Monday, 22 February 2010

Adventures or Epics?

This is going to be one of my periodic bouts of philosophy and I think it might go on for a while, so if you're not up for it then this is the moment to change channel. I'm going to tackle a couple of subjects that more experienced people in the ultra-running world will know far more about than me,  so I'll stress at the start that these are just my personal observations as an unspectacular middle-to-back-of-pack runner who nevertheless loves this rather crazy game we play.

A discussion developed on the WHW Race forum about the ups and downs of supported and unsupported races, and the volume and diversity of the contributions set me thinking about the whole thing. To start with and just to be clear, a "supported" event is where each runner has a back-up crew to meet him from time to time, provide food and drink, clean clothes and encouragement as and when required, run with him in the later stages if necessary, and go out and find him if he fails to show up at a checkpoint. An "unsupported" event is where no back-up crew is used, the runner carries everything he thinks he will need from the start, but food and drink may be available at aid stations provided by the organisers at regular points along the route and/or the runner sends his own pre-prepared "drop bags" to these points. The drop bags are sometimes retrieved (ie the runner gets the bag returned to him at the end of the race, allowing him to discard used clothing and equipment in it), or they may be just one-way bags containing food and drink and once the runner has used them they are thrown away by the organisers. Some folk have proposed that "crew-supported" and "organisation-supported" are more precise terms for the two types of event, but I'm happy with the original terms.

 Now it seems to me the debate surrounding these different genres can be distilled into two main themes, namely what impact does the choice of style have on the runner from (a) the overall quality of experience, and (b) the safety viewpoint. 

 The overall quality of experience is completely subjective; what will appeal to one runner may be a total turn-off for another. I have enjoyed enormously the supported events that I have run; there is a feeling of being part of a team, you have to carry far less stuff with you, and I have no doubt that the individual encouragement and support pushes you to better times than you would achieve unsupported. Back-up crews get to know each other as the race unfolds and this adds to the overall feeling among everyone of having been part of something special. But there are two main downsides. First, the runner has to find a back-up crew to give up some of their precious free time to indulge his passion. I've been very fortunate in three (hopefully soon to be four) trips along the West Highland Way in persuading my grown-up children that another sleep-deprived, midge-infested and probably wet weekend in the Scottish Highlands will be fun, but my luck won't last forever. The main reason that I have only entered the excellent Devil o'the Highlands run once is that I don't think I can justify asking a crew to cover two events in the same year. I know many people rely on long-standing friendships but for others it's tough to get a crew the first time, especially when they don't know what they're letting themselves in for. The second downside is that back-up crews need motorised transport, ultras tend to cover ground serviced by few roads and fewer parking spaces, so having a crew means fewer competitors can be allowed into the event than if it were unsupported.

 On the unsupported side, I know many runners feel the challenge is greater without a crew to cater for their every whim, fairer for everyone, not the F1 type experience where a good pit team can seriously advance the competitor's chances. I've enjoyed these races too; I don't find them better or worse experiences, just different, and when you send off your entry you know what you're getting into either way. I would personally be wary of trying to persuade any race organiser to change his style unless he already wants to. As this post was prompted by the West Highland Way (a supported race) discussion, I would just add the particular observations that moving it to an unsupported or partially supported event to increase numbers would not necessarily (a) improve its popularity and status as an event (many events are a bit of a lottery to get into - the UTMB and more dramatically the Western States for example, but the potential suitors know the score and accept it), nor (b) secure an increase in the number of finishers  -  the WHWR has an impressively high finisher percentage compared with other "100 mile" events, probably because it is supported.

Anyway, that's all about the quality of experience and as I said at the start it's totally subjective  -  if you don't like the conditions the organisers set, then don't enter the race! The safety aspect is more interesting and potentially more serious; I have seen some discussion on whether an unsupported race gives rise to more or fewer safety issues than a supported one. I think it's not just a question of comparing these two styles, it's much more complex than that  -  stick with me for a bit longer and I'll try to justify that statement.

First let's look at some of the underlying facts:
1. Ultra races often cover wild and mountainous terrain, which by its nature attracts frequently bad and rapidly changing weather.
2. In the longer races some runners will face a lot of this territory in the dark.
3. When runners have been in continuous action for 24 hours or so their physical and mental reserves can start to get pretty low (for example, night-time hallucinations are commonplace - I thought this was just a story until I experienced them)
4. Compared with other users of this type of terrain, runners are wearing/carrying very little.
5. There has been a huge increase in the popularity of ultra-running in the last 3 or 4 years, so the ratio of newcomers to seasoned campaigners is fairly high.

 Before going into more detail on the actual risks and how they are managed (not avoided), let's just consider two other questions:

 1. Is ultra-running considered a high-risk sport by its participants? For many years I have indulged in two pastimes, mountaineering and off-piste skiing, where there is an acceptance that serious errors in judgement or technique can cost you your life  -  there are many others of course, motor racing, cave diving, many aerial sports, etc, etc, the list is long  - but the common point is that participants are aware that what they are doing is potentially dangerous and it is up to them to gain sufficient experience to practice their passion with an acceptable level of safety (though by its nature this is something of a Catch 22 process which has to be mitigated by a degree of prudence if you want to survive). Does the average ultra-runner set out with this at the back of his mind?

2. Is the general public (inadequate term I know but I can't think of a better one), probably influenced by the media, ready to accept that serious accidents in ultra running might happen? Think back a bit, a climber dies in the Alps, a motor cyclist in the Isle of Man, a short item halfway down the news, sad but these things happen. The Mountain Marathon experiences rain and flooding in the Lake District and there is a fairly prolonged outcry.

 I was once out running in the hills a year or two ago, people knew roughly but not exactly where I was, on a cold, damp, misty day, when I started out fine but then began to feel a bit cold, then gradually a bit colder. Stop for a Mars bar, carry on, the cold gets colder. Nasty wind, keep going, don't want a drink, I only have cold water. I know I've a dry layer and a waterproof in my backpack, but can't be bothered to stop now, too cold to stop, can't really feel my hands and feet now, just carry on, very cold. I made it back to the car and sat shivering inside with the heater full on for nearly half an hour before I could drive off. I'd only been out 4 or 5 hours, classic case, first onset of hypothermia affecting decision making. On a full-on climbing trip I'd have recognised the symptoms, but I was only out for a half day's run. It won't happen again but you only need to be unlucky once.

My conclusions from all of this are as follows:

1.Ultra running can occasionally create life threatening situations. If you cannot maintain your body heat by movement with all the clothes you have with you (you twist an ankle, you get too tired to move fast enough, a headtorch fails, or it simply gets colder than you were prepared for), then you're in real trouble without help. Although it may buy you a little time, your bivvy bag won't save your life indefinitely. Your chances are greatly increased if someone is either with you when it happens or comes across you very shortly afterwards.
2. Public opinion will probably not accept potential fatalities in the course of organised ultra events, no matter how infrequently.
3. Although most event entry conditions call for the signing of some form of disclaimer on the part of the competitor ("If I get into trouble it's entirely my own responsibility" or some such), this has virtually no impact at all on the likelihood of an accident occurring, and once it has occurred the organisation will inevitably come under scrutiny.
4. Event organisers have only three main mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the event is as safe as possible:
(i)  To ensure that the competitors are competent and capable of the event
(ii) To encourage and constrain them to make sensible decisions on the day.
(iii) To have at hand a plan for awareness and evacuation if an accident or incident occurs.
and if they back off on one of these, they have to increase efforts on the others.

In thinking this through so far, I'm happy that in all the events that I have participated in to date, the organisers have done a pretty good job. There may be some dodgy events out there but I haven't come across one yet, although I do think it is in every comnpetitor's own interest to think about these things before they turn up at any particular start line. I am also clear that whether it is supported or unsupported, every race is different and needs its own specific hazard analysis and risk management plan. I think it is simplistic and possibly dangerous to say "this works for race X, so why not use it for race Y?"  -  that's the whole point, race Y is never exactly the same as race X. It's the details that make the system work, not the system itself. I'll finish off by giving some examples of what I mean.

The UTMB is an unsupported race. Although there is a qualification process, and you have to have done at least one long ultra to get in, it's clear that many entrants are not up to the course (I certainly wasn't, on more than one occasion!). The organisers accept this as a 40-45% drop out rate seems normal year on year. However the course is very easy to follow (a clear trail and fluorescent markers every 100 yards or so) and the sheer number of participants (2300) means that you are almost never out of sight of another runner. The road-accessible checkpoints are never far apart and supplemented by mountain huts in between. The whole show is manned by organisers whose day jobs are working in the mountains, supported by 1000+ volunteers. That sort of organisation gives you some cushion against most eventualities.

The Lakeland 100 is an unsupported race. Although the entry form insists on previous ultra experience, competence control is reinforced by strong warnings on entry and at regular intervals  -  the latest newsletter to competitors includes the following      ".....................If you are not an experienced and competent navigator you are likely to fail...............If you have not completed several ultra events already you are likely to fail...............If any of the above apply to you, you could put your life in danger............."  . The road-accessible checkpoints are never far apart, and are mostly based in permanent buildings. The toughest sections of the course, which also have the trickiest night-time navigation, are in the first 30 miles when runners will be fresher and closer together. The final 50 miles are accompanied simultaneously by the Lakeland 50 event which significantly increases the number of runners on the trail.
The West Highland Way is a supported event. Entry is individually controlled, each competitor's track record is checked, he may be interviewed and asked to complete a specific qualifying race before entry is confirmed. This helps to achieve a drop out rate of no more than 10% in most years. The checkpoints are a long way apart (7 checkpoints on the WHW, compared with 15 on the Lakeland 100 and 27 on the UTMB over (roughly) the same distance), but get closer together over the final 25 miles. The first night section is immediately after the start when runners are fresh and close together. If runners need to run through the second night, they are not allowed to leave a checkpoint unaccompanied if it is dark, or likely to get dark before the next checkpoint is reached. Back-up crews are charged with making sure their runner is in a fit state to carry on at any point, and to accompany him when necessary.

Clearly these observations do not cover the whole safety plan for each of these races, but they do illustrate how different courses are managed in different ways, and they certainly give me confidence that these guys have thought their races through pretty well.

I have concentrated only on the longer ultras in this safety part of the post. This is not accidental, anyone who has done both knows that a 100 mile race is not twice as hard as a 50 mile race, it's much, much harder than that, with some competitors effectively "running on empty" later in the event which increases the risk of misjudgements. I don't think you can use 50 mile races, with competitors fresher, closer together, and mostly in daylight, as a model for how to manange safety in the longer ones; it's a different game.

In the 2008 West Highland Way I left Kinlochleven with 14 miles to go to the finish at Fort William through the high and deserted Lairig Mor. I had already been on the go for about 21 hours, I was tired and having difficulty eating anything worthwhile. It was just getting dark. There was a strong wind, and it rained steadily and continuously to the finish. I was accompanied by my son, a strong and fit 28 year old, but we had our hoods tight closed against the weather and barely exchanged a word until nearly at Fort William. Use of a phone, even assuming a signal, would have been problematic. Apart from checking in with the marshal at Lundavra, huddled in his car, for the whole 14 miles of paddling through streams and puddles we saw only one other light in the far distance, maybe a couple of miles ahead, otherwise we were completely alone. I was about halfway down the field, at this point strung out over 12 hours or so. On that night, under those conditions, would I have set out alone with just a drop bag at Lundavra? Call me a wimp, but no thanks.

Well there it is. Too long I'm afraid, if you've made it to the end with me, and just my views as I said at the start. I think I'll stay alive during my ultra career, and I sincerely hope everyone else does. Back to running next time, I promise.

WHW Finish 2008, around 3.30am


Monday, 8 February 2010

Trotting down the Thames

I'd had the cold for a few days, the sore throat was almost gone, by Saturday morning I was just left with a thick head and a runny nose, and on the principle that symptoms above the neck can't harm you I decided to go. So at 5am Jan and I scrape the ice from the car, throw the bags in the back and drive down the foggy motorways to Oxford, finding the Prince of Wales pub at Iffley, the start of the "Thames Trot" race at just after eight o'clock. Inside the pub it's a melee of  lycra clad runners, cosily dressed supporters, coffee, bacon butties, and general friendly noise. The scheduled eight thirty start will be a bit delayed we're told, a few runners still to be ferried in from the station, but only by ten minutes. A few minutes to relax, get some coffee, leave Jan to have breakfast, she's driving on down to daughter Julia's in Reading and they'll meet me at the finish we hope, then we get the word and it's out into the cold of the car park for the briefing. "Not much to say guys, it's a bit muddy, you'll probably get wet up to the ankles but there's no flooding, have a good run", then the hooter sounds and a hundred and forty of us shuffle off down the lane to Iffley Lock and the river.

The Thames Path is a waymarked long distance trail, following (mostly) the banks of the river for 180 miles from Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, and the race covers the 50 mile section from Oxford to Henley. This is its second year, last year the course was snow covered but today we have standard BBC "grey cloud" as the mist at the river edge blends seamlessly into the sky with temperatures just about positive. I don't want to aggravate my cold so I decide to take it very gently at first and settle down in the second half of the field with a group doing about 10 minute miles. I've never run a flat ultra before, so I've decided to walk for 5 minutes in every 45 to use some different muscles; as it turns out the course isn't completely flat, and the ground underfoot and natural obstacles mean that progress is nowhere near as uniform as on a solid surface so the tactic is probably not necessary, however I find that I enjoy the breaks so I might do it again. The first twenty miles are muddy paths through fields by the river. I somehow didn't expect so much mud. I would be better in trail shoes but that isn't what I've brought so no use worrying about it now. This isn't quite Rotherham calibre mud but it does stick, and the build up makes everyone's shoes progressively heavier. At Rotherham I always carry a blunt dinner knife to deal with it, but today I have to look for occasional "de-clodding" aids in the shape of gates, fences or tree roots - and being well down the field most of the good ones have been used already!

But I'm making steady progress, two checkpoints pass, we go through occasional villages with opportunities to get lost, I chat with various people as I catch up with them as you do in these events. I meet a guy who's entered the Lakeland 100, I say I'll see him there.  Time passes and  I see fewer runners as the field starts to spread out. After twenty miles or so the trail seems to leave the river but I can see a runner ahead in the distance and I follow. A mile or so later I catch up, it's a young lady now slowing up to check where she is; we look at the map and decide the turning back to river must be just a few  dozen yards further on and so it is. She recognises my West Highland Way buff and it turns out she's Carrie who has entered the WHW for the first time this year, come down from Scotland to do this race. I don't know what she makes of this geriatric with the streaming eyes and snotty nose, but we carry on together for a while. Then I have one of those patches when everything seems to go right, we've just passed half way, we hit some firm grassy fields with no mud, and I feel great; I can go faster so I say to Carrie I'll see her when she catches me up later and press on ahead. I feel so good that I pay insufficient attention to the route, an apparent fence barrier forces me rightwards, I follow a long track and end up on a road with no Thames Path signs, I follow my nose left along the road but still no signs so I stop to admit I must be wrong - and as three other runners including Carrie have followed me they soon catch up. We get out the map and find we can rejoin the route just about at the 27 mile checkpoint - my little detour will have added about a half a mile on to our day's activity. 

When we run into the checkpoint I have two surprises; first, Jan and Julia have turned up there to give me some encouragement, and second they don't seem at all concerned by the direction we have come in from - we've seen runners come into here from at least three directions, they say - the marshal is unperturbed, he seems to think it's pretty normal. I pick some sausage rolls and fruitcake - the food on this event is rather good, and tell the ladies I'll see them at the finish, assuming that you can find it, adds the marshal as I jog off. 

This is at Goring, and from here the trail starts to get much more interesting. First there are hills that crowd the river, forcing the trail to gain height and go over some undulations, maybe a hundred feet or so but a welcome change from the flatlands, then a final up and a lovely long downhill into Pangbourne, over the bridge and back to the river bank, now through meadows with Saturday afternoon walkers as the sun finally starts to shine. Long views ahead now, and my slow start is paying off, I start to pass people, but each one takes a while, I see them ahead way in the distance, they get oh so slowly closer until I can catch and eventually pass them. Another checkpoint comes up, 36 miles, the distance being reeled in. Apart from a raw throat from having breathed in so much cold air I still feel good, I'm prepared to get tired now so I push on a bit harder. I'm still walking every 45 minutes but getting back to near 10 minute miles in between. All through the Reading area it's a good surfaced track; I thought this would be hard on the feet at this stage but it's welcome after all the mud early on though it's a weird place to be running an ultra, mud spattered runners passing the smartly dressed dog walkers in an urban park. Then the city disappears and the final checkpoint comes up at Sonning, just 6 miles to go.

I remember the banana milkshake I've been carrying for over 40 miles and it goes down a treat, a quick phone call to the ladies to say I'm on the last lap, and on we go. I catch another runner, the only one I can see, we chat a bit, decide we'll probably both make it to the end faster together than either of us will alone, and for the first time start to think about the time. Nine hours looks comfortable now I say, eight and a half might just be on says my companion, and in the way it happens when you run together and with a purpose, gradually the speed inches up. A few more muddy bits lest we forget what went before, a couple of country lanes, some fields, it's hurting now but it doesn't matter this late in the day, two long boardwalk bridges and we're on to the final hard towpath with the buildings of Henley in view. We wonder where the finish is, can see the church a few hundred yards away, can't be any further than that, then suddenly there it is, the white flags barely a hundred yards away across the park on our left. I glance at my watch, 8 hours 27, it's going to be OK, could crawl home in 3 minutes from here. 8-28-17 is the final judgement, 38th place, done.

The girl at the finish is asking me my tee-shirt size but I'm concentrating so hard on the coffee and fruitcake on the same table that she has to ask three times before it registers. The food on this trip really has been good. In fact all round it's been a really well-organised event. Jan and Julia are waiting, and I get the ecstasy of inactivity curled up in the back of the car on the way to Reading, before a long shower and a long-anticipated visit to the Italian restaurant. First ultra of 2010, great day out, I'm looking forward to the rest of the year!

I found out later that Carrie finished as second-placed lady  -  well done!!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A bit of a Plan and No Big Deal

Other than to put in around 1000 miles before the West Highland Way Race at the end of June (and I only chose that figure because it seemed to be what everyone else was doing) I've never had much of a training plan. I just used to go out and have a run somewhere nice a few times a week. Last year I was trying to get around the UTMB so I started going out in the hills more often and I think this paid off, though it still didn't get me around the course! I also knew that the "time on your feet" thing was important so I've always tried to do a few long training runs as well as the races, culminating in a 60-70 miler in May, but the logistics is always difficult for these unless you know where you can resupply, and I always seem to end up carrying too much stuff for changes of weather and so on.  I discovered last year that I had a lot of difficulty going beyond 25 hours or so, and I really needed to practice keeping going longer if I was to have a chance of finishing the longer ultras.  Finally, this year apart from one marathon which is really just a bit of exercise during a long weekend holiday, I'm only going to run ultra races - and I run those very slowly! These thoughts came together into a bit of a Plan, so here's my philosophy for what it's worth:

1. I was fit enough last year, my recovery after every race was pretty rapid, so I don't need to do more miles, in fact I'll probably do slightly less than last year, and not get hung up on "getting the miles in".
2. I'll do a run of 7-8 miles in my local forest once a week. This is on good tracks and the nearest I get to a tempo run, as I really don't like running on roads.
3. I'll go out in the hills once a week, starting with two or three hours and around 3000ft of ascent, building up to double this by April/May. I normally walk the ups and jog the downs, somewhere between 3 and 4mph average.
4. A longer run around 12 miles, building up to 16/18 on one of the local trails once a week, nice and steady.
5. An easy run of 4 or 5 miles in between times, but only if I feel like it on the day.
6. For runs longer than this I'm going to do races, roughly one a month, much easier logistically than training runs and much more fun. 50 milers for the first few months, then 100's.  Some of these I will try to take very easily indeed, just to get used to the "time on your feet" necessary to complete the longer ones.

That's the physical plan, but as everyone in our game will tell you, that's only the half of it. A couple of days ago I watched the video of the West Highland Way "Training and Inspirational Evening" which was held last week in Edinburgh (you can see it on the WHWR website if you haven't already). One impressive contributor was Dave Wallace who won the race several times in its early years; when asked whether standing at the start, he ever had any doubts as to whether he would finish, his answer was "No, I always knew I would finish, and that I would be placed." In a similar vein, I think it was Michael Johnson, contributing to the BBC commentary team on one of the major athletic championships who said "In a track final there will be four guys who think they might win, two guys who think they will win, and two guys who know they will win - and the winner will be one of these last two."

To work for me, this declaration of confidence comes down to a concept which I think of as "No Big Deal". To run a half marathon, 10 miles must feel like no big deal, you can run it any day you choose. For a marathon, the no big deal distance is 16 miles - if you're comfortable over 16, the marathon will be OK. I can run a marathon. I've run a dozen in races, but I've covered the distance many more times than that. For me a marathon itself is no big deal; this doesn't mean I can always (or ever!) run a marathon in a good time, but however I'm feeling, I believe deep down that I will always get through those miles if it gets me to the finish. It's the feeling that gets you from Kingshouse to Fort William when you've already covered over 70 miles, less than a marathon, I can do that. I know a lot of people who will say divide a big race up into little bits, just think about the next 10 miles, 5 miles, 2 miles, whatever, but for me you can't beat the feeling of being within your "no big deal" distance of the end of the race. So my target in doing a lot more events this year is to get my confidence to the next level - "50 miles - no big deal".

I'll let you know around September whether I've made it!