in extremis

Exploring messaging and why we become vulnerable to extremes in nutrition and training:

In 2012, Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France with a British team, Team Sky. A few weeks later he won a gold medal on the roads at his home Olympics. It was around this time that people began to look at Team Sky’s training philosophies and the term “marginal gains”entered the vernacular. There was a lot of interest in what the riders were doing beyond the normal training strategies, in particular nutrition and recovery. This coincided with an upswing in interest in the more extreme end of endurance sports, with more people taking part in marathons, mountain running, ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons than ever before.

For people coming into these sports from a relatively sedentary background, sports nutrition was not something they had ever been exposed to before, and they brought with them attitudes to food that came directly from the world of diet and weight loss culture, which was the only exposure to discourse around nutrition accessible to the general population.

Suddenly in a situation where their bodies were being subjected to a relatively high training stress, and as a result experiencing various issues such as gastric distress, fatigue, or cramping, they were desperate to find “solutions” that would also provide them with some of these mythical marginal gains. Coming from a position of being without much awareness of the basics of conventional sports nutrition or physiology, it is easy to see how they would grasp hold of any theories or suggestions offered, without being able to assess the veracity of any of them.

Throw in a cohort of believable “experts” with platforms of their own, and it becomes very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of believing that the latest trend will be what turns you into the athlete you so desire to be.

This is especially complicated when people enter these sports in order to lose weight. Their entire focus is on the essentials of weight loss: -calorie deficit, and they are not taught how to understand the requirements imposed on the body by exercise or any details beyond calorific burn.

Let’s look at the most prolific fad of recent years: low carbohydrate or ketogenic dieting. The ideas behind these diets come directly from a medical perspective – ketogenic diets were used to control epilepsy in children before medications were available; and low carb diets were used as a weight loss protocol for the very overweight population. These diets were co-opted by sports science initially as an experimental intervention, to see if they could be effective to improve performance at high levels, and to try to control certain symptoms around glycemic control in long distance sports.
The problem was that for the majority of people taking part in endurance sports, these diets are not helpful. However, as they were being championed by loud voices and presented with scientific sounding references and technical vocabulary, combined with the seductive promise of weight loss and “health”, there was a strong attraction to identifying with their strictures. It became very common for people to self identify as “low carb”athletes, or “keto”runners, with the dietary label becoming the thing that sets them apart from the rest – they feel special for eating in the way that they do, they feel more enlightened, “healthier”, more disciplined, than the rest.

This becomes dangerous when the diets cause harm. As the diet is entrenched in the persons sense of self and identity, they are less likely to be able to look critically at their own experiences. Or, worse, they blame themselves for not succeeding when others they admire seem to thrive on their chosen diet.

Add in the echo chamber of modern social media and the harm is compounded. It is extraordinarily easy to only be exposed to your own biases, without even really noticing that you’ve curated a bubble around yourself. Listening to podcasts that confirm what you already believe entrenches those attitudes ever further. This is especially true for those of us who grew up and were educated in the pre-social media world. We are conditioned to treat confident voices in media sources (voice or written word), as potential authorities, and if they chime with our already established views, that perception of authority becomes even stronger. This is how gurus get their followings. Often, the people who are most seduced by the narratives around diets and training are highly educated – trained to assess evidence from a position of knowledge, they are not able to bear witness to their own lack of knowledge in these areas, and as such trust “authorities”, believing that they are educating themselves. The fact that so many of these narratives are predicated on the assertion that conventional science is wrong or ill-conceived helps to further drive the belief system. If you want to believe that eating carbohydrates as an athlete will harm your performance and give you diabetes, you must also either not actually know the basics of human physiology, or if you do, you must not “believe” that science. It is no coincidence that many of these diet gurus also adhere to other damaging or dangerous ideas, such as vaccines causing autism, or doubting the transmission of covid-19 in the present day.

It seems a huge leap to go from from Team Sky to anti-vaccers. However, once you reject accepted standards of physiology, exercise science or nutrition, it is easy to slip further towards more and more outlandish belief systems. What happens when things go awry? Recently there is much more awareness around energy deficiency and athlete health. These ideas are creeping into the general discourse in a reverse of the pattern whereby diet culture discourse invaded sports nutrition. They are not always greeted without resistance, especially when, for example, deeply held ideas around restriction are challenged. For those used to the idea that the majority of the population are fat, sick, and out of control, the suggestion that restrictive patterns of eating are unhealthy for a part of the population is deeply challenging and dangerous.

Until it becomes possible to untangle these ideas; to understand how to help those who need it to become healthier, and to regain trust in the basics of our understanding of the human body, it is difficult to see a way out of this quandary. Removing the impetus to define identity by diet would be a great start. Removing the assumption that unless you are an Olympic level athlete you probably need to “watch your weight” in order to be healthy would be another. Improving the resources available to individuals entering sport as adults, and explaining the basics of energetics and sports nutrition would help a lot. Uncoupling weight management from sports engagement would probably be the best outcome for all sides; use dietary interventions for weight control and keep sports separate for fun, or health or performance goals.

Facing up to some uncomfortable truths



Recovery is such a slippery beast. I’m realising that I’ve been disordered for years, in a way that I simply never understood. And I’m starting the long and uncomfortable process of unpicking the depths of the thought processes that underpin my attitude to food and exercise.

I was really moved by Amelia Boone’s post about her anorexia and eating disorder recovery and it prompted me to do some self reflection about my own behaviour.

I want to list the things that I remember doing and thinking because seeing them written down will make me realise that they aren’t “normal” and I don’t want to be that person again. This is part of the problem: I truly believed everyone struggles with body image and food like I do. I truly believed that my body and its muscularity or lack of fat was my worth, and that anything I did to jeopardise this made me worthless.

  • standing in the bathroom of a restaurant on my 40th birthday chanting “pig pig pig pig pig” at my reflection because I ate an entire portion of seafood.
  • deliberately scheduling runs so that I would be running over lunchtime, meaning I could skip a meal and feel like I’d discovered a brilliant way of controlling my appetite.
  • feeling constantly guilty about being hungry. I never allowed myself to be satisfied so even after eating I would still feel hungry. And I felt guilty because “why should you be hungry, you are just greedy”. But at the same time, if I did eat until I was full, I’d feel extremely guilty for being “a pig”.
  • competitive under eating in company. Always having the smallest, lightest thing on the menu.
  • calorie counts on menus are terrible for me. I will always make sure that I order the thing with the lowest number of calories if at all possible. I wish I never had to learn how many calories are in stuff because once you know that crap you can’t erase it.
  • checking my watch many times a day to see what the calorie count says. Feeling deeply inadequate if it is “too low”.
  • standing in the shower after a run, in pain because I’m running through injury yet again, telling myself what a fat, slow, useless pig I am because I’m hungry yet again and my run was slower than I’d hoped.
  • seeing all the bodies of professional athletes and comparing myself to them, or even comparing myself to myself in other situations and always coming up short.
  • taking appetite suppressing stimulants – I’m not proud of this but I did. They made me manic and gave me heart palpitations.
  • using cauliflower instead of grains or pasta so that I could eat more volume for fewer calories.
  • watering down my almond milk/protein powder
  • eating huge breakfasts (for some weird reason, I’ve never restricted breakfast), and being obsessed with it because it feels like my only pleasure
  • avoiding eating in company if at all possible. Hiding in the cleaning cupboard at work to eat my Tupperware portioned lunch (oh the shame!). Cancelling dinners and lunches with friends because I can’t cope. Getting very stressed about going out with my husband to restaurants
  • always feeling that I would have to leave food on my plate when in company whether I was still hungry or not. I was not allowed to eat the whole plate because I was scared of being seen as greedy
  • I have not had a birthday cake or a chocolate bar for well over a decade
  • there is a restaurant that I love, and they do a dessert of buffalo milk yoghurt, spiced orange and cardamom and pistachios which is close to the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I do eat it, but the guilt I feel afterwards is crippling. And I always make sure I don’t finish it
  • I took a deep breath a month ago when on holiday and ordered an ice cream for myself. One scoop of mango in a pot. I had to throw it away.
  • feeling like a failure because I got my period (this was before I lost it completely – what an idiot I was!)


I don’t write this to be all “poor me”, but to acknowledge that it was my reality for so long. And I assumed it was the same for everyone. That this was what you had to do to be “healthy” and a “good athlete”. That being miserable and hungry was a sign that I wasn’t strong enough and that the people who had better bodies than I did were better people, stronger, more admirable. My own deep-seated feeling of inadequacy was the basis for all of this, as I had built my fragile self image on something that was so transient and impossible to sustain.

But exercise is healthy…..right?

“But exercise is healthy….right?” Overtraining syndrome and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) in the recreational runner: a primer for clubs and training groups

Case study:
Think about the people in your running club. There will be someone who springs to mind: the member who has to enter every race, attend every training day, join every group run and interval session and track workout. Their weekly mileage spirals up, their times improve, they might lose weight, and they get lots of praise from club mates and colleagues. Having started from a lower level, the improvements they make are exponential; every race is a PB. Before long they’ve run a spring marathon, and are now ready to take on the summer road racing circuit, before throwing themselves into cross country through the winter.
They have a basic understanding of how fitness works, and know that the progressive overload approach that they employed as a novice runner gave them huge rewards. The weight loss that came easily at first now stalls as their metabolism stabilises, and they start looking more closely at their food and nutrition. They find their way to blogs and opinion pieces by influencers or famous runners, and cut out certain food groups or restrict their eating in specific ways. Uncoached, and following patchy threads of information on the internet, they keep pushing on. Running is their thing. It is heathy. Right?
However, cracks start to appear. It might start as a calf strain, or a sore Achilles. A bit of plantar fasciitis. The kind of small niggles that all runners face. The runner has learned the habit of mental toughness – push through, keep going, no pain no gain. It is just a niggle, besides, with the club 5 mile championships coming up, stopping is not an option!
After a while, they don’t feel great on an increasing number of runs. Legs feel heavy, heart rate too high for a pace that “should” feel easy. Management of niggles becomes a second job– kinetic tape, physiotherapy, special shoes. They feel exhausted and hungry, but tell themselves this is completely normal – everyone feels tired when training for a marathon. And you have to be careful not to “eat back your calories” and gain weight. 10k doesn’t feel like sufficient running to allow for that slice of cake with friends. The mental toughness that got them through their first marathon when things started to feel hard at mile 22 now turns against them, berating them not to be weak, not to give in. Other runners run far more and are fine. So they keep going. This process can play out over months or even years, with the runner gradually piling on the training stress, not recovering sufficiently, and slowly pushing their body into a state of dysfunction.
Other symptoms start to creep in. Subtle at first, if they keep training, they become progressively worse. They realise that they are frequently waking at 3am, soaked in sweat. Their legs are cramping or aching at rest and no amount of foam rolling can get rid of the pain. Their heart rate soars when walking upstairs at work. If female, they might notice that their periods are changing, getting lighter, their cycles might get longer, and eventually they might lose their cycle completely. If male, their sex drive might be missing in action. They might feel cold constantly, or develop Reynaulds disorder or other circulatory problems. Still running, their times stagnate or regress. Eventually, they get a “proper” injury – a stress fracture or a significant soft tissue tear.
What has been described here is a medical condition that can effect athletes at all levels. The hypothetical runner described above could be suffering from two closely inter-related areas of dysfunction: overtraining syndrome (OTS) and RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport). It is possible to have one without the other, but they are often seen together, and some scientists now believe that overtraining syndrome itself is a symptom or expression of the broader diagnosis of RED-S. Both are reactions by the body’s metabolic, hormonal and physiological systems to extreme stressors: whereby the athlete has stressed their body beyond what it is capable of functionally recovering from. In OTS the primary stressor is aerobic exertion without corresponding recovery; in RED-S the primary stressor is low energy availability, i.e. too few calories for the work required of the body. The main culprit for the symptoms experienced by the athlete is this state of low energy availability, which can stretch over a period of days, weeks, or even years.
Low energy availability (LEA) is a fundamental cause of stress on a systemic level, and it initiates a cascade of hormonal and metabolic disruption in the body, leading directly to the symptoms described in our hypothetical athlete case study. LEA can be accidental – when an athlete simply doesn’t realise that they are not sufficiently fuelling their body for the work required; or it can be deliberate, as a result of disordered eating, or deliberate weight management. Once in a state of LEA, the body’s equilibrium is significantly disrupted, leading to a web of issues as laid out in the infographic below:

The most significant and long term issue that can be caused by LEA is impaired bone health. This can effect both male and female athletes, although it is more easily recognised in females as the link between oestrogen production and bone health has been well studied. If a woman lacks a regular reproductive cycle, her body is not producing oestrogen, which means her bone density will be seriously inhibited. In men, the clear signal provided by the presence or absence of a menstrual cycle does not exist. However, LEA will result in reduced testosterone in men, which carries a similar impact on bone health. Low testosterone can present as low or absent libido, erectile dysfunction, depression or loss of muscle tone in trained male athletes. Any of these symptoms should be investigated in male athletes who are at risk of LEA. For athletes in general, the main consequence of LEA and impaired bone turnover is the increased likelihood of stress fractures or full fractures, especially in the lower limbs (tibia, fibula, metatarsals or other foot bones) or in the hip/pelvis area or lower back.

Overtraining syndrome and RED-S can be extremely distressing for an athlete to deal with psychologically as well as physically. Within a club culture, the fear of missing out on a social scene that has become integral to the life of a member is one reason why a runner might not be willing to take a rest or a break when they might need it. It is easy to forget the very basic tenet of exercise physiology: adaptations are made at rest – if you don’t recover from a session, you might as well not have done the session at all. Also remember that as a runner, you are probably very self-motivated. You want to run. If you find yourself dreading your run or not wanting to do it, it is probably a good sign that your body might be asking you to take a break.
If you or any of your club mates are complaining of any of the following symptoms, think about seeking advice from one of the coaches in the club, the club welfare officer, or an outside source of support:
• High resting heartrate that lasts for a number of days without obvious reason (infection, etc.)
• Sustained high heartrate on “easy” runs
• Feeling out of breath or tired walking up stairs, or feeling exhausted carrying shopping/doing normal household tasks
• Frequent night sweats
• Unexplained leg cramping or pain at rest
• Feeling of “heaviness” that lasts for a number of days or sessions
• Any menstrual disruption in women should be investigated immediately and if more than one cycle is missed, and the athlete is at risk of LAE, it should be addressed as a matter of urgency
• In male athletes, any changes to libido or sexual function should be treated as a possible red flag for LEA and RED-S.
Note that RED-S can impact all body shapes and sizes and there isn’t a specific body fat % or BMI that is “safe”. Energy availability is distinct to the individual, their physiology and work output, and not necessarily directly proportional to their relative body size, mass or composition.
Special considerations to be aware of for athletes with disordered eating and exercise addiction/compulsion:
• Comments about dissatisfaction with body shape/size, or about the bodies of other athletes
• Food restriction in scenarios where other people are eating (i.e. post run snacks, recovery nutrition etc).
• Doing a lot of fasted runs (this is particularly dangerous for women and can be very stressful on the body)
• Cutting out entire food groups without medical reason (i.e. cutting all carbs)
• Turning up to group runs when obviously injured/sick/exhausted
• An all or nothing attitude to training (if I miss this run I might as well jack in the entire training cycle)
• Comparing themselves to others and trying to run the most miles per week or top the Strava rankings week after week without rest.
If any of these symptoms or behaviours are familiar, there are resources available for advice and help below.

NB: There will be a TrainBrave event in Oxford on Sunday 23rd June, sign up for free on the website. Their events are highly recommended.


Renee McGregor (sports nutritionist specialising in RED-S and eating disorders in sport):

British Journal of Sports Medicine, most recent paper on RED-S:

Charlotte Gibbs
1st May 2019

What I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made

It is nearly May, nearly four months since I’ve been able to run properly. I’m no where close to being healed, but I can sense some progress, more in my own state of mind than anywhere else.

When I first was diagnosed back in January, I assumed that I would just heal up and be running again as that was what worked the previous year. This was a huge mistake. I forgot that I was dealing with a fracture in exactly the same place as last year, in a bone already weakened my osteopenia. I did everything wrong. I cross trained hard, didn’t off load the leg sufficiently, restricted my calories, and tried to run too soon. The leg didn’t heal. Then, I fell over during a trip to the Brecon Beacons (where I had no business being), and twisted my knee. That didn’t want to heal either. Finally, I realised that I was sabotaging myself every single day. I was allowing my short term compulsion to train to get in the way of healing.

During this time, two people in particular have helped me immeasurably.  Firstly Jill Puleo, an expert in overtraining syndrome and athletes psychology ( .  Jill helped me address my disordered thoughts around my identity as an athlete, my fear of failure and insignificance, and my learned behaviours that can be challenged and overturned. She made me see something that I had not recognised in myself and it helped turn a switch in my head and make me more receptive to change.

Then, the manager of my gym pulled me aside and asked if I was ok. It was he who gave me some tough talking and basically ordered me to take a few weeks off; he made me realise my routine was becoming a trap, and it was ok to free myself from it. He also made me accountable by sending him photos of my meals- a strangely helpful practice as it allowed me to get some perspective on my eating habits. Which can be summed up as: extremely healthy but not enough calories. Or protein.

In the end, I took three weeks off training, apart from cycling for my commute and a bit of yoga. No gym. No weights. No elliptical. I’ve lost a ton of fitness but, despite eating far more than I was when running 80mpw, I haven’t gained much (or any) weight. I feel that my body is actually using the energy to heal, and I feel mentally so much better. I’m not coming home exhausted and miserable all the time. I’m not sweating buckets at night any more, or being woken with severe leg pain. I still haven’t got my period back, but felt the hint of something, suggesting maybe I have ovulated. I suspect it is close to returning. The stress I’ve taken away from my body has made me see how badly I was treating it before, and I’m starting to get a feeling of how nice life can be when you eat enough and don’t get upset over every mouthfull.

I had an MRI yesterday but will not know the results for a few days, but I suspect it will show a healed tibia, but something sinister in the knee-possibly a torn or damaged lateral meniscus. We will see. It is better than in was, and I can walk without pain, and even jog a few minutes, but anything more is out of the question. I’m learning patience. Someday I will run free again, free over the fields and river banks of home; free over the turf of the Brecon Beacons; free high up in the Pyrenees. But for now I’m learning that this can’t be taken for granted, and my body is expecting me to pay back the overdraft I forced it into, and with interest.

Small, silly steps: starting to make my own sourdough bread. Somehow I feel better eating bread when I’ve made it myself. Last night I cooked pasta. I don’t think I can remember the last time I ate pasta unless before a race. I made a normal portion, ate it all, and enjoyed it. Small, insignificant steps towards a better life.

Decoding “healthy”

“You’re so healthy”.

“You look so fit and healthy”

“I wish I could be as healthy as you”

But I’ve got osteopenia and two stress fractures (not to mention the worst cold in the history of mankind, but that’s another story). How is that healthy? What are the metrics? Does fitness presume health? And why is our perception of health so skewed towards aesthetics and away from function?

On the outside, some markers of ill health are obvious: extreme high or low weight, skin problems, movement impairments, breathing issues. And being functionally fit does help to stave off a lot of lower level issues: it helps with arthritis, heart health, blood pressure, liver and kidney function. There is a line, however, where fitness blurs into something else – training for peak performance (in the context of an individual’s level of ability) can tip into maladaptive practices. Suppressed immune system (who doesn’t get sick after finishing a marathon or a big block of training?). Hormonal issues. Over use injuries.

I don’t know very many runners from the subset of “competitive amateurs”, who get it right. I really don’t. Some people can balance it for a while, only to succumb to the siren call of “do more, harder, longer”. Symptoms creep in, but why stop? It’s “healthy” to exercise! In the gym, I see hard work and dedication but I see the shady side too: overtraining, steroids, and compulsion.

So what’s healthy? I think it is possible to run 80+ miles per week and be healthy, if the nutrition is right and the mindset is solid. If it comes from a place of fear and denial, it isn’t healthy at all. Just because the body can, doesn’t mean the body should.

I think it’s possible to go hard in the gym given sufficient rest and recovery. But if six pack abs are the goal what happens when they appear? Then the pressure is to maintain them, and any loss of fitness becomes a failure. Not healthy, physically or mentally.

RED-S, osteopenia and me

This is hard to write. But I want to get it down and be completely honest about it. I’m at home now, complete with a pair of crutches, a diagnosis of osteopenia, and stress reactions in both my left tibia and fibula. How did I get here? That isn’t a straightforward story and it involves plenty of cognitive dissonance, denial, and disordered thinking.

I wanted to be fast. I love to run, to be fit and strong and cover long distances with ease. I wanted to look like a runner, light and lithe. I didn’t want to eat extra calories unless I deemed them absolutely necessary. 13 miles on the trails and hills wasn’t *quite* enough to justify the recovery drink I’d packed because 250 calories was a bit *excessive*, surely? Maybe if I’d done 20 miles, then I would have it. But *other runners* run that on water or nothing, and I ate a gel half way round so *surely* I don’t really need those extra calories?

After all, I look heavier than other runners, don’t I? I only ran 10 miles in the morning so better have a small lunch, only two rice crackers with your salad- don’t want to be a pig. Feeling hungry- why? You had a huge bowl of oats for breakfast (at 5 am, it’s now 12 and you’ve run for 90 mins and done a gym session) why on earth would you be hungry? Clearly you’ve got a problem with food, no self control, too much appetite. Eat a bowl of olives before dinner, then an entire pack of stir fried vegetables. Why do you eat so much? Why can’t you just eat normally like other women? It can’t have anything to do with the fact that you’ve run 80 miles plus 6 hours in the gym this week …. but other women do so much more, you’re just making excuses…surely?

I felt happy running not least because it allowed me to feel I could eat a bit more, and I love to eat. And I wasn’t thin, I’m not underweight. What’s the fuss about?

I missed a few periods – so what? It’s just a bit of stress. I’m not thin, it can’t be that, I’m not thin enough for it to be a real issue.

I’m feeling fast, but I’m tired. I’m getting a strange numbness in my feet when I run and I’m always cold. Just a few more runs and I’ll take a day off. That day comes and I rest but the guilt comes flooding in – why am I hungry? I’ve done nothing. I’m so tired I slept instead of cross training; why am I so lazy? I don’t need that food, I haven’t earned it and besides, I’m not thin so I can’t afford to eat like that.

The pain in my leg wakes me at night. I recognise it, like a snake bite aching across my lower leg, throbbing at 3am. A phone call from the sports medicine specialist asking me to come in for a talk about my DEXA scan. I admit the pain and get sent for an X-ray. There, both bones, shadowed and bowed like a line that has been erased clumsily and been redrawn with a crayon.

You need to maintain a BMI of 22. He tells me this, when I felt big at 19. You need to offload your leg completely and eat 2g per kilo body weight of protein per day minimum, plus as much calcium as you can get down.

Everywhere else in January the message is lose weight, cut back, trim down. Messages about how society is getting fatter abound. I know I can eat a huge bowl of cauliflower for half the calories than in a small portion of pasta; I like the volume, the feeling of abundance so I go for the vegetable, but feel guilty anyway for eating all of it.

But I’m tired of it. I’m fed up with running in pain, fed up of the tiredness, of the guilt and the criticism. I’ll come to terms with having to be bigger and maybe I’ll recover well and not injure myself again. I’ll allow myself the recovery and the nutrition and the rest and maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally be the athlete I’ve been preventing myself from being, because I’ve been trying so hard to run the most, train the hardest, be the fittest.

Don’t be like me. Osteopenia is not fun. Stress fractures really fucking hurt. But what hurts the most is I knew it; I know all about RED-S; I’ve read the articles, listened to the podcasts, gone to the seminars. I *know* that amenorrhea is a waving red flag; but deep down I felt it was a badge of honour – “look how hard I train!” I thought I was special, my body would cope. Nope. I’m just as weak as I always feared, just not in the way I assumed.

Beacons 50 mile race – a win and third overall

Six months ago, I was injured, unhappily cross training, and doubting whether I’d run again without pain. This weekend I won a 50 mile race and was top three overall. Strange how things can turn around.

The Beacons 50 mile race is part of a race series in the Brecon Beacons, consisting of a 100 miler (considered one of the toughest 100 mile courses in the UK) and the 50 miler, which was on a new course for this year. I was attracted to it for two reasons: firstly, it came with 4 UTMB points and I needed them to go into the ballot for 2019; secondly, half of the race covered ground that I knew well from my own training in the Beacons and I knew it would suit my running style and abilities. It was advertised as a fully marked course, and I took some comfort in knowing that the first and final 10 miles would be very familiar to me, and that I could look forward to seeing some new mountains in the middle portion of the race.

Since my last race, I’ve been ticking over, doing a sort of marathon -style training plan, with track work once a week and an tempo run, and long runs, but none further than 20 ish miles. I didn’t over-push the training as I knew I was fit enough; a few longer runs and some hill sessions of a few hours along with my usual weekly mileage seemed to keep me feeling strong enough. A week in Cornwall allowed me to do a three and a half hour run on the coastal path, which got me plenty of ascent and a few Strava crowns to boost my ego and give me a bit of confidence in my climbing strength. I destroyed my Altra King MTs; the uppers tore off them, but they had done Transvulcania, Scafell, and a very gnarly coastal path run, as well as winter training. I decided to replace them with the new Inov8 Ultra Graphene shoe, which is zero drop and wide like the Altras, but the graphene sole is marketed as the grippiest around, and the kevlar overlays on the upper are supposed to make them nearly indestructible. I took a deep breath and ordered myself a pair (wincing at the cost), and am glad I did, as they were fantastic on the wet slippery Brecon rock. The hype around the graphene is true, the grip is outstanding.

The race went so well for me that it is hard to describe. It was one of those runs where time folded in on itself. There are hours where I simply was running, they slipped by like seconds, hardly noticed. The race had issues with the course markings being removed or tampered with and I did have to rely on the GPS trace on my watch for a lot of time. Even using that I got quite lost twice and was reduced to bushwhacking through trackless ferns and undergrowth. Despite that, I never quite stopped enjoying myself. The final climb was cold, wet, and with 45 miles in my legs I had a bit of a “type 2 fun” moment, but held my nerve. I ran it in, even managing a 5:30 kilometer at km 88 (god knows how). My watch said 91km, and 3,500m of elevation. It took me just under 13 hours, and I was only 38 minutes behind first place overall. First woman, third runner, no aches, pains, or blisters, stomach held together, head was solid, and I finished without needing my headtorch. Nailed it.

Scafell Skyrace


The Scafell Skyrace comprises of 42km (ish) with 3000m (ish) of ascent and descent, following a point to point course that traverses some of the very best landscapes of the English Lake District, including England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike.  It is a beautiful and truly tough test of endurance, and it came close to breaking me.

I drove up to the Lakes, leaving home early on the Saturday morning and arrived at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside at lunchtime. The race headquarters were situated on the small campus, and I had booked accommodation in the student halls of residence there. I got there early enough to get out for a short hike/run, and went up the fells to see the early finishers of the Lakes Sky Ultra come in.  Their exhausted faces told a tale that I should probably have listened to more closely.

Kit checked and race briefed (warnings of limited water on the course, and an agreement to waive the waterproof trousers and headtorch from the required kit), I had an early night in the tiny bedroom, which was sweltering in the heat as the window would only crack open.

The morning saw us loaded onto buses in Ambleside to be taken to the race start in Borrowdale. I was lucky to sit next to a very friendly woman who chatted easily the whole trip and took my mind off the race ahead. The start of the race was quick, out onto the road and then along a track, before starting the climb that would lead to Windy Gap and eventually the start of the ascent to Scafell Pike. Very soon after starting, I didn’t feel great. My legs ached and my feet felt numb, and in my head I didn’t want to be there. I had started towards the front of the women but quite soon I had to slow down a lot and try to get myself in a place where I could find a rhythm and relax into the race. I felt worse watching so many people pass me, but it was either that or drop out completely and I wasn’t ready for the self-hatred that would bring! I knew there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me, I just, for some reason, was in a bad mind-set at that moment in time.

As often happens during long races, as time passed the sensations changed. I love climbing, and the ascent to Scafell suited me and allowed me to relax a bit and start to feel better. The clag had come in and it was misty and cool, obscuring the views but keeping us from struggling too much with our limited water supplies. The boulder fields on the traverse to Bowfell were tricky and, for me at least, totally unrunnable. Over Bowfell, the so-called Climbers traverse was an extremely daunting prospect, including a dizzying descent down the Great Slab, around 200m of sheer granite. I got down, and finally found my feet on the less technical descent the rest of the way into Langdale.

I was shocked to see that nearly five hours had passed, and the intermediate checkpoint cut off was tight – I had to be there in 5:45. I have never in any race before had to worry about not making cut off times. I had completely run out of water before getting there, but I got in with over ten minutes to spare. It was a huge relief to refill my bottles and stuff some malt loaf and almond butter down my throat; until then I’d had one gel and one home-made date and coconut ball, plus a bottle of quite strong Tailwind. Energy-wise I actually felt OK but I knew I was heading towards being dehydrated and my two bottles were unlikely to be enough.

The next section was a steep climb back up to the summit of Harrison Stickle, and despite having felt so unequivocally awful at the start of the race, suddenly after nearly six hours, I felt great. I got up quickly, pushing hard. The sun had come through and the summit was beautiful, with views across the lakes. I knew I had to hustle to make the final cut off, which was nine hours or 6pm. The last truly technical section of descent negotiated, and I was able to run. I had around ten miles left, and two hours on the clock. The beautiful, rolling, grassy tracks suited me, as the trail skirted past shining tarns, and climbed up again to the top of Silver Howe. The volunteers there told me I looked good and that if I ran well I could make the cut off. Dropping down again over scree and then eventually through a ferny labyrinth, I was still hopeful. Hitting a road crossing where there was water was a huge relief as I had run dry, and had a pounding headache from dehydration. The volunteer there told me that the cut off had been extended by 30 mins (a wise decision, as otherwise only around 10 women would have finished), giving me exactly an hour to cover 8 kilometers. The race was on!

Running as hard as I could for someone who had been out there for eight and a half hours, I hustled myself up the very final hill of the day. I tried to fold my poles away but found my hands had no strength to press the button that released them. I had to carry them. Never mind. Through the final checkpoint at Lily Tarn and I was close, so close! I hit the tarmac with around 6 minutes to spare and about a mile of downhill running to do. I went as hard as I could, and finally got to the entrance of the campus, where cruelly the finish was situated, up a few hundred metres of steps. Up I went, and made it in exactly 9 hours and 30 minutes.

It was a truly brutal race, and I struggled far more than I thought I would. But I am probably more proud of this finish, for all its mediocrity in time and placings, than I am of any win, because I truly had to fight for it, and I didn’t give up, even when the cut off looked impossible to make. We do these races to test our bodies in extremity, and this race did that and more. A day in the mountains changes you, and this day tested me and for once I was not found wanting. I wish I could figure out why I felt so bad at the start, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact of the finish and the process of moving through the landscape to get there. Everything else is just details.

Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Transvulcania ultramarathon

I travelled to La Palma for a week, on my own, staying in an Airbnb and renting a small car.

The flight out was delayed due to a faulty plane, and by the time I picked up my rental can in the airport it was nearly midnight. A terrifying drive over the mountain in thick fog was my introduction to the island. I made it, and found my way to my home for the week: a simple but comfortable flat set in a pretty garden, overlooking the sea on the west of the island.

The Friday was taken up with getting my race number, shopping for groceries, and preparing my gear for the 3am start on Saturday morning. Los Llanos is a big town, nestled at the foot of the caldera with the mountain soaring above. Looking up at the high ridge spiky with trees, I found it impossible to imagine actually being up there. We picked up our numbers and race bags from the museum, and I was very pleased to be handed a proper backpack containing a smart tee shirt, and a jacket with the race branding, as well as some slightly random foodstuffs. Number collected, I headed to the Lidl in the centre of town for my food for the week, then home. An early dinner of turkey, pasta and tomato sauce and I was in bed by 7, with an alarm set for 2:15.

Amazingly I did sleep, and woke just before the alarm feeling rested. I ate my normal breakfast of porridge oats, yoghurt and coffee, got dressed in my race gear and headed out. I was lucky to find a place to park easily (this was a worry), and I got on one of the first buses leaving Los Llanos for the start at around 3:15am. The bus journey was uneventful, and we were ejected at the top of the hill and had to walk down to the lighthouse. I followed some people who looked knowledgeable down a path which led to the cultural centre cafe, which was open, and sheltered from the wind, and had nice, non-portaloo toilets. The time passed quickly enough and I ate a packet of almond butter with a mini malt loaf and drank my water.

Finally it was time to hand in my drop bag to be sent to the finish, go through gear check and get down to the start. And what a start! The atmosphere was incredible. Fireworks lit up the darkness, music played. The space man, who was the mascot of the race, walked down the hill lit up by a spotlight. The horn blew out and 2,000 headtorches streamed up the hill, around the lighthouse and out into the mountains.

The slow start that was enforced by so many people trying to get through a bottleneck suited me, and by the time I could run, I felt good. I had no pain in my leg from the injury that destroyed my build up. Before we got to Los Canarios, the first aid station at 7k, the sun had started to creep up, lighting the sky incrementally and giving hints of the vistas to come. I caught a glimpse of the crescent moon setting towards the sea between the mountain. When I got to the town it was fully light, time to put away the headtorch and bring out the poles.

I started enjoying myself as we climbed through the pine forests and volcanic rock. The rhythm suited me and I was having fun. Even a crashing fall on the first downhill section didn’t bother me too much, despite the blood on my hand and an elbow swiftly turning purple. I was aware of the need to push as the intermediate cut offs were tight. I got to El Pilar in around 4 hours and felt happy. I ate some watermelon, used the toilet (in the men’s, but needs must!). The section after El Pilar was boring muddy fire roads, runnable but not much fun as it was raining and getting cold, but I picked up time by simply running along. Onto the next climb and it started to hail, big hard hailstones and it was truly cold. I started to feel a bit sorry for myself as I pulled on my jacket. Luckily, we eventually broke out above the cloud inversion into bright blue sky, and as quickly as it had turned cold, it got hot. I’m a lot happier in heat than cold, and I started enjoying myself again.

From this point on it is a relentless climb flirting with the tree line but staying above the clouds, first to Pico de Nieves (more watermelon and coke), and then leaving the trees behind, climbing up and up, pushing on my poles. I was so thankful for all the strength training I had done, all the hours spent lifting weights. For all the running I missed, the strength I built helped my so much. I got to Roque de la Muchachas, the highest point at 2,200m, and I still felt good.

The aid station there was like a refugee camp, with tired, dirty runners slumped in chairs or pushing their way to the food. Again, watermelon and coke for me. I didn’t spend much time there, and cracked on knowing for me the bad bit was yet to come.

I am not a good downhill runner. I had a moment early in the race where I felt good going down, but my fall had shaken my confidence. 18k of downhill having climbed for a solid 50k was always going to test me. I started well, jogging easily but feeling all right. I got about half way down, to the aid station of El Time. My watch said 12 hours and I had just 12k to go. I stopped for more watermelon and coke. But when I tried to start running again my legs just couldn’t. I had run 65 kilometres or so, on about one months worth of training. But my body couldn’t sustain what I was asking it to do. So I walked. Painfully. Leaning on my poles. Watching scores of people run past me. Thinking it would never, ever end.

I always knew I would finish. It was painful and it was humbling. But I even managed to run a bit on the smoother downhills coming towards Tazacorte. Going through the marathon finish, out onto the beach, and onto the dry river bed was hard, knowing the finish was close, but still a climb away. Up, through the banana plantations, on cobbled switchbacks. Finally emerging on the road into Los Llanos as the sun was setting. 9pm. 15 hours of running. I crossed the finish line of Transvulcania.

I’m not sure how I drove the hire car back to the flat that night without crashing it. I do remember struggling to get my compression socks off, and watching the water run black from the shower as I got the layers of volcanic dust off my skin and hair. The next day I spend mainly sleeping in n the sun and with my legs in the ocean.

I recovered well. By the Tuesday I was able to hike back up the Caldera and by Thursday I was able to run. On that short run I managed to get bitten by a dog, and had to go to the hospital in Los Llanos for a rabies shot.

Flying home, I realise that La Palma has beguiled me. And Transvulcania and I have unfinished business. If I can be fit, fully trained, and conditioned on the downhills I know I can do 12 hours, and I will go back to prove it. It was truly the most incredible day of my life, for both joy and pain. I saw the sun come up over the sea and the clouds break below me on the mountain. I endured and came to the finish.

My gear: I wore Altra King MT shoes, but with gel insoles for a bit of extra cushioning. These were fabulous and I didn’t have any foot issues, blisters or hot spots. I do have black big toenails but I always do. No blisters for me is amazing as I’m prone to them and it shows how good the shoes are. I also used Altra gaiters. Gaiters are a must for this race as it is very dusty and without them I’m sure I would have had foot issues from debris.

I used Scott carbon poles. I couldn’t have finished without them. Anyone who doesn’t use poles in a race like this is insane.

I wore a Raidlight Responsiv Gilet with Raidlight bottles. One of the bottles misthreaded when refilling with was a pain. The pack was comfortable and held my gear well. I also had a Salomon waistbelt which contained my phone and car keys. I wore a Salomon running skirt and an Inov8 tee shirt, with a super light ASICS jacket which I started with and put back on during the hailstorm. I had 2xu compression socks on and I used a Pezl Reactiv headtorch which was great.

My race nutrition consisted of Gu energy gels, squeezy packs of nut butter, mini malt loafs, and my own homemade energy balls, which are made with dates, coconut oil, tahini, and chia seeds. I had a bottle of Tailwind green tea and a bottle of plain water in my vest. I probably didn’t eat enough, but I did start to feel a bit queasy and I think I walked the fine line between putting energy in and making myself sick with too much food. The nut butters worked well as they cut through the sweetness of the rest of the food. At the aid stations I only ate watermelon and drank cups of coke, as I couldn’t face anything else. I was dehydrated on finishing but not terribly so. Not getting sick was a victory in itself.

I was probably the most undertrained finisher of this race. I have had compartment syndrome in my left tibialis anterior since February. I started running in April, run walking 5k on the flat. I just about managed to run 2 20 Mile ish runs. I have, however, strength trained and cross trained seriously. I would do interval session on the cross trainer: 3 mins hard, 1 min easy for an hour. I would carry 6kg dumbbells on the step machine and do climbing intervals. I did strength circuits. I squatted and deadlifted heavy (for me) and did very heavy unilateral leg presses. I made a point of getting strong and it worked. All that strength helped as I pushed on my poles and hauled my body up the final hill into Los Llanos.

What I lacked was downhill conditioning. I couldn’t replicate it sufficiently in the gym. I basically came into the race with no downhill training in my legs at all. That I got as far as I did gives me great confidence for what I will be able to do when I can put some proper training together without injury. But it has taught me an important lesson: I don’t have to run 80 miles a week for 12 weeks. I have a deep reservoir of fitness and endurance that I can trust and rely on. I can always endure.

CTS Gower Ultra


EnduranceLife Coastal Trail Series is a very well organised series of races of varying distances, all covering stretches of beautiful coastline in varying locations across the UK.  It is a format that works well, offering distances from 10k to Ultra (in this case, 57k), over challenging terrain. A trip to one of the most beautiful corners of Wales paid off for me, and I had a great race, placing second woman and 14th overall.

The Gower peninsula is a very special place; cliff edges, rolling moorland, forests, beaches, wild views over the roaring Atlantic ocean. The race started early from Rhossili, with the wind howling around us and the clouds hanging low. The route would take us around the perimeter of the peninsula, over three long beaches (including one that was listed among the top 10  beaches in the world). I knew that at just over the marathon distance we would have to go through the start/finish area and out on a 12k (ish) loop that would cover some of the hardest terrain of the race, so I knew that I needed to hold a bit back for what could be a mental challenge at that point.

I started easy, watched a quick looking woman go off at the front and swiftly decided it would be stupid to try to go with her. I fell into a happy pace, probably around 20th from the front. After the first steep climb and descent, I got to the beach section (running on sand is very tough); I was in one of those natural gaps that form between groups in a race and was totally on my own. After about an hour of running it started to warm up and the wind dropped considerably. I got to the first aid station, took my jacket and gloves off, and was told that I was running as second lady, around 5 minutes back from the leading group. I kept to my own pace, conscious of not pushing too hard so early and aware of the tough finish ahead.

By the time we got to the section of rolling moorland, I was feeling good. This is the type of terrain that I have trained on a lot and I love it. I passed a fair few men who were starting to flag and drop their pace, and fell into a decent running rhythm over the damp grassy terrain, admiring the wild ponies on the moor, and the beautiful views out over the sea. The sun had started to creep through and it was turning into an unexpectedly lovely day. After the second aid station we dropped sharply downhill through a thick forest, and onto the second long beach. At this point, I was passed by the eventual winner of the marathon distance, who was wearing nothing but a club vest and shorts, and running like I was standing still. Up onto the coastal path, and over the cliffs, down across another long, rocky beach, to the next aid station at around 22 miles, where I was told that the leading woman was now 15 minutes ahead of me. I knew I couldn’t catch her, which took the pressure off me.  Back onto the cliffs, where the sun was now shining over the ocean, surfers were out on the waves, and there was a glitter where the sea was rolling in towards the rocks below.

I had continued to pass a few more men, up to the point where the shorter distance races joined our route, and at this point it became difficult to know who was doing what. It also got muddy, due to the number of feet now passing over the ground. I have huge respect for the people who were doing the 10k distance as their first trail race; it was not easy terrain for runners who were not accustomed to rocky, technical paths, but it was fun to see them pushing on and enjoying the experience.

Going through the start/finish area wasn’t as hard as I thought as I still was feeling good. We went back up the steep hill and descent that we had started with, and then turned inland over some very tough boggy terrain. At around 50k, I was starting to feel it as I really don’t enjoy running over thick bog at the best of times. I was still running (and even passed two more men), but the bog took the spring out of my legs and I was starting to feel hungry, but didn’t want to eat much more as my stomach had been very well behaved, and I knew it could turn. I also knew I only had just under five miles to go. Through the very final aid station, I had a bite of Cliff bar and a last swallow of water. Then back over the cliffs to retrace the path I had taken just over an hour before. I found myself alone again, and determined to enjoy the last few kilometers. Climbing up the hill towards the finish, my fiance saw me and ran the last 600m with me.

It was such a lovely race; I was terrifically lucky to feel strong almost all the way. My only issues were that my race vest and merino wool top rubbed my back badly, it is still covered in welts and is very sore. I got a blister on my big toe, I think from the seam of my sock, and a few blood blisters under my toenails. Nutrition seemed ok; I had two 33shake gels, two GU gels, one bottle of Tailwind, water, and a few bits of cliff bars from aid stations. The sesame bars that I usually enjoy were too dry and didn’t appeal. I probably could have had more, even just a few extra gels, but ideally something a bit more nutritious.

I recovered well; taking three days off running, then doing a few easy days, but a week after I am fully recovered and ready to train again. The exciting news is that I have a place in the Transvulcania Ultramarathon in May 2018, which will be the biggest race of my career so far. All I have to do now is stay healthy, and work on my downhill running. That’s all! It will be a challenge, but when I think of how far I’ve come in six months, I think that I am ready for it.