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Martin Parnell

Finish The Race Attitude

Blog 5/25

The Ageless Athlete

March 12th 2024

By Martin Parnell and Malc Kent

Contents
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The Ageless Athlete

Contents

Prologue

1 Off and Running

2 Triathlons and Ultras

3 Quests for Kids

4 Ultras and Beyond

5 Malc Kent: The Early Years

6 Malc Kent: The Evolution of the Running Specialist

7 62 Beats 47

8 Hockey Injury

9 Racing 5’s and 10’s

10 Half Time

11 Marathon of Afghanistan

12 All or Nothing

13 The 60’s: Boston or Bust

14 The Stroke

15 COVID-19

Afterword

Acknowledgements

About the Authors

Chapter 4
Ultras and Beyond

“Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.”
- Groucho Marx, Comedian and writer

Martin

Things were busy at the start of 2017. The 7th Annual Run/Walk fundraiser had gone well and this time we were supporting Free to Run in their efforts to introduce figure skating to the Afghan women and girls.

In May, Sue and I started to walk outside and I finally felt that my life was turning around. In 2014 the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon organization held a special race to mark 50 years of the event, a 50-km ultra, which I ran. In 2015 I was only able to participate in their Goodlife Fitness 5-km walk. But I was grateful that I was fit enough to do it. At noon on Sunday, May 31, Sue and I made our way to the start line, where we met our “Walk Club”: Elaine, Ally, Neil, Brian, Tom, Alyssa and Kurt.

I’m always excited at the start of any race, and it was no different for this one. When the gun went off, we surged forward like a herd of turtles. Over the next hour we chatted to spectators, hung out with moms and dads pushing strollers, thanked volunteers and enjoyed the aid stations. It was one of the most relaxed and fun races I’ve ever done.

My second book, Running to the Edge, had been released in November 2016 and I had a number of book signings in January and February. At the end of February Sue and I headed over to England and Wales to spend time with Calum and members of my family. In April it was time for the first race of the season, the 10-km Glencoe Icebreaker. I was injury free and the race went well. At the beginning of May 2017, I was feeling pretty good about myself and the progress I was making in my training. But then, on May 16, I felt a twinge in my right thigh. Experience has taught me that there are some things you can run off, others you must rest up and ice or heat, and others still for which you have to seek professional treatment. Once again I found myself lying on the table in my chiropractor’s treatment room having deep-tissue therapy and manipulation. This really helped, and after a few days of rest my thigh was feeling much better and I felt sure it would get me through to the race. On Saturday, May 27, the big day arrived. The Calgary 150 Ultra.

The start line was at the Olympic arch at Eau Claire Market in Calgary. I had arranged to meet a friend, Malc Kent, and prepare for the race. Some time back, I had met Malc through my local running club. He had joined us for our regular Saturday morning run. He explained that he was part of a start-up company that was developing technology able to monitor athletes’ key running outputs like power, heart rate and efficiency of running motion. Malc told me he was interested in fitting me with data-collection modules to monitor my progress during races.

So he put a pod on each foot, taped modules to my shins and fitted a data collector on my lower back. I hoped these items wouldn’t weigh me down. At 6 p.m., as it began to drizzle, the gun went off and so did I. As usual, my biggest nemesis was the cut-off time. I knew this one would be tough. The first 100 km had to be completed in 13 hours, and you had to get to the start line of the 50-km ultra by 7 a.m. The remaining 50 km had to be completed in 6.5 hours, a very big ask. Things went well for the first six 10-km loops, but as darkness fell I started to feel pressure.

Running at night is very different from running during the day. The light plays tricks with my eyes and time seems to speed up. I kept going but, try as I might, when I hit the 95-km mark I knew I had run out of time. I was really disappointed I had not finished, but in the end, I was just happy to head home. The next day I looked up the results. Out of the 58 starters only 16 finished. These numbers really put the experience into perspective, and I didn’t feel so bad about not finishing. Misery loves company!

During June I took a break from running. The Calgary 150 Ultra had taken a toll both physically and mentally. However, I had to ramp up the mileage in July as I had to prepare for my final race of 2017 in late September. It was a big one: the Golden Ultra, a three-day, multi-stage race with a different event each day. I had been training throughout the summer by running the Fullerton Loop, just outside Bragg creek, a 4-km route that climbs 305 m for 2 km before you hit the turnaround.

The Golden Ultra happens every fall, rewarding runners with stunning scenery and mountain views. It features three stages of running over three days. On the first day, the “Blood,” a 5-km uphill run over dirt terrain, has 1000 m of elevation gain and kicks off at 4 p.m. The following morning at 7:30, the “Sweat” is a gruelling 60-km loop on single-track trails from the town of Golden to the summit of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and back. Finally, at 9 a.m. on the final day, the “Tears” is a “flat, fast and funky” 20-km run over single-track trail through the woods. Participants can sign up to run one or more of the stages as individuals or they can complete the event in three-person relay teams.

On the morning of September 22, I pulled into the municipal campground in Golden, BC, and found a place to set up my tent. The “Blood” portion of “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” would take place that afternoon. I met up with some friends from Cochrane, Roy and Lana Ellis and their son Brett. We drove up to the Kicking Horse resort and waited at the bottom of the gondola for the race to start. At last the gun went off and we hurtled up the side of the ski hill. There were no breaks, and over the next 1:30:45 all I looked at were my shoes and the ground three feet in front of me.

Reaching the top, I caught up with Roy, Brett and Lana, and we were all happy to take a ride down on the gondola. Day two was the Sweat, 60 km of running mountains, including 2500 m of climbing. We started in downtown Golden and then headed west on the north and east sides of the Kicking Horse and Columbia rivers. While the first 2 km were pretty flat, the next 32 km were much like speed mountaineering, the high point being at the top of the Kicking Horse gondola. Then it was down, down, down from there, back to downtown Golden.

My concern, with all my ultras these days, are the cut-off times. Sweat stage had a 12.5-hour limit, and with the terrain, I figured anything could happen. The Ellises and I arrived at the start line with 45 minutes to go. Also at the start line was my friend Malc Kent. He wanted to collect more data on my running and compare it to my efforts in the Calgary 150-km ultra. The race started at 7:30 a.m., and the hours ticked slowly by. I tend to get in a zone when I run ultras, and I concentrate on continually monitoring my time versus distance covered. With 55 km completed, I was 10.5 hours into the race but I was fading fast.

I slogged the last 5 km and came in at 11:52:12, with under 40 minutes to spare. I was just happy to finish, and Malc was pleased with the data collected. That night I sat in the Ellises’ warm trailer and reviewed what the race director had written about the final stage, the Tears. It would begin downtown and then follow a flat trail along the Kicking Horse River for 2 km. Next, runners had to kick upwards for about 300 m of pain (and perhaps tears), followed by another 1.5 km of rolling trail.

We would then enter the Mountain Shadows trail system, trails with names including Selkirk Slacker and Huff and Puff, Magic Dragon, and Trial and Error. The director said it was easy to navigate all these trails by just “staying right.” The next morning, Malc strapped me up again, and at 8 a.m. the gun went off. The cut-off time for this final stage was five hours and, the way I was feeling, I thought I would need every minute of it.

My legs were killing me, and I had a large blister on my right foot from the Sweat. However, things soon started to turn around. My favourite type of running trail is in woods on pine needles. It turned out that this route just flowed along for me at a slight decline and even the ups were short and sharp. I found I could power through them. I started to get into a groove. My legs began to feel better and the blister didn’t cause me any problems because of the nature of the footing. I was finally loving the event! Before I knew it, I had finished the half marathon in 2:56:29, well within the five-hour limit.

After the Golden Ultra I was burnt out. I did some easy running along the pathways of Cochrane and started to think about where I was headed with my running. It seemed to me that over the years I was getting slower and slower. I had DNF’d at the Calgary Marathon 150 and sneaked under a couple of the cut-off times in the Golden Ultra.

Malc

From the beginning of 2017 Martin and I had been going out with the Red Rock Runners, a running and triathlon club, based in Cochrane, on their Saturday morning runs. It was around May of that year, on one of these runs, that I distinctly remember chatting with Martin and asking him if he was interested in doing something together, with regards to running. I suggested I perform a gait analysis on him, using some technology I was developing.

At that time, I was working for dorsaVi as a global, biomechanics/gait analysis expert and it was not uncommon for me to approach runners and do knowledge-sharing events, in order to help in the development of their product. They were working on going from Versa 1 to Versa and so I had access to some cutting-edge technology.

I asked Martin if he was interested in having his gait measured, a service I would offer free to runners as I was aiming to collect as vast and varied a database as possible. Although, in my business, people were happy to pay for this service, it was in my interest to collate as much specific, high-value data as was available. I keep my ear to the ground and, if someone is doing something interesting in the field of running, I want to collect as many statistics as I can about that person, free of charge.

The most valuable aspect of gait analysis, especially when the athlete is running outdoors, is what you can get when you have extreme data sets. That allows me to refine the algorithms within the technology and the potential insight that the data might provide. I include all types of runners: fast, slow, those with a peculiar gait or those who engage in unique events.

Chatting with Martin, I had discovered that he intended to run the Golden Ultra in the September of that year. We very quickly formulated the idea that I collect data from this event. This was a great opportunity for me as, until then, I hadn’t collected data from a runner over a three-day period.

The Golden Ultra takes place in the Rocky Mountains around Golden, British Columbia, over variable terrain. Runners can take part in “The Full Pint,” which is a 5-km run (1000 m vertical), a 60-km ultramarathon and a half Marathon, over a three-day period. Some runners sign up for “The Half Pint” which is a 3-km hill climb, a 30-km run and a 10-km run. There are other options such as solely running the half marathon, and there’s also a kid’s race.

In typical Martin fashion, he had signed up for the Full Pint. This was great for me as there were all kinds of unique factors in this event that could provide a valuable data set and push the technology to its limits. Although the claim was that it could be used outdoors, in challenging environments, and had a long battery life, the reality was that the manufacturers hadn’t been able to test it in such conditions.

This would give me the chance to gather unique data for my own database, but also provide invaluable feedback for dorsaVi. Also, it would be a reality check: if the technology didn’t work, they needed to be aware of that, and on the other hand, the product could outperform all expectations.

Case studies are important in the field of sports science and you can never have too many, for several reasons. For instance, you can publish them, you can teach courses off the back of them and reassess your practice and provide feedback. I met up with Martin prior to the Golden Ultra, so that I could talk to him about the technology. He needed to know how much it would weigh and how it would attach to the body, and we actually tried him wearing it at the Calgary Marathon, where it worked well.

By the time the Ultra came around, Martin was in good shape. He had completed his training and had a good chance of completing the three-day event. His approach would be slow and steady, which would be more beneficial to me as, in order to have worthwhile data, I needed him to be able to make it to the finish line, before the cut-off, at every event, in order to have closure on the data.

This study could, potentially, show the difference between three very separate and varied events. Each one would present a different challenge:

  • Day one – a 5-km run up Kicking Horse Mountain, with a 1-km vertical climb.
  • Day two – an ultrarace, within itself, 60 km over mountains and trails.
  • Day three – a half marathon along the northern slopes of the Columbia River valley and back.

Day one started bright and sunny. I fitted Martin with two sets of RunScribe sensors, fixed to his shoelaces, a Stryd pod on one shoe and dorsaVi sensors attached to his tibia (not an easy area to attach to and keep on for three days straight). He also had a sacral sensor attached to the waistband of his shorts. That was tricky because Martin runs with a fuel belt around his waist, which holds his water bottles. This was the sensor that was of most concern.

The app wasn’t working particularly well and the device itself was prone to issues. But if it worked it could provide data of high value. It was the only sensor in the world that could directly measure pelvic dynamics. After the sensors had been fitted, Martin did a warm-up loop along a cycle track. Nothing fell off and all seemed to be working okay. After some minor adjustments, he was good to go.

Whether I’m working with a local runner or a super-elite athlete, I always aim to be there, onsite, to check things and I carry backup tape, batteries etc. I make sure I have a plan B, just in case something fails to work. You can afford to have Plan A not work, so long as you have an alternative, but you can’t afford to miss an opportunity to collect data. The worst-case scenario is that the runner completes the event but, when you come to download the data, there’s nothing there.

At that point, in 2017, nobody had published a data set quite like this or done any similar reporting. We were in new territory and the manufacturers had not attempted a study like this one. Martin could, if all went well, provide four data sets – the sensors plus his GPS watch –and we needed to get at least one or two data sets for each. Once you drop below a certain level of data collection, you no longer have a case study that’s relevant or worthwhile.

Luckily, Martin got up and down the mountain without falling or sustaining an injury and I was able to retrieve all the data and recharge the batteries, which was essential. These batteries would last approximately 16 hours. The sacral sensor, on his waistband, had recorded a set of data but had then suddenly ceased recording, which somehow didn’t surprise me. (In fact the company that produced that sensor went bankrupt, about a year later.) The other sensors worked extremely well.

On day two, I left my hotel room and met up with Martin. I decided to abandon the waistband sensor as it was causing issues, it wasn’t providing us with much of value, and I had a baseline from the previous day.

Martin started the race and I prepared myself for a long wait. The priority, at this stage, is the health and safety of the runner and the hope that they will finish before the cut-off time; otherwise they would be unable to participate in day three. Fortunately, Martin made it and I was there to see him finish. This was a case of seeing what data had been collected. All the finishers were pretty beaten up and there was the possibility that Martin wouldn’t be able to participate in the final stage, the next day.

The following morning, there was a large group of runners who had come along solely to run the half marathon. Martin was in good spirits and ready to run, so I fitted him with the sensors. There was some issue with the watches. Martin liked to wear his Garmin 310 XT, which he was used to trusting, to track his runs. I needed to track the data from the Stryd shoe pod. Designed in 2013, the pod worked, at the time, as a power meter enabling a runner to create a perfect racing strategy and keep a consistent effort in challenging conditions.

This device originally caught on, very quickly, with triathletes and is the most legitimate power meter we have, for running. Some people swear by power numbers and there is some evidence that you can train by simply using power numbers to guide you. There are some other metrics that the Stryd could compute, apart from power, e.g. leg-spring difference, and I was interested to see how this would change during Martin’s run.

At the time, the Stryd had no on-board memory inside the pod itself. Therefore, you had to transmit data to either a phone app or a watch. However, a phone cannot be in transmit mode for a long period of time. Also, I couldn’t expect Martin to carry a phone. So we did it ergonomically, through the watch, which meant he would be wearing two.

Initially, we put both watches on the same wrist, as Martin found this most comfortable, but I noticed the Stryd watch data showed dropouts, where the data appeared to disappear for a time, which was bizarre, and I couldn’t understand why this would happen.

Martin happened to mention that he’d noticed the two watches rubbing against each other as he ran, and that explained the issue. We realized that as Martin flexed his wrist, making the watches rub against one another, it caused the Stryd to stop and start, hence the dropouts. We moved the one watch to his other wrist. This is why we do case studies, so that we can recognize pitfalls and, hopefully, come up with solutions.

Martin was tired from the start, so it was important that he pace himself in order to make the cut-off time, which he did. This meant I was fortunate to have data from all three days of running.

In summary, this was the first time, as far as we were aware, that anyone had measured 20-plus gait metrics for three days straight, in an ultrarace. It proved that the sensors worked and the batteries could run for 16 hours, as predicted. The Stryd and RunScribe data was perfect, apart from the dropouts, which were down to human action, not the sensor itself. The dorsaVi sensor, despite not having the battery life to cover the whole of the second day, collected some valuable data.

Martin did extremely well in completing all three events. He was 61 at the time, so it was an amazing achievement – 85 km of trail, running on a very tough course, running mostly on his own, against the clock and the terrain. You never expect 100 per cent good data, but we had around 80 per cent, which was excellent and a great success.

Hopefully, the feedback would provide the manufacturers with valuable information to work with. It also set up a level of trust between Martin and me, and enabled him to see the value of the exercise and the data it provided and the potential to learn about how his body works during ultra-events.

It sowed the seed for further opportunities for us to work together and form a partnership.

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If you have any comments, please email Martin. info@martinparnell.com



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The Ageless Athlete
The Ageless Athlete (18 minutes)
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