Saturday, 25 June 2011

Future potential

Surely a pose for everyone? And no matter what your priorities are.

This something I’ve been mulling over since I completed my BGR last year. Perhaps it is a natural thing for someone to do once they have achieved something that is widely held (out with running circles) to be impossible? But I think the reason I specifically keep coming back to this issue i.e. what is my future potential, is because I think I achieved the feat under quite non conventional circumstances.

First of all, Rob and I practically did an ultra almost every weekend in the three months prior to our attempt (my first attempt) and having read a little bit about distance running recently; it would seem this philosophy flies in the face of tradition. Some people stipulate that one long run per month is all you need to do, in addition to your continual weekly training, in order to build up to an ultra. I have real trouble believing that one can run well in a 100 mile race by only ever having run a 30miler maximum in training. Maybe I’m wrong but maybe our philosophy was actually right.

Secondly, for me the BGR training was done without any real depth of personal history in running. Sure I’m ex military and was always regarded as quite fit among my peers but I never actually specifically trained for anything. My fitness was always based on a bit of everything. And before I joined the Army at 19 I was never into fitness aside from playing Rugby once a week for the under 16s. I only got into this sort of thing recently when Rob asked me to do a mountain marathon with him – and any training I did for them was based mainly in the hills.

Thirdly, I got quite ill on a number of occasions throughout the training for the BGR. Many experienced runners might not be surprised with this fact given the information above. I got two chest infections and food poisoning (and injured my ankle), all of which kept me out of training for significant periods of time. In the end I was surprised to find out that I did just an average of 8hrs training a week. 

The food poisoning was a weird one. As soon as I ate a certain fish supper after a speedy 10 hour session in the hills, I felt extremely ill. The following day I managed to blast round leg 1 but then spent the next 3 days in bed being sick. From this point on I had nauseating problems in training for the BGR; the type of nausea that felt like my whole body was being poisoned – right from the end of my hair on my head to the tips of my toes. I also had nausea problems on the fling this year but believe the two episodes are not linked. Ultimately, that fish supper ruined my first BGR attempt, returning 4 weeks later I proved that!

And lastly, I practically walked the majority of the successful round; certainly from Yewbarrow onwards and including all the uphills previously. And of course I was in no-where near peak condition - with remnants of the food poisoning mentally holding me back. 

That said, I am not naive enough to believe that everyone else who does an ultra or a BGR does so without any problems. I witnessed Rob deal with his own demons before I wilted on his successful attempt. However, with the  background above in mind I keep asking that illusive question.....what if? So how did I succeed at that particular challenge?

Well, first off, it was about how much I wanted it?
Quite simply, when I realised that other people had done it, it became a tangible target for me. In other words once I had decided I was going to do it, I WAS going to it. Not once throughout all of the training did it ever occur to me that I might fail. I know that might sound arrogant but maybe I was just being thoroughly positive.

Secondly, I had to ask myself what my body’s ability was - at that time - and what its potential was?
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not much of a runner, so rather than alarm bells ringing I resolved to ensure that my running fitness was as taken care of as much as it could be – and so set into a period of sustained running training for the first time in my life!        

To be honest, looking back, there are flaws in the way we trained. But the beauty of this type of activity is that it is as much about yearly progression as it is about the here-and-now goals; the type of achieving that comes from reflecting on past performances and tweaking things for future events.

And so it is that for future potential these two questions remain.

I think the first question is relatively easy to deal with.
It should be a given that you want to take part in an ultra. You are likely to put yourself through some extreme experiences.

For example take the likes of Jez Bragg and Keith Hughes; I imagine their ultra running experiences to be vastly different in nature BUT quite similar in quality. Despite their differences in their approach to training and their capacity for running at high speed, they both set out with an aim and are both fiercely determined to achieve it.

If you don’t wholeheartedly buy into something it can be quite a struggle at the best of times to give it your all. Recently I had to write a 6 page assignment answer about the merits of a passenger lift to a high storey building. Mentally, I immediately gave up and mustered a disappointing 3 pages. If you’re not entirely up for a 50 mile race, or even longer, and you’re miles from the comfort of your house and your bed, it shouldn’t surprise you if you record a poor time (if that was what your goal was) or even worse a DNF.

Stuart Mills often talks about the power of the mind, saying that staying positive throughout your training and your race is key to success. Stuart is a high performer who usually cuts it at the business end of an event, winning or coming close in almost every ultra he takes part in. There are many people who dispute his musings and his approach to racing. I believe what he is preaching is right, if not least for himself, for many more people who might just try to harness their inner creature more often.

Unfortunately, the answer to the second question (the ability of the body) is rather more woolly. 
Tim Noakes (Lore of running) asserts that someone’s 10km race time can be extrapolated to predict their 50mile or 100mile times. I take it from this then, it is only a matter of time before the elite 10km runners latch onto ultra running and push the likes of me even further down the mediocrity pecking order? Exactly, I just can’t buy into that either.

To answer this question I tend to look around me and see what others have done with what they have been born with. I do this because I don’t have a crystal ball and because I haven’t lived here before; I simply don’t know enough about how the body works; so as I said above, if something is tangible it’s good enough for me.

Warning signs do flash up though when I consider the likes of the best. Almost everyone in this bracket is supremely gifted; take William Sichel as an example. Here’s a guy that was running 2:30 marathon pace and was only ever just getting close to international level. He then decided to run marginally slower and found that he could run for hours on end without stopping. The rest is history in the making.

Most of those at the cutting edge have a deep history of running i.e. something I don’t have. However, there is shining lights out there, people who once perhaps deemed ordinary individuals? Who are now an inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of others e.g. Debs. Here is a woman who only a few years ago decided she was going to run. Already she has represented Scotland in the 100km championships and more recently came third in the West Highland Way footrace.

Mark Hartell once said that he simply got quicker every year he came back. For me this is good enough. Tim Noakes would seem to support this view and extends it by suggesting that we all have around ten years in us to reach our true potential. Clearly the judge is out on this one as I’m not sure what the likes of William Sichel and Stuart Mills would make of it. That said I feel I can give this quandary some flesh.

So first of all I have to decide what my goals are
I haven’t had time to prepare a 5 or 10 year training programme and nor would I want to because my ability will change (hopefully for the better) as the next few years pan out.

I do have a few things in mind;
  • To finish top 5 in the Highlander Mountain Marathon (with Rob).
  • To finish well placed in the elite category of the OMM (with Rob).
  • To finish well placed in a Mountain Marathon as part of a mixed team.
  • To continue to gain meaningful experiences in running ultras.
  • To support friends in their ultra attempts.
  • To race the Highland Fling in at least sub 9 hours.
  • To complete the BGR in less than 20 hours.
  • To complete the West Highland Way race in at least sub 20 hours.
  • To complete the Paddey Buckley Round in under 24 hours.
  • To complete the Lakeland 100                                         in under 24 hours.
  • To complete the UTMB                                                     in under 30 hours.
  • And then maybe, just maybe,                                          try for a sub-3 hour marathon. Haha.

Obviously though, it will take time for my body to adjust to the demand. For this reason, the training and goals have to be incremental. It’s not as if I’m going to jump straight into trying to achieve the biggest aim (UTMB) next year. And it’s not as if the UTMB will be my last aim overall, things will change. Also, although I may want to do, for example, the WHW in under 20hrs it does not mean that I will expect this in my first foray into it, though it would be nice. Similarly, I have nothing against anyone wishing to simply go and try out the UTMB. Its just that for me, I want to be able to give it everything and see how I get on. Besides, it'll probably take me about 5-10 years to save enough money to even contemplate doing it!

My training must reflect my goals.
At the moment I am injured; I am to have an MRI scan on Monday (27th June) and will hopefully have this problem operated on and fixed, if it needs that, in due course.

My aim for that expected operation is to treat it like an ultra. I will try to train hard for it albeit, mostly with non impact training and strength conditioning. Post operation will be treated like post ultra training with the hope that by the time I am ready to recover I can get gradually back into things without too much trouble. If I was to simply give up now I imagine it would take a bit longer than desired to get fit again.

Next year I will be focussing solely on my last year of my honours degree and will probably therefore use 2012 as a rehabilitation year – returning to basics. Essentially, next year will prove to be a good year to iron out any creases that may exist within my make-up e.g. my CV capacity.

After I see how I get on next year (or even the latter part of this year) I will then decide how to best achieve my goals and how they should be prioritised.

History of running.
In addition to the sporadic training I have managed in my life to date, hopefully throughout the next 18months I can establish a decent and sustained base.

It is my intention to approach training in a careful, methodical and gradual way rather than the peaks and troughs that I am used too. I hope this will lend itself to building a better immune system and more ability.

Something else that I feel needs to be mentioned is stress. Once this blasted degree is out of the way, I can focus that time on my wife and kids. The hope is that my conscience will be suitably rewarded enough to allow me to drive the training hard. I’m not going to do this topic any justice by briefly mentioning it here. Suffice to say that I believe, in ultra running, your life needs to be well balanced.

Future potential? What are your goals and how are you going to make sure you achieve them? In the word of (chef) Gordon Ramsey, DONE.


  1. theres some proper goals you've got there johny..good luck. i ditched goals a while back and now go with whatever takes my fancy..i find i enjoy things more that way

  2. Cheers and agreed, hence the meaningful experience aim. If it gets tedious, I'll have a rethink. Looking forward to your Lakeland 50 report.
    All the best

  3. Did I read that right???

    You want to do the BG again..... good man ;-)