To say Andy and Jonny like Cape Town is a bit of an understatement. They spent much of last January paddling the infamous Miller's Run and running around Fish Hoek and the plan is for more of the same in December. Andy was browsing Twitter (he does work...honestly) and noticed that promising trail runner Jonathan Black had suffered MAJOR issues with cramp in the Ultra Trail Cape Town race. So, he reached out and offered to meet up with Jonathan to see if PH could help at all.
Then, when Andy was over in Jan they ran up Elsie's Peak together and since then Jonathan has become a part of the PH family. We had a chat recently to see how what he's learned about hydration from working with Andy has impacted his performance as well as to find out a bit more about an emerging face in trail running...
So, Jonathan, can you tell us a bit about your background in running?
I first started running at a very young age (around 9) but it was never something that massively interested me so I would only run the big races for my school, with no training in between! I used to win the inter-school cross country races so there was some talent there, but after a few years I stopped entirely and spent most of my time playing football and chasing the dream of playing for Liverpool FC one day...
I didn’t run through most of my teenage years and then in my second year of University (aged 19) I got back into it after winning a competition for a dinner with David Epstein (author of ‘The Sports Gene’) when he was visiting Cape Town. That dinner basically ignited a passion for running and I became really fascinated by training and the science behind performance, so I needed a guinea pig that I could use to test out my ideas...me!
Living in Cape Town, with Table Mountain on my doorstep, turned that passion into a focus on trail running, although I do still run a few road races every now and then. My current focus is on races of about 20-30km in length as well as running a coaching business with a friend.
Congrats on bagging 2nd place in the recent Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. Can you talk our readers through what the race entails and how your race went?
Thanks. The race is a 24km trail run that has a bit of everything – steep single track climbing, a few faster flat sections, some very technical descending and amazing views throughout.
My race started off fairly well with a shared lead with two others runners when we hit the major climb (a 600m gain in 2km) at the 8km mark. Steep climbs have always been my greatest strength so I pushed ahead a bit at this point and had around a 45s lead at the top. Unfortunately, I was starting to feel sick (though my legs felt fine) and things got pretty ugly from this point onwards.
I quickly dropped to 3rd and the race became more of a fartlek ("speed play" in Swedish, a training method that blends continuous training with interval training) as I just couldn’t handle long stretches of continuous effort. I’d been sick the week leading up to the race and thought things had cleared, but the race was probably just a day or two too soon.
How did your illness change your game plan? How close were you to dropping out before and during the race? What made you dig deep and see it through?
Two days before the race, I’d basically decided I wouldn’t run as I had a bug that wasn’t going away and just didn’t feel up to it. The next day though, I made a huge improvement and decided I’d give it a go and see how things went.
I wouldn’t say there was any change in game plan per se. I’d been aiming to win this race for a few months, so the plan would always be to go out with that as the goal and if I can’t do it then so be it.
I had a few moments where I was tempted to pull out but with about 8km to go I saw up ahead that 2nd place was struggling a lot, and this convinced me to just keep going at whatever pace I could and hope that I’d eventually catch up (which I did).
You've had real problems with cramp in the past, can you tell us a bit more about that?
Cramping was always something that affected me in any long runs (over 2 hours) and especially in warm conditions, which is often the case for my local races. My ‘solution’ for this was always to drink more water, as I used to think that this would help with hydration. I was unaware of the importance of keeping a balance of electrolytes such as sodium.
After having a Sweat Test I realised I’m losing about 3,000mg of sodium per hour of running as I have a high rate of sodium loss (1,486mg/L of sweat) as well as a high sweat rate (2L/h), and yet none of this was being replaced during my long runs or races.
How did you find implementing your new personalised strategy in training and the race?
I’m yet to have a single cramp since using Precision Hydration 1500. A few weeks back I did two back-to-back long runs of 2.5 hours each with absolutely no issues at all, which would never have been possible before.
This race saw many issues but luckily cramping was not one of them! Although it was ‘only’ a two hour race, I’ve still experienced cramping in these sorts of races before when the temperatures are high. For the first time, I was able to run my last few kilometres normally without the usually shuffle that I have to resort to when I can feel my muscles are close to cramping.
Will you refine the strategy at all for the next race?
My next race is quite a bit longer and will be around 5 hours in length, so it will definitely require a slightly adjusted strategy. I’ll focus a bit more on preloading with PH 1500 and maybe some SweatSalt capsules as well. I'll also be carrying a few bottles of PH 1500 on me during the race.
Right, that's the "Whale of Trail" right? It's your first ultra I believe. Tell us a bit about the event...
The race is 53km of trail along a coastal hiking route that isn’t accessible to the public (so no route scouting!) and looks to be a really incredible route. I’ve always loved the feeling of running fast and really pushing the pace, so even if this race leads to a few more ultras in the near future, I certainly won’t stop doing the shorter and faster stuff anytime soon.
Do you have a particular training session you swear by and try to never miss?
6-8 x 1000m reps with a short rest (60-90s) has always been my favourite session to include every month or so. It’s something I’ve found can be relevant whether I’m training for a 5km and want a race-specific session or it’s a long race and I want a bit of speed in the legs.
What are your goals in the sport in the next few years?
My main goals are to win the major trail races in South Africa and get the chance to do a few big international trail races (marathon distance or thereabouts) – which would hopefully include representing the country and taking part in the World Trail Championship one day.
In the longer term, there are also a few ‘bucket list’ races I’d like to do (and be competitive in) such as Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
On the road, a sub-30 min 10km is probably the main goal in the near future and a sub 2:20 marathon a bit further down the line...