Marathon des Sables: Beyond the Running

VIRB Picture

Circus – [sur-kuh s] plural circuses

Noun: 1. large public entertainment, typically presented in one or more very large tents or in an outdoor or indoor arena, featuring exhibitions of pageantry, feats of skill and daring, performing animals etc, interspersed throughout with the slapstick antics of clowns; 2. troupe of performers, especially a travelling troupe, that presents such entertainments, together with officials, other employees, and the company’s performing animals, travelling wagons, tents, cages and equipment; 3. a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, in which public entertainments are held

The Marathon des Sables is not just a race, it’s an event. Before I went others had likened it to a circus and now having done it I can understand this analogy… it almost seems obvious.

It is a huge operation that includes a lot of tents (always pitched in a perfect circle), it travels in convoy to each new location after each show, Patrick Bauer holds thrall in the centre as the Ringmaster and of course, it also features performers. Most of them are related to marketing and promotion, from the creation of this year’s edition number using the participants, the low flying helicopters that swoop overhead and kicking up huge clouds of sand and dust at the start of each day (probably more for those that are running at the front) and the video of our daring are all impressive shows utilised to promote the circus to the next wave of would be MdS entertainers. Because of course, the participants are also performing; apparently far more so than previous years but the cameras are never too far away & it seems that the entrants are all too willing to put on a show for the lenses pointing in their direction.

To make the most out of your time in the desert you should embrace this lunacy & become part of the circus. You could even dress up as a cow… or a clown.

VIRB Picture
Queue – [kyoo] 

Noun: A file or line, especially of people waiting their turn.

As a Brit, I consider myself semi-professional at queuing, it’s almost instinctive, see a line join it… the longer and slower moving the better. So, it was with some disappointment that the legendary MdS queues in the baking midday sun never materialised.

The organisation was far better than feared, on the admin day we were split by numbers so some had to register in the morning while those that remained went in the afternoon. We were then further filtered so only selected numbers went through each marquee reducing the length of time waiting, we handed in our forms declaring we were carrying all the mandatory kit & the required number of calories before having our bags weighed (mine came in at 6.94 without sleeping mat). We then got our ration card, medical card and were issued with salt tablets & GPS Spot tracker. Finally, we got hold of our precious numbers. The longest queue was for the photo which we all thought was a completely pointless exercise, but discovered on our return to civilisation that it was used for our profile on the tracking website. This left all afternoon free to relax & chat… out of the sun & off our feet.

At the mealtimes before we were self-sufficient they had 3 or 4 entrances leading to tables laden with all the same options, making progress quick so once open we didn’t have to wait long before getting our hands on our sustenance… and regardless what you may hear from the doomsayers it was all good too. Collecting water in the morning was pain free, it was just better to wait until the hordes had already collected theirs & then go to the commissaries at the sides who always seemed to be free.

I did wait for a long time when I visited Doc Trotters to have my feet looked at but this was by choice & as they do operate some form of triage if you are most in need you’re whisked straight into the tents behind & treated immediately. I did go back after the race where they bandaged my mangled appendages & send me packing to continue eating & drinking with antibiotics in hand to treat the infection.

The biggest queue of the week by far was for the bar after the final timed stage & it was also the most chaotic but think most would agree that it was totally worth having your already totalled tootsies trodden on repeatedly for your choice of beer, Coke or Orangina!

All things considered, I was impressed with the organisation of the Marathon des Sables. In many ways, it runs like a well-oiled machine. Watching the methodical deconstruction of camp each morning, knowing it will all be set up & ready just a few hours later in a new location is remarkable.

Tent 109
Tribe [trahyb]

Noun: Any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.

The focus in preparation is obviously on the race… what to wear, what to eat, what to carry… but one of the most important factors of this race is who you will share it with.

Your tentmates. Your troupe. Your tribe.

I was lucky. Twitter’s Susie Chan had asked me the week before the race if I had arranged tentmates, as I hadn’t she invited me to join her & a couple others and I accepted. I had met several other MdS’ers in the preparation & thought that I wouldn’t be lost for options but it was suddenly a relief to have something sorted.

The occupants of Tent 109 were a disparate group of individuals with a massive divide in our abilities, ambitions, personalities & vocations. Between us about the only thing we had in common was that were all in the 32nd Marathon des Sables, but in just a few days we became a tribe. You spend a lot of time under what is essentially a large black blanket held up by sticks with these 7 other people and as you have no technology or distractions you’re forced into holding conversations. Among the joking, talking about food (far too much) and oversharing you also find out a lot about each other in a short period of time…

Among the delightful nuggets I discovered; Damien ‘Poohead’ Hall is a magnus opus of bad jokes and poor timing, delights in sitting on the fence, is endlessly positive and a phenomenal runner. Nathan ‘Justin’ Montague is also an incredible athlete and possibly one of the humblest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, showing strength of spirit and body throughout but unfortunately reads the Daily Mail. Paul ‘Showtime’ Broadway was relentless in his resolution and could eat more than anyone else I know while Twitter’s Susie Chan is remarkably sweary, enjoys repeatedly kicking you in the head at night, is averse to being woken up with loud farts and is the greatest company you could ask for on a long day. Cheesy Mark got the name from his penchant from sleeping with cheese triangles, had the most mischievous sense of humour and may be a little bit racist, Cheeser Mark had the coolest job I’d never heard of, was quietly obstinate in proving his doubters wrong and got his name from the size of his smile after the long day. Johan who of all of us faced the greatest challenge in the desert & yet showed unflinching courage and was unwavering in his resolve, remaining upbeat in camp all week becoming a massive inspiration for me on my own journey.

This camaraderie combined with the individual, yet somehow shared, trials & tribulations we were facing during the race created a strong bond, you look out for people who were for the most part were complete strangers just a matter of days ago & you would do anything to help your tentmates & ensure they all make it to that finish line.

After each stage I was greeted by delighted tentmates, whose enthusiasm never dwindled and you would be looking forward to this for much of the day… in retrospect I feel guilty as I’m naturally a bit of a miserable bastard so I spent an inordinate amount of time complaining & swearing at camels but I do hope that this was recognised as ever so slightly tongue in cheek. Damien & Nathan always cleared our shelter of the stones & thorns and when I finally crawled in hours later they couldn’t do enough to help me get comfortable.

Except after the long day when Poohead essentially told us to go away as we tried to drag our broken bodies into the bivouac.

When I look back my most memorable moments, the highest & lowest points of the week, are not directly related to my own race, but those of my tribe. Coming back from my best day to discover TSC in the tent after her worst was a huge blow and a stark warning that this race can get the measure of the best of us. In contrast, watching Mark & Johan come over the line after completing the marathon stage with all of tent 109 will stay with me forever & I still get emotional when I recall it now.

feet
Blister ˈblɪstə

Noun: A small bubble on the skin filled with serum and caused by friction, burning, or other damage eg “his heels were covered in blisters”

Foot-care is all important in the MdS and bad feet can end your race, I knew this all too well & planned to look after them carefully during the week. Unfortunately, the Sahara had other ideas for my feet.

I may have mentioned this already, but the terrain is harsh. If you’re not picking your way across endless plains scattered with shards of deadly rocks intent on piercing the soles of your feet or tearing your gaiters then you’re sliding around on never-ending sand dunes ensuring your feet move around in your shoes creating or aggravating existing blisters to the point of submission. Added to this, due to the heat & reduced breathability thanks to the (torn) gaiters your feet are sweaty & swollen which can (and does) make your feet far worse.

I had a combination of problems, from a lot of small blisters on my toes which was just down to them being wet, battered, rubbed & smashed all week but these were easily treated & caused no major problems and may have been avoided by taping. The Velcro stitched & glued to the shoes had changed their shape a fraction, not enough to notice when training at home but once my feet started swelling it meant they were pressing on the little toes on both feet, this caused multiple blisters and led to infection.

The worst was self-inflicted & could should have been avoided, I got a small piece of grit embedded in the heel of my shoe on day 3. I ran through the signs as I was going well & this meant the blister ripped open & left an open wound which got progressively worse as the week wore on. A schoolboy error.

The problems with my both little toes & heel meant I was hobbling & this in turn caused further blisters… by the end of the week I was in a lot of discomfort, just getting my socks on was agony and it was excruciating to squeeze my feet inside my shoes each day.

I was an idiot and didn’t look after my feet as well as I should but some of the issues would have happened even if I had been more attentive. Prevention is better than cure so learn to tape your feet and train in your chosen shoes combined with gaiters in advance. Try to replicate the expected circumstances as closely as possible to identify if your shoes will try to amputate your little toes after 20km and you may escape with as little as 3 blisters.

18056306_1439071309456734_9044267514975252736_o1
Hygiene ˈhʌɪdʒiːn/

Noun: Conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness eg: “poor standards of food hygiene”

This is one of those areas that you might not consider until you get to the desert, you almost certainly won’t have thought about it before you sign up but it’s worth being informed before arriving…

Toilets are essentially blocks of 3 cubicles made from PVC, placed 100metres away from the camp. Some have a hook to close the entry flap but most don’t and the ‘toilet’ consists of a small plastic stool over which a provided biodegradable bag is attached. A small stone is placed in the bag to avoid unwelcome re-entry when the wind blows & you perch above this contraption to dispose of your unwanted extra weight, the now heavier bag is then placed unceremoniously in a bin just outside avoiding eye contact with those queuing for their turn outside.

All things considered this process is far less painful than you’d imagine.

Numero uno’s are made wherever comfortable… this gets ever closer as the week wears on and by Day 3 even the womenfolk are dropping the draws without making any effort to hide from view on the trails or in camp.

Take antibacterial hand gel. It will be very useful for washing hands to avoid illness and as I found out useful (but unpleasant) to clean open wounds. I took wet-wipes…  and it was a delight to remove the worst of the grime at the end of each day with them, Wemmie Wipes were popular in the tent & I would consider these in future but some form of cleanser is a godsend.

Sand does get everywhere. It will be covering your clothes and your bod, it will fill your shoes and coat your hair, it will be in your food all week and you will be finding little pockets of it appearing in your home for weeks after you return. When it starts it’s like the desert is taunting you, reminding you of your weakest moments, but finally you start to warm to it and eventually it provokes pleasant memories… viewed through thick rose-tinted glasses.

You should expect to be a stinking shell of a former human by the end of the week, your clothes are a bio-hazard and should be burnt, ideally after creating an effigy of Patrick Bauer with them. You’ll lose your self-dignity as you become less self-conscious of your personal hygiene practises, exposing yourself to strangers & new friends alike without consideration and you become stripped back as you adjust to surviving on the bare minimum and the usual constraints of society are removed.

This is a good thing. Welcome it, savour it and remember it,.

For this is what the Marathon des Sables is about.

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The Marathon des Sables is bad for your health

It is possibly one of the most famous races in the world, there are not too many runners who haven’t heard of it and it is one of those rare beasts that even non-runners have also been exposed to, thanks to several documentaries shown on TV. Although billed as the most brutal footrace in the world it almost certainly isn’t… however it should come with a health warning. And I say this before I’ve even set off. Not because of the physical requirements or even the harsh environment we’ll be facing but because of what it does to your life as you prepare to take it on.

You become patently paranoid

“Paranoia involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy.”

ParanoidIn committing to this race, you put everything into it, physically, mentally & financially. Once you’ve put everything on your credit card you’re in the hole for quite a few 1000’s so it’s unsurprising that the pressure to ensure you can arrive in Morocco in one piece starts to take its toll. This growing paranoia wasn’t helped when I managed to injure myself at the start of the year but I’ve since become convinced that my body is out to get me. I have ended up terrified of running as the weeks went on, just in case I aggravated any niggles and jeopardised my attempt before it started and don’t get me started on the sniffles… every sneeze is treated like it is the onset of pneumonia followed by days in bed trying to recover from blowing your nose…

You transform into a social recluse

“A person who voluntarily removes themselves from social situations, or society altogether.”

adventure-1867868_1280Losing friends is already commonplace for many distance runners as they approach their target race, but it has taken on a whole new level… bordering on agoraphobia. Invitations to socialise are regularly, if not always declined. A late night out will only get in the way of that early morning long run you have scheduled (I say scheduled because the paranoia means it becomes a short run… just in case), or even worse an attempt to mix a hangover and hot yoga will only end in tears and basic small talk becomes unfathomable as I metamorphose into a hermit.

You turn into a severe soporific

“tending to induce drowsiness or sleep.”

camel-993822_1920Because it is never far from your mind as the departure date looms ever closer you have a way of bringing it up in every conversation with friends, family, colleagues, associates and random strangers you pass in the street. It may go something like this…

Them: “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Me: “Oooh, I’d love one. Because in 2 weeks I’m running 250km across the Sahara Desert & as I’m not carrying as stove to save carrying 116grams I won’t be able to have a cup of tea for at least 7 days.” True story.

You develop an unhealthy obsession with losing weight

“an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”

2017-03-26 20.11.32This is less your own body weight but more of your tangible belongings. Weighing kit is somewhat of a pre-requisite for the MdS, but it gets to a point where your choice of, well, everything is based on its weight… and it invades every part of your life. There are obvious things like sleeping bag & mat that can weigh a huge amount & to save a few grams you need to pay big money, but it has now got to the stage where I have weighed all my multi-functional head scarves to find out which was the lightest (Montane Chief at 33g by the way) and I’m trimming packaging & unnecessary strapping where I can. I found myself rummaging through the cutlery draw the other night assessing which of the knives is the lightest… and when I get home, I am going to weigh toilet paper. I may not be joking.

You become the fashion police’s most wanted

“a person who has escaped from captivity or is in hiding.”

handcuffs-2102488There are the well documented fashion faux-pas’ that most MdS participants are guilty of; way too much skin tight lycra (I know, for a man of nearly 40 any is too much) and the delightful desert cap & gorgeous gaiter combo compulsory for desert running. But there are the hidden offences that you don’t see so often in the official race pictures, of Tyvek suits evening-wear (I’d draw a bow-tie on but the ink must weigh something, right?) and it’s equally awful but far more torturous sweat suit, used for heat acclimatisation.

You develop a foot fetish

“gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object”

if-this-image-offends-you-youre-lack-toes-intolerant-5846150I had already gained a bit of a reputation for having manky feet, not aided by the fact I amused myself by sharing pictures of said feet sans toenails on social media at Sunday lunch time, but I have actually been tending them with care. To the point where I have been regularly using Champhor Spray on them, visited a pedicurist and I even used moisturiser.  Only once but it still counts. I didn’t know it was possible to love your feet so much and yet they’re still missing toenails & look as deformed as ever.

You suffer from shopping compulsion

“an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-19 at 11.46.57 AM_1474310860598_2026896_ver1.0I now wander down aisles gauging my nutrition of choice’s suitability by calories per gram and won’t put anything with less than 500kcal per 100g in my basket. All of my race food has now been selected, weighed, calorie counted, packed, repacked & repeated but there are now the days in camp prior to the race to be catered for. Even when shopping for lunch now I can’t help but browse for the option with the highest calorie content per gram and everything is unconsciously disregarded if not suitable for consuming uncooked in a hot climate. On top of this, I have eaten like a student for much of the year as I whittle down what I will be taking and a diet of lukewarm instant noodles has given me somewhat of an odd reputation at the office.

With all this going on it’s incredible I’m still healthy enough to make the trip at all!

In reality, this whole process has been part of the fun and I have enjoyed the planning and preparation far more than I had expected plus the camaraderie generated by this years participants as we have gone through this together has already created friendships for life.

But behind this tongue in cheek post there is a serious warning. If you are considering signing up for this behemoth in 2018 & beyond, beware it will completely take over and you have to be willing and able to commit financially, emotionally & temporally to prepare for it successfully.

 

A year like an elevation chart

After discovering that I felt at home on trails, was comparatively good at running ultras (compared to my personal performances at shorter distances) with the epiphany that I thoroughly enjoyed putting myself through the suffering involved in long distances I had decided to focus on them in 2016 and aim to complete 12 in the 12 months. The method in this seeming madness was that it forced me to run long distances regularly, so building the necessary endurance to complete my 1st 100 mile race in June and with the MdS also booked for 2017 is made sense to continue the strategy throughout 2016.

I had selected a variety of races, several around the 30 mile mark but this increased over the summer with my big 3 events over 3 months but all were on challenging terrain.

My challenge started very early in the year. 7am on January 1st to be exact, with the Hardmoors30 and boy was it was an eye opener! I knew my preparation hadn’t been great as I’d suffered with back pain in the summer of 2015 & shin-splints late in the year but I blew up in such spectacular style at 18 miles after starting too quickly that it was very clear to me that I wasn’t fit enough for what I was undertaking and my race strategy needed reviewing. I limped home in the dark after 7hrs 3mins… well outside my target and spent the following weeks licking my wounds and working hard to improve.

This effort paid dividends with stronger performances in my February races. Pilgrims Challenge was alright, Day 1 was a little disappointing but I completed the return 33 miles just 3 mins slower than Day 1 which I was very happy with. Mixing it and passing many who were obviously in final preparation for MdS helped boost my confidence for next year too. A stronger performance than 2015 on a tougher Meon Valley Plod route and a new HM PB running as part of Team Vitality at Brighton Half Marathon followed and my self-confidence was rising quickly.

Unfortunately so was the pain in my knee.

I’m shit. My body is shit. Injuries are shit.

I concluded that although there were many performance benefits to racing often, the negatives of injuries outweighed these so I needed to reassess my plans between ultras.

I didn’t have much time to recover before number 3 of 12, the Imber Ultra in early March which I started with heavy strapping on my knee and despite finishing ahead of renowned & talented runner Damien Hall (he was only out on a social) I had struggled and had to get the knee looked at. During an extended and expensive bout of physio I was invited over to Poland for the Warsaw Half Marathon, the experience was a lot of fun & the run was mostly enjoyable but my performance was below par on a comparatively easy route and this set me up for the next couple runs.

I returned to racing in April to complete Brighton Marathon, which I believed at the time would be my final road marathon. Sadly the PB I’d hoped for was not to be after the knee injury was aggravated and the wheels fell off at 21 miles & leaving me to hobble over the line in 4.41. I rested before taking part in my 1st ultra abroad, the Gozo 50k, which although I didn’t do particularly well in was a lot of fun, passing some fantastic alien and beautiful landscapes. I had more downs than ups during this race, which in retrospect is always good to build mental strength and I did get good experience running an ultra in the heat plus my finish was reasonably strong, so there was a final silver lining.

A scant fortnight later I completed my first Centurion Running event, the North Downs Way 50 which surprisingly went very well and bar a low point early in I felt comfortable throughout, enjoying it immensely. I ran with a friend who struggled in the last 10 miles but despite keeping him company it was still my fastest 50 miler and this provided a great boost in confidence before the big one the following month.

But in retrospect, possibly too much of a boost.

After the NDW50 I decided to pace for a 24hour finish in the SDW100.

The South Downs Way 100 was definitely my running low point of the year and although I completed the first 35 miles on my target pace the heat & humidity took it’s toll at 40 miles. My personal care was lacking and I suffered heatstroke, vomiting continuously and unable to hold anything down. I walked for about 15 miles with extended stops at the CP’s but finally threw in the towel and DNF’d at 55miles. It only took hours to bounce back physically, but weeks to pull myself together psychologically and in the meantime I accepted a job in Malta and emigrated.

6 weeks later I returned to the UK for Lakeland 50 in July and I was hungry for a success. Learning from 2015 I took my time for the first section and remembering how it nearly ended my race before headed up Fusedale with trepidation. Although I was suffering again as I arrived at the CP2 I wasn’t in danger of withdrawing this year. I went from strength to strength in an event I adore and although I was destroyed in the final few miles I finished 2 hours faster than 2015, easily the high point of my year.

I then had a big wobble and missed the next 3 ultra’s. This was in part through minor niggling injuries, cost of travel back to the UK in peak holiday season, commitments at my new job and then lack of a job at all. The main issue was non-existent motivation to return for a string of minor ultras marathons that didn’t really excite me when I felt that I’d effectively failed the 12 in 12 challenge after the DNF in the SDW. I became despondent and although I maintained regular short runs, longer distances were missed due to missing mojo.

October finally came around and I was kept busy organising Lakeland Four Passes, Ascend Events  (the company I had set up) inaugural race. It went better than I had dared dream, seeing the enjoyment on many runners faces as they finished then  getting their gratitude and positive feedback made all the hard work worthwhile giving me a motivation injection, firing me up for training again.

I returned to racing in November for Druids Challenge, during which in a full circle from my first race of the year I went off way to fast and blew up early on Day 1, I suffered for this stupidity on Day 2 but pulled myself together by Day 3, getting both my pacing and for once my nutrition intake right to put in the fastest average pace of the weekend. It was another great weekend with XNRG and I got to meet some lovely runners also taking part in MdS 2017.

2016-calendar-by-performance

My year was a rollercoaster of positive and negative events, some I enjoyed while others I endured and when I plot how I felt after them it resembles the elevation profile from a particularly gnarly event. I am disappointed that that I didn’t complete 12 ultra’s in 12 months but I’m more frustrated that once this wasn’t achievable I allowed myself lose impetus with lethargy becoming habitual. Something I will pay the price for in the first couple of events in 2017. Again.

However, I have learnt a lot about myself and what works for me:

  • I had known for some time that traditional tapering does not work for me and I’m better if I maintain activity throughout. Completing tough sessions or event prior to big races often improves my performance but I discovered this year that there is a fine line between improving and overdoing.
  • I understand my nutritional needs far better now and am more disciplined in eating during events
  • Although my pacing can be excellent when I don’t allow myself to be swayed by external influences I have made mistakes when I try to do more than I’m able to. I need to stay mindful of this and try to run my own race at all times.
  • I knew that the camaraderie in ultra marathons was one of the things I enjoyed about them, but this year I found that I like to complete the long distances with people and the company makes ticking off the miles far more enjoyable.
  • Injiniji socks are outstanding!
  • I need to maintain motivation and filling my year with races that don’t excite or scare me won’t do this… so I need to pepper my calendar with tough events that force me to continue pushing myself.

When I look at how I felt at the end of 2015 I am already in a much better place and this year has been a dramatic improvement on the previous 12 months. Now I’m more settled again, have a decent job with a good company and have more spare time to train I just need to build a consistent regime again so I can successfully complete the lunacy that I’ve scheduled for 2017…

  •  January – Spine Race Challenger
  • February – Pilgrims Challenge & Multi-Storey Marathon
  • March – Malta Marathon
  • April – Marathon des Sables
  • May – Gozo 50km
  • June – SDW100
  • July – Lakeland 100
  • August – Matterhorn Ultraks 46k…

druids

 

Running, Anaemia and I

blood-75302_1280

In 2015 I was diagnosed with anaemia, this was a bit of a shock as although I knew my symptoms matched this diagnosis I was also aware that it was reasonably uncommon in men of my age.

I don’t know when it started, it could have been as early as the previous summer but it was definitely having a negative impact over the Christmas period of 2014. In October and November I was feeling good about my training, I was feeling stronger than I had in a long time and was training consistently. This meant I felt that my plans to do a 70.3 triathlon in June 2015 were well on track, but then going into December things started to go awry.

Leading up to & over the holidays I was struggling with my shift patterns more than normal and was feeling inordinately tired. All of the time. I couldn’t seem to get enough sleep, I would spend 12 hours in bed & it wouldn’t be enough. My performance & attitude at work began to suffer and it was no great surprise that it soon began to affect my training. It became all too easy to make an excuse not to exercise, at first I didn’t even notice it was happening then before long making excuses became the routine.

I noticed that gentle inclines or even climbing a flight of stairs left me breathless and on the rare occasions I did gather the motivation to run it felt that I didn’t have anything in the tank even very early on, knowing I was losing fitness due to my lack of activity I put it down to this and got into a vicious circle of not training because it was more difficult and blaming my poor performance and obvious reduction in fitness on not training.

By April I felt that I couldn’t carry on & finally visited my GP, from the description I gave of my situation and symptoms they originally suspected that I was stressed or depressed but sent me for a blood test to eliminate any physical ailments… and it was a good thing they did too. Because I received a call a few days later to advise that I was anaemic.

I was taken aback, but relieved that it was a physical rather than psychological ailment and started researching what the impact could be, what I could do about it and how it would effect my running. I posted on Twitter about it and Dr Juliet McGratten responded with some great advice and she later wrote a great blog for UKRunChat inspired by my question.

So it turns out I’m anaemic- can anyone shed any light on how that will/does affect my fitness and running?

Effectively anaemia is an iron deficiency and symptoms include tiredness, lethargy & breathlessness. All things I was suffering from, it also commonly causes a pale complexion something else that had been pointed out at the time. This lack of iron causes a reduction in the red blood cells, these help store & carry oxygen in the blood so if you have less then oxygen is not transported to your organs & tissue as efficiently causing the above symptoms but read Juliet’s blog for more information.

I started taking Ferrous Sulphate supplements and within weeks started to feel the benefits and I also changed my diet, including more Iron rich foods such as spinach, watercress, red meat and nuts. I had to withdraw from the Ironman 70.3 as I hadn’t trained anywhere near enough for it… as proven by my last but one position in the Tallington Triathlon but by July I felt strong to get through Lakeland50 but it was a struggle, particularly on the long ascents and I knew I should be able to give much more.

I have never returned to the level I was at when diagnosed but also never identified the underlying cause, which is annoying as this means I don’t know how to avoid it happening again. I had several tests after it was originally diagnosed but all were normal so didn’t establish the reason.

Was it diet? NSAIDS? A medical issue?

I’m still in the dark so I have continued taking Iron supplements in some form or another since to avoid relapsing and again falling back in performance. It has taken me close to a year to finally get to a level close to my previous best so although anaemia doesn’t cause long term damage the impact can be relatively long-term to deal with but if you seek professional help earlier than I did and then follow their advice you’ll be good as new in much shorter time.

IIliotibial Band Syndrome – ITBS

It is one of the most common injuries that runners suffer and is often the root cause behind the dreaded  & infamous ‘Runners Knee’. The iliotibial band is a ligament that runs the length of the leg from hip to shin & attaches to the knee, It is generally here that pain is felt as the ITB becomes aggravated, tight & inflamed.  It can be recognised by pain on the outside of the knee which gets worse during running, particularly if going downhill, the good news is that you’re unlikely to do long term damage by continuing to run – but it is just as unlikely to ease and the severity of pain and speed of onset will increase.

Here are my top ten tips for preventing iliotibial band syndrome:

  1. Most importantly, always decrease your mileage or take a few days off if you feel pain on the outside of your knee.
  2. Strength & Conditioning
  3. Walk before you start your runs.
  4. Make sure your shoes aren’t worn along the outside of the sole. If they are, replace them.
  5. Avoid running on a cambered surface continuously
  6. Try running on softer or mixed surfaces like grass & sand.
  7. If you change on a track change directions.
  8. See a podiatrist to check if you need orthotics.
  9. Lower drop shoes may help with a more natural running form
  10. Concentrate on form

So it’s too late & you didn’t find my tips for preventing ITBS, what to do know? Simple – read my top ten tips for treating Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS)

  1. Rest – the first & most important step if you’re suffering from ITBS. If you continue to run it will aggravate the injury & you may end up with a chronic case.
  2. Ice – a tried & tested technique to reduce the inflammation & ease pain. A recommended course is apply ice for 10 mins every hour until pain has eased.
  3. Anti- Inflammatory Medication – Ibuprofen or Aspirin will help in reducing the inflammation as will prescription drugs such as Naproxen.ITBS Stretch ITBS Stretch
  4. Stretching – regular stretching will help as part of a conservative treatment programme. A couple of good ones to ease ITBS are to lie on your back, bring the injured knee up to your shoulder then push it over the opposite shoulder with hand or elbow. Another effective stretch is to stand upright & cross the injured leg behind the good leg. Then reach past the good knee towards the foot of the injured leg, you don’t have to reach the foot for this to work.
  5. Foam roller – This WILL hurt when done properly, but it is a great way to release the iliotibial band. I always think it feels like an elastic band snapping in your leg when your rolling it! As always with foam rolling take care to ensure you don’t cause other damage.
  6. Strength & Conditioning – Avoid exercises that will aggravate the ITBS and focus on glutes & hip flexor’s as weakness or imbalance in these area’s is most commonly the cause of the inflammation. A great source of exercises is the Sports Injury Clinic.
  7. Surgery – A final course of action if nothing else has worked!
  8. Physiotherapy – massaging will help release tightness of muscles that may be causing the imbalance that is causing the inflammation, a good physio will identify the cause & give you exercises to improve strength & flexibility avoiding further problems
  9. Ultrasound &/or Electrical Stimulation – a disputed form of treatment that is used by PT’s but has not got the supporting research to prove that it is truly effective – like ice baths or compression clothing. Home ultrasound kits are available but care should be taken as you can burn yourself which probably won’t help ITBS recovery.
  10. Cortisone – Not recommended unless none of the other treatments have helped as although this powerful anti inflammatory has been proven to significantly reduce pain it may also cause other side effects such as thinning of the cartilage or weakening of the ligaments.

One final point I have to add, although I would never propose it as a sensible option to treat ITBS, after my last time suffering with this problem I ran London Marathon, struggling from around 11-12miles with the ever increasing pain as my iliotibial band became more & more inflamed. Once I had hobbled over theline I got a massage & they focused most of their attention on the offending ligament.

6 days later I ran a 60 ultra. Pain free. Well, pain from the ITBS free anyway.

A line drawn underneath it.

Isn’t it funny the journey you can take in 12 months without really going anywhere?

This time in 2013 I was ramping up for what I expected to be my greatest year of achievements to date including my first ultra-marathon. The reality was a year of under-performances & disappointments, but I found something else. Something MUCH more valuable.

Rewind to December 2013 & I was enjoying a hiatus having completed my first Marathon in November, a break that was probably too long & I paid for throughout 2014. I would like to say this was the only mistake I made preparing for the many races I had scheduled but it would be only the first of many. I would love to say injuries held me back, I bit off more than I could chew or even that I raced to the best of ability. But I wasn’t focused enough and I wasn’t as structured, committed or consistent  as I needed to be to undertake the races I had chosen & perform as I hoped and  this clearly showed in the majority of my performances.

The watershed moment came in June when I took part in my first ultra-marathon, The Wall Ultra.

I completed it.

That is about as good as it got. I was very disappointed in my performance, I made numerous schoolboy errors on day 1, going off too fast, not refuelling, not hydrating & I’m pretty sure I ended it with sunstroke! My brother who had much less experience & had previously only ever run 6 miles in a day crossed the line at the overnight stop a paltry 9 minutes behind me, this led to making the decision to complete the 2nd day with him. I crossed the line after covering the 69miles in 17hrs 53mins and despite the fact that running over the Millennium Bridge to the finish line with my brother was a highlight of the year & unbelievably emotional, I was devastated by a performance that I felt had let me down. I lost my running mojo, had no motivation to train & I went off the running rails throughout July & into August.

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And then things became interesting.

I’d been interacting with UKRunChat since the end of 2013 but had started using it more throughout the year, particularly in the run up to the London Marathon in April. By the time the summer had come round & I had been shattered by what I saw as a disastrous year I was using it has a crutch. The unknowing support from the rest of the community kept me ticking over & then as I started meeting members it began to transform how I viewed my participation in both the sport & the running community.

I received a free place in Spitfire Scramble through one of the regular competitions run during Sundays #fastesthouroftheweek & despite being under trained & off pace I had a fantastic weekend with many #ukrunchat regulars —- although I still hadn’t yet found my mojo at least somebody had pointed out the direction it had gone.

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And then came RunCat

Ever since my first race (Great North Run 2011), I’d had it at the back of my mind to complete an event in fancy dress.  I thought a good way of masking my below par pace & fitness would be to run in costume. So I put it to a twitter vote: JogDog or RunCat, the personification of the #ukrunchat mascot… and RunCat won by a good margin. So it was that I ended up on the line of Great North Run 2014 in baking hot +25 heat swathed in fur to run for the UKRunChat Challenge charities, Epilepsy Research& Dame Kelly HolmesTrust. It was a phenomenal day, not because I ran a PB (far from it) or because I became the millionth person to cross the line but because I met numerous people from #UKRunChat before, during & after (in @Beesrun case all 3). I enjoyed unbelievable support from the massive crowds lining the roads of Newcastle, Gateshead & South Shields and despite feeling like I was going to pass out at 4 miles I got round & had a thoroughly enjoyable day.

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A week later I had the immense pleasure of meeting both @iRunJoe & @crea8it (not to forget the Selfie King @tonywapr), running the Southampton 10k leg of their incredible UKRunchat challenge. A brief moment as they had already covered a couple 100km & had a date in deepest Dorset with @MattUpston but one that formed a large part in my ever shifting view on why I run.

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This was compounded when I ran the 25thanniversary Great South Run as RunCat, this time for a charity close to my heart – Motor Neurone Disease Association. I was better prepared for it, was passed by several UKRunChat Twitterati & enjoyed fantastic support from the Portsmouth residents. In many ways it was better than GNR because there were far fewer fancy dress runners so got singled out by the crowds for support much more, kids sprinting past for a high 5 after I’d missed them the first time will stay with me forever. Again, my performance was nothing to write home about, but the standing ovation I received when I finally wobbled back in to the MNDA marquee would be my final race high point of 2015.

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So after spending 8 months putting myself under immense pressure & becoming disconsolate when I failed to achieve my goals I had discovered that you can be incredibly slow and yet enjoy it more than ever before. I became UKRunCat, I got my mojo back & running was about the enjoyment of taking part & not just about speed. I went from being a solitary runner with only my own accomplishments to concern me & my own pace to benchmark against to being a part of an extensive team of like-minded people to whom my performance is less of an issue & participation is everything.

I have had my love for running saved by a fantastic community of runners, who with many small gestures have shown me the way & provided a self-belief despite my MANY failings. In turn I have tried to give a little bit back by hosting the #fastesthouroftheweek, supporting the runners at the Gosport Half including the inspirational @mattversusmatt, registering a team for this year’s Spitfire Scramble & in my own small way helping build the community by getting involved in their social media output; https://www.facebook.com/ukrunchat

So now I’ve drawn a line underneath 2014 & I’m moving on. A little wiser, a little more prepared, much happier with my lot as a runner and in deeper ways transformed as a person.

I think 2015 is going to be a great year.