Surviving an ultra

The start line of the UTLO 82km

The Nobbler is run by runners. Amongst us there are speedy 5k’ers as well as ultra distance plodders. I thought I’d put together a survival guide for the latter, the ultra distance. Just some suggestions that have helped me survive a few ultras.

Nutrition

There is so much guff written about nutrition. The web is a noise of contradictory advice, influenced heavily by the marketing teams of energy products. My experience has taught me two simple things:

  1. Consume around 300 calories per hour.
  2. Eat whatever works for you, gels, nuts, fruit – anything goes.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to test out your nutrition before race day. Try different types and brands out whilst training. I’ve also baked my own energy bars before, they worked really well. Also consider a combination of sweet and savoury. I once had a packet of salt and vinegar crisps on the Glyder’s that changed my life.

Never try out new stuff out on the day of your ultra. What looks like a tasty energy bar at race registration could be the kryptonite super laxative you never wanted.

300 calories an hour for a 16 hour event takes some planning!

Hydration

Hydration is hugely important. Keep on top of it. It’s unlikely you’re going to drink too much, especially in the summer months, so keep drinking. In the past I’ve run for 12 hours and not needed a wee, bad news! I’ve since learned to plan hydration on the feed stations available (or river crossings in Snowdonia). Every wee stop is a pat on the back.

Everyone is different, but I aim to drink at least 500ml an hour. At trail ultra pace, that would mean drinking a litre every 10 miles, which is the typical gaps between feed stations on ultra distance events. If I have a little left before a feed station I’ll aim to get it all finished before I top up.

I’ll try and include some energy powder in my drinks, this can help contribute to the 300 calories an hour goal as well as help top up salt levels.

Kit

Much like nutrition, this is hugely down to personal preference. The key is running in kit that you’ve tested thoroughly in all conditions. I had a dream pair of shorts that turned to cheese graters for the inner thigh when they got wet. Test your kit on all terrains and in all weathers.

I won’t bore you with all the details of my preferred kit combination in full, but I’ll share my dream sock setup. I use a double sock setup with Injinji socks underneath and 1000 mile double-layer socks over the top. This combination prevents blisters, which can be debilitating on long runs.

mmmm, blister free toes.

I carry little strips of hypafix tape in my bag to cover any hot-spots if they occur. I find hypafix is also a great nipple protector! I also use a bodyglide bar in areas that are likely to chaff, particularly between my legs and over my shoulders.

Rain is a killer. When you’re running, there is no such thing as a waterproof. There is no material that can release your sweat but keep rain out. Get used to running whilst wet, the key is keeping warm. I won’t go into too much detail as this guy has already explained it very well.

Poles always divide opinion… unless you’ve used poles and have realised that they really help. If you’re taking on a hilly route then they can save a lot of effort on the legs and also help you descend safely. I’m a big fan of them and I’ll opt to use them if there are steep technical sections on the route. The flatter the route, the more odd looks you’ll get.

Pacing

This blog post is about surviving an ultra, not winning it (not that I could advise you on that anyway!), but there is one general rule:

First half- Don’t be an idiot.

Take it easy. React to the terrain and how you’re feeling, not to the other runners around you. Everyone is excited and keen to get going, but this is an endurance event and there is only one finish line. Relax. If you have a heart rate monitor, keep an eye on it to keep your heart rate low. You’ll be paying for any spikes in heart rate later on in the race.

I’ll let you into a little secret. Nearly all ultra runners will walk at least some of the route. Use your running wisely. There comes a point when you can walk faster up a hill than run it. All of your energy in a slow run goes into making you go up and down and not forward.

Second half – Don’t be a coward.

Keep going! You’re no doubt tired, your legs are aching, but this is what you came for, the challenge. This is the bit you’ll remember the most, the time when you were up against it, but pushed through to the finish line. It’s at this stage of the race you’ll start passing the runners who ignored the first half rule!

Maximise the help

Make the most of the help thats available. If you’ve got a support van, carry less. If you’re allowed a drop bag halfway, fill it with everything you might need.

This sounds obvious, but tactical planning of the help you’re offered can make a huge difference. For example in the Brecon to Cardiff Ultra race I took part in, there is a bag drop half way. Researching the course, I found that the second half fo the route was run on bridleway and tarmac tracks, whereas much of the first half is on single track and rough forest trail. So I started in my trail shoes and had my lighter road shoes in the drop bag.

Rinse the buffet.

Safety

If you’re part of a commercial organised event, then its likely there are safety measures in place. Mandatory kit lists will ensure you have the basics to keep safe and warm and there will likely be other runners or marshals around to help if there are issues.

If you are running by yourself then the responsibility for safety is firmly on your own shoulders. For longer runs I always take a survival bag (not survival blanket) and an insulating and waterproof coat. If you are running in areas where there may not be phone signal it may be worth considering hiring or buying a satellite tracker. This is a great blog post that will maybe help you think about what kit you should take.

Enjoy

Your attitude going into an ultra is the most important factor in whether you succeed or not. You will get moments where your mood drops. Just remember that the lows wont last forever and don’t project how you feel in those moments over the rest of the race.

Enjoy being in the moment. Don’t think too far ahead. Slice the route up into little sections (feed stations help with this). Enjoy the company of others, have a chat with the other runners and the marshals.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to take part in endurance events. You’re at least fit and healthy enough to enter the race, so you’re one of the lucky ones.

Good luck,

Tim

Dirty Dozen : Research

So sometimes we at Nobbler HQ come up with some silly ideas, we put them out there and then for some strange reason hundreds of people join in and sign up for them. The Dirty Dozen is up there, possibly the toughest one yet.

Taking inspiration from The Backyard Ultra concept but with a twist. We loved the idea of a set 4.2 mile looped course, runners starting each lap together, on the hour, every hour. Fastest and slowest toeing the line together with no real advantage to running it fast. Is about survival to see how many loops you can do and how far you can go.

The twist is that it only goes up to 12 hours (50 miles), but for that last loop (if any are still going!) it is a race. First one back is The Winner, simple. We also love the idea that people can set their own targets, if you do less than the full 12 then it isn’t a fail. You show up, you last as long as you can, run your heart out and you are a winner, simple.

Lots of talking and planning and then realisation it didn’t seem fair that we just make you do it. So one summery evening a few weeks ago Tim and I set out for a 12 hour run in the woods. We had a tough 4.2 mile loop set up with 560 feet of ascent and most of it on dried up muddy trails, perfect for a late night ankle roll. Not wishing to make it too easy we decided to start at 6pm and run through the night (no idea why we did that).

To stay compliant to lockdown we each ran opposite directions on each loop and only met back at base to refuel and sit and wonder what the hell we were doing.

Evening loops were beautiful, the sun was out and slowly setting, was a privilege to be out there for those 4 or 5 loops in the quiet of the woods. And then night came, torches on and back out on the hour to do the loops and try and avoid falling over (me anyway) in the dark on those hard trails.

The sun sets and the torches are out.

On the midnight loop I passed what I knew was the half way mark with no torch light coming the other way, strange. Tim’s torch finally appeared and wasn’t looking good. A pronounced limp and shoulders dropped, calf had gone (again)… Back at base there wasn’t much discussion, after 32 miles Tim was out, was only a trial run and no point doing any serious damage. So at the start of the 1am loop Tim limped off for the 2 mile walk home and I set off for the 8th loop.

The haunting little clock.

Alone in the woods at that time of night, running on autopilot was at first disconcerting but then became beautiful and calming. The stillness and absolute quietness was surreal, one of those times you can actually hear the silence. Three more hours and then the 4am loop started and the curtain of dark was slowly beginning to lift, as the light increased then so did the dawn chorus, before I knew it was daylight and time for the last lap home for a 50 mile total.

Although the circumstances will be different when we can put on the event, there will be a lot more people running together and the camaraderie will no doubt be intense, the principle remains the same though. Run a 4.2 mile loop on the hour every hour, run faster, you have more rest at base. Run slower you have less time to rest but running will be easier. There is a sweet spot and rhythm to find that will help you run further than you may think you can and for those who get to the end, good luck with racing 4.2 miles at the end of a 50 mile run!

It will be epic and we are so excited to share it with other runners.

Top 5 survival tips:

  1. Don’t go mad: The faster you run the longer you’ll be sat down waiting for the next lap. Balance your effort out, run the first lap like its your 12th.
  2. Use your cars: You can bring everything and anything you may need to help you get as many laps in as possible. Might need a foam roller? Throw it in the boot.
  3. Socialise: We see this event as a great chance to get to know people and you’ll have the chance to chat on every lap.
  4. Look after each other: The only race is lap 12 and many wont make it that far, so help each other out. Everyone has their own goals, whether it be 2 laps or 12, help them.
  5. Enjoy it: These events don’t happen very often, enjoy the moment. Running (or walking) is a gift.

See you out there.

Martin.

No Tech Tee’s!

We’ve had many people contact us over the past few weeks asking if we’re going to be selling event t-shirts. The answer is yes and er… no.

We are going to be designing and selling some great t-shirts but instead of technical running ones we are designing some awesome organic cotton event t-shirts to offer to you. We’re not however going to be selling the ‘technical’ running tee’s. The reason we’re not selling these technical tee’s is because they’re made of Polyester. Polyester is not great for the environment 🙁 

This article from VOX highlights the issue with synthetic clothing materials, but essentially, whenever you wash a Polyester top, a lot of micro plastics flake off and end up in the sea. It’s as straightforward as that. In a single 6kg washing machine load of Polyester tops, an estimated 496,000 micro-plastics escape and end up going into the sewage system and eventually the sea.

Sustainable clothing in sporting events

“Think about how many people are washing their clothes on a daily basis, and how many clothes we all have,” says Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth who co-authored a 2016 study on the plastic fibers that shed from our clothing. “Even when we’re walking around, not washing our clothes, tiny fibers are falling off. It’s everywhere.”

We hope you will understand why we have made this decision. We have the privilege of running through an incredible environment in Pembrokeshire and want to do what we can to keep it that way. It might be only a small difference in the grand scheme of things, but it is a difference…

We’re excited to announce some pretty big changes to our event in August. Before we explain what these are, we want to reassure you all that the race distances and dates are the same, however the start location and routes are all changing.

Why the big change?

This is pretty simple, the previous routes for our event predominantly ran through Canaston Woods. Since our last event, these woods have changed a lot because of harvesting operations. This deforesting and ‘thinning’ of the woods is continuing throughout the year so Natural Resources Wales are limiting the parts of the woods we can use for our events. This year the area of woodland offered is simply too small to offer anything other than a 10k route and  to be frank, it would be a boring route….that’s not the way of the Nobbler!

Before and after the deforesting. Photo taken from the same spot.

Our event is organised by trail runners and we decided from the offset we wanted to create an event that we ourselves would want to enter

So, what’s changing?

Firstly, we’re moving our start location from Narberth to a stunning location surrounded by woodland in Minwear woods which is at the far end of Canaston woods (8 minutes from Narberth by car). From there we will have direct access to both Minwear and Canaston woods. We’ll be using publicly accessible trails in Minwear woods  for the 10km and thanks to the super heroes at Slebech Park and some friendly farmers we’re going to use trails on privately owned land for the half and full marathon. 

What are the new routes?

We’re not going to publish the new routes for the half and full marathon as they use paths normally inaccessible to the public, however we will be setting dates for guided runs of all routes. We are very happy to show you a sneaky video of some of the trails. Due to the changes there will be far less tarmac and far more beautiful single track forest trails through incredible woodland. Seriously, these trails are stunning.

A sneaky peak of the new routes

The 10km and half routes have less climbing than in previous years and there is no killing ‘bank of doom’ to finish (which is the only downside we have found with these new routes!). The terrain on the new routes are faster too, more flowing and really exciting to run on. We are so excited to be have created these new routes with the help of some great land owners and we can’t wait to show them to all you Nobblers.

We’ll be updating you all with more information over the coming weeks, but because this is a new route, we’re strictly limiting places. We have a high number of entries already, so there are only a handful of places remaining for each event.

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

When we first came up with the idea of putting on a trail run we quickly put a website together, made up a few trails in the woods then opened up for entry . To our surprise entries started to trickle in and by the time our first run took place in August 2016 we had 240 runners booked in, 130 in the 10km and 110 in the Half Marathon.

Since then we have grown in popularity and we now have to cap entries to our events. The rise in entries and popularity of our events mean we’re likely to be doing this for a few more years to come. Knowing this means we can afford to invest in equipment, materials etc that would be expensive for a single event, but justifiable when we’re intending to use them over a number of years.

Light signs

Once such investment was the lit signs in this years Night Nobbler. We decided to make the woods a bit more interesting by creating and installing some motivational messages as well as a massive wolf head.

Now, you cant just go on ebay and buy a 4ft illuminated wolf head, you have to make them yourself. Making a 4ft wolf head is tricky so we sought out some expert help. There is a charity organisation in Pembroke Dock called FabLab. FabLab can give you free access to loads of kit! Such as 3d Printers, Laser cutters etc and amongst the wealth of gadgetry they have is a CNC cutting milling router that can cut 4ft X 8ft bits of ply. Perfect. We hooked up with the people at Pembrokeshire CNC at FabLab.

We sent over our wolf logo file and it was converted into a cutting file. We included the lettering for the other light signs in the cut too. We sourced some sustainable Plyboard and took it down to FabLab and they worked their magic…

 

We picked up the cut out ply and then then painted it black and added some light diffusing perspex behind it. Here it is the shed…

Here is the wording in the woods. The ‘RUN YOUR ♥ OUT’ was in a different location.

Trophies

Just a quick note about your trophies too. We wanted to move away from the crappy plastic ones that nobody really likes. They’re awful looking, made from an unsustainable material and expensive. Again, looking at the long term we decided to invest in some kit to make them in-house. We bought a laser etcher! It came from China and was very cheap…  because it came with no software and arrived in 143 pieces. A week later after lots of Googling we had a working etcher. We did lots of tests on some cheap pine before sourcing some Pembrokeshire OAK.

Other bits

This year we used compostable cups made from recycled paper in our water and beer stops, as well as for the hot drinks at the start/finish area. We also used a special reflective material for marking the route. The material is reusable and has been stored for use next year.

Narberth Nobbler for Kids

Thanks to all who took part in our 2018 event. 

Sponsored by Liz’s Bakery, Narberth

Is your child fast enough to catch the WOLF?!

Come and find out on Saturday. Entry to the event is FREE and we have super bling medals for all race finishers. The medals are kindly sponsored by Liz’s Bakery in Narberth.

All races will take part in Narberth Rugby Club.We’re doing separate races for each year group in primary school. Please enter your child in the year group they were in in the last academic year (i.e. the year group they were in last week, not in September).

Registration

Registration will open in the rugby club at 4pm. Registration will be open all day, but please register your child in a timely manner before their race. You will need to fill in a simple form and you will be given a coloured wrist band for your child. We will be calling out wrist band colours to organise the races.

Children must be accompanied by a parent at all times. You may also run the race with your child, but is not mandatory.

RACE 1

All pre year 1 children – 1 lap – Start pen at 5:00pm / Race at 5:05pm.

RACE 2

Year 1 – 1 lap – Start pen at 5:05pm / Race at 5:10pm.

RACE 3

Year 2 – 2 laps – Start pen at 5:10pm / Race at 5:15pm.

RACE 4

Year 3 – 2 laps – Start pen at 5:15pm / Race at 5:25pm.

RACE 5

Year 4 – 3 laps – Start pen at 5:25pm / Race at 5:35pm.

RACE 6

Year 5 – 4 laps – Start pen at 5:40pm / Race at 5:50pm.

RACE 7

Year 6 – 4 laps – Start pen at 5:50pm / Race at 6.00pm.

We’re looking forward to seeing you all.

Race timing – Our solution

Note: We have developed the below system into a commercial product. For more information on the hire or purchase of this system please go to https://www.realtimeracing.co.uk/.

We all love completing in events and we all love looking over the race results after. When we decided to start organising some races in Narberth we didn’t ever think it would prove as popular as it has. This growth in entry numbers has given us a problem with race timing. Manually entering 500 race numbers into an excel sheet from a hand written list of results is no fun and it takes bloody ages.

These days runners expect for the results to be available the same day, if not in real time on the web.

We had to up our game.

There are a number of paid-for services you can hire in or purchase. These are all pretty expensive. Purchasing an off the shelf radio timing system costs about £5,000. Hiring in a service cost around £1 per athlete (£500 per event). Neither of these options appealed to us as we wanted to maximise the amount we could give to local charities. We had to think outside of the box so we bought a little box and put something techy in it.

RFID Race Scanning Hardware

As a web developer I know my way around a database and the programming scripts needed to manipulate the data, the problem was how did we capture the data in the first place? After snooping around the web I discovered RFID  (Radio-frequency identification). RFID is essentially a little chip that can be scanned from an RFID reader. All RFID chips have unique codes so we can give each athlete and RFID chip and then record their finishing time against it. You can buy wristbands with RFID chips in them so each entrant could be given one at registration. Once scanned we can monkey around with the data to product some finisher times. Theory in place we needed to build an RFID scanner…

RFID WristbandI knew that a little computer known as a Raspberry Pi could do the scanning for us and store content to a MySQL database. I got the soldering iron out and had a play. After frying a few Pi’s I had a working scanning system. The system runs off a USB phone charging battery and the Raspberry Pi Zero W can run off it for 52 hours. The scanner can record a RFID chip against a time every 0.3 seconds. We found that 0.3 seconds was about right to scan a chip just once but be speedy enough to let the next person scan quickly. In trials I left the chip on the scanner and it recorded 165,000+ entries without failing before the battery died.

RFID Scanner

For the nerds out there, the Pi runs a Python script which is constantly looking for RFID chips near the scanner. When it detects one it writes the RFID chip ID to the database against a time.

RFID Race Scanner

The next step was how to create a live results system. I connected the Pi to a hotspot on my mobile phone. I set up a smart database synchronising tool which then POSTed new database entries on the Pi to a remote database on the WWW. The WWW version of the database is then read by a PHP script, does some calculations and shows the results in a list, split off into the different races (10km, Half and Full marathon).

RFID Timing Live Results

This timing system will be used in our event in August.  We have 500 wrist bands ready to hand out to our runners at registration.

The total cost of the timing system is £32 with infinitely reusable Nobbler customised wristbands coming it at 60 pence each.

Update November 2018

Since I wrote the above, the timing system has had some software and hardware updates. We have now included live SMS updates to runners as they scan at the finish. They receive their finishing time and their position instantly if there is mobile signal, if not it stores the race info until there is signal then does a bulk send of them.

I have also added in real time posting to a Google Firebase database. We have a page hosted with them that pushes real time results, so there is no need to refresh the page. This links in with a results screen at the finish line of our events, showing runners their finish time and position there and then.

Update March 2019

The system has been updated again! This time we ran an orienteering challenge with the timing system. It was a slightly different challenge as we had a rolling start and the results system had to allow us to verify how many of the 8 stamps the runners had found in the 2 hours they had to complete the challenge. We devised a system that scanned runners (who ran in pairs) at the start of the race, then scanned again once they’d finished, to calculate their total running time. We then created a little ‘admin’ page to allow us to assign the number of stamps collected against their record in the database.

It worked well. We had a live results screen at the finish, run from a Pi B+3 using MySQL pushing out JSON data and the client side scripts used Vue.JS for updating the screen in real time (well, every 15 seconds). The results website can be seen here https://results.narberthnobbler.co.uk/.

Why you should run on trails

Yes, I’ve done a lot amateur sport type stuff. I’ve played rugby, mountain biked, road biked, surfed, swam and even featured in a wiff waff tournament as a 9 year old. I thought the pinnacle of my amateur and terrible sporting career was completing Ironman Wales for the 2nd time but I was wrong. It transpires that Ironman, together with every other sporting thing I’ve done has just been a stepping stone to becoming a terrible trail runner.

There are multiple reasons why trail running is the most superior of all sporting pursuits, below are the reasons why it’s better than your current rubbish sport of choice.

Before you read on, bare in mind that this is written from the perspective of a working dad of two young children. I don’t like to spend too much time away from the family so I like to get the most from the few hours a week I have to exercise.

Road Running

Feed your soul

I get that at some level exercise is exercise and pushing yourself hard on a road run is just as rewarding as pushing yourself running in the woods, but that’s only part of our running stories. We all run for different reasons, but broadly speaking its to get our arses off the sofa, try and stay healthy and try and focus on something different for a while, a bit of an escape. It’s the later of these reasons, the escape, where trail running offers a bit more. Running in the woods, hills or coastal paths is far better for the soul than plodding along the pavement of your favourite B road. I’ve had genuinely euphoric moments running across the hills in the mist or during a heavy rain shower running in the woods. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced on the road and it’s probably something you’re not going to experience unless you give up your asphalt addiction.

You need to get over a bit of a hump with trail running, a speed hump. The bottom line is its slower, you need to accept that, your Strava average pace will drop, probably by a lot. It’s slower because…

Trail running is harder than road running.

Mile for mile you’ll need to put in more effort on a trail run.

1. The hills are steeper – roads are limited in steepness because a car has to be able to get up it. No cars, no limit. A proper trail hill requires the use of your hands.

2. The terrain is varied – it can sometimes (almost always in West Wales) be wet, muddy and slippery. There is a sweet spot in the weather which makes the mud in our local woods behave like GLUE.

3. You’ll rarely be able to get into rhythm, trail runs have a habit of sucker punching you when you’re just getting comfortable – nice crisp single track? Bam! Now you have to run up a boggy field.

Harder = Better for your fitness. I have a sneaky feeling that road runners know that trail running is harder and are a little worried they’ll see a dip in their 10km speeds. This leads me to my last point.

Nobody cares how fast you are. Seriously, nobody cares. My experience of mixing with other trail runners has always been positive, 100% of the trail runners I’ve become friends with are brilliant people who are super supportive. They will (and have) give you every bit of support you need to get around a route.

Cycling – Road

The dicking about ratio

90% of my running is done straight from my house and into the local woods. This mean that 100% of the time I’m out of the house, away from wife and kids, I’m earning my endorphins. No digging the bike out of a shed, no oiling chains, no pumping up tyres, no dicking about. I just find my kit (OK, I admit, that can take a while) and I’m off. The dicking about ratio is low. I’ve also yet to get a puncture whilst running.

100% work

When you’re running you are working 100% of the time. Ever tried sitting down whilst on a downhill without a bike? I did, I didnt move. In Pembrokeshire where I live it’s quite hilly, this means a lot of the time when I cycle I’m not pedalling, not much to be gained in that. Admittedly on a turbo you work 100% of the time, but that’s a pursuit spawned by Lucifer himself.

Because you’re working more of the time and because running is generally harder than biking you can get more exercise packed into less time. More bang for your buck. A decent run takes 2 hours, a decent bike ride takes 4+ hours.

A level playing field at 10% of the cost

You can get a decent basic running kit together for around £100. A basic decent bike setup is £1000. But the good news is that if you spend £200 on some running kit you’re not going to get much benefit from it in terms of speed. Spend £2000 on a bike and you’ll probably notice a big difference from your £1000 set up. Basically, William Wide Wallet ain’t going to get up that trail faster than you. Ain’t no such thing as Carbon trainers.

Taking away the kit factor means that if you happen to pass a runner out on the hills they’re more likely to look you in the eyes and not at your trainers. Biking can be a bit ‘my bike is better an yours’ or even more accurate ‘my bike cost more than yours’. Put your knob away mate.

Swimming

Before we start, I love sea swimming. I’ve had similar euphoric moments swimming in the sea in the summer than I have running on the hills. The problem is that these moments are few and far between and you’re likely to spend 70% of the time in a pool with a load of other swimmers. Sea swimming feels pretty natural and on a sunny day where there hasn’t been much wind you can see the sea bed when swimming, it’s amazing cruising along above it.

The problem with living in Wales is that if you want to dedicate yourself into becoming a good swimmer then you’re going to have to spent a lot of time traveling to and being in a swimming a pool. Swimming pools are brilliant places where you can get an all over workout for minimum expense, but they are artificial, man made environments which when busy can feel pretty overwhelming. Swimming in a pool is a means to an end, to get fitter and better and that’s the point, the good bit of a trail run is doing it, the good bit of a pool swim is the gain in fitness.

Conclusion

So, there you go, just my perspective on things. It’s all a bit tongue in cheek but maybe something to think about. Whatever your opinion on this you should definitely give trail running a go if you haven’t already. Some people love it, some people aren’t so keen, but for me its the most natural environment in which to keep fit.

As you may be aware we have a few events you get can involved in. Sometimes entering an event is the motivation you need to get out there training. See the 10km, Half Marathon or Marathon pages.

Tim – Nobbler