Interview with Oliver Harrison

Oliver Harrison started running, very occasionally, in 2002 but only properly got into running in 2007. He was quite unfit, had a poor diet and was a smoker. Then, his girlfriend’s sister (now sister-in-law) invited him to join her and her partner to complete a triathlon. He did it by giving up smoking and training fairly consistently (3-5 times a week). He really enjoyed it but when he had a child and his time was more limited, he chose just to run. He started a blog to motivate himself and encourage more people to enjoy the benefits of running.

What is your proudest running achievement?

As part of the Leeds Triathlon in 2012 I achieved a sub 40-minute time on the 10km run leg. It’s one of only two occasions I’ve managed this for a 10km and to do it at the end of a triathlon makes it feel extra worthy. Also, more than any other run, that time felt deserved. I trained hard and targeted my training. There were no miles wasted.

What has running taught you? 

That despite appearing incredibly calm on the outside, I have a restless energy inside me. It’s only through running regularly that I’ve realised that the energy has always been there. I just often chose to direct it in very unproductive ways.

What is your most ambitious running goal?

To date the longest distance I have ever run is a half marathon. I’m currently considering entering Endure 24 in 2020 with a view to aim for 100 miles.

How far in advance do you plan your races? 

This totally depends on my level of fitness but generally speaking between one and three months. One month if I’m feeling fit, but three months if I know I’ve got a bit of work to do to get a time I’ll be happy with.

What is the most miles you’ve ever run in a week?

I couldn’t honestly answer that because it’s not something I usually keep track of. At a guess probably 20-25 miles. I was training with the aim of getting a sub 40-minute 10km in the middle of June 2019. I got nowhere near (41:54).

What is the longest period you’ve ever trained for a race?

Again, I can’t be certain but knowing how I plan these things it would most likely have been a three-month build up to a half marathon.

What has been your most serious running injury?

I’ve had recurring injuries in my right knee for the past ten years. On several occasions it’s stopped me running for six to eight weeks. It’s been incredibly painful at times but apparently it’s caused by something as simple as an underactive glute on one side. I didn’t think I needed to exercise my glutes if I was doing so much running.

What cross-training exercises do you commit to?

I’ve always been very bad at cross training. More recently I’ve been doing pilates at least once a week but now aim for twice a week. It’s crucial for me to keep my knee pain under control. More recently following a groin injury (which put me out of action for six weeks) I’ve started to do a bit more strength work but I’m just trying to find what works for me.

What would persuade you to work with a running coach?

I’d struggle to commit to using a coach. I’d have to feel I was getting value for money. By which I mean my funds are always very tight at the end of the month and I’d have to sacrifice something else to pay for it. So I’d need to feel the coach was giving me some knowledge or expertise that I couldn’t give myself or find out for myself.

In one sentence, what does running mean to you?

Running means a place of freedom where everything else apart from the next footstep gets forgotten and life, for as long as I’m running, is as simple as it ever has been.

An Ultra Transformation

Finding Ultra (2012) by Rich Roll


Serious Swimmer

Roll was born in the 1960s and by age six he was swimming, inspired by his grandfather who was a top swimmer, an Olympic hopeful and local legend. He was mentored by excellent older swimmers and his love for the water grew as he began winning local summer school meets before he was ten.

He was bullied throughout his school years so worked hard on his studies rather than his social life. It taught him to accept and thrive despite pain, as he was accustomed to the disconnect with his peers.

His tenacity to develop and realise his swimming potential resulted in him training in the pool as early as 5am and accumulating over eighteen hours of swimming a week. At age sixteen he was travelling all over the United States competing in the 200m butterfly, recognised as eighth in the country for his age group, often finishing in second place. He also single-handedly inspired his school to found a swimming team.

He attended Stanford University due to its superb swimming programme and was made freshman co-captain.

Audacious Alcoholic

Roll’s performance levels would soon fall once he was hooked on drinking alcohol, which was partly a mechanism to overcome his social anxiety. He dropped out of the team and would later become a legal assistant in New York. His raucous social drinking lead him to dodging DUIs, a failed marriage and eventually being arrested in Los Angeles.

Roll continued to relapse until he was forced into rehab after realising he had a problem and would lose his job if he did not change his habits. Over the next one hundred days Roll changed his perception of himself, and rid himself of resentment and fear in order to draw on spirituality and faithfulness to recover.

Lean Vegan Triathlete

Despite staying sober for many years, fathering a family and setting up a successful entertainment law firm, Roll was overweight and addicted to unhealthy foods. As he turned forty he knew he needed to change if he wanted to live longer. So he transformed his diet with support from his yoga and juice enthusiast wife.

Roll quickly adjusted to a vegan diet, similar to Scott Jurek, becoming ripped and losing over forty-five pounds. Inspired by the popular movement of Ironman Triathlons, he entered a long-course hilly half distance in 2007 but did not finish, suffering cramp and succumbing to high muscle lactate. In the same year he had to walk the last eight miles of the Long Beach Marathon.

So in May 2008, Roll experimented more with his food choices, motivated by fuel optimisation rather than for political or ethical reasons, and worked with top coach Chris Hauth.

After lactate tests, months of zone 2 training, periodisations and a whole-foods plant-based diet Roll steadily enhanced his aerobic endurance capacity.

Inspired by David Goggins, he completed the UltraMan World Championships in 2008 (eleventh overall) and 2009 (sixth overall). Not satisfied, Roll embraced an even more extreme test of fitness in 2010 – the EPIC 5 adventure. Alongside Jason Lester, a disabled athlete and friend, he embarked on a series of back-to-back Ironman Triathlons on the islands of Hawaii.

Despite the enormity of the challenge, adverse weather conditions, frequent mechanical faults with bicycles, saddle rashes and the loss of essential gear, they both navigated five separate islands over seven days, accumulating 12 miles of swim, 560 miles of cycling and 131 miles of running (703 miles in total).

Transformation

Roll’s journey from high school swimmer to chronic alcoholic, and overweight lawyer to elite endurance triathlete is remarkable. Along with an unwavering dedication to change his life, Roll took advantage of the advice and presence of national swimming champions, Olympic Trial qualifiers, and even Olympic medalists. He came into contact with some of the best swimmers in the world, including his idols such as Pablo Morales and John Moffet.

His persistence to better himself led him to realise that a healthy and fit lifestyle is within everyone’s grasp. He distilled his vegan diet into easily digestible and compelling advice for his readers. Foods he uses throughout his incredible feats include many slow-releasing carbohydrates:

  • Avocado and veganaise sandwiches
  • Coconut water
  • Kale and spinach
  • Mustard greens and spirulina
  • Rice balls and yams

His openness to explore himself and follow proven principles resulted in him running many miles at a lower intensity to improve his ratio of exertion to relative speed. He is a true inspiration because his positive attitude and quest for finding other people’s motivation (through his own popular podcast) is second-to-none.

Tackling Anorexia with Ultrarunning

The Extra Mile (2006) by Pam Reed with Mitch Sisskind


Battling Anorexia

Brought up in the Midwest of the United States, Pam Reed was a competitive and energetic tomboy, who developed in a culture of self-reliance and physical resilience.

In her adolescence Reed was inspired to become a gymnast, and later would commit to 1,000 sit-ups a day and running to stay fit for playing tennis. But she would train with a reduced caloric intake, wanting to maintain a slight build. She admitted herself to hospital several times, and yet never relied on drugs to improve her relationship with food and her body.

The catalyst for change came when she was told she would not reach her ultrarunning potential if she failed to eat enough to fuel and recover adequately.

Ultramarathon Success

Influenced by her husband’s love of triathlons, she first trained and competed with him at Ironman Canada, where she finished as the ninth woman.

She soon became addicted to pushing her physical and mental limits, running over 100 marathons including Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and London. She has also conquered more than 100 ultramarathons, including the Elkhorn 100k, Wasatch 100 (mile), Leadville 100 (mile) as well as 24 and 48 hour championships, where she has set numerous American records.

But it is her back-to-back wins at the brutal Badwater 135 mile race in 2002 and 2003 that she explores most in her book and which proved her class as a runner. Her love and natural adaptation to running in the heat gave her the necessary confidence to excel. She also ran 300 miles non-stop (12x 25 mile loops) in 2005, in under 80 hours. Although she ran too fast too soon, it was a highlight of her career because of the deep connection she made with her family and friends.

Her success has come from consistent performances, where external pressure failed to negatively affect her, and where nutritional liquids, energy drinks and soda water always provided a boost. Her mentor and ‘personal physician’ Chuck Giles played an immeasurable part in Reed’s pacing, crewing and fuelling during some of her hardest races. Despite her huge achievements Reed is humble and believes she has over-trained for many years (racing on average 24 times per year), suggesting she could have improved her endurance records.

Her influences include other ultrarunning champions such as Ann Trason, Scott Jurek, Marshal Ulrich and Dean Karnazes. She has also raced with Charlie Engle.

Running Tips for Balancing Life

As a mother of many children, wife, and race director of the Tuscan Marathon, Reed has to juggle many responsibilities.

Reed has defied pre-conceptions throughout her career, including running two marathons in three days, running only days after giving birth (and running a 100 mile race only 10 weeks afterwards), and never becoming seriously injured.

Reed used triathlons as her base fitness for her ultramarathons, and has trained with a jogging stroller, her dog and other ambitious women. Although she feels guilty for not always prioritising her family, she recognises that athletic excellence requires many hours of focused effort.

She further offers essential advice for any ultrarunner.

  • Crews need to laugh, talk a lot and always remain positive. Crews have the power to lose a race for a runner, and so they must be willing to do anything without showing fatigue.
  • Practice breaking long races into manageable distances. For example, a 100 miler can be viewed as one mile repeated 100 times.
  • Never think of how many miles left, look rarely at the sports watch, and think only of the short distance in front.
  • Always have multiple race goals. For example, the first goal is to finish, then to run a new personal best (either over sections or the full distance), and finally to win the race.

Reed is a legend of the sport, not only because of her impressively long list of race results but also her openness about the challenge (and expense) of her lifelong pursuit, and the respect she shows herself by never making excuses.

The Benefits of Indoor Triathlons

In March 2011 I completed my first indoor triathlon events, which were organised by work colleagues at my university sports centre.

The half triathlon consisted of rowing 1500m, cycling 6km and running 2km, all completed using gym equipment.

I trained without a structured plan. Instead I focused on completing CrossFit workouts. I finished in 24 minutes and 1 second.

Due to my university schedule I could only undertake the full triathlon two days later.

I had no intention of missing it, despite a little leg soreness.

Colleagues kept encouraging me as I rowed 3000m, cycled 12km and ran 3km in a time of 44 minutes and 20 seconds.

I came first.

The challenge proves I can work hard to persevere and counteract any fatigue. My cross-training in the gym complimented my fitness and performances.

I preferred the indoor form than the traditional outdoor sport because the transitions are short (due to the lack of distance between machines) and require no change of clothing or gear.

These events were an effective and flexible test of cardiovascular fitness and can be modified as a training tool to meet running goals.

Book Review: ‘Swim Bike Run’ by Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee

Swim Bike Run is the story of the Brownlee brothers, the famous British ex-World Triathlon Champions. It culminates in the London 2012 Olympic Triathlon race, where both vied for the gold medal on home soil.

Early in life they were encouraged to pursue running before, during and after school hours. Unsurprisingly they formed a positive association with exercise.

Interestingly, their fast development as athletes was facilitated by older athletes and mentors.

Proven training advice is outlined too, including racing with others of similar ability, setting short-term motivational goals and maintaining consistent training volumes and intensities. They remind me that putting in greater effort will yield greater fitness rewards.

They advise that training should have a purpose, but enjoyment should not be sacrificed, as this is how high performance levels are sustained.

It is an honest account of the relationship between two competitive brothers with different personalities. Both show their love for each other and passion for their sport in unique, but no less valuable, ways (one more isolated, the other more inclusive).

They also reveal that by training faster than race pace they can adapt when conditions are harsher. They also run every day, often twice: 35 minutes for recovery and two hours for endurance.

Throughout the book the Brownlees have to overcome many obstacles, including injury, doubt and personal conflict to excel in various races. They remind me that at the elite level there is a huge amount of training structure and race tactics, and that although winning races is the best feeling one must move on quickly to compete at the next one. The constant interchanging of the brothers’ perspectives flows well and their obsession with their discipline is always evident.

I learnt that triathlon requires athletes to prioritise efficiency. Success comes from swimming and cycling hard enough to compete, but still conserving energy for a strong run.

Audiobook Review: ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’

Vassos Alexander details his running races across Europe including the Great North Run, the ultramarathon 100km to the Stones and numerous marathons, many of which he experiences with his Greek cousin.

Alexander is a British radio presenter and sports journalist, who began running when he realised he was overweight. He stopped smoking but continued to drink coffee and alcohol.

Every chapter of the book starts with commentary of each mile of the marathon section of the Outlaw Ironman Triathlon he completed. Next, he outlines his thoughts on past races, injuries and training. The final part covers stories from inspirational runners, some of whom are famous. These include Paula Radcliffe, Joss Naylor, Steve Cram, Jonathan Bailey, Lord Smithe, Nicky Campbell, Angela Copson, Sally Gunnell, Jenson Button, Chrissie Wellington, Liz and Martin Yelling, Tom Williams, Neil McAndrew, Helen Skelton-Myler, Rory Coleman, Allison Curbishley, Jo Pavey, Colin Jackson, Graham Albans and Scott Forbes.

All these runners give a brief insight as to how they got into running, their training routine, as well as their achievements and advice.

The audiobook is narrated by the author, which emphasises his humorous personality and confident persona.

He reveals his top five favourite runs in the UK and abroad, and provides his children’s perspective on running.

His journey as an experienced runner includes visiting physiotherapists, encouraging his children to run his local Parkrun and training alongside his dog.

Alexander’s story is relatable, interesting and reminds me that every run can feel like a victory.

The Usefulness of Indoor Rowing

I started rowing on indoor machines at my university gym.

It became an obsession for two years.

I would row for half an hour or twenty minutes on a fixed setting and over time I increased the distance I rowed.

I enjoyed the repetitive, rhythmic motion.

I believed it was an efficient method to strengthen my arms and legs whilst still working my cardiovascular system.

Despite the relative weakness in my upper body, I relished the new challenge to power the machine and increase the distance travelled.

I have rowed on water recreationally only a few times, but is far more technical. The rowing machine was the most convenient and accessible piece of equipment to teach me the correct technique without joining a club.

For the indoor triathlon competitions I later entered, rowing was the first exercise, which replaced the traditional swim. I preferred this.

The training for this section was rowing consistent 500m repeats with 2-minute rests in between. I recommend this as an effective workout.

I also had the ambition to row the distance of a marathon. But it never materialised. Over three hours of sitting on the hard, uncomfortable seat deterred me. However, I came to love the Concept2 Indoor Rower and would never rule out a return to the pursuit of setting new personal records and attempting this feat of endurance. Only, I would need to commit to purchasing a gym membership or buying a machine, both of which are expensive and therefore unlikely.


Personal records (set 2009 – 2012):

500m – 1:45

4-minute O’Neill test – 1,048m

1,500m – 5:40

3,000m – 13:14

4,000m – 17:27

5,000m – 20:21

6,000m – 27:52

30 minutes – 6,651m

10,000m – 43:29

21,097m (half marathon) – 1:44:12

Book Review: ‘A Life Without Limits’ by Chrissie Wellington

Surround oneself with supportive people.

A Life Without Limits reveals how Britain’s Chrissie Wellington became one of the world’s most successful Ironman triathletes. Throughout her journey she demonstrates a hunger to push her physical and mental capabilities and achieve remarkable ambitions. She uses an experienced coach and surrounds herself with other dedicated triathletes. Despite this she feels isolated and mistreated for long periods. She also doubts herself, particularly when she is not at peak fitness. But the quality of her training and uncomplicated diet ensures she makes the most of her talent.

Replicate race conditions in training.

She advises that for training sessions to be most effective, course conditions and the level of concentration should replicate races. Her fearless competitiveness and addiction to training hard have also made her a more stable and relatable person. She encourages others to focus on fighting the limits that the brain often imposes.

Prioritise improving one’s athleticism.

Wellington’s incredible story makes me think of the huge sacrifices and unrelenting determination it takes to become the best in the world. She is a reminder that to fulfil your potential you have to give everything to the pursuit. I agree with her philosophy that self-improvement, rather than perfection, is the most important measure of success as an athlete and as a person.

Her four Ironman World Championships, undefeated race record and world record performance, prove the importance of developing an elite mindset and habits. This requires many years of finishing every training session and race without energy to spare.