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Anecdotes

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  • Running poles making ascents and descents easier
  • GPS to making navigation a doddle
  • Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue

What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.

I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.

There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).

Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?

The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?

Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.

Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.

I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.

The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.

All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.

These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?

The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.

All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.

And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?

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Those of you that believe that bodily fluids and especially bowel issues are something that should be neither seen or heard should probably move on from this post because it’s all about poo!

To begin I’ll draw attention to one of my top 10 list of ‘pieces of running advice’ I’ve collected over the years and at number 8 is ‘never trust a fart‘.

Damn fine advice if you ask me.

The expulsion of wind for a runner can lead to stopper being popped and the ‘trail runners supernova’ erupting all over our finest scenery.

Many of us, as trail runners, will have been caught short out on a deserted trail and will have squatted behind the nearest bush to evacuate our insides. As regular readers will know I’ve been caught short a few times, in fact quite a lot of times and therefore feel quite well informed about what causes these problems, the types of problem and the resolution.

However, I’m not all knowing and so in the last two years I’ve been doing a little research and quizzing runners about their terrible poo related tales, you guys are so willing to share! So in the interest of sharing aha furthering knowledge I bring the 10 most popular poo types on the trails.

In the interest of privacy no names (other than my own moniker) will be used.

Scoring*
As a sidebar to this post I’m curious which of the ten you may have encountered yourself, if you recognise up to and including 3 poo types you’re probably still an amateur, 4-6 would suggest you’ve been around a bit and are quite a competent trail pooper and anything beyond this suggests you’ve got rotten guts and may need to seek medical attention.

The Squirter
It was one of my first ultra marathons – Rat Races The Wall that I first encountered the notion that ultra runners shit in the woods. The gentleman I’d be running with for a little while (I say running, we were both hobbling by this point) advised he needed to stop and relieve himself. He told me to go on but we both knew that neither would make it as we were clearly using one another as a crutch to make it to the finish. So he nodded an agreement and headed off into the bushes alongside a quiet road for what I thought was a jimmy riddle.

The next thing I heard was what I believed to be the sound of a car back firing. Sadly no, it was my companion the back fire was followed by a noise that could only be described as ‘fountain like’ and something I wouldn’t encounter again until my 1 year old daughter projectile shat all over the GingaNinja.

Within a few minutes it was all over, I heard the groans of a man wiping himself on dried leaves and hoping his finger didn’t break the brittle natural loo roll. He returned and mumbled an apology to which I replied something along the lines of, ‘better out than in’. 

While I didn’t see the offending release, I did note that his lower back carried the hallmarks of poo splatter that had not been there previously and he was clearly in some distress as it shouldn’t be that yellow.

Just remember if you’re going to squirt – don’t get too close to anything – you do not want bounce back.

The Breach
I’ve recalled, in my race report, the moment on the Mouth to Mouth where I simply had to stop, spiking my arse on the only bush for miles in the process. I’d run several kilometres knowing that I couldn’t squeeze my arse cheeks tightly or there would be messy consequences and there is no feeling worse than having your guts be tumbling around as you’re in desperate need of a quiet spot and yet still trying to race. I ran Mouth to Mouth really quite well but this unfortunate stop cost me a decent time but when you’ve been torpedoed by your own lack of bowel control what can you do?

The Lightning Strike
In the distance I can hear the sound of Brian May playing some awesome guitar solo from Flash Gordon but the lightning attack is when you get an urgent need and an immediate stop is required followed by a single lightning quick unloading of your bowels. If the process from shorts down to concluding your business takes more than 30 seconds chances are this isn’t a Lightning Strike

The Double Ender
I lay baking in the midday sun, around a metre in front of me was a spray of chunky vomit and behind me – about the same distance away was a ‘Dr Octopus’ putrid green and stinking, liquid diahorrea. I genuinely thought I was going to die and was to die having experienced what has been called the double ender. During the experience I had bodily fluids pouring out of every orifice and all at the same time – my muscles didn’t know how to react to the need to lurch one way and then the next.

I should have DNF’d that day but I picked myself up, carefully avoiding the vile radioactive anal and oral offerings and make a decision that I wasn’t going to quit this one!

There are number of lessons you need to learn from my experience, the first is ‘be careful of the water you drink from in Scottish Highland streams’ and secondly ‘remove enough of your clothing that you don’t get them covered in either ends of your distress’. Had I got so much as one iota of nastiness on my race clothing I would have DNF’d there and then.

And the rock cried out, no hiding place
It was during my fail at Haria Extreme that I had a disturbing thought – I need a dump but I knew that the checkpoint was only five minutes away and this section of the course was heavily marshalled – just to guide you through the vineyard and into the loving arms of the volunteers. ‘Is there a toilet?’ I asked hopefully. The volunteers looked at me in a ‘we don’t speak English’ kind of a way – thankfully a young boy at the back piped up and said, ‘next place, 20km’. This made no sense as the next CP was at 25km and there was no checkpoint 20km from this point. I thanked them and set off

My toilet need wasn’t super urgent but it would become that way if I didn’t resolve it. By the time I reached the next checkpoint it had become the main issue and I once again asked if they had toilets but it was another negative response. Bugger.

In the distance I could see large swathes of open landscape and no cover. Bugger. However, with a ridge in the distance I could use that as cover and indeed I did find a small cave that I could perch over the opening. Phew. I positioned myself carefully and despite needing to keep myself upright using all my upper body strength I managed to begin my business. It was just as the first droppings landed that below me I could hear the scurrying of something alive. Bugger.

I felt my face go red in the middle of the movement and my natural survival instinct kicked in and I fired out a rather difficult ‘lightning strike’ and leapt up with my shorts around my ankles. Clear of the pit I peered back and could see the scurrying of some animal(s) I had disturbed.

To add insult to injury I was now half naked in the middle of Lanzarote, balls out and above me, on the ridge, several runners ran past. Regardless of my own predicament I’m sure the sight of my nudey form did nothing to enhance their experience.

Lesson? Check the hole you’re about to deposit in – especially when it might be an animals home.

The Meconium
Meconium is the tough first, very dark poo your child does and when racing I had cause to stop during my first ultra and learn a very valuable lesson. Thankfully this happened at a checkpoint, on a toilet, in a village hall on the White Cliffs 50.

I had clearly not been drinking enough, was hugely dehydrated and when I needed to visit the little boys room but everything was super difficult to deliver, small, tough, dark and poisonous smelling. It didn’t impact my racing that day but it did remind me of the value of food and drink as I race.

The Galloping Trots
The trots are very different from the ‘Lightning Strike’ and ‘The Gift That Keeps on Giving’ in that you’re completely immobile for quite a significant period of time and there is a small tonne of it. I suppose the lesson to learn from the trots is that you need to give your stomach what it needs rather than what it wants and in the run up to CCC I’d been more socially active than normal and had spent the week eating out and eating lovely, sometimes quite rich food.

I wasn’t running very well at the CCC as I’d fallen quite badly coming off the first descent and this was made all the worse but the revenge of my week long holiday food choices. It was somewhere between CP1 and CP2 that I pulled up to tend my wounds properly and also to deal with my groaning, moaning stomach. I journeyed a little way off the route and into deep bushes – taking my pack off and moving all my kit to higher ground. I could feel the grumbling inside myself and it was pure agony as a stream of solid, then less solid, then liquid materials streamed out of me.

Coming in waves as these things invariably do I would think I was finished only to move and hear my stomach turn again. I was lucky that I was elevated from the ground between two big tree branches and therefore protected from splatter but 20 miles of too hot running, a bit of dehydration and a week of holiday eating had not made my bowels a scent sensation you’d enjoy.

I crept away, as you do, having defiled this sacred trail running ground. Feeling so rough I managed another 30km before the inevitable DNF and believe me my stomach felt every metre.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first time I ever needed to stop on a race was during the South Downs Way 50. I remember I’d been struggling for about 2 miles and had to slow down enough that I felt like I was really losing ground. I was running with a buddy in a very casual way, in that we would hurl abuse at each other as we went by one another but at about 10 miles I needed to find a quiet place.

Thankfully a location rocked up quickly and I disposed of the offending item discreetly and set off again but less than 3 miles later I was pain again. I dug a small hole and delivered again but it still wasn’t enough – in a little over 15 miles I needed 5 stops, each worse than the last and my concern about the amount of toilet tissue I was carrying was growing.

At my first stop I’d been quite generous with my loo roll but as the stops became more frequent I had to ration it and as the releases became less solid I felt I needed more paper – this was a no win situation.

My solution was that I stopped eating before the halfway point and I took very small amounts of water fearing that I might end up in a situation where I’d have to use my much loved buff to wipe. I didn’t, I finished and the Buff survived.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
This is a very specific moment in my running career and there will be people who read this and know the incident I’m talking about. It was 2014 and my first time at Country to Capital – in the gents there are two cubicles. It’s fair to say both were incredibly busy but it’s equally fair to say that only one of them was flushing. Upon reaching the front of the queue I was offered the right hand side cubicle – I headed in and looked down, though not far down as the peak of the poo mountain was creeping over the rim. I stepped back, choking slightly on my own vomit and offered the opportunity to the man behind me and risking the other cubicle.

I’m not sure what disgusted me more – the sight of so much poo or the fact that so many runners were happy to give this a go. Nasty.

The Heaver
I was running in a 45 mile race when I met a lovely lady who offered some insight into what I’ve dubbed ‘the heaver’. The lady in question who told me about this was in the middle of a mountain marathon and had gotten caught a little short, ‘I know what it’s like,’ as I was discussing my concerns about needing a toilet break as we raced.

She had decided to stop at a small clump of bushes and then fell into distress – she says she was pushing and pushing with only the smallest of results but knowing that there was a real need to deal with this . I’ll quote her directly as this has never left me, ‘I heaved and I heaved but the house just wouldn’t blow down’.

After some 20 minutes (according to her Garmin) she had managed to fire off a small pile of rabbit like pebbles – which to her seemed inconsistent with the trouble her bowels had been giving her. Still she did complete her mountain marathon but said I shouldn’t worry if I ever need a noisy poo as she was sure every runner who went past her probably heard her trying to push that one out.

Ah the honesty of ultra runners.

My Solution
There’s no magic wand for issues like this, if it happens you simply need to deal with it but my pre-race preparation now at least offers me a chance of getting it all out of the way before I set off.

The Flat White coffee seems to be the trigger for helping me pass the contents of my innards before a race start. It’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t always work and if I get the timings wrong then it can cause more problems than it solves but since trying this method I’ve had a greater deal of control out on a route – because undoubtedly I suffer from a really shitty problem (sometimes)!

You’ll all have your own magic treatments and pre-race routines and I’d love to hear them because I’ve seen and been involved in some pretty horrendous states and anything we can all do together to reduce this can only be a good thing.

So please feel free to share…

Lessons

  1. Watch for back splash
  2. Always carry enough toilet paper/tissues
  3. Deal with it quickly, don’t wait until it is a serious issue
  4. Beware small furry animals
  5. Ensure you use the facilities before your run/race
  6. Ensure you are suitably secluded if you need to use the trail
  7. Don’t overburden your stomach pre-race
  8. Never trust a fart
  9. Make sure you are finished
  10. Try not to care what other people think

I hope this post hasn’t distressed or disturbed you all too much and I hope that what you take from this is, ‘be prepared’ and ‘it’s not just bears that shit in the woods’

*Thanks to GCJ for suggesting the scoring system

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