on Sigiriya Rock over 1800 steps upwards after a 13km run. You may think this was a challenge itself after 210km running through the week but here culminated the most amazingly beautiful finish of a race. But more so the finish line took on greater significance after the challenges of the challenges I had experienced over the last 10 to 12 weeks. The race ended with success. More than the just the overall result but in the culmination of myself overcoming these distinct challenges. On a sad note Sri Lanka marathon record holder Sanath Bandura and Guinness World Record Holder was challenging for the spoils early in the race but had to be withdrawn during the long stage. For external motorbike support! While it was not definitive how much this was used it was a sideline to an amazing week. I was pushing the pace out most days on my own out and as with all races I believe the biggest competitor is yourself and that I overcome and successfully beat. Humorously before the first stage a monkey sneaked up and stole my electrolyte bottle with its grip carrier as I put it to the side before we were received our pre-race blessing from Buddhist monks. While I cursed this cheeky monkey for its mischievousness I did as I always do. I laughed, took stock and improvised and spent the week carrying an extra bottle wrapped in a buff round my hand to carry my electrolytes.
Immediately after I finished stage 6 I started stretching, fueling but more importantly took in the moment with the scenery and congratulating all the finishers as they completed their own battles to cross the finish line. My mind had to switch to the 100km in 2 weeks’ time. It is in these key moments I believe some battles can be won and lost. I enjoyed and savored the moment but I knew I had to consider the bigger picture took the next 24hours as good downtime but also meticulously doing everything I could to aid recovery with the 100km in mind of my England race in 2 weeks.
As with every stage race I have ran in, the comradery is the biggest defining factor. While you may be in direct competition with others there is an innate sense of respect and empathy for all competitors and the constant high fives, hand-shakes and hugs each day, despite the language barriers or shortness of words meant so much whether you fighting for the medal positions or just aiming for the finishing line. I am humbled by others experiences and battles to overcome and for me celebrating in each person’s success is as important as my own race. I met some amazing people again from all walks of life, cultures and countries and I felt privileged to share the experience with those people and again will hold memories for a lifetime.
So as the days count down to the 100km and my England race, the battles and challenges I had at the start of the year have not disappeared but are merely being managed day to day. I may be faster than a speeding Motorbike, but I am definitely not a super hero. UltraMonty maybe my pseudonym but is merely a name to a normal family guy who grafts and works hard and is vulnerable to the fallibilities, weaknesses and stresses as any man. While I may have jumped one hurdle this year I know this is not the last but I will keep learning, trying to be better and move forwards and never let doubt and contradictions overcome my heart.