Last updated: 05-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
Sarah Cooke has been one of the most prolific RunUltra race reviewers of 2016. Every time an alert from Sarah popped up in our inbox, we got ready for a cracking read. With all this in mind, we thought it would be wonderful to have a chat and find out more about this master reviewer and her approach to running.
Q. Who is Sarah Cooke, AKA @SarahCrunning?
A. A fairly unremarkable 34-year-old who discovered running in 2013 and hasn’t looked back!
Q. When did you first jump into a pair of running shoes?
A. I’d run on a treadmill in the gym but the first time I laced up to go out into the big wide world was in September 2013. I’ve never been back to the gym!
Q. How did that morph into the dark and dangerous pursuit of ultra running?
A. I ran my first marathon in April 2014. I really enjoyed the training and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed running long and the buzz that came from expanding my comfort zone. I’d started to engage with the online running community through social networking in the build up to the marathon. This was how I heard of that mysterious pursuit called an ‘ultra’. I assumed it was something other people did and not within my reach. Other people suggested that it was within my capabilities and a friend on Twitter was putting together a team to run London to Brighton 100k in 2015. I had a few glasses of wine and decided it was a good idea! I built up a great friendship with the group I entered with and got lots of encouragement to get myself off the roads and was able to ask for advice on training, kit, nutrition and everything else ultra related. The first ultra I actually ran was King’s Forest 50km in November 2014 which we entered as a group as part of our training. After the 100km I started to look at tackling races with more challenging terrain and elevation. It’s fair to say I caught the bug!
Photo credit: Johnny Logan.
Q. Nice, so how did you do on your debut?
A. My debut ultra was King’s Forest 50km which is four laps of a flat route. It was perfect in that it was very runnable and I was new to off-road racing at that point. However, flat laps are mentally tough and it isn’t a race that would suit me now. We ran as a group and it was lovely to share my debut with friends. It was all part of the training for London to Brighton which was the first ultra I actually entered and which was a mixed experience. The furthest I’d run in training was about 35 miles, so it was a big leap up to 100km. The route had far more road than expected so I made the wrong shoe choice. My only goal was to finish, however, the first 50 miles went far better than I’d expected so I ended up being disappointed when nausea and dizziness kicked in for the last 20km and I was reduced to death-marching. I finished in around 14.5 hours.
Q. And what’s been your top result to date?
A. That depends on what you mean by ‘top’. It’s difficult to compare across races when distance, elevation, weather and terrain vary so much. In terms of time, then getting a 3:29 marathon in April might be regarded as my ‘best’ result, but I’m far more proud of the longer, off-road and much slower races. It’s been a good year in that I’ve completed my longest race (North Downs Way 100), my first ‘mountain’ race (Four Passes) and was 8th lady in Wendover Woods 50 which had over 11,000 feet of climbing.
Q. Great stuff, how about your favourite ultra? And what aspects of it really stood out for you?
A. That’s another difficult question as they have all been so different! I loved both Hardmoors 55 and Lyke Wake Challenge as they pushed me outside of my comfort zone by being steep and somewhat technical but still felt runnable. I also enjoyed the camaraderie of Pilgrim’s Challenge which was my first multiday event. I’m afraid I’m not very good at choosing as part of the fun is having so many different experiences.
Q. We like to hear feedback, both good and bad on ultras… so what’s been your least favourite ultra experience? And what do you think the race organisers could do to improve that particular race?
A. I think the ones I’ve enjoyed least have been more as a result of personal preference rather than anything that has been done badly. For long distances, I find flatter races more mentally challenging as there is no natural reason to vary your pace and it can become a slog. For that reason, I didn’t particularly like the route of Stort 30, but it was a well organised event and great for anyone looking for a first ultra.
Q. Ok, so back to a bit yourself, when you’re not crafting fantastic race reviews on RunUltra, what does your average day’s running consist of?
A. There is no average day. I don’t follow a plan, but I do put in a lot of miles because I enjoy it and am lucky enough to not be prone to injury. My weekend runs tend to be longer and off-road. I have recently been trying to get onto the trails more during the week as well, but sometimes location, time and darkness make a bit of road running necessary. I have a habit of running further than intended and probably don’t do enough short runs. I rarely wear a watch if it isn’t a race and I record on my phone so I can’t see the stats until I upload. It encourages me to run on feel, to run slowly when needed and to do whatever makes me feel good rather than what I think I ‘should’ be doing.
Q. Do you train very specifically for whatever race you’ve got coming up? …Or do you just free wing it?
A. Definitely free-winging! I keep an eye on what I have coming up but I don’t follow any programme and I have to remind myself to taper a little before an ultra. I would go as far as to say that I don’t train at all – I just run every day and rock up at races and hope for the best. I enjoy races, but they are not the reason I run, they are just a small part of the journey. If I focused my day-to-day running around a few races then I might well be faster but would lose the enjoyment I get from simply running and I wouldn’t be able to put in the miles that I do. I’m not criticising anyone who trains hard for a race – I followed plans for my first couple of marathons and we all have different reasons for running and different goals. I just do what works for me. There are enough things in life that we have to do and don’t enjoy – running shouldn’t be another one of those things.
Q. Let’s chat nutrition. Is this something you take seriously or not so bothered? If so, what nutrition choice/plan/product has had the biggest effect on your running?
A. My diet is generally pretty balanced so I wouldn’t say that I need to tailor it to my running much other than making sure I get enough to fuel what I do. Fasted running doesn’t work for me – it was far more important to learn how to eat on the run. I have a small build so need to make sure I don’t drop any weight. I try to get some protein in after a run (I like PhD Whey bars as they are easy and I’m not a fan of protein shakes). The product that has had the biggest effect on my running is definitely Tailwind. I struggle with gels – the sweetness and consistency makes me gag and I don’t like the taste of isotonic drinks. Tailwind is easy to use and gives me the energy and electrolytes I need as well as encouraging me to drink enough. I find the taste much more palatable than other products – my favourite is the Naked flavour as I don’t have a sweet tooth, but the caffeinated Tropical flavour was a godsend for running through the night at NDW100. For longer distances I do like to eat some solid food as well, but that’s more a psychological need to have something in my stomach than an energy need. I’m a fan of Nakd products for snacking.
Photo credit: Johnny Logan.
Q. Moving onto kit, I expect you’ve worn through a whole range of different threads. So what’s been your favourite and why?
A. I’m a fan of Dirty Girl gaiters for keeping debris out of my trail shoes. I also love Howie’s merino tops for winter running.
Q. And do you have an arsenal of different trainers for different uses? If so, give us closet gear geeks a quick run through.
A. I’m a huge fan of Altra Zero Drop – the science behind it makes sense to me and I have wide feet so the wide toe-box is perfect. I haven’t found anything else as comfortable, but they aren’t for everyone. The only road shoes I would wear are Altra’s Intuition. For trail, I love my Altra Lone Peaks – they are so comfortable that I could wear them all day and I never get blisters. The one drawback of Altras is that they are aimed at dry U.S. trails. For really muddy runs, I like Inov-8 X-Talon 220s. The first two pairs I had got holes in after about 100 miles, but my latest pair are the new version which look more durable – time will tell. They have fantastic grip, but my feet start to complain after 20-30 miles. For an ultra, I would probably sacrifice grip for comfort and go with the Lone Peaks, and the new 3.0s have a redesigned sole and are better in mud than previous versions.
Q. Finally, what’s 2017 looking like, running wise, for you Sarah?
A. There are still a few decisions still to be made, but definites include Country to Capital, Hebden, the Centurion 50 mile grand slam, Highland Fling and the Ridgeway Challenge. I need my computer confiscating before I enter everything!
Many thanks Sarah!