Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Predict your Ultra Performance?

There are plenty of time comparators around for conventional race distances, which enable you to estimate for example, if I can do a 10k in 40 minutes then what should my marathon target be? I've always thought that it would be interesting to construct a similar comparator for ultra races so that you know what is a realistic time to be shooting for, but there is a bit of  a problem here.

Conventional races are run under standard conditions. OK, temperature, humidity, wind and so on are variable, and road race courses are not all the same but even in a marathon a world class time won't vary by more than 5 minutes or so, say 5% of the race time. Ultras vary in so many aspects such as amount of ascent, underfoot conditions, how much you are obliged to carry, how well you know the course, etc that the basic length of the course has limited meaning on its own. To take a couple of examples a bit removed from home ground, in the US where 100 mile ultras are more common than in Europe, the course record for the Rocky Racoon 100 in Texas is 12 hours 44 minutes (yes, that's 7:38 mile pace!) whereas the course record for the Hardrock 100 in Colorado is 23 hours and 23 minutes, almost double the time.

Ultras are so different that it is impossible to use any "scientific" parameters as a basis for comparison. Even trying to factor in a multiple of physical parameters such as length, height gain, ground underfoot, etc is a pretty hopeless task too because many of these are so variable in themselves  -  does 500ft of height gained over 3 or 4 miles on a smooth jeep track represent the same effort as the same 500ft gained in a quarter of a mile up a boulder and root-strewn hillside?

I've come to the conclusion that the only logical basis for comparison is the actual performances of runners in real races. Now from here on you can treat this as a proposal to be shot at or improved upon, or just a bit of fun, because I'm going to start making assumptions and judgements and it's unlikely that you'll agree with all (or any) of them but anyway here goes.

I've looked at the finishing times in a number of races that I'm interested in, and in most of which I've competed (though not always finished!). I decided that just taking the winning times was too variable because at the top end of the field there are a limited number of really talented athletes, and you don't get a consistent number of these turning up at every race. Similarly I didn't want to include a lot of athletes at the back end of the field because many people here are not wanting to optimise their time, they just want to complete the course and this gives rise to different strategies and performances. I decided in the end to concentrate on the top 20% of the finishers in each race, although I admit I have weighted the results depending on my interpretation of the overall quality of the field, how many results are representational, and so on. I could go on a bit about the details but I'll leave it there for now and just go on to the results.

The races I chose to compare were

D33  -  33 miles  -  flat (?)
The Wuthering Hike  -  32 miles  -  1300m of ascent
Round Rotherham  -  50 miles  -  800m
The Highland Fling  -  53 miles  -  2600m
Hardmoors 55  -  54 miles  -  2700m
West Highland Way  -  95 miles  -  4500m
Lakeland 100  -  104 miles  -  6300m
UTMB  -  102 miles  -  8900m

I took results from 3 years if possible, 2 years minimum, and only from where the race was substantially the same (eg UTMB results prior to the Flegere inclusion would skew the times downwards quite a bit). I would have liked to include the Hardmoors 110 but I don't think there have been enough finishers yet to give meaningful results.

So what you see below is what I think is a reasonable and simple comparator for athletes targeting a race they haven't run, using information from one that they have. The first column gives the time ratios (which if you consider directly in hours gives a nice range of times for a typical mid-pack performer) and the second for interest gives my best times in the races I have completed.

Event                           Time Ratio           AJC pb

D33                               5
Wuthering Hike              6                        5-45
Round Rotherham         9                        9-04
Highland Fling              11                       10-10
Hardmoors 55             12                       11-21
West Highland Way     24                       23-35
Lakeland 100               35             
UTMB                           40

So to use this (should you want to!), say you have a Highland Fling time of 12 hours and want to predict your West Highland Way time, the calculation would be 12 divided by 11 multiplied by 24, giving a target of 26.18 hours or around 26 hours 11 minutes.

The proviso of course is that you have to be trained for the distance. If you use a conventional predictor and put in say you can do 40 minutes for a 10k, you find that your marathon prediction is around 3 hours 7 minutes, of course only achievable if you have put in the right training to run a marathon. Similarly here, an 11 hour Highland Fling won't get you a 35 hour Lakeland 100 unless you have trained for it because they are very different events.

My own times seem to stack up OK, showing that I'm better at 50 milers than 100's, which I know and that the Highland Fling is probably my best because I have run it several times and now know how to tackle the course to suit my own strengths and weaknesses.

As I said, just a bit of fun.

As a postscript, I took all the height gains for the longer races from the "official" qualifying race list on the UTMB website, which shows the UTMB itself in 2008 and 2009 as being 163km and 8900m ascent. Those who were there will know that the 2010 race was reduced to about half length because of the weather conditions, but the 2011 race is listed as being 166km and 9500m of ascent  -  they must have found another hill to climb this year!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Sunny but still Hardmoors

Roseberry Topping from the North

Highcliffe Nab

Those of us who ran the inaugural Hardmoors 55 last year will remember more about the conditions than the course, because for the middle twenty-five miles or so at least they were pretty bleak, very cold, continuous rain and visibility down to a few yards. It was was with some expectations and not a little relief then that I drove over to Guisborough on Friday afternoon under a cloudless sky with a promise of more of the same for the Saturday. I knew that I would be finishing through the potentially tricky Guisborough woods in the dark so I walked up to Highcliffe Nab, the last summit on the course, and back over the final three miles just to check it out again, only to find that Race Director Jon Steele had marked all the turns with orange tape so I needn't have worried.

Start briefing
And we're off - well I will be when I've put the camera away
It was the first event of the year for me and a nice feeling of anticipation to be on the go again after the winter. At 9am the start was scheduled an hour later than last year so even getting up for the bus ride to the start wasn't traumatic. Checking in I started to see many faces I hadn't met since last autumn, Jon was able to do his briefing outside in the sunshine, and at about five past nine we were under way. A field around twice the size as last year and great weather, I'm sure this will really establish this as the great event that it is for some years to come. It's actually a 54 mile trip (well 55 or so for me but more of that later) across some great lonely countryside, with about 8800 feet of ascent just to make sure you have to work a bit. I had no specific goal for the day other than to finish in good shape in somewhere around the 12 hour mark, and to enjoy the day.

The first nine miles are across rolling farmland and occasional woods to the white horse carved into the face of Sutton Bank, no fierce hills but gradually climbing for a total rise of about 1400ft. I try a little experiment here and run faster than I normally would, nearer to 9 minute pace rather than my usual 10's. I'm sure the few minutes it gained wasn't worth it, I was having to concentrate on the speed rather than just cruising along enjoying the view and chatting to people, I won't do it again. I run a couple of miles with Jon - the Race Director participating in his own race while he'd got a lot of willing volunteers doing all the hard work - that has some style - but he's going faster than me so I leave him to it.

Along the escarpment from Sutton Bank
From the white horse along to the first major checkpoint at Osmotherley is probably the easiest section of the route, following the top edge of the moors escarpment for most of the way, 13 miles with only 1300ft of gentle ups and soft grassy tracks for much of the way. On the climb from the white horse checkpoint up to the edge I catch up with Sian and Alison. I remember Sian from the Hardmoors 110 last September which I  helped to marshal, she came third in 28 hours or so, a brilliant run in the really trying weather conditions of that race. We will pass and repass each other for a lot of the day running together at times until she finally shows her class over the last 15 miles and goes on to finish as second lady. This section to Osmotherley is where it started to become clear last year that we were in for a bit of attrition, but this year it's a joy to be here, all easy cruising and great views across the plain to the north, although the visibility also means you can see the track a long, long way ahead into the distance!
A long way into the distance.....       
I'm not checking my watch all that diligently but I think I get to Osmotherley a bit quicker than last year, and it's good to get a quick cup of tea. Everyone around me is walking up the steepish road hill out of the checkpoint so I do the same, but after about half a mile or so I realise that I've left one of my water bottles back in the village hall. Not wishing to incur the wrath of the Big Director should the promised kit spotcheck materialise - nor wishing to cover the next 10 hilly miles on only half a litre - I go back down for it and get to do the hill all over again, costing about 15 minutes but I'm not too bothered, today's not about times.

Carlton Bank
From Osmotherley to the high point of the North York Moors about 15 miles further on, the course starts to show some teeth, climbing nearly 4000ft in a series of 500ft-ish ups and downs, the well-known "roller-coaster" section of the Cleveland Way. Rocky staircases and hard moorland tracks make it hard on the feet but the weather compensates, there's a bit of cloud and breeze now, perfect. Marshals on Scarth Wood Moor and Carlton Bank clip our tallies and wave us on our way, no huddling in tents for them today. On the descent to the Lord's Cafe carpark I can't understand why we were so glad to have a GPS last year, it all looks so straightforward. Then
Down towards the Lords Cafe road crossing
it's on over the Wainstones (how many more ups, we're asking each other by now) and finally to the last ascent to the high point of the course. 

From here it's gradually down hill all the way to Kildale, the second major checkpoint, but it's a featureless seven miles across the moors, past the checkpoint at Bloworth Crossing. This year it's a self-clip on the tally to prove you've got there, and if Jon carries on with this method in future events then Murdo tM, John V and I (and there must be one other) will not be joined by any more questionable individuals who have carried their tent out to marshal at this lonely spot.

I'm starting to find it hard on the feet across here and my pace is slowing, but I'm not the only one because I catch Julien who I chatted to on the bus this morning who is walking a stretch. We pass and repass each other and arrive in Kildale more or less together.

It's good to have a cup of tea and I sit down for maybe five minutes while I eat a rice pudding and have my water bottles topped up. The day's getting on now and the temperature will be dropping fast before to long so I put on a lightweight fleece over my shirt. Inevitably this brief period of inactivity causes a certain creakiness starting out again, but after the first few yards out of the checkpoint there is a long uphill which I walk with four or five other people and that warms us all up again.

The major climbs are over now but the course still manages to pack another 1900ft of ascent into the final 12 miles. Up to Captain Cook's monument, down again, then up to the scarp edge above Roseberry Topping. You only have to lose and regain about three hundred feet to get out to this isolated summit checkpoint but I'm starting to tire now and the rocky staircases seem hard enough - and then you have to do it all again to get back to where you started from! Just before the Roseberry Topping excursion two guys who I have been more or less with since Kildale pull away quite quickly. One of them looks my sort of vintage and it means he'll probably beat me for the V60 win; I think of competing but my plan is not to get worn out today so I let them go - Tony beats me home by more than twenty minutes, good effort. 

Last year the bad weather had gone by Kildale and we had a wonderful view from Roseberry Topping, but with the hour or so later start and a bit of cloud now, even though I'm going a bit quicker the light is starting to fade. On regaining the main edge I stop to dig out my headtorch and drink half a bottle of fizzy full fat Coke - wonderful stuff. So it's dark across the moor to Highcliffe Nab and on the last up hill stretch, after keeping dry feet all day, I find myself knee-deep in a foul-smelling section of bog - and me in my best shoes as well. Julien who was with me when I stopped for the torch has pressed on and there are no lights as far as I can see behind so I wander on with my own company up the final little rocky staircase then down the easy three miles through the woods. I probably lose a lot of time here, would definitely go faster with someone else there, but I'm just enjoying the final moments of a lovely first day out for the year, before I have to tumble into the bright lights and face the music.

My watch stopped for a few minutes earlier in the day so I didn't get an exact time but it was around 11 hours 22minutes - half an hour faster than last year, would have been better but for my double excursion out of Osmotherley, but I'm happy enough. Most of the systems worked well, clothes, shoes, backpack.  I ate about 200 calories an hour steadily through the race, gels, bars, milkshakes, rice, etc. One thing I didn't get right was hydration; I don't get thirsty but by doing a couple of sweat tests I reckoned I needed about a litre every three hours, which is what I planned and what I drank. After finishing, I went for a shower then came back into the Rugby Club bar to wait for the prizegiving, where I drank a pint of lemonade and lime followed quite quickly by a pint of beer. I needed a pee, and it only then occurred to me that it was the first since the start of the race......a bit more calculation on the hydration rate needed I think!

A super event, thanks to Jon, Flip and the team for a great day. I'll be back next year.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Turning the Corner

Well if I really needed any more evidence that I'm now definitely a fair weather competitor, I only had to read about the half marathon experiences up in Inverness of John, Ian and Sandra at the weekend in what looked like two or three inches of freezing slush, and realise that I actually didn't envy them at all. Nevertheless they were pretty stalwart performances by my standards (and in shorts!) regardless of the conditions, as a glance across to the right at my own half marathon PB, run one glorious autumn day in Newcastle, will show.  The weather in Scotland over the last few weeks has looked truly horrible.

Here in the relatively tropical climate of the Liverpool/Manchester area, things are looking better. The coming weekend brings the equinox and with it hopefully the translation from hard training miles in the dark and wet to fun running and events through the late spring and summer. I really don't like it from January to March as I've said probably too often before, but I've paid my dues now. Just over 500 miles on the clock, nothing for the keen guys but hopefully enough to get me through. A week ago I went for a 30/20 back to back on the beautiful Offa's Dyke trail just west of here, finishing the first evening in daylight sunshine at 6.30pm.

There's enough daylight now to make day trips to the Lake District worthwhile, so I can divert my hill running to collecting a few more Wainwrights which hardly seems like training at all, and I can get away from my local woods and hills for a few months and spend more time reading the map and admiring the view.

First event of the year on Saturday, the Hardmoors 55 over in Yorkshire. It was a bit wet and windy last year with not much view so I'm hoping for a better day this time around. Good to be starting again.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Knees, Skis and Maybes

It's been going on about a couple of years this thing but I try to ignore it except when I put the tape on and sometimes get a raised eyebrow when it's pink because they've run out of black like at last years West Highland Way Race when John was saying how do you expect to get ninety-five miles when you're limping across the carpark at the start and I say it's going to be OK and it usually is. I'm working on the Joss Naylor principle that when something ails you, you've just to put it to the back of your mind but nowadays it wants to come more to the front of my mind or at least to the side of my knee. So I go along to Karen the physio who has helped me out of a few jams in the past but she says sorry I can't help you this time you'll have to go back and see the Man so I make the appointment.

He says hello I haven't seen you for quite a while things must have been going OK and he's right because he hasn't peered into this keyhole for nearly ten years now but he still wants to know why I'm back of course so I tell him I do a bit of running these days and it's starting to hurt. He questions me and pulls and twists a bit and says these are still pretty good knees really but we'll get a scan how about later this week and then I confess that I'm going ski-ing tomorrow. He doesn't look at me sternly or anything like that because the Man is a skier too and he understands so he says have a good time and see you next week. But I take his note around to the scan people anyway and they say we can do it now if you like so I spend forty-five minutes dozing in the tunnel while it bangs and slurps and then I'm done.

Then I pick up my children who aren't children at all by now and we leave behind our various jobs and better halves and common sense and go to the mountains where we've been for more years than I care to remember now to have fun in the snow. Only this time I say you'll have to go easy with me for I am an old man and I have a knee so we spend the first hour or two making pretty turns on pretty pistes and have vins chauds on the terrace like proper skiers. But it can't last of course and we soon see tempting tracks dropping off somewhere and sidling round somewhere else so we drop off and sidle round and Julia and I discuss what we have come upon, the slope looking rather steep but the snow looking good and we can't see any rocks then John explodes past us all power and flying snow and casual elegance the way he always is and he's fifty yards down the hill before we can say maybe so it isn't maybe any more and we launch off after him. We squish and twist and bounce and arrive all together at the bottom with burning legs and gasping for breath and grins wider than wide as we remember for another year why we come to these places. So in two days of sunshine we ride lifts and ski slopes over most of Meribel and Val Thorens getting back in the evening with aches and memories and eating big dinners and drinks and coming back for more tomorrow and my knee is still there but Joss is winning and that's good enough for now.

On Saturday evening we sit in a French bar with French people and drink French beer and watch French and English rugby players doing their best stuff which is exciting but slightly unnerving at the same time if you know what I mean but no-one is disgraced and at the end there are shrugs and smiles and general agreement that we have witnessed a bon match. Then we look outside and see that it's raining and we think the third day of our three will be completely washed away but John says it will be OK we must get up early. So we breakfast at seven thirty and it's still raining exactly like last night but John says trust me it will be OK so we dribble off round to Courchevel 1300 which has trees so you can see in the fog and a long slow rattly old lift and when we arrive at the bottom of the lift there is almost no-one about and the rain is now snow then at the top of the lift there is still almost no-one about and the snow has stopped and there is no fog and a foot of fresh snow everywhere and John doesn't need to say it will be OK because he knows he was right all along and it is going to be very, very OK.

So we spend a long morning damaging as much new snow as we can find and slowly more people come because they have realised that it's OK but now it's nowhere near as OK because they're too late and we leave them what's left and start the trek back to Geneva and home. We're all tired coming off the plane but we know we'll be back next year and John's on his iPhone and saying I shouldn't tell you the Liverpool result so I know the honeymoon is over but you can't have everything.

Monday I go for a run in my forest and feel no knee but it's all fairly straight and flat and I know I have to see the man again on Tuesday. There's no major damage but another bit of cartilage is come loose but sitting in a good enough place and not causing problems and not causing the pains which may go away eventually but ups and downs and twisty bits are still likely to be uncomfortable for a while he says if it was my knee I'd leave it alone for now and it is my knee so I go with his advice thinking I'll have to rely on Joss a bit longer and he says if it really gets worse you know where I am. In the afternoon I run up my hill three times and it's not so bad and I think time to stop worrying about these things now five hundred miles of racing starts with the Hardmoors in less than three weeks just go with the flow and enjoy it. I think of John and the snow, trust me it will be OK.