© James Poole
After lining up for her first ultra less than two years ago, UK-based Malaysian ultrarunner Alison Walker leapt straight into 100+ mile distances with events such as the Samphire 100 and Tooting 24 – her first 24-hour race, in which she ran 185.9km and broke six Malaysian national records.
Having completed a 108-mile ‘quarantine’ backyard ultra this summer and several Fastest Known Time achievements, Alison eyed up a new challenge and just over a week ago, she became the first person to complete London’s continuous ‘Smog Graham’ round. An urban nod to the Lake District’s legendary Bob Graham Round, the challenge saw Alison bag every ‘peak’ in all 32 London boroughs – no mean feat at 302km and 3211m of elevation. Despite some navigational issues, she finished in 54 hours and 33 minutes.
From McDonald’s meltdowns and non-existent naps to borrowed shoes and blisters, the 32-year-old inov-8 ambassador shares the ups and downs of her ‘Smog’ with me in this Q&A, where we also chat about her 100-mile training weeks and the steps she takes to stay injury-free.
You weren’t sporty growing up. Can you share how your running and ultrarunning came about?
Yes, quite the contrary to being sporty actually. I went to school in Singapore where there was a programme called TAF club for overweight students, where you were singled out for weight loss because the obesity rates in schools were taken into account for school rankings (it definitely wouldn’t fly here). I was very much into music and competed in choral competitions to a high level… so yes, quite a change.
I picked up running when I started university in Swansea which is right by the Gower peninsula. I very much loved running along the different beaches and still consider that as the ‘home’ of my running. I was more of a hobby jogger at that point, and then when I moved to London, I met this crazy group of runners and my coach from Run-Fast who inspired me to push myself harder.
I read a book called ‘Running Up that Hill’ by Vassos Alexander and heard about all things Spartathlon (the 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta in Greece), so I signed up to my first 100-mile race in Samphire Hoe and that’s when it all snowballed…
It was a quick leap into 100-milers. Have there been many learning curves in your training or fuelling?
My coach, Peter McHugh de Clare, is a very ‘old school’ coach who strongly believes in mileage and hard work. My mileage hovers around 100 miles a week and I’ve already done more than 4000 miles this year… I know high mileage isn’t for everyone, but it works for me – and I think it is key for everyone to find what works for them. Peter is in his 70s and still runs every day, and it inspires me. He often encourages me to ‘take the pain’. He does see when I get tired and lets me off sessions, so in that sense, my training hasn’t had many disasters (unless I trip and fall and bruise my knee – I’m very clumsy).
I owe a lot to Peter – I was just scraping sub-4-hour marathons when I started with him, and even though we haven’t trained specifically for a marathon, I managed a 3:17 time on an off-road race a few days after Christmas! I also managed a 9:40 100km under his guidance, which might not sound great to many but for me, it’s huge! I’ve never met anyone so passionate about the sport and I hope to be like him one day.
When I first started working with Peter, I was recovering from tearing several ligaments in my ankle so we were very cautious with the training. We trained hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the finish of my first 100-mile race with wind gusts of up to 86mph and freezing rain. At that point, I didn’t own any expensive kit and turned up with a cheap waterproof with no taped seams…. so I shivered to the finish line. My husband was there and brought me his big outdoor coat and we just willed it to the finish – fortunately with a Spartathlon qualifying time.
Fuelling disaster-wise, at Tooting 24 last year, it was unseasonably hot and I stopped eating about 15 hours in. I finished but was rather disappointed with the time (Alison still managed to break 6 Malaysian national records!). Since then, we have been working out different nutritional strategies with people and I had a few successful races using a new strategy just before lockdown, so I was pleased with that!
Congratulations on your ‘Smog Graham’ round – how did it go?
Well, I’m glad it is over, but I’m still a little disappointed with how things went as we were six hours off-target and I think if I had foreseen the navigational problems on the Greater London borough areas, I would have done a bit more of a recce. However, with lockdown and everything else going on, I’m still not 100% comfortable taking trains regularly etc., so I didn’t even consider going to Epsom to recce the route.
I lost a lot of time with navigation and running away from wildlife in the dark. We got to a field with our head torches then saw some eyes running towards us, so we instinctively jumped over a barbed-wire fence. We had to wait a while before venturing out again and staying close to the fence! I honestly thought if we got kicked by a horse it would be the end of it. We also had a cow incident… it was certainly eventful!
I was really grateful to have support throughout the course with friends joining me for sections. We nailed the central London, SE and East London bits well and Richmond etc., as that was where our crew were based… Clearly I need to make more West London friends, haha.
The route covers a very large area and I have now seen bits of London that I’ve never seen before. My favourite bit was running along the North Downs Way watching the sunset.
You ran for almost 55 hours – were you able to nap at any point?
I spent quite a lot of time trying to nap, but could not turn off… and I paid for it. I started the run at 5am because I thought we should go early to ‘clear’ central London but that meant a really short night’s sleep to start. In hindsight, maybe I should have gone in the evening… but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I had never run for more than 24-hours before, so going into night two was tough. I started having meltdowns about where McDonald’s was… yes, I clearly went mad. Sorry, Harold (Alison’s pacer and friend).
Were there any low points during your Smog Graham?
When I lost time in the evening I started to get really down emotionally and I really should have controlled it better… My feet also swelled quite badly after 100 miles, as the course is 50% road and 50% off-road. Plus the trails were very dry and just kept poking into my feet. I wore the inov-8 Terra Ultra 270 which was wide enough, but I completely did not think of getting a size up, as my swelling was also lengthways. So I wore my husband’s road shoes, which wasn’t the best idea blisters-wise, as they were maybe a tad too wide and didn’t offer me enough protection on the trails. But, you live and learn!
You’ve said you were disappointed with your performance?
People say I beat myself up about things like that and I often forget I have really only done ultras for 20 months – six of those were in lockdown without a race to try anything out in. I did do four other FKTs in lockdown but none of them were more than 120km (Capital Ring), so didn’t prepare me for the Smog Graham.
What was your Smog Graham fuelling strategy?
I set an alarm on my Coros Apex to notify me to fuel every 30 minutes and I aimed to take in 250 calories an hour, with 200 calories from food or gels and 50 calories from my Precision Hydration sachets (I am a very sweaty person). I used a combination of Unived gels (some of which were 190 calories so sorted all the requirements in one go), Soreen bars, Percy Pigs, pork scratching, Luchos Dullitos and other energy bars I found on the way! I liked having instant noodles, sushi, bagels and miso soup too when I got to the car. After nap attempts, I had a Caffeine Bullet to wake up!
When you’re not tapering or racing, what does a typical week of training look like for you?
Monday – 10 miles easy
Tuesday – AM: Track (12 miles). PM: Easy run (7 miles)
Wednesday – 10 miles easy. PM: Strength and conditioning
Thursday – AM: Tempo (15 miles). PM: Easy run (7 miles)
Friday – 10-12 miles easy
Saturday – Hills plus warm-up and cool-down (15 miles)
Sunday – Long run of up to 30 miles
Plus lots of eating and baking!
How important is speed work in your training?
When we’re building up to a big race we tone down the speed work, but Peter likes keeping speed sessions in there to teach my legs to turnover when tired… I personally find any excuse to skip one of these sessions!
Tell us about your strength and conditioning routine?
I go to Andy Reay at Pure Sports Medicine and my exercises are based on any niggles I might have had before – usually hamstrings, glutes etc. We do quite a bit of trap bar work (Romanian deadlifts, squats, and lifts) as I have now bought myself a trap bar from lockdown days, and quite a lot of single-leg work as running is a lot of single leg work! Due to my ankle weaknesses, I also try and do mobility work on my ankle using a Mobo board every day.
Another thing I’ve been working on is my form with Shane Benzie, as I noticed that my arm swings around a lot. We’ve also been trying to get me to run a bit taller and do less shuffling!
You’ve broken multiple Malaysian records and seem to have a natural talent for ultrarunning. What type of ultras do you enjoy the most, and what’s on your race bucket list?
I don’t think I have much natural running talent, but I’m quite a stubborn person. I also just love running for hours without thinking about anything. I think with ultras, if you put the work in and are determined, you can do well. I don’t really see my results as talent, but a product of being diligent in ticking off the training – running, S&C, form coaching and physio. I have been very lucky to have a good support team and a physio I trust with my life (Scott Newton) which allow me to be able to run at the volumes that I have done injury-free.
Given my poor navigational skills, the ultras I do the best in are looped courses as I can concentrate on running and fuelling! Running well makes me happy, but I also do enjoy an adventure. I hope to pick up some navigational skills one day and maybe run some tougher races. We currently live in London but we’re hoping to move up north so that will help me build some trail skills. I grew up in a city and never knew what trails were, so need to learn from scratch!
The Pennine Way is beautiful but I currently don’t have the skills to run it to do it justice, so maybe one day I will enter one of the Spine races. I would love to one day do a multi-day race (maybe the Ring of Fire) and, of course, I’d love to get lucky in the draw and run Spartathlon.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and ultra training?
I love the inov-8 Terraultra 270 for running on easy trails – it has fantastic grip, even on Pennine trails. It also has a low stack and 0mm drop which my physio loves as he says it avoids tripping and falling! My husband and I spend a bit of time up north so I can assure you it works on the Pennine Way too. It’s also so green that people can spot me all the time!
I also love my Inov-8 long sleeves and short sleeves as I sweat so much and they don’t stink up. The Inov-8 waterproofs also keep me dry and have vent pits for sweaty people like me! Inov-8 makes fantastic kit for a fair price and it lasts a long time. Having followed ReRun clothing for a while, I try to buy good kit so that it lasts forever rather than forever replacing poor kit!
I use T8 shorts as they have lovely silky underwear which wicks away sweat fast and doesn’t chafe, plus their Sherpa shorts have large pockets that don’t bounce.
My Coros Apex watch has a battery life that is amazing. With 100-mile weeks, I never charge my watch more than once every fortnight and I wear it all the time.
My favourite gel is Unived as it tastes nice and doesn’t give me gut bombs. The elite gels pack [provides] very good calories for people like me who hate eating in the heat!
A massage gun [is also an essential]!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am supported by Coros Malaysia, Unived Sports (X Miles), and Inov-8, as well as RunCrew Singapore. I am very lucky to have such strong support and I hope to do them proud at future events (which don’t require navigation – haha).
You can follow Alison’s training and racing via www.instagram.com/_alisonwalker_