Saturday, 1 December 2012

Blogging, Latin and the Question of How Far to Run.

Normal health warnings apply  -  persistence maybe required.

I see from the witheringly comprehensive Google information system that this is my 100th blog post. Not exactly prolific for someone who started back in 2009, but I have neither the ability of the Paisley Super-blogger to make training sound interesting nor the sharp wit of the Pirate to make almost anything else a good read, so I generally hang around until I think I have something to say. Maybe I've said enough by now anyway, 100 might be a good point to sign off, but I would probably carry on jotting and rambling anyway  and then it's just a question of hitting the "publish" button, so I'll think on for a while; I'm something of a creature of habit. What is clear though is that blogging has changed a lot even in the short time that I've been in the game. While there are many more active bloggers these days giving a huge choice of tales, rants and other stuff to dip into, paradoxically the technology seems to have moved on to consign blogging to the "yesterday's technology" pile. As Andrew Neil might put it, those of us who have spent years coming to terms with the interweb in general now have to move on to the fleecebook.  An altogether more immediate and punchy medium, maybe not for the likes of we brought up to look before we leap, but I'll probably have to make the effort to sidle in and keep up a bit more.

I was in some company spanning the generations the other day and the conversation started with facebook then turned to communication in general, education, and the pace of change. The silver oldies of course believed that real education ceased somewhere around the early 70's while the movers and shakers dismissed the relevance of anything that happened before the dawn of the digital age. This is par for the course, but I was still able to raise a bit of mirth and incredulity by confessing that one of the entrance requirements I faced back in 1966 for my degree course in engineering was a GCE pass in Latin. The younger members of the group suggested that this was probably more relevant in my day when the Romans had not long left Britain, but had no sensible place in modern thinking. I'm still inclined to disagree; though I've long forgotten the exploits of Scipio, Pliny and all the rest I still remember enough to help me decipher the odd bit of modern language, both English and others. But many of us will appreciate a bit of cod Latin, the "alternative translations", close enough to sound about right while being completely wrong. My school motto Abeunt studia in mores could be properly translated as "study breeds character" but a more popular version among the students was "if you work too hard you die".  Later in my academic career I spent some time at Liverpool with an office facing the clock tower and its proclamation Fiat lux  - let there be light, or maybe even "wash your car". Sometimes you don't need an alternative, the original is expressive enough, such as Semper in excreta sumus,  profundum solum variat  -  I'll leave you to work that one out. And finally there are those that have no genuine translation but are a just a modern concoction for effect  -  one that has stuck with me over the years was a favourite of my dad's  - Nil carborundum illegitimi,  generally understood as "Don't let the bastards grind you down".

But on to running, which is what this blog says on the tin. Around this time, most runners' thoughts turn to formulating some sort of a programme for next year. How many and which races to run? When I first stumbled into ultra running  -  hard for me to believe that it was still only five years or so ago  -  the wisdom seemed to be that one big event a year was the safest plan, with maybe a couple of 40 or 50 milers taken gently to lead up to it. I know quite a few good performers who still think this is the way to go  -  make one race your focus and use everything else as preparation, otherwise you won't deliver your best performance. They're in good company, this is what the guru Tim Noakes has to say - "As a result of the damage caused by the ultramarathon, I would suggest that if you wish to specialise as an ultramarathon runner, you should race only once each year or perhaps, even better, only every second year at the ultramarathon distance. If you race more frequently, you will never achieve the fastest time of which your body is capable."

But we all know that there are lots of runners out there doing far more than this with apparently no ill effects. An event every two or three weeks is the norm for some, then upwards to extreme cases like Jon Steele who will complete 50 ultras during this year. Ah, you will say, but these guys are only achieving quantity by compromising on quality, none of their events will represent anywhere near their best possible performance. Maybe, but that begs the question what the individual wants out of the game anyway. If we simply enjoy the taking part, we may be quite happy not to worry about our potential  and just get the fun of participation many more times a year. A bonus of this approach is that we don't need to worry about "peaking" for one particular time  -  if we happen to catch a cold or turn an ankle that week, no problem, there are plenty of other events to enjoy.

We still don't have the whole story though. What about the guys who turn in a stream of top class performances every year?  Last year Jez Bragg broke existing records in the Highland Fling and the Fellsman, and came 4th in the Western States (probably the most competitive ultra in the world) in the space of two months. This year Terry Conway broke the West Highland Way and Lakeland 100 records within 5 weeks. No compromise on quality here. But is this just a question of elite runners with huge talent putting so much time into their training that they are now playing a different game from the rest of us, to which the Noakes' rule no longer applies? Well for sure ultra-running at the top is becoming more "professional" in terms of the time athletes are prepared to put into their preparation and the results are getting more like other more established sports. Mo Farah turns in a world class performance then comes back a few days later and does it again. The bike racers go out and ride for five or six hours at speeds averaging nearly 30 miles an hour, then do the same the next day, and the next for two or three weeks. No consideration here of one major effort a year being the limit. But does this changed mindset percolate down to those of us with much lower abilities and aspirations?

When I look back over my own short ultra running career, I can't really find a difference in performance between the years when I competed the most (seven ultras and two marathons) and the least (three ultras and two marathons). Generally I run in an event, feel pretty knackered at the finish then get back to normal quickly enough to start running again two or three days later and return to full activity in about a week. I can't see that it makes much of a difference then whether the next race is in three months time or three weeks. 

It seems to me that the only real thing that stops us running an ultra shortly after another one is some sort of physical damage  -  bad blisters, over-stiff or sore muscles, aching joints and so on. We may not like to accept it, but unless we had an unlucky episode in the last race - say a fall or a badly turned ankle  -  then this damage is likely to be the result of insufficient preparation for the event; not enough training  - or to put it a different way, our brain was capable of more than our body so we pushed into an area where more damage was done than on a training run. Maybe we were happy to do this anyway for a one-off result, but it was a choice not a necessity; more training would have got us to the same place without the pain.

I think the other barrier to competing more regularly is psychological. We feel we ought to be tired after covering fifty or a hundred miles, so our body obliges us by actually feeling tired and we take it easy until the feeling goes away. But in my experience, so long as there is no actual damage, if we believe we can go out and run again then we probably can. Before this year's Tor des Geants race I couldn't see how I could keep going for five or six days on less than three hours of sleep per night; but I knew a lot of other people had done just that in previous years, so I made sure that I prevented damage by looking after my joints and feet and assumed everything else would be OK. In the event, I found I was going more strongly on Day 5 than on Day 2. Again, back in 2010 the West Highland Way race came less than three weeks after a LDWA 100 mile event. I wanted to do both so I did, and my WHW time was a personal best (out of 4 finishes up to that point) by quite some margin. I don't attribute any bragging rights to these examples, they are just illustrations of what can happen when you say "no, I won't be tired, it will be OK."

There are limits of course. I'm sure I couldn't do a Jon Steele (an ultra every week) without seriously cutting down my speed aspirations, and I'm not prepared just yet to be satisfied as a collector of finishes. I'm sure I still have a PB or two waiting to be teased out. But I've come to the conclusion that next year an ultra or a marathon once a month is fine by me. I've already entered three 100 milers and three or four shorter ones, and I'm sure the year will fill up nicely before too long.

Nil carborundum illegitimi.


John Kynaston said...

Another thought provoking post Andy.

Please, please don't stop blogging.

When it comes to blogging I'm in the quantity category and you are definitely in the quality!!

Geoff Cox said...

Yes! As John says, keep the blogs coming Andy - even if they are sporadic. There are not many places that I get a perspective on ultra running that comes from somebody who, like me, has a few miles on the clock.

Subversive Runner said...


As a blogger I think your posts strike a balance. They provide brain food for the serious runner and entertainment for the casual observer. Yours is the only blog I know that achieves that well. I never skip through the text in your posts to get to the end like I might do in others. Keep it up mate.

Anonymous said...

Nice bit of Latin there Andy.

I did Latin for 5 years in school (mainly because I was crap at Art and Latin was the other choice and then because you could score higher in it in you Leaving Cert (Our A-Levels)) and I look back with the warm knowledge that I remember none of it.
A domus necessarium is a toilet if you ever want to impress the lads down the pub.

I think there is a balance to be struck with ultra-running between what you want to achieve (this can be a highly personal thing) and what you are willing to put into it to achieve this. How much of a hobby or interest is running? - this will dictate your training load and this may dictate your performance.

I would say that over 90% of entrants to these events are doing them to travel on a personal journey into their soul to discover the limit of their being (I wrote that totally sober!)

I stumbled across a TED talk last April before the Highland Fling. It struck me how the experience of running an ultra (complete loss of the ego) fell into the category of self-trancendence.

J.Steele's 50 in 52 said...

I enjoyed that Andy. What you write is always worth reading and that's what it is all about !! I learn from your blog :0)) continue that is an order !!