Red Wine Runner

A Scottish Running Blog

How To Sweep An Ultramarathon

Last month I returned to the West Highland Way Race for the seventh consecutive year. I have been involved in this race in three different ways – I ran it myself in 2015, I was support crew for runners in 2011, 2012, and 2016, and in 2013, 2014, and 2017 I have been part of the squad of race crew volunteers who make this amazing event happen. Specifically in these years, I have been part of the Sweep Team, who are a small but important group of runners outsourced by race control to look after the back end of the race. I’ve written ‘Race Reports’ of my sweeping experiences in the past (2013, 2014), but this year I’ve decided to take a more informational approach to my write-up of the 2017 West Highland Way Race. What does a sweep team actually do? How do we do it, and do we really need to be there? Read on for my thoughts on how to sweep an ultramarathon successfully, and how to avoid some common errors when planning for a task which can be surprisingly complicated…

West Highland Way Race 2013

What is a race sweeper?

A sweeper is a person, or team of persons, who stay at the very back of a race with the slowest participants to ensure their safety. Every organised race will have a sweeper or sweepers, but the longer the race, the more important they become. The reason they are there is to make sure the runners who are out the longest are given the support they need, to keep Race Control in touch with what is happening at the back of the race, and to provide additional support to marshals along the route. In the case of the West Highland Way Race, several of the team are also trained in Outdoor Emergency First Aid, and thus are able to respond professionally in a range of emergency circumstances on a route which in places can be very remote and exposed.

race sweeper

Sweepers are part of the Race Crew

The role of the individual sweeper when out on the course is very specific, but even when we’re not ‘running’ we are often required to be useful. Once the two sweepers have left each checkpoint behind the last runner, the remaining team members can help marshals to close the checkpoint, tidy up litter,  and pack up race vans before moving on up the course to the next checkpoint.  The nature of the West Highland Way Race means that sometimes there are several hours of dead time as the runners make their way up the route – occasionally we might be called upon to run back down the route to meet an injured runner or to provide other checkpoint assistance, but more often than not it’s a good opportunity for a cuppa or a snooze.

West Highland Way Race 2014

Organisation is key

Planning the execution of a sweep of a 95 mile trail race over a period of 35 hours is a real challenge, especially when the race is ‘point to point’ and your team of six sweepers are arriving by car from five different locations. Which cars do you use? Are people insured to drive other vehicles? How do you get people back to their vehicles at the end? How many miles are people capable of covering? What’s Plan B for every possible situation?

At the West Highland Way Race, experience has taught us that six is the magic number for the size of the race crew, and each member needs to be able to cover around 30-35 miles each, in two or three shifts. This means that we only need two cars for the duration of the race, and as long as most of the crew can drive vehicles that are not their own, we can share driving and running without the need for a dedicated driver. Any more than six people makes the car accommodations cramped and the logistics become more challenging. Sometimes the secret is just to keep it simple!

The final point on organisation, is that once you’ve agreed to a plan – stick to it once the race has started. Unless there’s a genuinely good reason to change plans on the hoof, the checkpoint teams and Race HQ will be relying on you being where you say you will be, and when. The sweep team race support plan is submitted to the Race Safety Officer in advance of the race, and it is generally assumed that this will not change on the day. We need to be a reliable asset to Race Management for the full 35 hours.

Make sure you’re fit

It goes without saying that if you’re going to cover 30-40 miles over the course of a weekend, then you need to be in reasonable shape. One of the unique challenges of sweeping, however, is the fact that you will very rarely be running or covering ground at your own pace. Due to being at the back of the race, much of your time on course will be spent walking, and walking very slowly in the latter half of the race. If you’re a fit road marathon runner, then you might need to do some hill walking to prepare your legs for the slog – walking for eight hours fatigues you in different ways than running for four hours does!

You’ll need to be mentally tough, too; do you know what 30 minute miles feels like when it’s 4am, you’re somewhere in the dark in the pouring rain, and you’ve been awake for 40 hours? It doesn’t feel good, but you’re not allowed to complain, ESPECIALLY within earshot of a runner. Your job is to provide support, not require it, so get ready to push through those mental barriers to do your job well.

with Marc and Scott

Take the right kit

You’ll need to be prepared for anything, especially in a race which lasts 35 hours and covers a variety of terrains in a climate which is notorious for change. Last year at the West Highland Way Race the temperature hit 25C, but this year saw a ‘feels like’ temperature of 1C and 40mph winds for much of the second half of the race. Oh, and it also rained solidly for the last 24 hours of the race, so there was that too. In June. Welcome to summer in the Highlands.

Also bear in mind that you will be covering your miles in two or maybe three shifts – if it rains as much as it did this year, that’s three entirely separate sets of kit. Waterproof jackets work well to a point, but even the best ones start to fail after being subject to hours of heavy precipitation, and there will be no way to dry anything until you’re home again on the Monday. Pack ALL your winter weather gear, and then go to your friend’s house to borrow theirs as well. Don’t forget to pack some binbags too – multiple sets of wet and sweaty kit in a car boot for a couple of days smells just as bad as you might imagine it does…

You’ll also need some peripheral equipment – a head torch, a spare head torch, spare batteries, spare batteries for your spare batteries, a midgy net, anti-midge spray, torch, first aid kit, and a backpack big enough for the emergency equipment we have to carry (bivvy bags, emergency shelter, radio, emergency flares). What are you going to eat? Are you sure you’re going to want to eat that at 4am in Kinlochleven? Preparing to be on a sweep team is a mammoth effort, but worth doing well for your own comfort and sanity.

west highland way race 2017

The runner always comes first

Sweeping a race, especially a huge challenge like the West Highland Way Race, is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. But it’s not about you. Your number one priority at all times has to be the runners – from cheering them off on their way at 1am on Saturday morning, to coaxing the last one over the line 34 and a half hours later, your sole focus needs to be on their well-being and safety at all times.  It’s not an opportunity for a free race entry, it’s not about time on feet training, and it’s not about the opportunity to recce a route or just have a nice day out on the trails. As a member of the Race Team, you are there to do a job.

It’s about making sure the back of the field are moving quickly enough to meet the cut offs in the early stages. It’s about keeping the appropriate distance from them so you’ve got them in sight, but they don’t feel pressure about being last. It’s about making sure you leave no-one behind. It’s about providing stern encouragement to keep going when the first doubts start to come in at half way. It’s about staying close behind them climbing the Devil’s Staircase in the darkness in order to provide them extra light with your head torch.  It’s about making sure they’re eating enough in the latter stages when even their support runner is struggling to think straight. It’s about pushing them on relentlessly, yet kindly, in the last miles, when the tears are flowing and it hurts so much, but they still want it so badly. It’s about jogging into the Leisure Centre carpark a few steps behind and then subtly peeling off into the crowds to be invisible, so that nothing detracts from their moment of victory.

The final West Highland Way Race finisher of 2017. Photo by Christopher Burns.

Be flexible, and be ready for anything

There was that time one of our sweepers fell and twisted his ankle 12 miles in, and suddenly the careful mileage plan for everyone went in to the bin. Then there was that time when a car accident blocked the A82 and none of the support crews could get into Beinglas to fuel their runners. Or, what about that time someone got so angry at being timed out at Auchtertyre, that they threw a strop at the marshals and kept on running anyway? Or the one time that a runner was hallucinating so badly on Rannoch Moor that we had to carry them in to the next checkpoint, because he was so determined that the Mini Cooper blocking the path ahead was there to drive him home…

I have a lot of fond memories from my years as a West Highland Way Race sweeper, and I look forward to many more in future. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done outside of running the race myself, in fact, I’m sure I’ve been quoted as saying that I took a break from organising the sweep team in 2015 in order to run the race for a rest!

I firmly believe that everyone who runs ultramarathons needs to take a step off the trails to volunteer a few times a year. The satisfaction of giving back to your sport is huge, and the alternative perspective of seeing others execute their races is fascinating. It really builds the sense of community as well; ultramarathon communities are known for their family feel which keeps people coming back for more, and there’s nothing like volunteering at an event to whet your thirst to get back on a starting line yourself!

Have you ever swept a race before?
What’s your favourite way to give back to the running community?

Spartan Race – My First Obstacle Course Race

Ten years ago if  someone asked me what an obstacle course race was, in the first instance I would probably have described the Health and Safety nightmare of my Primary School sports days in the early 1990s. Being a proper country girl who grew up covered in mud and climbing trees, the obstacle course race was always my favourite and I relished the opportunity to climb over and under things, get covered in mud, and do my best to beat all the other children to the finish line.

Later in life when I returned to running, after growing tired of the roads, the countryside became my obstacle course once more. A long run would not seem complete unless I got the chance to cross rivers, hurdle fences and fallen trees, and return home muddy and bloodied, with a big smile on my face. To that end, as the stratospheric rise in popularity of the commercial obstacle course race became unstoppable, I have never felt drawn to participating in an official ‘OCR’ as they are now commonly known. Cost, location, and my perceptions of the dude bro jock culture which surrounds the sport are all elements which have made participation a low priority for me, despite regular pleas from friends to join their event teams.

spartan race logo

When an email arrived from the PR team at Spartan Race, challenging me to participate in one of their Edinburgh events, I was initially a bit skeptical. This was sooooo not my scene;  I’ve written in detail in the past about how I prefer small, low key events, and I wasn’t quite sure if this was the way I would want to spend a Saturday morning in the Pentlands. Also, having been the sole voice of dissent amongst obstacle course race converts, would I be ready to eat my words and take on the challenge? However, the opportunity arrived not long after I had decided not to run the Cateran Trail 55 mile race last month, and there was a small voice inside saying that perhaps a complete change might be fun. Doing something totally different might really shake up my training and they do say that…

“A change is as good as a rest…”

So on the 22nd of July, Kynon and I will be taking part in the Edinburgh Spartan Race, and will be participating in the ‘Beast’ event. This is between 12 and 14 miles in length, and features 30-35 Spartan obstacles around the stunning yet brutal Pentlands. Preparing physically for this event will require some extra work for both of us, as well as thinking about how to approach the race as a whole. I genuinely had no idea where to even start, so I asked a couple of blogger friends for their top tips…

Abby from Abbyadventures.co.uk

how to prepare for an obstacle course race

  • Get the right shoes. Your standard running shoes are not going to cut it in all the mud. You want to try and limit the amount of falling on your ass you do (it will happen at some point) so grippy trail running shoes are a must. I use Inov-8’s and swear by them. 
  • Make sure you wear quick drying, light weight running gear. There is a high likelihood you’re going to get wet. Wet clothes plus running can cause some rather unwanted chafing (in ALL the unwanted places). The quicker you dry, the warmer you will stay and the less chafed you’ll hopefully end up. 
  • Lastly, but most importantly HAVE FUN. Completing an obstacle course race is all about the mindset. Things are specifically built to challenge you to push through mental barriers; dark tunnels, heights, water, you name it, the race will probably have it. Yes, they can be scary, but if you approach them with a positive mind set you are far more likely to succeed. Plus your race photos will look a lot more awesome if you’re having fun! 

Stephen from Howmanymiles.co.uk

obstacle course racing

  • My two words of advice are “Monkey Bars”. Find a set and make them your home. So many of the obstacles involve pulling your body up and perfecting a pull up will help you. If you can’t find Monkey bars, then invest in a cheap door frame pull up bar and get hanging. 30 days of hanging will help with your grip, pull ups and general strength. 
  • You are going to get mucky and there is sometimes barbed wire, so keep your expensive kit at home.  The weather can make a huge difference, although once you are muddy and wet, it doesn’t really matter, apart from on the obstacles, so invest in a good pair of gloves. I’ve found that MTB cycling gloves are quite good but gripper gloves are better

Corey from Learning Patience

  • When participating in an obstacle course race it’s helpful to wear full-length leggings or capris, as they can protect your legs from rope burns or other injuries from the obstacles.
  • A good pair of gloves are essential – I use old sailing gloves.  You can usual buy gloves at the races, but these ones are never usually as good as those you can bring from home.  If you forget to bring your gloves or don’t have any on race day, definitely purchase some at the race as you will definitely need them, trust me.
  • Take your time and make sure you enjoy yourself.  These events are all about FUN! Relax and take your time – injuries happen when you rush so be careful and enjoy your day!

So – pull ups, gloves, have fun. This seems pretty straight forward, right? Spartan Race also provide a wealth of training guides and descriptions of their obstacles online which I’ve been examining carefully. I used to be quite good at Monkey Bars as a child, but since growing into a woman with thighs of steel yet the upper body strength of a gnat, a lot has changed. I also used to be quite good at climbing ropes in gym class, but 30 years later, looking at the 16ft rope climb out of a water pit has me doubting myself somewhat. As for getting over 8ft walls, I’m from a school of sporting thought where I believe that The Wall does not exist, but I’m not sure how efficient this will be in this race…

I have exactly a month until the race. I’m not sure how much I can do to strengthen myself within four weeks, especially without access to a gym, but I’ve looked out my kettle bell and I’ve been eyeing up the monkey bars in the play park across the street. This really is a journey into a different world for me and I’d be lying if I’m not a little bit excited to take on this new challenge!

Have you ever done an Obstacle Course Race?
If not, would you?
What are your top Obstacle Course Race tips?

Disclosure: Big thanks to Spartan Race who have given complimentary places at the Edinburgh Spartan Race for Kynon and I, and were also kind enough to send over some merchanise too. 

Strathearn Marathon 2017 | Race Report

Strathearn Marathon 2017
11th June

strathearn marathon medal 2017

4h 22m 7s
95th of 134 finishers
24th of 27 Females
9th of 14 Female Seniors

The Strathearn Marathon is a small club race hosted by the Strathearn Harriers in beautiful rural Perthshire. I ran this race for the first time last year on Naomi’s recommendation, and despite getting thoroughly soaked I enjoyed the race and the scenic route tremendously. I signed up again earlier this year and looked forward to a second go at the undulating route with the possibility of improving upon last year’s time. After a strong run at Stirling Marathon three weeks prior, I believed I would be able to bring my time much closer to four hours and mark a season’s best for marathon distance in 2017.

When race morning arrived it was after a busy and stressful week at which had even included a day trip to Birmingham for a big meeting on Thursday. I had also traveled from Edinburgh to Stonehaven late on the Friday evening for the luxury of spending a rare day with my husband on the Saturday, before an early night to try and rest before shipping out again at 6am on the Sunday.

I could also detail the tremendous amount of crap I had eaten and drank in the days prior to the race, but it’s of no real relevance other than that I highly recommend access to a Business Class lounge if you have to hang around in an airport for three hours, because the free alcohol quickly turns a very long day into a very good day. As usual, my pre-race fueling strategy was impeccable.

Race Morning

When Naomi picked me up at 6am for the 2 hour drive I wasn’t feeling on my best form, but it was great to share the car ride with her and catch up on life. I had eaten my dinner quite late the night before and was not feeling hungry at all which was disconcerting, as was the uncomfortable feelings in my stomach and guts.

As we traveled further South the weather got worse and worse, with rain lashing down and the wind buffeting the car. My enthusiasm for running twenty six miles began to wane and I questioned why I was casually doing a third marathon in six weeks, and if there was any way at all in which I could weasel out of it. Never the less, we parked up and swam over to registration, getting utterly soaked in even a short two minute walk. After picking up our numbers we returned to the car and stayed there in relative safely until it was time to get ready to run.

Much to our delight, the weather made a drastic improvement in the final half hour before the gun and whilst it was still cold and quite blustery, the rain had moved on. I said hello to a lot of friends who had finally emerged from their cars and the assembly at the starting line was a jovial group of chums ready to go. After the customary starting lap of the Cultybraggan Camp, we left the starting area and traveled out into the hills for our 26 mile jaunt.

It’s not unusual for me to forget how hilly some routes are, and Strathearn Marathon is no exception. The first four miles are a long drag uphill, where at times it can be more efficient to walk. At the top of the hill the route follows an old military road route which is very exposed and on this occasion there was a wicked headwind to battle. I was steadily plodding along in the company of a small group of older gentlemen, but the effort I was having to maintain to keep below 10 minute miles was quite significant.

Thanks to FishyGordon’s RunPix

At ten miles there was the first of the two personalised water stations, where you could have your own bottle presented to you. This is one of the advantages of tiny club-run races, and I was really looking forward to my Lucozade. I still hadn’t been feeling particularly hungry but I had forced myself to have a gel at 6 miles and the Lucozade would provide some more liquid calories on the go.

Somewhere around the 14 mile mark, the skies cleared and the sun came blazing out. This combined with the wet pavements and foliage meant that the atmosphere became steamy and humid. As it had been under 10C plus windchill when the race started I was wearing a  vest, t-shirt, and long sleeve top – all black, of course. I quickly became far too hot and removed some of my layers in an attempt to keep cool.

strathearn marathon 2017 tony wayte

Thanks to Tony Wayte

At Crieff (18 miles) I decided I needed to ditch the layers which I was carrying in my hand, and threw them under a bush on the outskirts of the town for collection later on. This meant I had my hands free to take a water bottle as well as my next personal bottle at the next water station on the other side of Crieff, and keep moving without having to concentrate on juggling items.

Whilst it was very warm I was feeling good and running fairly steadily well under 10 minute miles. My splits are all over the place, but this reflects the hilly nature of the course. My stomach had been giving me some discomfort and I hadn’t really committed early in the race to getting around the course any quicker than necessary, so I knew that this would be yet another marathon finish in the 4:16 – 4:22 bracket that seems to be my signature of late.

The last few miles were as tough as they always are, but I felt like I still had some significant energy left so I pushed as hard as I could to move quickly. I targeted each runner ahead of me and drew them in to overtake, and I managed to catch quite a significant amount of runners in the last 5 miles. We had another drastic change of weather at 24 miles when the skies opened and another deluge left me drenched, but in reality this was really refreshing and cooled down my over-heating skin.

strathearn marathon 2017 fishygordon 3

Thanks to FishyGordon’s RunPix

I finished strongly and flew down the finishing straight with a smile, captured nicely here by FishyGordon who kindly provided event photographs for free. You can check out his Facebook page here.

My time? 4hrs 22m 7s – another steady marathon run clocked up, and just seven seconds slower than when I ran the London Marathon whilst recovering from the flu. I am beginning to think I need to put a bit more effort into these events, as my last five road marathons have all been within five minutes of each other and I know I’m capable of a lot more.

strathearn marathon 2017 fishygordon 2

Thanks to FishyGordon’s RunPix

So what’s next?

Well, I’m taking a break from marathoning over the summer and will be once again trying to bring some kind of consistency into my training, have another go at losing that stone of fat that has persistently clung to my body since 2015, and prepare for the Glenmore 12 hour race in September, and of course, the Chicago Marathon in October. I’m not a fan of putting massive pressure on myself to PB at Chicago as I expect it will be pretty hot and jetlag will probably feature, but I would like to arrive at the start line knowing that I’ve put in some actual work and am capable of a strong and enjoyable run.

In the meantime though I have an exciting partnership to announce next week, which will see me turn my hand to something completely new in July! Stay tuned to find out more!

Running Science by John Brewer | Book Review

Running Science – John Brewerrunning science by John Brewer

In the last week I have been enjoying a new book which was sent to me; Running Science: Optimising Training and Performance. Published by Ivy Press, this large, hardback book is a compendium of contributions by 11 sports scientists and researchers, and edited by sports scientist and Running Magazine columnist, Professor John Brewer. The book looks at the scientific facts behind some of the world’s best performances and includes insights and analysis which apply to all runners from amateur to elite.

running science by john brewer

Running is deceptively simple as we all know. At an access level it is one of the easiest sports to break into, but to improve and reach ones’ peak potential requires a careful balance of nutrition, conditioning, and environment; all of which are firmly rooted in science. John Brewer and his team of experts examined hundreds of scientific studies on running and broke down the details and analysis to produce eight chapters of technical information, presented in a colourful and easy to understand format.

running science by john brewer

The findings are collated as a series of questions, many of which the reader will have asked themselves or their friends at some point:

Do you really need to stretch? Why can’t I catch my breath after I stop running? Do I have to load up on carbs to be a good endurance runner? What is DOMS and is it beneficial? Do i really need to warm up?

Anyone who has ever been in a running Facebook group will be familiar with the standard sofa-scientist answers to these questions, delivered with un-sourced references to ‘I once heard…’ or ‘In my experience…’. Of course there is some benefit to hearing about others’ experiences, but it is really refreshing to look up a question in this book and then get a fully referenced, scientific answer with a short, digestible explanation and diagrams where appropriate.

running science by john brewer

Other questions enhance appreciation for the incredible feats of the worlds’ greatest athletes – what would it actually take to run a 2 hour marathon? The Nike project certainly came close recently, but we still haven’t quite got there. Brewers’ answer to this question gives us a technical breakdown of what he thinks is actually required to achieve this, which isn’t too distant from what Nike recently attempted.

running science by john brewer

There are sections for specific events such as marathons and ultras, as well as questions regarding equipment and kit, including an answer to the oft-asked question: “Can running shoes help my running form – are my running shoes right for me?” There’s even an investigation into the science behind the influence of technology on runners’ psychological states, which for those of us who have ever panicked when the Garmin ran out of battery mid-race, makes for an interesting read.

running science by john brewer

I was so impressed with this book and the way it answers the questions that I’ve read it from cover to cover, soaking up all of the information provided in the infographics, and enjoying the full-page action photographs. Equally, it could sit on your shelf as a reference publication for the next time you have a burning question (or, if someone happens to be wrong on the internet…).

I would highly recommend this book as essential reading for any runner, from the curious beginner wanting to learn more, to the seasoned athlete wishing to fine-tune their performance to perfection. It would make a perfect gift for the runner in your life, or perhaps as a post-race treat for yourself; it is available from all usual book outlets at an RRP of £20.

Follow John Brewer on Twitter here: @sportprofbrewer

I received an advance copy of Running Science to review, but all opinions are as ever, my own.

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