Tag Archives: Ultrarunning

“Tea with Mr Newton: 100,000 Miles – the Longest ‘Protest March’ in History” by Rob Hadgraft

Have I mentioned that I ran a sub-3-hour marathon earlier this year? It’s one of my proudest running achievements and one, indirectly, I probably owe to a stubborn old goat who died in 1959. Arthur Newton (1883-1959) was a trailblazer in ultra-running and responsible for placing an emphasis on high mileage and The Long Slow Run in training for distance events. Later coaches (such as Arthur Lydiard) would take these principles and refine them, all leading to me running 80-mile weeks in the early months of 2018 and achieving something I once thought impossible.

Newton’s story is remarkable because of what an eccentric crank he was. He only took up serious running in his late 30s, but then proceeded to win South Africa’s Comrades race 4 years in a row, and subsequently set several world records at the 100 mile-distance.

What prompted him to run was entirely idiosyncratic; his cotton and tobacco farm in colonial-era South Africa was failing, and he placed the blame on the government, whose policy of providing land to native South Africans around his farm was – from Newton’s perspective – making commercial farming impossible. There’s no escaping his racism here – Newton would use derogatory language to describe black Africans throughout his life. This, combined with his stiff-upper-lip formality means that in Rob Hadgraft’s excellent biography Newton comes across as an easy man to admire, but a difficult man to like. (See earlier reviews of Hadgraft’s books The Little Wonder, Deerfoot, and Plimsolls on Eyeballs Out).

Newton wanted the government to change its policy, or at least give him decent compensation, but he felt that he would never get a fair hearing while he remained a nobody. This introverted, limelight-avoiding man therefore decided that he needed to become famous, and the simplest way to do it was to become a successful runner. Obviously. At this point I was reminded of a scene in the Oscar-worthy masterpiece “Snakes on a Plane”, where the crime lord is asked whether he is certain that he wishes to go through with the titular plan, and his response is that “we have exhausted all other options”. Really? What about Bubonic Badgers on a Bus? Killer Kite-Flying Kittens?

But the extraordinary thing is that he achieved the fame he desired. After winning the first of his Comrades victories in 1922 he became one of the most famous men in the country…but still couldn’t get the government to change course. This became a recurring theme in Newton’s life – fame but no riches. Eventually this strict believer in the purity of amateurism was forced by poverty to switch to a paid professional career, joining the inaugural trans-America run, nicknamed the Bunion Derby, in 1928. This turned out to be a shambles of an event – effectively a travelling circus – that lost money and was unable to pay prizes to any of the 55 runners who completed the 84-day fiasco. Newton himself dropped out through injury early on, but he stayed and became a mentor to the other runners, forming a particularly close bond with working class runner Peter Gavuzzi The history of their friendship is chronicled in more depth in another excellent book “Running for their Lives”. Gavuzzi and Newton went on to form a pro-running partnership, competing in Canada.

Newton would go on to set his final 100-mile record in 1934 at the age of 51, and then he retired. Over the course of his 10-year career he had run an extraordinary 100,000 miles. Even in retirement he was running 600 a month! In later years he became a deliberately controversial columnist, with his views on the pointlessness of speedwork at odds with those of other coaches. Although Newton believed in training slowly, it’s worth pointing out that he was no plodder in races; during the London-Brighton 52-mile race he covered the marathon distance in 2:42.

In death he is now known as the Father of Comrades, and at the halfway point in the race runners will go pass Arthur’s Seat, where legend has it that doffing your cap to the great man will lead to a strong second half of the race. For my part, I will thank him for persuading me that running all those snowy 20- and 15- milers in February and March would be worth it in the end. Did I mention I broke 3 hours?

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“The Competitive Runner’s Handbook”by Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover

Regular readers of these reviews will be aware that my writing has a pattern; start with a silly, occasionally humiliating, story from my past, then make an incredibly tenuous link to the book in question. For those of you for whom my schtick is getting a wee bit tiresome, you will be delighted to hear that I am stumped here. Not because The Competitive Runner’s Handbook is a bad book. Far from it. The problem is that it’s like reviewing a Haynes car manual. Vital as a reference source when the wheels fall off, but not exactly my ideal companion for a long flight.

The Glovers are coaches and heavily involved with the New York Road Runners. Their book is a huge compendium of running knowledge and wisdom gleaned from years of training runners of all abilities for races. Virtually everything you could wish for is covered here: training plans for specific distances, heart rate training, running form, dealing with injuries, to name but a few. The authors are not sports scientists, so some of the advice might be considered dated, but it’s not as if people are running significantly faster times these days than when the first edition of this book was published in 1983.

I have dipped into this book over the years repeatedly when I have needed suggestions for solo interval sessions, to get me out of the monotony of doing 6 x 3mins or 10 reps of 400m. The relevant chapters have a number of suggestions for speedwork, along with tables indicating how hard runners of different abilities should run and recover from each rep.

Ah yes, the tables. This is probably the standout feature of the book. It is stacked with data and charts. I feel delightfully smug every time I look at the “Categories of Competitive Runners” tables at the front of the book, which breaks runners down by their race times. When I first bought the book, I was a Basic Competitor for my gender and age group, running 5ks in around 24mins and half marathons in 1:52. Over the years I have progressively moved through the ranks to the point where I am somewhere between Advanced Competitor and Local Champion. Something tells me I will never make it to Semi Elite status, but it’s a gratifying ego boost nonetheless.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the comprehensive pacing chart in the appendix. This lists out what each minute-per-mile speed – down to the second – will achieve for specific distances. Sub-3 marathon? 6:51 pace. Sub-40 10k? 6:26 pace. You get the idea. It shows everything from 5 minute mile-ing (a 2:11:06 marathon) to 11 minute mile-ing (4:48:25 marathon). Although this information can be found on the web, I have yet to find a more convenient source for working out my desired speed than quickly flicking through these pages.

Overall, if you are looking for guidance when putting together a new training plan, want to think about your running in a more data-driven way, or need advice on whether you should run when ill, then I heartily recommend this handbook. There is something here for everyone, although you probably won’t ever read more than a third of it. There’s even an index entry for “pre-race arousal”, although I would not dream of making a puerile joke out of that…

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“Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

My son and I are currently making our way through the collected works of Roger Hargreaves. The greatest of his novels is unquestionably Mr Silly. In this parable of the 2016 US election, our hero enters the Nonsense Cup, awarded to the person who has the silliest idea of the year. Entrants include a square apple and a teapot that pours onto itself. Mr Silly beats them all by painting the trees of Nonsenseland (where the trees are of course red) green.

Natural Born Heroes would have been odds-on favourite for winning the Nonsense Cup. It tells the story of Second World War resistance heroes on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general, interwoven with present-day anecdotes about the sport of parkour, ‘natural movement’ and nutrition. Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall clearly had two different books he wanted to write, but neither was quite fully formed…and judging by the cover illustration his publisher was probably desperate that it be another running book, not a history book about Greeks and eccentric Englishmen. Inspired by the Percy Jackson series of children’s books (yes really), he decided to mash them together, drawing links between the urban free-runners he encounters in Paris, London and Pennsylvania, and how the heroes of mythological and wartime Greece proved to be such impressive warriors.

On the positive side, the story of how British spy Patrick Leigh Fermor and his band of Cretan partisans successfully bogged down the Nazi war machine is a true adventure story, full of spies, derring-do and colourful characters. To train the agents of the Special Operations Executive, whose role was to go behind enemy lines and cause trouble for the Nazis, the British high command recruited the two toughest policemen from the world’s most dangerous city: Shanghai. These cops fought dirty, and taught their students how to knock out an enemy using just a box of matches, then kick him in the groin for good measure. On Crete, their students would mastermind one of the greatest feats of espionage of the war, kidnapping General Heinrich Kreipe near his residence and smuggling him off the island. When the Nazis discovered his abandoned car the next day, they found some Cadbury chocolate wrappers, Player’s cigarettes and an Agatha Christie novel littered around it, just in case the Germans needed a clue as to the nationality of the cheeky kidnappers.

McDougall thinks that combining this narrative with present-day accounts of people rediscovering the “lost” arts of fitness, athleticism and nutrition is a successful way of telling something profound about the nature of heroism, but unfortunately for me it was a real failure. Part of the problem is that so much of his story is incredibly tenuous, based on the smallest of evidence, and some of it is outright cobblers. Take this little gem: “When England was rebuilding after the Great War, [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was its guide”. Really? England rebuilt itself after 1918 based on the values of ancient Greek literature? McDougall has clearly never seen Peaky Blinders, or even Downton Abbey for that matter. England after the war was a country filled with violent and traumatised demobbed men, militant trade unions urging a general strike, and a wildly unequal class system. He bases this sweeping statement on a single quote by Narnia author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, who was in any event actually talking about England after 1945.

Later, when McDougall used the phrase “tough London borough of Westminster” I threw the book across the room. It’s one of the richest parts of the city.

And then there’s the dangerous, pseudo-scientific aspect to the book. Born to Run was a rollicking romp through the world of ultrarunning, exploring the amazing endurance feats of the Tarahumara people and popularising the exhaustion-hunting theory of why human beings run. It’s an easy, gripping read, and McDougall’s evangelism for running without shoes almost single-handedly started the current barefoot running boom.

Reading Natural Born Heroes, I couldn’t help thinking “here we go again”. Deploying his trademark brand of infectious certainty, McDougall has got a new fitness lifestyle to sell his readers: High Fat Low Carb (HFLC), aka the Paleo or Banting diet. In McDougall’s account, the sports nutritionists have been getting it wrong for years, and carbohydrates are actually a terrible fuel for endurance sport, being both completely inefficient and a source of health and injury woes. Instead, we should be training our body to burn its fat reserves, which is a much more natural fuel source. He cites several examples of elite runners who switched to a fat-based diet and saw colossal improvements in their performance. In a link to his history of the heroes of Crete, he is quick to point out that the traditional Cretan diet involves lots of fat and limited carbohydrates.

Why “dangerous”? McDougall writes in such an accessible style that it is easy to forget he is not a scientist, and that the scientists he does cite do not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion. Many people injure themselves making ill-advised shifts to running barefoot without proper training. Equally, many people may be setting themselves up for health problems if they switch to a HFLC diet without proper consideration. In some people, the diet seems to lead to insulin and ‘bad’ cholesterol issues, not to mention reduced performance.

My own view about both barefoot running and HFLC is that we are all individuals, and what works for one person’s body may not work for another. I also think there are a lot of separate issues being confused in McDougall’s book. Many of the people mentioned as HFLC converts in the book will have seen benefits simply by switching from bad eating habits to thinking more proactively about their diet. It’s noticeable the author himself says he previously would eat pizza and cheesesteaks, but lost the cravings for that kind of junk once he switched to HFLC. Have you ever seen a cheesesteak? It’s a crime against food.

The other thing that makes me very suspicious about movements such as HFLC and barefoot running is that they often come hand in hand with someone wanting to sell you something. With barefoot running it was Vibram Fivefingers – the nonsensical concept of shoes for barefoot runners. With HFLC there is a whole industry of cookbooks and fat-crammed ‘natural’ food products. But perhaps the thing that truly offends me is the Bulletproof range, spearheaded by Bulletproof coffee, mentioned briefly in Natural Born Heroes as the secret potion that helped the LA Lakers NBA team turbo-charge their basketball skills. Bulletproof coffee, sold online and in London hipster coffee shops, is highly expensive gourmet coffee. With a big knob of butter in it.

As Roger Hargreaves might say: how silly.

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“Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich

If I took one thing away from this book, it was this: Pacing a marathon is like making love to a beautiful tree frog. These amphibians stage contests of sustained mating shouts, and those males who can croak all night have the best chance of ending up with Mrs Frog. But many of them stuff it up. Males who are trying to get noticed in the frog chorus often give longer, more attention-grabbing calls. Yet such calls are much more costly in energy terms, and frogs who overdo them typically run out of stamina, hit the wall due to glycogen depletion, and fail to last the night. The steady-paced frogs, standing together, hand-in-hand, have the best chance of winning the mating ultramarathon.

This is a gloriously unique book. Bernd Heinrich is world-class biologist and ultramarathoner, and a man who really wants you to share his love for dung beetles. Heinrich draws on lessons from the animal kingdom to explain the different ways in which nature tackles the challenges posed by endurance activity. By studying phenomena such as the aerobic capacity of antelopes, the cooling strategies of insects, and the migration activities of birds – arguably the greatest ultramarathoners in the world – he illuminates what happens to our bodies when we run, and why humans have evolved to become such superb distance runners.

The tree frogs and lizards get it in the neck in this book though. Just about every experiment into these animals’ VO2 max seems to culminate in the unfortunate subjects getting blitzed up in a blender so their levels of lactic acid can be measured. You should never accept a smoothie off this man.

Heinrich is an entertainingly self-aware nutcase, and the book is structured around his quest in 1981 to win the American 100k championship on his first attempt at the distance. Training with virtually no knowledge of sports science, Heinrich retreated to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods and experimented on himself, using his understanding of animals to test out ideas about diet, pacing and training.

From the bee kingdom, he noticed that flight endurance is almost entirely down to the amount of carbohydrate in a bee’s stomach, in the form of concentrated nectar. An abortive long-run experiment with a quart of honey (hello bushes!) made Heinrich look for other sources with the right mixture of carbohydrate and water. There was one obvious candidate: beer. Admirably casting common sense to the wind in the name of science, he tried drinking a 12oz bottle midway through a 20-mile run. The result? A negative split! Clearly beer is the ultimate running fuel.

Except of course, it isn’t. Those of us who aren’t mad professors living alone in a cabin in the woods can quickly foresee what happens when he tries this in a long race. The plan? One beer every 4 miles. The result? Nausea and a DNF.

Throughout the book there are all sorts of interesting asides and gems of information for the non-biologist. Why do chickens have both white and dark meat? Their legs contain myoglobin, a muscle protein that removes oxygen from the blood and makes it available to the metabolic system. This red meat in the legs is full of slow-twitch oxygen-demanding fibres that assist with endurance. The white meat in the breasts, on the other hand, is rich in the fast-twitch fibres necessary for swift, explosive power, such as bursting into flight in a flurry of feathers when danger approaches. This mixture of white and dark is the reason why chickens can’t fly very far, but can run on the ground forever. By contrast, long-distance fliers, such as geese, have very dark breast meat to assist their wing muscles in flight.

Those who have read Born to Run will be familiar with some of Heinrich’s central findings about how humans have evolved to run long distances, primarily because Christopher McDougall lifted them wholesale from this book. If there is one game-changing development in the history of human evolution, it is our ability to sweat profusely. No other animal can perspire in buckets like a human. This was not just useful so that we could sell Global Hypercolour t-shirts to one another, but also so that we could keep cool when hunting on the African plains. Our non-sweating quarry, by contrast, would slowly overheat as we chased it over many miles. Endurance hunting – chasing antelopes to exhaustion – allowed us to eat meat in abundance, which in turn (so the theory goes) allowed our brains to develop more quickly through access to more protein.

As the author points out, other animals have cooling strategies too, and there was nothing inevitable about the development of sweating. Had we been aerial creatures, we might have followed the example of bees, and regularly vomited over ourselves to keep cool (this justifies my behaviour on a particularly steamy night outside Hussein’s Kebab Van c.1999). Or if we had been carrion birds prone to perching in one spot, such as vultures, we could have developed the party-piece of defecating all over our legs (this does not justify my baby son’s actions yesterday morning). Demonstrating that Germans do indeed have a sense of humour, Heinrich concludes that “anyone who has ever been running hard on a sweltering day will be able to identify with such behaviour”.

Heinrich’s main point in Why We Run is entirely absent from Born to Run though. In his view, endurance hunting and ultrarunning are both manifestations of an evolutionary quirk unique to humans: the pursuit of long-term goals and dreams. Chasing animals to exhaustion takes a very long time, and requires the sort of internal vision that finds the chase itself rewarding, but also allows us to keep the prize/prey in our minds, even when it is out of sight and smell. In Heinrich’s view, “We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals, because through millions of years that is what we on average had to do in order to eat.” Only humans have the mindset to undertake such long-term activities without an immediate reward, and it arguably benefits us in other aspects of life too, such as agriculture and collective government. When we train for months on end to run long distance races, we are experiencing a “substitute chase”, taking ourselves back to those early days when what we wanted most in life was a sweet, tasty antelope. Nowadays, of course, we always have the option of putting it in a blender at the end.

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“The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop” by Bill Jones

I’m a big believer in the idea that single moments in time can change the whole course of someone’s life. In my own case, it was a fateful decision in 1996 to stop eating Pickled Onion Monster Munch, an act that made me (and my breath) immeasurably more popular with the opposite sex.

For John Tarrant, the subject of this book, it was his teenage decision in 1950 to accept £1 for fighting in a local boxing match, unaware of the consequences. That seemingly simple act would result in him being branded a ‘professional sportsman’ and banned from all amateur sport for life, based on the strict codes of the time. When Tarrant tried to join Salford Harriers running club a few years later, having realised he was a terrible boxer but a talented runner, he was suddenly confronted with the full force of an establishment that refused to let him in. Given that most road races were run under amateur rules, he was effectively banned from participating in any running event. Just imagine. No London Marathon. No Great North Run. Even the Didcot 5 would be off-limits.

The Ghost Runner is the story of what happens when a relentlessly pig-headed man faces up to an unforgivably uncompromising and out-of-touch bureaucracy. Prevented from competing legitimately in marathons and other distance events, John Tarrant began ‘ghosting’ at races, turning up on a motorcycle in disguise at the last minute , then leaping off and joining the pack. Stewards would try and catch this man without a racing number, but he could always outrun them. The press loved him, and the moniker of ‘ghost runner’ stuck.

Tarrant is a difficult man to like. He behaved abominably to his long-suffering wife, virtually abandoning her and their young son in the pursuit of high mileage (he reached over 5000 miles a year eventually). He then literally abandoned them both for a couple of years later in life, when he emigrated to South Africa to pursue his dream of winning the Comrades ultramarathon. He was also lazy in relation to anything that wasn’t running and absolutely fixated to the point of madness on the Great Matter of his professional status, which he spent decades trying to overturn. On many occasions in the book he sounds like the dinner party guest from hell, and you wonder why anyone wanted to spend time in his company.

And yet despite the above, he was an easy man to admire. Born just before the Second World War, he was evacuated to a children’s home for seven years during the war, where he was brutalised by staff and spent most days in a state of misery. His mother died while he was there, and when his dad finally collected him in 1947, it was with a new wife in tow. His difficult personality therefore had understandable roots. His later passion for running is jaw-dropping in its intensity, and he would eventually set world records at the 40-mile and 100-mile distances. What is even more incredible is that he set those records on a track, which meant he had the mental control and stamina to spend up to 12 hours running in circles (400 laps!).

Tarrant’s story is a fascinating one, especially his time in apartheid-era South Africa, an experience which forced him – for once – to look critically at the world that was going on around him. However, I am sad to say that the part of the book I related to the most was the description of his bowel problems. Tarrant was a consistent sufferer of the ‘runner’s trots’ or ’gingerbread man’, which meant he was often forced to dive off into the bushes during races, sometimes forfeiting the lead in the process. I’ll freely admit it’s happened to me too, usually during a hard interval session. I once terrified the staff and patrons of the Spread Eagle pub by running straight into their bogs at 5:30 minute-mile pace in full lycra and sunglasses. I probably terrified their cleaners afterwards too.

The tragedy in Tarrant’s case is that his gastro-intestinal problems were probably caused by repeated exposure to asbestos during one of his many industrial jobs. His early death from cancer at the age of 42 was almost certainly caused by this. For my part, I can only blame the childhood diet of Monster Munch. Just say no, kids.

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