The eyes tell the story… they look through you. Deep in focus, almost blinkered like a horse, Jo Meek has only one purpose. To run as fast and as efficiently as possible over 6-days and when crossing the final finish tape, be crowned winner of the 10th edition of the 2014 The Costal Challenge in Costa Rica.
I had seen this look once before, at the end of stage-1 of the 2013 Marathon des Sables. Sitting in a bivouac, Jo Meek had just excelled on the first day of the race. I like others looked around in wonder and asked the question, ‘who is Jo Meek?’
No more questions needed to be asked, at the end of the 28th Marathon des Sables, we all were well aware who Jo was, she was the lady who had just placed 2nd overall behind Meghan Hicks at her first Marathon des Sables.
When you excel at one race it’s easy for many to look on and say, ‘It was first time luck.’ Not that Jo needed to prove anything, certainly not to me! I had seen her race; I had witnessed the dedication and focus as Jo pushed herself daily to get the best she could out of her body.
Switching from the dunes of the Sahara to the beaches and rainforest of Costa Rica was always going to be a cathartic moment for Jo, particularly when one considered the competition she would be up against; Julia Bottger (Salomon), Veronica Bravo (Adventure Racer from Chile) and Anna Frost (Salomon). Unfortunately, ‘Frosty’ had to withdraw from the race just days before the start in Quepos on doctor’s orders. Disappointed at not having the opportunity to test herself against one of the best female mountain/ ultra runners in the world, Jo focused and said, ‘It changes nothing. I am here to race and race hard. I would have loved to have Anna push me but you know what, I can push myself pretty hard.’
As we all found out, Jo can push herself pretty hard; maybe too hard at times? On day-1 of the TCC, Jo raced like a demon. Unaffected by the Costa Rican heat and humidity, she put 45-minutes into the female competition and set the platform on which to build for an incredible victory at the 10th edition of the race.
Back in the UK after a recovery week in Costa Rica, I caught up with Jo as she attempted to move house… a house that she had purchased without seeing! Yes, Jo had purchased a house she hadn’t seen. When I asked her in Costa Rica about this, Jo replied, ‘I was too involved in my training, I had one focus, to be in the best shape for the TCC. I just didn’t have time to go and look at it. I convinced myself it would be okay…’
IC: A year ago I was talking to you at your surprise 2nd place at MDS. You have now been out to Costa Rica, a very different environment in comparison to the Sahara, raced against stronger competition? And you have won an incredible victory over 6 –tough days of racing. How do you feel?
JM: I feel really pleased. I have complete satisfaction from the race. It’s possible to sometimes come away with question marks but I have none. I feel that the effort I put in was rewarded appropriately. I put a great amount of dedication into this race and sacrificed lots.
IC: Yes, you had that steely MDS look in your eyes. Like blinkers. You dedicate yourself to the task and I guess knowing in advance what the competition was going to be like at TCC and having the MDS experience inside you, you were able to be far more specific in training. I know post MDS that you thought you had maybe been a little over cautious. You could have run quicker? So, did you go to TCC with all guns blazing and take each day as a race?
JM: Yes I did. I remember listening to Ryan Sandes on Talk Ultra and he said it was amazing how quickly one recovers. I thought, I do recover well and I had nothing to loose. I know from MDS that I had been cautious, for example on the last day I pushed hard. Had I done that everyday the result may have been different but it’s difficult to say. So, at TCC I wanted to give it everything. I had prepared for the heat and my training was good.
IC: You have just mentioned that you committed yourself from day-1. Needless to say, TCC day-1 was impressive. You put 45-mins into the competition, impressive, particularly when we look at the ladies who you were racing against. Of course it gave you a real buffer. A safety net. The biggest issue on day-1 for everyone (except you) was the massive contrast in European weather and Costa Rican weather. Even in Costa Rica itself, the temperatures between San Jose and the coast were remarkable. As you approach the coast the heat goes up along with the humidity. Day-1 has a later start so you are straight into the heat… mid 30’s and closer to 40 at the height of the day. But it did not affect you and the main reason for this was 10-days training in a heat chamber.
JM: Yes. I was prepared. I gave everything on that first day. I had assumed that the competition would have done the same? Using a heat chamber is only a case of contacting Universities and they are usually willing to help. I assumed some heat work would put me on a par. As it turned out it wasn’t the heat that struck me but the pace! We were running slower than I expected so I ran at what was comfortable for me and nobody ran with me. I then ran scared thinking I had made a mistake that I was going to pay for.
IC: Now you have had an opportunity to reflect on TCC can you tell us about the heat chamber, how did it benefit you, are there any crossovers between MDS and TCC prep?
JM: I did the same sort of training. I followed a marathon program but I did more back-to-back runs. Essentially you are training for the same thing. In the heat chamber I was under the guidance of the team. I told them I would do whatever I needed to do… They told me I needed 10-days. You actually don’t need to exercise in the heat chamber, you can just sit inside but it takes longer. I could sit for 3-hours or run for 1-hour. I am dedicated, I am focused, and that’s a really big thing.
IC: Lets talk about the training. When you say a classic marathon program, I guess you are talking about a speed session, hill session and then long runs. Of course, you were training for multi-day so you built from 1-long run to back-to-back long runs. What did a peak week look like; I guess this was 3-4 weeks out from the TCC?
JM: Yes, 4-weeks out and then I would taper. You are right; I would do a speed session, a threshold run, a hill session and then long runs that would build to back-to-back runs. What you can’t afford to do is not let yourself recover in terms of, if you have done a long run and made it fast, you need to recover. It was all about balance. You need to be sensible and listen to your body. I would do 2.5-3-hours normally for a normal long session, whereas my long run for TCC was 4-hours; but at a slower pace. I wanted to make sure I could incorporate hills to prepare me for the hills of TCC.
IC: Back-to-back sessions, was that 2 x 4-hour runs?
JM: No, I did 3 back-to-back 3-hour runs.
IC: So, 9-hours split over 3-days; I presume when you did this you eased back of speed and hill work?
JM: I actually kept the sessions. In actual fact, that week I did a race. You have to remember, the long runs were really slow. It was just a case of recovering from a food and nutrition perspective. The runs actually didn’t damage my muscles. I am sensible after each run. I rest. For the 3 back-to-backs I took a day off work to make sure I had the best platform from which to build.
IC: So you planned this into work. You took a day off work and you treated this very much from a professional perspective. Feet up after the run, concentrate of food and hydration and make sure you are in the best place.
JM: Yes it was like being a full time athlete. Of course day-to-day life gets in the way; cook dinner and walk the dog for example. I just took this relaxed and in my own time.
IC: How did you break speed sessions down? Many ultra runners look at speed sessions as something that they don’t need to do. But that is not the case, you actually need endurance and speed, so, how do you work this to your benefit, how did you go about speed sessions?
JM: It is difficult to answer as we are all individual and it depends on your race. You need to target your sessions at the pace you want to achieve and then sometimes faster. I would do some track work running 400’s or I would do 1-mile reps. I guess you need to vary what you do… try to enjoy it! We all think, speed; it’s going to hurt. But if you find sessions you enjoy it makes a big difference. Also try training with others.
IC: So you had your plan, you did speed, you did strength, you did hills, you did back-to-backs but you realized that to give you an edge or in your terms an equal playing field was that you needed to adapt to the heat. It was a variable. It was one thing you couldn’t account for. You did 10-days consecutive in a heat chamber?
JM: Yes, 10-days.
IC: What is day-1 like?
JM: Oh you think I will never be able to run in this? I went in thinking that I would run at ‘pace’ but actually you run at a slow pace as they don’t want your temperature to rise too quickly. It feels bearable at the start. They monitor the core temperature and mine went too high after 30-min so then I had to walk and rest to keep it under control. It’s not as physically as hard as you may think. It’s all about core temperature.
IC: What is important is the lesson that we can all learn. You trained in the UK; you did the heat sessions, which gave you massive temperature and humidity fluctuations. You got that process over with before arriving in Costa Rica. By contrast, nearly all the runners had to go through that process on day-1 of the race… for example; Philipp Reiter had a really tough 1st day. He was overheating and red, he was trying to control himself but to no avail. However his recovery was phenomenal. He recovered so well to come back strong on day-2.
JM: That is the benefit of being 20!
IC: Yes, for sure that helped. However, had Philipp and the others got day-1 over with in a heat chamber it would have made a massive difference. It could have been the difference between top-3 and a win.
When you went back to the heat chamber how was the adaptation?
JM: Mentally I was more prepared. On day-1 I felt nauseous and tired but I guess it just gets easier. By day-3 my resting core had reduced dramatically. It gets easier and easier unless you are a moron like me and fall off the treadmill.
IC: Mmmm yes, you did make a mess of your face. Not the best thing to land on in the final days of prep in the build up to an important race!
So, you adapted in the heat chamber. The process went exceptionally well and pretty much after the last session you made your way to Costa Rica. It’s a shock, isn’t it? Time changes, a day of registration, logistics and presswork, an early bed and then a very early start the following day that starts at 3am. A transfer by bus to the coast and before you know it, day-1 starts at 0930 just as the heat of the day is beating down. It’s hot, really hot, however it caused you no problems. You had that amazing first day. Post day-1 you said you felt great. You had taken the race on, you had pushed yourself and you had stamped your authority on the race. How did the rest of the race unfold for you? You had a couple of key moments; day-3 in the river section start when you struggled with the technicality, ironically, very similar to the male winner; Mike Wardian. You and he are very similar runners, you both run well on fast terrain but less so on technical terrain. However, as the race progressed you both adapted and became far more efficient.
JM: Yes, without doubt.
IC: Moving up hill and covering technical ground became so much better for both of you.
Lets go back to that day-3 start when you had Veronica Bravo and Julia Bottger ahead of you, did you think you were loosing the race?
JM: When you can’t see runners you immediately think you are loosing 45-mins. It’s funny. However, when it is so technical you can’t think about anything other than what is below your feet and what is ahead. I just had to follow the course markers and cover the ground as best as I could. All the time I was thinking, I just need to get on the flat or get on a good hill and start chasing and pulling time back.
IC: You got through the section and you started to chase. You clawed back the time, you caught Julia and Veronica and then on the final beach section in 40-deg heat you pulled away and got another stage win. You re-established your dominance of the race. It must have been a great day and a great boost?
JM: The 3rd day was the longest and most emotional day. It almost felt like the end of the race. I was very emotional. Had someone been waiting for me at the end I would have cried. Even though I still had 3-days of racing ahead I had concentrated so much it had exhausted me. Having got through that it was a case of maintaining it. But as you very well know, I like to race and continued that way. I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I could have fallen and hurt myself and with Veronica and Julia chasing, I couldn’t be complacent. I raced hard to the end.
IC: Post race you said one day in particular is the day that you got things wrong that impacted on the final 2-days, was that day-4?
JM: I gave everything on day-3 and then I continued to race on day-4 when I didn’t need to?
IC: Yes, we had that conversation when I said to you, ‘you know what, you have a 60-min lead so be sensible. You have no need to put yourself in the ground. Consolidate what you have and be sensible.’ But in true Jo Meek fashion you continued to push…
Day-5 was significant. You had been in the lead and then Julia came back to you with about 10-km to go. It was the final feed station. You had a 60-min lead, so, overall victory was secure.
JM: I was at the feed and Julia arrived and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I thought I have to go.’ I ran, ran hard and closed out the final 10-km like a stand-alone session. I finished out of breath with hands on knees.
IC: Funny, when I saw you, you said, ‘I am an idiot.’
JM: I did.
IC: When I asked why, you explained the situation. Of course you have now reflected and I hope you realize that it wasn’t clever racing? You could have still had a bad moment on the last day and needed the reserves.
JM: Oh yes. I am well aware. What hurt me on the last day were sore quads. It was all the descending from the previous days. So I ran the last day within myself, however, had I thought Julia would have really pushed I would have found something, some extra energy.
IC: You have 2-great experiences under your belt. Marathon des Sables provided an introduction into multi-day racing and you performed maybe beyond our expectations but not beyond your own and now you have the victory at The Coastal Challenge. You have confirmed yourself as someone who can race hard, day-after-day, so, what are the hints ‘n’ tips you can provide for multi-day racing?
JM: Assess what you as an individual want from the race and then train accordingly. You must have a goal. Do you want to compete or complete? It makes a big difference. If you get your mind it the right place it is half of the battle. Prepare mentally, don’t be scared of the environment. Do what you can do and make sure that is clear. Have a great understanding of your body and how it recovers. Give yourself what you need. Without doubt eating after exercise within an hour is key, especially for multi-day racing or training. Rest when you get an opportunity; elevate your legs. For sure your feet and ankles will get tired. Relax, eat, drink and let everything settle. If you can sleep, do so. It provides great recovery. Ultimately, common sense prevails and the body is an amazing thing.
IC: TCC and MDS are very different. At MDS you had to be self-sufficient and carry a pack whereas at TCC tents and food were provided so you could run light, you just needed a hydration pack. Of course it’s a level playing field as everyone must do the same but from your perspective what are the pros and cons from both races and which did you prefer?
JM: That is very tricky. At TCC having food in abundance is obviously great. You can eat when you want and as much as you want so that makes recovery easy. However, everyone has that option so it’s not a personal advantage it’s just a different scenario. At MDS you can use this to your advantage, if you have planned well and your nutrition is optimum for your own personal needs then of course your competition may have not, so this can be something you work into a positive. It requires more planning. It’s a game of calories v weight. I like the challenge of the MDS scenario but equally your running style changes; your speed changes and you are carrying the burden of the pack. I guess it depends if you prefer faster racing or a more expedition type of approach.
IC: It’s a crazy question but MDS compared to TCC, which race, all things considered was the hardest race?
JM: The Coastal Challenge course. It has everything, ascending and descending, the damage the course did to my legs was far greater than the MDS. I found the MDS was harder from a food perspective, it took me 4-5 weeks post MDS to put the weight back on. The Coastal Challenge course tests the body and mind and the continual changes of terrain keep you guessing and working hard.
IC: So what is next, recovery is first and foremost I guess?
JM: I want to prove myself as an ultra runner. I want to run in a GB vest. I will try to qualify for GB in a trail race. I’d like to do more stage races and I have entered Comrades in June. That will be an interesting test and very different to what I have currently achieved.
IC: Finally, Costa Rica, what was the experience like for you, can you sum it up?
JM: The race is incredible. Where else can you run (or walk) in such an amazing place! The organizers have created a race and a route that often is inaccessible to most; riverbeds, jungle and plains. I probably didn’t look around too much while racing but I stayed for 1-week afterwards and I had a holiday. I went diving, saw a whale, I walked, went white water rafting and saw plenty of wildlife. It’s just an incredible and exciting place. Even if you did just the race you would come away with a whole new outlook. It really is incredible.
TCC 2014 race images – HERE
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Race Website – HERE