My race report deals with all of the details of the race itself, but what about the lessons, what worked and what didn’t work?
I spent a fair amount of time researching pacing by looking at splits for previous races. In particular I was interested in the splits of those who finished strongly. I had a strong feeling that, ignoring the first few finishers who are statistical and physiological freaks, the vast majority of runners run the first sections too quickly, so I built my plan around splits from a number of runners but basing primarily on times from WHW and UTMB veteran Bob Allison who seems to have perfected the knack of gaining places consistently throughout the race. I was also greatly reassured reading a brilliant blog by Andy Cole about how to pace West Highland Way.
My target time for the early checkpoints allowed me to be an hour slower to Auchtertyre than my previous WHW and yet I was significantly faster to Fort William and moved up the field by a number of places over each section. I was also significantly less broken than I might otherwise have been which made for a much more pleasant second half to the race.
Having slower target times also took some pressure off and allowed me to relax more.
My gear all worked pretty well. I wore an Ultimate Direction SJ pack for most of the race. I had intended alternating it with my Inov-8 race belt, but after running the first section with the race belt, I felt it was unbalancing me and so I opted for the security of my pack. The big advantage of my pack, was that I could have my two bottles, which was great for managing fluid intake in the heat. I used one of the 500 ml ultimate direction hard bottles and one 750 raidlight bottle with a drinking straw. The raidlight bottle is good because you can drink without taking the bottle out which is good if you want to sip small and often. An unintended benefit of the raidlight bottle is that it solved the problem of farting nipples! To explain, I like to take coke in my bottles especially later in a race. The UD bottles are great, but with fizzy coke, the soft valves tend to spontaneously spurt coke spray accompanied by a disconcerting farting noise in response to fizz building up in the bottle. The drinking straw on the raidlight bottle seemed to solve that problem. Marginal gains and all that.
My shoes were good, I wore Altra Olympus for the first half and Skechers Go Run Ultra for the second half of the race. The Skechers were half a size bigger than my normal shoe which gave my sore feet lots of space to expand. the only real reason for changing shoes was beacuse I tend to suffer from sore feet regardless of which shoes I wear, so by changing to something different, it just moved the pressure points a little.
The other notable addition to my gear this year was arm sleeves. These were a freebie at a race, but I thought I would give them a go. They were good in the cool, but surprisingly where they really came into their own was in the heat. Soaking them really helped cool me down and borrowing a trick from Rob Krar which I saw in the Western States film ” This is Your Day”, stuffing ice down the arm sleeves to cool my wrists probably saved my race. I always really struggle in the heat. Using the ice both in the arm sleeves and in a buff round my neck helped cool my core. It may be coincidence, but having started using ice at Auchtertyre, my heart rate was on average 15bpm lower over the second half of the race compared to the first. I also used a Columbia hiking sun hat. The wide brim all the way round helped keep the sun off my face and neck so avoiding over heating and sunburn. It wasn’t glamorous but it was effective. Sometimes it is useful to look beyond what the running companies are trying to sell to us.
Overall my nutrition worked pretty well. The heat scuppered my eating plans as being so hot I didn’t fancy some of the more solid items on my plan. I drank a lot of milk shakes which were great. These are full of sugar, an easy texture to drink, and interesting flavours to help stimulate your palette. Rice puddings were another staple. Other successes were cheese rolls and chicken soup. I got a boost from my chocolate coffee beans though have a suspicion they may have contributed to me feeling nauseous.
The items of food which didn’t work, were both items which I had specifically asked for and planned to use. I had thought that cold beef link sausages would be a nice treat but during the race the consistency put me right off them and I hardly had any. Maybe on a cold day I would have felt differently. The other fail was my cheesy pasta. In the blistering heat, it became too dry, too hard, and just the wrong texture and too much work to eat.
The other slight food fail related to my pack. My crew would stuff food into my pack at checkpoiints and then complain when I hadn’t eaten it at the next. Probably the biggest reason for this is that with it being in my pack I had to consciously remember it was there, and when I did remember it was there, the thought of the hassle of stopping, taking my pack off, opening it up, eating a bit, putting it away etc was just too complicated for my poor fuzzy brain to process. Had I put the food in an accessible front pocket I might have grazed, so lesson learned there for the future.
Having the right crew is really important and fortunately my crew got it spot on. We had a plan, but we also had enough flexibility and experience to know that the plan would go out the window as soon as the race started. As a runner you need to trust your crew not only to do the simple things like actually being there, but to be able to assess how you are doing, feed you the right things and give you the right combination of sympathy and encouragement. You not only need the right people, but you need the right mix of people so they are able to look out for each other as well as you. They used two vehicles which allowed for a bit of flexibility in getting a bit more sleep which meant that when I saw them they were not too tired. My crew consisted of my wife Helen and friends Amanda and Clark Hamilton. Helen is very much the Queen of checkpoints having done so many but is also an experienced runner, plus she knows me inside out. Knowing she is waiting at the next checkpoint gives me huge motivation. Clark is Mr Sensible. I knew that no matter what logistical nightmares unfolded he would deal with them and would also make sure that Helen and Amanda made it to the end in one piece as well. I also knew he wouldn’t take any nonsense from me when running with me so that kept me honest. Amanda is one of the most dogged runners I know. I really admire her ability to do something I am not good at which is the relentless slow and steady thing which was why I asked her to be my support runner over the last sections. She also knows the course inside out so I could just switch off and follow her. My crew was tuned in to how I was feeling and knowing that I tend to stay fairly strong mentally in a race just gave me a rabbit to chase and the occasional gee up rather than try to jolly me along with inane encouraging drivel. It is probably no coincidence that on the couple of occasions recently when I haven’t had my usual support, my races have been unsuccessful. Any crew which has the where with all to find you ice, buy ice lollies and get you ice cream in Kinlochleven after closing time definitely has the righ credentials.
All in all I had way more successes than failures in this race, but if I have one big takeaway it is probably the importance of pacing and going much more slowly than you think you should at the start. To borrow a recent Internet meme my big lesson is we need to try to Be Like Bob (Allison)