Saturday, 24 October 2009

Results and Rewards

Last Sunday I ran the Amsterdam Marathon with my son John. He's a fit young man and can burn me off easily in a half marathon or anything shorter, but this was his first brush with the full distance and his aim, in his own words, was to "just get round in one piece". So we conservatively arranged ourselves in the 4 to 4,5 hours pen at the start in the Olympic Stadium under a cloudless sky. The morning was chill enough for us to keep on our raggedy old throwaway tops until the last minute, then we were off, half a lap of the track and out into the streets, a 10k loop to warm up past the Rijksmuseum and through the Vondelspark, then out into the second major loop to complete the 42k.

It's a fine course, hardly any of the soulless residential areas and industrial estates that make up the miles in many big-city marathons; the low October sun was in our eyes as we turned southwards along the River Amstel but the day was warming up into perfect running conditions. We allowed the crowds to keep our speed down, just overtaking when it was easy, chatting to each other and to others occasionally, half a mile or so with a girl from Rochdale "long way to come to run with your neighbours!" (John lives in Manchester), and cruised easily through halfway in 1-55.  Same strategy through to the end, walking a bit to eat and drink something every 10k, you need to enjoy your first marathon although it will always be tough, 26 miles on the road is still a long way. Back to the stadium, round the track to the finishing arch, John clenching fists and raising arms as we crossed the line in 3 hours 51 minutes, done it! In no time we were back with our ladies for hugs, hot coffee, the warm glow of elation that comes at these times and a lazy lunch.

Two years ago on similar clear, crisp day in November I ran the New York marathon with my daughter Julia, on that occasion her first experience too of the distance. She found it hard at times but was helped round by a big enough supply of jelly babies and the matchless support and enthusiasm of the folk of the five boroughs (if you only ever run one marathon in your life, this has to be it). Just after the finish one of the medical checkers (who look into your eyes to see if there is still a soul connected to them) saw her and announced to everyone in earshot "Look at that smile, that's how the rest of you guys should be looking!"

I'm quite proud of my marathon PB, achieved earlier this year at an age when I should probably be doing something more sensible in my spare time. But the run in which I got it has already faded almost completely from my mind, while the details of those two golden autumn mornings in Amsterdam and New York will stay with me for many years to come.  Because although the results and medals are nice enough momentos, the real rewards that we get from what we do are the experiences that we share with our friends, our families, and the people that we meet along the way, that carry us into the future.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ultras and Ultras

I recently read John K's account of his experience in the Hardmoors 110 mile ultra (link at the side of the page if you haven't seen it - it's a good read). Now compared with me John's a class act, you don't get a couple of sub-20-hour West Highland Ways unless you can cut it and he trains and plans his events very thoroughly.In the Hardmoors however he had a real struggle, missing his expectations by quite a way (although with considerable resolve he made it to the finish!).  His conclusion, that he shouldn't have attempted two "hundred mile" races in a year, set me thinking - for the past two years I have run the WHW in reasonable style then failed a couple of months later in the UTMB.  Yet some runners complete several such races in a year, not just "getting round" but turning in good performances each time, so what are they doing right? If you're interested in some theories stick with me, at least you can argue at the end!
I think there are two key factors at work here, how hard is the race and how do you approach it.

For sure not all races are equal, but what makes one "harder" than another? Some interesting stuff on the WHW forum on this but not crystallised into whole arguments yet. For me there are three elements that determine how much challenge you face in a given event:
1. The length. No need to say much here, this has to be the single most important element - we all know that 50 miles is further than a marathon, but with a bit of application you'll get by. 100 miles is much, much further. The CCC is pretty tough for 50-odd miles, but does it compare with setting out from Milngavie with 95 ahead of you?  It certainly didn't for me.
2. The height gain. The cumulative gain is important, but so is the way that it hits you. Long slow hills that you can run or walk quickly have much less impact than the in-your-face one-or-two-miles-an-hour jobs that just wear you down. On paper the UTMB has only(!) twice the height gain of the WHW but ask anyone who has done both if that's what it feels like.
3. The ground underfoot. The advantage of running or walking (even uphill) on a good surface is that you can get a rythm going which is both faster and less tiring than if you have to select each individual footfall separately. Here neither WHW nor UTMB can compare remotely with the sort of technical ground faced on (eg) the Bob Graham or Paddy Buckley rounds.
There is other stuff of course like altitude, start time, how much is in the dark, how much navigation you have to do, how much kit you choose or are obliged to carry and so on, but I think the three I've pulled out are the most important. So (for some examples) the WHW is a long race with moderate climbing and good ground, the Lakeland 100 is a long race with tough climbing and technical ground, and the UTMB is a long race with massive climbing and good ground. I don't know the Hardmoors, but my impression from the reports is that the climbing is tough and the extra miles are telling.

But where does all this get us? The bottom line of course is that the "harder" any or all of these three factors gets, the longer the race will take any individual runner - ie "hardness" ultimately equates to time on your feet.  If you compare performances in the WHW and the UTMB, most runners who have completed both take between 50% and 90% longer to complete the UTMB, so a competitor with a 24 hour WHW is likely to take somewhere between 36 and 46 hours on the UTMB. What is interesting is that the slower runners in the WHW tend to suffer a less dramatic slowdown - runners taking up to 30 hours or more on the WHW often get inside the 46 hour UTMB cut-off (around WHW time plus 50%) whereas the faster guys rarely get better than their WHW time plus 75%. There are exceptions of course but this is the trend.  Although there is less available data, you can see similar trends when comparing the WHW with both the Hardmoors and the Lakeland 100 (all of this data is available on the event websites if you want more detail to play with). Part of the reason is that the WHW is a very "runnable" course favouring faster runners whereas the others have a more levelling effect on the field, but I suspect that how competitors approach their events has some effect also.

After we have done a few, I suspect most of us approach a 50 mile race without too much concern. You start after breakfast and you know you're going to be done by sometime in the afternoon. If it hurts a bit you keep going and you're soon counting down, manageable numbers that you can always deal with - you can always do that last 15, 20 miles. It's not exactly "go out hard and hang on" but subconsciously once you're halfway you know that a bit of willpower will get you there. And to a certain extent I think you can carry that attitude into a race like the WHW, depending on what time you think you will finish in. If you're shooting for 24 hours or less, the first night is over in a couple of hours after the start and you know you're going to be in bed for most of the next one. 12 hours will see you well over half way and you just need to keep it togther to the finish. Don't get me wrong, I think the WHW is a brilliant event and I'll keep turning up at Milngavie every year for as long as they let me in, but in terms of hundred mile ultras it's just not one of the toughest.

When you take on something bigger and are going to be out for 30 hours or more, things are different. Going into the second night knowing that you'll probably still be going the next morning with all that entails in terms of sleep deprivation and gradually depleting resources; realising that halfway is now just another  landmark, you're not going to "hang on" for 15 hours or more; understanding that overall speed is now likely to reflect your logistics and organisation rather than how fast you put one foot in front of the other on the trail. I think it is the TIME that is the key for me - if you think your proposed event is going to take 24-26 hours or less you can probably wing it and keep going, but if there's a doubt that it could be 28-30 or more, ie really into the "second night", and you need a strategy that allows for it right from the start.

The strong will survive, just as John did in the Hardmoors, but it will be a tougher experience than they expected.  For the rest of us, I think we just have to plan for the long haul. I don't think this necesarily means going as slowly as possible and just beating the cutoffs, but still being far more conservative in the first part of the race, and not get drawn away from the plan by other people or the surroundings. But I think above all it needs practice, so that it isn't a once a year experiment. I think I need to get into that "second night out" zone more often, so I know what works and what doesn't.  So I'll take a different approach from John, and enter MORE hundred mile races next year!