Life is an ultramarathon

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Monday, May 7 2012

Thames Path recce 2012: London

This morning I went for a recce on Thames Path from the Barrier to Hammersmith. Quite a few changes within a year!

Firstly, the cable car between the O2 and the Royal Docks looks nearly ready. The cable and cabins are already there, but the terminal building is not finished yet, thus leading to yet another path diversion...

Secondly, the north section between the O2 and Greenwich has been diverted, whereas the South section is now open.

In Greenwich, the Cutty Sark has now being repaired and is open to the public again.

That said, another boat stole the show in Greenwich today. HMS Ocean, a large assault ship, has now docked in Greenwich after a very close encounter with the Thames Barrier (video) a few days ago. She's there to flex muscles before the Olympics, and is actually pretty massive. Today she was open to Greenwich residents only. And judging by the ~500m queue, it was successful!

A bit of a shame, the Traffic Light Tree in the docklands has been removed.

More centrally, the Shard, the new tallest building in Europe has now reached its fully height.

And a last, smaller but appreciable change: the underpass at Wandsworth bridge is now open, avoiding stairs and road crossing. A nice map of the Thames Path has been displayed on the wall too.

The Thames banks in London are ever changing. I just hope it's for the best, and that millennia of varied history won't be replaced by a single generic type of building within 50 years.

Ultra recce

Sunday, April 29 2012

Beetroot juice: the new sport drink?

A recent article on the Telegraph website reports that researchers at St Louis University in America found out that runners are about 3% faster on a 5 km treadmill run after having beetroot rather than cranberries. In fact, this has already been demonstrated in 2009 by researchers from Exeter, who compared beetroot to blackcurrent.

Nitrates in beetroot apparently dilate blood vessels, reducing blood pressure and making oxygen usage more efficient. This leads to being able to run longer (by 16% according the 2009 study) or faster, but both studies were limited to short runs/rides. What about marathons and beyond?

My main concern with eating a large amounts of beetroot before or during an ultramarathon is that beetroot colours the urine into red. What looks like a funny side effect might actually be problematic in diagnosing long distance running related injuries such as rhabdomyolysis (muscle destruction) and/or kidney failure, which are typically characterised by darker urine colour.

How long before a gel/bar/sport drink is marketed "with beetroot extract"?

Ultra root

Thursday, April 26 2012


I know it might seem odd to some, but despite the frequent overcast London sky, it doesn't rain that much here. So much so that hosepipes are already banned and probably will be for the entire summer, if not until Christmas! It's OK, though, worse comes to worse I can use my purifier to get water straight from the Thames rather than from Thames Water...

But the most paradoxical is probably that following the heavy rain for the last couple of days, flood warnings have been issued in drought areas, which will nevertheless stay in drought...

Ultra lack of rain

Thursday, April 5 2012

RIP Caballo Blanco

Caballo Blanco, ultramarathon runner and philosopher has passed away a week ago whilst on a short run. He will be missed by many.

Read the excellent remembrance BBC article by Chris McDougall, the author of Born to run.

Ultra easy, light, smooth and fast

Tuesday, March 27 2012

Hardmoors 55 2012

The week-end before last, I was off to North Yorkshire again for the third edition of the Hardmoors 55.

As I arrived in Guisborough on Friday night, I went for a now ritual pre-race fish and chips. I ordered a "cod and chips and a coke", but my mumbling meant I ended up with a "cod and chips and a cod", ie. two cods and a bag of chips. Probably in the order of 1200-1500 KCal in a meal. Not too bad before an ultra, but technically just enough calories for a half-marathon.

The Fox Inn was actually being refurbished as I stayed there. The hotel rooms were open as usual, but the pub downstairs was closed. This meant that unlike the past two years, there was no disco night until 2am, and I could sleep a bit better!

An early coach took us to Helmsley, where the start was given by race director of the day Martin Dietrich at 9am. The runner field had increased again this year with 138 runners registered, served by a lot more volunteers.

As planned by the forecast, it started raining lightly an hour after the start. Nothing too serious, but enough to require a jacket and make the ground a bit slippery. At that point, I wished I had chosen the Inov-8 Flyroc rather than the Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra, as the latter are a bit light on the grip when it comes to mud. Things went smoothly until Osmotherley nevertheless.

I didn't feel too powerful for the most of the race, and most particularly in the uphill sections between Osmotherley and Bloworth Crossing. I was hoping for better after my double portion of fish. Maybe I'm not eating enough during the races. I need to figure that out. Or maybe, as usual, I'm not training enough...

As I was approaching the remote and exposed checkpoint of Bloworth Crossing, some more serious rain started and did not stop until I left Kildale. I can't say it was the most pleasant experience, but when well equipped, I find it somewhat inspiring to battle the elements in the relative cosiness of a waterproof jacket. Just like last year, I started to play the yoyo with Andy C. from that point.

Past Kildale, Captain Cook monument, Roseberry Topping, and High Cliff Nab (lit by two powerful lanterns this year, making it a beacon visible from Roseberry Topping), the path becomes wider and more runnable again, and I left Andy C. slightly behind. I caught up with a runner who had overtaken us before the previous checkpoint as he took a wrong turn. The exact same I took 2 years ago and got lost. I shouted in his direction, and it was his turn to chase me again.

Once on the disused railway line, I felt a bit playful and decided to switch off my head torch, so that my chaser could not see me any more and might give up trying to reel me up. I knew the path was flat and mostly straight, so it felt OK to run in the dark. I just switched it on briefly a couple of times when approaching gates and other large obstacles. And indeed, my chaser's light rapidly disappeared... I kept pushing and looking back from time to time nevertheless. And suddenly, surprise, his light not that far off behind me! Just about to pass the gate I left behind a minute ago. How could he catch up so suddenly? Answer a few moments later as I turned around to judge his progress... but could not see him! I had been beaten at my own game, he too had clearly switched off his torch a while back. And since he was behind he could spot me effortlessly every time I switched mine on to pass a gate, whereas I only had been lucky to look behind as he was passing one.

I eventually finished in 11:16:36, a tad slower than last years, but fairly consistent otherwise!

Ultra training not required...

Wednesday, March 21 2012

Could you run a marathon without training?

I've just read this article on BBC news: Could you run a marathon without training?

And without surprise, the answer is yes if you have a decent level of fitness. In particular, John Brewer, Professor of sports science at the University of Bedfordshire reckons that "if you're a runner and your body is conditioned to running 5k or 10k in distance, as long as you set your goals properly and you run at a very slow pace, you could probably get around".

How many times have I been laughed at when asserting that if you can run 5 km you can run a marathon after some training. This article suggests that you could even do it without training!

Ultra unnecessary training

Tuesday, March 13 2012

Kilometric entry fee, or the marathon anomaly

Following my participation in the Cambridge Boundary Run marathon for an entry fee of a mere £8, I have decided to calculate the kilometric cost, ie. the entry fee per kilometre, of some of the races I completed in the past. All entries fees are for 2012, unless not available yet for late autumn races, in which case 2011 fees are used. EUR to GBP rate: 0.835.

Early bird rate (cheapest entry fee available)
RaceDistanceEntry FeeFee/distance

Cambridge Boundary Run42.28.00.19
Hardmoors 110177.140.00.23
Hardmoors 5588.625.00.28
Hardmoors 6096.630.00.31
Three Forts Marathon43.520.00.46
PTL (3 runners)290.0148.80.51
UfDance half-marathon21.116.00.76
PTL (2 runners)290.0223.20.77
Belfast Marathon42.233.00.78
Marathon des Alpes-Maritimes42.237.60.89
Hyde Park Relays (internal)
Watford Half-Marathon21.120.00.95
Paris Marathon42.254.21.29
Dublin Marathon42.258.41.38
Copenhagen Marathon42.267.41.60
Athens Marathon42.275.11.78

Late entry fee (most expensive entry fee)
RaceDistanceEntry FeeFee/distance

Cambridge Boundary Run42.212.00.28
Hardmoors 5588.630.00.34
Hardmoors 6096.635.00.36
Hardmoors 110177.170.00.40
PTL (3 runners)290.0148.80.51
Three Forts Marathon43.525.00.58
PTL (2 runners)290.0223.20.77
Belfast Marathon42.233.00.78
Hyde Park Relays (internal)
UfDance half-marathon21.120.00.95
Watford Half-Marathon21.120.00.95
Marathon des Alpes-Maritimes42.262.61.48
Copenhagen Marathon42.273.11.73
Dublin Marathon42.275.11.78
Athens Marathon42.275.11.78
Paris Marathon42.279.31.88

It therefore appears that I ran successively my most expensive and cheapest (kilometric-wise) races one after each other :) It also seems that the UTMB and the PTL are not so expensive after all...

But what really dominates these tables is no news: "big city marathons" are expensive, as illustrated in this graph by the anomaly at 42.195km. A result of marathons being fashionable, and market laws doing the rest?

Kilometric race fees

It would be interesting to see what are the statistics on a wider scale, though. For example if runnersworld would be keen on opening up their database...

Ultra fee

Wednesday, March 7 2012

Cambridge Boundary Run 2012: rain, rain, and rain

On Sunday, I travelled to Cambridge for my second participation in the Cambridge Boundary Run.

The race presents a variety of underfoot conditions, from road, to gravel, to grass, ... to mud. Indeed, the weather was not with us this time. Since the forecast was rainy for the entire day, I decided to wear a long sleeve T-shirt and a running jacket. The race started with a light but steady rain, which would have been manageable in T-shirt. Thus my jacket was a bit on the way: too hot when closed, and catching the wind when opened. After about 16km I already started to feel a bit weak and wondered how I would manage the remaining 26km... This combined with seeing the half-marathon runners starting to push for their finish was a bit demoralising.

But things also change for the better during a race! The rain built up to pour heavily during the second half, and with a bit of wind, I was very happy to have this jacket to keep me warm. Did this boost my spirit? Who knows... The increasing number of muddy sections was making things a bit difficult when your quads are already tight. Nevertheless, I started to feel much better at around 28km, and slowly increased pace, to finish feeling strong. One of this strange case of finding your energy battling the elements...

With 1:58 and 2:04 splits for a total time of 4:02, it's a very different race than in 2010 when I might have been a bit faster overall (3:56), but started faster to struggle on the finish (splits: 1:53 and 2:03). A bit odd to finish a relatively flat marathon in over 4 hours, but without any running for the last 2 weeks, it's probably understandable.

It was generally better organised than 2 years ago. In particular the markings were much improved. The advantage with chalk markings is that they go away with the rain. The disadvantage with chalk markings is that they go away with the rain... I still think that 4 solid food stops is a bit light for a full marathon, but I actually managed well with eating only the equivalent of 2 Mars bars during the entire run. For £8 T-shirt included, ie. a tenth of most big marathons, this race is still a bargain! Well done on the Cambridge Uni runners for organising that and standing hours in the rain pouring glasses of water.

Ultra rainy marathon

Monday, January 30 2012

Year of the Water Dragon

Following a question about the Chinese New Year on the BBC Quiz of the week's news, I discovered that Chinese years are not only associated with an animal, but also with an element, which in 2012 is water.

That somehow started me thinking about the Thames Source Quest (TSQ) again. The Dragon is arguably the luckiest animal, and the Water element is a fairly good omen to run (and drink) the Thames. Digging further, I learnt that years alternate between Yin and Yang. Like all Dragon years, 2012 is Yang, which is associated with fast and focused, so that is pretty optimal too! That said, water would typically be Yin (which is slow and passive). The next occurrence of a Yang Water Dragon year is in 2072, following a 60-year cycle (12 animals times 5 elements)...

But it goes even further! There is apparently an "energetic high point" during the year, which is the Dragon moon in the lunar calendar. This year, it starts on the 20th May, and finishes on the 18th June. The dragon full moon will be on the 4th June, that is currently my exact planned TSQ completion date! You just cannot invent these things :)

Now, whether a Yang Water Dragon will let a vulgar Yin Metal Rooster achieve his goal remains an open question...

Ultra water dragon

Tuesday, January 24 2012

Electronic music

For a couple of years I have somehow associated most long ultras with a specific music track, typically a "trendy" electronic music. Often not the music I would listen every day. Trips in Southeastern France might have influenced choices...

Amusingly, I still remember fairly well some of the titles, mainly on the first of each event type:

  • 2005: UTMB. Dancefloor FG summer 2005 album, and more particularly "What A Feeling" (Global Deejays), but also "The World Is Mine" (David Guetta Feat. JD Davis) and "I Will Be There" (Muttonheads).
  • 2008: Ironman France. Fun Club Vol. 2, Le Son Dancefloor, and more particularly "Hot Summer Night" (David Tavare), but also "Cry For You" (September) and "Sleeping Satellite" (Junior Caldera). Strangely enough, the album was actually released a month after the Ironman, but I must have heard it earlier on the radio.
  • 2010: TSQ (attempt). "I Gotta Feeling" (Black Eyes Peas).
  • 2011: TSQ (attempt). "I Gotta Feeling" (Black Eyes Peas).
  • 2012: TSQ (attempt). Potential candidate: "Louder" (DJ Fresh feat. Sian Evans).

Listening to these titles not only makes me feel good for what they are (after all, listening to music is associated with dopamine release), but also because they remind me of the feelings experienced during a race through some kind of Pavlovian association. This association is subtle, though, since I haven't actually listened to them during the ultras, but rather before, during visualisation-type training. Therefore this music might bring back equally the image I had of the ultra before running it and the ultra itself.

Now the question is: could I use the music during the run to boost myself? I know lots of people do, but mostly to combat boredom. I have tried it only once, towards the end of the second night of the UTMB 2007. The aim was to wake me up as I was struggling, but it was completely ineffective. All I could hear is extremely unpleasant noise, that stressed me out more than anything else. I dropped it after less than 10 minutes.

What's your view on that?

Ultra music

Thursday, January 12 2012

Not registered for the Grand Raid des Pyrénées

I have been thinking for the last couple of months to attempt the Grand Raid des Pyrénées (GRP). The registration opened today, the 12th January 2012 at 12:12.

This race series is not without similarities with the UTMB, being run at the end of August in high mountain ranges and featuring 3 races. The original race: Ultra (160km +10000m), comparable to the UTMB (166km +9500m), a shorter one: Grand Trail (80km +5000m), against the UTMB's CCC (98km +5600m), and a longer team race with little support and tougher entry conditions: Raid (240km +15000m) vs UTMB's PTL (300km +25000m). The GRP isn't run around a major landmark as the UTMB's Mont Blanc, but goes up the Pic du Midi instead! The wild landscape is stunning.

Looking at the GRP elevation profile is scary, as it features only 5 majors ascents, against 9 for the UTMB. The ascents (and worse, the descents) are therefore very long on the GRP, with 1000m looking like a short ascent, and some featuring about 2000m in one push. The descent from the Pic du Midi is 2400m end-to-end, plus a few extra bumps to make it 2600m cumulated...

On the plus side, the GRP starts a 05:00 as opposed to 18:30 for the UTMB, which I think is a major advantage. Indeed, this means that you run through only one night if you finish in less than 40 hours, which is reasonable, whereas only the elite (sub 26:30) can enjoy this privilege on the UTMB. And given my dislike for running by night, this is a significant bonus point.

In 2012 the UTMB will be run on the first week-end of September rather than the last of August. As far as I know, this is then the first time the UTMB and GRP are not organised on the same week-end, which will obviously give ideas to some :)

I had been contemplating the idea of running the Ultra, as a "secondary" objective, taking my time. But a Little Bird reminded me that one long ultra per year is probably enough for my slow recovery. I keep it my mind for 2013, if we don't need qualifying points by then :) . UTMB will require 7 points next year!

Ultra reasonable

Sunday, December 18 2011

2011 review & 2012 plans

So, how was 2011 running-wise?

In a nutshell, I've carried on with the trend of not training much, or at least not as much as I would like to. Indeed, the Hardmoors 60 (85km in 6 training sessions during the previous month) and the Athens Marathon (44km in 5 sessions during the previous month) consolidate the idea that I can run significant distances following a truly minimal training. It's obviously not ideal, but it gets me (slowly and somehow painfully) to the end of the race.

It is relatively clear that I have trained much less in terms of number of sessions, reaching an all-time low of 55 sessions so far. This is barely once a week! However, I have put forward qualitative work, leading to a higher average distance of about 22km per session.

I have the feeling I might have gone a bit too far in this direction, and for next year, I will try to put back more easy runs in between the quality training sessions to increase a bit my mileage.

And now for the big challenge... I guess I have trained relatively well for the TSQ, but in the end both the mental and physical sides let me down at the same time. I knew it would be an extremely tough mental challenge, but did not manage to gather enough psychological energy beforehand. In particular, I didn't react well to the very slow pace I was reduced to after the night, and was afraid to finish too late on Sunday. And I was cold and very sleepy at night.

So, what's on for next year? The TSQ again! Third time lucky hopefully... Aside the minor fixes for the issues mention here above, I am still considering lowering a bit the challenge by dropping a few constraints. Maybe "self-supported" as opposed to "unsupported", ie. I would be allowed to get water and food from nearby sources (but not from a dedicated crew). That would alleviate the heavy bag issue (but was that an issue?), and more importantly allow for better physical and mental recovery if I can get hot food on the go. To be continued...

I'm also getting interested in the Grand Raid des Pyrénées (GRP). I know about the "one main event per year" rule, but that could be a secondary goal, a kind of super hike, given the generous time limit (50 hours). Something I would not be allowed to think of before the TSQ is completed, if that's possible. Registrations open on the 12th Jan 2012 at 12:12...

Ultra plans

Tuesday, November 29 2011

When one ultramarathon is not enough...

... just run 50 of them! And in one year that is, otherwise I wouldn't call that a challenge, really.

That's pretty much what Hardmoors creator Jon Steele has on his plate for 2012. No one asked him to do it, he decided it himself, Mens sana in corpore sano (a sane mind in a sound body). Well, at least the sound body part.

So the idea is to run an ultramarathon pretty much every week-end, either as an actual ultramarathon race, a shorter race topped up after the finish line, or a training run, as long as it's longer than 27 miles (43.5km). And to season the whole idea, that will include three 100 miles races and four 50 miles ones.

You can follow his progress on his new blog: Good luck Jon!

Ultra running year

Friday, November 25 2011

Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) Study

How many times have I been asked "isn't running ultramarathons bad for your health?". We might soon have a scientific answer to this question. Well, by soon, I mean in the next 20 years or so...

Researchers at Stanford University have just launched the Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) Study ( I have filled in their questionnaire about current and past lifestyle (activities, nutrition, illness, and obviously running), and am now waiting for the next one, which should be coming in 1 or 2 years.

Ultra study

Tuesday, November 22 2011

Athens Marathon 2011

Have I heard someone saying "in Athens [...] the heat can play a role" when running the marathon? Yes, I am looking towards you, at 161° South South East...

Well it looks like we went on a bad year: 10°C, Beaufort 7 wind (50-60km/h - "Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind."), and a bit of drizzle for good measure. So was the forecast Dan, Marco, and I bleakly looked at on Saturday evening as we prepared our running equipment... Our only hope was that the wind direction looked liked it could be in our backs.

Athens Marathon finish
The calm after the storm

After a short night and after Marco had sorted his priorities right (ie. hair style before timing chip), we left to take the stream of coaches going to Marathon. And indeed when it left us nearby the Marathon's stadium, it was cold, drizzling, and very windy. I guess that's the logical consequence for a race to choose one of its main sponsors called "WIND"... So we had to wait for the start for over an hour, sheltering as we could, before getting changed at the last minute and used the plastic bags distributed by the organisation as a last protection.

Just before the start we were told that "it is never cold in Greece, because even if the weather is cold, the Greeks are warm at heart". And it was to be true. People were very supportive in the streets, despite the poor conditions. I picked up a branch of olive tree (which Athena gave the people of Athens) handed by a supporter and carried it till the finish line.

Against all common sense for whoever runs or cycles, the wind was indeed behind us during the first half of the marathon, making it easier (the only time not being short has been an advantage for me), and not too cold. After 10km of flat surface, we started 20km of gentle ascent. I was fine until half way (in 1:40:30), but things started to get a bit complicated after that. My quads got tighter and tighter, and my pace dropped. I just couldn't produce the power. Even during the final 10km of descent, I didn't manage to pick up much speed, by then focusing primarily on not getting cramps.

Athens Marathon profile
Click to enlarge

The final kilometre is pretty magical, though. First the Acropolis pointing out above the city, and then it's the entry in the Panathinaiko stadium (used for the first modern Olympic Games). Much bigger and whiter than I had imagined. I didn't bother to push for sub 3:30, and just enjoyed the moment with my olive branch in the middle of this entirely stone-built stadium. I had just run on the footsteps of the literally legendary Pheidippides... 2501 years late.

It's probably the best organised marathon I've run so far, with a lot of attention to details. In particular enough portable toilets at the start and at the end, wind/rain protection at the start and at the end, good goodie bag, audio tape with final instructions in the bus, ...

And as if the "marathon full package" was not enough, we were hosted, fed, and drove around by local friend George, catering for every need. And turning the experience into a "marathon full package delux". That is to say we ate a lot! So big thank you George!

Ultra marathon roots

Monday, November 7 2011

Hardmoors for the lazy ...

... or the runners building up stamina.

Jon seems to become softer and softer, and has now opened the Hardmoors 55, 110, and 60 to relay teams. Between 2 and 4 runners who can split the course however they like, as long as they cover the entire race between them obviously. Interesting strategies in perspective.

Ultra relays

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