Arriving at the unassuming Wendover pavilion on a clear crisp Friday morning I didn’t really know what to expect. I had the agenda for the day, and I knew Centurion’s excellent reputation, but how much could they really tell me about Ultra running that a myriad of internet searches couldn’t?
This was Centurions inaugural workshop so as James (Elson – Centurion RD and lead presenter for the day) stated it was very much a learning experience for them as well as the attendees. Supporting James from the wider Centurion team were: Nici Griffin (4xLakeland 50 finisher, admin queen and the fastest coffee maker in the West); Drew Sheffield (2019 Ultra-Trail Snowdonia winner, with over a decade of international level Ultra running); Sophie Grant (5xUTMB finisher, 2018 UK Sky Running Champion & 2019 Wendover Woods 50 winner); Charlie Harpur (British 100k champion and 2018 SDW100 winner); and Jack Atkinson (lead photographer for the day).
The agenda for the day was set-out: four key presentation blocks of roughly 45 minutes covering key Ultra running areas; a guided run around some of Wendover Woods; and a summary of the day to close. Introductions were then made, first from the Centurion team (it was amazing how modest they were, focusing more on their love for running than their achievements) and then from the sixteen Ultra runners who made up the attendees.
Everyone’s 30 second intro was varied: where they were from; what kind of running history they had (some had 30 years, some just a few, others were road runners moving to the trails); current goals (first 100 milers, mountain races, 100 grand slams to name a few); and what they were looking to get out of the day (quite a few were looking to put a few more pieces into the complicated jigsaw that is Ultra running). Most had run Centurion races before, Matt had even won the Piece of String race last year.
I think I was probably the least experienced Ultra runner present, given I only have one 50k to my name, but that was completely fine. I’m a bit of a preparer so I wanted to use the day to go into my first 50 miler (NDW50) with as much knowledge as possible, therefore hopefully ensuring race day is a fantastic not fraught experience.
The aims of the day were to:
• Increase our enjoyment of running;
• Condense the learning into easily digestible chunks;
• Cut the crap;
• Help us to achieve our goals; and
• Increase longevity
Questions were actively encouraged and no question was considered too silly.
Block 1 – Race & Adventure Selection
Easy right? Pick a race, train a bit, and go do it. But, is it the right race for you right now? Do you have the aerobic base in place? Do you have the time spare to train for it? If you’re running a race in the mountains do you have access to similar terrain to train on? Is it an A, B or C race? Do you have the appropriate skill sets? Do you have enough time before the race to train for it? Lots of questions there, nothing mind blowingly difficult, but when you put them all together quite a bit to ponder. Saying all that James was also keen to state that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail, in the long-run it will help to build us as runners.
James preached consistency when it came to training, he’d much rather have a someone running 5×5 miles a week than someone running 25 miles long at the weekend and as a result struggling to run in the week. Very much a focus on reducing the dependence on the weekend long run.
Adding to skill sets was interesting. Given the multitude of Ultras out there in differing conditions, what does an individual runner need to focus on? Hills? Long-running? Dealing with the cold? Heat training? Running self-supported? Navigation? Recovery? Using specialist equipment? Technical terrain? These are all things that can be added to an Ultra runner’s toolkit over time, but James recommended just focusing on adding one skill set in a specific training block.
Block 2 – Writing and Executing a Plan
This was by far the longest and most in-depth session, and to be honest what most of the attendees were keen to learn more about.
I’ve been using a LONG (19 week cut down from 24!) plan from Relentless Forward Progress in preparation for my first 50 miler, but there was no real science behind my choice, it just looked roughly comparable with a Marathon training plan. So I was interested to see if I was at all on the right page. Turns out, not so much!
James’s number one cornerstone of a training plan is enjoyment, if you’re not enjoying it then somethings wrong with the plan. Other key cornerstones are: Consistency (again important to run often); Variety; Purpose (every session needs one, even if it’s just a run for fun!); Polarised Training (running in different zones, i.e. Recovery, Easy and Hard); and Perception of Effort (breathing/lactate threshold).
James explained that a base plan consists of 10-16 weeks, with normally: 4 Base; 4 Build; 4 Peak; 2 Taper; (Race); and 2 Recovery. There was a real focus on putting the foundations in place before hitting the meat of the plan, i.e. getting in speed work early in the plan before a really long race, or building a base before even thinking about running hills in training for a hilly race. Four key sessions that I’m sure we’re all familiar with were set out: Long runs; Hills (both uphill and downhill, plus a real focus on practising hiking!); Speedwork; and Recovery.
We spent quite a bit of time discussing training zones, how to monitor them and which of them to focus our training on. Distilling it down, polarisation of training is key, and unsurprisingly we should be running much slower. As much as 80-90% of our training should be easy and recovery sessions (i.e. below the breathing threshold), with the other 10-20% of our training being hard (i.e. Lactate turn point or above), and 0% being in the moderate/tempo zone (i.e. running fairly fast but not a hard session). Recovery is important too, but actually you only need 30-40 minutes to speed the process of recovery, and get blood to the muscles to flush the crap out of the system.
Ultimately a training plan needs to be achievable, it should get more specific towards race day, sessions need a purpose and consistency is king. Learning and adapting is key, missing sessions is absolutely fine and you should always deal with any warning signs appropriately (i.e. overtraining, REDS, fatigue, niggles etc…)
We had a quick drinks break and I was amazed that even the more experienced attendees were finding out so much they didn’t know.
Block 3 – Kit/Footwear/Packing
This was a shorter myth-busting session which focused mostly on waterproof jackets and footwear. James explained the main differences between waterproof brands and recommended it was worth investing in a decent jacket but in doing so understanding the hydrostatic head and breathability ratings. Footwear of course very much an individual choice but James explained specific shoe components like rock plates, toe boxes, bonded vs stitched uppers etc.
James also instilled in us the need to train in your equipment and mock race conditions. Make sure you’ve worn your race pack fully loaded as it will be on race day, make sure you can run with confidence wearing your head torch, if part of your run will be at night make sure you train during the night. Again simple stuff, but very important come race day.
Drew gave us great food for thought re: drop bags, really boiling down the question of what to pack to what will I actually need? He told stories of runners spending an age getting in and out of checkpoints purely because there was too much choice in their drop bag or it was stuffed so full they couldn’t actually find what they were looking for. The theory is simple: pack light and pack specifically, know where your extra head torch batteries are in your bag, know where your extra nutrition is stashed. Get in and out of that checkpoint quickly and efficiently.
We grabbed a quick lunch and the team busied themselves answering any questions we had on the morning’s content.
Block 4 – Race Execution and Fueling
James encouraged us to plan prior the race and think about various on the day elements. What kind of nutrition and hydration requirements do we have? How much, how often? Efficiency at checkpoints: again get in and get out quickly (focussing on water, headlamp, nutrition, salts). Pacing is key, pace for the entire race, James praised the ladies here as they seem much better at overall pacing especially as races go longer. Perhaps think about walk/run strategies. Making sure you don’t pay attention to other runners, just run your own race!
Nutrition was broken up into pre-race and in race. Pre-race the advice was to experiment and train your stomach. James told the (ironically gut turning) story of how Drew trained his stomach to take 70+ gels whilst running the 100 mile Arc of Attrition race! Whilst this is not for everyone it shows what can be done if the will is there. Recovery, sleep and good eating were also recommended.
There was a bit more science to in race nutrition and hydration. Getting enough carbs into the body each hour is very important. James compared a number of Gel products to show us the wide range of carb values. Eating every 15 to 20 minutes was urged. Liquids must be isotonic (to avoid hyponatraemia), roughly 500ml per hour, with a focus on sodium not salt contents in products. But as James said it’s such a big subject you could devote a whole workshop to it.
Let’s go running!
The run portion of the day was completely optional with absolutely no pressure on pace, ability or fitness. The focus was on working on understanding our breathing threshold point and where we reach this during climbs/faster flat sections.
Sophie (reluctantly) led us in some group warmup exercises and then we jogged the mile or so over to Wendover Woods. We regrouped and James reiterated the objectives of the session. We practised our breathing threshold point on a climb which I believe is called ‘The Snake’ (which is roughly 6 miles round the 10 mile WW50 lap), Strava shows this as a 0.2 mile 17.9% climb! I pitter-pattered up it with some hiking mixed in and was generally ok but definitely over my breathing threshold. Speaking to Sophie later it was interesting to note that she hiked it on every lap of her WW50 win last year.
We then split up into a couple of groups, I went with Drew and the people who wanted a little more speed and adventure. We hiked a Strava segment called ‘One tree fell moss’ which is 0.1 mile ascent at 34.1%!! This was a gnarly climb that James used regularly as part of his preparations for the harsh conditions at the Barkley marathon in 2019 (later James extoled the virtues of small steep areas such as at Wendover which can form the basis for training somewhere much steeper). Drew then really set the gauntlet down with a descent of ‘Wasabi Pea Shooter’ which was crazy steep at -43.7%!! I’m pretty much up for anything but hurtling down that my heart was in my mouth, telling myself “don’t fall, don’t fall”. It was great fun and not something I’m really used to so good practise for future adventures I’m sure.
On the way back to the pavilion I compared notes with Charlie about our Altra shoes and made the mistake of comparing marathon times with him, my joy at having a marathon time starting with a 2 (a very just under the wire 2:59:51) was blown out of the water by Charlie telling me about his 50k time coming in even closer to 3 hours at 2:59:59!! Amazing!! (Listen to Charlie discussing this on the British Ultra Running Podcast here) The run section ended up being just short of six miles but at a very leisurely pace.
It was great to run at Wendover for the first time, I’m almost certain it won’t be long until I’m back there again.
Once back at basecamp we briefly reviewed the content of the day, addressing some key takeaways (these spoke to me: pick something that excites you; don’t be afraid to fail; be brave!). James reiterated the structure of the training plan, and the applicable training zones. He finished with a top ten things for success (an on the day cheat sheet if you will).
James also stressed that the day didn’t end there, and that he and the team would be very happy to answer any questions after the session, plus even review and give feedback on training plans that we come up with.
Overall I can’t really fault the day, it was highly informative and I would absolutely recommend Ultra runners of all levels of experience consider attending future workshops. I’ve only really scratched the surface of the content that was delivered. There’s so much to think about and implement in the future.
The passion of the Centurion team for Ultra running and Ultra runners alike was what really came across throughout the day. As a first exposure to the Centurion family it certainly bodes very well for my future plans.
My thanks again to the efforts of the Centurion team on the day (especially given it was during the developing Covid19 situation which has had a massive impact on their race calendar) and to Jack Atkinson Photography for the awesome pics.
Until next time …