Thetford runner Melanie Sturman on making it six of the best at the Great Barrow Challenge

PUBLISHED: 12:00 11 July 2019 | UPDATED: 13:22 11 July 2019

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman


Thetford runner Melanie Sturman takes part in a Q&A after completing the Great Barrow Challenge for the sixth time

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie SturmanMelanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

Running a single marathon is a daunting challenge for many, but ever thought about running 10 marathons in 10 days?

Melanie Sturman has, six times in fact, and the Thetford runner took part in a Q&A about her latest Great Barrow Challenge she completed last weekend.

Set in Barrow, Suffolk, the Great Barrow Challenge is the United Kingdom's only multi-terrain, single loop marathon challenge.

The event comprises of five routes, which every competitor had to complete twice. Routes comprised of Kirtling, Thetford, Wickhambook, Risby and The Circle.

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie SturmanMelanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

How do you train to complete an endurance event?

In my view, I would never encourage anyone to undertake the challenge, without previous marathon running experience.

I had completed 45 marathons before I even considered attempting my first 10 in 10 challenge in 2014. I had also completed double (2 marathons in 2 days) and a quadzilla (4 marathons in 4 days), as well as ultra-distances of 65k and 100k. I learnt to run on tired legs by running every day, increasing the mileage to 15 miles a day. The important thing is adapting your body to cope with running when you actually don't want to run or your legs are feeling tired to run.

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie SturmanMelanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

How do you get the mind together to run a marathon every day for 10 days?

For me, running a challenge I have to focus and change my routine completely for the 10 days. For success, you have to fully focus on the challenge, live, eat, sleep and breath the challenge for 10 days. I did forget work, I did forget the household tasks and the dog needed to walk.

I had to balance the challenge in hand with the rest required for successful completion. Having a supportive partner is so helpful and my fiancé took over the household tasks and the dog walking. I even survived his cooking. Change of routine was very different to my normal work pattern, rise 5;30, breakfast, drive to event, run, post-race ice bath, post-race massage, re taping of knee, eating and resting.

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie SturmanMelanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

What's your advice in terms of diet and nutrition?

I sometimes struggle with nutrition during marathons. For a single event I am happy to use gels but as these tend to give me an upset stomach it is not something I wish to risk during a multi-day event. On day one, I felt nervous which in turn caused me to feel nausea.

During the run I did not eat anything and just had a few cups of water, electrolyte and cola. As I gradually settled into the event, I increased my mix of diluting coke with water. Sounds ghastly but it did work, providing my energy and hydration.

Melanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie SturmanMelanie Sturman and the Great Barrow Challenge. Picture: Melanie Sturman

I am aware of the importance of electrolytes, particularly now as I am aware my body is changing as I am going through the menopause.

I was tired from waking up 3-4 times a night with the sweats so very conscious of the importance to remain hydrated. I had a mix of High 5 magnesium-based electrolyte and took a bottle of dioralyte rehydration drink. I would also have 250ml of dioralyte with breakfast and 500ml before bed. Within 30-45 minutes of finishing I would have a protein drink and small snack. It would be easy to over indulge because each day I was burning on average 2800 calories but I kept to high protein snack in the afternoon and a high carb meal in the evening. Finding what works is key and although I suffered no dehydration issues or cramp this may not work for other.

What were the worst days?

Day four was the worse day psychologically because I was beginning to feel tired and you are not even halfway through the challenge.

Days seven and eight were the most painful days because my blister injuries peaked and feet swelling made it hard for me to put on trainers.

As I was running, the heat and humidity caused my feet to swell and I could feel so much pain from the blisters.

How do you manage blisters?

Blisters are a huge issue for me during multi-day or ultra-challenges. I currently wear dry max socks and use Hoka Clifton shoes. During my first 10 in 10 I did use Vaseline and the medic said I was making my feet too moist, increasing risk of blisters.

Over the years, I have had so much advice regarding management of blisters, from Compeed to dressings, change of shoes and change of socks.

This year I got eight blisters and interestingly four in the same places on both feet, so I think I will be exploring different shoes.

I decided to pop blisters with a sterile needle and soak my feet in salt water. Before bed I applied Fuller's Earth, an old treatment recommended to me by George Buxton, aka Blister George at Barrow back in 2014. I was terrified about applying any dressings for fear of dressing slipping and creating another blister/pressure point. Also with the heat, feet swell and lots of dressings would compromise the space in my trainer creating a further pressure point.

They key is keeping the blisters dry and not infected. I do believe the dry max socks, did keep moisture away and using salt water and Fuller's Earth kept them infection free. Losing toes nails is a another risk, but this year I have managed to keep all 10.

How do you manage injury?

I have a congenital knee condition. Unknown to me until I was 45 my patella had been dislocating and rubbed a lot of bone tissue away from my tibia and fibula. The only treatment for me is to have a knee replacement. My surgeon and I came up with a self-help management plan, which included taping of the knee to ensure the patella did not slip and strengthening exercises.

I consider myself fortunate to be able to manage my condition and complete these challenges without suffering. I am a firm believer, of post-race ice bath and post-race sports massage to prevent injury and for me to maintain my condition as best as I can.

A sports therapist once told me "runners invest in their equipment but rarely invest in the machine". Common problem with multi day events in the heat is cellulitis, soft tissue inflammation/infection. Thankfully, something I have never experienced and lying with feet elevated for 30 minutes as soon as possible after each event reduces the risk.

How do you cope with the heat?

The event takes place from last week in June which means generally it is hot. 2018 was the hottest year with temperatures of 30-34c most days. I think 2015-2016 was a stormy year and I was running in ankle deep of flood water.

Protecting the head and use of sunscreen is common sense. There is also finding the balance of not over drinking and risking kidney failure and ensuring body has sufficient electrolytes. Unfortunately, on day three one competitor did finish unwell due to heat stroke and not enough electrolytes.

What's the camaraderie like with the other runners?

Although I spent 10 days pretty much running alone, you do have the camaraderie and support from the other competitors. We all meet before the start and after each run.

The faster runners would be waiting for us slower runners to come in and I would smile as they cheered me to the finish line. In the running circuit Great Barrow Challenge is known as one of the toughest events in the UK. Your competitors really help you get round.

The heat slowed many of us down and Barrow is on a hill, so every finish was hilly. I was stronger at this point and often would be seen finishing with someone who was struggling. Although it is your race I do feel we support and encourage everyone to finish.

Why do you accept the challenge?

The key is in the title, every year it is a challenge because I am another year older. For me now, it has been about defending my record as the only British woman to have completed the event six times.

With such a small field of athletes you can be in the middle of a country lane or the forest by yourself, really getting away from the stress of everyday life.

It is fantastic absorbing yourself with the beauty Suffolk and Norfolk provides. Nature is stunning, and I saw so many species of butterflies, birds, dragon flies and wild flowers.

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