It’s May, and I am days out from my first race of the year. My racing ‘season’ has begun. Season being a relative term in this case because it’s easy for an ultra runner to race all year round as there is no formal season (yet there are big races nearly every month). My last race was the Amsterdam marathon back in October, but really that was more a fitness test and something to keep me occupied. Lavaredo in June 2016 is the last really hard effort race I ran, so as I write this, it’s been just under a year. Saying that, a lot has happened in that time, and the biggest part is that I’ve been formally coached for almost a year. Alicia Vargo (nee Shay) became my coach after Transvulcania in May last year, and since November, we have been putting in a lot of work in preparation for this year. We started towards the end of May last year, but as I was in the midst of my 2016 racing season, it was more just keeping things ticking over, and beginning to add in key training sessions that would form the basis and foundation for when I was ready to start preparing for 2017. It was also a great period for us to build our partnership as a coach/athlete, and let me get used to the type of sessions she programmed, as well as becoming more aware of the training paces/efforts I should be doing (unlike my prior training of doing whatever I felt like).
Since November, I have had the most consistent and best period of training EVER. Whilst my overall mileage has been what I would call moderate (topping out at 70 or so miles a week at its highest), it has been the highest average I have ever completed consistently, and the best overall period of training. Prior to having a coach, I’d run some higher mileage weeks (up to 120 miles per week), but that was always in an overall lower average period. It’s easy to see what elite runners are doing mileage wise, and think that higher mileage (anything above 90 miles a week) is the way to go. To a degree, that is correct, but there are more factors to consider which aren’t limited to your maturity as a runner, overall life stresses and time availability, and what your racing season and health looks like at any particular time. Ergo, I felt last year that a far more objective and qualified person was needed to take my training to the next level. I had built up a great base, and felt I needed an expert to push me and work with me on my quest to be a better runner, for both the short, mid and long term. Alicia was the obvious choice, as she is not only ridiculously qualified and experienced (she learnt to coach under the legend Jack Daniels himself), but she is one of the best runners in the world. Choosing her as my coach is undoubtedly one of the best choices I made last year. So, whilst we started working together in May 2016, with various races, travel and then recovery from all of that, November was when the hard work for 2017 began.
The biggest changes that have come to my training are that I am running six or seven days a week, which is a moderate change. Previously I would say five days was about my average. Majority of those runs are easy runs, and easy runs are something that I have only really started accommodating and paying attention to since having Alicia as my coach. I traditionally just ran, and went as hard or as easy as I felt (aka ‘winging it’ with some measure of strategy from time to time). Now, I have a rough idea of what my easy pace is, and intentionally run slower and more relaxed on most of those days. The contrast is that I have weekly speed workout, which is far harder than anything I have ever done previously (prior to Alicia, I had done maybe five speed workouts in two years). These workouts are different each week, and are focused on building speed and those fast twitch muscle fibres. I used to fear them, and now I love them. They are challenging and as I have gotten faster and better at pacing, the quality of these sessions has been invaluable. In addition, every two weeks, my long run is a harder effort. These vary, but in essence they put into practice the endurance and speed work that is required to race the distances that I do. They hurt, and are a massive change in intensity to my easy long runs. Which is entirely the point. My training now is either really easy mileage, or really hard efforts. No middle ground. No junk miles. Every run deliberate and intentional. Runs that let the body relax, recover, build, and nicely shape aerobic capacity, contrasted heavily with runs that stress and challenge the body to become faster, stronger and race ready. I’ve been hitting my runs week after week, and with periodic massage, good food, quality sleep (mostly) and a dedicated focus on my goals, I have grown and become a totally different runner; a far better runner. This was proven back in March, when as a last minute training idea, I ran the Richmond Half Marathon on three days notice, at the end of a 60 mile week. I ran hard from the gun, and stayed in third place right till the finish. I ran a 1:17 half, significantly faster than I had ever run before, despite less than favourable conditions on the day. I felt great and that proved to me that all the hard work had been paying off. A few days later, with a minor tweak in my calf, I ran a 4:35 mile on a net incline road, as part of a Nike event. So those two efforts demonstrated that I can put down some speed, all of which has been a huge confidence boost and definitive proof that those sessions Alicia has put together have really allowed me to develop into a better runner. I am as a bi-product, far more comfortable and aware of how I feel running at various speeds (both faster and slower), and my overall running economy, form, and just running in general has just come along in leaps and bounds. The other addition to my training, has been strides. Strides a few times a week (and now 4-5 times a week) has been such a simple addition that yields a huge amount of gain. I’d never done strides before, and I can’t help but notice they are a key weekly addition to most elite and fast runners. They work, so they’ve stayed. That aside, I haven’t done much else other than my usual yoga, which is now increasing in frequency. I’ve always loved yoga and with some brilliant teachers (Helen Russell-Clark being my favourite) pushing me, I am becoming more engaged and practicing more frequently, with a range of styles that allow me to practice advanced and technical poses. It keeps my body moving and engaged, stretches out tightness and as a surprise to most, has made me stronger. There is a huge focus on stability, mobility (i.e. strength across a full range of motion) and general core strength, particularly with the arm balances and inversions I am more often than not attempting. The ability to head stand, fore-arm stand and hand stand in a strong and controlled fashion, requires far more strength than flexility. Many assume yoga is only about being flexible, (which I am definitely NOT), and most fail to understand how physically demanding many yoga styles can be.
So with all that, I am 24 hours away from my debut race of the season, Transvulcania. The 74km Skyrunning World Series race that boasts a ridiculous 8000m (26,000ft) of vert, as runners essentially start at sea level, run across the entire island, top out at 2500m, before dropping back down along one of the most notoriously aggressive descents in a race. It is highly competitive, and I had a blast running it last year (110th place, 9 hours 58 minutes on the clock). The entire island is a huge ultra-running party, so I couldn’t resist returning to try and better my time and position. It will also serve as a good springboard for my debut 100 miler in June, the Western States 100. I’m really stoked to be racing Transvulcania again, and this will be the first time I race on a course I know already; an advantage I’ve not had before. It’s an absolutely brutal course, but a beautiful one at that, which I’m thankful to be experiencing again. Regardless what happens, It’s the start of a big year, as I have about six weeks to turn around for Western States. At the end of May I head to Chamonix for 2 weeks of big mountain training, before flying to New York, and then onto California. Whilst Western States is a huge race for me, I come off that and then have eight or so weeks to recover and then head into a block of training for CCC, UTMB’s 100km sister race. My time in Chamonix pre-Western States will double as course scouting and really getting to know the mountains. So a big racing calendar packed into a short space of time, with a potential addition in October as well (Les Templiers). Quite a mixture of races, but all ones I am inspired by and really have a lot of passion and motivation to train for and push my spirit and body to the limit. I love the mountains, and these big mountain races really capture my attention, as I am constantly learning and being humbled by each and every experience. This is my second year of competitive ultra-running, and my third year of what I call serious running. I am extremely grateful and thankful for the opportunities I have to travel, race and explore around the world, and for all of those people (including my employer, Mace Construction) that actively support and encourage me to have these adventures. Transvulcania awaits, and if there is one thing I learned last year, is that like all mountains, her respect must be earned.