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Paul Tierney talks Tor Des Geants

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Friday 22nd September 2017
We always follow Montane Tor des Geants with awe at Run247. 330km of Italian mountains with 24,000m of ascent is about as tough as it gets. Add in sleep deprivation and unpredictable weather conditions and this is one almighty challenge. Paul Tierney, running coach, former winner of the Montane Lakeland 100 and Irish international runner, took on this challenge this year. Paul seemed to get stronger as the days went on and he climbed the field to finish in a fantastic 25th place. We spoke to him, once he’d had a big sleep. 
You’re no stranger to mountainous races but this must have been on a whole new scale. How did you change your training to prepare your body and mind for TDG? 
My training for this race started in January but was focused on shorter races (50ks) in the initial stages. So I tried to work on some speed for those while also consistently getting out and spending time on feet going up and down big climbs here in the Lakes using poles. I wanted to get comfortable early on using these and I think that made a difference in the race. My longest training run was 40 miles and I had plenty of back to back days as well. I tore my medial knee ligament last November and this gave me some trouble on and off all year. It ended up messing a bit with my training in June and July but with the help of Cat and Graham at the Body Rehab in Staveley, it never bothered me at TDG. I also focused a bit more on the mental aspect of the whole thing. I knew it was virtually impossible to physically prepare for an event like this without actually doing it and so I had to make sure I made up for that mentally. 

Paul TDG 1

What was the best bit of advice you got before the race and did you follow it? 
A few of my running friends have done TDG before and I spoke with them about it. I think Eoin Keith mentioned about having a sleep strategy but also to not be afraid to adjust that based on how things were going. It's impossible to foresee everything that might go wrong in a race of this length and you need to just accept things and deal with them if and when. And that's how it went. 

paul TDG 2

What were the key bits of kit that were really important through the race? 
I used the new version Ultimate Direction PB 16 litre vest pack that Si, Malcolm and Lee at Beta Climbing Designs were good enough to get for me even though it hasn't come out in store yet. This pack had ample space with lots of easy access which meant not having to take it on and off to get kit out. It was really comfortable and it was easy to forget you were wearing it at times. 
I used Injinji toe socks for the entire race and had no issues with blisters. 
I also carried a really light down layer, a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer,  which in the end I didn't really need but it was useful when keeping warm at the lifebases.
Given the time of year and the high altitude I felt it was important to have some really good warm layers and waterproofs. Inov-8 supplied me with their AT/C Protec shell jacket which was great on the last day when the weather turned and it began snowing on Col Malatra at 2900 metres. 
I used the same pair of inov-8 X-talon 200 shoes for every step of the course and they worked really well for me. The shoe fits me very well and is grippy enough on rough ground while also having just enough protection. 

Paul kit
A pretty good test for the new Ultimate Direction PB 16 pack (left) and inov-8 Protec shell jacket (right)

On such a long race there must have been some big highs and lows. Can you share any particular highlights or low points?
I had a big low point after Col Fenetre on the first night. We were maybe 60k in to the race and I started to feel terrible. I had forgotten to wear a cap at the start of the race and my newly shaven head was exposed to the sun for hours earlier in the day so this may have had something to do with it. This forced me to walk on the downhills during that first night and meant that even sipping water made me feel like getting sick. I stopped for 2 one hour sleeps this first night in the hope that it brought me round. Eventually, on Monday evening I started to feel good again and that's when I started to cover some ground and make up some places. 

Paul sleep
Paul demonstrates his sleep prowess

How did you cope with the lack of sleep? What was your sleep strategy?
As I mentioned earlier I had to sleep twice on the first night which was not in the plan at all. My aim was to go straight through to the second night and then sleep. In hindsight it maybe worked in my favour. I probably only slept properly for another 2 hours over the rest of the race and by the early hours of Thursday morning I remember running along a reasonably flat section to St. Rhemy En-Bosses and having to slap myself around the head and sing aloud to try to stay awake. It would have made an entertaining sight for anyone in the vicinity I'm sure. Other than that I tried to get a decent coffee whenever I could and I had emergency jellies in my pack for low points. 
I was supported at all the life bases by Sarah McCormack and Joe Mann and it made a huge difference having them there. They were able to think for me when I'd lost the ability to do so. 

lifestations Sarah
Paul refuels at a lifebase (left) and poses with his partner and supporter, fellow top runner Sarah McCormack

You’re a running coach. Having completed TDG, if one of your athletes came to you wanting to do it would you advise them to prepare the way you did, or have you changed your mind on anything? 
Well it would depend on the individual and their previous experience but I would certainly be making a big deal of mental preparation. The speed you need to average to finish the race in the alotted time is really quite slow so it's within anyone's capability. But the head will give in long before the body and that's what you need to prepare the most. To be comfortable being beyond sore and even the possibility of an injury in the knowledge that your brain will do anything to convince you it's a bad idea to keep going and may be making it feel worse than it is. It's a survival mechanism and it will kick in long before it needs to. If you can tell that voice to go f&@k itself for a little while longer, then you can finish. I've experienced DNF's and there's very rarely been a time where I've 100% had to stop. It's a choice at the end of the day.  

Paul finish
The moment when Paul crossed the line! Image by Florien Shuetz

What will your recovery look like after an epic event like this? 
My legs were really sore when I stopped but I woke the day after the race and they didn't feel too bad so I did a very easy jog for 20 minutes and I've continued in a similar vein. I don't think it's a good idea to go from one extreme (moving non stop for 100 hours) to doing nothing. I think the body needs to move to aid recovery. If I feel too tired to run then I'll have a rest day. Otherwise I'll run slowly for the next week. I might run the Langdale Horseshoe simply because it's such a great race and if I'm picked for the FRA relays with Ambleside the following week then I'll do that too. Other than that I'll be prioritising lots and lots of sleep and good food. 
Do you have any other big goals in mind for the next few years? 
I have a few ideas spinning around my head that now seem more achievable after TDG worked out. I think I'd like to try something longer at some point but I'll keep my cards close to my chest for the minute :) 

Images by Sarah McCormack and Joe Mann

To find out more about Paul and his coaching business see www.missinglinkcoaching.co.uk

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