Centurion North Downs Way 50 - Q and A

Cajsa decided to interview me about my recent NDW50 experience. I agreed because that way I get a cool drawing of me!

She writes:

Q&A with tarmac shredder Gill Bland who casually ran home a place on the podium at her first ultra; Centurion NDW 50 last weekend. 

Q: Hey Gilleroo, congratulations on not only finishing but ACING your first Ultra! Can you describe your experience in five words?

A: Fascinating, hilly, beautiful, vindication 

Q: You kept your plans to debut on the fiddy very quiet, even as your own personal Trail Jedi I was not aware of your entry until last month, when and why did you decide to race the NDW 50?

A: I originally planned to run it in 2017. I'll be honest, mainly because everyone around me was doing ultras and I got caught up in it. Also, I'd had a 2016 of really high volume and great marathon results and I was both comfortable running a lot of miles and ready for something different. Unfortunately I got my only ever proper injury just 2 weeks before (Piriformis syndrome) and had to pull out, so I volunteered at an aid station instead and had a brilliant time. The year after I was just 3 months postpartum and barely running 5 let alone 50 miles. I did briefly consider trying, but I'm so glad I didn't and that Centurion running were forward thinking enough to re-asses their deferral policy and allow me to keep my place for this year. So, that left me year with a do-it-or-lose-it situation this year. I went from just wanting to do it, to wanting to race it after reading about all the amazing trail shredders on your weekly roundups and after not feeling like I'd pushed myself properly in my last marathon. I wanted to do trail ladies proud and learn something myself. 

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Q: Having (successfully) trained for a return to sub 3 marathon-ing on the road this spring, did the looming ultra affect how you approached training this year or was the focus always on the road races with hopes that the mileage and speed sessions would translate to extended trails?

A: I'm afraid that you guessed correctly. Because of newish-mum time constraints my return to training has had to be had to be fairly finely tuned and I've not been able to get the volume or variation in that I would want to. So, I had to chose which my priority was and as a tarmac-treader it was the 26.2 that took precedent. That doesn't mean I was taking the 50 lightly, I was well aware going into it that I hadn't given it the respect it deserves.

Q: Last time you raced long on the trails was at the Maverick Dorset two years ago which you won. Since then you have ran a handful of mid distance trail races and had time off to give birth to a very cute Monty, how was your off-road confidence going into the NDW 50? Was the aim just to finish or did you want to test your trail gears properly?

A: Yeah confidence was pretty shakey, as you can testify from the panicky WhatsApps in the days beforehand! My only tester was a trail 14 miler over the start of the course a week after London and 2 weeks before the race and I felt exhausted afterwards! But, I knew that I wanted to give it a real good go and see what I had in me. I had no idea what to expect of the race so it seemed a good opportunity to try not to put limits on myself. I went into it with what seemed like a tough target of sub 8 hrs. I wanted to learn how to push myself. 

Q: You ran in the top 3 from start to finish and for the first half it was a tight race between you ladies at the front. What was the atmosphere like, did you chat to Beth Pascall and/or Rachel Fawcett during the race and were you aware of the size of the gaps to the others once you started to spread out?

Me, Beth, Rachel (L-R)

Me, Beth, Rachel (L-R)

A: I  was pretty in awe of Beth, though I'm not as knowledgeable as I should be about her side of the running world. I'd seen on strava that she'd  done a super fast 24 mile training run in the week before. That actually helped a lot as it underlined just how far ahead she was going to be. Embarrassingly I actually thought that Rachel was Beth as the start as I saw her up at the front and she had a hat and a blonde ponytail. I didn't chat to either of them during the race except to say 'after you' to Beth at one point. We were all running really close into the checkpoint just before Box Hill and it was really exciting to be so close to such great runners. I ran alongside Rachel for quite a while at one point, but having spoken to her afterwards I know we were both very keen to run our own races and it certainly didn't feel awkward to me. It was very different to drawing alongside another runner in a marathon where you can hear each other working really hard and it gets inside your head! I knew once we hit the hills that Beth Pascall was going to go flying off  - she's just so light on her feet and great on the vert. I was ahead of Rachel for a little bit but she overtook me when I went wrong. I think that's part of the trail game - you have to be able to be focused and still see the signs. I hadn't factored in how not seeing the person in front of you affects your ability to close a gap. I wasn't aware of the size of gap at all. It turns out she was in the same field as me near the end but I had no idea! Both ladies were lovely at the end.

Q: This being the furthest you’ve ever run, what (if anything) went through your head when you broke the ultra barrier? 

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A: I have run 30 miles once with a group of friends, so that was really the point where I was expecting to think 'ok this is the unknown'. As it happened though a massive group from Advent Running were doing the aid station at 31 miles, so I didn't think about it then because I was excited about seeing them. Then, once I'd settled back in again it was about 35 and I thought, 'well that's 15 miles to go!' so it didn't feel nearly as big-a deal as I thought it might. I think the advice people gave me about never thinking about the whole distance was so helpful that the 'ultra' point  didn't turn out to be such a big check point 

Q: What were your high and low points during the race?

A: Highs were:

- the views (incredible)
- the salty roast potatoes at mile 24
- the moment where all 3 ladies went through the checkpoint together
- the AR cheerpoint, seeing Mr B and Chris along the way  
- the many moments where I realised that even though my legs felt utterly trashed having gone up a hill, they somehow got a fresh lease of life on the flat - so cool! 
- Mr B running from the final field to the finish with me and still having at least a little oomph 
- Oh and the finish line, obv.

Lows were:
- feeling at 6miles like that was quite enough thankyou (gave myself  a talking to) 
- a bit of a mental slump just before 30 and knowing I was going to need to hit the caffeine earlier than planned
- going the wrong way
- having to wait for other runners when I couldn't see any markings just after going wrong
- realising I'd got overtaken when I went the wrong way
- any moments when we had to run on gravel - that stuff is EVIL
- Shouting at Mr B about 200m from the finish to shut up beacause I WAS pushing (sorry - you were doing exactly what I asked!)

Q: Many get lured into the world of ultra trails by having them described as ‘picnics on the run’. I don’t know if it is me being a vegetarian and/or too picky for what’s on offer but I’m yet to experience that being anywhere close to the truth. However it’s definitely been confirmed that fuel can make or break a long race. How did you approach the nutritional aspect of the race? Did you stop to have a celebratory peanut butter batty or did you just down them GU’s on the go? 

A: I went into the race with lots of people telling me to eat real food as much as possible (and lots of suggestions for what that might involve) and also some people I respect a lot and who are very experienced telling me that just using gels was fine. So, I had a huge bag of options which Mr B brought to each crew point and which I hardly used any of. I mostly stuck to gels, bar the aforementioned potatoes as mile 24, some yoghurt pouches and half a banana. The aid stations were VERY well stocked and yeah you could totally have stopped and had a picnic but to be honest I found the choice quite overwhelming and I just didn't want to stop that long. I lost 11 mins in aid stations vs 6mins by the winner. Also I just wasn't sure I'd get moving again if I stopped! I had one moment where I thought my stomach might rebel but it passed pretty briefly (the moment, not my stomach). I've been really surprised that I've had less post-race hunger than after a marathon and I genuinely think that's because I followed wise advice to get at least something, however little, in me every 30mins. It was great for making the time fly by and meant I never bonked. I used tailwind all the way too. I think given that the most fuel-testing I did was half a banana on a 14 mile run, I was very lucky that my stomach seems pretty strong. I think the real food was more a mental boost that anything else.


Q: Recently there’s been a clear trend of international road elites turning to the trails after ending their marathon careers. Aside from the obvious like underfoot and distance what did you experience were the biggest differences between a 50 miler on trail and a Road Marathon?

A:Just general lack of control. While we say marathons come down to luck on the day, actually they are pretty controllable. With this kind of thing you can't tell yourself to lock in a pace for each mile, you can't know what the weather is going to do, you have less control over your stomach, you can't work off other runners in the same way because their variables and strengths will be SO different to yours.Racing in that kind of variability is such an art. From my brief dabble, I would say that also means that your skills in things that ARE controllable need to be even more honed if you want big results. I think road runners love control and that's the biggest challenge in the switch. It's also the biggest bonus  - you learn so much about yourself and about racing. Do you think that's fair, Cajsa? ...

C: Yes definitely, I think to be a successful ultra runner you have to be able to accept that you can’t control your race and learn how to be able to deal with changes in weather, mindset, fuel etc on the fly. On the ultra distance (okay not 50 k perhaps) there’s a lot more time for error but also more time for a race to change, you can, and probably will have a low point but that doesnt mean you won’t come back and win the race. That I think can be tricky for road runners transitioning from marathons to get their head around. 

G ... On a different note, lots of people have said that this kind of racing is less competitive against each others and that even the winners just do it for the experience and being out in nature, but having read Adharanand Finn's new book (Rise of the Ultra Runners) and my little experience of it, I'm not sure that's true. I think there is still a big competitive push, but perhaps less openly?

C: I think trail ultras are highly competitive these days but also as discussed above there are so many unpredictable factors to consider that I think even the elites go into the race knowing very well it might not be their day and that they might have to adjust their goal to be a long day spent running in some stunning scenery with likeminded people. I think it also depends a bit on the race. There are fast ultras like the Centurion 50’s or North Face 50’s that play out more like road marathons where your race result could be determined by other runners and then there are the long steep scrambles in the mountains where I think you have to really run your own race in order to finish. Basically I think that even if you go into an ultra with the aim to podium you still know that there are so many unforeseen situations that could hamper your performance and that might be why people tend to not be open with their race goals.

Q: I’m typing this from my bus transfer from Geneva to Chamonix, is there any chance we get to see you do a Holly Rush and tackle the switchbacks of the mountains in the future (please say yes!)? If not alpine trails what else is in your race future?  

A: If I can ever keep up with Holly Rush (or you!) I'd be very happy! I would love to run in the mountains some day but this race has shown me how much work I have to do to get strong for off-road and for vert. It has made me respect all my trail and ultra running buddies so much more. I still LOVE marathon and I was surprised this didn't turn my head more towards ultras (not that I didn't love it - I did! I just haven't finished with the tarmac yet) but oh gosh yes I'd love to run in the mountains. One thing I weirdly enjoyed was that real wobbley-leg feeling when your muscles have worked hard and you're just willing them to keep going. I can only imagine how that feels in the mountains.

Q: What were the best tips you were given ahead of the race and do you have any advice or encouraging words you’d like to pass on to other long distance road runners who are contemplating testing an ultra on the trails? 

A: Best advice I was given:

- Go in with a nutrition and hydration strategy. You can change it on the fly but don't try to wing it. Aim for regular intakes and have in mind how much. Say to yourself not 'do I want to eat' but 'can I eat?' 

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- If you're feeling dodgy, check through - have I eaten enough, have I drunk enough, am I pushing too hard, am I not pushing hard enough?

- Don't think about the whole distance at once

My advice:

- Respect it, but don't fear it. Give it a go! It's great to put yourself out of your comfort zone and it will teach you some amazing lessons. 

- Don't for one second think that it is any less (or indeed any more) than your current discipline. It's just different.

- Be inspired by those around you. I thought about fab ultra-friends/heros (Emma H, Cajsa, Melanie, Emma F, Susie, Cat, Sophie etc) lots through the race

- Allow people to help you... but also do your own thing. Road racing is very solo. Ultra running seems much more collaborative and people are really willing to muck in and help you achieve your goal. It's awesome, but you also need to be able to know what  YOU need. 

- There are lots of skills you can bring from what you do already to this new challenge. Use them and adapt them (e.g mental tricks, chunking the race down, mantras etc). Focus on the similarities for confidence and embrace the differences.

Q: Last question, when will we have our much overdue run date and how steep will the hills have to be for me to be able to keep up with you?

A: YES PLEASE! I really want to run with you, though I'm rather scared you'll just spend the whole time waiting for me! Anything steeper than a tube-station ramp and you'll be leaving me for dust. 

Thank you Gill, you are such a champ!  Thanks Cajsa, you’ve inspired, advised and encouraged me so much!

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