St Helier, Jersey
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The Run Up To The Marathon Des Sables

So just over 5 weeks till the MDS and compared to 2 years ago when I was getting ready to do the 28th MDS I am a lot more cool calm and collected this time round. I recall a 2 year lead in to training for that race and sourcing, comparing gear, losing weight, worrying about which shoes, rucksack and sleeping bag to take and whether Ultimate Extreme Foods were better than Expedition Foods, should I take poles? Trail vs Road Shoes? How long should my back to backs be? Definitely this time I am more calmer and have just started to think about the food I will be taking and piecing together the kit.
I think the biggest reason is that I have done the race before, I now know what to expect which removes a lot of the variables and uncertainties. I learnt a lot of lessons that first MDS and I know that heading back I will be able to apply of that learning to this race.

Leading up to MdS 2 years ago I did the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge, which I completed a few weeks ago for the second time. A great ultra over 33 miles on Day 1 starting in Farnham along the North Downs and then back the following day. A great event, well organised by the XNRG crew and one I thoroughly recommend to tune up for the MDS. I had a look at my Garmin traces from the 2013 Pilgrims that I did and the main difference in me as a runner then and now was glaringly obvious: I would go out way too quick to start, blow up  half way through and suffer to the end. This worked out pretty well that weekend, my first 15 miles were done at an avg of between 7:30 and 8 min miles, and after that the pace rapidly declined.. Going back for this years edition a month or so ago I was keen to see if my more consistent approach that I have been favouring in training would result in me matching the overall time in the race I recorded 2 years ago and if indeed I came out of it more comfortably. Over the last few months a big part of my training has been Heart Rate Training, focussing on doing a large proportion of my training in the Aerobic Zone, which meant initially slow runs under the magic number of 146 bpm. Initially it was frustrating but over time my body has definitely become more efficient the result being that my pace has gone up whilst still under the threshold of 146 which has been pleasing to see.

Over the last 4 weeks or so I introduced more tempo, and hill training and have started to feel quite strong by all accounts, which has not been the case for a while. The Pilgrims was a great way to validate this method of training, the conditions were cold, muddy with a bit of snow, and day one went quite well with me finishing about 20 mins slower than last time but feeling a lot more comfortable and having run a lot more of the way rather than blast through then hang on. Day two was a struggle and I found it hard to even get out of my sleeping bag in the morning as it had been so cold overnight in the hall we slept in with all the other competitors. However get up I did and I finished the day after a considerable grind of 33 miles, but finish I did and although a bit slower than the previous time I did day 2 a couple of years ago there were positives to take away in respect of feeling stronger in the body and perhaps feeling I could have gone a little harder. And I kept reminding myself I have bigger goals this year to fulfil. I enjoyed the Pilgrims Challenge, it was great to catch up again with my fellow MDS’ers Gordon, Susie and Shaun, to meet some new friends, Mick and Jane and for my amazing other half Nicola to complete her first multi day ultra in amazing shape.

Alongside the MDS my main focus this year is going to be the Dragons Back Race, which is in late June.

I know this could well be the hardest thing I have ever attempted, 200 miles along the mountainous spine of Wales in 5 days, self navigating and taking in all of the Welsh 3000’s in the first day, so I have been training with both this and MdS in mind. I know that the biggest part of these races is to be 100% committed mentally, however with the Dragons Back I am worried that not being near any major mountains here in Jersey may prove to be a major disadvantage when I hit the mountains of Wales. I have strategies in place which I hope will enable me to be as prepared as I can be to tackle the challenge, however the worry is there, lots to address, so I will be doing a mountain running course in March to address the navigational side of things, with a couple of recces of the Snowdonia Park in May to get a feel for the terrain as well as numerous hill rep sessions planned here in Jersey.

Lots to look forward to then, with my immediate focus now being the MDS. There are a few people from Jersey doing it this year as well as a few people from the 2013 edition going back for more so will be a great way to catch up with them. My plan is to go as minimalist as possible this time, with more emphasis on food and calories than equipment as this is where I felt the most feelgood factor could come from. I have started to compile the spreadsheet with weights of everything and it is looking like my WAA ultra bag (different to the Raidlight Olmo used last time – which I burnt!!) will be coming in at this stage around the 6.5KG weight when dry. This is the first pack but I do intend to be ruthless on equipment taken: No spare clothes, no camera, no slippers, no vastly inflated medical kit with the only luxury being my iPod nano and an auxiliary charger to ensure I have tunes the whole week should I need them. I intend to take more calories this time however, with either Mountain House or Expedition Foods getting my custom and I will be opting to take more in the way of desserts and more substantial breakfasts I think in place of the flapjack bars I took last time (some of which got nibbled at by night time visitors!) This last matter of food will be the thing I take most time over I think and I will ensure that there are plenty of varieties of foods and snacks to enjoy this time as I really struggled towards the end of the week with the same tastes.

My main goal for MDS is to complete it having felt like I have given it a good go and to also enjoy it; Last time I went out hard the first two days and crashed and burnt day 3 and 4 and blew my goals out of the water, in my opinion (and as demonstrated to me by numerous friends doing the MDS this way) the key to doing respectably in the MDS is in day 4 the long day, if you can get through the first 3 days well but without having given too much, if you have energy to do a good long day left then this is where positions can be made up. This is why a lot of my training has been focused on long slow distance as this was the big thing that struck me in this race is that consistency comes out top – apart form obviously the top elite runners! So thats the plan, training has gone well and I feel good about the strategy, another big goal for me for MDS is to be able to complete it and be able to recover quickly so that I can get back into training quickly for the Dragons Back which is in late June, about 2.5 months after MDS. I am currently training for both races, having started to now put in long hill sessions to get used to the climbing I will be doing in Wales with tempo, intervals and long runs as well. I have been training with a rucksack since November having been running home from work 3 or so nights a week with my WAA Rucksack loaded with all my work things, I actually weighted the bag the other night and it comes in around the 4KG mark which is a good start. I am spending atlas one day of my weekend on a long run with the WAA sack weighted up and running long as well.

In my last post I discussed the after effects of my last big challenge – 7 Ultra Marathons in 7 Days which took place in August last year here in Jersey. I thought then that I had recovered but I can say that it has probably taken me more like 5 to 6 months to recover. I took part in the Druids Challenge in November which was another XNRG organised event over 3 days along the Ridgeway in the South of England. I had an OK first day, and abysmal second day but everything seemed to fall into place for the third day and I ran really well, just like I would want to if I sat down and mapped it out in my mind before the race began. Proof that recovery from major events does indeed take a long time. I can honestly say that I didn’t realise how long the effects of the 7 Ultras in 7 days would linger, tiredness and lethargy being the main symptoms, plus losing fitness and speed despite training. I discussed this back in October with a friend Graeme who had done the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race in summer of last year and he had likened the few months after to running with an elastic band attached to him pulling him back. I can honestly empathise with that feeling!

So flicking back to something I mentioned earlier in this post: Commitment. A conversation I have had a few times and also heard is whether when you are a runner you run because you enjoy it or because you get to a point that being a runner is such a big part of who you are and your routine that you wouldn’t know what to do if you didn’t do it. I definitely experience both parts of the spectrum on this score, but mostly sit in the middle with the weekly routine being comforting and the goal of having something to train for a motivating factor that provides me with a great focus and meaning in my life. There are times when I hate the runs or just want to get them done, or don’t want to do a particular session (like the other night where it was raining and I ran home from work dropped off my rucksack and then proceeded to do everything I could but step out the door to go do my hill session!) but I still get out there and do it 99% of the time as I know each session counts and makes up the confidence of starting a race knowing you have prepared for it to the best of your ability. Right now I have the Dragons Back as my “carrot” that I dangle and think about as I am doing my sessions, so the 15 loops I did of the tallest hill in Jersey (which is 330ft!) I was thinking about getting that magical 4,700 feet of elevation over ten miles which would equate to roughly a third of the first day of the DB. Its what I need to do to get ready so I have to bypass the actual monotony of doing that hill 15 times every 2 weeks and focus on the hopeful benefits it will give me when I am in the Welsh mountains.

Another aspect of commitment/motivation I have mulled over during my recent running years has been that of the reasons why I am doing things. I noted that a lot of people who are doing the MDS this year for the first time are nervous about it as it is the unknown and there is a significant time and financial investment which probably makes them feel as if there is a lot riding on this little trip to the desert. I remember feeling this way myself in the lead up to the 2013 edition and felt that it was the biggest thing I had ever done in my life. As I previously stated I am a lot more relaxed about this years edition as I know what to expect, how to train, what I need to take and not take so 85% of it is a known quantity this time round. Of course none of this means anything without the correct reasons to do this race. It is extreme and we run 140 – 150 miles in a week across the desert self supported in temps of up to 56 Deg C, so there needs to be a fundamental urge to want to complete this and to be willing to suffer to do so, otherwise as some people do, we would just fall at the first sign of hardship and call it a day. Looking back on all of the big challenges I have done where I have succeeded I had clear reasons why I was doing it: This meant that when the chips were down there was no room to quit as I was clear why I was there and why I was willing to suffer. I look back at the times where I didn’t succeed in completing the challenges I set out to do and the opposite was true in most cases, I hadn’t tapped in to the right motives for doing what I was doing so when times got hard and I was presented with an escape route I took it. Obviously other factors can and did come into play in some of those instances: GI Problems, getting lost, general wear and tear from a really hard years racing to name but a few. But I really believe that getting the head right and knowing why you are doing something and being willing to suffer for it will go a long way to ensuring you have the tools to complete any challenge you set out to do. I have good friends who have done some truly amazing challenges: UTMB, The Spine, running 100 miles on a track and the main denominator with them all is that they fundamentally enjoy it and are clear on why they are doing it. I have definitely taken leaves out of books from a lot of the people around me who run and just have a blast doing it as this has to be the main reason to want to run close to 50 miles a week and put yourself through these often  ruinous challenges.

For now the focus is on getting the last bit of training for the MDS, 5 weeks on Friday we will be setting off from Gatwick to Morrocco, plenty of time still to put the icing on the cake and get some quality in before the 30th Marathon Des Sables kicks off. Apparently there are some surprises planned, which will be interesting to see, some have speculated that Patrick Bauer would like to re position the MDS as “The toughest footrace on earth” by throwing in some real curveballs but these rumours did surface a couple of years ago also so we will see.. Until then its head down, get the money in the bank, stay injury free and get to the start in 5 weeks or so healthy!

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