This guy ran a 2:36:20 marathon - in Dubai - and still finished 30 minutes behind the winner!
If it wasn't obvious already from our clunky website, we're still very much a small business (only 4 of us are full timers). And so our workloads can be off the charts at times.
But, whenever I'm personally feeling the strain, a success-story from one of our athletes will drop into my inbox and remind me why we're doing this. It's like a gel when you're flagging late in a race. I know the other guys feel the same.
Last week, one of the favourite emails around the office last week was from James Buchanan and the opening paragraph was...
Fresh off of Dubai marathon, 2:36:20 and 5,000mg sodium consumed during the race. No cramping. First time ever.
Of course, I was over 30mins behind the Ethiopians leaders. This year 6 people went under 2.05 and the first 4 were separated by 10 seconds. Mental!
So I reached out to James for a chat to hear more about his race and how he's overcome his problems with cramp...
So, James, you ran a 2:36:20 marathon in the Dubai heat and still came 30 mins behind the winner, can you talk us through the race?
I have run Dubai marathon a few times now so I know what to expect. From an athletics fan’s perspective, it’s an awesome race to watch.
At the sharp end it’s the Willy Wonka golden ticket of Marathoning, with 200k USD on offer for the winner! So, given Dubai’s proximity to East Africa, pretty much every up and coming marathon stud runs Dubai. The race is always the same, world record pace for the first half, and then one by one they drop off until only the strongest remains.
From my point of view, I don’t see much of the front runners from the moment the gun goes! You can see them at the turn around points, and frankly it’s awesome to see that kind of speed.
My race was pretty uneventful, I got super lucky by jumping in with a Swedish lady going for her world champs time, so the first 35km went well and passed quickly. The last 3km was pretty bad because I simply hadn’t put in the mileage in training (though this was very much a training event for me).
I remember coming into the finish line where all the Ethiopian fans are (they clap and cheer non stop for about 3 hours) and I was pulling all sorts of painful faces and thinking ‘they must think I am running really slow!’. But I got a new PB!
I feel sorry for the guy who came 6th. He ran 2.04.44 which would win every single marathon in the world (save London and Berlin) and only picked up a modest cheque. What a way to earn a living!
This was your first cramp-free fast/hot marathon. What did you change to achieve that?
Flash back to this time last year, when I was pretty much at my nadir, having cramped up in a long distance duathlon that I performed well in the year before. I was honestly considering packing it all in.
My friend (older and wiser) had been telling me for years that sodium depletion was causing my cramping, but I read some study with frogs legs or something that said it was inconclusive. So I had not ever supplemented my sodium in my entire life until that point.
He gave me a standard ORS sachet and I was immediately better. A bit of the old Dr Google brought me to the PH ‘what causes cramp’ page, which I read about 4 times. It was like I had written it! Even down the gifs of twitching muscles!
So I ordered the strongest stuff, spent some time self-testing and working on what strengths were right for me in different scenarios and, slowly but surely, I started to see breakthroughs in controlling the cramp.
That was the most significant change as it allowed me to train longer, recover quicker and back up quality sessions over time.
For the race itself, I hydrated with your zero-calorie 1,500mg/l drink two days before the race. I like the fact that it has no calories.
On race morning I had a calorie shake with 500ml of water and then some SweatSalt capsules before the race. I have learnt that pre-loading is far more valuable than taking in electrolytes on the go, for marathon distance at least.
During the race, for the first hour I had a packet of your all-natural 1,500mg drink mix dissolved in a bottle of water and for the second hour switched back to taking the pills with aid station water.
I should point out that, as it was not strictly a race for me, I kept my HR below 160bpm for the duration (av of 156 for 42km), which means a slightly lower sweat loss than a full racing.
With that said, having the right amount of sodium before and throughout keeps the blood less viscous which also contributes to a steady HR.
Training in the Dubai heat has advantages and disadvantages. Talk us through a “typical” mid season training week...
For Dubai marathon, I was averaging around 80km per week, roughly 13-15km per session and on average 6 run sessions per week.
I had 1 interval session, which would usually be km repeats or similar (10 x 1km with 90sec rest), 1 fartlek of around 40 – 50mins (1min fast 1min moderate x 20, 3mins HM pace 1min moderate x 10), 1 recovery run (7mins per km ideally), and the rest easy runs.
Easy runs typically fall within the 3.50-4min per km pace at this time of year. I would normally try to bring in long runs every 8-10 days but it didn’t really happen this time. So I did one long run of 26km which was 10days out.
In addition I would do my swim and bike sessions (because I’m a triathlete), which in total usually adds up to 13-15 hours per week.
In the Dubai summer, it’s totally different. First it gets hot and then it gets humid. The humidity is the biggest killer, we have “real feel” of 60 plus degrees sometimes!
This summer I trained my run quite similar to the above, but the easy runs would be around 1 minute to 90 seconds slower, although the heart rate would be the same. Interval sessions would be done inside on treadmills.
So, it’s possible to train in the heat, and I believe you can get ‘fit’ - but you will struggle to get ‘fast’. Speed only comes from running fast for longer periods of time and that’s quite challenging in the humid and hot weather!
Every Ramadhan the Crown Prince will organise a sports tournament, where the 10km road race is one of the highlights. The past 2 years it has been dead in the middle of summer, so the race kicks off at midnight in order to allow people to break their fast, but still it’s 40 plus degrees.
The finishing straight is like the zombie apocalypse with people collapsing and staggering around in circles!
I bet! Ok, so what’s your favourite and least favourite training session?
Favourite would be my ‘go till you blow’ bike session. I basically try and hold 88% of my FTP for as long as I can.
If you have calculated your FTP correctly, you should know roughly how long you can last at that level, but you have days where you think you can sneak a bit more and days where you can barely pass the warm up! I like it because it is really a mental effort.
My least favourite would be the descending pyramid session on the track. That’s 600m (5km pace)/500m (5km pace)/400m (3km pace)/300m (1500m pace)/200m (flat out). Repeat 2-3times.
Luckily it seems my coach has forgotten about that so I have avoided it recently! Hopefully he doesn’t read this...
Haha. Right, if the Dubai Marathon was just a training run for you, what’s your main goal this year?
The RAK Half Marathon is the short term goal, which is 4 days after writing this. Coming into Dubai I had set new PBS for 5km of 15.59 and HM 73.05 in training races, so I knew I could run well enough to get a PB without compromising RAK.
For RAK I hope to get near to 71 mins. RAK is a huge race, with stars like Mary Keitany and Bedan Karoki running (last year they set the womens world record).
For triathlon, I hope to race in the ITU Long Course in Denmark later in the year, which is probably the main goal at the moment. It gives me more time to work on my swimming…
And what’s your hydration strategy for longer events like an Ironman?
Well I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy to ask about this as I have only done full 2 Ironman races!
Both of them were in Langkawi Malaysia, the first being a total disaster were I took no salt at all and walked the last 30km of the run.
It was humbling to be honest and a big wake up call that I haven’t paid my dues in this sport yet. That was 2016, so I made a vow to go back 2017 armed with Precision Hydration and try to get around in one piece.
It went much better the second time around and I was just outside the top 50 overall inc pros, and not too many minutes from the AG winners.
My goal was to finish without cramping, which I did, but I think I still have a lot to learn on the nutrition front as I spent 20mins of the marathon in the thunderbox this time round…
Well, we’ll help you tweak things to get them 100% right this year James. What are you riding and how is it setup?
Nice. You have separate coaches for all three tri disciplines, how has that helped you improve? What issues, if any, do you have with having different coaches with different viewpoints?
It has helped me improve massively to be honest. I was self coached before and felt proud of it, which was a little bit arrogant looking back.
The turning point was when I was given salts after the duathlon last year. I thought to myself ‘if I'm wrong about hydration, the chances are I don’t know everything about everything else as well’, so I found some coaches whom I could relate to in terms of style and luckily they agreed to help me.
I use Training Peaks, which the coaches can access and see what the other has posted for the week and plan accordingly. Luckily they're quite empathetic to one another and so we don’t really get issues.
With that said, I think part of it comes down to the athlete being realistic about what they can and cannot do. That’s probably the hardest part, you might do a hard run set and then want to hit 300w for the bike intervals, which is not going to happen, so you need to be sensitive to the workload.
What are your medium-to-longer term goals in the sport?
I was actually discussing this the other day. My goal is to train consistently and healthily for the next 3-5 years. If I do that, I'l be happy knowing I gave my best effort.
It would be nice to say ‘I want to win this or that race’ and - of course - I want to win races, but I cannot control other competitors, the weather, bad luck on the day or whatever…so, at this point, as a relative beginner and when there are many, many better triathletes than me (even just here in Dubai), my goal is just to be consistent and believe in "the process".
Sounds sensible! If you could only do one more race in life, what would it be and why?
Good question! I think I would have to say the King of the Mountains in Taiwan.
It's a 90km bike race that climbs up to 3000m. I can only imagine how challenging that must be! I have been to Taiwan a few times and it's stunning.
KOM is becoming a really prestigious race, with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali racing it recently. Luckily for me, when you get to the top they bring you down in a bus as - like most triathletes - I suck at going down hill and round corners in anything other than a straight line...
Haha. That does sound like an epic event. We look forward to helping you stay hydrated during that one too then James! Thanks and good luck with your season mate.