OCTOBER 2020: If you’ve been in the Sussex running community, any time over the last couple of decades, there’s a good chance you’ll be familiar with the name Stuart Mills.
Stuart, originally from New Zealand, is based near Uckfield and now runs for Uckfield Runners, but for many years competed for Brighton & Hove AC.
He organises a couple of local races, he’s a regular at the pointy end of parkrun in Hove Park, and I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s won Beachy Head Marathon.
Last Saturday, at Beachy Head, Stuart completed his 100th marathon.
Stuart, many congratulations for running your 100th marathon. How are your legs?
As usual after racing a marathon, the legs have been a bit stiff for a couple of days but, with over 54,000 miles of running in my legs, I find that they are nowhere near as stiff as they used to be after a marathon. Although, now running slower than previously could also be a reason for there being less stiffness!
I imagine you would have started running from a young age? Where did it all begin?
Yes, I have been running for quite a few years now, in order to clock up so many miles.
Being originally from New Zealand, back in the 1970s every schoolboy played rugby, which I did for 6 years, from the age of 8.
Then, when I was 14 years old, I joined the local running club Hutt Valley Harriers. Being quite small and skinny for my age, running seemed more appealing than the ‘battering’ I used to experience when trying to tackle rugby players heaps stronger than me.
Even though I wasn’t a very fast runner, initially tending to finish in the final third of the field, I found that, as the harrier season progressed, I improved and gradually finished further up the field. I guess it was the satisfaction gained from getting better at a sport that got me hooked into running. And, over the years, I would go on to discover and learn new endurance sports, and especially enjoy seeing my performances improve.
So, on my 15th birthday, which happens to be New Year’s Day, I commenced ‘proper’ training and started recording my running within a training diary. In fact, every single run since then has been logged in my training diaries!
Not just a runner then? What other endurance sports have you competed in?
Over the years, I have focused on a variety of endurance sports.
Running was the sole focus for my first 7 years of training but, at around that time, a new craze called multi-sport was emerging. This was a triathlon, but with kayaking instead of swimming, and the race route would make the most of the New Zealand countryside. I ventured into this exciting-looking endurance sport for 2 or 3 years, during which I discovered cycling, and I then became a road-racing cyclist.
The following 4 years, my running significantly reduced. I recorded only 17 miles of running in 1988, as I rode 11660 miles on the bike that year.
But then I changed focus again, this time to triathlon. It meant I got back into running more, and I raced 5 Ironman events, including the Hawaii Ironman.
The last 20 years, my priority has been trail running – including trail-ultras – with my most recent goal being to run fast, relative to my age, on the road.
I actually ran my first marathon at the age of 17. (There were no computer databases, back in those days, to check one’s real age!) Since then, over the following 40 years, I have slowly clocked up my number of marathon completions, and have apparently just set a 100 Marathon Club record, last Saturday, for the longest time span between marathon number 1 and marathon number 100. Apparently, I have ‘smashed’ the previous record of 37 years, by over 3 years! I’m not sure if I should be proud of this record!
Is there one race that stands out as a favourite?
Earlier this year, during lockdown, I actually went through 43 years of training diaries and counted up all of my running races. They totalled 769?
So, choosing one favourite isn’t easy.
In 1996, I was completely shocked to have won the prestigious Snowdonia Marathon. It was my first ever win in a running race, and therefore very special.
Another amazing experience was completing the 167km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. That involved running a complete lap around Mont Blanc, thus running from France into Italy, then Switzerland, and back into France.
However, the most special moment was probably in 2011 when, at the age of 48, I wore a British Elite vest, and raced really well, at the IAU World Ultra Trail Championships. I was the first GB finisher and 15th overall.
I know you have a Masters degree in Sport Science and work as a University lecturer. And you talk about the importance of marginal gains. Can you give some examples of the attention to detail that you apply to your own racing and race preparation?
It was probably when I started ultra-trail racing in 2008 that I really started to consider my race preparation more thoroughly. I started to look at all aspects of sport science.
Competing in races of over 100 miles was quite an experience. What I couldn’t understand was why I ended up running very slowly towards the end of these ultra-distance races.
Yes, I was tired, but what was it that actually caused the fatigue? After all, the running pace, and the intensity one races at, is actually quite low. Heart rate is quite low, breathing rate is relaxed, and yet one is unable to run faster!
It was very useful, being within academia, as I had access to all of the scientific research articles. So, I carried out extensive reading of physiology, nutrition and psychology research. Combined with my own personal experiences, I came to realise that, in ultra-trail racing, it was one’s self-belief, one’s self-expectations that had the largest effect on race performance.
And to raise self-belief and self-expectations, one has to feel totally prepared for the demands of the race. This led to my marginal-gains approach to race preparation. As Matt Fitzgerald stated within his 2010 book titled RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, “If it does nothing else, a runner’s training must make him feel prepared, because if he feels prepared, he is prepared, and if he doesn’t, he isn’t. The primary objective of training for every competitive runner should be to develop confidence in her ability to achieve her race goals.”
So, this was my new approach to training – to feel prepared.
I had always been a low-mileage runner, typically only around 40 miles per week of running. However, during the next few years of ultra-trail racing, I considered myself to be carrying out around 100 miles per week of training (what the elite tend to do), with the equivalent of 60 miles per week consisting of non-physical training.
This included extensive mental preparation, such as visualisation of the upcoming race. And also, a vast amount of thought, contemplating solid answers to three crucial questions about that race; What do I want? Why do I want it? How much do I want it? I would have very clear, journey-focused race goals.
Another one of the many ways I would feel fully prepared for an ultra-distance race, due to my marginal gains approach, would be to minimise the weight carried in my backpack. The example which follows hopefully illustrates this.
At the time, hydration packs were popular. They would enable you to carry up to 2 litres (2 kg) of water, and runners would typically fill up the bladder to the top. It could take up to 20 miles or more, to drink, even though water was usually available at regular checkpoints, around every 6-7 miles.
Why carry unnecessary water, extra weight, when there was no need to?
I would simply carry sufficient water to reach the next checkpoint. Yes, one may lose a few seconds during re-filling a small 500ml bottle, but this would be significantly less time than what is lost by carrying an extra 1.5kg of water.
If any runners want other examples that I used during my ultra-trail racing days, they are all documented within my UltraStu blog. I no longer update it, but the old posts are still available to read.
You have a couple of your own events that you organise. What can you tell us about them? It’s not been a great year for events, has it!
Unfortunately, both events were cancelled this year.
Having experienced huge enjoyment from many years of racing, I felt that I should really put something back into the sport. So, back in 2005, I took over organising the already-established Kings Head Canter 5k.
A few years later, as a personal challenge, I wanted to see if I could put on a successful, well-organised trail event that I would want to race myself, and the Weald Challenge was created in 2014.
I find it very rewarding organising the two events, with the only real downside being that now, when I compete in a race, I can’t stop myself from evaluating the quality of the race organisation!
What race goals do you have, yourself, going forward? More marathons?
As mentioned earlier, I place huge importance on race goals in order to be fully prepared. To be honest, as I have slowed down over recent years, constructing clearly-focused race goals has, at times, been difficult.
Having a strong desire to again be on the Championship start line at the London Marathon, the race goal has been quite simple, although more a ‘destination’ goal, rather than a ‘journey’ goal.
I needed to run a sub-2:45 marathon time to qualify, which I have now achieved twice – in both 2017 and 2019. So, I have my Championship start slot for next year’s London Marathon, and my race goal is the same… sub-2:45, as the qualifying sub-2:45 time only lasts for 2 years.
And how many times is it that you’ve won Beachy Head, Stuart?
Since moving to East Sussex in 2002, I have raced in the Beachy Head marathon over 19 consecutive years and managed to win it 8 times. My most recent win was back in 2015.
And nowadays, with the marathon runners seemingly getting younger every year, it is unlikely for the tally to get any higher.
But the plan will be to continue to run Beachy Head every year, as it is such a great event. At the end of the day, there is so much more to running than finish places and finish times, although my earlier comments probably don’t really highlight this!
For me, racing is just one aspect of being a runner, and I gain loads of pleasure from simply running along the trails, especially when I complete a run along a long-distance trail. Locally, I have run the entire length of the South Downs Way, Wealdway, Vanguard Way and the 1066 Country Walk Trail. This year during lockdown, I discovered a new trail called the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, which is 42 miles long and finishes in Seaford. This is now on my immediate to-do list of runs.
I’m not sure if I will ever reach 200 official marathon finishes, as I think the long-distance trail runs will tend to attract more of my attention over the coming years, especially as there are so many long-distance footpaths, within the UK, that I haven’t run yet.
Stuart, well done on everything you’ve achieved so far, especially completing your 100th marathon. Thank you for sharing your ‘marginal gains’ tips. And hopefully nothing will get in the way of you putting on another successful Kings Head Canter and Weald Challenge, in 2021.
By Mike Bannister