Looking for the inspiration to make some positive changes to your health and fitness? You have come to the right place! Endurance athlete and blogger Alistair Flowers shares his inspiring story of how running changed his life and gives us the low down on what his ultra-running routine involves.
1) How long have you been running and what got you started?
I’ve been running since April 2011 and I basically started because I had to!
I was in a pretty difficult place in my life and struggling with depression, drinking way too much and doing drugs. One day my friend woke me from my stupor with a plane ticket to Switzerland.
We were set to depart in September and he told me I best learn about mountains and get fit! He also told me I needed to pull myself together and get a job because I now owed him the costs of the planned trip. It did the trick.
I pretty much ran every day from April until September 11th when we flew to Switzerland and my love affair with mountains, running and endurance began. Running really did help me to gain some perspective on my life at the time. It gave me a lot of time and quiet space in which to ask myself questions and formulate answers and it showed me a side of myself I never knew I had!
I haven’t looked back since and I say now that I’m more of an endurance athlete than an ultrarunner. I enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities that allow me to push my physical and mental limits!
2) When was your first ultra-marathon and how did you do?
My first ultra was the Grim Reaper 40 in August of 2014. As you might expect, coming off the back of a lot of road racing and training I went off way too fast but hung on for dear life to finish 8th overall which I was immensely proud of at the time. Looking back, I’m actually immensely proud of it now too.
The race was on a 10 mile trail loop with a little bit of road (probably about 3 miles in total). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I set off at my half marathon pace but I just kept on with it until I was forced to slow down after about 18 miles or so. At this point I dropped from 2nd place to 3rd and my rather fanciful pre-race notion of a podium spot vanished with the soles of the shoes in front!
It was an extremely hot day, I remember that much. I only had a 500ml handheld bottle and some Haribo on each lap. I had baked some Anzac biscuits but I had to ditch them early on as they were just too hard to chew!
Lap 3 was awful and I walked a lot and pretty much refused to take on any nutrition because it just made me feel sick. I got to the end of that lap, drank a gallon of water and managed a banana and some Jelly Babies. I then set off for the last lap knowing that if I could keep it together, I would manage to finish in the top 10 at my first ultra.
After taking a deep breath, I put one foot in front of the other and repeated my mantra of ‘Just keep on keeping on’ over and over until I was about a mile out from the finish.
I was tired, I was emotional and I was a bit confused thanks to dehydration but damn it was I going to walk the last mile! I managed a shuffle until the last 500m which was on tarmac and then I picked it up and managed a fairly decent paced run into the finish.
That day taught me a lot and I knew before I’d even finished that it was definitely not going to be my first and only ultra!
Related: Exercises for Runners
3) What does your long-distance race training involve?
This has evolved over time but the basic principle has always been for me – run six days out of seven. Depending on the race I’m training for that might mean running trail six days from seven, it might mean mixing up speed on the road with longer runs on the trail, it could mean adding in treadmill hikes with 15-20% incline.
When training for ultras I tend to look at what my main weakness might be on the course so when I did Mont Blanc Marathon, Lakeland 50 and TDS in the same year I did a lot of hiking and running intervals both on treadmill and on trail.
Closer to the race, I would often do these workouts with full mandatory kit. You’ll get some funny looks in the gym but it can spark some interesting conversations sometimes! By the time TDS rolled around I no longer felt ‘up’ was my weakness!
Over the past few months I’ve started to train again for a road marathon as I’d like to beat my 2014 PR of 3:19:10. After this I’d then like to see what I can do at a half iron distance triathlon so, naturally, training looks slightly different! I still train six days out of seven, it’s just I now have 2 swims in there and 2 to 3 bike sessions (either on road or on turbo) along with 3 to 4 runs.
Once I’ve had my dabble with triathlon and hopefully bagged some road PRs at various distances I’ll be turning my attention back to ultra trail racing. I’ve still yet to take on 100 miles but before I do I’d like to utilise the road speed and strength I will have built from triathlon to better my 50 mile and 50k PRs.
4) Do you have a race day routine?
I like to wake about 3 hours before a race. The night before I will have laid out all of my kit ready to put on as soon as I’ve showered on race morning. This is a really crucial part of race preparation for me! I cannot go to bed and sleep well unless I know I have checked and re-checked my kit (including hydration and nutrition).
The night before I will also go over my race plan and as I lie in bed I’ll try to visualise the best case scenario as I drift off to sleep. Over the years I’ve learned to properly pace myself and to hold back something earlier in races. It doesn’t always happen, just like everyone else, sometimes I get overexcited and overcook it in the early miles but the plan often helps to reign it in!
Two hours before the race I’ll eat breakfast. I’m vegan so wherever I’m staying – hotel, B&B, camping – I’ll bring my own food. I like a small bowl of porridge with seeds and sultanas along with a banana and usually a tangerine or a peach if I can get one. I wash this down with two cups of black coffee.
From there, it’s off to the race HQ where I will head straight to the toilet! From there it’s usually straight to the start area where I’ll try to pick out familiar faces. Depending on my mood I might engage in some conversation or I might hover on the edges and repeat a mantra until it’s time to get underway.
5) What keeps you motivated and strong during a race?
Usually I’m pretty focused on holding a steady pace and I’ll often have an idea of what time I’d like to hit each Aid Station. That’s my extrinsic motivator from start to finish as I always start a race with A, B, C and J plans. A, B and C are more often than not finish time goals but may sometimes have placing goals in there alongside. The J plan is Just Finish for when things go awry!
When, inevitably, it gets rough and tough in a long race I tend to go for my intrinsic motivators and I think back to the tough times in my life before I found running and endurance sport. I can always pull up memories of rougher and tougher times that I managed to get through with grit, determination, resilience and sometimes a bit of luck.
I’ll think about why I’m running, I’ll think about why I’m on the trail. I’ll absorb my surroundings and start to enjoy the scenery. Basically, I’ll remember that I’m choosing this roughness. I’m choosing this toughness and I like it!
Once I manage to get that through my mind, I’ll then focus on some self-care – have I eaten lately, have I had enough to drink, do I need to adjust my clothing or my pack? Once that’s done I lift my head and look down the trail or road to see if I can spot anybody in front to hunt down. If there is, great, I’ll slowly try to reel them in. If there’s not then I will focus on trying to get into a metronome pace. Then it’s back to the extrinsic motivators.
6) What are your top tips for getting started in long-distance running?
Build a Strong Base
Spend a year or two building a base before jumping into ultras. Yes, there are people who just go straight into ultra running and if it works for them, great. In my personal experience, you’ll get a lot more out of racing if you’re patient. Patience is key to ultras too!
When I say ‘building a base’, I mean learning to race and learning to train. Slowly increase your training mileage and race distances as you go. I built my base from 2011 to December 2013 when I ran my first road marathon. After that marathon was done I turned my mind to the trails and began to build my training miles around trail running.
I didn’t run my first trail race until June 2014 but if you know that’s where you’d ultimately like to be then run them alongside road races during your base building phase. Road races will help you with speed and they’ll help you with race tactics. Trail races will help you with strength and the more technical aspects of going long in out of the way places!
Do Your Homework
Another thing I’d recommend is reading ultra blogs, listening to running and other endurance podcasts and talking to other runners at races. If you’re a sociable person then joining a running club is a great way to meet likeminded people to run and race with! I will sound a note of caution here though – just because you read it, hear it or talk about it with people and just because it works for other folks, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.
Again, patience is key here, if you want to try a new kind of training/diet/technique regime do your research and gradually adopt it – see how it works for you, give it some time. I like to think 3 months is a good test period for most things! You’ll know after 3 months whether or not it’s for you.
Don’t Overdo It
Finally, patience again, and moderation! There are so many fantastic races out there and you are going to want to run them all. It’s different for everyone but I think the key to a good year of racing is not overdoing the racing! Pick three key races throughout the year and try to build your year accordingly – think of it in quarters.
January, February and March (Q1) will give you the best of winter trail racing in the UK. In my opinion April, May and June (Q2) are good months for shorter distance racing and building up some speed. July, August and September (Q3) are good for getting out there and seeing what Europe or somewhere else in the world has to offer! Finally; you could use October, November and December (Q4) as unstructured downtime. Recovery is important for mind and body and relentless focus on the next training block will eventually burn you out.
As I said before, it’s different for everybody! Experiment and find out what works for you but rest and recovery is key to consistency and key to longevity in ultra endurance.
Related: 6 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Run
7) What are your running plans for 2018?
Having expounded the idea of breaking the year into quarters, my plans for 2018 are basically based on this principle!
Quarter 1 & 2
In January, February and March I will be building up my strength and speed by running the cross country season and a 10 mile road race, a Half Marathon and a 20 mile road race to prepare for my first A-Race of the year – the Brighton Marathon on April 15th.
Two weeks later on April 29th I hope to complete my year long ‘Project Road Runner’ by racing a 10k road race and bringing down my longstanding PR at that distance. [Project Road Runner started in October 2017 and is my attempt to best my 5k, 5 mile, 10k, 10 mile, Half Marathon and Marathon PRs]
I fly to India on May 3rd for a 20 day adventure travelling from the Pakistan border to the Bangladesh border by train and hopefully a little by foot. It’s the hottest month of the year to travel in India and I’m excited to experience a vastly different culture and varied landscapes from plains, to mountains to wetlands.
When I return I intend to take June slowly! It’s unlikely I’ll enter any races and I certainly have none planned at this point. But, with that said, if we are experiencing a hot start to summer in the UK, I may consider utilising my heat adaptation and enter a Sprint or Standard distance triathlon!
This will consist of July, August and September and during this time I will be focused on preparing for a late September half iron distance triathlon, my second A-Race of the year – not so much a running focus and likely to involve a fair amount of open water swim training and long days on the bike!
I’m excited to see what I can do in a pretty new sport having only raced my first (and only, to date) triathlon in September 2017. I did pretty well there finishing 30th overall and 2nd in my Age Group. Considering it was a sprint distance and I’d only been riding a road bike for a month I certainly surprised myself!
This quarter is, as yet, rather undecided. I’ll probably take October as a fairly easy, unstructured month and may cherry pick a race if I’m feeling fit and strong after my first 70.3 – this could be a duathlon, a triathlon or anything up to half marathon most likely.
In November I’d like to run the Kings Forest 50k which is a race I’ve wanted to do for a long time – 4 laps of a 12.5k trail which has plenty of potential for a PR attempt given that I’ll have spent the 10 months prior focusing on strength and speed over shorter distances! It would be good to return to ultras and perform well. I’ll decide closer to the time but that may be my 3rd A-Race of the year. If I choose not to take on that race I’ll certainly be on the lookout for a December ultra to round out the year!
About Alistair Flowers
Alistair Flowers is an endurance athlete and blogger. Alistair’s main passion is running but he is also a swimmer, cyclist and all round endurance addict.
Alistair began running back in April 2011 and it has changed his life. Since then he has taken part in a a variety of endurance events and is a firm believer that you never know what might happen until you try so you might as well give it a go.
Alistair is a UK Athletics Leader in RunningFitness and will be undertaking the UKA Coach in Running qualification in 2018.
If you are interested in learning more about Alistair Flowers and following his blog, head over to 26.2 and Beyond
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