Joshua Barrow is an ultra trail-runner living in the North-West. Moved to the Lake District in 2017, set to swap out the bars and restaurants which had dictated my social life after University. I was at gridlock, reflecting on my life and knew a small change just would not do; I needed a complete life overhaul that would take big change and sacrifice. I lived in almost solitude for two years in the Lake District, all free time spent running up and down mountains chasing sunrise and sunset. Initially a trail-running novice, before long I was routinely running the perimeter of Lake Windermere, a not-so-coincidental 26.2-mile marathon distance on a Friday night – and scaling peaks around Wast Water, Consiton and Keswick. Armed with a fruit of the loom jumper, short-shorts, and an iPhone, I began documenting those days in the mountains on an Instagram page. For the first time in my life I felt I was exactly where I needed to be. This set an exacting code of personal conduct, to be better, step out of the past and be proud about the future.
Returning to South-Manchester with a renewed sense of purpose. Tom Craggs, coach at Fast-running, took that naïve optimism and helped me structure it in the right areas. We spent the last 12 months developing my aerobic base and anaerobic fitness, working on my nutrition and mentality. The first test at the 50-mile distance being the South Downs Way Centurion race this October 2020.
What was your first 50 miler like?
As a whole experience, winning was the proudest moment of my life. A reward to some hard-fought personal battles and feedback that training is going well. It was my first dedicated ‘race’ at the ultra-marathon distance, so it was all very much unknown and about using the margin of freedom that comes with unknown to our advantage on the day.
The race worked as a time-trial with a staggered start, so the athlete that finished first was not necessarily the winner. Those aiming to finish in sub 9 hours were asked to set off between 6-6:50 am. Sunrise was 6:40 am. With Covid-19 restrictions and living in the North-West there had not been chance to recce the route. So, to give myself the best chance of navigating the route I decided to start at 6:45am with light out and runners ahead to focus on. We came to the decision to wear road shoes on the 90% trail route. This was a bone of contention as the forecast of scattered thunderstorms felt all too chillingly real at 4am on race morning with the rain hitting the hotel window horizontally. A few slips and slides on tractor trails, all in all I think it helped to carry a feather-light shoe over the 50 miles and pick up some speed on the chalk paths. The undulations were tough past 30 miles, but the mantra was always to stay half a pace behind the edge of comfort in the early stages and that paid forward.
We decided not to use any of the aid stations, instead my partner Sophia earned her stripes and then some meeting me at all 4 crew locations: 15, 20, 36, 39 miles to pass out nutrition and sound advice. Sophia was live tracking the race. So, at 36 miles she was able shout a line which stuck with me and inspired the rest of the race, ‘you are winning, think of something you love!’ I finished the 50miles and 6,400ft incline in 6hrs 15mins. The race ends with a flat 400m lap around Eastbourne athletics Track as though that were some tongue-in-cheek indication of the previous 49 miles battling along the exposed South Downs Way peaks. An anxious 5 minutes later and the race director had calculated the finishing positions of the top 3 and to my genuine shock, I had won by 3 minutes!
How often do you train, and what do you do?
The weeks before taper were between 85-100 miles. Most weekdays were double run days with a key session on Tuesday and Thursday. That could be a track workout, road fartlek or progression run. Saturday and Sunday are either two mountain sessions back-to-back or an easier day Saturday followed by a longer run on Sunday. The longest run in the build-up was 4 weeks out, a 40-mile run around Macclesfield Forrest with 6,000ft incline in 4hrs 58mins. Three weeks out I ran a marathon around Macclesfield Forrest with 3,600ft incline in 3:09. I hit a 32min 10km and 54min 10mile the next week as part of the same workout which was really encouraging.
What nutrition did you take?
My A-race was initially the Snowdon Mountain Marathon which was cancelled during the summer. That gave us just a few months to change tac from a 27mile race to a 50mile race. That meant reaching a consensus on the best energy system to build and utilise through nutrition on race day. Intermittent fasting works well for me tending to eat in a 4-6 hour window late afternoon. Fasting teaches the body to ‘fat adapt’ where the body becomes more efficient at utilising fats as an energy source. Fats being the substrate of choice for aerobic or low heart-rate activity which is more commonplace over the 50 miles. I like the idea that the body is training even when it is not training. That’s great for building the aerobic engine but it was also important to be able to tap into the anaerobic system which favours carbohydrate metabolism for speed sessions. Coming to terms with the fact that my body needed carbohydrate to sustain the pace 35 miles onwards was important. It was the difference between blowing up and not. I spoke with Anthony at XMiles for an hour on the phone before my 40mile training run and he helped shift my thoughts around nutrition philosophy. We decided to drip feed a slow-releasing carbohydrate drink for the first 20miles to replenish stores whilst limiting trauma to the gut. For the final 30 miles I alternated between slow-releasing carbs and a refined carb drink with glucose/fructose/maltodextrin. I found there was more risk to the gut, but that risk was offset by the psychological and physiological benefit of a refined carbohydrate drink that can deliver energy quicker. I took a salt/caffeine capsule every hour and occasionally a mouthful of a chia seed or whole food gel. The strategy worked well for the 40-mile training run and utilised well also for the race.
How did you expect the race to go?
Personally, there was room for improvement. The target was certainly to go faster, and I believe that stands as an accurate target under different conditions. There were several athletes on the (staggered) start line who would have been thinking they had a fair shot at the win. The top four times in 2020 are amongst the top 10 of all time on the SDW50 course, with only minutes between first and second. That meant the aid stations, navigation, crew points and nutrition were crucial to get right. One of the most memorable parts was having an internal conversation to keeping running the last incline up to Trig Point mile 45. I feel like sometimes that voice to walk a few seconds gets louder and louder to the point where satisfying it rests on a hair-trigger. I have no idea how close the race was at mile 45. What I do know is I had watched a video on Youtube of Trig Point down to Eastbourne Track so when I reached the top of that hill, I fired all cylinders down to the track knowing every inch of the course ahead. I may have made up time there, which puts even more emphasis on that quiet conversation at mile 45. It may have been the most important conversation of the day.
What did you do after the race for rest?
I took a couple days full recovery, then some light runs to aid recovery throughout the rest of the week. I have had a physio and sports massage appointment where we set some specific dynamic stretches to help open the joints and release tension. The body is feeling good and I am enjoying some high carbohydrate meals and alcohol-free beer before we ease back into training next week.