WHW 2016 Lessons Learned

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?

Pacing

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.

Gear

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.

Food

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.

Crew

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)

It is a phase he is going through

Some people like to run for the joy of running. That isn’t my bag. I need a purpose to get me out the door.

Some people like to run randomly and tackle races in whatever fitness they have at that time.

With my lack of any natural ability, I need a very structured training programme to arrive at my goal race in any sort of shape.

My goal races this year are London Marathon, MIWOK 100K, West Highland Race and TDS.

To complete my year successfully there are certain things I need to do

I need to increase my basic speed. With speed comes efficiency and improved speed will provide a foundation for a half decent attempt at a marathon as well as providing more of a cushion between my flat out speed and my ultra speed. The bigger the gap, hopefully the easier the ultra speed will feel.

I need to develop some speed endurance, otherwise my marathon will be slow, painful and disappointing.

I need to develop the ability to run easily for many hours at a time and practice that feeling which comes in an ultra where you feel really bad, but if you stick it out for another couple of hours you start to feel better again.

I need to be able to climb hills. MIWOK and West Highland Way are both hilly and TDS is extremely hilly.

There are different views on how you build your training. One school  of thought says build endurance and then add speed, another says build speed and once you have that, add endurance.  Which ever one you follow, it is pretty much agreed you should only focus on one of these at a time.

In an ideal world I would do a full marathon cycle, recover then a full ultra cycle for MIWOK, WHW and TDS. The timing and nature of these races mean some compromises need to be

My thinking is that while I want to have a decent attempt at London, but it can really only be treated as speedwork for the following ultras and so i will need to miss some marathon specific training and will probably only have a mini taper as opposed to a full taper.  London becomes the last long run before MIWOK.

MIWOK is a hilly 100k. With only two weeks between London and MIWOK, London recovery becomes MIWOK taper. At 100k, MIWOK is also an ok distance to prepare for West Highland Way. If I can be fit for MIWOK, then I really just need to recover, maintain fitness and do a bit of fine tuning before WHW 6 weeks later. After WHW it is recover for a few weeks and hit the mountains until TDS in August.

My training programme started at the beginning of December and runs through to the end of August. I have no Autumn races scheduled this year. I reckon that if I make it through my goal races then my body will have done more than enough for one year and a period of down time will give me a chance to recover.

My training year runs through a number of distinct phases:

  1. base fitness
  2. speed
  3. endurance
  4. race specificity

Within each phase are a series of workouts which get progressively harder, on a two hard one easy cycle.

In Calendar terms it looks like this

December – Base. Building consistency and regular running. getting enough fitness to allow proper training.

January – Focus on speed

February – Speed then Endurance

March – Endurance and Speed endurance

April – Speed endurance. Mini taper for London marathon

May – Race MIWOK. Recovery and Endurance

June – Endurance, Taper, West Highland Way

July – Recover and Hills

August – Hills, Taper and TDS

We are now in February. I have been doing lots of tempo and interval work to build up speed, and hopefully shift some weight.  I am getting faster, and am hitting most of my targets, though still  have some way to go. It is hard finding the energy and time for midweek workouts. My ultra endurance is frustrating, and I look on with mileage envy at those folks who can go out for a long run of 30+ miles and make it look effortless. However, long ultra miles are still to come so hopefully like the good weather they will come eventually.

This is my programme, it will hopefully work for me. I need to go through my own phases and not be distracted by what others are doing, even if that means missing out on some potentially fun runs and races. Whether it is successful or not we shall find out in August!

 

 

Discretion is the better part of valour

or knowing when to quit….

I went for a run on Saturday. I parked up at Loch Turret Dam and ran up the side of the Loch with the intention of running up Ben Chonzie.

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Ben Chonzie has a reputation as the most boring Munro in Scotland, however from this approach it is quite runable, and with some snow on the tops it would make for a good run which was also relatively safe in the conditions.

There is an undulating 4 mile run on a rough track to the start of the climb.  There were a number of small rivers and waterfalls which crossed the path, which in dry weather could either be avoided or crossed on stepping stones. With all the recent rain and the quick melting snow there was a good volume of water swelling the burns which meant there was no option but to get your feet wet.

I don’t mind wet feet and when you are moving they drain pretty quickly and stay warm.

The path peters out and then the main climb begins across open moorland. I had last climbed this hill more than 20 years ago and I had vague recollections of this section being boggy. With all the melting snow this turned into a half mile uphill trudge through deep bog and running water until I finally made it to the snow line.

Despite being a relatively mild day, there was a cutting wind blowing, and I became aware that my soaked feet were becoming increasingly cold and sore. A few more minutes climbing and the snow was knee deep and my feet were turning to blocks of ice.

Another ten minutes climbing and I would have made it on to the wide ridge which leads up to the summit and a nice run back over some tops to the starting point at the head of the loch.

Instead I took the decision to turn back.  There wasn’t any drama and I was in no immediate danger, but I just wasn’t comfortable with where I was and how I was feeling at that particular moment in time. My feet had turned into blocks of ice. The repeated soakings followed by plunging into snow had made them in my mind dangerously cold, and more importantly they were distracting me and impacting on my judgement and awareness. On another day I might just have ploughed on. I was after all, well equipped. I had my Kahtoolas and poles which was plenty for the conditions. I had a rucksack full of good gear (plus a foil blanket and a plastic emergency bag). If I was feeling energetic and robust I would probably have pushed on. However I was feeling far from energetic. It had been a hard week at work and a hard training week and my energy levels were low. With company, I might have pushed on, but I was solo.

I could claim that I weighed up all of those risks and with no reason to have to push to the top made the sensible decision. Maybe subconsciously I did. All I knew was I wasn’t comfortable, and if you are not comfortable in the mountains in winter then the best thing to do is get out of there.

Did I chicken out? did I fail in what I set out to do? Probably. It wasn’t the toughest of climbs or the toughest of conditions and by the time I was safely back on the track and running again my feet came back to life.

I made it back in one piece, no damage done and most importantly no-one had to come and find me. Pride slightly dented but equally happy that on that day I made the right decision for me.

There is a fine line between brave and stupid and on that day I didn’t have the energy to be brave so chose not to be stupid.

The Year of the Ultra Runner

2014 was a funny old year. In my head it wasn’t a very good running year, probably because I didn’t get any faster. No PBs for me, and that worries me that old age is catching up, the nagging fear of getting worse before I have managed to get better.

IMG_0457
Boylston Street – the holy grail of finishing lines

I had started the year coming back from a long lay off with a niggly achilles and with a desperate desire to make it back to Boston I trained very cautiously, managing mileage and intensity very carefully.  Because I wasn’t doing speed work I never lost any of my winter padding and never quite hit a decent racing weight all year.

Yet despite the perception of the year being little more than ok, there was still a lot of stuff done. It wasn’t a bad year, some of it was even done quite well, just not brilliantly.

So despite the ever shrinking goalposts narrowing with my body not quite living up to my aspirations, my racing year panned out like this

  • D33 – DNF my first ever
  • Boston marathon – a big deal for me to go back for my second Boston the year after the bombs
  • Big Sur marathon – surprisingly a couple of minutes faster than Boston 6 days before
    P1000368
    Boston 2 Big Sur. 2 marathons 6 days and 3000 miles apart
  • Cateran Trail 55 ultra –  my first ever running prize. First old git.
  • Great Glen Ultra – not a bad time for my first attempt at a long unsupported race
  • CCC – chewed me up and spat me back out, but I survived and finished feeling well.
  • Amsterdam marathon – 3:31 my fastest of the year but still a bit off where I want to be

All of those races were steady and unspectacular performances and I guess that was the big lesson of the year. For me to do well in ultra races I need to learn patience, humility and then some more patience! Slow down over the first half, and run with your head not your heart. Blood, guts and snotters might serve you well in a 10K or a half marathon, but in an Ultra it just makes the second half of your race a misery.

The other big lesson which was repeated throughout the year is that I will feel like crap at about 16 miles, then again at 26 and probably again at about 40. After that it seems to get easier. Just got to trust that if you keep moving forward your legs will come back and true to form I have finished every race strongly this year.

Great Glen Ultra fuelled by Scotch Pie and Macallan
Great Glen Ultra fuelled by Scotch Pie and Macallan

Despite having run a few ultras previously, I never ever considered myself to be an Ultra runner. I was your average plodding old man up for a challenge and getting by on pig headedness. I was envious of those lucky souls who could head out and seemingly effortlessly run for hours on end whereas I was always the one blowing out his backside. Yet somewhere between Great Glen and picking up the coveted Gilet in Chamonix, I reached the conclusion that maybe I was an ultra runner too.

Aside from racing, other lessons were to be learned over the course of the year. I was lucky enough to be a support runner for Amanda Hamilton in this year’s West Highland Way Race. Amanda had a brilliant performance and showed real mental toughness on that last section over the Lairig Mor in the dark. Being responsible for getting her there and having to think about every step in the process will undoubtedly help me the next time I have a bash at WHW for myself.

CCC finishers
CCC finishers – Ultra Runners All!

I even did something completely new –  I was the sweeper at both the Clyde Stride and Jedburgh ultras this year. Apart from being chuffed to be asked, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience on both occasions and being forced into not having any performance pressures was undoubtedly good for me and while I didnt quite learn to smell the roses, I did find that spending hours either in the company of, or searching for, the legend that is Ray McCurdy an interesting and enlightening experience. Rumour has it, I was even nice to the runners I was sweeping though of course I will deny that vehemently as slanderous. Throw in marshalling sessions at Glenmore 24, WHW, and Glen Ogle and I was involved in one way or other in most of the Scotish ultras this year.

So actually, when you write it all down, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all. I got to do some big bucket list races, managed to give something back to the community and spent way too much time in the brilliant company of the usual suspects.

I might even have become an ultra runner somewhere along the way!

Warming Up

I am a great fan of warming up. One of my great frustrations is watching runners who do Parkrun stand around with hands in pockets before setting off for a 5K run and then wonder why it feels hard and why they never quite perform as well as they would like.

Same applies to new runners. They really struggle to get through the first 10-15 minutes and think they can’t run. Too often they give up before they have even warmed up.

The answer is of course quite simple. It takes a while for your body to warm up and function efficiently and of course on a 5K run, by the time you are warmed up, not only are you are carrying a massive oxygen debt, with stiff screaming muscles and lungs, you are also at least halfway finished so don’t have much time to get the benefit of your now efficient body.

A wee run on the treadmill tonight with the HR monitor on illustrates this perfectly. I set off jogging really easily, yet my heart rate was more than 80% of maximum. It took 10 minutes before my HR dropped like a stone and I instantly felt much more comfortable. I then increased my speed and did so every 5 minutes. Each time I increased speed my HR went up a little, but even though I was working quite hard by the end of the run, my heart rate was still 20 beats per minute than it had been while jogging easily at the start.

The picture says it all

HR Graph
HR Graph

I need a man with slow hands

So sang the Pointer Sisters. This probably dates me to an alarming degree but it feels like recent history to me.

Unexpectedly my haircut didn’t cure my achilles problem after all so it was back to the physio again this morning. My usual torturer is on holiday so today I had a different pair of hands on me. It was interesting to feel the difference in technique, I guess everyone has a different touch.  I had to recount the whole sorry story and have him explain that maybe I had tried to do a wee bit too much too soon.

My Trampette
My Trampette

He also dispensed some home truths which hurt a wee bit more than the work he was doing on my achilles. Could be out for another 2-3 weeks? Hmmmm, not good news, especially with  a marathon in 6 weeks time. Rush back and you could be in for a whole heap of recurring problems. Yes, I know but….

On the plus side when I arrived home I discovered a large box courtesy of my lovely wife Helen who had bought me a small trampoline.

The trampoline serves two purposes, firstly jogging on it is really good rehab for my achilles and secondly it keeps me in the garage exercising in the evening instead of sitting grumpily at my computer.

My my my Delilah

First inkling that my achilles might be starting to feel better came this morning with a haircut. Not a racing haircut, but a running haircut. Its a significant phase in the rehab process. If I can survive a day or two with no adverse reaction to my haircut, I might be able to progress to gentle jogging.