Life is an ultramarathon

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Sunday, May 20 2012

Are ultrarunners slow?

A very good article on Constant Forward Motion shedding a different light on a subject I had previously written about (The tortoise and the Hare).

Ultra slow

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26 2011

Ultramarathon philosophy

  • Ultramarathon
  • Running
  • Terrestrial locomotion
  • Evolved
  • Heritability
  • Phenotype
  • Organism
  • Biology
  • Natural science
  • Science
  • Knowledge
  • Fact
  • Information
  • Sequence
  • Mathematics
  • Quantity
  • Property (philosophy)
  • Modern philosophy
  • Philosophy

Ultra chain

Sunday, March 6 2011

Train less, race more

Looking for the word "training" on my blog leads to these disconcerting results for the last couple of years:

Watford Half Marathon (January 2009):

I've not trained much

3 Forts Marathon (April 2009):

given my nearly-inexistent training

Marathon 06 (November 2009):

with a very minimal training!

Hyde Park Relays (February 2010):

given my current general lack of serious training

Thames Source Quest (July 2010):

without much training...

PTL (August 2010):

given the extremely poor training regime I followed

Marathon 06 (November 2010):

given my minimal 3-week training plan

Hyde Park Relays (February 2011):

given my lack of training

Notice a trend here? Looking back at all the events I entered during the same period, I actually found only 4 on which I didn't complain about my training or the lack of it. Therefore in the last 2 years, I didn't train as much as I'd hope to for two third of the events I committed to!

That's for the overall picture. Now if we look more into the details, there are actually two distinct scenarios: events that I took easy on purpose, because they were not main objectives, and events where I didn't have the time and/or the motivation to train.

The former case raises the issue of using races to support my training schedule. It might sound like a good idea, as it combines the motivational and social aspects of a race with a good training session. It's also a good fitness benchmark. But the aim of a training session is not necessarily to push it as hard as possible. So can I really take it easy on such events? I often got caught in the game, and ended up faster than expected. Last year's Hardmoors 55 is a typical example, where I pushed a bit harder to finish quicker than expected. Should I set myself with a minimum finish time, and slow down if I am to finish quicker?

The latter case is slightly more worrying. I sometimes have "good" reasons not to train, but I sometimes don't. Am I getting bored of training and prefer racing or major unofficial events?

What is certain, is that my overall running volume during the 2009-2010 period is no less than during 2007-2008. I've basically trained a bit less and raced more! Meanwhile, I've reduced the number of runs, but increased the average distance. It looks like I can't be bothered to go for short runs :)

Number of events per year.

Looking back at 10 years of racing, the number of DNFs doesn't seem directly linked to the sharp increase in number and distance of races and major unofficial events.

Maximum distance of attempted and finished events.

Ultra training

Wednesday, October 20 2010

Post PTL 2010 thoughts

If September has been pretty quiet on the blog, it's because it's been pretty quiet running-wise too! I've not run a single kilometre between the PTL and the beginning of October.

The recovery took quite a while, and I was still very tired for about 10 days after the event. This shows how deep down the fatigue was buried inside me. For about two weeks, I followed a high protein, high fat, and generally high calorie diet. I felt like I was never completely full, no matter how much I ate.

Leo reckons he lost 10 pounds (4.5kg) in the adventure! I've not weighed myself neither before nor after the event, so I'm not sure about the impact on my body, but I guess it's similar. Assuming this weight loss was only fat, with an efficacy around 3,500 KCal per pound of fat, this is a mere 35,000 Kcal overspent! The good old Naismith's rule estimates the equivalent flat distance of the PTL to 238+18000/120=388km. Considering an expenditure of 1 KCal per kilo of body mass per kilometre run, with Leo weighing about 70kg, that is a total energy loss of 27,160KCal. I'm not including the normal daily expenditure, which I hope was covered by what we ate. This is not too far off the overspent 35,000 Kcal... At least, the same order of magnitude.

No one seemed to have noticed that I concluded the PTL report with "Ultra hike". The fact is: the PTL was a super-hike, at least for us. We basically ran the first 8km to Les Houches, a few times downhill on the first night and day, and then not much until the final sprint. I guess you can probably still say you "run" the UTMB. Although 160km in 35 hours leads to an average speed of 4.6km/h, in practice you probably walk at roughly 3km/h uphill and run at 10km/h downhill (*). Whilst strictly speaking you run only half the distance, I guess you can still say it's a run. As for the PTL, even removing all the stops, it took us about 80 hours for 238km ie. 3.0km/h. Uphill and downhill speeds are probably around 2km/h and 5.5km/h respectively.

I'm also wondering how long you can last with that kind of routine, ie. sleeping 4 hours per night and being on the paths the rest of the time? It feels like it would be possible to go further. I know there are always longer races than the one you've just done, but I feel like adding more distance or ascent by running for example the Tor des Geants would not really bring anything significant. It's a bit like trying to run 13km when you know you can run 10km. I'm not saying I won't try longer races though, I'm just saying it will be more for the pleasure of the event than the challenge.

And finally, looking back, I'm still really surprised (and glad) how well it went given the extremely poor training regime I followed beforehand...

Ultra contented

(*) Yes, the average of 3 and 10 is 6.5. But assuming the same distance is covered uphill and downhill leads to an overall speed of v=2vuvd/(vu+vd), in our case 4.6.

Monday, June 14 2010


As they've now arrived in the UK, I've just ordered some GU energy gels for inclusion in my comparative test. Whilst I was browsing their website I came across a comparison of their own. It reads:
Lining up every imaginable energy gel and scrutinising the nutritional fine print isn't unheard of for serious endurance athletes. The table below provides a quick comparison of the critical components of the energy gels most readily available.
The table is obviously designed to favour their gels. For example, it seems to show that only GU has caffeine and anti-oxydant. Whilst they are not lying strictly speaking, they are really borderline. For example, the SiS Go, High5 and PowerBar have variations that include caffeine. They might not be sold under the exact same name (SiS Smart1, High5 Plus, PowerGel), but they do exist. They've simply not been considered as "most readily available". And I won't even mention the large number of gels on the market that are not even listed here. Furthermore, the choice of "critical components" is totally arbitrary.

What is really missing now is a proper scientific study that would compare most gels in a real race scenario. I guess that would mean involving a cohort of runners/cyclists in a number of races and draw statistical conclusions. I guess that there isn't a single gel that would be perfect for all in all occasions. For example, the sodium intake should be related to body fluid loss which itself is linked to temperature.

Test results in a few days hopefully. Given that a lot of runners (such as Mike M) only swear by them, I'm impatient to taste them.

Ultra biased

Monday, May 10 2010

Recurrent questions

I used to be asked "So, how long is this marathon?", to which I'd politely reply "All marathons are 42.195km".

Now I've got "So, how long is an ultramarathon?", to which I'd politely reply "This ultramarathon is 55 miles".

Why do people always get it wrong? :)

Ultra questions

Tuesday, April 20 2010

Hiking boots vs trail running shoes

I've been hill-walking and hiking as far as I can remember, and have been wearing hiking boots for that purpose (nearly) as far as I can remember too. It's always been quite obvious to me: on rough, unstable terrain, you need good ankle support and decent grip. I would believe people hiking in trainers to be unaware of the risks and rather foolish.

But things started to change in my mind after my first UTMB in 2005. Indeed, I came to realise that I had actually covered the entire length of a long-distance alpine hiking path wearing trail running shoes, whereas I would have never hiked it in trainers. The fact I was running as opposed to hiking doesn't change anything to the risks associated with wearing inappropriate footwear. If anything, it's even worse as you go faster, by night and sometimes in extreme fatigue. And what about fell-running on the PTL or in North Wales? Was that foolish? Probably not, it's just a matter of knowing how to use the ground in the mountains: fell running shoes' grip is as good as most hiking boots, and if you're careful on foot placement, there's little risk of injury.

On the other extreme, I saw loads of people wearing hiking boots on the grassy hills of Seven Sisters on the south coast a few weeks ago. It might be slightly hilly, but the ground is really soft and smooth all the way. Ironically, I was walking in trail running shoes on that day :) . So why bother with heavy leather hiking boots if not to be seen as a hiker? Maybe to feel like a hiker?

Indeed, we've already discussed on this blog the fine line between running and hiking, to which I should add mountaineering. I believe this fine line is more a matter of state of mind than actual speed. And it looks like wearing a specific type of shoes has become a way to materialise this state of mind rather than a technical necessity: "I wear hiking boots to show and to convince myself that I'm not 'just' having a Sunday stroll: I'm hiking". L'habit ne fait pas le moine (you can't judge a book by its cover).

In general, when people get "serious" into some kind of activity, they tend to go a bit over the top in terms of gear (sport equipment brands do help). Hiking/mountaineering boots were invented at a time when sport shoes were non-existant by people requiring extra grip and protection to progress in truly tough environments. But with the range of lighter trail shoes available nowadays, I'm not convinced hiking boots provide any significant advantage on easy-going paths, might they be long-distance such as the Tour du Mont Blanc, let alone Seven Sisters.

Now that I've got a range of running shoes for every situation (road, trail, fell) on top of my hiking boots, I'm tempted to re-evaluate what footwear is really adapted for each outing, based strictly on the actual route technicality and not on the denomination of the event (stroll, marathon, hike, trail run, ...). That said, I'm not sure in what sort of context I should wear my hiking boots any more. Apart from bogs and snow, I don't see much scope for them. Fell running shoes are much lighter and will do as well otherwise.

Has wearing a specific type of shoe become a (self-)statement more than a necessity?

Ultra shoes

Friday, March 5 2010

Peanut butter?

I've noticed a few peanut butter cravings after long runs recently.

In terms of energy-to-weight ratio, it would make a lot of sense. Indeed, all commercial gels are based on carbohydrates, which provide 4 KCal/gram. This ratio is fairly constant across the main carbohydrate sources: glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, or potato starch. The only difference is the speed at which the energy is assimilated by the body. So the final energy-to-weight ratio of a gel depends mostly on the amount of other ingredients (mainly water) added to the carbohydrate base. The highest ratio I've found during my tests was 3.75 KCal/gram in the Honey Stinger, thanks to the little bees drying out their product with their wings. Conversely, this means that a SiS Go Gel with a poor ratio of 1.3 KCal/gram is probably composed by 2/3 of water and 1/3 of maltodextrin.

Peanut butter packs 6 KCal/gram, because of its high fat content. Typical composition includes 50% fat (9 KCal/gram), 25% proteins (4 KCal/gram like carbohydrates) and 20% carbohydrates. Peanut butter also contains salt, which might be beneficial during long/hot runs. Because protein and fat are slower to digest than carbs, that might be a suitable option for multi-days runs.

We're still far from the 9 KCal/gram you would get by stuffing your bag with lard or olive oil, but that's a step forward :) .

Ultra energy content

Wednesday, February 24 2010

0, 1, 2, 4, 5, ...

Qualificative points required to enter the UTMB over the ages:
  • 2003 and 2004: "free" entry
  • 2005 and 2006: fully booked
  • 2007: 1 point *
  • 2008: 2 points (2 or 1+1)
  • 2009: 4 points with maximum one 1-point race (4 or 3+1 or 2+2)
  • 2010: 4 points in 2 races maximum (4 or 3+1 or 2+2)
  • 2011: 5 points in 2 races maximum (4+1 or 3+2)
Ultra progression

(*) the term "point" was not used, but the qualifying races at the time would be considered as worth 1 point by nowadays standards.

Thursday, February 11 2010

What does 'unsupported' mean?

As I start to plan more carefully the Thames Source Quest (TSQ), I'm wondering what approach to take in terms of support. Interesting definitions of 'unsupported' are provided on [1] and Fastest Known Time [2]. The main disagreement seems to be related to water supply.

This really means no external support at all from any human being and therefore carrying all the supplies the whole way, except what can be obtained from natural sources. Water should only be obtained from natural sources according to [2], but could be supplied externally according to [1]. That said, the definition of a 'natural source' of water is not as obvious as it seems. If a spring in the mountains is natural and a free tap next to a river lock is not, what about a pipe draining the water out of a spring? I would say natural, but I can understand some would disagree. Food could potentially be harvested from natural sources too [1].
[1] prohibits the usage of phone calls, but surprisingly reckons that being offered a shelter and water is acceptable. The position of [1] here lacks a bit of coherence and seems biased towards classifying the Marathon des Sables as unsupported, which I cannot agree with. With all due respect to the toughness of this race, I can hardly consider unsupported an event where tents, water and medical crew are waiting for you every night.
Furthermore, a valid issue pointed out by [1] is how to react to local by-passers offering water, food, shelter or whatever else. It would be rude to refuse...

This means that no support team is following the runner. However, it is possible to grab whatever is on the way, including buying in stores or hide supplies in advance [2] (as at least one team did during the PTL last year). This is what I've done (for the water only) during my solo London to Brighton run, and this is also the spirit of the PTL. Because nothing is black and white, [1] also differentiates between several forms of self-support, the most permissive one including a crew following loosely the runner. I'm not too interested in that, so I won't discuss it in more details.

A team is following the runner the whole way to provide food, drink, spare clothing and all other needs.

As a summary, I would consider 'unsupported' the following:
  • Water can be obtained from natural sources only, like [2].
  • Food must be carried or obtained from natural sources only, like [1].
  • Shelter must be carried (tent) or natural shelters must be used.
  • Phone calls are prohibited as they offer mental support, but sending out SMS about your progress is acceptable... as long as you don't read the answers :) .
In one sentence: take everything you want from the nature and give back everything you want to whomever you want. Now, this is only my definition. I'm not saying I'm going to run the TSQ unsupported as yet :) .

Open for debate.

Ultra unsupported

Friday, October 30 2009

Barney 2:15

In a bit more than a week, I'll take part in the Marathon des Alpes-Maritimes. For various reasons I'm not running much at the moment and I don't feel generally very fit. My longest run lately was a modest 25km, that I finished with my head rather than my legs. Although the split times and slowing-down coefficient would suggest a 3:31 time on the marathon, it doesn't leave me über-confident for the actual race.

I think I'll try to enjoy the seafront while meditating on Barney 2:15
You don't train for a marathon, you just run it!
This passage of the scriptures is summarised here.

Ultra unprepared

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