Category Archives: Ultra running

My next ultra marathon

I know I shouldn’t. But I’m going to.

I still have an entry into the Red Rocks to Coffs 45km trail run. I entered last year as a super early bird and then got injured so didn’t think I’d be able to participate. The race is being held on 21 April and I have decided that I miss ultra running too much to skip it.

My goal for the event is just to enjoy the experience and scenery, even if I have to do a lot of walking. That’s the great thing about the ultra trail running scene here in Australia; it’s okay to be slow.

I don’t have many miles in my legs yet this year but I also am moving well out on the trails. I figure that if I can run the first 10-20km at a slow trot and then walk/run the rest of the course (with stoppages to take photos) that it will be good training.

As I said, I know I shouldn’t; but I’m going to.

Washpool World Heritage Trail Run: A volunteer’s perspective

Waiting for the runners to arrive at CP2

The Washpool World Heritage Trail Run offered runners of all abilities an opportunity to explore the World Heritage listed Washpool and Gibralter Range National Parks. Runners could chose from 9km, 25km and 50km trail running events, depending on their abilities and intentions. Thirty-one intrepid adventurers chose to run the 50km option.

I was going to run the 50km event but had to withdraw due to injury so I decided, instead, to make the 450km (280 miles) trek each way to volunteer at the on-course aid stations for the 50km runners. I’m glad I did because the event was a fantastic opportunity to spend time in a beautiful part of the world and to be part of such a wonderful event.

A gorgeous quiet place to camp

For most runners and volunteers, the event started with an overnight camp at Mulligans Hut campsite. With a large area available for campers, this represented a unique opportunity to spend time with other runners and their families outside the usual race environment. It also allowed runners to relax in the lead up to their chosen event, rather than having to leave home early to drive anywhere.

A lot of logistics go into trail running events

Instructions and promise of a hot weekend

The finish line being prepared

A lot of preparation goes into an event like this. Beyond the acceptance of entry fees and scheduling of the event, the race director also has to negotiate access to the course and camping facilities, set up the course signage and remember to bring equipment for every possible eventuality. In this case, Washpool National Park is a remote wilderness area in which about half the 50km course was inaccessible by car and in which there is no mobile phone coverage. To make matters more challenging, the area is currently experiencing a heat wave with daytime temperatures reaching in excess of 35’C (95’F). This makes the provision of water and other fluids at aid stations even more important.

It’s wildflower season

More wildflowers

The event is held in October to make the most of the wildflower season. Washpool is blessed with an array of native Australian plants that burst into flower in the spring. While the blooms were slightly subdued this year due to a lack of rain, the area still had plenty of white, purple, yellow, orange and red flowers.

CP1: Food and hydration options

CP1: We lined the drop bags up and tried to keep colours together

As a checkpoint volunteer, I worked with the fabulous J, who is also an ultra runner who came to volunteer for the day, and K, who was a spectator who happened to have a campervan that was the perfect size to throw our mountain of gear into. Our first task was to take everything out to the 9.5km mark where we set up CP1. With a long 28km stretch of trail between CP1 and CP2, many runners had requested drop bags.

As this was our first stint as ultra marathon CP volunteers, J and I didn’t have any real plan about what to do until we arrived. But then it all became very natural to us: we set up the food and hydration table on one side of the track and lined all the drop bags on the other so that everyone had easy access to their gear. It seemed to work well when the runners arrived shortly after we set up.

Drop bags lined up in the shade at CP2

Other than cutting up fruit, our biggest task was filling waterbottles and bladders

After the final runner left CP1, we loaded K’s campervan and transported everything down to CP2, just 10km down the road but a long hot 28km run for the runners. We had plenty of time to set up the food and hydration table, and to line all the drop bags up in the shade of the trees. J, K and I then settled in to get to know each other a little better to pass the time.

While the first few runners cleared CP2 quickly, most of the field needed some assistance here to fill drink bottles and hydropacks. At times, we could focus all our attention on a single runner while there were also times when we would be moving between 5-6 runners at a time. It was a privilege to see the full field make their way through the checkpoint and to be part of their personal journeys.

One by one the runners left CP2 to tackle the final 15km

And then, one-by-one, they all left us to continue the final leg of their adventures. All we could do was hope they had taken on enough water, food and encouragement to help them reach the finish line, 15-17km away.

Thank you to Greg and TRAQ for putting on the event, and allowing me to be part of it in my own small way. And thank you to the runners who were so friendly and cheerful despite the obvious fatigue you were experiencing after so many hours out in the hot sun. I learned a lot from each of you and know that my experience as a volunteer will improve my abilities as a runner.

Off for bone scans

I’m off to see my doctor on Wednesday morning to ask for a referral to get bone scans. My left foot hasn’t improved so it needs to be checked for a stress fracture. My left shin is starting show signs of trouble so I’m going to ask for a scan on it too. And my right shin, which was responding really well to treatment before I overdid it in the garden 2 weeks ago hasn’t settled since.

While MRIs would be a more appropriate test to check for stress fractures, I don’t want to pay upwards of $280 per scan. I’ve heard from other runners that bone scans can be used to check for stress fractures and that bone scans can be bulk billed through Medicare.

I’ve never been one to do things by halves so why start now.

I’m seeing this holding pattern as an excellent opportunity to develop into a much stronger, fitter and faster runner in future. By taking action now I have a better chance of running into retirement, rather than being a cripple at 35.

This current injury situation doesn’t come as a shock to me. I’ve been expecting it and am surprised I made it through the past 15 months without coming a busta earlier. I’ve had extreme shin splints for 15 years and a bad ITB for over 10. Even after not running or exercising for 6 years, my right shin and ITB still hurt every time I walked.

The ITB doesn’t hurt at all anymore and after my 12 weeks off I know I won’t have to worry about shin troubles anymore because I’m still going to attend my physio to get the underlying causes of the stress fractures fixed. Long story short is that my muscles and joints are ridiculously tight (e.g. my calf is only just 6cm long and my ankles almost don’t flex at all).  Did I also mention I’ve neglected my core? Yoga, qi gong, pilates, weights and swimming are going to make all the difference.

My goal for 2013 is now much more modest. Rather than hoping to run my first 100 miler, I think I will spend:

  • January working on a recovery phase that includes 4min walk / 1 min run combinations
  • February and March completing the couch to 5km program (who would have thought given I’ve run a 50km and marathon this year)
  • April to August doing a kilometre buildup program in which I hope to increase my weekly mileage to 50km and my long runs to 18km.

After that, I’ll find a 50km or 60km race to train for and I will stick to a 20 weeks program to slowly increase my mileage.

It means I won’t run another marathon or ultra until 2014 but it’s the only real way to do it safely. And besides, I’ve now run two ultras and a marathon without proper preparation and I enjoyed them all. Imagine how great I’m going to feel when I am properly prepared for the events instead of being on the verge of physical break down.

Part of the reason I’m writing this is to remind myself later when I get impatient again.

Herbal remedy experiment

I’ve been growing comfrey in my garden for years. I grow it because it’s a great fertiliser but it’s also an old herbal remedy for bone fractures. The caveat is that it should not be used for more than 10 days in a row nor more than 4-6 weeks a year as a topical treatment because it has the potential to cause liver damage. It should also never be ingested or used on broken skin. This post is not providing medical advice. I am merely sharing my own personal experience. I have not studied natural medicine and do not recommend anyone use herbal treatments unless they have consulted their medical physician.

Caveat aside, comfrey contains allantoin, which can help repair cells. It has long been used to heal bone fractures (hence the common name ‘knit bone’) and it is reputed to be a good anti-inflammatory for deep bruises.

I have cooked up a comfrey poultice that I’m using on my foot and shin. I am not using it every day but am going to try it a few times to see whether it can help. I figure it can’t do any harm to try, so long as I head the warnings about limiting my use of the herb. I think I will use it 5-6 times over the coming fortnight. Hopefully it will start off the healing process.

1. Blend comfrey leaves and water

2. Add flour to form a paste

3. Spread paste on a cloth or pad

4. Wrap cloth or pad around injury

5. Tie cloth or pad around injury

6. Wrap in plastic and sports tape to prevent leakage

I’m also going to speak with my physio tomorrow about whether a set of crutches might be useful. I can’t seem to sit still so resting my foot isn’t going so well. But if I have a set of crutches I can still get around while resting my foot. I’ve pulled out of Tough Mudder because it seems silly to risk further injury when all I want to do is run ultras.

I mean, I’ve really fallen in love with the sport. There is only one other thing I’ve ever been ‘eat, sleep and breath’ interested in, and that’s my garden. I’ve cycled most of my life but haven’t ever been in love with it; my bike’s always just been a mode of transport. I love my motorbike but only ride it; I have only recently decided to learn how to service it myself.

But running … I am surprised to find I love it. I want to run long distances. I don’t need to be fast but I need to be out there in the bush running. And it’s trail ultras that I crave. Sure, I’ve now run a marathon but it didn’t give me the same buzz as the thought of being out on the trails for 7 – 20 hours give me. I can’t explain it; but I could eat, sleep and breath ultras quite easily. I know the names of some ultra runners while I’ve never known the names of any other sports people (not even triathlon).

So I’m going to try my comfrey poultice and perhaps use crutches. And when I can run again, I’m going to follow a progressive program to sensibly build my strength and endurance to reduce the risk of my leg injuries recurring. Because I just need to run.

Making lemonade from lemons

Serious food for thought

When I started running again last year, I knew the risks. I also stuck my head in the sand about the extent of my existing leg injuries: shin splints and ITB in my left leg, sharp pains in the arch of my right foot and a spot on my back that no one could touch. I’ve battled through this far (15 months) with my head buried in those tiny grains you find on the beach.

When I decided on the 12-in-12 Challenge my first stop was the physiotherapist. I knew that I couldn’t get through it without getting some attention on my legs.

What I didn’t expect was for my shin and ITB injuries to respond so well to treatment. They responded so well that I forgot about them long enough to overdo it in the garden last weekend. The physio strapped the calf this morning to help it rest and recover more quickly. I’m confident it will respond well to the ongoing physiotherapy and my homework.

I remembered to tell the physio about the pain in my foot this morning. It’s the first time I’ve remembered to mention it (I actually marked the painful spot with a pen before I went in this morning). After poking and prodding my foot, the physio told me he suspects a stress fracture. That’s pretty bad news for me. At the end of our session today, the physio also strapped my foot to help it rest. He’s going to have another look at it on Monday to see how it responds to a week of rest. MRIs are expensive here in Australia so he said he’d prefer to wait to see whether I need to shell out for the test.

So here’s my lemons: best case scenario I have a serious soft-tissue injury in my left foot and worst case scenario is that I have a stress fracture. Either way, I’ll be unable to run for 4-12 weeks.

Here’s my lemonade: these are chronic injuries I’ve had for years and I know I’ve found a physio who can help me fix them. Even if my 12-in-12 Challenge is off, I have gained so much confidence in the past two months and know that I have what it takes to run ultra marathons. The injuries are long-standing problems, they haven’t been caused by the ultra running. In fact, if it weren’t for the ultra running I probably wouldn’t have gone to see someone about getting them fixed.

I’m going mountain biking with friends this afternoon. I’m allowed to cycle so long as I take it easy. Tomorrow I will go swimming for the first time in months. I’m still doing Tough Mudder next weekend but will just be doing it for a laugh and will be walking up the hills. It will probably be my final event for the year. That means I have three months to work on endurance by swimming and cycling, strength in the gym and flexibility if I can find an affordable yoga class.

When I can run again I’m probably going to focus on either the Northface 100km trail run in May (solo run) or the Oxfam Trailwalker 100km trail run in June (team event). And this time I’m going to do it right rather than just jumping in. I’m enjoying reading two blogs by runners training for ultras (Run Nature and Run Bike Race) and am inspired by their systematic approaches to increasing mileage and running well, rather than just bumbling through.

I hope the news on Monday is good. But I am preparing for the worst. Either way, I can only grow from the experience.

Margaret River trail run

Trail along the Margaret River

After a week of rest, relaxation and food, I just had to go running tonight. I checked my Geocaching.com and saw that there was a geocache with a travel bug in it in the bush about 3km from the B&B we’re staying in here in Margaret River. I took it as an omen and pulled on my running gear.

Short section of fire trail

I crossed the road from the B&B and set off into the bush along a flowing section of sot brown single track. Unlike the trails near my home, this was soft brown dirt that felt great under my feet. I followed it down to the edge of town when I ran along the road verge for about 1km before setting off down a short section of fire trail. Again, this was soft underfoot.

Trail signs

Flowing single track through the wattles

I found another section of single track that led me to a carpark where I had a choice of three trails to follow. They all went past the geocache that I was looking for so I didn’t have to worry about which trail to follow. The air smelled sweet with wattle flowers, which were blooming along the track under the huge Karri trees. It was magical.

Travel bug I dropped off

I found the geocache and dropped off the cute little travel bug I’d been carrying with me since Fremantle, last Saturday morning. I’ve been logging it’s travels online on geocaching.com and have enjoyed posting lots of photos of it’s travels. But it was time to let it go so someone else could enjoy furthering its journey. The travel bug I thought was going to be in the cache was there too so I collected that and will take it with me on my onward journey.

After dropping the travel bug I returned to the B&B the way I came. It was a really good run. I didn’t have any trouble with my hamstring either. The week off must have been just what I needed.

In other news, I have picked up a free entry to next weekend’s Stampede 10km obstacle course mud run back home. I’m going to go give it a go. It will be good practice for Tough Mudder, which is just three weeks away. I won’t be racing the course; I’m going to take it easy because I have my next ultra marathon the following week.

Total: 7km trail run at unknown pace.

Rest day ramblings

Friday is my rest day. Today is also my first day of holidays. I started my day by catching up on blog reading. I watched this awesome video about the Leadville 100 mile on the Ultra Running blog. For me, the Leadville 100 mile represents a dream that is akin to what Everest is to a climber.

Committing to the 12-in-12 Challenge

The more I think about my 12-in-12 Challenge, the more I realise how exciting it is. I have been looking for a big adventure for some months now but wasn’t sure how to fit it in with work and home commitments. See, I thought an adventure meant that I’d need to go someplace else for an extended period of time. I was envisioning weeks of hiking some long lonely trail in a beautiful location. But, instead, fate and life have led me to this crazy 12-in-12 Challenge. And I am more excited about it than about the idea of going away alone for weeks or months at a time.

When I first came up with the 12-in-12 Challenge, it seemed like such a simple idea. I just have to put one foot in front of the other for 12 long running events in a year. And that’s what I like about it – the simplicity.

But the reality is, I have to approach this challenge with the same commitment and care as I would approach a thousand kilometre hike. I not only have to make sure I enter the right events, but I need  to ensure my body and mind are healthy enough for the challenge. And that they stay healthy.

Mentally, I know there will be times ahead when I wonder why I took up the challenge. There will be times when I forget what a blessing it is to be able to experience the places my adventure will take me. This is normal. I read a lot of books and blogs by adventurers and without fail, they all have their dark moments. For some, the darkness and hardship take over, while others embrace the hours of discomfort as part of the adventure. I want to be one of the latter group. And by mentally preparing for the hardships and acknowledging they will come, I will give myself the best chance of success.

Emotionally, this adventure is going to take me far inside myself. There is no one else who can run the long lonely miles of a race with me. When the going gets tough, we all shut down to those running around us and enter our own worlds. This is when I need to trust that I’ve come a long way from the anxiety riddled man experiencing deep depression to be the optimistic and peaceful man I am today. I no longer fear the solitude of my thoughts and draw strength from the memories of days gone by. Because I know the elation of success and the euphoria that comes with achieving the seemingly impossible.

Physically, I have a lot to balance. I have greatly improved my diet over the past three weeks. I have shifted from taking most of my calories from sugar, flour and meat to eating a largely plant-based diet that is supplemented by meat. I am eating five serves of vegetables for breakfast every day accompanied by herbal tea fresh from my garden. My lunches consist of vegetarian tortillas or brown rice with vegetables. Instead of eating cakes and biscuits for morning and afternoon tea, I am eating fruit and nuts. Today I supplied morning tea to work but brought in a date loaf instead of a mud cake. It’s a big change and my body feels better for it.

For race days, I have been experimenting with real food nutrition, rather than relying on bars and gels. I have found it works really well for me. I like oat bars with fruit or nut flavours, vegetarian tortillas or burritos, and fresh fruit. They fuel my body for longer, are lightweight and easy to carry, and contain lots of calories. I will probably always carry a gel or two for emergencies or late-race bonking. But they are now my backup not my ‘go to’.

Aside from food, I need to look after my bones, muscles and joints. For the past few months I’ve been receiving post-race massages from my daughter-in-law who is qualified to perform relaxation massage. The difference in my recovery has been astounding.

I have a long, painful history of shin splints and ITB syndrome in my right leg. The pain started between 1996-1998 and has been a constant in my life. It stopped me running for six years between 2005 – 2011 and is one of the reasons I run in bare feet or barefoot-style shoes. I have decided that rather than sticking my head in the sand, I am going to address the issues with my leg in three ways:

  • I am running slower than I might if I were training for triathlon and am trying to focus on technique, rather than on speed. My goals will only require me to average about 8-9kph in my races (6:40 – 7:30 min/kph pace) and I am not afraid to go slower if necessary. Because right now, it’s more important to finish than to get a good time.
  • I have made an appointment with a craniosacral therapist. I used to see him years ago and he helped me a lot, both with my emotional health and with my physical well-being.
  • I have made an appointment with a physiotherapist who is himself a runner and who treats many runners at my running club.

It’s not that I’m injured but I know I need to be sensible and honest if I want to remain injury free.

On a personal level, I am committed to the 12-in-12 Challenge because I am running for the transgender community. I want to show transgender men and women who are early in or struggling with their transitions that there is hope for the future. Our gender histories don’t have to limit our life options nor hold us back in any way. It’s not about success – it’s about being willing to try.

Sure, I might not achieve my goal. But it wouldn’t be an adventure if there was no risk of failure. The important thing is to set a goal, aim high, prepare properly, look after your body and soul, and just get out there and do it without fear of failure.

My 12 in 12 for 2012 Challenge

I don’t quite know where this crazy idea has come from. I get them from time-to-time.

In 2002, I decided to drive out to the Birdsville Races and then cycle home. The bicycle ride home was 1,600km (1,000 miles). I rode with my father while my mother, sister and grandmother supported us with a caravan. We didn’t train sufficiently for the ride but we had a fantastic adventure and succeeded in our mission.

In 2004, I decided to walk the Oxfam Trailwalker in Sydney. It was a 100km bushwalk. I walked with The Plovers, a team comprising of my father, mother and brother-in-law. Our goal was to complete the walk in 36 hours, well within the 48 hour time limit. Again, we didn’t train sufficiently and just ‘winged’ it. My mother got sick shortly before the event and had major surgery. But she still started with us, only withdrawing at the halfway point. She then joined my sister in the support vehicle, feeding us and keeping us motivated to the finish. We completed the walk in 36hrs 29mins.

In 2011, I decided to walk the Oxfam Trailwalker in Brisbane. This time our team, The Plovers Take 2, comprised my brother-in-law and me, and another pair of brothers-in-law who we met shortly before the event. Again, our goal was to complete the walk in 36 hours. While the rest of my team trained, I did only minimal training. We completed the course in 32hrs 58 minutes.

The day after Trailwalker Brisbane I decided to throw myself into triathlon, aiming to complete a six triathlons in 9 months. I ended up completing 9 triathlons, 1 ultra marathon, 2 half marathons and an 8 hour adventure race. And I loved it.

So I have a history of crazy ideas. But I think, perhaps, this crazy idea I have now is the craziest so far:

I want to complete 12 marathons or ultra marathons in 12 months.

Yes, you heard me correctly. And yes, I am sure I want to do this. I want to run 12 marathons or ultra marathons in 12 months. So that’s my challenge:

My 12 in 12 for 2012 Challenge.

I know I started late but it’s better late than never. I’ve listed my challenge runs in the left margin of my blog and also in my upcoming events page.

Looking after my body

I admit it, I underestimated the toll the 50km trail run on Sunday was going to take on my body. I thought I’d be back out running after a day or two. And sure, maybe I would have been if I had trained properly and methodically for the event, but we all know that didn’t happen 😉 .

I tried to go running on Wednesday morning but my left ankle was still sore. It was swollen like a puffer fish on Sunday after my run so I iced and strapped it for the night. By Monday morning the swelling had subsided so I knew it wasn’t a bad injury. I know I stood in a big hole at about the 20km mark in the race and that it hurt my ankle when I did.

However, it’s not a soft-tissue injury because I didn’t feel feint afterwards. My body has this crazy response to strains and sprains: I feint. I always have and probably always will. It’s good in a way because it means I can easily distinguish between injury and hurt or fracture. I know there’s no fracture in the ankle because it didn’t hurt when I put ice on it. For me, it always hurts like blazes when I ice a fracture. So the ankle is just sore from over-use (I traveled over 110km in 5 days last week) and probably bruised from stepping in the hole.

So, on Wednesday morning I enjoyed a delightful 3.6km walk around my neighbourhood during which I stopped to smell the wattle flowers. On Thursday morning I again went for a 3.6km walk along the same route. The route includes some nice long up and down hills so I felt like it was a good recovery work out.

On Wednesday evening I got a massage that focused on my legs. That was wonderful and I felt like I had new legs afterwards. I’ll definitely be doing that again after my next race.

This morning I did some gardening. I am preparing my vegetable gardens for summer. I have five or six vegetable beds. I totally rested one bed this winter and it was full of weeds, which I had to pull out this morning. I also failed to mulch the beds I did use this winter so they also had lots of weeds growing between my crops. This morning I pulled out lots of the weeds so that I can top the beds up with extra topsoil tomorrow (the beds are built on clay so I will keep having to add topsoil until they settle). I also got a good upper body workout when I used a hand saw to cut through timber sleepers that I am using as barriers between the beds.

I’ve also put a lot of effort into my nutrition this week. I have been re-reading Born To Run for weeks now (I just pick it up and randomly read a few pages every day or two) and have also been reading a lot of online material about ultra trail running. The thing that keeps coming up is the importance of nutrition. I’ve never been a fan of ‘fake’ food like supplements and gels. But I fell into a bit of a trap of relying on them for my nutrition.

This week I’ve eaten vegetables every morning for breakfast, getting in my full five serves before work. I have been raiding my garden ‘supermarket’ for broccoli, sugar loaf cabbage, leaf amaranth and herbs, and have been supplementing this with some shop-bought carrots, capsicum, mushrooms, sweet potato and onions. I’ve been mixing them with nuts, eggs, quinoa, calamari and tinned tuna for protein. No, I’ve not had this exact mixture every day but that’s what I’ve been selecting from.

I’ve eaten mixed nuts and a piece of fruit for morning tea every day with a few digestive biscuits we happen to have in the office. For lunch I’ve eaten baked beans, lasagne and today I’m having vegetarian burritos. For afternoon tea I’ve had two pieces of fruit and, if hungry, a glass of Sustagen with oat milk. For dinner I’ve eaten vegetables with every meal and have eaten two vegetarian dinners this week.

This increased intake of fruit, nuts and vegetables has left me feeling really strong and healthy. I am sure it’s also helping me recover well. I’ve reduced my intake of sugar and have increased my water intake, starting every day with a glass of tap water and drinking herb tea (from my garden) with breakfast. I don’t know why I let my diet get so out of hand when it really is no effort (or increased cost) to eat well. I even switched from white to brown rice and loved it.

It’s not that I’m switching from omnivore to herbivore. But I do want to eat more vegetables and fruits, rather than meats and sugars. I was a vegetarian for a year back in the mid-2000s and it didn’t work out so well for me. I lost too much weight and was lethargic all the time. However, with hindsight I can see that I wasn’t eating the right things. I wasn’t getting enough mix of food and was relying almost solely on eggs for protein. I ate white rice and white pasta, and really only ate leafy vegetables and beans. This time round in my reduced meat reliance I am even forcing myself to learn to eat capcisum, one of only two vegetables I hate (the other is eggplant and no amount of trying is going to get me to like it).

I’m excited about my 10km run tomorrow morning and 6km run on Sunday afternoon. I have a small program that I’ve downloaded from the internet. It shows me how many kilometres I should be running if I want to safely increase my mileage. I am determined to at least follow it for weekend long runs and to help me from over training (I am sure I ran too much for my body the week I bought my Vibrams and that that’s part of why I’ve struggled this week).

I’m glad I’ve take the full 5 days off because it’s helped me enjoy my 50km achievement and has given me time to refocus, refresh and regather myself for my next adventure 🙂