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Stephen Brown

@psqbar

Running 95 miles – why and how

By Stephen Brown

If you decide to run 95 miles – and I’d encourage it, if nothing else the chafing will take your mind off cuts to Legal Aid for a while – you will be asked two questions, more often than any others. Why and how. I set out my answers, as the lawyer said, hereinbelow …

Why run 95 miles?

The glib (and true) answer to this question is that it is a midlife crisis. An obvious attempt to self-assert that I still have ‘it’, despite having reached a certain age. Now friends and family who knew me as a younger man have fairly pointed out that I never had much ‘it’ in the first place, so there really is nothing dignified about trying to assert that I still have any ‘it’ left. Well, I reply, for someone who is happily married and finds no great thrill in the lines of a Harley Davidson, mid-life crisis options are limited, so leave me alone.

If I were to unpack more fully the psychological origins of my current hobby of running long distances they would start on a Saturday morning, mid-April 2012. A breakfast out with my then 8 year old son Paddy. He orders the two sausage, three rashers, black pudding, two fried eggs, hash browns, toast and beans option. I go for a slice of granary toast. “How come you’re not eating, Dad?” he asks. “I’m determined to lose some weight, son”. Paddy looks me up and down, leaning back to take in the full gamut of my stomach and says “Can’t wait to see how that turns out”. I am floored. Forty one years old and my eight year old son not only lacks faith in me, he’s taking the Mickey! One minute I was the handsomely-maned he-lion batting off cubs playfully in the sunshine. The next minute I’m – apparently – some mangy weak-toothed Albert being put in his place. I’ll show you!

At the time I was reading a book called Ultramarathon Man which I’d picked up, bored, in a train station on my way home from some God-forsaken court-centre.  Hull. I decided that I needed a challenge and entered my first ultramarathon, set for October of that year. A 38 mile race in Jedburgh, Scotland.

An ultramarathon, by the way, is simply any race that is longer than 26.2 miles. They tend to start at 30 miles and the most common distances are the ‘round’ ones: 50km, 100km, 50 miles and 100 miles. The race I have just completed, the West Highland Way, is 95 miles long because that is the length of the West Highland Way walking route from Milngavie (near Glasgow) to Fortwilliam. They tend to be off road, partly because the scenery is nicer and partly because mud is easier on the joints than tarmac.

Anyway, the less glib answer to why I run 95 miles is this: the ‘challenge’. The challenge of my son doubting that I could lose weight (3 stone since you ask); the challenge of doing something new (an ultramarathon); the challenge of pushing myself to a new limit. I am no different in this regard to most other human beings. We all like to challenge ourselves in at least some ways. In that sense, running 95 miles is no different to doing the fiendish Sudoku or trying out a new recipe. Okay, so I don’t have to Vaseline my nipples to make a short crust pastry, but you get the point.

And with that image to haunt you, I turn to the ‘how’.

How to run 95 miles?

The answer is that very few people, including champions and record holders, run 95 miles. The difference between me and you (or me and them) is how quickly I can move 95 miles on my feet. I can currently do it in under 24 hours, running about 50-60 miles and walking the rest, including any up-hills. You might take 2 days. Or 3. Or 95. But you’d get there eventually. You might have to have a few sleeps in the middle. But with practice you could reduce the number of days and the number of sleeps. With practice you could increase the amount of running and reduce the distance walked. That is all I have done.

Paul Giblin who won this year’s West Highland Way race will have run practically all of the distance. But even he will have to eat at some point on the race and even he will have to slow to a walk to check into the timing points and be weighed – as is compulsory – at the various weighing stations, designed to ensure that no one loses a dangerous proportion of their body weight during the race.

So running an ultramarathon is less of a running race and more of an exercise in energy management. It is about measuring out your available energy resources and using them as efficiently as possible until you reach the finish line. Think of this: if you could average 5 miles an hour over 19 hours then you would have finished comfortably inside the top 20 of this years’ West Highland Way finishers. If you’re a woman, you would have come second in the women’s race. And 5 miles an hour – 12 minutes a mile – is slow. It’s not that much faster than walking pace. It’s just that it’s difficult for most people to maintain that speed (slow as it is) for longer than 4 or 5 hours.

To do so, you build up over weeks and weeks, adding half an hour every weekend to your longest run. You practice eating in the middle of the run so that you can take energy on board. This isn’t easy and it is a very common sight during a race to see a competitor doubled up at the side of the trail, being sick. (Am I selling this to you as a sport?). You practice going out for a 4 or 5 hour run one day and then, with your legs feeling stiff as tree trunks, forcing yourself to go out for another 4 to 5 hour run the next day. This trains you to run through the barrier of tiredness. (I try to be creative with my time and, for example, might go out at 3 am on a Saturday morning so that I can be back from my run and ready to transport the kids to their various activities by 10 am. But without a supportive and forgiving family I would find this hobby much more difficult to pursue).

All of which may have brought you back again to the first question. Why would you do all of this? Let me tell you one last tale.

On the 22nd June 2013, the morning after I woke up from completing my first West Highland Way race, I could not sit up in bed. My stomach muscles were so far gone that I didn’t have the strength to bend in the middle. When my wife had eventually helped me into a sitting position it took us another 10 minutes to get me into the bathroom. The previous evening I had taken 6 ½ hours to move the final 14 miles of the race. A distance I would be capable of running in well under 2 hours in normal conditions. On the table in the hotel bedroom was a scrap of paper confirming my finishing time for that year’s race. It was the proof that I had joined an elite group of people – still fewer than 1000 in total – who have run the West Highland Way race. The sense of pride I took from that – the sense of achievement – completely outweighed the temporary discomfort. I did it because it felt worth doing.