Friday, September 29, 2017

What defines an ultra marathon?

It’s confusing these days… Traditionally, anything over the 42.2km marathon distance has been considered an ultra, but that’s a bit misleading. For me, what defines an ultra is the experience rather than the distance per se, and that experience is linked to the time it takes to finish. In that regard, someone who struggled to finish a marathon in 6-7 hours most probably had an ultra experience.
But if reasonably fit and adequately trained (even if trained “just to finish”), you only usually hit one bad patch in a marathon, around 30-35km. Also, the duration of a marathon means that any problems that develop (blisters, bleeding nipples, stomach distress) do so at a later stage where, again, you are close enough to the finish to just soldier on.

The "ultra experience", on the other hand, entails several emotional ups & downs, and requires you to really find solutions to a number of issues that can occur if you want to finish: heat, cold, dehydration, over-hydration (lack of salt), blisters upon blisters, cramps, leg pain, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, sleep deprivation…
In this sense, the average person will generally have an “ultra experience” within 5-7 hours, therefore my definition of an ultra is any race that the average person would finish in around that time, which means roughly 30-45 miles depending on the race… Of course, it’s so personal because depending on how fast, fit, well trained you are - or your experience – the goal posts shift…

In any case, this really highlights the individual nature of races, distances, pacing and experience – and is otherwise pointless. Also, moving beyond 16-17 hours into all day and all night runs takes the ultra journey to whole different level, and again when you move into the 40h+ range... 
I hope this helps anyone who is starting out on the "ultra" journey and why there is a compulsion to go longer - it's not just ego and "bigger/longer is better". What I do find condescending and ultimately pointless is to say that someone hasn’t run an ultra when they just slogged through a 40k race with 3000m of technical trails. Or even, for that matter, someone who battles their way to a 6h+ finish on their first marathon. 
I say, welcome to the crowd – your life will have changed in some subtle way and you’ll probably be a different person for it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The wonderful mystery of the disappearing plantar fasciitis

About a month before the Ultra Tour du Léman, the nascent plantar fasciitis that I'd been feeling since getting back into training post-GUCR flared up sufficiently during a run that I decided to cut out speedwork and cut my mileage almost in half.
Now that the UTL is behind me (race report forthcoming), turns out it was the right decision. My fitness wasn't where i hoped it would be, but I went into the race feeling mentally strong from the GUCR finish and that my fitness was at least sufficient to see me to the end of the race. And that turned out to correct, since I did manage to finish, even if it meant drawing on all my reserves and experience and just plain stubborness and desire to finish.
But it was also correct from the perspective that it's better to show up at the start less fit but uninjured. The foot was still still a bit sensitive upon waking up in the morning, but it didn't bother at all during the nearly 30 hours it took me to finish.

But the most amazing thing is that now, three days after the race, there is no pain at all! Not waking up, not walking around during the day. I read somewhere (via James Adams, citing Mark Cockbain I think) that "an injury caused by running is solved by running". A bit extreme, but in this case quite true!

Perhaps my foot is still "warm" from the race, and the plantar will flare up again in a few days or if I started running again next week. But plantar or not, I'd already planned to take a long "seasonal" break from running. A full month off, something I haven't done for the past three years. I need it, both mentally and physically, and am really looking forward to it, to reset the mental batteries. I'll be doing some low intensity biking starting next week for cardio, and strength training starting the week after, but otherwise no running till mid-october. Then it's going to be a slow build-up for three weeks before a two-month period i have planned to increase my speed (avoiding any runs longer than 2h). I guess the real test will be then, but I'd like to think that my feet will appreciate almost two months off hard running and will reward me by keeping quiet.

Running ultras continues to be a valuable life lesson in pain management and physical recovery. If this plantar doesn't come back, however, it will be quite the most amazing thing that has happened to me. And hopefully gives hope to anyone ever plagued with injury...

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My essential self-sufficient medical kit

As I prep my bags for the Ultra Tour du Léman, just thought I'd share what I've refined now over many years as my "essential self-sufficient medical kit". I store it in a zip-lock bag in an easy-to-access part of my backpack.

- toilet paper (in a separate plastic bag - and definitely put in a plastic bag! remove cardboard middle)
- suntan lotion (there are quite a few really small tubes that exist)
- vaseline or similar lube
- compeed & band-aids (for blisters, cuts)
- 1-2 disposable tubes of eosine (disinfectant)
- safety pins (to pierce blisters)
- lighter (to disinfect the safety pin - and to burn toilet paper after going to the bathroom)
- crystallized Ginger (really works well against nausea, and fast!)
- anti-nausea pills (i.e. Motilium), just in case Ginger doesn't work
- 1-2 imodium pills (for opposite problem, diarrhea)
- Arnica (for bumps, bruises and general soreness)
- BCAAs (optional, but i find it helps to take one an hour, 12/day)
- 1x anti-inflammatory pill (ibuprofen based)
- 1x paracetamol

A note on the last two: if you are well hydrated and have just eaten something, 1 anti-inflammatory pill shouldn't do any harm - take advisedly, of course. The paracetamol is better, and can be taken within 4-6 hours of the anti-inflammatory - though if pain relief is necessary, i would a) wait till at least 2nd half of race depending on length, and b) start with the paracetamol... As always - I'm not a doctor, check with yours first...

Then in a much smaller baggy that I carry in a belt bag i can access without taking the backpack off (where I also have my phone and an emergency gel or two)
- lip balm (chapstick)
- salt tablets/S-caps
- caffeine tablet