Sunday 29 January 2012

How to train for...the Marathon des Sables

I thought it'd be a good idea to follow up on an idea from James Adams about doing a series of blog posts on how to train for some of the world's most iconic ultras. The idea is I can give tips and advice on what the courses involve and some idea of the general principles that would help, given these are often races that people look forward to for years and have very specific, and different, challenges to what you may have run before.

I've also written posts on how to prepare for Comrades, Western States 100 and a flatter 100 miler like Rocky Raccoon. But first the Marathon des Sables or the MdS for short. This is a race I've trained several people to successfully complete, including back-of-the-packers through to Danny Kendall who got the highest placing ever by a Brit at the 2013 race (10th) while training in London.

This race got me into running in the first place and I started in 2006 when the weather was about as extreme as ever, in terms of being hotter and more humid than usual and having sandstorms in the first few days where you could barely see five feet ahead. I didn't finish, as I drank too much water, having never realized that could be an issue, and got hyponatraemia, having to drop out on day three.

It wasn't fun on those first three days thanks to the illness, but then I felt fine as I was driven around from camp to camp then sat around each day. So I signed up for the next available MdS and ran it in 2008 (more details here), placing 13th and the highest position ever by a Brit (since beaten by a 12th from James Cracknell with some slightly more scientific training). So I learned a lot and found out how to run this race effectively, even when living in a cold climate in the months preceding the race and having no hills or sand to practice on locally.

Here are the key things to bear in mind in general when training for and racing in the MdS:

What's the race like?
  • Seven days in the Moroccan Sahara, self-supported and running with a backpack for the week's food, cooking equipment, clothing, medical kit and sleeping bag, but water and the Berber-style tent are provided for you

  • Six stages of about 10 miles up to about 50 miles (courses vary), totaling around 150 miles, with the long day having a cut-off of almost two days long
  • Over 1,000 international runners in the middle of nowhere with sand dunes, rocks and a 'road book' with maps to help you if you miss the pink-sprayed rocks
  • 400 support staff of doctors, local Berbers and other race organization people
  • Temperatures up to around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and no shade during the day
  • Most people walk almost all of it and only those at the very front get a large proportion of running in
How on Earth do you start training for that?
  • Firstly you look through the kit you'll need as there's a lot of compulsory gear (full rules are here and Article 24 shows the long list)

  • Then you need to find a backpack that feels comfortable to run in when full and isn't to big - 35L is about the largest you want to consider and the front of the pack will be more like 20L (note that a front pack add-on is helpful for weight distribution and accessing food etc on the run)
  • Trying fitting the kit in to see how much you'll need to leave out - it won't all fit in and you'll have to be frugal
  • Having the kit and backpack will give you a better focus for your training as it's important to train for the specifics of the event
  • Road running may be all that's easily available to you, but make sure you can get in regular trails too - hills and mud or snow are probably the best bets in winter and give a better preparation for sand than roads
  • Practice power-walking/hiking within your long runs as you will be doing this a lot, guaranteed, and it uses slightly different muscles to running
  • A great way to strengthen the muscles for the hiking and the backpack carrying is hiking even short distances, but regularly, with a weighted vest or backpack - ideally much heavier than the full weight you'll run the race with (2-2.5x the weight is a good guide)
  • Do runs as often as possible with the backpack, gradually filling it up over time to closer simulate the race conditions and muscular requirements
  • By running with the backpack fully weighted you'll get an idea of where it rubs and can practice taping (zinc oxide tape is good for this)
  • Have at least six months where you commit a good portion of your training to the MdS - even fast road runners who don't train for it specifically are usually very bad in the desert
  • Heat training in winter isn't easy but it's only the last two or three weeks that matter most for acclimatizing so that's when 30-60 mins/day in a sauna can help (be very careful with this as it's dangerous and gradually build up to longer exposure)
  • If you don't have a sauna, doing your runs in multiple layers of clothing to look like the Michelin Man can work just as well
  • If you can find races that include back-to-back days then these are great training, especially if you treat them like stages of the MdS in terms of kit - in the UK races like the Jurassic Coast Challenge and Pilgrim's Challenge are ideal, but just long 20+ mile days on trails back to back on your own or with friends also work
What mistakes should you avoid doing in training?
  • Not training with the backpack you plan to use in the race
  • Not running on similar under-foot conditions - soft mud/snow are good substitutes for sand even if you're not near the coast or other sandy area
  • No heat training - this would make it impossible to run and slow you down very significantly and therefore mean even more time in the baking sun in the race which will drain you even more
  • Not practicing power-walking - you will do this more than you expect no matter how fit you are
  • Not including hills - the local word for a mountain is 'Jebel' and there several Jebels in the race, no matter which route they use

  • Try out the food in advance - freeze dried food doesn't always taste good and you want food you can look forward to at the end of each day so you don't want nasty surprises with a meal that tastes like dog food
  • Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, even though your hourly liquid requirements will be much higher in the desert - under- or over-hydrating could end your race and be very dangerous (trust me, I know from experience)
  • The correct shoes are important and maybe half to a whole US/UK size bigger is helpful to allow for your feet expanding in the heat, but no more or they just won't fit and will rub immediately
    • Choose shoes that are very comfortable as the main criterion, but bear in mind the desert is rocky and some protection in the sole and front is advised and may save a few of your toenails
    • Wear those shoes in with at least one 20+ mile run where they feel fine the whole way
    • Don't get shoes with a mesh-like exterior that allows sand in easily
  • Don't underestimate how important gaiters are for keeping the sand out - home made ones from parachute material that cover the entire top of the shoe and up to below the knee are best

  • Learn to use the compass as in the dunes there are no course markings and people ahead can often go wrong
What about tactics for the race itself?
  • Take day one very easy as it's for getting used to the race and is short, so not much time can be lost no matter how slow you go - pace the race for seven days, not one
  • Look after your feet and see the medical staff for blisters as they will help stop infections by popping, cleaning, sanitizing and taping blisters and have seen over the years that this is the best tactic
  • Eat early and often each day while you run
  • Vaseline everywhere that's covered (groin, arm-pits, nipples etc) even though it may get a little sand attached to it - given the heat and sweating it's very easy to get rubbed raw and this is not pleasant
  • Get the hydration right based on your training and it's best to include electrolyte powders or tablets in every drink instead of just water
  • Rest in-between the running as much as possible, although a little, light walking around helps to speed the recovery - a good excuse to socialize
  • You don't need a stove (which is heavy) as you can use four rocks instead - there're plenty of them around the campsite
  • It's a multi-day race so you need to be eating and hydrating each day not just to get through to the finish but also to build up reserves for the next day
  • Each morning the camp is filled with zombies lurching around but your body is very resilient and after a mile or two your legs will be less stiff and you may even find by around day four that you're feeling better than on the previous couple of days
  • Most importantly, make sure you enjoy the entire experience and don't be too focused on times or rankings - this is a huge challenge but also something you'll remember for your whole life

Thursday 26 January 2012

First episode of the new Talk Ultra Podcast out now

The last few weeks and months have had some frenzied activity behind the scenes with the help of the Marathon Talk podcast team of Martin Yelling and Tom Williams. Ian Corless, a coach/ultrarunner/cyclist/triathlete, and myself have been creating a new podcast show focused on global ultrarunning - Talk Ultra. It comes out on Friday, 27th January officially but is available now (see the bottom of this post).

We'll be chatting about news, results and anything ultra-related as well as interviews, competitions and more. The first big interview is with Salomon athlete Ryan Sandes who won Leadville 100 last year and is known for winning the Racing The Planet series of multi-stage desert races. Each show we'll also have a chat with Karl Meltzer  and getting his views on what's 'Good, Bad and Ugly' in the ultra world.

Hope you like it and we hope to really build on this start to create a must-listen-to show. All I need to do is stop describing things as 'interesting'...

We have a competition to win a pair of Hokas, so if you want to win, post a photo with your name on our Facebook page and the best photo will win in a few weeks. You can also follow us for news and info about ultras in general on Twitter with @TalkUltra


The show can also be listened too directly here or subscribed to on itunes. Shows will be every two weeks although with time that may change.

Upcoming interviews include Gordy Ainsleigh (accidental inventor of the Western States 100), Anna 'Frosty' Frost (double winner of The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco) and David Horton (legendary ultrarunner and one of 10 finishers ever at The Barkley Marathon, possibly the hardest 100 mile race in the really).

Friday 20 January 2012

Rocky Raccoon preparation and all things UTMB

Today the lottery for the 103-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and the other related races posted results and there's less of the top male North American talent going over (only just), probably due to so many running Hardrock 100 and Run Rabbit Run 100, although the women seem to be crossing the pond with a strong group to go for that podium. Will be interesting to see how all these runners do against the locals and Brits (the ones who still live in Europe).

Here's a list of notable North American residents running UTMB and I apologize for missing names - this is from a quick scan on the UTMB website based on my own ability to recognize names.

Meghan Arboghast
Rory Bosio
Helen Cospolich
Krissy Moehl
Amy Sproston
Tracy Garneau
Ellie Greenwood

Scott Dunlap
Mike Foote
Topher Gaylord
Neal Gorman
Dave Mackey
Mike Wardian
Adam Campbell
Gary Robbins

I'll be running the shorter Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) 61-miler to not overload my season and to still enjoy the fun of the whole set of events. Plenty of friends will be out there from England so I'm looking forward to it and just hope there's a bit more sun than last year.

In the build up to UTMB, I'm lucky enough to have persuaded Krissy Moehl (the female course record holder, amongst other accolades) to join the All-Star Running team and we'll be hosting a UTMB training camp around the entire UTMB route from 26th May to 2nd June. Should be a great experience for everyone involved as we cover the 103 miles over five days and get to hang out in Chamonix too. More details here.

But right now my focus is on Rocky Raccoon 100 and seeing if that 12:44 course record is breakable. I've had some time off over Christmas and since then have been working on my speed, since that's the thing that's dropped off over the past year. Plenty of half marathons on the treadmill including a few under my best road time, so these should pay off as I look forward to the final two weeks of tapering. I chat about it more in the Ultrarunner Podcast show that is out today on itunes and here.

This is about the point last year when the Rocky Raccoon entrants list exploded with fast 100-mile racers, but it doesn't look like it'll happen again. At the least I know Karl Meltzer and Oswaldo Lopez (Badwater winner last year) will be really pushing the pace and running amazing times and Liza Howard will beat any of the men who can't run sub-15 hours.

Sunday 8 January 2012

A Fat Ass race in pictures - the Bad Ass 50(ish)k at Smith Rock State Park

What do you get if you mix two male Olympic Trials Marathon qualifiers, several ex-professional (or close to it) skiers, multiple 100 mile/100k/50 mile and other distance wins across two people, a load of other really talented and fun trail runners and me? The answer is the Bad Ass 50(ish)k Fat Ass 'race' near Bend.

For those unfamiliar with the Fat Ass concept, I think it's fair to summarize it as a free, semi-organized trail event, usually 50k, typically in winter and with the aim being to burn off those extra pounds from the Christmas dinner. The one I did was 30 mins drive from Bend and was basically a group of ultrarunners going out for a training run with some people opting for shorter routes. Great views the whole way around of the Cascades as well as the famous climbing area of Smith Rock.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

What races are exciting people for 2012?

From a small sample in a poll on my blog for the past week, it looks like most people who voted aren't all that excited about the biggest ultras in the world, possibly because they aren't doing them...I doubt many who got into Western States in the lottery aren't overly excited about it. But in general WS still seems to be capturing the attention of the (mainly US-based) people who occasionally flick through my blog. I wonder if this would be different in a year's time after some of the newer races have become more established.

Anyway, here are the non-indicative results.

17% Western States 100
10% Steamboat (Run, Rabbit, Run) 100
 7% UTMB
 7% Comrades
 3% UROC 100k
 3% TNF Endurance Challenge San Francisco
50% Something else

(doesn't add to 100% due to rounding)

Monday 2 January 2012

Mad Men

Having watched the entire Mad Men series on Netflix, it got my creative juices flowing. Not something that's been needed a whole lot previously as an economist, but it was fun to think of an idea to promote the Bad to the Bone All-Star Running Retreats, then execute it in true Mad Men style (ok, maybe I didn't smoke and drink heavily while making it, but I still felt like Don Draper...if he were to dress like Elvis).