Alison Walker has achieved a great deal in ultrarunning in a very short space of time. Having taken up the sport in 2019, Alison went on to break five Malaysian records during her first 24-hour race and holds the record time (for both men and women) for the fastest 100km in Malaysia.
More recently, Alison ran her first 'backyard ultra' by running for more than 24 straight hours in Victoria Park in London. We simply had to find out more...
Hi Alison, you've come a long way as an ultrarunner very quickly. Just how much training do you put in to be able to run the distances you do? And how has that changed during lockdown?
Well, my coach, Peter McHugh, and I still think there is a lot of work still to be done as I have made significant errors in my races, plus compared to my British peers I have a lot of catching up and learning to do!
Initially, when lockdown happened I was at a loss as to what I was training for as my 24-hour race in April had been cancelled and London Marathon was postponed.
My coach and I agreed to keep the volume but reduce the intensity with only one big speed session a week.
I average 100 miles a week over the last year, running everyday. I also have a tailored strength and conditioning programme from Andy Reay which I do without fail once a week.
To keep things spicy during lockdown, I also did some FKTs (Fastest Known Times) in and around London - from 18 miles to 78 miles. Despite having zero sense of direction, I wanted to enjoy a time trial experience and see different parts of London.
You mentioned about your race plans being derailed and it's been a similar story for so many athletes out there. Have you found it difficult to train without a goal to work towards or have you enjoyed the freedom?
I do prefer a goal to work towards, but at the same time, having no races to look at gave me a chance to work on things I didn’t have time for, like running form.
I had previously seen a movement coach, Shane Benzie, to try and run more efficiently as I noticed that my arms swing around a lot. It’s not easy to build in these things when you’re tired or trying to smash out a track session.
So how did the Backyard Ultra come about for you? And what did it involve?
The Backyard Ultra format is basically run 4.17 miles every hour, on the hour, and get ready to start again at the next hour. So you basically run 100 miles under 24 hours and then carry on.
I saw the Quarantine Backyard Ultra being advertised on social media in April, but we couldn’t do it as we were only allowed out once a day in the UK at that time... and I don’t own a treadmill.
I jumped at the chance when I saw there was another edition. There were people all over the world taking part and the race continues until the last runner(s) DNFs by failing to start their next loop or by failing to finish the distance within the allotted time.
I thought it would be a perfect chance to test things out for the Suffolk Backyard Ultra seven weeks later given that I will be coming up against many more experienced ultra runners, and my limited experience has shown that with the larger and longer ultras, no matter how strong you are, a lack of experience will be your Achilles heel.
So how do you go about preparing for your Backyard Ultra and how did you decide on the route?
To be honest, as it wasn’t an A race, I did zero tapering. The weeks before were all 100+ mile weeks including a night run of 40 miles the week before.
I did some admin planning and lining up night time security as I live in east London and with lockdown eased, lots of raves, parties and people being chucked out of bars was inevitable.
These were all in the rules as long as my security didn't pace me and didn't provide any aid. I carried all fuel and water myself and they ran behind me or beside me, unless they saw danger and sacrificed their arms to be grabbed by drunks!
I also got as far as planning to have my crew table in the car park rather than my first floor flat to avoid having to climb stairs at the end of every hour.
Sounds sensible! How did you approach this challenge psychologically? It must have been an unusual feeling to race on your own without other competitors around you.
My coach had always said to me when I signed up to this that in the absence of races, you have to scale up any simulations and make things hard for yourself so you have the knowledge that if you can do it in a fake scenario, it’ll be much easier when the adrenaline's pumping during a race.
I did find the mental bit of getting each loop as close to 50 minutes quite hard. During the first few loops when I came in too early, I got cold. It was all a great learning experience for me.
I do miss the camaraderie of an actual race as normally in ultras, people chat with you and you end up picking up more crazy friends. I cannot wait for this aspect to come back.
How did you approach your hydration for the challenge?
I had my Advanced Sweat Test in April 2019 and therefore had a good idea of what to do.
As the race started at 2pm, I had two sachets of PH 1500 for pre-loading. I then rotated between the PH 1000 sachets and tablets for a change in taste. I had some SweatSalt Capsules on standby as well just in case I got bored of the taste.
Post-race, I took another two PH 1500 sachets as it was turning out to be quite a warm day. I had no cramps, but then I haven’t had cramps since I started using PH products.
As I often had 10 minutes at the table before setting off on the next lap, I also drank water to clear my palette.
And how about nutrition? The lack of aid stations on course must have made life difficult...
This virtual race was my chance to correct my nutrition as I took less than 2000 calories at my last 24-hour race... which was insufficient.
So this time, I set a target of 200-250 calories per hour and I was forced to take them off the table and finish it before I came back.
I tried to apply the same regimented discipline with hydration and succeeded. I introduced caffeine about 18 hours in. I didn't bonk at all!
I relied mostly on gels and Soreen which I know don’t irritate my gut.
I had a meal at 8pm, a cup of soup at 2am and bagels at 8am. My husband is very well trained as a crew member and has been learning a lot from my mistakes at previous races!
So what are the unique challenges that a backyard ultra in London on a Saturday night brings? I imagine the drunk people falling out of bars is a slightly unusual experiene...
I think when I planned my route, I didn’t foresee the park being so busy on the Sunday. But as we all know, when the sun is out in the UK, everyone wants to be outside!
The night loops were unnerving with lots of drunk people and broken glass on the floor (I found out later there was a rave in the park, which would explain the police helicopter)...
Unfortunately, even though I got myself to 24 hours in one piece and still feeling fresh, at hour 26, a large child on a bike came out from the crowds by the gate of the park and ran over my foot.
The foot swelled like a balloon and I didn’t think it was sensible to continue (although if this were a race I probably would have continued and worried about the consequences later).
I still finished 3rd lady and 20th overall out of 1230 people taking part, and plenty there are plenty of lessons for me to take into my future events.
What are your hopes for the rest of the year?
Hopefully the Challenge Running Backyard will go ahead - they’re just finalising a few other details. Otherwise I have a long FKT in mind.
I'm also hopefully going to redeem myself at a 24-hour race in Gloucester in October - eating more than 2000 calories this time!