Meet the athlete - Rob Turner
Rob Turner is an incredibly talented and hard working ultra-runner who balances family life and a full time job with training and competing at a national and international level. I've been personally really excited to find out more about Rob's training and approach to running and racing. There's so much good stuff in this interview - I urge you to take the time to sit down and take it in.
Life is busy!! I'm a 47-year-old, self-employed Data Engineer living just outside Edinburgh. I'm married with 2 young daughters. For the last 10 years, I was a member of Edinburgh AC, but recently became an unattached athlete. I hadn't trained with the club for a few years and raced infrequently for EAC since moving to ultra-distances. Edinburgh AC is a fantastic club, full of great people and coaches but their focus is track, road and cross country and I had moved away from that, so it seemed the right time to move on. I am part of group of elite Scottish ultra-runners, headed up by my coach Paul Giblin called Pyllon Racing. The racing team is stacked with GB international athletes, international race winners and podium place runners. It's great to be part of a group of like-minded individuals who generally have the same goals and aspirations. I've learnt a lot from them. Paul Giblin, my coach, heads up the racing team and looks after my training plan. Paul tends to live abroad most of the year as he prepares for some of the world’s biggest ultra-trail races, so our communication is done remotely, but it is regular and we chat over plans, racing and training frequently. It works really well, and I have said in the past that moving to Paul's stable was the best move I have made.
I ran as a teenager to a fairly high level, winning district and school level medals and a national title on the track. I was heavily influenced by the Cram/Ovett/Coe/McKean era and so middle distances were my thing. After leaving school and going to University, the running fell by the wayside and I didn't come back to the sport until I was in my early 30's to help stop smoking and lose weight. I followed the usual adult ‘starting to run’ path of local 5km and 10km races, eventually moving up to the marathon. I'd posted some half decent times, but there wasn't a year that would go by without me being side-lined with injury, with some bouts lasting months to almost a full year. I could never get a real consistency in my training other than in 2009 when I posted most of my short distance PBs. In 2013 I supported a friend running the West Highland Way, a 95 mile, 16,000ft ascent ultra- race. It’s arguably, the most beautiful long-distance trail in Scotland from Milngavie to Fort William in the Highlands. I'd heard of ultra-running but had always thought of it as a sport for slower runners. How foolish was I! I witnessed Paul Giblin running that race in 15 hours and Marco Consani not far behind him. The ability of these guys to endure and compete for that length of time, the thought process of ultra-running, all the variables that have to be managed, the level of concentration that must be present; it all really intrigued me and it really set a fire in me that I had to explore. Running became something else from that moment onwards, it was no longer a pursuit of race times and PBs, it became a sport where adventure lurked at every corner. The possibility of not knowing if I could complete a race beyond the marathon distance really excited me and I knew that I had come across a passion for the sport that I didn't have prior. Later that year I signed up for the Glen Ogle 33 Ultra and I won in a new course record.
The only race I’ve been able to complete in this year was the TransGranCanaria 65k Advance race. This was a mountainous ultra that includes the Spanish Ultra trail championships and was part of a series of races throughout the weekend. It was a fantastic experience despite my poor performance, and it was awesome to run in the stunning Gran Canaria mountains. There was a strong Scottish contingent out there this year and it was great to meet well known faces before and after the race and to see some of them have superb races. There is so much goes into the preparations for racing these distances, like all races, but if you have a poor one, it is almost impossible to go out the next week to rectify that, unlike a 10k. You have to put your heart, soul and anything else you have into it with the very real prospect that it will fail. I think that is why the sport has so much more to give than just times and positions. Every ultra-distance race I’ve competed in, be that a looped road 100k or a 40 mile trail race, always has a sense of adventure associated. A sense of the unknown. I always take something positive away from a race despite the outcome.
My training plan is focused around events or races. Paul and I will typically look at that 12 to 16-week window prior to an event to start getting prepared for it. In a typical week, there are usually 2 harder sessions, usually one flat and one on the hills, then the long run at the weekend, but the entire focus is on the specificity of the race. If I am training for a 100k road race, then I will be largely on the roads. For TransGranCanaria I was getting more into the hills when I could to get as much ascent and descent as possible. My training plan is generally time based rather than miles or kms, although sessions could have a specific distance goal, and so I am less focused on distance these days. Closer to races time spent running, and inevitably distance, goes up. Paul also likes to keep us mentally in good shape and we often practice positive mental exercises which compounds the physical training. Mobility, flexibility and strength also have a heavy focus in my week to week training.
I love the long run where there are specific tempo or race pace efforts, so maybe a 4-hour run with 3 to 4 x 30 minute race pace efforts with 5 minutes jog recovery between. These really get you prepared for 100km racing, particularly if they are all in the second half of the run when the legs are starting to tire.
I am able to work from home during lockdown, so I am one of the lucky people still able to make a living. How long that will last is unknown as the clients I work for are closing programmes and projects down to save money. In terms of training we’ve had to juggle our outdoor time with the kids and so my treadmill has saved the day. I’ve not done anything longer than an hour on the dreadmill, as it gets unbearably hot and sessions have been a real torture, but I’ve been able to continue to train which has supported me mentally as well as physically.
There are a number of performances and race wins that I am equally proud of and pleased with but the one that I view as my best performance wasn’t a race win. It was last year (2019) at the British 100km Championships which included the Scottish Championships and the annual Anglo Celtic Plate competition between the home nations. This was the fourth time I had been selected for the Scottish team and after winning the race in 2018 I was running with a target on my back. However, I felt awful the day before and even on the morning of the race I was taking pain killers for a sore and foggy head. I told my wife that I was at the verge of pulling out of the race and was not in a good place mentally. As we drove to the start line, I tried to convince myself I had nothing to lose and that I should start and see how things went. Well, I finished the race, knocking 9 minutes off my previous best to come in 2nd in 6 hours 51 minutes and knowing that I could run quicker if I executed the race perfectly in future. It was a surprising turnaround from 7 hours earlier and I was so glad that the towel hadn’t been thrown in pre-race. I also picked up the Don Ritchie trophy, a new award for the first Scottish male and female in the event to celebrate, arguably, the greatest ultra-runner in history.
Due to the gravity of the event, my worst running performance was in a GB vest at the 2018 World 100km championships. All my training showed I was in peak physical shape and I was ready to run hard and compete. Earlier in the year I’d run 7 hours flat in the British 100km championships to win that race in testing weather conditions and I was now in even better shape. Unfortunately I took the same nutrition plan into Worlds that worked for me in Wales. That was a huge mistake as I became dehydrated in the hot Croatian sun. You get dehydrated before you know it in these events and by that time it is too late to rectify, and I suffered badly with cramp in the last 20 miles. I’d not raced 100km in hot conditions prior to this and I hadn’t thought through the required increase in fluids I would need, and my race suffered as a consequence. Those last 2-3 hours were the most unpleasant I have experienced in any race and if it were any other race than a World Championships, I would have stopped. I vowed I would never make that mistake again and I would carefully plan my nutrition and hydration like I do my race strategy as well as let others know and review my nutrition plan prior.
My favourite piece of kit is a difficult question and potentially a controversial answer, but I would say my Nike Next % shoes. I’ve only raced in them once over a trail/road ultra, but I wear them for all my long road sessions and speed sessions. In speed sessions, I don’t see any gains, when compared to say my Altra Escalantes (another fantastic shoe), in terms of speed, but I do see a difference in how my legs recover. That extra depth of cushioning certainly allows for a quicker recovery and that’s important at my age 😊.
I’m going to be cheeky here and recommend a non-fiction and fiction book. For non-fiction there is no better book (in my opinion) than The Lore of Running by Professor Tim Noakes. A controversial character but a man who is willing to say he was wrong. This book is a must for anyone wanting to understand any aspect of running. It’s not a cover to cover book, more of a reference manual, but everyone should have a copy. The fictional book I like is Once a Runner by John L Parker. It’s a story of an American collegiate runner trying to train and race at his best. It’s probably closely related to the authors experiences but it’s a great read, nonetheless.
I have never really lost my motivation to train but I’ve certainly lost focus. I view ultra-running as a lifestyle choice and while that will undoubtedly have eyes rolling, I am sure most runners can appreciate it. Just like anything in life we can become less focused, complete the sessions, the easy runs, the long runs, going through the motions. You become less bothered by the split times and distances covered. Instead you focus on just getting the run done and out of the way. When that happens, I try to remember why I am a runner, (queue eye rolling again) and being more present with what I get out of the sport. I try to regain focus on the health benefits, the fitness gains, the community that I belong to and the sheer joy of moving across space and time under your own power.
Nothing special diet-wise for me, just wholesome good food. We cook everything from scratch in the house as we feel it is important for the kids to get a broad range of good food. I have tried some ‘fad’ nutritional approaches in the past, and have seen some changes in body composition, but something else usually suffers and they have been mostly unsustainable for me. Supplements is another thing I’ve played around with in the past as I felt as an athlete, I needed to at least take a multi vitamin as we generally work our bodies harder than most. I gave them up at the beginning of 2020 and have seen no negative effects of stopping. If you eat well, I am not entirely sure you need supplements.
My running philosophy is ‘Don’t compare yourself to others, just be the best you that you can be’.
My training approach has changed over the years, as you get older the recovery from harder sessions gets longer and so recovery becomes super important. Easy runs for me are very slow jogs and I take more days off now than I ever have. Being coached has also altered my training, it’s now noticeably periodic with defined macro and micro cycles. When I was coaching myself, one week looked much like the previous weeks and there were many miles for the sake of miles. Training has gotten a lot smarter over the last few years.
I’ve had many injuries over the years, all the main players. Achilles tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, hip issues, knee issues, hamstring and calf tears. Plantar Fasciitis being the worst, it kept me out for over 8 months. Early in 2018 I started to feel the pain of a Morton’s Neuroma, a very painful foot nerve issue. It ruined my Comrades Ultra race in South Africa that year as it felt like I was running with a sharp stone in my shoe. That was when it got to its worst. I went to the fantastic FASIC in Edinburgh, part of the University Exercise Medicine facility and saw fellow ultra-runner Dr Andrew Murray who helped me manage the pain with Cortisone injections for the next 6 months or so. I also changed my work shoes to Vivo Barefoot shoes and switched to Altra running shoes. Both of these brands have wide toe boxes and allow the foot to spread on impact, meaning that the nerves between the toes are not being squeezed. The neuroma is still there, but I manage it with some foot mobility and strength work and along with the footwear choices it seems to keep it at bay for now.
My love is to run on the trails and mountains. There is nothing better, but it’s not where my skills are. Living in the flat lands of East Lothian mean that getting to the hills and mountains usually has to be arranged well in advance due to family commitments and so I spend most of my training on the flat trails and roads. It means that I am more suited to the flat road races. The 100km distance is a tough event, marathon and 50km speed sometimes doesn’t translate into 100km as they are completely different events. 100km road racing means being on the rivet, or slightly under threshold, for the entire duration of the race. 100km is part physical, mostly mental and that really appeals to me.
My coach is very keen that we keep ourselves flexible and strong. My training plan isn’t just running and includes daily mobility, flexibility and strength workouts. Since being trained by Paul, I’ve not had a major injury that has stopped me running for more than a day. Considering my injury record from the past, this can be no coincidence.
I think adventure is going to be a theme for me going forwards. This year the Pyllon Racing team completed the Scottish National Trail which runs for 530 miles from Cape Wrath in the very north west of the country to Kirk Yetholm on the border with England. We did that as a relay in just over 100 hours and raised thousands of pounds for charity. We ran as a continuous relay across some of the most remote places in the country, many areas had no real trail to follow and we scaled waterfalls, crossed rivers in spate and had the most fantastic time. I’d like to do more of this type of running, maybe on my own, or as part of a team. I’d like to also get out of my comfort zone more, like running TransGranCanaria earlier this year. So, more about experiences than medals and race positions.
You can find Rob @hownoboab on Instagram. He is a @xmilesuk, @active_root and @squirrelsnutbutter_uk athlete. He runs for the Pyllon team - www.pylonultra.com.