Thursday, May 31, 2012


Yesterday I ran up to the top of a mountain to spread my friend Steve's, ashes. This had always been his wish. They have been in a spare room facing the sea for quite awhile......I thought he'd like the view. Anyway I decided it was time for him to be let loose in the hills and valleys. As I parked the car I took some time to play his favourite music, at full blast (as he would have done) and scattered a few ashes there. I shed a few tears, danced  and smiled at the memories of all the fun we'd had over the years.
      Then I took him on a fearsome climb to the top of 'the Spike', as he called it. We had done this route many, many years ago and at the time I had said to him, 'How long do you think this will take?'........'About 4 hours', came his nonchalant reply.
  He knew nothing about hiking or running and so when we returned he asked how long we had been. I looked at my watch, astonished, it was 3 hours, 59 minutes and 25 seconds........'You're crap at this', I said......and we both fell about laughing.

    As I neared the top the sun began to set over the mountains, it was spectacularly beautiful. I launched his ashes into the air and the breeze caught them and carried them away.....and although it was very emotional I felt a sense of calm.
    Again I remembered someone saying to him that you need a permit to do that up there. His response as ever was to laugh at the ridiculousness of such a thing and replied, whilst looking straight at me,'Not only will Phil do it, he'll do it without a permit........and what's more if he gets a permit I'll never forgive him'......and after more laughter he continued, 'How is anyone going to know the difference between my ashes and the rest of the bloody mountain?'
      Steve never  knew what rules were and certainly never stuck to any. His view of life was incredibly simple, he had no limitations or boundaries. This philosophy could get him into some hilarious and  remarkable situations, mostly good but occasionally, not so good; no matter, his excuse was always the same..........'Never think, just do it, you're a long time dead Phil'.
    As I stood there many thoughts went through my head, I don't think I have ever been more acutely aware of the phrase, 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust', as I was at that moment. Steve always loved to wander off, and as the dust swirled in the wind above the canyon below I smiled and said, 'Now and for the rest of eternity, you can go wherever you want and whenever you want......'. The thought appealed to me as I know it would have to him and just before I began the long run back down I thanked him for all the laughs we'd had together. Steve's only motive in life was to have fun and for all of those who knew him, we have been blessed in that he'd shared it with us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Its nearly 3 weeks  since I finished the UTBA.......seems like years ago. The Cannes Film Festival is in full swing but don't worry I have no plans to run naked along the Croisette in order to attract attention to my 'Trailjunkie' blog. For me its up into the hills and far, far away. Congrats to Dakota Jones and Anna Frost for winning the Transvulcania 2012 in the Canary Islands, in both record times.
      Anna is a Skyrunner specialist which basically means she runs ultramarathons up mountains. Dakota, nickname 'Young Money', is a very young elite endurance athlete. He won this race of 83 kilometres and over 13,000 feet elevation gain in just under 7 that is fast, he averaged 12k per hour the whole way, up and down. I love the attitude of these guys. After his last ultra victory he was asked how the race went and his reply was a classic.....'I ran a lot and then I won'. No hype, no deep analysis, self importance or complicated explanation, he just keeps it simple. Mine would be - 'I ran a lot'.................'and then somehow, 10 hours later, I staggered to the finish line'.
      I've pulled back a lot over the past 3 weeks with just a few runs a week and a couple of hill repeats, I just felt like I needed a rest, not from the physical perspective but more the mental. Its been nice just to run when I want to and for what ever distance I choose, with no accent on training or times.....its been quite liberating and I've just appreciated the trails and the simple beauty of where I live.
       A great many people have asked me about my references to Tim Ferriss, traditional Long Slow Distance Ultra training (time on feet), and how they compare. Firstly I am no expert and my observations are just what I have found to be true for me.
Recommended reading
     Tim Ferriss, in his book, The 4-Hour Body, went into a great deal of detail about how to prepare for a 50k ultra  with only a small amount of running mixed in with various gym and Crossfit work. There is no doubt if you stick to the regime he lays out  you stand a good chance of achieving your goal. It includes Tabatas's, 200, 400, 800 metre repeats, kettlebell, sledge pulls, interval training, push ups, pull ups, bench press, squats, box jumps, sprints, burpees, rowing, etc, etc. The maximum distance you would run in training would be 90 minutes.......with No long runs at all. I advise reading the book which is laid out in superb detail and easy to read style, (see
         The basic idea is that to run a 50k you need good suspension (legs) and all the workout regimes are designed to give you that as well as improving your sodium-potassium pump, the second goal is to push your aerobic line which basically means training your body to move at faster speeds whilst still remaining aerobic. The good news is that you can recover from an ultra quicker as a result of this training. If you stick to his program, from the evidence I've seen, you will succeed............but, I feel a 'but' coming on.
      If I have paraphrased a whole, well researched book into a few glib lines that is not my intention; I'm just trying to simplify the basic concepts.  Its all brilliant stuff but I feel that there is another side of the coin that needs to be explained.
       Tim Ferriss and Brian Mackenzie ( fully accept that if you just run long and hard for many months and for many hours per week, you too will be able to complete an ultra. The point is, do you have the time, patience and perseverance to do that and what of the effects on your family and social life ? There is also burn out , boredom and the high risk of injury, so if you can do it the Tim Ferriss way on only a 5 to 6 hours training a week then why not?
       I didn't do the exact training program as in the 4-Hour Body, I did my own derivative. There were several reasons for this. Firstly I am not a big 'gym' lover and secondly I like running in the hills and mountains. But, I did 2000% more weights/strength exercises than I had ever done before and that undoubtedly strengthened my body and decreased my body fat %. Also, thanks to Tim and my coach Paddy, I  have vastly improved my nutrition. I am stronger, faster and fitter and I recover from ultra's really where is the 'but'.
But is Crossfit enough to do this? (UTMB 167k)
        In my opinion it is this;- No matter how fast or fit you are, if you are going to run for 10, 15 hours or more in an ultra then you have to learn to pace yourself, to hydrate correctly and to eat the right foods that you can digest easily whilst running. I could only have learnt this correctly on my long training runs. If I had never run more than 90 minutes in training then how would I know what to do and when?
      Secondly until you have run on tired legs, you don't know what it feels like, and so how do you know how to deal with it ? Muscle fatigue resistance isn't easy.
   And finally, and for me the most important point, if you've never run a long way then you have never experienced the negative mental aspects that creep into your mind and by default have never learnt how to deal with these either.
      I said earlier that if you stick rigidly to the 4-Hour Body then you will achieve your goal of running a 50k but to avoid contradiction with my last comments, I shall explain. Firstly with this kind of training I believe your body will be stronger and you will have developed the physical capabilities to be able to do it. Furthermore I suspect that anyone attempting an ultra will do some research on nutrition and out of common sense will have tested some aspects of this in training. The tired legs and mental torture, if its your first ultra, you will probably push through despite the pain. If you are the sort of person who will stick to the 12 week Tim Ferriss regime, then I suspect you will do whatever it takes to finish.
      So putting all this together I still think its important to do long runs, including 'back to backs', even though you could probably 'get away with' not doing them for your first ultra. As regards future ultra's over much longer distances of 100 k or 100 miles then I simply don't know although I suspect crossfit just wouldn't be enough. I am not aware of any elite endurance athletes who are just crossfit trained, they all train long and hard for hours on end. True, a great many do speed work and a certain amount of strength conditioning but running, a lot, is still the key component. In time new ideas may slowly become incorporated into the sport as these things develop. For example, years ago speed work and weights were very unusal in ultra training and all the science of nutrition was in its infancy so you never know.
          Personally I am glad that I did a lot of long slow distance training because the shock if I hadn't done would have made my first ultra's a very painful experience indeed, I mean they were bad enough anyway but at least I knew what to expect and had a plan for dealing with it and after all, isn't that what 'training' is all about?  I believe by incorporating strength and conditioning and high intensity speed work (crossfit) with some long slow training runs (traditional), was the way to go.  I may be accused of hedging my bets and maybe I was but I can see the sense in both. The whole thrust of the 4-Hour Body is to achieve great fitness results quicker than the normal way. If I hadn't adopted some of his techniques I never could have got my body strong enough to do 5 ultra's in my first year but  conversley I found that for my last race, pounding up and down hills for hours on end also gave me a distinct advantage as I felt my muscles and joints adapting specifically to the race terrain.
        I am looking forward to seeing Tim Ferriss's own analysis of this because few people analyse in such detail and it would be extremely helpful to the ultra running community who are.... not suprisingly.....quite sceptical.
       In future ultra's I may follow a more rigid 4-hour body regime because I now 'know' a little more about the other stuff and so if I can train lesser hours for the same or better effect then great; but, if you've never run an ultra before then please take on board my comments..........and read some of my blogs. For someone of my limited experience I have tried to give as balanced a view as possible but after 5 ultra's I am still a novice ....okay at 57 years old, a veteran novice.....but there may just be something in there to help you out.  And for those who never intend to run one I apologise for such a technical blog today however, if you want to lose weight, sleep better, get fitter, improve your shape and many other benefits then check out 'The 4-Hour Body''ll be suprised.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


So what's next? now there's a question............the simple answer being, I don't know. I've just been reading some of my blogs over the past year and its been an interesting journey providing many fun and varied experiences in some of the most beautiful places.  What impression have I given of this sport ? Have I described the reality of it sincerely ? In the races I think I have, because they are all their own unique experience but what is difficult to communicate is the constant focus, hour after hour....its incredibly demanding both mentally and physically. Running for an hour through the woods on a training run is great and taking part in 20k races is really exciting when competing against the others.......but ultra's are very different.
      The actual ultra is hard but the training is sometimes harder. It takes time and sacrifice, not only for me but for family and friends. If I am not out running then I'm back home talking about it and I'm sure to the non-athletes it must be very boring. There are many days when to go out for a 3 to 4 hour training run is the last thing I feel like doing especially when I can't even compete in the actual race. I know the real challenge is against yourself but spending hours just 'toeing the line' can sometimes be both monotonous and soul destroying. Once you have succeeded in achieving your goal, then what? I'm glad that I finally managed to complete a full ultra with no pains or injuries and I would like to build on this......but there is a price to pay....and that is the hours of training. Most people who run ultras do so because they primarily like to just run in nature, be it valleys, forests, mountains or deserts, they have an in built desire to just get out and run. A pair of trainers, shorts, vest and a water bottle and your good to go, its basically pretty simple.......and for many that's the appeal.
Running up the Sorrento peninsular, Italy.
     Why even race at all? I could just go on long adventurous runs for the hell of it; and most of the time thats what I do, be it the rim of the Grand Canyon or the hot desert of Monument valley or perhaps the Peak above Hong Kong or high up in the Alps on a summers evening. Sometimes I have used my running to discover unusual places such as the Manchester Ship Canal at dawn meandering its way for miles under the city.....bizarre I know but still fascinating. Another such occassion was the streets of Toronto at 5:30 am where you witness the sadnes of the underbelly of society or the tow path along the Thames on a cold and frosty night. Of course most of my runs are in nature but wherever I go I always run and I see and experience many different sides of life, city or country.
        Is it dangerous? not really, but there are occassions where if things got out of hand it could be. I broke my leg whilst running about 3 years ago. I was in a ravine but my mobile had a signal and I was able to call for help. Luckily I was very near home with a track to a road. If that had been high up in the Alps at dusk and with a dead phone battery then the outcome could have been very different. But people have accidents every day in the most normal situations and so I think if you are sensible then thats all you can do.
    So back to the question, why race? To me its another experience, you are running with others who have trained like you and there is a sense of the 'event' in that you are all part of something. In some respects its a celebration of what we do........( Am I going off on a tangent here?)....but really it is the completion of the challenge or goal that you have set yourself. You have to finish and hence the emotion at the end; this is a feeling you don't get when running on your own.
         10 days after my last ultra  I began to get an excruciating back pain and an even stranger pain under the arch of my foot. What could this be? I thought maybe a cold draught whilst sleeping, or a dodgy mattress, lumpy pillow, maybe the car I was hiring, bad fitting shoes, stress, aeroplane seats, new chairs in the Cafe, reaching up to fix some curtains, etc etc..........and then it suddenly dawned on me.......could it be something to do with running an ultra marathon up 10,000 feet , over rocky terrain for 10 hours?............Nah, surely not.
        I know it sounds ridiculous but I never considered this option. Most of the time I don't get injured as a result of running, its usually something else. But , as we were going to Italy for a 5 day vacation, I thought I would rest and not run. By the 4th day I still felt bad and so I decided that there was only one possible cure...........
                         Do hill repeats up Mount Vesuvius !..........that did the trick.
     Now the back pain has gone and the foot pain is easing. What does all this mean? Well in my humble opinion I believe its got something to do with not running. I had run non stop for months and then after the race I rested and took it easy.....and so everything began to slowly stiffen up, tendons, joints, muscles, even sluggish blood circulation. Its hard to self diagnose and quite possibly spurious but thats what I think, and it worked, so I'm sticking to it......Happy trails :)

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Okay, so the title sounds a bit odd but I think I need to explain exactly what is going on in my head and what this ultra thing is all about; this being as much for my benefit as yours. Having just completed 5 ultra's in less than a year - and in my first year of doing them - and at 57 years of age, I think I need to take a moment to pause and reflect.
       What am I doing and why?
     Many people use the word 'fun' when it comes to running but I'm not sure if 'fun' and 'ultra' are the perfect companions. I can think of many things that are a lot more fun than running  up and down mountains for 10 hours non stop. Obviously for many super fit endurance athletes it is fun but thats not how I see it. I find it a pressure. In my last race, my training runs were somehow easier, obviously they are not as far or as fast but mentally I felt relaxed. I've now done 5 Ultra races and completed them all (Okay, so I got lost in one but I completed the same distance as the race), so why do I have a problem. When I start a race I am terrified of the distance and the time its going to take and it eats me up until I get into the latter stages. This means that I only really start to enjoy it  when I am at my most fatigued physically. I am not a masochist, its just that mentally and emotionally I 'know' I'am going to make it and so I relax. You would think after 5 of these I'd be more confident but the enormity of the thing just takes over.
      So how do I get through the 10 hours of mental and physical stress? Quite simply I break the race down into sectors, climbs, descents, and aid stations. The last race was 4 big climbs and 4 steep descents with 4 aid stops but my main measure was splitting the race into 24 sectors. These could be climbs, flat stretches, river crossings or changes in terrain, but all were of varying length and with varying degrees of difficulty. As I finished each sector I'd mentally cross it off and move on to the next. I' d plan when to eat solid foods, prepare my poles for a climb, refuel, slow down, etc and it was this plan and thorough knowledge of the course that got me through. I hardly ever count the mileage as thats too anal for me and it lacks any emotional feeling of success or achievement at having completed a sector.
       This psychology is nothing unusual as its the same as - 'How do you eat an elephant?'...........Answer - 'One piece at a time.' All my research is through analysis because I don't know many ultra runners and as I don't speak much french I am hardly going to have an in depth conversation about Jean Paul Satre and the role of existentialism and authentic existence in ultra running!
     However, maybe thats where I am going wrong. Somehow I have to believe that not only will I finish but I'll finish well. Maybe its age or maybe physically I'm not 'built' for ultra running. Most of the guys are slim with small muscular frames and virtually no fat. I am 6'-2", large frame and 85 kilo's and yet everyone I know thinks I look too thin which is probably because I am about 11.5% body fat; but these guys are probably more like 70 kilo's and 7% body fat. I am carrying an extra 35 pounds around; and over 52 k's and with 10,000 feet of climbing, that takes a lot of energy.
        I was  grateful for the fact that I had no pains in my quads or calves and thats thanks to Helen's physio, Paddy's conditioning and me pounding up and down lots of mountains. Did my tapering and carb loading help? I don't know because its hard to evaluate but the reduced stress of tapering must have been good as well as training on the same mountainous terrain as the race; thats just common sense. I have done training runs of 36 k with no carb loading and felt fine....tired but okay.... however due to the extra carbs 2/3 days before race day I was a lot heavier and I didn't like it. But, did that help me go all the way or would I have been okay anyway? I guess the only way to find out is to do an ultra without carb loading at all but do I want to take that chance? After many hours you will always switch to fat utilisation eventually, so may be we come back to the same question; If we assume ( despite my size) that I am physically capable of doing it then how do I condition my brain to 'know' that I can do it ?...........and by default, have a more enjoyable experience.
       In my last race, half way up a long steep climb, I saw a guy just sit down and stop, I asked if he was okay and he said, yes, he was fine, but he wasn't and I could tell from the look on his face what it was......he'd given up, he knew it and I knew it and no amount of prompting from me was going to make any difference. He had made a decision, he was finished. This is why its so hard, he'd already done 85% of the course but it didn't make any difference as once he decided to stop, it was over and this feeling is ever present and you have to fight it because if this negative emotion takes hold then its game over. All the runners will have faced this impasse at some point and so I only have respect for him, he'd got this far and maybe next time he would go all the way but it made me feel grateful that I was still able to continue.
       This is the challenge, if I can conquer my fears then  surely I can go much further and /or much faster. I think the elite guys and girls can sort of switch off or get into a zone and mentally that must be the key to this whole ultra they can do this at speed and for 15, 20 or even 30 hours.
The final part of the last climb of the race
     But the next question is why? and here I get a little hazy. Personally I find it romantic which I know sounds bizarre but I do. Its a feeling of pitching yourself against the elements and testing your own abilities, getting outside your comfort zone. It can be very emotional, hence the tears at the end, its scary and you lay yourself bare. After many hours the only thing you are aware of is putting one foot in front of the other, its relentless and sometimes the only reason you continue is to overcome your own weaknesses, to look deep inside and find some more strength......and when you achieve this, the finish is almost cathartic.
      Ultra running for me and from what I read, many others, is all about testing the limits of the human spirit.........Can you do what must surely be impossible?
       I close with a quote from a recent sports study into mental toughness in ultra running:-
           'Results suggest that successful participants were stubborn / bloody-minded (tenacious), totally committed to their goals, objective, had a sense of humour, thrived on challenges, were able to maintain perspective in adversity and possessed humility.'
     About 10 months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine, Brophy, about the 60k race I had just completed and he was congratulating me on finishing, 'I knew you'd do it Phil'..........'How did you know, when even I didn't know?'..............He laughed and said, 'Easy, I've known you for 33 years, you're just bloody-minded'..............
      Maybe its that simple.........or maybe I just like running through the wilderness.

(If you click on the link below it will take you to a video on You Tube that I made of the whole 10 hour race squeezed into 10 mins....or other parts of it are in the right hand panel)