Multi-day races – why?

Peopleimage often ask me why I love multi-day races as a competitor and a volunteer. That is a hard question to answer because there are so many reasons and many of them are hard to put into words in a way that those that don’t know can understand. One of the reasons is that I meet real people. That probably needs some explaining.

When you run with someone for a long time on a difficult stage, or you are a sweep and spend time with someone who is grinding it out until they get to the finish, the talk often revolves around what the race does to you. Most people talk about it stripping them down to the basics, removing the layers that we allow other people to see and that hide the true us. They talk about being deconstructed, of looking into very dark places to find answers: Do I have what it takes? Can I go on? Do I want this enough? It is then that you see the real person: the barriers, the defences, the glossy exterior is stripped away. These are very special moments; moments when you really know each other and a bond develops that is deep and profound.

Sometimes you can help, but most of the time the individual has to find their own answers and if they share that with you it is a very humbling experience. I have had many such moments and will share just one with you. I was talking with someone towards the end of a tough desert race, the long day was over and the end was in sight, it was then that she shared with me what had got her through when it got very, very tough and she wanted to quit. She had been in a relationship where her partner belittled and beat her. She told herself that she had survived that and that what she was going through in the race was not as bad as that; she could keep going. It angers me that someone so gentle and so strong should have been so badly treated. Unfortunately, I have heard similar accounts from several people, however, there is a very good ending. Yes multi-day events strip you down, but they also reconstruct you into a much better person, more able to cope with whatever life throws at you. They build you up, put you in control. You see yourself in a different light and want to go through that rebuilding process again to continually improve, to live life, to know yourself and to be with beautiful people.

Why the photo of trees. I love trees and I love multi-day races; it is much easier to find a photo to represent trees than it is to find just one to represent mult- day races.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Myth

After 20 years of being a long-distance runner I have Lonliness of the long distamce runnereventually got around to reading “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe. I was surprised to find that it was a short story not a novel, was about cross-country rather than distance running (the race is only 5 miles) and is not about loneliness. I didn’t think much of it, but that may be because I don’t think enough. There seems to be more written about the story than there are words in the story itself. Here is a short extract from Wikipedia.

‘Sillitoe uses running in his story as a means of isolation. Running is a solitary action and therefore allows Smith to begin to understand and become aware of the class divisions in Britain. Smith, the narrator of the story, is also a writer and he is an allegoric version of Sillitoe and the isolation that all authors suffer from. Smith is a solitary runner who gets political clarity through running and isolation, just as an author writes alone and thinks alone. The long distance runner and the writer are both individualistic and isolated so that they are able to produce their commodities. The metaphor used to compare both the author and the runner is similar to the author losing his purity when he publishes a work just as Smith loses his purity when he enters the race.
During the time period that Sillitoe wrote “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” the idea of the runner was changing dramatically. The purity of running was taken away when Smith entered the race because the race dehumanised him. The race made Smith a commodity for nationalisation that he was uncomfortable with. When the sport of running became professional it lost its sense of purity and became a commodity. Sillitoe rejects the commoditisation of running in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. This is why Smith chooses to forfeit the race. Helen Small states, “…the weight of literary attention seems to be focused on a ‘pre-professional era’—either written at that time or looking back at it for inspiration”. The professional runner becomes commercialised and loses the clarity of thought that comes with running for pure passion and pleasure. Sillitoe was an author who believed in the unadulterated sport of running.’

Wow I’m glad I’m not a professional runner who has been dehumanised and commoditised, although I do think there are some worrying developments in our sport driven by clever marketing people. I certainly experience the pure passion and pleasure that comes from running. Perhaps that is because I don’t own any running technology and until recently thought Strava was a Greek pastry.

I think a lot of runners get a great deal of clarity from long distance running, but I would not describe it as a lonely sport. Yes, there are long runs alone, but there is also the camaraderie of races, clubs, training groups etc. In the UK the long Sunday run is often done in isolation, but in South Africa, where many runners are preparing for Comrades, the Sunday run is a social, early morning affair followed by brunch at a cafe (they start very early). And nowadays there is all the friendly banter on social media. It is only a lonely sport if you want it to be.



imageLast weekend I found myself with time on my hands and infront of a TV, a very rare occurrence. I took away some great running lessons from that lazy time. It took a while to master the two remote controls and the settings on the devices (massive flatscreen TV and Sky+ box), but I eventually got it all working. Out of the 100s of channels available there was only one that interested me; the BBCs coverage of the Great North City Games.

Wow! What a great event, bringing sport to the people by holding the events on the quayside of Newcastle and Gateshead. I loved the coverage, especially as several of my heroes (Denise Lewis, Paula Radcliffe and Steve Cram) were among the presenters. For many of the competitors it was their last event of the season and they were enjoying a last outing without the usual pressure; they were enjoying themselves and that came through in the interviews, as did their love of the sport.

Some of the events were a little unusual, the 150 metre sprint, a 500 metre race and the mile along the street rather than on the track. This presented some difficulties to the runners. In the women’s 500 metre event the runner in a strong lead tired dramatically just after 400 metres and it was like she was running through treacle as the rest of the field caught her up. Presumably she had run too close to her 400 metre pace and had little left for the last 100 metres. Some of the mile runners found judging pace difficult without the usual markers they would see on a track. The winner in the men’s race judged his pace perfectly. I was not surprised to learn that he had been out on the course several times before the event to identify key places on the course.

I took away two big lessons from my TV sessions. One, top athletes have an off-season when they rest. Unfortunately for road and trail runners it is possible to find a race every weekend, and sometimes mid- week ones, throughout the year. Some people run too much. This impacts their performance and can lead to injury, burn-out and possibly a loss of love for the sport. I cannot hope to match Kilian Jornet’s running achievements, but I can make my racing schedule similar to his and have suffiecient rest periods. Take a look at his race calendars for the last few years.

Two: I learnt that some people do not do well when something changes (e.g. The distance or the terrain) so getting used to variety will serve you well. If you always race at 10am what happens when a race starts at 1pm? I got caught out by this once at the Shakespeare Marathon when it started at 1 pm. I think it has now reverted to a more normal time. If you judge race pace by the mile markers what will happen in a race where there aren’t any or the markers are every kilometre?

Consistency in training is good, but it pays to mix it up a bit. Variety is the spice of life and it will help when life delivers a curve ball.




Ultra running, madness and Keynesian economics

imageI am an ultra runner so crazy seems totally normal to me. However, when I help at races I see things from a different perspective and often, when I am standing at a checkpoint watching the runners, I think it all seems totally pointless. Why get bussed to a remote place and then run back, or run there and get bussed back? Or, worse still, why run there and back again? You already know how far it is; it is usually in the race description.

Last Sunday I supported a friend who was running a crazy race aptly named the Madness of King George. It involved running half a mile along the King George Memorial Way in Hayle, Cornwall along the tarmac then turning around and coming back along the footpath. This was repeated as many times as possible for 12 hours. What was the point? Yes there was a nice medal, a very nice medal, but they could have bought one for a fraction of the entry fee. There was a prize for the winner and trophies for a podium place, but most of the runners knew they had no chance of getting one of those, so why do it?

I was particularly intrigued by why one guy kept going. To put it diplomatically he had a Body Mass Index (BMI) on a the high side for an ultra runner (words used to describe me once). He started to take strain quite early on and with two hours still to go was running on empty, but still kept on going. Everyone was pushing themselves to do the best they could, but why? As long as they kept going for  12 hours they would be counted as a finisher, there was a minimum amount of distance to cover, but this was passed by everyone quite easily, why did they not slow down, take it easy, sit down to admire the view from time to time and just jog along rather than try and grind out as many laps as possible?  This got me wondering about the value of things; what is the value of running for 12 hours?

One way of valuing something is to consider how much money we would be prepared to pay someone else to do that activity for us – its relative worth. We might not want to bake a cake or have time to do it and would be willing to pay someone else to bake it so we have a tasty cake to eat. But if you pay someone to run a race for you there is nothing to be gained, so it has no value. It is pointless.

The runners obviously didn’t think that what they were doing was pointless otherwise they would have given up when things got tough; when muscles ached, joints hurt, shoes rubbed, feet were sore and bits they didn’t even know they had ached. There were huge grins when they crossed the line after 12 hours and big smiles as they were called up to get their medals . This was something that they thought was worthwhile. There must be some intrinsic value in the activity which is not related to its relative worth. As Henry David Thoreau said “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.”

is this really true? It would suggest that ultra running would be unaffected by economic considerations like supply and demand. I am not sure that people would still pay the current entry fee for the London Marthon if it was not oversubscribed and there was no ballot system. Would running for 12 hours still have the same appeal if almost everyone did it?

Personally I think the value in ultra running comes from the fact that it provides evidence to yourself and others that you are not normal, that you are an outlier. As ultra running becomes more popular I will have to move further along the distribution curve.


Madness of King George 12 hour race was organised by Bys Vyken Events and Cornish Trails