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Photo credit: Ian Corless

Completing A Mountain Multi-Stage Ultra: Coach & Competitor Compare

11-Jan-19

Last updated: 28-Jan-19


By Andy Mouncey and Alice Morrison

Alice Morrison is Editor here at RunUltra. She completed the Everest Trail Race back in November. RunUltra Coaching Contributor Andy Mouncey was on hand to help her. This is the short version of how they did it.

The Everest Trail Race is a six stage 160km week-long adventure in the shadow of the roof of the world taking 15000m of climbing along the way. Well, the clue IS in the title…Oh – and it’s all at altitude.

Your average six-day stage it is not and absolutely NOT one you’d dive right into for an office bet when you knew damn well that just making the cut off on the first day would be a triumph to top all triumphs.
Alice did – and she was under no illusions as to the enormity of the challenge. This is what she presented to Andy:

Success At Everest: The Alice Wish List

  • I want to complete it within the time
  • I want to use it in my work
  • I want to be fit enough to enjoy it and get through the suffering
  • I want to have one of the best experiences in my life
  • I want to (finally) be able to go up a hill fast and feel I can keep up
  • I want to get control of my eating-training swings – all or nothing – for GOOD

Sources Of Sabotage: The Reality Of Now

  • I’m fat, unfit and I find running hard although I love the benefits
  • I am often at the back or even last
  • Running in public in Morocco as a western woman is a tough ask
  • I need to understand why I am doing stuff and believe that it will work
  • I want sensible Alice-goal advice (finish without dying, have an adventure, preserve my reputation)
  • I live in on my own in a village 1.5 hours away from the capital Marrakech 1750m up in the Atlas Mountains

On the face of it the gap between her aspiration and present reality was nothing short of a huge yawning chasm. How to bridge it? Where to even start? Or do you just laugh ‘cos you figure it’s a joke?

Andy recalls at the time:
Four months out I had no idea whether this was possible for her or not – and I told her. Neither did she – but she was willing to give it a shot and find out. For this to work we both had to commit to the process of preparation because she didn’t need to feel ready until she arrived in Tibet. She could be terrified right up till then. My responsibility was to park what I thought about her chances and help her give it her best shot – ‘cos I wanted to find out too.

Alice:
I wanted to take on something that would stretch me to my absolute limit and I knew that the climbing in ETR would do that. I had done MdS but it is flat. I wanted a real adventure and there is nowhere more adventurous than Everest. I had talked a lot to Steve Diederich before I took it on and he said I COULD do it but I knew I had to pretty well transform myself. I was also really worried about taking it on so publicly for RunUltra… I am a good (I hope!) but a terrible runner so there was the embarrassment factor.

First Thoughts: Andy on Alice & Implications For Coaching

  • Self-employed/Isolation – no discipline/structure other than the ones she/we impose and safety issues when alone in big mountains
  • Big work ethic and sense of urgency/fear – danger of overdoing it and injury
  • Track record – previous big adventures – she has an engine, drive and self-management skills
  • Leverage – her professional reputation is riding on this
  • Limiting beliefs – she has some baggage from previous and present

Defining Differences
While there were some very typical issues that Andy is presented with when people come to him for coaching there were also some very different ones here:

Isolation On Many Levels
Alice lives on her own half way up a mountain in rural Morocco where travel is a challenge and the cultural norms are somewhat different to her place of birth in bonny Scotland. She does have an incredible network that spans the world – but she’s not exactly besieged by training buddies asking if she’s coming out to play.

Alice:
I moved to a small village in the Atlas Mountains, Imlil, which lies at 1750m and is surrounded by peaks up to 4167m purely to train for this race. I love the Atlas Mountains and the Amazigh (Berber) people who live there and was welcomed into the community. I still felt like an alien though, and isolated in my task. I underestimated how difficult I would find it emotionally as well as physically. 

Tons Of Time
She works for herself and makes her living from her writing. The only structure and discipline she has is that which she chooses for herself. She therefore has plenty of time to over train – a real risk with highly motivated people and where fear of failure is a huge factor - and plenty of time to really go to work on those self-doubts in the privacy of her own head.

Alice:
Motivation is the devil. Having to motivate myself for training and to keep pushing the work side was hard. In my work I get a lot of rejection or just people not answering which is demotivating. Then I had the training which was physically hard and which I know I am “not good at”. Double whammy! Having Andy as Coach really, really helped. In fact, I didn’t overtrain, I probably did about 65% of what I planned.

Just Slow
Apart from getting to the start line intact the biggest single challenge was likely to be making the first cut-off on Day 1. In other words, it could all be over very quickly. She just needed to be ‘quick enough’ and be able to hold that through the week. Even if we got the improvement in her speed over the ground during the training that we needed (and we thought possible) it was still going to be marginal come race week.

We knew already that she would not be able to afford the luxury of stopping at the aid stations: For Alice it would be a week of perpetual motion if she were to have any chance at all – and that would mean going to work on her mental fitness, ensuring she had the skills to take partial recoveries while on the move and putting an End-Of-Stage Routine together that maximized her recovery. ‘Cos here was the kicker: When you come in last you get less time than everyone else to recharge before you have to do it all again.

Alice:
Yep. I am slow. I am steady and I am determined but those cut off times loomed in my nightmares. The one thing, though, that I love my body for is that it recovers brilliantly. And it didn’t let me down on that.

What follows are three examples of a particular challenge that Alice presented to Andy, how Andy coached her through it and what that meant to Alice.

Photo credit: Alice Morrison

Challenge 1: Where & How To Start

Solution 1: The Benchmarking Template

Alice completed a Needs Analysis that Andy has developed specifically for ultra running that covers a range physical, mental and emotional skills and qualities needed for the event. This revealed her strengths relative to the challenge, and with weighting she was able to see clearly what she needed to work on and why that would help.

Solution 2: Keep It Simple-Make It Fun

“Start where you can make the most progress in the shortest possible time for the least amount of effort” is Andy’s go-to position for clients where lack of confidence and ‘feeling stuck’ is an issue.

  • What could we make happen easily?
  • What could we make it fun?
  • How will we know it’s working?

The WHAT of the training in the very early days was less important than the HOW: Alice just needed to be doing something vaguely relevant that we could quantify, was easy for her to make happen and made her smile. That would produce momentum and once we had that we were away…


Challenge 2: Doubts & Fears

Solution: Change The Measure Of Success

Alice was tying herself in knots agonizing over kph and vertical gain and viewing all of that through her current perception of herself: ‘I can plod forever, ‘she said ‘But I’m panting like a beast at any decent speed!’ And while intellectually she knew that she would be a very different ‘beast’ at the end of the training, emotionally she just didn’t believe it – yet. Drastic action was needed-so Andy changed her frame of reference:

  • Confidence Is The Currency
  • Progress Not Perfection

Oh yes – and it’s not ultraRUNNING: Think of it from now on as ultramarathon COVERING THE GROUND

Quite simply this meant that everything Andy prescribed and every question he asked should build her confidence. If it didn’t then it was changed or abandoned. Alice got used very quickly to Andy opening their coaching calls with the following:

  • What are you most pleased with since we last spoke?
  • What’s gone well?
  • How are you different/better now?

Helping – and sometimes forcing – Alice to recognize the progress she was making was crucial. Andy helped Alice come up with some Test Event sessions that they could use as repeatable and scalable benchmarks, and he constantly challenged her to see the results she was getting in context of where she’d come from – as opposed to how far she thought she still had to go. In short, to play the long game and help her switch from specific outcome-based hard measures to process-based goals that she had total control over

Alice:
I found all of this incredibly useful. It is almost impossible to imagine success when you are doing this stuff on your own and it is all hard. Yes, you have a watch and you can compare the like-for-like outings but I was doing that and constantly thinking, “That’s fine but how am I going to do 3500m of climbing in one day?” By focusing on the programme and progress and not how rubbish I was, I could keep going.

Photo credit: Alice Morrison

Challenge 3: Problem - One Month To Go & Progress Has Stalled

Panic was almost knocking on the door at this stage: Confidence was building, Alice had made considerable progress but it was clear that we needed to switch it up – but without breaking her!

Andy coached Alice through coming up with a four week almost crash-course with periodic mini-test events building to three big days back to back in the mountains.

Key to the design of this was to Start At The End:

  • How do you want to feel as you get on the plane?
  • What key outings do you want to have completed – and done so in style?

Alice’s final test event in the mountains completed a few days before she flew to the race was this:

Day 1: 40km / 3000m ascent
Day 2: 10km / 1000m ascent
Day 3: 40km / 3000m ascent

All completed as continuously as possible and with her effort under control.

The rest of the crash course was simply scaling down from this point in terms of physical training – while supplementing with specific mental and emotional preparation.

Alice:
As it turned out, I couldn’t follow this exactly. We had heavy rain, which is extremely dangerous in the Atlas Mountains, so I had to do what I could. On Day 1, when I saw the downpour outside my house at 6am I cancelled, but my mountain guide went out with another group and was caught up in a landslide in which he broke his hip and, tragically, one of his group was killed.

The biggest day I got to do was up Toubkal at 4,167m and back to my house at 1750m with 39km of distance.  It took 17 hours but we encountered serious snowfall at the top and all the way down to the last 6km and it became a very technical descent.

The good news was I felt on good form the whole way with no altitude or exhaustion problems and I also felt fresh the morning after. There is no doubt that those big days out in the Atlas Mountains in conditions very similar to the ETR, with back-to-back effort really boosted me up. If I had started by doing these sessions I would have been over tired by the time it came to the race four months later, but by saving them for the end, Andy got me to exactly the right level of fitness v fatigue.

 

Photo Credit: Jimmy Hyland/JHPVisuals

Alice At Everest: A Coaching Case Study

A Few Words From Andy:

The outcome – finish the race – was less important to me than the process for Alice. If she made the training stick over time, if she stood straighter, smiled more on the inside and out AND was able to practice a formula that enabled her to feel how she wanted to feel, look how she wanted to look and attempt what she could barely comprehend…that’s something that she’ll have for the rest of her life.

There’ll always be other races – and I knew she’d be devastated for a while if she DNF’d – but here’s the thing:

  • Meaningful success rarely happens in a straight line.
  • Almost never on the first-choice timescale.
  • And it’s never ever something that someone else gives you on a reality TV show.

Alice:
This is where Andy and I really diverged. I could NOT allow any thought, or even any whisper of a tickle of a smidgeon of an idea, that I might DNF enter my head. When I went to the race and looked around me at the start I knew I would be last but I really didn’t care. My goal was to finish within the time limits.

I had my mantra, “Don’t stop, don’t stop, run the flats, run the downs.” Now it was all about the race and I did not allow any negative thoughts in. I did not deviate. I did not think about anything else when I was actually out there. I focused absolutely on my goal. I succeeded and it is a source of deep and enduring satisfaction to me.

Andy:
My job was to help get her to the start line feeling how she needed to feel – regardless about what I thought of her chances. The bravery is in the willingness to give it a go in the first place – a quality that should be celebrated and supported – and one of the reasons why I choose to coach. The quality of the individual is revealed in the decision to try again when it doesn’t go to plan first time around. That’s Resilience – a quality and skill that seems both increasingly rare and sought after these days.

Alice:
Andy helped me even more than he knows. As well as actually structuring me something I could follow, his support kept me going. Although it was a solitary endeavour in many ways, he made me feel like we were a team and I found that invaluable. At first, I hadn’t wanted to take on a coach as I felt that was for elites not for a slowbie like me. It was the best thing I could have done and it has changed a lot of my attitudes for the better.

Andy:
What next for Alice? Well I know another adventure beckons shortly and whatever happens on that one I suspect she’ll go into it standing a little taller and smiling a little more on the inside. Which is exactly as it should be: Chapeau, Madam Sport!

Alice: Funny you should ask… I am doing a massive exploration of the Draa river in Morocco, walking 12000km from source to sea. I’ll have camels to carry equipment and supplies and it is going to take 81 days – 80 days walking and 1 day rest. You can follow my progress on www.alicemorrison.co.uk

And the final thought is, “Thank you very much, Andy. You were a brilliant, motivating and funny coach and I will definitely be taking you on again for my next big ultra challenge!”

Alice successfully completed all stages of the race over the six days.  What an epic achievement! You can read all about it on her blog here.

If you'd like to know what kit she took for this event, read her Ultimate Kit Guide here.


Who Is Andy Mouncey

Andy does the training stuff for us. He is author of three books including ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’ He runs long for the challenge and fun of it and has been a professional coach since 2000 working across business-education-sport-lifestyle. He lives with his family in North Yorkshire, UK www.bigandscaryrunning.com

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