Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 and all that

We're at the time when seasoned bloggers do their review of the year, and although I'm still a beginner having only started in July I didn't feel that I could escape the deal. I wondered if it wasn't really my thing because the year is already fading from my near consciousness and I'm thinking more about what is to come than what has been, but I found deliberately looking back triggered a lot of memories and overall it's been a more enjoyable task than I was expecting.

First, the blog. I've no idea how many people read these ramblings but I've enjoyed writing it and I'm sure it's been good for me to try to crystallise my random thoughts from time to time, and it gives me something to look back on if nothing else. I'll carry on for another year at least, to get in a full calendar season and try to get some overall perspective. Same pattern as this year, not many blow-by-blow accounts of training sessions, just events or days out that I've found good experiences and occasional other stuff that interests me.

Next, the people. I have already met a lot of amazing characters since taking up this rather questionable sport three years ago, but this year has been especially rich in new acquaintances and getting to know people I only half knew, or those I had only met in the ether. But of course we lost Dario; I neither knew him as well nor could I write of him as eloquently as his close friends have, but he always talked warmly and at length with me and my family whenever we saw him, and he was instrumental in getting me into this game in the first place for which I will always be grateful. I'll think of him whenever I set foot on the West Highland Way.

Now I suppose the running. I set my sights on 9 races this year ranging from half marathon distance to a hundred miles plus, starting in March with the Wuthering Hike and finishing in December at the Rotherham Round, but the latter was moved to a date in October I couldn't make so I ended up running just 8. I chose them not for any rational athletic reasons but because I thought, or in some cases already knew, that they would be good days out. The year started well in Haworth where I knocked just over 4 minutes off my best time for the Wuthering Hike - not a lot in a hilly 32 miles but good enough to let the senior citzen know that he hasn't become completely decrepit since last year. The next two races were in pure performance terms the best of the year for me. I started the Rotterdam Marathon with the intention of just enjoying the day; in perfect running conditions I looked at my watch just twice, once at half way and once at 10k to go, finishing in a "where did that come from?" time of 3 hours 17 minutes, faster than my previous best by over 7 minutes. I have to be honest at my age I don't expect to beat or even come near this ever again. In the Highland Fling in April I set myself a challenging (for me) target of 10 hours 36 minutes (ie 5 miles an hour average) and came home in 10-23. My warm glow at the finish was only slightly tempered by not winning the over 60's class in spite of beating the previous record by over three quarters of an hour  -  reality is always there to put you back in your place when you get too full of yourself! Again, I don't expect to beat this time in the future.

The West Highland Way came next, and although 24-44 beat my previous best by nearly two hours I was still a bit disappointed not to get in just under the 24. I think I can still improve here though, I'm convinced that in the longer races a bit of experience (or is it just low cunning) can pay off. The Devil o'the Highlands was great for me for three reasons; it's a wonderful fast course (the WHW without the messy bits), it was good to join the "triple crown" band (runners who have completed the Fling, Devil, and WHW in the same year), and my time of 7-39 felt very comfortable as I was running conservatively in view of the upcoming UTMB. I think I could knock a chunk off this, but the need to find a support crew and to commit to the race so early the previous year because of its popularity probably means I won't run it again for a while. As in previous years my next race the UTMB was a real disappointment, the big one got away again when I dropped out about two thirds of the way round. It remains the only ultra where I have recorded a "Did Not Finish" (three times!) but I'll be back again in 2010 if I can get a place in the ballot.

My final two races were family affairs. We always go to the Great North Run in Newcastle, and after a summer of running slowly up and down hills my time of nearly 1-37 was certainly not sparkling (barely a minute faster than my second half split in the Rotterdam Marathon earlier in the year) but it was fun. So was running the Amsterdam Marathon a month later where I finished in 3-51. The move of the Rotherham Round was really a shame for me, this 50 mile feast of mud, rain and darkness in December had been a highlight of the two previous years, so after Amsterdam in mid October the events were done, and I spent the rest of the year just ticking over and scoping some potential events for next year.

I've just read John K's blog on his own review of the year and while I'm nowhere near as organised I found some of the statistics fascinating, so I've trawled through my diary to find a few of my own. In the year I ran a total of 2207 miles, probably more than I need to and I'll aim for no more than 2000 next year, but it's how they are built up that's interesting. John ran 2326 miles, but only ran over 20 miles on 15 occasions including races, whereas I ran over 20 miles 28 times, including 11 times over 30 miles. Now JK's a far and away better runner than me, but his figures seem to show that you can produce some pretty good ultra performances without doing too many long runs. On the flip side, I like long days out in the hills, they seem more like fun than training, and I have the time to indulge myself, so come the longer daylight I expect I'll be out there doing just the same next year!

But these are just figures. The events are rewarding experiences and they give us focus, but there was much, much more to 2009 than that. I have a hundred memories that I will treasure; of surprising the same pair of walkers three times on Snowdon on the same day, of the fiery furnace that was the Nantlle Ridge in early summer (yes, Wales!), of clattering down Steel Fell at a speed I thought was now beyond me with a companion who I had met a few short hours earlier, of the hundreds of people who gathered to wish Dario farewell, of the Anglesey coast path on a calm clear early morning, of meeting the dawn on the Col de la Seigne, of discovering parts of the Lake District I never knew existed, of my son's elation as we crossed the finishing line together in Amsterdam, and of running on the near-deserted roads two evenings before Christmas, snowflakes falling gently through the glow of the streetlights, my feet silently making the only marks on the shallow fresh carpet beneath, content.

Yes, a good enough year. But of course, next year will be better.....

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Running's OK

I went for a run yesterday morning; 5 miles, flat, no great scenery, a gloomy day with gentle drizzle, nine and a half minutes a mile. It was great.

They say that Ron Hill has run every day for 50 years or so; I don't know how he does it. I had been getting out regularly but the niggles that come with years and miles were getting at me. Nothing show-stopping, just an ache here, a pain there, a bit of stiffness, the first trip downstairs in the morning getting harder. Come on, you're just being a wimp, get on with it. Then three Sundays ago I was out for 20 miles on one of my local trails on a day of continuous rain following several days of continuous rain, you remember how it was then for most of the country. I finished with mud up to the knees, every square centimeter of clothing soaked, hurting all over. I had to sit and shiver in the car for ten minutes to warm up before driving the the five miles home. I oozed out and into a hot bath for a soak and a think. I can't do this, I need a rest.

I decided to have two weeks off, something I haven't done for over two years. The relief at not having to go out again in the rain was wonderful. But it's amazing how the memory fades, after a week I was itching to get running. No, I told myself, two weeks was the deal, stick to it. It wasn't too difficult in the second week, I had to have a tooth out, a couple of days later the first Christmas Lunch of the season with a bunch of old work colleagues, plenty of wine and banter, none of this condusive to running. Then yesterday I had to have the car serviced, 120,000 miles in just four years, where does it all go? So I drove down to the garage and ran back, a mile and a half on suburban roads, three and a half on canal towpath, not a route I would normally choose.

It was fine. Enthusiasm has returned. But rather gently back to more miles I think, I'll go with Keith the Aussie's words - "I'd rather turn up under-trained than over-injured." 

Monday, 7 December 2009

Getting to go

No action in this post I'm afraid, just a bit of reflection -  so you've been warned if you stick with it!

This week I got confirmation that I have a place in two of the events I was hoping to participate in next year, the West Highland Way race and the LDWA "Heart of Scotland" hundred. Although I had sort of assumed that my entry for both of these would be OK (the statistics are definitely in the entrant's favour, so the hotels for the WHW were booked in September!), it still comes as something of  a relief that the plans are going to work. It set me thinking about just how the maximum number of entrants in any event is arrived at and then how any potential oversubscription is managed. I'm certainly not about to complain that this or that event organiser does it wrong, I am more than grateful that they spend so much of their time setting up challenging and enjoyable adventures for us, but it is a subject that has caused some heated debate over the last year or two and I think it's interesting to reflect on how and why we have got to where we are now. I still have some uncertainty for next year because I decided in August that I wanted another go at the UTMB (of course!) but I won't find out whether I have a place until late January - should I feel dissatisfied with this situation or is it inevitable?

When I started running ultras three years ago there was no problem. I entered the West Highland Way about six weeks after entries opened and was I think about number twenty on the accepted entries list; it didn't fill up until after Christmas. Even for the UTMB it took a month or so before the number of available places was filled. However there seems to have been an explosion of interest in ultra running over the last couple of years or so; nowadays for popular events you have to add a third journey to the two that the wise old heads told me were involved in long races (getting to the start line in good enough shape, then doing the event)  -  getting yourself on the start list.

So what governs how many runners an event will comfortably stand?

I think the first consideration is the physical constriction of the actual trail you run; predominantly the width but also pinchpoints such as stiles, gates and so on. There is no doubt that the superb organisation of the UTMB could support a lot more participants  -  after all they manage to run three other major events in the same place at the same time  -  but with the present numbers the trail is simply full. This year I started somewhere near the back because I didn't want to stand out in the sun for an hour or so, and it was over ten minutes after the start before I could progress at anything above a slow walking pace, more like the start of a big city marathon than a trail race. Overtaking is hard work for the first few hours because you have to move off the trail to get around people.

But most events don't attract antwhere near the 2000+ starters of the UTMB, so how are they limited? There is a distinct difference here between events where you don't need a support crew (ie the checkpoint marshalls provide water and maybe food, and there could be a "drop bag" facility, but apart from that you are basically on your own from start to finish) and those where you do. Many of the "unsupported" events in the UK, particularly those that run through (relatively!) benign territory seem to get by without restricting numbers, for example the Wuthering Hike in Yorkshire and the Rotherham Round draw two or three hundred competitors which the trails will absorb easily enough, so they seem happy to accept entries up to the day of the race. Longer unsupported events such as the Lakeland 100 would probably hit a limit if and when the numbers started to cause problems to either the overall organisation or the local residents, but they don't seem to be anywhere near that yet.

Supported events are a different deal. Each runner has to have a support crew, and the support crew has to have a car. This takes a bit of work off the shoulders of the organisers, as they don't have to provide food and drink at regular intervals, but the consequence is a lot of cars fighting for space on often narrow roads and restricted parking spaces. Inevitably the numbers that can be allowed in the race will be a lot fewer. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against this style of race, it's just that it's different. Good for the competitor, who can have exactly the food and drink that suits them and don/shed clothing at each checkpoint rather than carrying everything you might need from start to finish. Races like this are great to run in because you carry a minimum of stuff, you get personal encouragement all the way, and they produce oustanding times. In a race like the West Highland Way which sees a high proportion of runners coming back year after year you get the added advantage that the support crews get to know each other too, which contributes to making it the special event that it is. But not so many people will get to run.

I could argue that specifying (or allowing) support crews in shorter events (say around 50 miles or less) may restrict numbers unnecessarily in races which can be run quite easily using drop bags or basic food/water at checkpoints, as they are normally completed within one phase of daylight. The counter argument is that these are the very races in which runners may be "trying out" ultra running and so feel happier with some support in their early attempts.

Whatever, if these are the limiting factors on numbers, how do you choose who gets a place? It used to be "first come first served" but when interested numbers greatly exceed places this may not be fair. The first time I entered the UTMB I had never run an ultra of any sort, but was accepted because I got my entry in relatively early and there was no entry qualification; I probably had an almost zero chance of finishing (I didn't of course) and may well have denied a place to someone much better qualified.  A couple of years ago this event reached the stage where whether you got in or not was probably dependant on how fast your broadband connection was. But we've moved on, and most oversubscribed races nowadays seem to have settled for a modified form of the entry system used in the popular American ultras; a fixed "window" for sending in your entry, from a couple of weeks to a few months, followed by a ballot if demand exceeds supply.  A qualification may be required, mostly as a demonstration that you are potentially capable of a finish, and the ballot may be weighted or bypassed to give preference to (eg) newcomers, foreign competitors, or long time supporters of the event.

So overall I think the principle is difficult for anyone to complain about, and if you don't like the details of how it is applied to a particular event, you always have the option of going somewhere else - there are plenty of races to choose from now!

This last thought is also interesting. Am I imagining it, or does it seem to be getting slightly easier to get your place lately? A lot of new events seem to have sprung up to spread the demand caused by the increase in ultra runner numbers. This is clearly the policy of the Chamonix guys, providing four events now where there was originally one so more people can join the party overall. Are we about to get into a period where entry levels in the traditionally popular races start to drop, as runners turn to events where they can get guaranteed places?

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year or two.