How to win a 200km Ultra doing things you are told you can’t do
Think of the following event: A collection of very highly intelligent people (from Harvard or some place) lecture birds on how to fly. Imagine bald males in their sixties, dressed in black robes, officiating in forms of English that are full of jargon, with equations here and there for good measure. The bird flies. Wonderful confirmation! They rush to the department of ornithology to write books, articles, and reports stating that the bird has obeyed them. The Harvard Department of Ornithology is now indispensable for bird flying. It will get government research funds for its contribution.
However, it also happens that the birds write no such papers or books, conceivably because they are just birds, so we never get their side of the story. Meanwhile the priests keep broadcasting their views to the new generation of humans who are completely unaware of the conditions of the pre-Harvard lecturing days. Nobody discusses the possibility of the bird’s not needing lectures – and nobody has any incentive to look at the number of birds that fly without such help from the great scientific establishment. (extract from the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb)
I now feel like one of those birds. Today we are drowning in knowledge and starving of wisdom. The knowledge then (which we seem to now have too much of) comes in two forms. The first type of knowledge is more of a way of doing things that we cannot really express clearly but that we end of doing well. The second type is what you acquire through education, at school and university, what is explainable, rationalizable and provable.
The problem is that today we rely too much on the second type of knowledge, almost obey this type of knowledge and dismiss the natural innate first type. Yet, and there are many examples of this, ironically it is often the first type that actually works in real life and ends up being “right”.
A classic example in this context is the “hydration” recommendations for athletes. The rational and “provable” recommendations that came out of the lab showed that we should be drinking certain quantities every 20mins or 60mins to stay “hydrated”. This has lead to a series of deaths from hyponatraemia where too much water is consumed resulting in extremely low sodium concentrations. A runner back in the 50’s and 60’s had no hydration recommendations and were not dying from hyponaetremia. They were barely drinking at all during something like a marathon. Why? Because our innate natural response to keep us hydrated is to “drink to thirst” (see Waterlogged by Prof Tim Noakes). In other words, we have our own hydration monitoring system that can look after itself.
So the rational and provable knowledge in this case was wrong. Another point to remember is how nature and natural instinct is usually right. If there is something in nature you don’t understand, chances are it works in a far more sophisticated way than you imagined.
Here’s a classic example of that statement. For years, they had no idea how certain bird species could migrate 1,000’s of kilometres to the exact same place for winter and summer. They have no sat nav, no GPS system, no maps and they can’t even use landmarks or even the position of the sun. However, they have recently discovered that birds like Robins make use of quantum mechanics to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. In fact, they use something called “quantum tunnelling”. Now, if someone had of said that 20yrs ago to you, you’d probably called them a “weirdo” or quack. If you meet me in 20yrs time from now, remember this 😉
So back to me and being a bird.
I run ultra marathons and I have won several. I work full time as a sports nutritionist and have spent the last several years looking into how the body makes energy the best and most efficient way. I started off by using the first type of knowledge… books and academia. However, over the last few years I’ve started to use and rely on the second type of knowledge.
And what I have discovered goes against a lot of that I initially “learnt” and I have found that what really happens is far more sophisticated than we actually thought.
So the books and the scholars, the intelligent men in black robes and priests are all telling me to do things in a certain way which I’ve already worked out through practice. And while they keep researching and working things out, I’m flying for longer and higher. Yet no-one really believes me, even though I am the one actually doing it. They have to wait until they are “told” by some evidence based scientific findings.
The power of Subtraction and Via Negativa
Today we think we get fitter, stronger and healthier by adding things to our lives. We add multivitamins, protein shakes, antioxidants, compression garments, GPS watches, recovery drinks, fat burning pills, immune boosting potions and apps for this, that and the other.
So we think that to get better, we have to add. Yet in most cases, the opposite is true. Addition of many of these things actually results in preventing the body from getting stronger. We are inhibiting the body’s own adaptation mechanisms by taking antioxidants, for example. We are inhibiting the muscles natural inflammatory response by using compression garments. So by adding, we are inhibiting.
Furthermore, the addition actually can lead to a negative influence. What if your battery in your GPS goes half way through a race ? If you start off without one, then you know you have to either know the course or know how to navigate naturally. You know that sleep is important and you use a sleep app to track your sleep etc. It’s now known that artificial blue light emitted from smart phones disrupts sleep by reducing production of melatonin.
So we’re inhibiting ourselves and actually hurting ourselves in many cases by addition. I’d rather remove negative influences first and subtract things before I even think of adding stuff. That’s what I’ve done over the past few years. Here are 3 of my main ones
Less is more and usually better. In this case, not eating breakfast increases fat adaptation and autophagy. Now it would take me another couple of 1,000 words to debate the skip breakfast = burn fat thing, but, in my context, it works. I’ve looked at all the research (knowledge type 1) , then I practiced it in the field (knowledge type 2). What I learnt in the field was far more valuable than what I read in the books. I’ve been training and racing without breakfasts for almost 5 years. I’ve started every morning race I have won (Mourne Mountain Way, The Abbots Way, The Giants Causeway, The Wicklow Way, The Kerry Way) … 70-200km races, all without eating anything for breakfast beforehand. However, I have trained both on foot and on the bike, without breakfasts, 100’s of times. I’ve also looked at everything in the theory from PPAR to AMPK to CPT-1 to SIRT-1 to PGC-1 and more. So I’m not just going on a whim. What it has done has massively increased by body’s ability to use fatty acids as a fuel source, reduced my need for glucose, ramped up the machinery I need to have and upgraded my engine. Not eating breakfast promotes all these adaptations. In the race situation, waking up at 5am and starting the race at 6am, is simply impractical for breakfast. Besides the fact that my body is not programmed in terms of circadian rhythm and molecular timing to intake food that early, who wants something sitting in their stomach close to run time ? So I’ve built the machine and installed the programmes I need to be able to run long on an empty stomach. Hence when I wake up on race day, I don’t have to worry about eating breakfast. Subtraction in this case adds to my fat adaptation, my digestion, my sleep (no early breakfast alarms needed) and my worry free time.
About 3 years ago I just stopped wearing a watch. I think my watch broke and I just never replaced it. Felt better. I then started going out on various training runs… 1hr, 2hr, 5hr… and never did I feel the need to know the time nor was I ever much under/over the time I had planned. So simply from that perspective, I have become better at feeling the time. This means I have a deeper sense of how long I am running. Without the watch, I can’t see what speed I am running at. No km/hr or beepers telling me how many miles I have run. This has made me understand my own pacing better and judge the distance I have run better. So I don’t need to know I am running 6min/km or 9min/km… in fact , I don’t want to know. I run at the speed I feel good running at in the present moment. Why is this better ? I was once running with a friend… he looked at his watch… we were running slightly faster than he had planned…. The minute he saw this I noticed him get a bit uneasy. His mind then was telling him he was running too fast. And the mind is a powerful thing. The same goes for heart rate…. If you feel comfortable running at 10bpm higher than your “prescribed” number, then why change and run slower ? Running is simple and the body is clever. I would rather let me body tell me what to do than a gadget on my wrist. This is via negativa… remove the negative influences. Or a classic quote “keepings one distance from an ignorant person, is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.”
No Carbohydrate Reliance
Okay, I’m just going to write a paragraph here. If you want more, you can first read the article I wrote on this almost 5yrs ago (http://www.optimumnutrition4sport.com/?page_id=547). It’s a bit rough around the edges and I have learned more since, but it sets the tone.
Again, over several years, I’ve learnt and practiced ways of improving my nutrition through a lower carb/higher fat diet. Simple as that. We’ve been fooled into thinking glucose is our only fuel source for exercise. We’ve then been fooled into thinking that we can only get glucose from carbohydrates. And to top it all off, we’ve been fooled into thinking that every level of exercise whether you are running at 6min/mile , playing tennis or going for a hike, needs a high carbohydrate diet.
So to cut to the chase, if you reference my article I’ve already written, you can see that the process for making energy (ATP) starts off with a pre-cursor called Acetly-CoEnzymeA. This can be made from carbohydrate. The same bloody thing can be made from fat too. It can also be made from amino acids. All I’ve done is made the pathway by which the pre-cursor is made from fats, much better. This means that I do not need to eat as much carbohydrate as was once thought. My fuel system operates very effectively on fat, I can still eat some carbohydrate (and people like to think low carb = no carb, it doesn’t) and I can eat then more fat. It amazes me how many debates there are about this today when it’s plainly obvious to me. A simple analogy I keep using is to consider a nice BMW 7 series with a big 4 litre engine. Then attach a nitro engine to the top of the bonnet. Then keep revving the nitro engine and driving around at high speed in 1st and 2nd gear. That would obviously destroy the car and burn out the engine. Rather, it makes much more sense to not use the nitro engine, fill up the big 4 litre tank and cruise around at whatever speed you want.
That’s all I’m doing with my nutrition. I use my biggest engine, I don’t have to fill it up often, and it runs very well. What I will say is that it has taken me years to upgrade this engine and get the right lines and systems in place. The day before The Kerry Way, I ate only 3 main meals.
Breakfast: striploin steak and duck eggs with tomato
Lunch: pork fillet with avocado salad
Dinner: salmon filler with roast courgette/pepper
Before you think of eating like this before your next race, realise that it has taken me several years to get to this position. A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes.
Now to get a bit deeper, this is where you might need to come back to me in 20yrs. The mechanism for making the energy unit ATP, happens through the transfer of electrons, called the Electron Transport Chain. A flow of electrons is called , in physics, a current. So we can say that the better the current flows, the more energy you can make. Now what makes an electrical current flow better ? Does water help ? Does light help ? Does certain magnetism help ?? Does temperature help? This could get very messy…. So to help the flow of my story, read on:
Laws of Nature
“I love not man the less but nature more”
I keep on harping on about this. We are designed to live with nature. Yet modern society tries to first , control nature, and second, remove you from nature. We have 24-7 heating, when we are designed to deal with the cold in winter. We have 24-7 lighting, when we are designed to live with natural light.
We’ve then built gyms and indoor training facilities when we are designed to exercise in our natural surroundings. We’ve made special enriched cereals when something like eggs is far healthier. We have made spreadable butters and unsaturated refined oils when real butter and unrefined saturated fats are better for us. We’ve then tried to remove fat from foods , like low fat milk, cheeses, meats etc when that’s how they exist in their natural state.
Nature rules, full stop. Don’t try to change it. More importantly, connect with it.
Now a lot of what I have just said should be common sense. I’ve discovered that there is more to it than just common sense. There is a deep , very sophisticated science to it.
For example, Vitamin D3 production is controlled by the eye’s exposure to light. If it gets natural daylight in the morning , this helps production of D3. This vitamin is very important for a variety of biological processes and controls insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity controls the way you partition your foods and essentially how good you burn fat or not. So no natural daylight in the morning, no good fat burning for the day. A very very simplified explanation but I want to just outline what goes on.
Our hormonal release and function is also affected by environmental stimuli. We need melatonin to be released when we sleep. This is blocked by artificial blue light, the light that comes from smart phones, laptops and TVs. Sleep then affects several other hormones, two important ones are cortisol and insulin. Cortisol pattern during the day is crucial to your energy levels and mood . Insulin’s function, as already mentioned, is crucial to fat burning. So again, laws of nature… if you want to sleep well, have good energy levels, be in a good mood and burn fat… it makes sense to go to only expose yourself to natural light from candles or a fire.. And not have a smart phone stuck to your face.
Finally, on this subject of the Laws of Nature, remember what I said about electron flow. Now , most reactions that take place in our cells are either reduction or oxidation reactions. Back to schoolboy chemistry, loss and gain of electrons. This is how cell signalling works, how new molecules are created and how messages are sent. So wouldn’t it make sense that the way in which our cells work, how they communicate with each other… are matched with the natural environment ? In other words, the earth’s natural magnetic field should be coupled with ours. We should get sunlight at the right times and we should be cold when it’s cold. Conversely, we shouldn’t be uncoupled with the earth’s magnetic field by being bombarded with other non native frequencies e.g. wifi. We shouldn’t be indoors all the time and we shouldn’t be exposed to artificial light at nightime. Finally, we shouldn’t be warm all the time. Am I making any sense ? I haven’t even talked about quantum mechanics yet. To be honest, there are far more intelligent people than me that have already worked a lot of this out. Just go read books by T.S Wiley Lights Out and Robert O Becker Electromagnetism and Byrant Meyers PEMF.
All I will say in laymans terms is this, our bodies work better when they are connected to nature.
So for this race, I didn’t wear any electrical devices and I put my phone on airplane mode. I wore minimal clothing and I didn’t wrap up at night when it got cooler. I turned around and looked at the sun at sunrise and I touched the ferns and grasses as I ran by them. I ate natural foods and I listened to my soul.
State of Mind
There is no order of priority here but really, it all comes down to this. You are what you think you are. You can do what you think you can do.
Practically every situation, particularly in a sporting context, is ultimately determined by your mind. It is the central governor after all. The signalling from your brain controls how you move, how you produce energy, how your organs work, how you think, how you feel.
Most athletes I have met or worked with that win races and succeed… all talk about the power of the mind. Personally, in terms of my own ultra successes, I’m at the stage where I am saying its 80% mind/20% nutrition. The physical stuff doesn’t even come into it (it used do). I’ve already done what I need to do in terms of physical training. Now I’m more into how to train the mind.
I have learnt a lot over the years about simple ways of creating the right mindset. The biggest one in terms of what I use for ultras is the “living in the now”. I hear people talking about checkpoints and night sections and even finishing… when the race hasn’t even started. I now block all that out and focus solely on the present moment. That’s all you can control. To help this along even more, I use mindfulness, and I’ve just learnt the art of how to be mindful.
For this particular race, I used visualization techniques more than I have before. I had recced the course a month earlier so I could visualise my actual race. This is a fairly old school technique that athletes have been using for years. And it clearly works. For me, it created almost a surreal world. What was happening in the race was almost identical to how I had visualized it.
I don’t run with an iPod or any music. I listen to nature. People always ask what I think about for 26hrs. I think about life, it’s big. I also sometimes think of nothing. I just observe and immerse myself in my surroundings. I do go through almost an outer body experience sometimes, especially when the hurt and suffering starts. I have learnt how to block this out and enjoy the suffering. Sometimes I get these amazing clear songs in my head that give me unbelievable highs. I love my music and certain tracks sometimes come blaring on in my head and I can hear every note, bass, treble and drum. Some tracks from one of my favourite albums “Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall” come through. During this race, after about 5hrs of thinking about it, a track from “Mos Def” came on, it was in the middle of the night too and it give me this amazing lift !
You go through a lot of emotions, some dark ones, and you really need to deal with your thoughts. I went into the lead after 9hrs. Up until this stage I was running with others, one being the 2nd place guy, Sean. I know immediately when I am running beside someone whether I’m going to get on with them or not. It’s all about the vibe. I really enjoyed running with Sean. We ran together for almost 6hrs or so. I wanted to really go easy and “not race” over the first few sections. So I wanted company and to just chat and enjoy the journey. So this was good to have someone like Sean to run with but once we got to the 4th checkpoint, he was tiring a little and let me go off ahead. This meant I was out front, with over 100km still ahead of me to do and a full night section. This is when your mind wanders and your motivation goes funny.
So I spent the next almost 18hrs on my own, in the Kerry hills, bogs and mountains, with 9hrs of complete darkness, in the lead. Messes with your head a bit and you become very lonely. I had to pick myself up a few times. Usually I just tell myself to man the f*uck up. I’m harsh sometimes to others but I’m even harsher with myself. It worked.
It’s all a state of mind. Whether you think you can do something, or can’t , you are usually right.
I enforce this on myself constantly. I also know that these little thought patterns and feelings actually have an effect on your physiology. It can have an epigenetic affect. This means that certain genes can be expressed based on your thought pattern. Another deep area for discussion and debate that I am not going to get into here.
But again, no one can argue the mind is a powerful thing. At any stage of life, suffering, hurt, joy, trauma etc… how you think will dictate your outcome.
Skin in the Game
We are turning ourselves into a bunch of softies these days. We can manufacture almost anything to take away the hurt or effort. Escalators and electric toothbrushes spring to mind. We are then softies in terms of convenience. We are always trying to develop things to make life easier for us. Deshelled pistachios and parking sensors. I’d rather use the stairs, brush my own teeth, open my open pistachio nuts and park my own car using my own judgement. All for very good reason too.
I use ultras to escape from this soft world we live in today. We are all kept in a cage but the door is wide open. That open door is the start line of an ultra for me. 200km through the hills and trails, in any weather, with minimal food, minimal clothing, no watch, no gadgets, minimalist shoes, no leggings, no change of shoes, no time checks, no expectations. I’m anti-establishment anyway, almost to my detriment, as I would sometimes refuse something from the establishment, even if it actually was good for me !
For this race, I also decided to not have a crew also. The race officials advertise it as fully self sufficient race. In order words, while they have checkpoints, there is no food, no shelters, and just emergency water. They do allow “drop bags” for those without crew. I remember packing my bags the night before. I realized that my minimalist approach meant that I didn’t really need much out on the course. Water only really. The rest I was able to carry. I did end up putting some food into a few bags, but I think I only officially used 4 out of the 8 checkpoints. I had one long sleeved based layer at the halfway point which I never ended up using.
The rest was on me. A small lightweight backpack. 2 x 500ml water bottles, some food and the rest of the mandatory kit.
Thinking back now, besides 1. The Craft Beer I got from my Dad at CP4 and 2. The double espresso I got from CP6 during the night… I had no other outside help other than the water bottle refills.
So that’s me putting my minimalist approach to the test. Most athletes , and its natural, worry about clothing, foods, hot drinks etc… some athletes had 2 cars following them for the whole race. I essentially had nothing, but really I had more.
And the big test for me ultimately is what I have been preaching and practicing with my job for the past few years. There is all this talk and shouting going on about low carb, performance, fat/keto adaptation, blah blah blah. There are a lot of thinkers out there but very few doers.
Now I’d rather be dumb but a doer than clever and just a thinker.
I’ve now won several races practicing what I preach. I’ve worked with lots of elite athletes doing the same and I still currently do so. I’ve been saying for years that a lower carb approach to nutrition can increase athletic performance. I’ve been talking and doing it for years, that training in the fasted state gives massive adaptations. I am now saying that everything has to be linked together with the laws of nature in order for it all to truly work.
Finally I’ve realized that to really understand it, you have to have skin in the game. It’s too easy today to sit behind a computer screen and declare. Like I said at the beginning, we are drowning in knowledge but starving of wisdom. The wisdom can really only come with practice, trial and error. This also needs time and sacrifice. Yet people aren’t doing this today. They can look up anything they want on-line, become a self confessed “guru” and then claim this that and the other.
This goes for almost any job or walk of life too. People can portray themselves as experts without ever putting any skin in the game.
I’m not claiming to know it all either. It’s when I come up against people who want to argue and claim my theories are incorrect. They might be intelligent people but they have zero skin in the game. Next time anyone wants to argue about my approach, come run 26hrs with me.
So there’s a race report without really talking about the race. Just to surmise then, I had a lovely day out running from Killarney to Waterville. Took me about 12hrs I think. Cathardaniel is one of the most beautiful places in Ireland and I got to see it at sunset. I then ran through the night for 9hrs and went through a good bit of hurt. The early morning was grey but calm and I ran from Kenmare over the mountain back to Killarney. Arrived in just after 08.30. Felt pretty destroyed by the end but enjoyed the whole process.
However, the key to it all, in my opinion, is that I make everything simple, but not simpler.
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of this phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let’s call it Antifragile. By Nassim Taleb