David Keyte talks to Phillip Howells
Phillip Howells is the UK distributor for Wigwam socks, he’s 67 years old and he’s a bloody nice bloke. Being a bloody nice bloke who sells socks doesn’t usually warrant an interview, but when he casually let slip that he competes in ‘ultramarathons’ during a conversation a few weeks back, we were left cursing our shortage of Dictaphones.
For those unfamiliar with this slightly painful sounding pastime, an ultramarathon is any running (or walking) race that’s longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres. To make matters worse, they’re often run in less than ideal locations like the desert, the arctic or the depths of an active volcano.
We can barely run a bath, never mind an ultramarathon — so what would we ask him? Luckily a quick flick through the rolodex brought up someone who could help — Universal Works big cheese David Keyte. Not only does he run a successful clothing enterprise, he also runs marathons. Perfect.
We sat them both down in our well-furnished lounge in the mists of cyber space, and here’s what happened…
DK: I have run for the last 25 years. I have done a couple of full marathons — one in horrible conditions. That confirmed for me that running for more than two hours is just bloody hard and requires a lot of training. So the first thing that I am fascinated by in an ultramarathon runner is the motivation. What’s the draw? What's the buzz?
PH: The buzz is in overcoming the physiological, physical and mental challenges of doing ultramarathon events with like-minded ‘special’ people who have more energy, determination and get-up-and-go about them than most people. And what is more — being able to access wild, remote and scenic places, all under your own steam.
Once you go above about 20 miles or 2/3 hours of running, the challenges become much greater than for the shorter distances. Up to that point you can get away with not drinking or eating on your run, and the mental effort required to keep going is far less.
You have to work out and make sure you implement proper hydration and eating strategies if you are to finish in good shape, and this becomes even more essential as the distance increases. You won’t complete unless you eat!
What you eat and drink is critical too because gels won’t work for most because the chemicals cause tummy upsets over this sort of distance. You have to have a great deal of determination and be well organised too. You have to decide in advance what your race pace, eating and drinking strategy will be, and what you need to carry with you to survive in conditions which can change dramatically on the day.
So ultramarathons challenge you mentally and intellectually in ways that are obvious once you do one. That’s why many runners are very bright people (contrary to what many might think) — because they relish the combinations of challenges. There is no hiding place 40 miles into a 50 mile race!
DK: Over the years I have read many a ‘running book’ as I am always interested in the why and how. In fact my interest in proper long distance was from reading Feet in the Clouds by Richard Ashwith — a book about the Bob Graham Round fell running circuit. Do you read much about your sport? Are you interested in why others run? I ask as ultramarathon running seems like a very solitary thing to do.
PH: Yes, I read about my sport. Richard Askwith’s book is a classic and sums up how many can get so obsessed with taking on extreme running challenges. I enjoy reading anyway, so other books such as the influential Born to Run and Dean Karnezes book Ultra Marathon Man are great reads. I am interested in why others run and also in helping them from my experience, since I know many people would like to run marathons and beyond but lack the confidence or don’t really know how to go about it.
Solitary? Well, yes — but not as you might imagine. There is a great camaraderie in ultra running. I did the 53 miles Highland Fling in Scotland last weekend over very tough terrain, and the sense of comradeship and sharing in the challenge was very evident and palpable. You only have to look at the Facebook page for the event to see how much everyone really appreciated, shared and encouraged each other, so it’s definitely not solitary in that sense.
On the other hand, they are tough events and only you can do them. No one can do it for you — your fitness, mental fortitude and determination to keep going when everything is crying out for you to stop is an intensely personal thing.
DK: Do you think humans are meant to run? Or were we just designed to walk?
PH: Apparently yes, we are actually the most optimally evolved species for ultra-distance running. We’ve got very effective cooling systems, narrow hips, very strong glutes, the ability to rotate our body while keeping the head looking ahead, and tendons in our feet that give us spring to run fast.
No other species is so well equipped for long distance running… and walking if you like. Most long distance runners will indeed adopt a mix of running and walking. I’ve run up to 30 miles and perhaps more, but once you go longer then walking periods increasingly becomes a sensible option — up hills for example, to conserve energy.
DK: I spent years thinking I need to carbo load if I was running, then a year ago I read new science on how bad carbs were for the body in general and stopped eating most of them. What are your basic thoughts on nutrition? Are you a big carb man or not? And added to that, what the hell does an ultramarathon runner eat while on a run?
PH: There is some evidence for carbo loading, but not as much as once thought. Carbs are the most important fuel for activity and getting enough carbs is a critical part of the nutritional strategy I referred to.
Like most ultramarathon runners, I am very interested in the nutritional aspects of ultra’ running. You expend 100 calories a mile at whatever speed you go, there are four calories per gram of carbs and the body can only absorb roughly 300 calories or 75g of carbs an hour — so you get into carb deficiency quite quickly. The general advice is to start to eat early and eat often to limit the deficit. Then we can burn fat to get energy which gives us nine calories per gram of fat.
A good rule for eating is the longer you go, the more natural food you eat, but one problem is that your mouth gets very dry, so you end up chewing food as if it was cotton wool and you can’t swallow.
Bananas are very popular — they’re soft, they have lots of carbs and lots of potassium. We also eat rice pudding, jelly babies, peanut butter, mashed potato and soup. Savoury biscuits go down very well later on and the salty, tangy taste is great. Flapjack is also common.
You don’t lose a lot of weight running, although it does increase your metabolic rate and general digestion which helps with burning food. You do tend to lose muscle mass, and you don’t see many fat ultramarathon runners.
There is evidence that this is not necessarily a good thing, especially for older runners. I tend to agree with the view that this stuff is not likely to improve your health. Fitness yes, but that’s different and people confuse the two.
After reading a lot about it I am of the view that it is not the best way to optimise health and I do warn people about it. But of course it is much better than being a couch potato and the benefits are still very significant, so there are good reasons not to stop doing it too.
DK: As a runner in the ‘clothing industry’, I wonder what you wear while out on the longer runs. Do any socks work for an ultra-marathon or are blisters a thing you have to get to love? Do new tech fabrics really work, or is wool still the ultimate fibre?
PH: I never get blisters. By and large there is no excuse for them if you wear the proper gear. This stuff is hard enough without having sore feet and it is not necessary. It does change if you race in the desert — even with the best care I got blisters in the Kalahari desert from all the sand, but even then I got to about 100 miles in four days, as I planned, before they became a problem.
When doing very long distances over 50 miles it becomes more likely that you will get them, but up to 50 miles I am rarely troubled with sore feet. A mantra of the sensible ultra’ runner should be look after your feet and put right any issues as soon as they arise.
Wool on its own is not the best material, but in combination with other, more technical fabrics you get the technical wicking, cushioning and hard wearing socks we use. Cotton socks are an absolute no-no. They do not absorb moisture and 99.9% of people will get bad blisters if they run in pure cotton socks for more than a few miles.
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So there you have it — long distance running isn’t as lonely as Alan Sillitoe would have you believe, bananas are good and cotton socks give you blisters. See you at the next ultramarathon then?