A Running Race Like No Other

I’ve had an idea for the ultimate running race.  An event like no other that you’ve even seen or taken part in.  A race that more closely takes us back to the persistence hunting roots of our ancestors than any Olympic marathon.

I first heard about persistence hunting in Chris McDougall’s amazing book, Born to Run.  Before we developed spears or bows and arrows, the only way humans could hunt down game was to run after it, for hour upon hour, across the baking savannah, until the prey dropped dead of heat exhaustion.  Humans are such exquisitely tuned runners, with incredible powers of heat dissipation and breath control, that no other animal stands a chance in a long distance race.

It is still practised today by hunters in the Kalahari:

One of the most awe-inspiring things about persistence hunting is the idea that, when you set off in the morning, you have no idea how far you’re going to run that day.

There’s a level of uncertainty present that no 10k runner, no marathoner, not even an ultra-runner faces.  The common feature of all competitive running is that it is over a fixed distance.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if we developed a race where we brought back this level of uncertainty?  Where tactics, strategy and anticipation played out against a backdrop of the unknown?  Where speedsters could compete against distance experts?

I believe I’ve come up with a format to do just that.  I call it persistence running.

The idea is very simple.  Take a looped circuit.  It could be a 400m track, it could be longer.  Give every runner a timing chip that records the number of laps they have run.  Start them off.

Whenever a runner’s total achieved laps is two less than the front-runner, he is eliminated.  Keep going until there is only one runner left.

The format can be explained in a couple of sentences.  Runners compete on a loop, and those who are lapped are eliminated. But I have no idea how it would play out in practice.  What would be the ideal strategy?  Would it favour speed or endurance?  Would some competitors attempt to sprint right at the beginning?  Would others hang back in the pack and wait to grind out victory?  What would change if the course was on a longer circuit?  How long would the event even last?  Would different strategies emerge as the people became more familiar with the format?

The biggest attraction for me is the emotional challenge.  How would you feel, lined up at the start line, having no idea what sort of a race you were facing or how long it would go on for?

Of course, to truly capture the spirit of a persistence hunt, we’d have to add a rule that said only the winner got to eat afterwards, but that might be taking things a little to far!

Learning a lesson from my Huaraches

One of my all-time favourite books is Chris McDougal’s Born to Run.  It’s a wonderful mix of character profiles, meditations on what makes us human, sport’s journalism, and ultra-running.

Like everyone else who read the book, I totally fell in love with the idea of minimalist or barefoot running.  Inspired by stories of Kenyan children covering miles to and from school every morning unshod, or the Tarahuma in Mexico travelling up and down mountains in their huarches, I decided that here was the solution to the knee problems that had been plaguing my running career.  This was the right way to run.  I could become one with the trails I ran on.  I could re-discover the joy of feet and road and freedom, without all the modern paraphernalia of motion control, air cushioning, torsion bars and who knows what else.


I’ve had mixed results.

As it happened, I still completely believe that this is the right way to run.  As a result of reading this book, and my painful experiences last year, I re-engineered my gait, and adopted the minimalist philosophy.  And it worked – this year I completed my first ever ultra-marathon wearing just a pair of sandals.

Tracing out my feet

But that wasn’t enough for me.  Oh no.  I decided to go one step further, and make myself a pair of huarches.  These are nothing more than a few millimetres of rubber sole tied on to your feet with a length of cord.

The soles after cutting

A kit from invisibleshoe.com cost me a mere $26, the cheapest pair of shoes I’d ever bought.  And I had the fun of making them myself – tracing out my foot on a sheet of paper, cutting out the soles, and threading the cord.

The finished product


And then I discovered something that wasn’t mentioned in Born to Run.

These shoes will challenge your feet like nothing ever has. Thirty years of running in padding, supported running shoes with thick heels, or even in regular sandals, had in no way prepared me for the abuse my feet were about to take.

I’m quite capable of running a half-marathon before breakfast.  But my first run in these gave me huge blisters on my toes that took weeks to heal.

These huaraches bite!

Once the first set of blisters healed, I tried them again.  A little trail run down to the lake and back.  This gave me a completely new set of blisters, on my heels this time.

So, back to other shoes for a few more weeks.  Then, last Wednesday I went out for a little hill training with the folks at the Running Room.  I didn’t get blisters that time.  I got tendonitis in my heel, instead.

There’s a reason for this.  Modern running shoes have a big cushion in the heel that is designed to absorb energy on impact and return it on push-off.  But our bodies already have a mechanism to perform this action – it’s the muscles in our calves.  But if we don’t train it, and then suddenly ask it to support us as we run uphill on our toes, it’s not surprising that it complains.

So, here I am, sitting with an ice-pack strapped to my ankle and wondering how I can train for Ironman Muskoka when I can’t walk without limping.

But I’m not complaining.  I still believe that our bodies are designed to run, and that it’s worth working with our natural biomechanics rather than fighting against them.  But we must do this with a certain degree of humility!   Our bodies are amazing things that can adapt to incredible demands, but we must approach this kind of training with caution and patience.

I’m not done yet!  Just as soon as my ankle heels I’ll be running in huarches again.  But just around the block to start with!



Interval Training

So, spring is here, the race calendar is beginning to fill up, and that can only mean one thing.

Yes, it’s time for interval training, the runner’s very own, personal, customized hell.

Volume training –  the long, slow runs you do all winter, gives your body the endurance to complete a race.  Interval training gives it the speed to win.  Like a lot of runners, I don’t do speedwork year-round.  In the off-season I give my body time to recover, and work on running style and endurance.  But when the warm weather gets here, it’s time to learn how to suffer.

I have a loop in my subdivision that’s almost exactly a kilometer.  So, yesterday I went out and ran round it once.  Nice and slow, and taking the opportunity to drink a lot of water.  I’d be needing that.  First time round, 4 minutes and 24 seconds, a half-marathon kind of pace.

Six minutes after starting the first loop, I did it again.  4 minutes, 15 seconds this time.

Then again.  Down to 3:37.  Speeding up a little too much, better dial it back a bit.  Drink as much water as possible between repeats, breath deeply to get the heart rate down before it all starts over.

Next time,  3:57.  Bit more controlled.  Time to crank it up a bit.  On the six minute mark a started again.  Focus on breathing, keep lifting your heels, don’t tense up.  Let your body do the work.  3:29 this time.  Now we’re into fast race territory.

The six minute mark comes round again far too soon.  Off again – try to hold that same race pace.  3:28, hard but bearable.

Crank it up one more notch.  The next loop falls in  3:17.  Gasping for breath at the end, finish off my third water bottle.  Pour some of it over my head to cool off.   Pretty much maxing out, but I’m sure that heading out I was thinking ‘you know, I have one more gear in my legs…’

Ok, time for the hardest push.  Full throttle, no holding back.  On the six minute mark, start the watch and sprint to full pace.  At this point I can’t keep my legs relaxed, I can only think about breathing as hard as possible to keep the oxygen getting to my muscles and keeping my leg turnover high.

We get two things from interval training. One, of course, is teaching our body to move quickly.  But the other is getting used to pain.  When I’m in the final straight of a 5k race and my body is screaming to stop, I want to be able to tell myself ‘I’ve been here before.’  And I’m there now – cranking out a pace faster than I’ll ever do in a race.  My eyes start to close, I can’t see straight, I’ve got just enough concentration to veer round the kids playing in the road on the back straight.  Halfway round.  Three quarters.

I round the final bend, breathing on every other foot strike.  Try not to tense up, hold your stride, keep driving for the line.

I cross it in 3:09.  I manage to keep upright and head into the house for more water.  My wife is a little alarmed that my gasping for breath can be heard throughout the house and that I’m incapable of speech for several minutes, but personally I’m very satisfied that I’m only a few seconds down from my peak of last year.

Then after a drink I head out and do four more loops.

Welcome to spring.






I am an Ultrarunner.

Avid readers of this blog may remember that after a particularly frustrating half-marathon last year, I decided to up the ante and set myself the challenge of completing an ultra marathon.

Yesterday, I competed in the ‘Pick Your Poison’ 50km trail run.  I have two things to say about that experience.

I finished.  And it hurt.

It was a thrilling, painful, and humbling experience.  Towards the end of the race I was ready to swear off running for good.  Now that 24 hours have passed, maybe I can be a bit more objective, and think about some of the lessons I’ve learned from this experience.

What I’ve learned

First, it is actually possible to set yourself a Big, Hairy, Audacious goal and actually achieve it.  Last summer I couldn’t run past the 10k mark without my legs giving out.  Yesterday I did 50km on brutal, draining hills.

Second: you get what you train for.  As Archilocus said 2600 years ago, we do not rise to the level of our expectations but fall to the level of our training.  I’ve done lots of 25km training runs over the last few months, and the first 25km yesterday went very well.  The second 25km were absolutely brutal.

Third: preparation matters.  It took months to prepare for this race.  I’ve rebuilt my gait from the ground up.  I’ve experimented with nutritional plans, I’ve done long slow runs and fast hill repeats.  I reconnoitered the course, carbo loaded all last week, and carefully tapered.  All this preparation was enough to get me through the first half without too much hassle.  The second half I did just because I’d said I was going to, and I refused to stop, even as my quads were screaming at me on every jolting downhill step.

Fourth: community matters.  From Patrick, my training partner who encourages me to get up for our early morning Sunday runs, to my colleague Shane who selflessly gave up his Saturday to pass me snacks and cheer me on and even pace me on the final loop when I was close to cracking, to all the strangers and volunteers on the course who encouraged and motivated me; all these people helped me achieve my goal.

Fifth: intentionality matters.   Yesterday I achieved something at the very limit of my abilities, not on a whim but as a result of months of planning, preparation and hard work.  I managed to struggle through the final kilometers partly because I’ve practiced slogging out an extra 10k at the end of a run when I’m already exhausted.  Achievement is not an aspiration but a choice.

Finally, joy matters.  Even in the middle of the pain, I tried to recognize that I had been granted the opportunity to run in beautiful sunshine through stunning Ontario scenery, surrounded by inspiring, motivated athletes, and that I had a body that could respond to the demands I was placing on it to achieve something I could be proud of.


Santa Shuffle Race Report

One reason I love running so much is that even something as simple as a community 5k can contain all sorts of drama, tension and excitement.

I’m in my off-season at the moment, patiently putting in the miles to prepare for next years ultra-marathon goals, which means that most of my runs are of the ‘long-and-slow’ variety.  However, once in a while it’s nice to shake things up a bit, and this morning provided the perfect opportunity.

My plan was to run from home to downtown Barrie, a distance of about 9 or 10 km, in time to run the annual Santa Shuffle.  I’d do the race, and then run home.  A 25k total would complete this week’s distance goals.

The last few days have had very unpleasant weather; the temperature has hovered around zero and a mix of snow and rain has left a slushy surface on the sidewalks that’s nearly impossible to run on.  Fortunately, this morning was bright and sunny and the paths were mostly clear.  I loaded up my hip sack with water and snickers bars and started off downtown, an hour before the race was due to start.

I took the run downtown very gently, taking the opportunity to fuel up as I went.  I even managed to resist my usual urge of racing any other joggers that I encounter.  Down at Heritage park was big crowd, significantly larger than last year.  Mayor Jeff Lehman, who somehow manages to attend every community function in the city, gave some brief words of welcome and congratulated us on our healthy example and the thousands of dollars that had been raised for the Salvation Army through entrance fees and donations.

The one-kilometre run went off first, which meant hanging around rapidly losing body heat.  I’d planned to arrive just minutes before the race, but that didn’t work out so well.  But I’d had the forethought to bring a space blanket, which did a surprisingly good job.

Then the 5k race start was announced and I had my usual panic to find a place to dump my water bottle, take off my jacket and fight through the crowd to the front line.  I made it with a few seconds to spare, remembered to reset my stopwatch, and then,  “3-2-1 GO,” we were off.

I always feel bad just before a race, nerves and power gels combine to make my legs feel shaky and unsure of my ability to actually turn on the speed when needed.  So this time I simply yelled ‘charge’ and sprinted the first hundred metres from the start line.  Immediately I was off the front of the pack, but as soon as I settled in to my pace a couple of other runners were right with me.  A few more hundred yards and they were already pulling away from me.  I let them go; my plan was to not kill myself in the first half of the race.  I’ve gone out too hard twice already this season, and this was just meant to be an extended training run anyway.

After the first kilometre, the shape of the race was already becoming clear.  Number One, clearly a serious runner by the fact that he was wearing shorts on a snowy day, was pulling steadily away from us.  Number Two, wearing a green shirt with a ‘Cross-Country’ slogan on it had already been dropped by him.   Although he was a hundred metres ahead of me, he looked like he might already be flagging.  If I kept to my plan, maybe I’d haul him in.

There’s a slight hill at the halfway mark, which I went up carefully, trying not to blow up.  By the time I got to the top, Number Four had come up from behind and joined me.  We stayed neck and neck for a while on the way back, and even chatted a little.  Like me, he also does triathlon, and like me is planning on racing Ironman Muskoka next summer.  He also cheekily claimed that if he stayed with me to the end he’d beat me in a sprint finish!

Now it was time to get serious, I only had two kilometres left to catch up with Number 2.  I switched up from ‘hard training’ pace to ‘serious racing’ pace, and started eating up the distance.  But Number Four stayed right on my heels the whole time.  When I finally got to a few paces behind Number Two, I decided that a short sprint might be enough to catch and drop him.

Not quite.  I ‘burned a match’, and caught up to his shoulder, but that was all.  He responded immediately and pulled forward a few paces.

Ok, plan B.  Stay loose, focus on style and turnover, breath easily, let your body do what it’s trained for.

That actually worked – as soon as I relaxed I found myself drawing next to Number Two, and we were heading into the final turn.  Number Four seemed to have finally been shaken, so the silver medal was in reach.

I love it when I get to the end of a race and still have a sprint finish in me.  One of my heroes is Simon Whitfield, who seems to always be able to pull out a devastating sprint went it really matters.  And it’s gutting to get to the last stretch with nothing left, and watch helplessly as runners go past you as your body refuses to respond.

Timing is also important.  Too soon and too late can both wreck a carefully planned race.  Today I got it perfect.  In the final hundred metres I kicked into fifth gear, and got the jump on Number Two.  Even that wasn’t enough though, as he also had a fifth gear apparently, and was right back on my heels at fifty metres.

Today was my day, though, and for once I had a sixth gear right when I needed it.  Maybe it was the aerodynamic ‘Angry Bird’ hat that my talented wife had made for me to wear.  But my legs responded perfectly when I asked, and I crossed the line with a personal best on this course of 18:51.

To a serious racer that would just be a gentle training pace, no doubt.  But for me it was a chance to show that I can come back from injury and frustration, and with careful planning and training I can get my body to reach the goals I set for it.

So, then I collected my medal, shook hands with the guys that had spurred me on and made it such a fun race, and enjoyed the complimentary hot chocolate from the race organisers.

And then I turned round and ran home.


I’m tired.

I ran more than 50 kilometres this week.  As avid readers of this blog (all 3 of them) will know, I’m training for an ultramarathon.  Specifically my goal is to be able to run 50k in a single race.

Given how exhausted I am after having done that distance spread over 6 days, I clearly have a long way to go.

With the help of the Triathlete’s Training Bible, I’ve written myself a training plan based around a series of four-week cycles of increasing mileage.  Next week I get to take it a bit easier, and then the kilometers will start building up again. Despite my fatigue I’ve been pleased at the way my body has been responding.  On Monday I ran 29 km, the furthest I’ve ever done in one go, and although I was tired at the end my hips and knees didn’t complain at all.  Clearly the work I’ve been doing re-engineering my running style has been paying off. Apparently my body responds well to a high cadence, and to running in sandals or barefoot.

There are different theories as to whether you should incorporate any speedwork while doing base-training.  I’ve chosen to do one fast 5k tempo run every week, so as not to lose my speed completely, and that seems to be working fairly well.  On Thursday I did my 5k only a few seconds per kilometre off of race-pace.

I’m getting a renewed respect for the serious athletes who do several times this mileage week-in, week out.


Looking for a Role Model?

Quick question.  Have you heard of a man called Tiger Woods?

Of course you have.  He’s very famous for his ability to walk around a leafy green environment and hit little white balls into holes.  He’s won a number of the competitions that he’s entered.  He’s also earned millions in prize money and sponsorship deals.

Another question.  Have you heard of Chrissie Wellington?

Maybe not.  Chrissie is also an athlete.  On Saturday she got up very early in the morning, swam 4 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean, biked 180 kilometers over the  lava plains of Hawai, and then finished up with a 42 kilometer marathon run.

Chrissie races Ironman.

And while Tiger Woods has won a lot of competitions, no one has ever beaten Chrissie.

Think about that.  She has entered 13 iron-distance races, perhaps the most gruelling 1-day event in sport.  And she has won every single time.  On Saturday she won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii for the fourth time, nearly beating the course record that she set two years ago.
Oh, and before she started this career she worked to bring water and sanitation to countries affected by conflict.

So, if you want an athlete to be inspired by, you could do a lot worse than Wellington.  The first thing she said after crossing the finish line on Saturday was to dedicate her win to her nearest competitor, Mirinda Carfrae, in honour of how hard she had pushed the pace in the baking Hawaii heat.

Now that is serious class.

Running Tempo


If for some reason you’re looking to give your lactic acid thresholds a really nice workout, then there is nothing like a quick five km run with a metronome in your hand.

Apparently nearly all elite runners, whether they run 5ks or marathons, run at a cadence of around 180 steps per minute.   The variance in speed tends to be a function of stride length, rather than rate.  So, I grabbed my metronome from a music stand and went out on a quick 5k loop.

It was an intense experience.  There’s no hiding from the metronome, it’s like having a drill instructor yell at you continuously as you run.  The moment my stride faltered I felt myself missing the rhythm, and I had to scurry to get back on track.   Running slowly didn’t help me escape it, as I still had to work to maintain the fast turnover.

So, not a relaxing evening jog, but I think a productive exercise that I will repeat from time to time.

Note: an alternative to carrying a metronome in your hand is to download a fixed-tempo mix from podrunner, a site that carries a whole bunch of hour-long mixes set at anything from 140 to 180 BPM.