Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Lessons learnt from Born to Run

After seeing a post on the Ultra running Community forum and thinking about the events of the past few years, I thought it was time to revisit Born to Run, as in the book by Christopher MacDougall. If you've not read it and you run ultras then you followed a different path into ultra running than I did. Before I read it I thought that ultra running was just something a select band of people with far too much time on their hands did when they got bored of running marathons. I was right. However, reading 'Born to Run' made me want to become one of those people, and made me believe that I could. Well, in a roundabout kinda way. It planted the seed of ultra running in my head, and did so in an impossibly entertaining way. I awkwardly glance around the room now when I think of how I was in the months following my reading of this book. Basically I would tell anyone who would listen, and probably many who wouldn't, that the Tarahumara were living the life we all should be living, and that there's this incredible thing called Ultra Running going on in the world without many of us knowing about it. Come on, you need to hear about this, people. Basically I was evangelising, and 'Born to Run' was my bible. When the initial excitement subsided and I got to know more about the sport I learnt that there was a fair amount of hyperbole going on in that book, and that the picture painted of the life of the Tarahumara didn't quite match the reality. The reality was in fact closer to that I'd already learnt of first-hand during my travels in South Africa; that their traditional way of life is under threat now they're learning how life is in the first world and wanting a piece of the 'action.' Many of us westerners believe that their humble existence is far superior to our vacuous, technology-driven way of modern life, and many of them believe that our vacuous, technology-driven way of modern life is new and exciting, and something to be strived for. I guess it could be said that there are pluses to our way of life and the Tarahumara's way of life. If I had to pick sides I'd say I'll have their day to day life but in a woodland glade on Exmoor or a leafy lane on the Isles of Scilly rather than the Copper Canyons.....and perhaps with the odd hot shower, and a washing machine.
So what is my point? Well, ultra running is awesome, but essentially it's people running from one place to another. When you look a little closer there is a story behind everyone's run from one place to another, and what led them there, but ultimately it doesn't make motorway service stations prepare wholesome, nutritious and affordable food. It doesn't stop politicians from lying. It doesn't stop pharmaceutical companies from making billions from highly questionable drugs, many of which may be doing more harm than good. Once you remember that you can forget what ultra running isn't and celebrate what it is. If someone doesn't 'get' ultra running then they're not going to, no matter what you say, unless they give it a go, and are willing to push through the pain barrier to discover the unparalleled beauty of the colossal endorphin high. Gimme a truckload of 70s LSD and it wouldn't come anywhere near the feeling I have experienced during the latter stages of an ultra run. That feeling of having gone way beyond my perceived limitations, come out the other side and seen the world through unweary, idealistic and tranquil eyes. There are such parallels for life in ultra running. The late Caballo Blanco said that the way to get through life is to have faith in something, and that's the same way to get through an ultra. He wasn't wrong. What ultra running has taught me is that I am capable of enduring a whole heap more pain than I thought I was. At first I felt I could only apply this to ultra running, and not to daily life, but when I think about the person I was three years ago and the person I am now it becomes clear what a difference the running has made. What I gained from ultra running also ultimately led to me getting to know God, but that's a different story for another day (and a few tens of thousand more words.)
What are my final thoughts on the matter? Well, I could talk about this all day, but I recently spoke to Toni Bernado, the national marathon record holder of Andorra, who shared Emil Zatopek's famous quote "If you want to run, run a mile if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon"may I add to that "If the different life you experience from a marathon isn't quite different enough, run an ultra." The messages of Born to Run (not the barefoot running thing, the messages about what ultra running can do for you) are all true as far as I'm concerned. Maybe there was a lot of journalistic license used, but if there hadn't been then maybe it wouldn't have blown my mind quite so much at a time when my mind really needed a shake-up, and I'm sure this is true for many others as well. Ultra running is getting more and more popular all the time, and that can't be a bad thing. No-one owns ultra running; we live in a capitalist society, but ours is a communist sport and always will be, so to speak.
*Signed copies of my book 'Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run' are available - am currently running a special promotion whereby a certain number of copies will be FREE POSTAGE (UK only sadly - rest of world has a postage charge). To get hold of a copy please follow this link.......  http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Everything-Will-Work-Out-in-the-Long-Run-signed-personalised-copy-Dave-Urwin-/251664671472?pt=Non_Fiction&hash=item3a986222f0 *

Thursday, 25 September 2014

My name is Dave Urwin and I am the marathon champion of Nauru

My name is Dave Urwin and I am the marathon champion of Nauru

Ok, so I can guess what a number of you may be thinking. Of course there will always be a few clever folks around who know exactly what and where Nauru is, but I’m guessing a lot of you are thinking something along the lines of “Nauru?? Where’s that???”

That’s certainly what I thought when I learnt of a man named Karl Hartman running a 3:48:06 marathon there on an unknown date way back in 1968, some fourteen years before I was even born. Little did I know, when I ran my first sub 4 marathon at the New Forest in 2012, I ran through sustained moderate rain and dodged New Forest ponies that thought it was a game to finish in 3:47:38, that I was conquering an island country in Micronesia in the South Pacific. That’s right. Nobody from that nation has run a marathon in less than 3 hours and 48 minutes in over 40 years since the day Karl Hartman smashed it. According to that source of all accurate and trustworthy information, Wikipedia, the island is 21km squared (half a marathon squared) in size, and so I’m guessing running a marathon there involves taking in a fair bit of the nation. It is a small country, and how many people actually run marathons there? I don’t know, but I do know that if I was to gain citizenship then my 3:36:02 at 2013’s North Dorset Village Marathon would be the national record by a colossal twelve minutes. What’s more, I know that performance doesn’t represent the best I am capable of by some way. I have never trained specifically for a marathon; both of my best efforts to date came at a time when I was either training for or recovering from an ultra, and I didn’t go into either knowing I was aiming for the best time I could possibly achieve having trained long and hard to do just that. If I was to really go for it could I set an unassailable Nauru marathon record? Quite possibly not; it’s entirely likely that if somebody was to turn up there and brag about being the new Nauru marathon champion then many of the locals would feel indignation and try and take his crown. Would they? Or would they think “We are from Nauru, we have the threat of potential catastrophes from a rising sea level, the threat of a major unemployment crisis ahead of us and all kinds of things that give us no time for trivialities like marathon running”? Well actually, looking at nations that have levels of national strife almost incomprehensible to us in ‘broken’ Britain, Waheed Karim of Afghanistan managed a 2:28:46 in the USA in 1990, and Sadoun Nasir of Iraq ran a hugely respectable 2:21:54 in Baghdad back in 1982. Couldn’t somebody from Nauru have popped over to London one year to post a sub 3? Surely the London Marathon organisers would have been in favour of giving financial backing to help somebody set a new marathon record for this nation?


So why is it that nobody from Nauru has beaten Karl Hartman’s time? Surely people from there must have run marathons since. It has to be down to the population, right? Well Nauru has a population of around 11-and-a-half-thousand. Ok, so that explains it…..or does it? Russia has a population of around 143 milllion, and yet the fastest time recorded from anyone of Russian origin is Aleksey Sokolov’s 2:09:07 at 2007’s Dublin Marathon, whilst people from the relatively tiny European nations of Belgium, Italy and even Moldova have run faster marathons than that! Yes, Moldova, with its population of 3.6 million, has produced a 2:08 marathoner -  Jaroslav Mushinschi did that at Dusseldorf in 2010. I could go on, and I will – China has a population of comfortably over 1 billion, and yet the fastest marathon anyone from there has produced was 2:08:15. This may be 16 seconds faster than the Moldovan effort, but lowly Bahrain, with its population of 1.3 million, has produced an athlete capable of a 2:06:43. Yes, Shumi Dechasa produced that stunning effort in Hamburg, Germany this very year.


So population has nothing to do with it. It must simply be because Nauru doesn’t produce good athletes. Right??.....NONSENSE!!!! Who has run the fastest over 100 metres and 200 metres since records began? Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. Which nation always wins the 4x100 metre relay? Jamaica. That Caribbean island produces sprinters who dominate the world stage…..and yet the fastest marathon run by anyone from that nation is Derrick Adamson’s pedestrian effort of 2:16:39 way back in 1984 over in Philadelphia, USA. If Jamaica produces such incredible athletes then Adamson, with a time like that, must have had time to get in one little fight during the race, after which his mum got scared and told him he was moving with his Auntie and Uncle in Bel Air once he’d finished….well at least that would explain it if the marathon took place in West Philadelphia. 2:16:39??? For that to happen surely he’d have had to do some chilling out, relaxing and maxing all cool and shooting some b-ball upside of the school around mile 24? Or could it just be because a nation producing great athletes doesn’t necessarily equate to there being brilliant marathoners? Well let me ask you, can anyone name me a world-beating Kazakhstani athlete? No? Then how did Nikolay Penzin, from that very nation, run a 2:11:59 in Prague back in 1978? A time that would still be a Jamaican national record by nearly 5 minutes today if anyone from Jamaica was to run it?


So there you have it. The level of national strife, size of the population and athletic pedigree of a nation have absolutely no bearing on the potential for that place to produce excellent marathon runners. What does this prove?


My national marathon record for Nauru, if I was to gain citizenship, would be pretty solid! ; )
The moment I broke the national marathon record of Nauru!



If you wish to order a signed copy of my book ‘Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run’ , which sadly contains no other fascinating facts about national marathon records from around the world, but contains the story of how I battled addictions and their horrific aftermath to become the marathon champion of Nauru, then you can order one from this link……

Sunday, 7 September 2014

When a marathon is half-empty or half-full

Bonjour! Well, let's start with the facts. This weekend, over the course of two races, I ran 39.3 miles at an average overall of around 9.31 per mile. This may have been quicker, but for a massive falling apart in Saturday's marathon at around mile 17 that I didn't really recover from for the rest of the race (although the sprint finish I managed indicates that there may have been a psychological element involved.) I'd last run Somerset Levels and Moors Marathon on my 30th birthday in 2011, so I knew roughly what to expect, although the passage of time had allowed me to forget just how brutal the hills at mile 19 and mile 24 (roughly) were. A mile or so before the first hill, after an uncomplicated steady run, almost stride for stride with my brother Joe, something changed in an instant. I have a number of theories on why this may have been. Looking at it holistically, I'd done very few long runs this year, hadn't had a brilliant amount of sleep in a long time, my diet could have been better of late, I may not have been too well hydrated (partly because a lot of my water went over my head rather than down my throat) and psychologically I may have known there was a big hill climb coming, and that I wouldn't be able to sustain the same pace going up it. During the first half of the race I'd seen a man head-butted by a horse (he was fine, just a little confused for a moment or two!), and had nearly lost my footing once or twice running through a potato field. Aside from that though, nothing especially out of the ordinary had happened and I'd enjoyed a comfortable run through stunning scenery with great company. When the low point came it marked the start of a deterioration that just didn't lift. If this had been an ultra race then perhaps in another few miles I would have felt better again after getting plenty of fuel on board and having slowed my pace for a while, but seeing as it was a marathon I just wanted to get to the finish as quickly as possible. It turns out this wasn't very quickly. It made me think of one of the standard "If you've done 100 miles this'll be a walk in the park for you" comments I'd overheard before the start between other runners. I'd commented at the time that in some ways a marathon is more difficult than a long ultra, because during a marathon there's an expectation that it should be one constant effort rather than being broken up into sections. If I had been on a long ultra I'd have taken time at the aid stations to properly refuel, but during this race I tried to just take on a little liquid, then take some for the road, not stopping for more than a few seconds each time. The shorter the race, the more expectation there is to just get it done, which brings us on to Sunday's effort......

For a bit of fun, seeing as I had a rare free weekend, I'd signed up for Bridgwater Half Marathon the day after the marathon. I had no idea how it would go, but seeing as it was 'only' a half, I still expected to run every step continuously. It may not be quick, in fact I wasn't even sure if I'd break two hours, but I was hoping just to enjoy the run and prove to myself that I was getting back towards a reasonable level of fitness compared to that I'd achieved in spring last year (probably the fittest I've ever been so far.) From the start I could tell that my legs weren't fresh, but I had also feared that it would feel like an absolute suffer-fest straight away, which definitely wasn't the case. In the first mile I was constantly overtaking people, and then gradually over the next one began to reach the point in the field where everyone had hit a steady pace. For the next few miles I would focus on somebody ahead who I would try and gradually reel in. Occasionally something would make me run a tiny bit faster (the sound of distant gunfire around mile three for instance), but I pretty much kept up a constant sustainable effort. Between mile 4 and 5 I overtook some people I'd been reeling in for some time, one of them saying "Hey, are you that writer?" as I passed. I had a brief chat, remembering a few people yesterday who told me they'd enjoyed my book and thinking that this is something that may happen during many races I run from now on, then a mile or so further down the road 'Eye of the Tiger' was blaring from some speakers in a house. I had a little bit of a dance, much to the enjoyment of the locals it seemed, and hugely enjoyed the next downhill section. I did have a bit of a low patch between miles 8 and 9, but there was never a point during the race when I was thinking I'd have to walk; the effort always felt totally sustainable, which is what I'm aspiring to in every race. During an out and back section I got to see those at the business end of the race, and tried to imagine where abouts I would be in the field if I'd entered on fresh legs. Before too long it was my turn to go past people who were further behind, and was surprised to see Jon Pike, who I'd met that day, just a short way behind Jon Tofts; Mr Pike had estimated a finish time of around 2 hours, 35 minutes whereas Mr Tofts had been aiming for around 2 hours. In the end they both finished together at around the 2 hour mark, but when I saw them close to each other with a few miles to go I was thinking either I'd been running a lot slower than I thought, or that the two Jons had both run like warrior poets. Luckily it was the latter, and although my last couple of miles felt tough I felt myself accelerating slightly, particularly towards the end. No sprint finish this time, but I did have a protein shake thrust into my hand just after I crossed the line. For the record it was disgusting but I drank it anyway.

So overall, during the course of these two races I got to run a lot in the sunshine, had some stunning views over the Somerset Levels and generally marvelled at how wonderful the outdoors is, got to chat with lots of great people about this sport we all love, and got to stuff my face after the races. What's not to like? A number of people have commented that what I did this weekend was crazy, but it just reminds me how all things are relative. As I sit and type this Adam Holland is shortly to begin his fifth marathon in five days, and after today he will only be half way through the whole challenge. On Saturday I met Isobel Wykes, who will be running round a 400 metre running track for 24 hours in a few week's time, presumably whilst trying not to be driven slowly insane by the monotony of the situation, and perhaps inventing lots of games to play throughout (shame I-spy doesn't work with one person.) About four years ago I was worried I wouldn't be able to run every step of one 10k race. Seven years before that I wondered if I'd ever even be able to walk a mile again. Putting one foot in front of the other is, like most things, something you just get better at with practice and more able to endure the more you do it. If you are able to run and you think a challenge like this is beyond you then the first thing you need to change is your mindset. Do that and the rest will fall into place.

Signed copies of my book 'Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run' are now available on a print on demand basis, can be ordered via this link.......


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Rebuilding ultra fitness (and making it stronger)

Thought it was about time I put a few words down as it's been a while. So, the possibly exciting news is that my name will be in the ballot for next year's Grand Union Canal Race. I have already begun training, so that if I get in I will be somewhere approaching ready to start ramping up the training by the time I know I'm in. If I don't get in then I'll be in a position to not waste the fitness I've built up and sign up for something else as a back-up plan.

So, how do you train to run 145 miles and come as close as you personally can to winning in the process? Well, my previous thinking was just to run a lot, but I have since come to learn that it's not only how much you run but the manner in which you do it that's important. If I was writing a column for a tabloid newspaper I'd no doubt draw a few comparisons here, but seeing as this is my good, wholesome family blog I will instead say that in order to train for the aforementioned I plan to run plenty but mix it up, and do some things I don't particularly enjoy usually, including the dreaded speedwork. Now don't get me wrong, there is something exhilarating about running fast, but I used to never see the point in running fast in preparation for an ultra, because when I have run fast during ultras it's normally only gone one way, which is a recovery death march that has dealt a blow to my chances of finishing in a time that won't make me miss any more meals than would have been strictly necessary otherwise. I usually rally later on; during the Oner I fell apart a bit after a relatively blistering start, but then during the final 40 miles or so I didn't ever feel particularly bad until right before the end, when the enormity of how far I'd travelled on foot hit me. Anyway, why am I saying all this? Well actually speedwork is a vital component of training for ultras in my mind. Why? Because it encourages good running form; you can't get away with sloppy form if you're running fast and will naturally compensate if your form isn't up to scratch. This will only help you when you're running long - more efficient form will make everything smoother and easier. Also, a good speed workout will arguably increase your overall fitness more than a 30 mile plod will. What's more, the faster you can run, the faster the pace you can comfortably sustain will be, and this will minimise your suffering during the race. Ok, so you may get less value for money but you may be finished in time to have a slap up meal at a suitable time and perhaps even to sleep at a reasonable hour depending on the start time. This is why I plan to incorporate intervals, hill sprints, tempo runs and all the rest into my training.

What else?? Well, I've never done enough cross training, and so it's time I got myself dahn the swimming baths a little more often. Also time to get the press-ups, planks, squat thrusts etc. on the go and to do them consistently, as boring as I find them from time to time. I'm thinking of perhaps setting myself challenges to keep myself motivated. Oh, and I've even thought about getting one of them kettlebells. I can't argue with the results I've seen so far, with people who are into all that stuff doing one-handed handstands and crazy stuff like that. I need me some of that. There'll still be plenty of honest to goodness runs as well, and the occasional long, slow run but nowadays due to less time on my hands and wanting to make every run a quality one I'll probably do very few 20-30 milers. Time on your feet is all good, but if you spend consistent time on your feet most days then it's probably worth more than if you stay off your feet plenty and then grind out a marathon-length training run. That would be perhaps somewhat akin to making a juice once in a blue moon and then claiming to be healthy despite not eating brilliantly much of the time.....but who would do that???

The thing that's been most intriguing to me is hearing tales of the kind of people who finish fast in the GUCR setting off from the start at 9.30-10 minute miles. Ok, so it's a very, very, very, very long way, but despite not being one of the quickest by a long shot I find it very difficult to limit myself to that kinda pace for any length of time. However, I also know for sure that this is where I've gone wrong in all of my ultra races to date; I've been thinking "I feel fine, so I'll keep cranking out some faster miles!" but you wouldn't sprint at full speed early in a 1,500 metres race would you? No, I'm going to have to teach myself to run very slowly, and keep running very slowly. I remember a time I ran a 20 miler with a clubmate at 10 minute miling roughly, and I still had masses of running in my legs at the end of it. There's an extremely valuable lesson there. So that's it, I will train for this race by running fast, running slow and running just right....and by doing stuff other than running. Easy!

If you want to pick up one of the final 10 or so signed copies of 'Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run' for ages please follow this link......


Monday, 14 July 2014

Back in the game, back to reality with a resounding thud. My back doesn't hurt.

Good morning, everyone

How are we all today? Well I can't speak for anyone else, so seeing as it's my blog I will only speak of how I am today. Well as ever I am thankful that I get to appreciate this beautiful morning, and that I have what I do, but tempered with this today is the knowledge that I am back on the mainland breathing the putrid air, drinking the questionable water, having to drive to get around and not being able to wake up every day unflustered and so inspired in multiple ways, but instead waking up every day hurried and with various different pressures closing in from every angle. In short, I have just spent around nine days on St. Mary's; the main island on the Isles of Scilly. Whilst there I breathed ample pure air, drank plenty of pure water, did a little swimming in the sea, ate plentifully and bountifully, slept wonderfully and woke up naturally every morning with the light of the sun, and covered plenty of distance by foot, including.....yes, you won't believe it, a fair bit of running! The running included some hills, and occasionally included me pretending I was leading in the final mile of Western States 100, looking back anxiously over my shoulder every so often to make sure I wasn't being too closely pursued by whoever was in second place.

There's something about being somewhere of stunning natural beauty and of great silence that inspires me to move my feet in some kind of rhythm, and when this doesn't entail Morris Dancing it leads to plenty of running. Having the time away from all the aforementioned pressures, of which I didn't mention any in actual detail, also allowed the time to get back into some kind of running form without wondering if I ever would again. This unhurried method reminded me how simple a thing running is, and that all I needed to do in order to run like I had run before was to actually do it. Just to run. My muscles (atrophied as they were from underuse) could remember how to do it, I just had to actually do it. Ok, so I couldn't go and bust out a sub 20 hour 100 miler tomorrow, but I would feel fairly confident of jogging a marathon in around 4 hours if there was a delicious banana cake at the end of it. Despite the even further increased pressures on my time that are to follow this time away, seeing as some unforeseen expenses at the end of it have left me right at the brink financially, I am absolutely determined not to lose this moderate level of running fitness I have crowbarred back into my life, and so whether it takes the occasional uber-late night jog, or the occasional uber-early morning one I most certainly WILL keep it up. In fact, I even plan on sharing the little wisdom I have accrued from my stumbling into running over the previous few years to coach people who are just starting out and help them to achieve their goals. Ok, so I'm not gonna coach anyone to take down Kyle Skaggs' seemingly impenetrable Hardrock 100 course record......hey, way to ruin my clever ultra running reference, Kilian!!!......Ok, so I'm not gonna coach anyone to take down Kilian Jornet's stunning Hardrock 100 course record, but maybe I can help someone who was where I was a few years back to get to where I did or beyond. Whyever not? Details soon to follow.

Ok, so it's a while since I did an epic blog, which is mostly to do with time constraints, and so to end this I shall mention the concept of shorecraft - being able to tell whether a tide is coming in or going out the minute you get to a beach. How is your shorecraft? Does it need work? I can help with that too! Take much care until next time......

Many of you already know this, but if anyone doesn't this is a book I wrote that fills in a few gaps left gaping by this blog post.........


Thursday, 26 June 2014

It worked out in the long run (sorry outdoor buzz for stealing your title ;) )

Ok, so I haven't posted in here for quite a while; never seem to find the time nowadays for such things as blogging, which could either indicate an extremely busy life or merely nothing to blog about. Maybe even both.

Well this is just a little post about what long runs have done for me. Well without wishing to be overly dramatic, I just don't know how I might have coped with elements of the past few years without being able to get out and run long. Simply put, just going out there and running long when I never had showed me large pools (I won't say vast oceans as that may be a little OTT) of strength and determination that I never knew I possessed. It's not an original thing to say, but knowing I had the determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other when my body was begging and pleading me to stop by firing up pain receptors in a number of different places allowed me to believe that I would be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other in life too, and deal with whatever could be thrown at me. I have two perspectives to share on this that can help back up my experience, the first is from a little tome known as The bible - you may have heard of it. This is from James 1: "For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing."

Whether you read the bible or not, the above verse speaks a truth that is surely relatable to any ultra runner - we have all been through those lows in races that seem like they might derail our chances of getting to the finish, but invariably if you push through them you will come out the other side and find new sources of strength to keep you moving forward. Having the knowledge that the lows will come but you can deal with them as long as you keep looking after yourself and putting one foot in front of the other is enough to bring any challenge into the realms of possibility.

The second sentence I would like to share is from the late Caballo Blanco; I saw a talk he gave in Bristol a few years back, around six months before he died, during which he said (not word for word): - "The way to cope with the challenges of life is to have faith in something. Look at running 100 miles; you will inevitably have times when you suffer, but you get through it. It's the same in life; you have low points, but you get through them. All you have to do is believe."

That is what I am getting at; once upon a time running a marathon seemed like an impossible dream for me. There came a time when I would think nothing of doing a marathon length training run. The long run allowed me to make the distinction between 'Can't' and 'Won't' and is still an analogy that helps me to realise I can get through the challenges life presents. Ok, so maybe I can't literally have a few hundred pounds taken off my debts by running long (oh how I wish it were that simple), but knowing what I have achieved by pushing through the lows in a running sense shows me what is possible, and is part of what stops me from spending each day freaking out about things I can't change with a click of the fingers.

My book 'Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run' (signed copy) is available via this link.....


Monday, 12 May 2014

Barkley Marathons: Interview with Frozen Ed Furtaw

Bonjour folks!

Ok, so a month or two back I did a dreadful thing and accidentally deleted my entire blog. It's easily done....right???

Anyway, I was delighted to rediscover this in my e-mails recently, which is an interview I did with Frozen Ed Furtaw, author of 'Tales From Out There' about the infamous Barkley Marathons. The original post also contained a quote from James Adams about his experience of running the event in 2012. Basically this equated to "It was very, very hard and I've done Badwater and Spartathlon and Run Across America" - my words, not his. I thought the timing of this post couldn't be more perfect seeing as this race took place over a month ago and everyone's buzzing about Transvulcania having just happened and looking ahead to GUCR, NDW50 etc. Anyway, here is the interview.......

1.  As someone who is running the Barkley for the 17th time this year, what would you say is the best way to prepare, especially for someone who lives thousands of miles away and can't really come and train on the course?
The runners who have had the best success at the Barkley ran a lot of steep elevation change in training.  For example, Mark Williams, the British runner who was the first ever to finish the Barkley 100-mile (in 1995), reported that he did training runs of 15 and 22 miles on back-to-back days, with 13,000 and 11,000 feet, respectively, of ascent (and the same descent), on each of the first three weekends of March.  It is also important to know how to find your way around an unmarked course, using map, compass, and written directions.  So some orienteering or land-navigation experience is good training.  Spend some time out in the woods at night, preferably alone, so that when you have to do that at Barkley, fear of the dark won't stop you.  Study the map of Frozen Head Park, and if possible go there before the race to run or hike the parts of the course that you legally can.  It is very helpful to have a good mental map of the course.  Since Mark Williams had never been on most of the course before his 1995 race, apparently he was able to develop such a map during his first few loops.  One European runner, Christian Mauduit, obtained topographic maps of the Frozen Head area, and actually built a three-dimensional topographic model of the course before he ever went to Frozen Head!  However, he still was able to complete only about one-and-a-half loops.

2. Ultrarunning in general is as much a mental battle as a physical one, but James Adams - a none too shabby ultrarunner from the UK, said he simply wasn't fit enough for the Barkley last year; what attributes do you think are most important for someone who wants to do well in this race?
The most important attributes for doing well at the Barkley are:
the physical and mental endurance to be able to keep going for 30 to 60 hours;
strength at steep hill climbing and descending;
the ability to navigate on rugged, unmarked terrain;
prevention of foot problems;
managing what to carry, and what to eat and drink on each loop and between loops;
dealing with little or no sleep for up to 60 hours;
and most importantly, relentless determination.

3. Barkley is designed to be pretty close to impossible to finish, but do you think the race could have kept going this long if no-one had still finished, rather than a handful of people?
I think it is essential that Barkley be within the realm of possibility in order to continue to be as popular as it is.  I believe that the race directors, laz and Raw Dog, adjust the race course over the years to try to have it as close as they can to the limit of what anyone can do, but to have it on the "possible" side of that limit.  If the race were so difficult that no one could do it, I think laz would change something to make it more doable.  This actually happened in the past.  From 1989 through 1994, the 100-mile was six loops with a 50-hour time limit.  No one even made a serious attempt to go beyond three loops in those days.  Then in 1995, the loop was lengthened a little and called 20.0 miles per loop, so the 100-mile race became five instead of six loops.  The time limit was also lengthened to 60 hours.  Mark Williams finished it in 59:28:48 that year.  No one else finished the 100 until 2001, but the fact that Mark had proved it possible kept other top runners interested in trying.  Over the years since 1995, the loop has been made more difficult, in my opinion, because the runners have gotten better.  This interplay of the course getting tougher and the runners getting better has been a beautiful evolution to watch and be part of.

4. One of the finishers, 'Cave Dog', was a climber who didn't really run a lot - do you think you actually need to be much of a runner to finish; for example, could a really strong hiker be well suited?
Several of the best Barkley finishers are predominantly long-distance hikers or mountaineers; Cave Dog is a good example.  Another Barkley 100-mile finisher, Andrew Thompson, had never run a 100-mile race before finishing Barkley, but he held the record for covering the full length of the Appalachian Trail, averaging something like 47 miles per day for 47 straight days.  These long adventure runs, like Barkley, are done with more walking rather than running.  I would say that all the Barkley 100-mile finishers were very strong hikers, but also they undoubtedly all ran some parts of the course.  Even as slow as I am, I do run parts of the course.

5. Part of the application process for Barkley is that you have to write an essay explaining why you should be allowed to attempt it; do you have any tips as to what race director Gary Cantrell is looking for with the essay?
I think Gary (a.k.a. laz) is looking to the essays mainly for his own amusement, and to tweak the minds of the entrants.  To the best of my knowledge, since 1988, he has not distributed or publicized the essays that runners submitted.  In 1988, he did distribute copies of the essays.  I once asked him what he thought of my essay that I had sent him a few weeks prior, and he said he didn't remember it and may not have read the whole thing.  It was a several-page-long science fiction story.  I think it was too long to hold his attention.  So maybe what he is looking for is something amusing and clever, but brief.  The essay is not a factor in his selection of who gets entered into the run.  However, an applicant's initial e-mail requesting entry may help a runner get selected.  This initial e-mail should get his attention by stating the runner's major accomplishments.  Highly credentialed ultrarunners probably get preference, because laz likes to get the best runners possible to run Barkley.

6. An unprecedented three people finished last year's race, and the course record was lowered significantly. Does this mean there will be significant changes this year to make it harder still?
laz has told us via the Barkley e-mail list that the course this year will have a minor change compared to last year.  It looks like the loop will be fundamentally the same as last year's, but with one additional descent and climb of several hundred feet per loop.  He said that it is still 20.0 miles, with zero net elevation change.  Most people who have been there, including myself, believe that the loop is considerably longer than 20 miles.  As I describe in Tales From Out There, I estimate that the loop length in recent years has been about 26 miles.

7. In recent years there have been plenty of men and women who've run races in the world of ultras that have been described as 'game changing', but I haven't seen any of their names connected with a Barkley attempt; I'm sure many would be intrigued to see how someone like, say, Kilian Jornet would fare at this race, but can you see it happening?
Most of the top ultrarunners who win other major ultra races seem to avoid the Barkley.  For example, of the approximately 70 North American runners who received votes in UltraRunning magazine's annual voting for Ultrarunner of the Year and Ultra Performance of the Year for 2012, only one (Hal Koerner) has ever attempted Barkley, back in 2004.  He quit after two loops, and has never come back.  I think the fundamental reason that most of the top ultrarunners avoid Barkley is that most of those elite runners love to run fast, and they know that Barkley is steep and slow.  Barkley appeals more to people who like to run and walk long and slow.  But there are exceptions to this generalization.  For example, Jared Campbell, who finished second in last year's Barkley, had won the Hardrock Hundred a couple of years prior.  To most ultrarunners in the US, this would place Jared among the top ultrarunners.  When David Horton and Blake Wood finished the Barkley 100 in 2001, they were both already considered among the top US ultrarunners.  Each had previously won Hardrock.  But most of the other Barkley 100 finishers were not so well established at other races.  Runners like Flyin' Brian Robinson, Cave Dog Keizer, Andrew Thompson, JB Basham, and Brett Maune are all nationally reputed in the small world of solo long-distance adventure trail running, but most of them have not run many of the more popular 100-mile trail races.  There seems to be two closely related but different groups of top runners: the best ultra race runners, and the best solo multi-day adventure runners.  The latter group seems to produce the best Barkley runners.  The Barkley does not appeal as much to the elite racers.  Of course it would be interesting to see Kilian run Barkley, but I doubt it will happen.

8. Finally, many have said that they've felt like a different person after running their first marathon, or their first 50 or 100 miler, but is this race off the scale in terms of how different a person you can feel like after attempting it?
For me personally, Barkley has been the most fun running challenge in my life, and the race that I have gone back to the most often.  I believe that my life would be somehow different if I had never done Barkley.  Every year at this time, I work hard to get myself into the best condition I can for Barkley, knowing that my training and condition will be inadequate to finish the full race.  But I use it as a measure of my fitness and determination.  I have always thought that being able to compete at the Barkley is a more diverse challenge that running other races, because of the extreme and unusual nature of the Barkley, and the need for navigation and self-sufficiency.  So I do think that Barkley has led me to be a somewhat different person than I otherwise would be.  It is difficult to describe, but I would say that the Barkley makes me more humble about my running ability; able to see the world more humorously; better able to define a challenge and plan to achieve it; and more willing to try something difficult and be willing to pay the price and accept the result of that attempt, even if the result is "failure."  Barkley teaches us that "failure" can be an acceptable outcome of our effort, as long as we have the courage to do our best.  It forces us to redefine failure, and to find success and happiness in the effort of the journey rather than in arriving at the destination.

Thank you so much again for taking the time to talk about this incredible race. It's a shame there's not an equivalent in the UK.......now there's a thought!  Maybe one day! Take much care,


You are most welcome.  I think it is entirely feasible to create a Barkley-facsimile race, in the UK or elsewhere.  There are already a few small Barkley-takeoff runs in the US.  If you are thinking of doing it, my advice would be to first come to the real Barkley and experience what makes it unique.

Best regards,
Frozen Ed

Hope you enjoyed, and I am contractually obliged to remind that a little tome I wrote is available here.....