An interview with Jess Gray

Last weekend, Jess Gray was crowned female champion at Centurion's North Down's Way 50 ultramarathon. Not only that, but she was also second place overall. For someone who only started running ultras last year, I wanted to find out more - and Jess kindly agreed to share a bit about her background, her preparation for the race and how it all unfolded.

  Team Gray with the trophy (Photo: Stuart March, from Jess's blog)

Team Gray with the trophy (Photo: Stuart March, from Jess's blog)

First of all, many congratulations on your race. Before we talk more about this race, I wanted to find out more about your running history. Is it something you've always done or a more recent thing?

From a young age I did a little bit of running, I won my first ever sprint race at nursery age 3, I remember being the first girl home at Cassiobury Park, Watford when I was about 9 doing the Blue Peter Fun Run (always been gutted that I didn’t get presented with a Blue Peter badge!) and when I was at senior school I enjoyed middle distance and cross country. Once I went to university running was only something I did in the gym on a treadmill as a warm-up, so it wasn’t really until I need to shift the baby weight in 2008 that I decided to don my trainers again.

How and why did you start running ultras?

When my fitness and running confidence grew I decided that I would like to complete one London Marathon to follow in the footsteps of my dad (and to beat his time!!) so in 2011 I received a ballot place and ran for the Alzheimer’s Society. The race didn’t go to plan and my fibula snapped half way round, so I signed up to Milton Keynes in 2012 and ran a 3.30 and it continued from there. The transition to ultras came about in 2014 when a running buddy suggested running London to Brighton as a challenge and not being one to turn down a challenge, I agreed. I really enjoyed the event and actually felt great all the way round, so I thought I would give a few more ultras a go.

You ran last year's Chiltern Challenge 50k and the Royal Parks Ultra 50k. Did you go into them thinking you could win?

Following London to Brighton, the aforementioned ‘friend’ talked me into joining the Mizuno Endure 24 Team. It was here I met Stuart Mills, who was also on our team, and he suggested that I should try longer distances as it appeared I was pretty steady over the longer distances. I entered the Chiltern Challenge as it was so local to me, but I had no expectation and it was a huge surprise to win.  

Similarly with Royal Parks Ultra, I got a charity place through a friend and it was more of a ‘give it a go’ race. I was astounded to win the ladies section, but even more to get course record. It was only then that I thought maybe I should try a few longer courses to see what I was capable of. 

When did you decide to enter the NDW50?

I was talked into NDW50 by another running friend who suggested this race because Centurion events are legendary and I was likely to have stronger competition in the ladies section. Although London to Brighton was longer, this was to be my first 50 mile event that I was actually racing.

Have you done any other races this year, ultras or otherwise?

My first race of the year was in January at Country to Capital and all was going very well until mile 32 when my knee decided to stop playing ball and I had to pull out. This was my first DNF and I was so bitterly disappointed. However, what I thought was just a twinge kept me out of training until the middle of March so it was pretty significant.

I completed the London Marathon again this year, but due to my injury and only just getting back into training, I used it as a training run for NDW. Just before NDW50 I entered a local 5-mile race which happened to also be the County Championship race and was pleased to retain County Champion status for the second year.

What sort of training do you do? And how do you balance being a mother and having a full-time job? 

I am so lucky to have help from an experienced running buddy who keeps me on the straight and narrow with my training.  We plan a week at a time as training depends on my weekly shift pattern and family commitments. In the course of a week I typically do one long run, one tempo run, an easy run and a torturous hill or speed session.

All my training and racing is only possible because I have the most supportive husband and daughter who take their role as ‘Team Gray’ very seriously and have never questioned the 5am alarm call on a Sunday for yet another race!

Did you feel confident going into the North Downs Way?

I believe that the psychological element of running has a huge impact on performance. I always want to feel confident going into a race, not confident I can win, rather having the confidence that I have done the best preparation to enable me perform at my best.

What was your race plan and did the race go as you'd hoped? 

The plan was to start easy, which meant run the first 10-20 miles at an easy effort, then I was allowed to run as fast as I could from mile 30 (I’m sure my coaching buddy was having a laugh with this!) On a serious note, I have a tendency to race everything from the starting gun and this was an experiment to see what I was capable of if I ran within my capabilities from the start, leaving something for the end. It was also a confidence building race after my DNF at Country to Capital and to build experience with pacing for the events I have planned for the rest of this year.

  Jess at the final aid station (Botley Hill) at 43 miles (Photo: Louise Ayling)

Jess at the final aid station (Botley Hill) at 43 miles (Photo: Louise Ayling)

What was your nutrition strategy for the race? 

Eating in a race is something I find incredibly difficult. I was astounded by the amazing array of food that Centurion had on offer at their aid stations. Had I not been running I would have devoured the lot, but as always I had no appetite. I did manage a few bites of a chocolate spread sandwich, some satsuma segments and strawberries on my way round, but I know there is room for massive improvement for me in this area and am working on it!

It's often noted that women are better at pacing long-distances races than men, and given that you were in 12th place at halfway, clearly something you're good at. Is pacing something you focus on particularly?

As I mentioned earlier, I usually like to race from the start pistol and hang towards the end, but I am learning to be a little steadier, saving a bit for the end. It appeared to work at NDW50, and there was definitely a little confidence to be gained from overtaking people towards the end, rather than being overtaken!

  Jess finishing

Jess finishing

There's been a big push to encourage women to get into sports recently, including this year's This Girl Can campaign from Sport England, and WMNRUN100. In addition, 42% of entries for the 2016 London Marathon are from women, which is great. But there's still quite a low percentage moving up to ultras. What would you say to any women unsure about running longer?

Self-belief and route planning!

For a long time I only stuck to routes I knew, which meant in order to increase my distance I had to do laps. One day my husband bought me an Ordnance Survey Map, I studied it and realised that as long as I knew roughly which direction I was heading my route opportunities were endless.

My advice for anyone unsure about running longer would be buy a map, take a backpack, a mobile phone, some water, a little food, get out there and enjoy what the countryside has to offer because if you don’t you are missing out!

What do you like about ultrarunning compared to shorter races?

I love racing any distance, but for me ultra races are the ultimate test of mental strength. The further the distance is, I find it is more a mental challenge than a physical one.  

What's next for you in terms of races this year, and beyond? Do you have any bucket list races?

I am attempting my first 100-miler at the South Downs Way in June, then the Ridgeway Challenge in August followed by my first multi-day event at the Atlantic Coast Challenge in October.

I can’t say I have a particular bucket list, but I would like to compete in a few international ultras in the future as travel is one of my other passions.

LINKS

Jess's race report

Centurion Running

This Girl Can

WMNRUN100

You can follow Jess on Twitter: @tinkstrails

Special cargo: lululemon kit review

When I started running, I wore some old football shorts with pants underneath or even shorts-style swimming trunks. Either are fine when you're not running for more than an hour at a time. But as I discovered while training for my first marathon in 2013, the longer you run, the more important comfort becomes, because chafing is bad. And chafing in your 'special cargo' area is really bad.

'Special cargo' is a phrase I learnt from lululemon athletica's website, where they use it to describe what's being protected with certain pairs of shorts. Last year I was invited to a design meeting at lululemon's Richmond showroom with some other runners to discuss what we liked and didn't like about men's running kit. Unsurprisingly, chafing reared its ugly head and there were various horror stories - the phrase 'cheese grater' made an appearance. The key learnings regarding shorts were the requirement for comfort and pockets.

Fast forward five months and as if by magic the lululemon 'Repetition Short' is available. As part of their ongoing programme to engage with the local community, I was asked by the team at Richmond to test out these new shorts. With a 26-mile training run planned for the weekend, I decided to jump straight in at the deep end. Eyebrows were raised at lululemon towers but a 10k wasn't going to tell me anything - I needed to find out if they were good for the long haul.

  No one stands awkwardly by a sign quite like me. Nice shorts though, huh?

No one stands awkwardly by a sign quite like me. Nice shorts though, huh?

So off I went to the North Downs Way for a run on the trails. The lining of the short is more like a built-in compression short and feels supportive and snug around the 'special cargo'. This means a reduced chance of chafing, and I'm pleased to report there was none at all, even after more than four hours of going up and down hills, and sliding about in the mud. 

There are two 'regular' pockets which are unusual for a running short and normally I wouldn't keep anything in them as they're not secure. However, they were really useful as somewhere to put my gloves when I took them off - I've managed to lose a pair of gloves just before a race because I had nowhere to put them.

Even better are the two 'hidden' pockets. One has a flap to keep contents secure - I didn't use this one but could be ideal for keys or a credit card. The other one I used for my phone. Unsure of how sweaty this particularly part of the shorts would get, I also used my trusty aquapac. Nevertheless, it fitted neatly into the pocket and despite my concerns, didn't even notice it being there while I was running.

In fact, perhaps the best thing I can say about the shorts in summary is that I didn't think about them at all. Very comfortable, and my new go-to shorts for long runs. And possibly short ones too.


NB: lululemon athletica UK kindly gave me these shorts to test but didn't ask for a review. I just wanted to write one because they're so good.

Country to Capital 2015

Last year I trained as hard as I ever had for a race and exceeded my expectations. It's all about preparation, you see? This year... well, I didn't quite forget I'd entered but I certainly misjudged the amount of time I'd have to train for it after a big fat holiday. In the end I had about 5 weeks to get my legs moving, build some endurance and prepare myself mentally for a tough day.

Having done it once before, I was far less nervous and genuinely excited to not only run the route but also catch up with some of the amazing people I've met in the last year. In 2014 I knew James, Cat, Martin, Coxy and that was about it. This time there was Drew and Claire, Shaun and Susie, Travis, Andy, Piers (two of them) Louise and a few I knew vaguely through Twitter including Steph, Sorrell and Laura, as well as James, Martin and Cat again. Finally, there was Jon, who James and I used to work with and who I thought had a good shot at a podium place. He'd only done one ultra before but with about a 1.15 half marathon PB thought he'd figure at the sharp end.

All of this catching up on the train to Wendover meant I was so relaxed that I actually thought I'd forgotten something important like shoes. I hadn't, although it was about a mile before I realised I needed to pull my socks up. I mean this literally. I'm averse to running tights but long socks I can buy into - I'd just forgotten to pull them up - and when the MASSIVE BLIZZARD arrived my legs felt it.

 Snowmageddon

Snowmageddon

For a while we were running straight into the snow and it crossed my mind that if it got any colder my contact lenses could freeze onto my eyeballs. It never came to this but some goggles with wipers would have helped. The section to the first checkpoint is mainly through fields and along woodland footpaths with the odd bit of road thrown in. With less rain that last year and more cold, the ground was harder and less muddy but the roads were a bit treacherous with the fresh covering of snow. I arrived at CP1 in Chesham without any mishaps and in an almost identical time to the previous year.

Start - CP1 (7.8m)
2014 - 1:15.36
2015 - 1:15.06


I wasn't pushing the pace at this stage, mainly for fear of blowing up spectacularly come the second half. What I was doing this year was to spend a lot less time faffing around at checkpoints - refill bottle, grab a slice of Go Beyond's delicious fruitcake, and get on my way. As I left this first one I bumped into Travis who was doing his second ultra and was I think more than happy to tag along with someone who (supposedly) knew the way. After passing a field where kids were playing football, there were a couple of options and I decided to go with my gut and luckily it paid off. The alternative route apparently got you to the same destination but via some icy stepping stones over a stream which I'm grateful to have avoided.

Then we came to a road and I wasn't sure if it was left or right, at which point Piers appeared and thought it was left and he was right. It was left. The great thing about ultras is that when you see someone you know you can have a proper chat rather than just a fleeting 'Hi! Bye!' that you might in a shorter race. Like Louise, Piers is also doing Thames Path 100 in May so there will be more familiar faces at that race.

The snow was still falling and the massive flakes were turning the countryside into a veritable winter wonderland, something I've almost entirely failed to capture with my mid-race photography.

 Snow-a-go-go

Snow-a-go-go

Still, at least I knew where I was going this year and even managed to navigate around the huge puddle just before CP2. Not only did I keep my feet dry for the whole race but I later found out that someone who went through the Puddle of Doom twisted his ankle and had to drop out. A harsh way to learn a lesson, that.

 Travis (right) and me shortly before a snowball fight wrecked our friendship

Travis (right) and me shortly before a snowball fight wrecked our friendship

CP1 - CP2 (9.7m)
2014 - 1:44.31
2015 - 1:39.34  


Without meaning to, I'd surged ahead of Travis a couple of times. He was struggling with his shoes a bit and I could see why - pure off-road shoes tend not to have the best cushioning. So he was keen to pick up his road shoes from his crew just before the canal. I slowed down to let him catch up but in the end it wasn't quite a natural pace for me so I pushed on. On the plus side for him, it's hard to get lost but there's quite a lot further than you think from hitting the Grand Union Canal to reaching CP3 and like me he was keen for that landmark. I remembered the next section from last year and I wasn't looking forward to it. It's only 3 miles from when you first see the water to the checkpoint but like last year, my legs were feeling it and for the first time (excluding hills) I had to employ a run-walk strategy. Not ideal, but with 20 miles still to go, pragmatic.

CP2 - CP3 (7.5m)
2014 - 1:32.30
2015 - 1:31.50


The sun was shining by now and with some more cake inside me, as well as a couple of cocktail sausages and a sausage roll, and a change of gloves and Buff I was ready to tackle the next section. There were very few people around by this point and so I put my earphones in to take my mind off the monotony of the towpath. That stretch around Uxbridge and West Drayton simply isn't very picturesque and with more than a half marathon to go, the finish line at Little Venice can seem a long way away.

The left turn with the sign 'Paddington 13 1/2 miles' was a boost but the distance to the next checkpoint seemed much further than the previous year. It hadn't changed at all - it's just that last time I was feeling good. This time, the mud was stickier and my legs were complaining more and more. Where is the bloody checkpoint?! Ah, there it is.

CP3 - CP4 (7m)
2014 - 1:17.39
2015 - 1:16.44


"See if you can guess what flavour that electrolyte drink is," said the checkpoint marshall as I necked a bottle of it.

"Fruit," I announced confidently. They all laughed and conceded that I wasn't wrong but I never found out what the actual flavour was. I did however discover that it was 10km to the next and final checkpoint and then another 10 to the finish. This wasn't what I wanted to hear but luckily I don't think it was quite accurate because despite a few walk breaks and the unedifying sight of a dead, bloated fox face down in the canal, I made it to the final checkpoint in reasonable time.

CP4 - CP5 (4.3m)
2014 - 0:48.11
2015 - 0:49.25


As it had just passed 3pm, the marshalls told me to run with a guy who had just arrived. It's a safety thing as there can be some unsavoury characters long there in the darker hours. However, it was still bright sunshine and more to the point my new running partner was running quite quickly. I told him not to wait for me - I didn't want to be responsible for ruining his race and felt able to defend myself from any potential ne'er-do-wells I might encounter. Three or four other people overtook me and I realised it was time for my emergency caffeinated energy gel. After a little while - and I still don't know if it was the gel or the knowledge that the end was near - my legs loosened up and while not quite breaking any land speed records, managed to overtake five of the people who'd passed me not long before. They congratulated me on my "comeback" and I revelled in at least 800 metres of glorious sub-9 minute-miling. Delighted though I was to see the finish line and collect my cake (and medal), I could quite happily have carried on. So much for timing my gel.

 Sprinting. Sort of. (Photo by Cate McVeigh)

Sprinting. Sort of. (Photo by Cate McVeigh)

CP5 - Finish (6m)
2014 - 1:03.36
2015 - 1:02.46

 So happy! (Photo by Adrian Howes)

So happy! (Photo by Adrian Howes)


All of which meant that this is how last year stacked up against this:

2014 - 7:42.03 (120th place, 33rd M40 category)
2015 - 7:35.25 (105th place, 40th M40 category)

Despite that 7-minute PB, I think I ran slower this year - perhaps not surprising given my lack of training - but made up the difference at the checkpoints, so at least I learnt something from last time. The canal section would have been infinitely more bearable if I'd been in better shape but overall it felt like a solid performance and the memory of that snowy start is truly something to treasure.

I think pretty much everyone I knew who ran it had a good day out, a PB, a brilliant debut, or a combination of all of the above and none more so than Jon, who finished in 3rd place with a time of 5:13.24. I hope he continues to enjoy the ultra scene, not least because he's clearly a top quality runner.

Thanks as ever to the Go Beyond team for organising such a great race, the selfless work of the marshalls who are so supportive and helpful, particularly in such cold conditions, and of course, for the cake.

 The medal is on the table but you can see what's more important to me  (P  hoto by Ca  te McVeigh)

The medal is on the table but you can see what's more important to me (Photo by Cate McVeigh)

Where I run

Living in London is great for many reasons but running on spectacular mountainous trails is not one of them. But just because you can't head out the door in your running shoes and immediately hit paydirt (or just dirt) doesn't men you can't vary your routes. As in life, variety is the spice of running.

I live in Fulham so naturally the following examples are based around there but as you'll see there are plenty of parks and paths not too far away to keep you from the traffic.

Bridge to Bridge (4.5 miles)

What it's good for

A nice easy jog. From Putney Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge and back is a popular loop among local runners. It incorporates the Thames Path which is easy to follow on the Putney/Barnes side but can be a bit fiddly on the Fulham/Hammersmith side as there are some sharp turns and narrow paths. You'll always see other runners at least once if you do this, and twice if they're doing the same loop but in the opposite direction. Don't worry, they're not going as fast as you.

Battersea Park loop (7 miles)

What it's good for

Being near the river it's nice and flat so perfect for speedwork, be it a sustained effort or fartlek - the numerous streetlights and trees lining the roads provide great regular markers. Once you get to Battersea Park itself, it's  car-free one so you don't need to worry about that. Keep an eye out for cyclists though. It also lends it self to lap repeats of the park if you want to extend your run.

Hyde Park and back (10 miles)

What it's good for

The ideal easy long-ish run with some London sights thrown in for good measure. As there are a lot of roads to cross and pedestrians galore - especially around Chelsea - this isn't much good for going quickly. So just take it easy and mind out for rollerbladers near the Serpentine. They started going in 1995 and haven't been able to stop, apparently.

Wimbledon Common, plus bridge to bridge (15 miles)

What it's good for

Mud, mainly. Running chum Cat showed me the way round the common (sadly no Wombles were spotted) in January and it's a right old filthy mess. This is great though because it means you get to go off-road which in turn does less damage to your legs. For the run pictured above I also threw in my regular Putney bridge to Hammersmith bridge loop incorporating the Thames Path. You'll always see other runners at least once if you do this, and twice if they're doing the same loop but in the opposite direction.

 

Running review of 2014

I don't know how far I've run this year but it's further than any other year. More importantly, I've had an amazing time meeting new people and seeing wonderful sights. Here are some highlights.

Best cake
Race: Country to Capital
Location: Wendover to Paddington
Date: 18 January
Distance: 45 miles 
Time: 7h42m (PB)
Learnings: Don't waste time at check points; it really doesn't always get worse; don't follow other people; the Go Beyond fruitcake is delicious.
Race report

Fastest
Race: British Heart Foundation 10k
Location: Regent's Park, London
Date: 15 March
Distance: 10k 
Time: 41m55s (PB)
Learnings: Speed work works.

Most disappointing 
Race: South Downs Way 50
Location: Worthing to Eastbourne
Date: 5 April
Distance: 50 miles
Time: 9h48m (PB)
Learnings: More hill training required; bottles are better than bladders; sometimes you have a bad day.
Race report

  Early on at SDW50

Early on at SDW50

Most surprising
Race: Edinburgh Marathon
Location: Scotland
Date: 25 May 
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3h38m (PB)
Learnings: How you feel in training is not necessarily an indicator of race day performance; starting slow and finishing quick is a great feeling; wear sunscreen, even in Scotland. 
Race report

Toughest
Race: The Picnic Marathon
Location: Box Hill, Surrey
Date: 21 June
Distance: 26.2 miles (with 6000ft of ascent and 6000ft of descent)
Time: 6h30m (PW)
Learnings: Sweatbands are multi-purpose; if you can keep going, keep going - it will give you huge belief in yourself.
Race report

  Another smile and with sweatband intact - clearly early on in the race

Another smile and with sweatband intact - clearly early on in the race

Hottest
Race: Chiltern Challenge
Location: The Chiltern Way
Date: 19 July 
Distance: 50k 
Time: 5h59m (PB)
Learnings: Respect the heat; eat early.
Race report 

Most satisfying
Race: Ridgeway Challenge
Location: Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury
Date: 23-24 August
Distance: 86 miles
Time: 19h38m
Learnings: Eating is key; sunrises are awesome (and so are hotdogs at 6am); it's easier to run all night than crew (apparently).
Race report

 The Thames at dusk

The Thames at dusk

Best views
Location: Dipsea Trail, California
Date: 9 November 
Distance: 10 miles
Time: 1h58m
Learnings: Don't have an In 'n' Out burger 90 minutes before running - you'll soil the incredible scenery; leave enough time to run the whole thing; practice stair running.
Garmin stats

  The first of about a million steps on the Dipsea trail

The first of about a million steps on the Dipsea trail


Next year
My only two races booked for 2015 so far are:

Country to Capital (18 January) - target is sub-8 hours.
Thames Path 100 (2 May) - my first 100-miler; target is sub-24 hours.

See you out there!