Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Tips For Leadville Trail 100 For Non-Mountain Dwellers

With Leadville's series of races opening registration on Jan 1st, there'll be a lot of people wanting to run but having second thoughts due to the elevation. As a runner who lives at sea level in California, this was certainly a concern for me in the 2013 100-miler since most of the race is above 10,000ft and the high point is 12,600ft on Hope Pass.

So here are some tips for how to approach the training and the Leadville Trail 100 race itself for the majority of us who don't live high in the mountains.

1. Plan to run a lot - sounds obvious, but LT100 is a very runnable course for the most part with long stretches of flat or near-flat running, despite it being a 'mountain race'. So switching between hiking on climbs and running the flats is a very effective tactic which allows the leg muscles get regular rests from the impact of running then feel fresher to restart when the terrain gets easier again.

2. Don't arrive a few days before the race - ideally spend well over one week in Colorado above 6,000ft. I'd recommend two weeks as a good minimum to start to see benefits in altitude acclimatization and this is how long before the race I personally went out there. The worst thing you can do is arrive between about two and six days before the race coming from sea level. Research (such as that summarized in The Lore of Running by Professor Tim Noakes) shows that arriving into a high altitude location for this amount of time pre-race means you feel the negative side-effects of being at altitude without noticeable positive adaptations. It's more effective to arrive the afternoon before the race, pick up your race number and then run the race before the altitude has time to affect you as much.

3. Hike above the high point of the race - if you can make more of a vacation of the race then hiking some of Colorado's fourteeners is a great way to spend time pre-race (not the last few days). It helps your body adjust to the altitude faster, strengthens your ability to hike and gives spectacular views.

4. Consider using an altitude tent - these can be rented and attach over your bed, allowing you to sleep with air that's more similar to what you experience at high altitude, although it doesn't replicate the pressure differential. Downsides are the cost, heat/humidy and the fact your other half may consider your 'hobby' to be too weird and ban you from doing any more races. If possible going to altitude is more effective, but time off work and a family vacation for two weeks in the mountains is a big commitment too.

5. Take it extra easy in the race - aim to keep your intensity low so your oxygen needs are also low. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and try to run lots of the climbs because they'd be runnable at sea level. 10,000ft makes a big difference and the oxygen content in the air is almost exactly one third less than at sea level. That increases to a 38% oxygen reduction at 12,600ft (based on calculations from this source here). So if you can keep your effort level down you're less likely to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness, such as throbbing headaches. In particular, go especially gently on the two ascents of Hope Pass.

6. Eat regularly from early on - whatever your normal eating strategies in races, stick to it with more discipline in the early stages of LT100. Once you feel symptoms of altitude sickness (which you probably will to some degree within the race) it'll be especially hard to stomach anything and keep up your energy reserves.

7. Hope Pass is the key - if you treat the race as starting after your second descent of Hope Pass at around mile 58, then it'll focus your mind and your tactics well. Aim to get to this point feeling as good as you can and not getting caught up in mini races before that or trying to hit splits for particular finish times (like the sub 25-hr buckle). Run based on how you feel and concentrate 100% on looking after yourself to avoid serious issues for as long as possible. Many of these issues stem from the altitude on the 12,600ft Hope Pass and this is the cause of the vast majority of DNFs.

Good luck to everyone since it's a classic event.

Friday, 27 December 2013

International Road Marathon Comparison (updated Dec 2013)

Big Sur Marathon start, before it gets scenic

Back in 2011 I wrote up a comparison of the road marathons I've run around the world since I thought it could be useful for people when deciding which ones to choose. There's a lot of great races out there and many in locations that make for a great trip - a perfect way to see some fantastic cities. This update includes races I've had the chance to go to in 2013 and covers the west coast of the US in more detail than most areas.

Bear in mind the list isn't exhaustive but includes well over 50 different marathons across the world, including a good portion of the most well-known ones, so there's some decent variety.

After each description I show my estimate of how many minutes to add on to your perfect time due to the course/conditions for a three hour marathoner to give a comparison, so add on more of less minutes in proportion for your pace.

Amsterdam Marathon, The Netherlands (October) - Very fast course with typically perfect weather. Helps to be at near the front but not too big a race. Pancake flat and not necessarily very scenic but it does finish in the 1928 Olympic stadium so you can pretend you're finishing an Olympic marathon around the Great Depression, which isn't that far off the truth. Highly recommended, especially as it's a good excuse to visit the legal(ish) version of Sin City. ADD 0 MINUTES

Arizona Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, Arizona, USA (January) - If you want to have no off season then this is a great one to focus on for pure speed with comfortable temperatures and a slightly dull, but flat course around the Phoenix megapolis. They bill all the Rock 'n' Roll series races as a party but it's probably the most corporate running experience you could ever have (pay extra for VIP toilets at the start!) with less music along the course than many big city marathons. But the point of this one is really to have an easy course that's fast and to get away from winter snow. ADD 0 MINUTES

Athens Marathon, Greece (November) - Not particularly pretty but it does cover the original route from Marathon to Athens which is 24 miles, so it includes a loop to reach the adjusted distance of 26.2 miles. Flat first half then gently up before the last quarter is all downhill, finishing in the 2004 Olympic stadium. Kind of has to be done at some point just because of the history, but no need to do it a second time. ADD 2 MINUTES

Barcelona Marathon, Spain (March) - A great city to run around and a fast course too. Beautiful views of the sea and less overcrowding than at some of the larger city races. ADD 0 MINUTES

Beaujolais Nouveau Marathon, France (November) - a large percentage of people run in costumes and the race is similar to other wine country marathons like Medoc in that it's a way to celebrate the new season's wines. Wine, bread and cheese at every aid station, including pre-race so it's not exactly a fast marathon for most people. The highlight was running down steps into a wine cellar, past huge barrels of wine and an aid station, before running out the other end of the cellar and continuing on the course. ADD 5 MINUTES

Belfast Marathon, Northern Ireland (May) - Often windy, rainy and with a few hills to slow people down, yet strangely enjoyable even with sections along a motorway out to the airport. But running through republican Falls Road and loyalist Shankill Road with their sectarian murals is an interesting experience (especially if you're English). ADD 3 MINUTES

Berlin Marathon, Germany (September) - Fastest marathon course I've seen and the multiple world records broken there (the last four men's records were set there...excluding the disallowed Boston 2011 time). It starts on a wide road so the masses get moving faster than at similar-sized marathons. That allows more of the field to have a fast start, although many people still inevitably have to go very slow in the initial miles. Beer at the finish too. ADD 0 MINUTES

Big Sur International Marathon, California, USA (April/May) - Adding the word 'International' shows the aim of having people travel from all over the world and it fills very quickly but has a reasonable-sized field of 4,500 runners. Incredibly scenic along a beautiful stretch of California coastline but this is generally one to enjoy the views rather than go for a time. There's also a Boston 2 Big Sur challenge for people who run both, usually about a week apart. ADD 4 MINUTES

Boston Marathon, Massachusetts, USA (April) - In the US this is the big one everyone wants to get to thanks to the need to qualify, the history and the fact the locals get into it more than for any other marathon I can think of. I love it and it does feel special but it's not the fastest course normally due to cross-winds and those famous Newton Hills. Highlight is definitely the Wellesley girls whose screaming you can hear a mile before you get there at halfway. 2011 had a tailwind for much of the course but the 2:03:02 by Geoffrey Mutai may not have been an official world record due to the net downhill and point-to-point course, but I have no doubt it was the best run ever. This course can be fast, but on average ADD 2 MINUTES

Brussels Marathon, Belgium (October) - Pretty parks along the course and you get to see a good selection of the Brussels scenery including parts of the EU bureaucracy. Warning - your time may be worsened if you sleep through your alarm on race day like I did. ADD 1 MINUTE

Carlsbad Marathon, California (January) - Want to get away from the winter cold? This is certainly a good option in South California and is well organized with a pretty course along the beach-front for most of the race. The half marathon attracts a world class field and the marathon is reasonably competitive too, but this isn't the place to come for a fast time due to the rolling hills (especially the big one at mile 9) and 900ft of ascent. ADD 4-5 MINUTES

Copenhagen Marathon, Denmark (May) - Much of the course is run twice with overlapping loops, but I wasn't very inspired by the course which was fairly average, without too many memorable sights. ADD 1 MINUTE

Crater Lake Marathon, Oregon (August) - There aren't many road races in National Parks and this one circumnavigates the hilly road around the Crater with views of the lake most of the time. Plenty of big hills plus the elevation is mainly between 7,000ft and 8,000ft so it's not fast. It also finishes with a nasty steep two mile climb up on a fire road then straight back down the same way to trash the legs. ADD 16-20 MINUTES

Dublin Marathon, Ireland (October) - Not a very scenic course, with wind and some small inclines to make it slower. But it gives an excuse to drink Guinness where it comes from and hang out with the Irish. ADD 3 MINUTES

Duchy Marathon, England (March) - One of the oldest marathons in the UK which used to be extremely competitive for a small event, attracting the top British marathoners back when if you ran a three hour marathon you were last. Surprisingly tough course with a beautiful exposed coastal stretch that can be blustery and has to be run past twice. ADD 4 MINUTES

Edinburgh Marathon, Scotland (May) - Net downhill but not a fast course thanks to the majority being along the Scottish coastline, famous for howling winds and rain. Only the first four miles are really in Edinburgh then it heads out along the coast into a prevailing headwind which turns into a tailwind on the return last eight miles, still finishing way out of the city. The out-and-back is lonely in terms of supporters but then has the entire field supporting each other as they run past both ways. ADD 3 MINUTES

Eugene Marathon, Oregon (Apr) - Fast and flat, as befits 'Track Town USA' and the home of so many Olympians. There's something special about finishing around the historic Hayward Field track and the weather will probably help your speed, even though it'll probably be wet. ADD 0 MINUTES

Florence Marathon, Italy (November) - The first few miles are downhill so it's easy to go off too fast, then dead flat along the river for most of the rest of the way. One of the best city marathons for scenery as well as being incredibly fast if you don't overdo those first miles. It includes virtually all the main tourist sights in one of Italy's most beautiful (and romantic) cities. ADD 0 MINUTES

Fukuoka Marathon, Japan (December) - If you get a chance, you're male and you're reasonably fast then you have to do this race at some point. Before there was a marathon world championship, this was the effective race where the best male marathoners came to duke it out. There's two qualification times: sub-2:27 for the A standard and sub-2:40 for the B standard with each having a separate start. You line up in rows in the exact order of your qualification times and can't drop below a 2:45 marathon pace or you get pulled from the course. It's a unique experience with a lot of crowd and TV support from the marathon-crazy Japanese. So if qualifying for Boston is too easy for you, give this a go. Highly recommended. ADD 0 MINUTES

Louis Persoons Memorial Genk Marathon, Belgium (October) - Not many marathons to choose from in January, especially in Europe, and this one has since moved to October. This is a very small, cosy race with a multi-loop course using bike paths and small sections of easy trail. It's a shame they moved it to the middle of the Autumn marathon season instead of the sparse winter marathon famine. It was a novelty to run this in the snow but that's unlikely any more. ADD 2 MINUTES or 5 MINUTES if under snow

Halstead and Essex Marathon, England (May) - A two-lap course with rolling hills in the Essex countryside. Full of people who didn't get a spot in the London Marathon and plenty who did it too. ADD 3 MINUTES

Hastings Marathon, England (December) - I'll include this even though the race was a one-off in 2008 to commemorate 100 years since the London 1908 Olympics where the marathon distance was defined. It may come back at some point and it'd be great if it does. A rolling course including some beach running near the finish and a generally fun, low-key event. ADD 3 MINUTES

Helsinki Marathon, Finland (August) - I did this to complete the set of Scandinavian capital city marathons and it rained. Surprisingly interesting course with some waterfront running and random city streets. But it finishes in the Olympic stadium built for the 1940 Olympics but used in the 1952 Olympics, which is a plus. ADD 2 MINUTES

Honolulu Marathon, Hawaii, USA (December) - The definition of a destination marathon but some gentle climbs and guaranteed humidity and heat mean you'll be slowed. You probably won't mind since it just means more time to enjoy running in Hawaii. And you'll be doing it with a lot of other people since this is one of the largest marathons in the US, plus the out-and-back course lets runners cheer each other on (and lets you see a lot of costumes). ADD 8 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Emerald Bay Marathon, California/Nevada, USA (September) - Day one of the triple marathon around Lake Tahoe, and each is one of the most spectacular road marathons out there. Not the fastest course thanks to the big climbs and 6,000ft altitude plus most people will be doing the marathons over the next two days too. Fit this in if you get a chance since it's a perfect excuse to go to Tahoe and do so outside of the main tourist seasons, yet often with great weather. ADD 4 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Cal-Neva Marathon, Nevada/California, USA (September) - Day two of the triple or a stand alone race and the fastest of the three days with smaller climbs and a net downhill from the highest point of the three days (7,000ft) back to the lake level. Easy to hammer those downhill miles too fast and ruin the legs, but if you're doing all three days it's easier to be sensible. ADD 2 MINUTES

Lake Tahoe Marathon - Main Marathon, California, USA (September) - This is the biggest race of the three days and the one that has a lot of single day runners. It's also probably the hardest with some nasty climbs up to Emerald Bay and the best road views in Tahoe (where the first days starts). After the crest of the hill its downhill then flat for the last six miles then a barbecue on the sandy beach. ADD 5 MINUTES

London Marathon, England (April) - In the UK this is THE marathon and most people don't even realize there are other ones out there. Most people run for a charity with a huge number doing so in costume and there's a lottery for non-charity entries, although foreigners can just buy an over-priced package to get in. If you want to run a fast time (and you definitely can on this course), then you'll need to qualify with a 'Good For Age' or Championship time to get near the front or you'll be stuck walking with the masses, being deafened by the crowds, especially near the end. ADD 0 MINUTES (more if not at the front of the start-lines)

London Marathon through Canary Wharf

London Marathon - 1908 Olympic Route, England (July) - This course from Windsor Castle to BBC Headquarters may never be used again, but was recreated (without road closures) for a centennial commemoration of 1908 in 2008 by the 100 Marathon Club. Not a great route, including some dodgy areas of town but it has the same appeal as doing the Athens marathon and maps of the course can be found online if you want to try it solo. ADD 3 MINUTES or more if you allow for traffic and map navigation

Luton Marathon, England (November) - A three-lap course with joys such as scary council estates where you may get mugged mid-race, nasty headwinds that somehow follow you around the loop and the chance of cancellation due to icy roads. But it does have a good challenge for a small race, in that there's a three-man relay to race against. ADD 5 MINUTES

Luxembourg Night Marathon, Luxembourg (May) - An interesting twist in this race is that it starts soon before sunset, heading through the bridges and old buildings of the city. As it then gets dark part-way through the race, the final mile has candles lining the route and then finishing in an indoor stadium with techno music and disco lighting. Not a fast course due to the continuous rolling hills but pretty and unique. ADD 4 MINUTES

Marrakech Marathon, Morocco (January) - Maybe not the most effective organization but it's a great city to visit and weather will tend to be at least comfortable, but possibly hot. The course is mainly outside the old town with the souks and windy little side-streets so has some desert-like views but it's all on flat roads so is very fast if the heat stays low. ADD 2 MINUTES

Malibu Marathon, California, USA (November) - Want an excuse to visit the home of the stars and maybe even LA too? This course tends to have good weather, sometimes a little on the hot side and starts inland before running along the Pacific Coast Highway with some gentle hills, especially nearer the end. ADD 2 MINUTES

Napa Valley Marathon, California, USA (March) - Scenic point-to-point run through the Napa wine region with your weight in wine as a prize if you win (they're smart - the winner is unlikely to be big). The course rolls slightly but is quick in general with comfortable, if potentially wet, conditions. ADD 1 MINUTE

New Forest Marathon, England (September) - A scenic run through this forest in the south of England on roads with very small trail sections. Some gentle rolling paths and wind can slow the pace slightly but generally a relaxed and enjoyable smaller race. ADD 3 MINUTES

New York City Marathon, New York, USA (November) - The world's biggest marathon with multiple start areas and routes that stay separate until several miles into the course. This one has to be on every marathoner's to do list despite the fact it's fairly tough due to the bridges acting as nasty hills. If you want to run fast here then you need to qualify to be at the front but the times required are tightening from 2012 due to the popularity of the race (for a senior man it will be 2:45, with times dropping for masters' age groups). It's a fun race with a chance to see plenty of NYC, much of which you might not need to really see, so this is really about the experience and it isn't cheap (I can't think of a more expensive entry fee for a road marathon). Don't expect to be running in those early miles or where the starts merge later on unless you're very near the front. ADD 3 MINUTES (much more if not in the front corrals)

The New York Marathon start line

Newport Marathon, Oregon, USA (June) - An ideal race to go for a time plus some scenic views of the sea, a large bridge and along a river in the beautiful Oregon coast. Small enough that everyone can run immediately but fast and flat enough to let people nail the race, especially since the weather tends to be ideal for running. Only remotely difficult bit is a tiny hill in the first few miles, unless you decide to do the oyster challenge and eat as many oysters as you can as you go past the oyster farm on the way out and heading back (current record 80 oyster shooters).  ADD 0.5 MINUTES

Night of Flanders Marathon, Belgium (June) - The marathon isn't the main event here as it's more focused on the 100k which has previously been the 100k World Cup race. But the courses are the same and the 100k just includes more loops through the countryside and small Flemish villages. The novelty here is that it starts in the evening and so some of the marathon is in the dark while most of the 100k is. Flat, slightly windy and with each lap going past weekend revelers in bars (who seem to be oblivious to the race). ADD 2 MINUTES

Oakland Marathon, California, USA (March) - Oakland doesn't have a great reputation and has very high crime rates, even though it's just across the Bay from San Francisco and near much less dangerous places. The marathon starts with a gradual then steeper climb up to Piedmont, which is the rich part of town and takes an effort. Then after 10 miles there's downhill into Oakland proper and flat, speedy roads. The front-runners spread out so if you go significantly under 3h pace then you'll run though much of the dodgy part of Oakland solo. So each time you see a cop blocking a road for the race, you'll be happy. This shouldn't be an issue for most people but I felt unsafe running along (having run through ghettos in Africa and several third world countries). ADD 3 MINUTES

Oslo Marathon, Norway (September) - A course that mainly goes along the bay in one of the richest and most expensive countries in the world. A chance to see Viking ships but if you want to do a Scandinavian marathon then Stockholm is prettier and more fun, not that this is a bad race at all. ADD 1 MINUTE

Oslo Marathon

Paris Marathon, France (April) - Starting along the Champs-Elysees by the Arc de Triomphe so that it's a very wide start allowing the field to spread out on the very gentle downhill. Then you get the chance to see most of Paris' sights, two very French parks and a finish back at the Arc de Triomphe. Fast course, beautiful course and it includes a trip to Paris - highly recommended. ADD 1 MINUTE

Portland Marathon, Oregon, USA (October) - Although Portland is a very green city in every way, this course shows less pretty parts of town and has a big bridge crossing around 16 miles. A relaxed atmosphere and not too large a field, plus a focus on making the race good for beginners and be female-friendly means this is a chilled race. People aren't fighting for position at the start like at many races. It'll probably rain and could be cold and windy so this isn't a super-fast course but is good as a first race or if you want to avoid the over-competitiveness you get at many races (particularly near the front). ADD 3 MINUTES

Prague Marathon, Czech Republic (May) - As my first marathon, this feels particularly special to me and Prague is always a great city to visit, particularly the ancient old town where the race starts and finishes. The course has been improved slightly since I ran it but still involves some running on boring roads away from the center. Fast, although some people may not like the flat cobbles near the start and finish. ADD 1 MINUTE

Prague Marathon start/finish area

Quebec City Marathon, Canada (August) - Not many marathons in August but this is a fun one that includes a chance to see a large part of the city along the water then finish at the bottom of the old town. Easy first half including some bike paths then there's a steep climb up to a big bridge halfway through and a prevailing headwind to the finish which can really slow everyone down. ADD 4 MINUTES

Reykjavik Marathon, Iceland (August) - Iceland is an interesting place to visit and the race coincides with their summer festival so the locals do the two things they're famed for - drinking heavily and being promiscuous (the latter is just what I've heard). The course is mainly along the Atlantic coastline and typically is windy, plus even August is generally cold. So even though this course isn't fast, it's the road marathon I've done the most and somehow led to four PBs in a row. But beware that if you run faster than 3h pace you'll be on your own for most of the time. ADD 2 MINUTES

Robin Hood Marathon, England (September) - This race in Robin Hood's locality in Nottingham follows the half marathon route, which is quite hilly, then heads off around man-made rowing lakes where there can be headwinds. A medium-sized marathon where a Brit is almost guaranteed to bump into a runner he or she knows. ADD 2 MINUTES

Rome Marathon, Italy (March) - This is one of the best road marathons out there and even has a quick course. Undoubtedly the most impressive city marathon course given you run past so many world famous sights (unlike, say, London which avoids most tourist areas). Starting and finishing at the Colosseum then including the Vatican, Roman Forum and everything else you'd want to include on a trip there. Some cobbles but they're flattened and shouldn't be an issue for 99% of people. Do this race and fit in a longer trip to Italy if you can. ADD 1 MINUTE

Rome marathon start (that's me dressed as a gladiator)

Salt Lake City Marathon, Utah, USA (April) - A net downhill, but starting at almost 5,000ft which takes a tiny toll on sea-level dwellers. The start is around dawn with the views of the mountains surrounding the city just starting to be lit with purples and blues, so that distracts you at first before some rolling hills. The half starts at the same point then splits off a few miles in before joining back up near the end. Some freeway running but generally a decent course for views. ADD 3 MINUTES

San Francisco Marathon, California, USA (July) - Even though its at sea-level with mild weather, this is probably the hardest city marathon course I've seen given the significant hills (ok, trail runners, it's flat in mountain terms). Starting pre-dawn means cold and probably misty conditions but the main draw is the chance to run over the Golden Gate Bridge on an out and back. I loved the course despite the fact it slowed me down a lot. Great excuse to visit a cool city too. ADD 4 MINUTES

Santa Barbara Marathon, California, USA (November) - A fast and generally flat or gently rolling course with a nasty hill at mile 23 that could put you off your target pace. Great atmosphere with a theme of supporting war veterans and the timing is around Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day. ADD 1 MINUTE

Santa Rosa Marathon, California, USA (August) - This small town race in wine country is very fast. Previously a two-lap course along a river, this is now a single lap with a small field and so an ideal course to go for a PB if you don't mind potentially running alone. ADD 1 MINUTE

Seattle Marathon, Washington, USA (November) - One of my favorite marathons and a good reason to go to Seattle just after Thanksgiving. Not a fast course but lots of running by the water before coming back inland to the finish, which includes some sharp hills. Another race run concurrently with the half marathon, but the half takes a short-cut so marathoners pop out into the back of the pack half runners, which can be really motivating given the mutual support runners provide to each other. ADD 3 MINUTES

Shakespeare Marathon, England (April) - A marathon in Shakespeare's base of Stratford-Upon-Avon which rolls through country lanes for two laps. Usually very close to the London marathon so it tends to include people unable to get a spot there. An ideal way to run through some gentle English countryside without doing a trail race. ADD 3 MINUTES

Silicon Valley Marathon, California, USA (October) - Out and back from San Jose to Los Gatos along a canal for most of the course, which is now defunct. The first half is gradually uphill then the return leg is fairly easy and the parks and greenery is better than you usually see in the area (I used to live there). ADD 2 MINUTES

Stockholm Marathon, Sweden (May/June) - Another of my favorites, this involves two slightly different laps across the islands of Stockholm with the only hard part being the double crossing of the long bridge back to the main city. It's scenic, involves visiting a great (if expensive) city, and usually has really pleasant weather although has been too hot a few times.  ADD 2 MINUTES

Sunriver Marathon, Oregon (September) - Fast and flat around the golf course of beautiful Sunriver Resort, just south of Bend, OR. Mountain views of the Cascades mean there's always something to keep you occupied and the 4,000ft elevation will barely have an effect. ADD 1-2 MINUTES

Tri Cities Marathon, Washington, USA (October) - A small race through all three of the cities that make up the Tri Cities, along the Colombia River. Completely flat except the four river crossings but these hardly affect your speed, although it can be windy so that's the only risk. Great for a PB attempt, but this may involve running alone given the small field. ADD 0.5 MINUTES

Tucson Marathon , Arizona, USA (December) - A net downhill course starting at around 4,800ft and finishing at 3,000ft, this looks super fast on paper. In practice there are a couple of reasons it's maybe not quicker than other marathons in this list. Firstly, there's a prevailing headwind for much of the race which negates much of that downhill. Secondly, around 10 miles are flat, rolling or uphill and that wears the body down when mixed with the headwind. Finally, those downhills can wipe out your legs with the additional pounding and impact. Even as a trail runner focusing on huge amounts of downhill training, I found my legs were struggling near the end, purely due to the hard surface and leg damage. ADD 1 MINUTE (MORE IF YOU'RE NOT A STRONG DOWNHILL RUNNER)

Tucson marathon course profile

Valencia Marathon, Spain (November) - This race used to be in February and filled a gap in the calendar nicely but has since moved to November. A surprisingly good-looking city with some interesting modern architecture which you see along the route. It's also a well-designed course that is completely flat and easy. ADD 0 MINUTES 

Vilnius Marathon, Lithuania (September) - One of the things I love about running is that way it takes me places I wouldn't ever think of going otherwise. Lithuania is one of those places and it's a beautiful small city with plenty of Gothic architecture, windy little streets and, I found, rain. The course varies from old city streets to bike paths through woods plus it's not got any obvious difficulties. ADD 1 MINUTE

Warsaw Marathon, Poland (September) - As with Vilnius, I probably wouldn't have visited this historic city if it hadn't been for the marathon. It's a larger race but not as interesting since it includes some Eastern Bloc-style views of concrete faceless buildings and boring main roads as well as some of the old town. ADD 2 MINUTES

Zurich Marathon, Switzerland (April) - I usually prefer to run in the mountains when in Switzerland, for obvious reasons, but this marathon is executed with typical Swiss efficiency. Plus it has great views the whole way since most of it is out and back along Lake Zurich with the mountains adding a perfect backdrop. The course does have some gentle rolling sections but is still fast. If you miss out on London, this is a more than adequate alternative. ADD 2 MINUTES

I'll try to update this with additional marathons when I run more of them, but for now that's been fun to remember some fantastic trips in the past few years. Hope you find it interesting and useful.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Quick Tips For The Grand Slam Of Ultrarunning

Given the Western States 100 lottery has recently occurred, plenty of people are thanking their lucky stars they got into the race and know it may be the only chance they get in the next few years at the least. That means more people will be searching the websites of the Vermont 100, Leadville Trail 100 and Wasatch Front 100 to contemplate the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. There isn't much time to decide since the lottery for Wasatch is currently open, then Leadville opens entries on 1/1/14 with Vermont five days later. Both those races will probably sell out on the first day. Entering the official Slam bypasses the lottery at Wasatch (but only in the case of not being lucky in the lottery - you still need to enter in the normal way), but only on the condition of completing the first three races first.

So if you're one of the people thinking of running the Slam, here are some useful tips.

1. Commit

It'll take up a lot of time and money over the summer, plus more training than you might otherwise do for a 100 to make sure you're as fit as possible for the first race. In particular it's well worth considering how much time you'd be able to spend at altitude in advance of Leadville, especially if you live near sea level. That race is mainly above 10,000ft, hitting a high of 12,600ft, so even fit runners can suffer altitude sickness and have to drop as a result. I'd recommend two weeks prior to the race in Colorado to make it a longer vacation, plus hiking up above the highest point of the course. Another option is to use an altitude tent at home but going to a high altitude location is preferable. Also, try to fly in at least two days before each race to get over jetlag.

2. Don't run much between the 100s

You can train hard for the first race at WS100, but after that the priority is recovery. The gaps between each 100 are either three or four weeks so don't be tempted to think you have to train very hard between each race. Instead, walking and hiking are great ways to get the blood flowing to your leg muscles and speed recovery with low impact exercise. Cross training at a low intensity is also good, such as cycling or swimming but an elliptical (or ElliptiGO if you want a view while you exercise) is the most similar to running. You should still choose tough routes to get in plenty of vertical, even if that's just on a treadmill, but hike them hard instead of running too much.

3. Focus on recovery food

Straight after each race you'll have severe muscle damage so getting the right nutrients will help a lot. With advice from Meredith Terranova, a dietician/nutritionist friend of mine, she recommended I use supplements that body builders use for muscle repair (the legal ones!) such as: B6/B12 Complex Vitamins, CoQ10 and Branch Chain Amino Acids. Also try to eat more protein such as from lean meats in the days after the race. It's worth speaking to a specialist to find out what your exact needs are as this can significantly help your body's recovery speed.

4. Massage

Your legs will be wrecked after each race given the distances and large amounts of downhill, therefore it's well worth getting regular sports massages. I got one about three to four days after each race then again a week later, plus I usually get massages every two weeks. The benefits here are that the imbalances and tightness that builds up in each race can get evened out to allow even walking to feel better and this should have some effect on the speed of recovery too. Personally I found it helped the most because it made it a lot more comfortable to train, especially hilly hikes. This was what allowed my legs to heal faster because they were being used in a way that wasn't too hardcore but helped with getting blood flow and healing the leg muscles faster like a standard recovery run.

5. Don't try to race an of the 100s early on 

What I mean here is that the first half of each race needs an even stronger focus than usual on looking after yourself and making sure you feel comfortable. Don't get caught up in splits or time goals and certainly don't race anyone in the early miles - if you're fit enough on the day to beat someone, you can catch them later on if they zoom off at the start. After the first race you'll be feeling the effects of the previous 100s and need to be a little more conservative to stay on top of things that could go wrong and severely slow you down.


One other thing to bear in mind is that your body will get stronger in some ways through the summer, especially your endurance. However, many people I've spoken to found that the second race at Vermont was much harder than it should have been because the body hasn't enough time to get used to doing 100s that close together and just feels as bad as you'd expect so soon after running Western States. Things do get better after this when you body starts adapting to the crazy concept of doing 100s so close together.

Good luck to anyone who attempts the Slam. It was harder than I ever expected when I ran it this year, but also an immensely satisfying challenge with so many memories. Here's a more vivid description of what it's all like.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Skyrunning etc - a general update

Downhill running fun (although this was last year at Crate Lake)

I've been working hard in recent weeks to bring together the inaugural US Skyrunning Series and am really happy with the races I've been able to join together across the country. This is now up and running at this website although the races themselves don't all have websites with full details and are not necessarily open for registration yet.

In the background I was also training to lower my marathon time after the slower running through the summer. I've always enjoyed all forms of running and come from a background of ball sports so it's only more recently that I stopped sprinting everywhere and started endurance running. Roads, trails, mountains, deserts, jungles - they all appeal to me - and if I stick to just one I miss the others. I'll admit that I have the most fun running when flying down the side of a mountain on technical trails, but it was good to get back into road running again too.

I decided to run the net downhill Tucson Marathon in Arizona, starting at 4,800ft and ending at 3,000ft, hoping I'd be able to cheat my way to a faster time. However, a combination of a lot of travel (including to The Running Event in Austin, TX, for Scott Running which was extremely interesting), some overly hard (but fun) runs and a headwind on the (surprisingly) rolling course meant I was well off my target. In the training I included some hard downhill sessions on Mt Diablo to really hammer my legs and these led to some painful sports massages! I did manage to destroy my 5k, 10k, 10 mile and half marathon bests on Diablo so was optimistic about Tucson. I felt relatively ok doing a 29:40 10k but the 48:51 10-miler was one of the hardest runs I've ever done. I wish I could hit those kind of paces on the flat and have even more respect for the Olympians who cruise at these speeds.

Tucson started with a fast downhill mile with the wind in 5:11 but then turned into the wind and things just got worse from there, holding on to a 2:37:03 with a poor positive split of 1:17/1:20. I usually consider anything over 1 minute slow down to be a race that was screwed up. However, it was my fastest marathon of the year and gives me confidence that the Grand Slam didn't break me!

So onwards to next year with just the Walnut Creek Half Marathon this weekend on my doorstep before some snowy running in Oregon over Christmas. I'm planning on including a couple of articles about Grand Slam and Leadville training before the end of the year so will post them when I get around to it.

Hope everyone has a great Christmas or whatever festivities you're celebrating. 2013 was very memorable for me and I can't believe how much happening in the sport in general. It's an exciting time to be an ultrarunner.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Back-To-Back Long Runs

Road marathoning helps with all forms of running.

One of the staples of ultra training are back-to-back long runs. However, I don't favor the long, slow run except for beginners who need to gradually increase mileage. For runners who can comfortably run a 20-miler and have run several races of marathon distance or beyond, keeping some elements of speed in the long runs makes sense. That's even true for back-to-back long sessions.

Renato Canova trains many of the top Kenyans and his athletes run long runs close to marathon effort. If they want to run a marathon at 4:45/mile there's little benefit in training the body to run much slower than that. For them a comfortable long, slow run might be 6:00/mile pace but that won't help them much.

I use the same principle when coaching ultrarunners and for my own training, which is why I like to include double or triple marathon weekends. A great option for this is the scenic Tahoe Triple with three marathons over three days around beautiful Lake Tahoe in California. There aren't many opportunities to fit in a marathon on Sat and Sun for double marathon weekends so this year I decided to include the Santa Barbara and Malibu Marathons as a good training weekend since both are in Southern California and are close together.

Even for trail running I find road marathons are very effective at working on speed and improving the ability to judge and maintain pacing. So for road training these are even more effective and I'd strongly recommend a back-to-back weekend like this for those aiming to improve their road marathon time. However, don't just jog the runs at an easy pace - the aim is to get the muscles used to running close to marathon pace.

I acted as an official pacer at Santa Barbara for the sub 3-hr group, knowing that a pace 30 mins off (roughly 1 min/mile) my marathon target time should leave me fresh enough for to run the next day harder. Keeping the mile splits even was a key element here since there's less benefit in going off faster then slowing - it's not a good thing to practice as it's an inefficient (and unenjoyable) way to train and race. Also, it wouldn't be much use for the runners I'm helping to go sub-3. Then the following day I pushed things more at Malibu, still focusing on even splits throughout. Strava files for each race are here for Santa Barbara and Malibu. Both are excellent races that I'd recommend.

There are few training sessions that are more satisfying than this and it can really improve the ability to judge pace and effort in an ultra (or marathon) because of the fact it involves running when tired. Even ultrarunners need marathon speed.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Living In The Moment

Christmas ad for Target?

One of the things ultras allow all of us to do is to focus on the moment, but when it's over our day-to-day lives can seem less exciting, leading to craving for more adventure and success. So it made me think about how easily I move on from one race to the next and don't take in the experience afterwards, wanting the next 'hit' and challenge. After pretty much achieving my goals through the summer at the Grand Slam, I've felt a little empty and drained partly because of this factor (I don't like sitting around doing little exercise).

In our modern lives we're constantly measured and forced to come up with goals - just think of your last appraisal meeting at work. However, this has become second nature to do this with all aspects of our lives. I know I certainly do, whether it's a time goal in a marathon, a placing in an ultra or business goals for my coaching, we're typically very goal-oriented creatures, especially 'type A' runners. This is the way we humans drive ourselves on to improve, but it can also mean that we don't appreciate our successes because we immediately look to the next target. It can also affect our happiness because this mentality can lead to never being satisfied and always wanting more. It's why a generally rich country like the US is filled with affluent people who live beyond their means and rack up massive credit card debits. We always want more and there's nothing wrong with that as long as we also enjoy the ride along the way to our objectives.

It's worth stepping back and bearing this in mind, especially around the end of the year after the bulk of the running season is over. Whether your goals this year were to finish races under the cut-offs, earn a buckle of a certain color or something nearer the front of the field, take in the positives from your races this year and don't be in too much of a rush to think about the next one. There's plenty of time to build that passion for the next focus event, but it's only worthwhile if you can enjoy each of your achievements as they happen.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Other 10% Rule

Fast uphill running. Photo: Ian Sharman

Before I start, this isn't a post about how men or women are 'better' than each other. This is just a simple and high level look at stats and comparisons between the sexes. I've met women who are made of granite as well as men whose wills could slice through diamond. Pretty much anyone who undertakes an ultra is unusually strong-willed.

We already have age-grading that allows a degree of comparison between the sexes and ages. But it assumes that the records (especially age-group records) are equally as impressive for men and women, plus that the record is equivalent to the fastest non-masters runner. If either the men's or women's record is relatively more competitive then it skews the results of that sex. More on this in the conclusion.

What is the other 10% rule?

We've all heard about the 10% rule for increasing mileage week-on-week to avoid getting injured, but there's a more precise relationship I've noticed throughout watching the Olympics all my life. The two events that most captured my imagination, the 100m and the marathon, had a relationship between the best men's and best women's record times. Doing simple calcs in my head I could see it was about a 10% gap - women's times were around this much slower than men's times. It seemed to roughly apply across a lot of track and field events, so I thought I'd see how exact that figure is and what it says about ultras.

I've heard people state that at longer distances women have an advantage and I know that scientists predicted the female marathoners would catch the men's times within a short period of time. Unfortunately they based that off simple extrapolation from women's times improving faster than men's in the past when the women's field became more competitive, while the men's already were.

Is there an advantage for women in ultras? Are they more efficient and physically superior for these types of endurance events? Or perhaps they're mentally stronger, able to withstand more pain or are more determined? If so then we'd expect to see that showing through in results at the most competitive ultras and the fastest times by the best athletes.

The stats

Below are the world bests on any surface for various running distances and events for men and women. I've split these into four categories, with the first three being Olympic or at least fully professional and competitive distances - Sprints, Middle Distance and Long Distance. Then I've separated ultra distances below because these don't tend to have the same deep level of full-time pro athletes as the distances up to the marathon. The professional distances are where I'd expect to see enough competition to make the records be a good representation of the best athletes in the world ever at their respective events.

TABLE 1: Olympic/Professional Distances

Distance (All Surfaces) Men Women Percentage Difference Notes
100m 9.58 10.49 9.50% Women's record by Florence Griffith Joyner (USA) record has some doping questions, never proved
200m 19.19 21.34 11.20% Also a Flo Jo record yet relatively less impressive, doping or not 
400m 43.18 47.6 10.24% Women's record by Marita Koch (East Germany) during period of known doping by Eastern Bloc
Avg for sprints 10.31%
800m 01:40.910 01:53.280 9.50% Women's record by Jarmila Kratochvílová (Czechoslovakia) during period of known doping by Eastern Bloc
1500m 03:26.000 03:50.460 11.87%
1 mile 03:43.130 04:12.560 13.19%
Avg for middle distance 11.52%
5000m 12:37.350 14:11.150 12.39%
10000m 26:17.530 29:31.780 12.31%
Half 0:58:23 1:05:40 12.48%
Marathon 2:03:23 2:15:25 9.75% No woman other than Paula Radcliffe has broken 2:18, showing just how special her record is
Avg for long distance (pro) 11.73%

Source: IAAF 

What this shows is that it's rare for female world bests to be within 10% of the men's time. In fact, the two distances that made me think about this relationship are two of the toughest and most impressive female records. Both Flo Jo (100m) and Paula Radcliffe (marathon) have run records that have barely been approached - Paula's marathon time is a decade old and is so good it's almost a 3-minute gap to the next best female time, while the men's marathon record has numerous other runners within 1 minute, plus it's only 1 month old at the time of writing. Flo Jo's record is even older.

What seems most notable to me for these Olympic distances is that getting within 10% of the men's performance is the sign of a mind-blowing record. And that's for the most fiercely fought events in world running!

How does the 10% rule relate to ultras?

Already it can be seen that most women's professional distance records are more than 10% slower than men's records. So what about the increasingly competitive world of ultrarunning? I'd argue that the only ultra races that have a long history and truly deep fields on both the men's and women's sides are the South African road ultras - Comrades and Two Oceans.

TABLE 2: Ultra Distances

Distance (All Surfaces) Men Women Percentage Difference Notes
50k 2:43:38 3:08:39 15.29%
Two Oceans (34.8 miles) 3:03:44 3:30:36 14.62% The 50k records were the same runs as these records, as a 50k split
Comrades Down Run (55.5 miles) 5:20:49 5:54:43 10.57% Better representation of 50 mile comparisons as 50 mile distance wasn't raced at the top level by women outside of Comrades
100k (Ann Trason) 6:10:20 7:00:47 13.62% Second best female 100k time by Ann Trason (USA) - see below for reason
100 miles 11:28:03 13:47:41 20.29% Not raced by women at the same deeper competitive level as by men in 1980s-2000 when male record set
24 hrs (m) 303,506 254,425 19.29%
UTMB (trail) 20:34:57 22:37:56 9.96% Records set same year so weather not a differential
WS100 (trail) 14:46:44 16:47:19 13.60% Records set same year so weather not a differential
Avg for long distance (ultra/semi-pro) without Tomoe Abe 14.66%
Avg for long distance (ultra/semi-pro) with Tomoe Abe 13.72% More info about the Tomoe Abe record here
Other Results of Note:
50 miles 4:50:51 5:40:18 17.00% Top women ran much faster for 50 miles at Comrades, so that's a better comparison
100k 6:10:20 6:33:11 6.17% Record by Tomoe Abe (JPN) who was a professional marathoner
Sources: IAU, race websites

The 10% rule almost applies to Comrades, the larger, older and more competitive of these two races with a longer history - a 10.57% difference. But not so much for Two Oceans, despite the record holder for women being the same person as at Comrades, Frith van der Merwe.

It certainly doesn't hold up for most of the events in the table, possibly due to lower female participation but also because Yiannis Kouros spear-headed huge improvements in men's ultra road and track running. In fact, his dominance is so great that his 24-hour record is a half marathon ahead of his next closest challenger!

Most trail ultras are either too new or have fields that are only a few elite runners deep. So I included the two that have the longest and deepest history of competitiveness, especially since their records for men and women were set in the same editions (2012 for Western States 100 and 2013 for UTMB), removing differences in trail conditions, distances or weather. What stands out is that Rory Bosio's record at UTMB is a truly competitive record relative to a very impressive men's record.

The 10% rule doesn't seem to apply to ultras as much, probably due to it being a male-dominated sport with deeper men's fields to push the men's limits closer to a theoretical maximum than for the women. But women like Frith and Rory show that women's records at the top level can hit around 10% off the men's bests.

Women's records at some ultra races are indeed within 10% and sometimes women win outright, but I'd argue that those results reflect more on the lead women being closer to the best of the best than the lead men in those cases. That's why I've only included the most competitive races that are directly comparable. A separate question is whether women below the very top level race better than equivalent men, since women's finish rates are often higher than those of the their male counterparts. However, that's a different angle and is where I'd expect to see sensible tactics and a lack of testosterone-fueled over-exuberance giving women a relative edge on average...but not enough to overcome the physical attributes that lead to the 10% advantage at the upper limit of what's possible.

The one clear outlier is Tomoe Abe's 100k world best for women, which is so fast it's 27 minutes better than the next result and this is the only ultra result I can find from her. She was a professional road marathoner with a 2:26 PR, roughly equivalent to many of the fastest male 100k runners. So I've excluded her because she was a pro marathon runner while the top men weren't (making her closer to the female 'potential' than the men may have been to the male 'potential'). Her 100k time is around what would be expected from a male runner with an equivalent marathon time and very good aptitude for road ultras.


Although the 10% rule doesn't hold up perfectly throughout, it looks like it roughly applies when both the men's and women's records are equally close to the best possible results a human can achieve. This doesn't seem to be the case in most truly top level ultra events yet, but if we use it as a benchmark, what kind of times might we see at ultra events by women as the fields get deeper and more astounding women push each other to their limits?

Note that the predictions below have an obvious caveat - the weather and conditions need to be equivalent to compare results year-on-year. So Timmy Olson's Western States 100 record was run in near perfect conditions for the course and no man or woman is likely to get an equivalent performance without equally good weather. If they manage it it tougher conditions, it's not equivalent - it's better.

TABLE 3: Predictions For Women's Times For Selected Fast Men's Global Records

Distance (All Surfaces) Men's Actual Record Women's Predicted Record Women's Actual Record Notes 
Two Oceans (34.8 miles) 3:03:44 3:22:06 3:30:36
Comrades Down Run (55.5 miles) 5:20:49 5:52:54 5:54:43
100 Miles 11:28:03 12:36:51 13:47:41
24 hrs (m) 303,506 275,915 254,425 That's 171.5 miles - 1 mile short of the US men's 24 hr record!
UTMB (trail) 20:34:57 22:38:27 22:37:56
WS100 (trail) 14:46:44 16:15:24 16:47:19
Rocky Raccoon 100 (trail) 12:44:33 14:01:00 14:57:18
Leadville 100 (trail) 15:42:59 17:17:17 18:06:24
Grand Slam (trail) 69:49:38 76:48:36 79:23:21
Hardrock 100 (trail) 23:23:30 25:43:51 27:18:24
Spartathlon 153 (road/trail) 20:25:00 22:27:30 27:02:17
Rim2Rim2Rim (Grand Canyon) 6:21:47 6:59:58 8:15:51
JFK50 (trail) 5:34:58 6:08:28 6:11:59
TNF100 Australia (trail) 9:16:12 10:11:49 11:01:08
Speedgoat 50k (trail) 5:08:07 5:38:56 6:17:02
Vertical K (trail) 0:30:26 0:33:29 0:36:48 Included this one for fun, despite not being an ultra as it's very competitive
Sources: IAU, race websites


I think the 10% rule stands up as a way of measuring potential. It only applies when the men's best times are truly at the top end of what's physically possible, but even allowing for that it can compare when women have out-done the men on a given course, allowing for differences in weather etc. Distance running women in that list include Paula Radcliffe, Frith van der Merwe, Tomoe Abe and Rory Bosio with several other women around that level.

So I'd argue that men have been 'virtually chicked' ('chicking' refers to a woman passing a man in a race) if a woman runs 10% slower than them...look out all those guys that thought they could beat Rory or Ellie Greenwood currently! This would also allow for a ranking at a race based on times adjusted for the sex of the runner.

Age gradings could also be altered to allow for when the record for one sex is relatively less impressive than that of the other sex by making the gap in theoretical fastest times be 10% (ie whichever record is relatively slower gets improved to retain the 10% gap). That is likely to apply when the female field is a lot smaller than the male field, but makes the amazing masters' records of people like Meghan Arbogast even more impressive.

Apologies if I offended anyone with this article, but I found it fascinating to look at the results and comparisons for all types of running. The data is as objective as I could make it, but I'm sure many would disagree with even the sentiment of what I was comparing.