Roger Hanney is a Sydney based long distance runner with type 1, who has kindly combined his experiences of marathon (and beyond) running with his ability to tell a tale well. His latest installment focuses on lessons learned in some ultra-marathon distances, and is a seriously great read. Enjoy!
Last time I wrote here on the HA site, it was about a dismal Sydney Marathon that just left me feeling dark and befuddled. It’s nice to get comments of support and it’s even tempting to give in and just lean on Type 1 as an excuse, but at the end of the day it’s about the run and how it feels; nothing can really change that.
So it’s nice now to write that the first weekend of January was my third weekend running over 100km in the last 10 weeks and my sorry diabetic ass went just fine! This was a real spirit booster after the physical and emotional rollercoaster of the preceding four months.
Running out 2010
After the Sydney Marathon in September, I needed to focus on improving my lower back and right hip, thigh, knee, etc. A sports physio at the NSW Institute of Sports Medicine has been helping me regularly since and things have improved enough to up my weekly training mileage from 0 to peaks of 130km and averages of 80km per week. This has also been in conjunction with some pretty serious yoga practice. There’s a way to go yet, but we have made real progress.
So, September’s disappointment/crushingly weak run was followed by 5 weeks of almost no running at all. This made me even harder to be around than usual. Why? Running really soothes the moody soul – either through fatigue or satisfaction - but also does wonders for blood sugar management and insulin tolerance. Relative to what they might be, my basal and bolus needs are quite low as long as I’m running every second or third day and mixing it up with gym as well.
Injury, though, starts a spiral. Inactivity leads to less stable sugars, higher insulin needs, reduced immunity tied to less stable blood sugars, more bad wake-ups thanks to less well-behaved dawn phenomenon, borderline colds, potentially less activity as a result, repeat. These can be the times I most miss my pancreas, as weeks at a time can feel like swimming uphill through mud. Yeah.
So it was a welcome release in late October to find that I’d moved from #47 on the waiting list for the Great North Walk 100s to #103 on the participant’s list. The Great North Walk weekend itself happens in early November. Runners take on either 104km or 110 miles – roughly 175km – in terrain that heads south from Newcastle toward Sydney, through remnant subtropical rainforest, leech-filled gullies, punishing climbs, and across meandering dusty ranges through hours of no shade in temperatures exceeding 36 degrees.
With 5 runs in 5 weeks as ‘preparation’ – as opposed to the more realistic training regime of 5 runs every week - I was smashed by the short version (104km), but elated to finish and mostly unconcerned by the time (mostly). Pounded by dehydration, heat, and tough terrain more than half of the people attempting the 100km pulled out, most of them by halfway. My highlight was spending over an hour at the last checkpoint. With 21km to go – your run-of-the-mill half-marathon distance – I got to work on my feet with a couple of friends and the race doctor.
Running for 15 hours in wet feet, socks, and shoes at high temperatures had worked out pretty badly. All I could think of doing to pull water out of swollen feet so painful that I screamed when the doc touched them lightly with one gloved finger was to cover them with salt. The idea being that just as the salts in my body had attracted freshwater from streams run through earlier in the day into my skin, salt might pull it back across the skin barrier. Just a note for future reference – whenever you deglove a toe, don’t be surprised how much it stings when you pour salt on it.
The 100-miler field were more experienced than the ‘sprinters’, with most of them finishing their race by the Sunday even cutoff time of 36 hours. To see firsthand what people go through and how they prepare for even longer runs, taking on distances that most of them need more than 24 hours to complete, was a really inspiring and unique component of the GNW 100s.
So, with 2010 winding down and having met some ultra-marathon enthusiasts and pioneers, I landed a position crewing at the Coast2Kosciusko in early December. This Tolkienian adventure starts on sand and ends in snow, as competitors take off running from the ocean’s edge at the NSW south coast town of Eden to finish 240km later atop Mt. Kosciusko. It’s impossible to capture the wonder of this event in words, but in part it involves keeping your runner on the road in a straight line at night as they sleep-run. Fighting the body’s well-established rhythms, they must eat, drink, and function even when all their body wants is to lie down and turn completely off. Like diabetes, but on a whole other level, the challenge is mostly internal. And unlike diabetes, the sunrise seems to give everyone a fresh start.
Crewing for and pacing about 110km alongside a runner with more than 90 marathons and ultras under her belt was genuinely eye-opening. Even as other teams and their athletes seemed to weather rolling mood storms, ours was chirpy til the end…maybe less as we surged down from the summit in 100 knot winds and a thumb-sized blister deep in the ball of her foot popped with 6km to go, but you get that.
The point was, though, to see what it takes to really get out there on the edge, at the point where the battle between body and mind becomes a totally Zen state of disembodied mindlessness.
So now, hopefully more as a runner with Type 1 more than as a Type 1 going for a run, I’m aiming to do my first 100-miler in 2011, and, as I said, January felt like a good start.
And into 2011
The Narrabeen All-Nighter is becoming a cult fixture in Sydney’s ultra running calendar. Next to a huge lagoon system on a 3 1/3km course (1 2/3km out, 1 2/3km back) about 40 runners of all shapes and sizes go out and back, out and back, from 8pm until 8am. Some aim to run farther than anybody else, some aim to run further than they think they honestly can, and some just come to see if they can actually run for 12 hours. Over the final hour the course reduces to a 500 metre out and back so that everyone can see who they’ve been running with all night and be within earshot when the final bell sounds.
I put on 1.6kg in the 2 days beforehand carb-loading, deliberately eating more than half a kilo of carbohydrate each day to increase my body’s fuel stores and joking that running’s going to give me diabetes. I found out that in 12 hours, I can eat at least 660 grams of carbohydrate, drink at least 6 litres of fluid, and run over 101.9km. Although at a markedly slower pace than my uninspired marathon, the Saturday night in question left me pretty happy with progress made. My crew, the same runner I supported at C2K, wanted at least 105 out of me but we were pretty happy with how things went.
We used it as a data-gathering exercise, taking nearly 30 blood sugars throughout, checking body weight for dehydration every 3 hours, recording food, fluid, and insulin intake, and even some ‘outputs’. Skip ahead if you’re only interested in anecdote, or stick with me here for more technical detail. Previously, my nutrition and insulin ‘strategy’ has been to take my pump off before the race, or training run when it’s going to go longer than 2 hours, and take about 3 units of Levemir so there’s something working to get sugars across cell walls into where they’re needed for energy.
To maintain a good blood sugar level, and energy level, then I’d get in some sports drink or an energy gel – Science in Sports or Endura or Shotz (80mg caffeine) – about every 40 minutes, and also to check my sugars and eat or not eat or take rapid-acting insulin as needed. Currently though, I’m trying to consistently get in 60-70g carbs per hour, and the 12-hour race was a chance to test and practise this approach. Having a regular checkpoint and an ultramarathon-running head nurse in anaesthetics as my crew was perfect for this experiment.
My sugars started out around 7.2 as I’d front-loaded with a banana and no fast-acting insulin. Physical and chemical processes set in play by endurance exercise generally lower or sometimes even remove the need for fast-acting insulin as a blood sugar mediator.
Eating and drinking about 80g of carb in the first 80 minutes, I had to back off my sugar intake. On three consecutive tests, each about 20 minutes apart, my blood sugar was 11.2, 11.0, then 11.9. This trend – far more useful than any individual reading - indicated a few things, but mainly a need to adapt my insulin strategy because of the new nutrition strategy. Continuing sugars over about 11.0 during endurance and perhaps any exercise leads to increased feelings of sluggishness, an unpleasantly dry mouth, increased urination and potentially dehydration, and overheating with all the fun that can involve.
On the fourth test result, 12.3, we changed up. I took another 1.5 units of Levemir and 1 full unit of Novorapid. As well as exercise increasing insulin sensitivity, actually taking insulin during exercise moves the hormone into the system faster and further increases the effect. I ate a packet of baby food – easy to swallow and digest on the run, also more substantial than sports gels and good for variety – during the next lap. Unclear about how I was responding to the insulin and whether I’d taken enough to get my body back on track, we took another sugar reading at the end of the lap. Surprisingly, in just 20 minutes, it had come back to 4.3. This meant we could get back on to our strategy of high hourly carb intake, and also confirmed the value of using a glucose meter whenever there’s any doubt.
My own instinct had been to take more insulin, feeling like my BGL was still climbing. This is the blurring effect of pounding blood, sweat, and increased core temperature. So too shivering, weak grip, numbing lips, slurred speech, cold sweats, general weakness and even delirium – all the symptoms of a hypo – also happen when you’ve been running for about 8 hours, by which point telling one cause from the other without a glucose meter is essentially, itself, a lost cause.
Taking one unit of fast-acting insulin roughly every 3 hours after this, apart from one reading of 4.2 and another of 9.6, we kept my blood sugars between 5.1 and 8.9 for the next 9 ½ hours and 20 finger-pricks.
Ultra-running’s my sport for a number of reasons. I’m too slow for anything shorter, don’t play well with others, and don’t like uniforms. But it’s also somewhere that you only ever end up competing with yourself – not just to improve your time or meet some goal, but it also does become a deeply internal struggle. When that voice come up and says “wow, 67k, you’ve only got 10 LAPS TO GO”, the only person who can shut it up is you, especially because it’s your own mind throwing it at you in the first place. Still, even with a small field in a sport where we mostly compete only with ourselves, it was nice to start the year by grabbing 9th place for my first ever top ten.
The night was exhilarating for another reason, one purely osmotic. Victoria’s fastest Englander, Barry Loveday, set a new Australian record for 12-hour road racing. But he didn’t just beat the old record, he annihilated it by nearly 10km. In 12 hours, Loveday ran 147.5km – literally 3 ½ marathons in a row. Each time he swooped by out of the dark, it felt like being passed by a high quality athlete on a 10km training run, or a small pony. Veterans of the sport commented that it was a real privilege and even for them the first time seeing such a calibre of running up close and in the flesh, and we all felt a bit sorry for the guy who ran 124km to come second because his effort would have won the same race anywhere else 9 times out of 10.
Get on with it
So now, early in the year and hopefully with some big runs ahead, I’ve got a good base level to work from and some useful lessons about digestion, pacing, fluid intake, focus, pain, fatigue, and blood sugars to really try to improve on.
The next outing is at Centennial Park in Sydney on February 27, for the first ever running of the Centennial Park 100k. Unlike Narrabeen, it won’t be a mild, rainy night. Based on the heatwave of the last week, it may even be an evil superhot day that sees a lot of people eject early and I’ll downgrade it to a well-supported training run. If conditions suit, though, I’ve got a time goal in mind and if the 28 laps and everything else go right maybe it’ll be worth writing up next time.
You can read Roger’s previous report here: http://www.hypoactive.org/content/just-not-my-day-rogers-run