Review: The Rise of the Ultra Runners

Many of us are running less at the moment and many of us are reading more about running so I thought I would try and capture my thoughts on Adharanand Finn’s ‘The Rise of the Ultra Runners’ which I finished a few days ago.

Except I don’t really know what to say. Is it the definitive book on ultra running as the endorsement from Dean Karnazes on the from cover suggests? Is it an electrifying and inspirational account as the back cover blurb suggests? Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know what I think about the book. I sort of like it and don’t. I enjoyed reading it. There where bits of the book I couldn’t put down and then there were bits where I lost interest fast and rolled my eyes repeatedly and just got irritated. The thing is, I am not sure I know why.

So the book then. It’s an account of a journalist road runner turned ultra runner trying to understand ultra running and ultimately getting to and running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Along the way Finn writes about ultra running as an emerging sport, about some of the top ultra runners he interviews and about his own running. It should be the sort of book I like, a nice mix of personal stories and experiences mixed with descriptions of iconic races and some less well know ones and some general information and analysis about ultra running. And actually that is what I like about it. Finn’s writing is really good story telling. He takes you on those races with him, he transports you into those stories and it feels like you know the people and places he’s talking about just a little bit better at the end of the book. Read it. It’s worth reading. It might even inspire you. It’s a good book.

So why don’t I like it? Why is there something about the book that really grates? Something that has not shifted since I finished reading a few days ago? Maybe it is simply that Finn’s focus is the racing world of ultra running. And it would not have occurred to me to start there when thinking about ultras. Finn mentions Fastest Known Times and gives a brief nod to running in the Lake District but his focus throughout the book is on the races. Somehow that’s just not where my mind goes when I think ultra running. I think Nicky Spinks and fells and racing yourself and maybe the clock but not racing others. I think Kilian Jornet in summits of my life rather than Kilian Jornet winning or not winning a race. To me the racing over ultra distance is a side show of ultra running not the main thing. For Finn (and I guess also for sponsors etc), it seems racing is central. So maybe our starting points and approaches to thinking about ultra running are just different. And maybe the racing starting point grates because it puts the focus on times and on winning or placing and one of the things I have always enjoyed about watching even the elite ultra runners is that they don’t talk in those terms. They talk about the challenge of the distance, the terrain, the conditions. Maybe it’s that.

Maybe it’s that there are people who I think of immediately when I think trail and ultra running that are barely featured. Maybe it’s that the book actually has quite a US focus. Maybe I am just grumpy that Nicky Spinks, Joss Naylor, Jasmine Paris, Emilie Fosberg (for example), my heroes of the sport, don’t take centre stage. Maybe it’s that.

And then there’s something else. And this is unfair because I have never met Adharanand Finn. I don’t think I like him. I don’t think we’d get on. Throughout the writing there seems to me to be an arrogance. It reminds me of a type. A type I don’t like. A type I sometimes see out running. A type that makes me roll my eyes and exclaim ‘road runner’ silently in my head. You know, the type who is too focused on their pace to nod an acknowledgement of a fellow human, too important to step aside and wait to let people pass and too wrapped up in their training to consider anyone else out on the same stretch of earth. It’s subtle and it’s a kind of arrogance I know I am over sensitive too. It’s not elitist really but something akin to it. It perhaps links to my points above about where our respective starting points are in thinking about ultra running. For Finn it is still about racing in some way. It’s like taking a road running mentality and transposing it to longer distances and more difficult terrain. It’s still about winning or if not quite in that elite field then it is still about posting a respectable time. As someone who has never and isn’t likely to ever run a respectable time over any distance that mindset just grates. It suggests that if you can’t do this in a certain time then really you don’t belong here. And that certain time is up there close to the elite times. I wonder how Finn would feel actually coming last.

So clearly Finn is a decent runner. His running journey as outlined in the book is impressive and I am sure he learned a lot about himself during the races and during the training he did. I just, for whatever reason, don’t find his story inspiring. Impressive yes but nothing more than that. Should you read the book? Yep absolutely. If you’re interested in trail and ultra running and the people at the top of that sport then yes. It’s a good book and I hope it inspires you and I hope you enjoy it. I’m going to continue to feel uneasy about it, quite unconvinced that Finn has really got to the heart of my kind of ultra running, not really sure that when Finn writes about ultras he really truly gets it. And I realise that this is an utterly idiotic things to say given that Finn has completed several and I have completed none and given that almost all of my races have been road races and that I am a wimp of a trail runner who can sit at a top of a hill too scared to run down. So yes, I am being unfair and judgmental but to me Finn writes about trail and ultra running as a road runner. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a road runner if that’s your thing but they are different sports with different mindsets, cultures, goals an ambitions and I think the problem I have with the book is simply that it is written by a road runner who also happens to be pretty decent at running trail ultras as it turns out. I am not sure why that bothers me but it seems it does.

My 2019 Running Year

Magic Heron

It’s the end of 2019. I have finished my running year on 502.88 miles with a slightly frustrating trot out at Bolton Abbey this morning. I’m in a reflective mood as well as in a planning mood and that’s making me look back on the running year that was 2019. It started with such promise, such achievement and then fizzled out a bit and I think maybe I’d got a bit grumpy about it all but this year I got to run in some amazing places, see some fabulous things and as always I learned a lot – particularly about what I do and don’t want from running and what I do and do not like about it. So let’s look at 2019.

January was awesome. I came off a 114 mile December feeling really strong and actually feeling ready for Dopey – well as ready as one can feel for Dopey. And Dopey was awesome. I don’t remember the tough bits. I know they were there. I know the marathon was too hot and I know the waiting around was a pain but what I remember is the feeling of achieving the impossible and then I remember nearly falling asleep in my celebratory glass of wine.

Happy Run

So if January was dominated by Dopey, February was dominated by trails and getting off the tarmac and into the beautiful countryside. I ran in the snow along the canal at home and we had a stunning running weekend at Kielder Water with some breathtaking views and some lung busting hills. I was running well. I confirmed the running well by smashing the Harewood House Half Marathon in just 58 seconds over three hours having had a blast out on the course (I will have to go back for an under three hour go but I’m not ready for 2020 and will be doing the 10k instead). I loved my running in February but by the end of the month I was getting really tired.

By all accounts I was still running really well in March. I ran nearly 100 miles that month and didn’t really struggle with it – except that I really wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t write about it much – just the one post from last March on the blog. Almost all of the March running was done from home and thinking about it, I spent an awful lot of my time going backwards and forwards along the canal.

Before it started going wrong

In April I got to run in Leicester. I went to University in Leicester in what seems like a lifetime ago and I was there for a conference. Running from town up to the university past the places that seemed both familiar and a bit strange was fun. Then I got a cold. Then I ran the London Marathon. I didn’t like it. I loved seeing Dad at around mile 7 and then it was really downhill from there. It’s not a marathon I have any desire to ever do again. If I ever decide to have another go at 26.2 it will definitely not be on that course. I was done with it all. I think I have blocked most of it from memory. I remember slipping on the lucuzade runners had emptied on the floor and going flying at mile 15 and being in pain and fed up and trying to think if I could work the logistics to pull out but deciding that just finishing was easier. Goodness I hated everything about running while out on that course.

After the marathon I fell out of love with running. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I couldn’t motivate myself to get out. We had a lovely adventure walking one of the Yorkshire three peaks (we meant to do them all but never got round to it) and I had the odd little trot out including at Bolton Abbey but I didn’t make it to 30 miles that month. June was similar. The running I did was rather stunning tourist running in Washington DC , Gettysburg and on Chesapeake Bay and then there were some hikes in Shenandoah National Park. All fo that was kinda cool but I wasn’t feeling the running. I nearly pulled out of the Solstice Saunter at Bolton Abbey but in the end went and had a good time. But really, running was all a bit meh.

Shenandoah Trail Shoe Selfie

Things didn’t really change in July and August. I kept going out for the odd little plod but that was that. In September and October the wheels came off. I ran a total of 4 miles in September and did not run at all in October. I actually thought about just packing it all in completely. In November I managed just over 10k but it seems that very slowly in December I am starting to enjoy being out again. I obviously decided I wasn’t ready to give up completely because I agreed to go see the guys at RunRight, more on that as that story unfolds. Partly I blame a busy semester for my lack of running – not because I was too busy to make time but because it was a rough term which zapped every little bit of headspace, willpower and brave I had. I had nothing left for running – probably because I was already struggling with running and it felt like one more thing to fail at. That perspective has slowly shifted over the last week or so. Maybe I’m ready to be back and enjoy running again in 2020.

Getting back into things at Bolton Abbey

Splish Splash I was having a….

Run. I was having a run. No that sounds wrong. I was running. Well sort of. I was out there putting one foot in front of the other at varying paces. It looked like it was going to be another of those days where it just doesn’t happen. I have a ton of marking to do – the kind that takes forever because it’s formative so needs even more detailed feedback, we went out for lunch and that took longer than we wanted it to and the weather – urgh.

Anyway, I had ordered some new trainers ridiculously reduced – some Inov8 Roclite 305 gore-tex ones for under 50 quid. I mean it would have been rude not to. So I set myself a target of 5 more essays and then I could/had to go run. I put long pants on – yep time for big girl pants, too cold for 3/4 now I reckon – a long-sleeved top, my rain jacket and then because light was fading fast, a bright neon yellow t-shirt over the top. I looked a right plonker but I wasn’t about to be cold! Then I put the new shoes on and set off.

I can’t really do a proper review because it was only a short plod and I walked the uneven, muddy, trail-y bit because I couldn’t really see where I was putting my feet and my ankles were quite stiff and I am terrified of injuring myself. But  – why the hell did nobody tell me about gore-tex trainers before? I had so much fun not avoiding puddles and splish sploshing around that I started searching  puddles out to jump into them – and I still have dry socks. I can do puddles and have dry feet. It’s magic! I never had gore-tex trainers before. Getting some somehow always felt like a step too far – they’re for proper runners. I don’t really go anywhere where I need them, or for long enough that wet feet really matter… so the complete crap would go in my head.  I tried some once and they felt really tight and inflexible compared to the non gore-tex version so I presumed they were all like that. I was wrong. Love these. Bring on the puddles!

Happy running and splish splash splashing about!

Toronto Half – the morning after

I feel good about yesterday. I have had a few ‘should have pushed harder up that hill, could have taken a walk break out down this or that slope, should have pushed on through the mental doubts a bit more, could have run just that little faster on the slower miles’ sort of thoughts but actually, I’m happy.

I fell asleep about 8.15pm. I slept really well until 11pm and woke up thinking I’d had a right good night’s sleep. Hm. I dozed off again and slept in fits and starts until 5.30am ish. Still, I feel quite rested this morning and I’m a big fan of afternoon naps! So, let’s see where we are after running 13.1 miles faster than I ever have before

  1. Nothing is injured, nothing really hurts or is really sore
  2. My hip flexors are tight
  3. My calves are tight
  4. My hamstrings are tight
  5. But none of them are ridiculously tight. I’ve had far far worse – it’s what I call smug tightness  – reminds you you achieved something
  6. My feet feel a bit tired and I got one little blister but it doesn’t hurt – it must have popped during the race anyway
  7. Vaseline will have to be my friend for a few days and undergarments will have to be carefully chosen for exactly how they fit and where exactly they sit- should have used bodyglide for bra and knicker line!
  8. I haven’t had any post long run/race cravings and I’m also not eating everything in sight like is normal post running
  9. I’m looking forward to a day of being a tourist

Looking back at the race, we got lots of things right. Having porridge about 3.5 hours before race start works. It could probably be a bit closer, maybe 3 hours but I think previously I have eaten too close to the start – like 90 minutes before and then I get tummy issues. I obviously need longer and yesterday that time frame of 3 hours plus worked. I was beginning to get a little nibblish when we set off but that was fine, that, I think, is the feeling I am aiming for.

I reviewed tailwind for fuel the other day. We used that again yesterday and it worked. I had two 125ml bottles and didn’t actually drink it all. I’d made it up on the strong side. It definitely helped and caused no tummy issues at all. Towards the end –  in the last 5k, my calves were beginning to just be a bit crampy and I had a couple of big sips and it stopped. I think we also got the water stations right – in that we ignored them mostly. I stopped at one because I felt thirsty. I have to walk to drink the water though and then walk a little longer for it to settle. I don’t get the same with sips of tailwind  – I can easily get my bottle out of my pocket, have a sip and put the bottle back within a 30 second walk break. I suspect I could sip it on the run. I think when I focus on water stations I drink more than I need and risk upsetting my tummy. I’m much better with slightly more frequent little sips of tailwind.

With our last order of tailwind we got 4 stick packs of their Rebuild recovery drink. I had packed them so immediately after we finished we picked up our bag and sat down, stretched a little and I made up the recovery drinks. We had one of each flavour. I poured the powder into the water bottles we’d packed and gave the bottles a good shake –  it mixed well. Kath had the chocolate one. She said it was quite nice and that I’d probably like it (safe bet, it’s chocolate). I had the vanilla one. Well. The smell is terrible. As I went to take my first sip I breathed in and nearly gave it up as a bad job. It smells absolutely vile. It’s hard to explain but the smell turned my stomach. I took a sip anyway. It actually tastes better than it smells. It’s drinkable but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. I got it down and at least it doesn’t have a lingering after taste. I do think the recovery drink helped though. Kath did not go flakey like she often does straight after a long run so there was no rush or stress to find somewhere for food and for both of us it stopped the post run cravings and munchies. I also think the lack of any real soreness is due to having it and of course due to keeping moving. It seems Rebuild does exactly what it says on the tin (well packet and website) and I really do think it helped repair muscles and restore energy.

Today is all about active recovery. We’re going to explore the Distillery District and when we get tired later we might come back to the hotel and have a swim – we may also have to venture to the Eaton centre – we never go shopping unless we’re away somewhere. Somehow it seems more fun when on holiday.

Happy Monday!

Tailwind: Tummy Friendly Fuel

Right, rest day today. Just as well really. My legs felt quite tired walking up to the office this morning and back up the hill this afternoon. So I thought I’d catch up on some the the things I’ve been meaning to write. First on the list is a review of Tailwind Nutrition.

I have tried various things for fuelling on long runs. It’s odd. I have a pretty cast iron stomach generally but that does not carry through to running. When it comes to running I have the most ridiculously sensitive tummy. So any sort of gels and blocs are out unless I am actually sitting on a toilet. I also really can’t stand the artificial taste and the texture just freaks me out. I tried some cliff bars for fuel and for recovery – apart from the pretty artificial taste, they didn’t do anything for recovery other than pile on calories and fuelling is pointless when the only place the fuel makes you run is to the loo.

I tried porridge bars which I do like but they’re quite dry and I can only eat a little bit and need water with them and they’re just a bit of a pain to carry and then repack if you’ve had a little bit and also I probably need more than one bar if I’m doing over half marathon distance and it was all getting complicated. That said, Stoats porridge bars are awesome and I love them for long walks, picnics or a well needed boost at work. They powered me round two marathons but the downside is having to stop and walk for quite a bit to eat, drink some water, wait till it’s all settled…. It was sort of fine for what I’ve done and the lots of walking approach to long distance but I don’t think it works well for trying to run a bit more or at least keep the walking intervals consistently short.

Then we tried some torq energy drink which was used at an event we volunteered at. That just gave me horrible tummy cramps – I mentioned it here. Kath’s experiences are similar. We get on best with home made things and real food like dried apricots and nuts but they’re not always easy to carry on a run unless carrying a pack and not practical to take/make if we’re travelling abroad for a run/race (and we do always have half an eye in the Dopey Challenge!). So we’d pretty much given up on finding something easy, convenient and effective that would travel well. Then we kept seeing comments about tailwind. Lots of people were saying that it really worked for them and that it was nice to tummies.

We ordered a starter pack. It can contain 1 stick pack of each of their flavours  – 7 packs in total – but we decided not to get any of their caffeine containing flavours  (Green Tea Buzz, Raspberry Buzz and Tropical Buzz) because Kath is really sensitive to caffeine.

So the stick packs are dead simple to make up – just add water, give it a stir and/or a shake. Done. I tried it on a couple of short runs – you can never be too careful! First the lemon flavour and then the naked unflavoured one. On both occasions there was no ill effect on my tummy at all. From those runs I can’t really say whether the fuelling is good or not because I didn’t go far enough. They were just a tummy test. I then used another lemon one at the Lakeland Trails event where I was out for 2 hours and taking little sips throughout did I think help. I had some more the day after on a longer run and it definitely helped there – maybe I felt it more because I already had tired legs. I tried the mandarin orange flavour on the 10 mile adventure to Haworth last weekend and from that experience I think I can say it works – when I was feeling really flakey I had a good few sips and then kept sipping at more regular intervals and felt better and then fine for the rest of the run. I don’t think just water would have done that.

According to the instructions though I am possibly not actually having enough (which is presumably why I went flakey in the first place) – they suggest one stick pack in 500-700 ml of water to sip over an hour. I don’t drink that much when running, ever. I made up 500 ml and had about 2/3 of that over the two hours we were out on Haworth Moor. I’m still experimenting with what really works over the longer distances/durations and in different conditions but I am really excited to have found something to fuel with that is easy, convenient, seemingly effective and that is nice to my tummy. I’m sure I’ll get the mix right for me over time.

Here’s what’s in tailwind for those science, nutrition, whatever geeks among you (from their website)

Screenshot 2018-04-23 20.10.37

The flavours are all quite nice – they’re subtle and not in your face artificial. They don’t leave an aftertaste and I found all them refreshing. I think I actually most like the naked one. Kath’s favourite is the berry flavour and we’ve just ordered a multi-serving bag of that (they come in 30 or 50 serving bags). In addition we’ve ordered more stick packs to take with us on our travels – we’ve ordered lemon, berry and naked ones; too much of a risk having the mandarin ones because it’s really just a matter of time before we get water bottles mixed up and it all goes horribly wrong (Kath is allergic).

So tailwind gets a big thumbs up from me for ease, for taste, for effectiveness and also for non stickiness and non messiness. Water bottles just rinse out easily and there’s no residue or aftertaste or anything. There’s no gooey or sticky consistency that you feel like you can’t wash off your hands or out of your bottle. Really it’s all just as it should be.

It’s not the cheapest but it doesn’t compare badly at all to other products out there  and honestly, I’d rather pay a pound or two more (on a 50 serving bag for example) for something that doesn’t give me tummy cramps! There’s something else though. It’s a gimmick in a way but my sort of gimmick and it feels like a genuine gimmick (yes yes I know). The customer service is lovely. There’s always a personal touch and if you tell them what your next event is, they may just email you to say well done. Here’s what I got from Tracy at Tailwind checking on me after the weekend she thought I was running in the Lakes

Hi Jessica,

I cannot find your results on line 😦  How did you get on?

As it turned out – she was a week early and after we’d had a little email exchange and she checked my Hawkshead 10k result I got another one:

Hello!!! Congratulations you were not last on the list 😉 as you suspected!!!  Well done you!

Now maybe I am just a sucker for marketing gimmicks but that really did make me smile!

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