Saturday, 28 May 2011


When I was a lad apprenticeships in most things took four or five years. It's now just over four years since I ran my first ultra, the Highland Fling in 2007, so I thought I might try to set down what I think I've learned since then. It was a relatively late apprenticeship, starting as I approached my 59th birthday  -  the origin of the blog title of course  -  and I'm certainly not presenting any of this as great wisdom or recommendations; all you have here is what I think has worked for me. 

Since the spring of 2007 I have stood at the start line of 22 events, 8 "hundred" milers, 12 fifties and 2 thirties. I got the dreaded DNF three times so I know what it feels like, and clearly still have a fair bit to learn. I've also run a couple of road marathons each year because I enjoy their carnival atmosphere but have pretty well given up shorter races -  I don't enjoy the speed required for half marathons and 10k's, too much like hard work! At the end of 2007 I decided what I wanted to achieve, which is to run 6 to 8 good ultras a year, to enjoy them and to acquit myself as well as I can.  I don't want to do lots of races and just get round inside the time limits, though this is an understandable strategy and I'm amazed at how many events some runners complete, it's not for me. Neither is reducing the year to 2 or 3 target races that I want to get my absolute best times in - I enjoy the year-round activity and variety too much. No, a good day out and a solid mid-pack finish is where I'm at and the takeout from my learnings will reflect this. So here goes, read on if you're interested, I won't be offended if you've got better things to do.....


1. Long slow runs. This is what ultras are,  so I find the key sessions for me are long slow runs - 15  to 25 miles, normally off-road, at least once a week. This gets me to feel that the marathon distance is "no big deal", something I'm happy to turn out for without any notice (or contemplate as do-able near the end of a long race!)

2. Hills. I enjoy days out in the hills, so this doesn't really feel like training at all. I try to get at least 5000ft of ascent in on a good day, rising to 10,000ft in the summer, distance less important, maybe 10-15 miles.

3. Speed (well, it's a relative term...). Over the last couple of years I've been convinced that a fairly frequent tempo run to get the heart rate up a bit pays off. This is the only session that I don't really look forward to but I'm sure it does me good, though 6 miles at somewhere near 7 minute pace is about my limit.

4. Recovery. I'm sure for me that just totting up miles over easy ground at a medium pace doesn't advance the cause at all, so I don't do it. I occasionally do a recovery run of three or four miles the day after a long outing and this definitely works, go out hobbling stiff and come back cruising, but maybe this is an age thing.

5. Mileage has been around 2000 for the year over the past 3 years. About 1000 before the middle of June then ease off the miles and do more hills in the summer to support the longer hillier races. 3 or 4 outings a week is enough if they're good. The rests in between do me more good than more miles. I don't plan "easy" weeks, other activities (climbing, ski-ing, other holidays, etc) ensure that I get enough time off.

I've become more and more convinced that while a fair bit of training is necessary to get you through an ultra, how you manage the day itself can have a huge effect on it's eventual outcome. In particular.....

6. Run your own race. The most obvious rule, and the hardest to keep sometimes - "a plan never survives the first contact with the enemy.....". It's hard not to compare yourself with the progress of others in the event, especially if you know them. But most of us are not racing, we're here to get our best performance. So if I'm used to a two minute walk for a drink every so often and I'm running with a group that doesn't.....yes, I have to force myself to stop and walk, because I know it will pay off for me.

7. Don't stop moving for any longer than you really have to. In my first long ultra I was amazed afterwards to find that I had spent nearly 3 hours sitting around at checkpoints "resting". Nowadays I believe that unless you have to stop to (eg) patch up an injury etc, it's not worth stopping. Most of the recovery you can get from a 10 minute sit-down you can get from the same time walking slowly - and you end up half a mile closer to the finish. As Fiona says about the WHW "Just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of Fort William and you'll get there"  - or as John V has put it to me more graphically on several occasions "KFG, mate, just KFG".

8. Run the runnable ground for as long as you can. The slowest most people will jog at is around 12-13 minute mile pace, but the fastest you are likely to walk at, especially when tiring, is up in the 16-17 minute mile region. The maths are clear, run as much as you can. Now if you're a Jez Bragg or a Ritchie Cunningham this is most of the way, but for people like me it's much less, so I have to run at the most productive times. This means saving energy when its use is less productive, by walking up the steeper hills, slowing down where the ground is technical, not going too fast for the first 20 miles, etc so that I can cash in on the runnable ground when it turns up.

9.Use the daylight. Because you lose all your peripheral vision, you go slower in the dark; or to put it another way, to go at the same speed needs more energy. If any navigation is involved this effect gets many times worse. So I accept that I'm going to slow down in the dark and not worry about it. Push on in the evening, take it easy later, go with the flow. This is not too important in Scotland in midsummer, much more so in the Alps in late August, when the darkness can last nine hours.

10. Don't fret about food. If you're managing to eat well, great; if it's hard going, don't make it worse by worrying about it or trying to force it down. Everyone has enough fat on board to finish the race, you just go a bit slower. This was a real eye-opener for me and I'm able to go through odd periods of not eating in a much more relaxed and productive frame of mind.

11. Get the electrolytes right. I used to finish most ultras with varying degrees of nausea, and it caused me to DNF on one occasion. The man himself Jez Bragg then told me that if this happens, 9 times out of 10 it's because your electrolyte balance has gone to pot. Everyone's way of combatting this is different, but for the last couple of years I have taken Succeed caps to a rigid schedule (exact dose depending on temperature); for me it has been the single biggest factor in turning ultras from challenges into enjoyable experiences.

12. Cut the weight down. This sounds so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, but coming from a mountaineering/self sufficiency background the temptation to carry stuff because it might come in useful or make life more comfortable has been hard to overcome. Do a little experiment, run your favourite 10 miles carrying nothing, and the next day run it carrying say 2,5kg (the lowest weight your UTMB or Hardmoors pack is likely to be). The difference is mind-blowing. I once set out on an ultra with a 2l (yes two litre!) camelback. I now buy the lightest kit I can afford and take pretty well the minimum allowed.

13. Recognise when you're making a mistake. We all know when we're going a bit too fast, when a blister has just started to form, when we're getting cold and should stop and put a jacket one, or a hundred other little things that we know deep down are contributing to a less than optimal performance. Put it right, before it gets out of hand.

14. It's going to hurt sometimes. None of us go looking for it but if you set out to cover a hundred miles on foot you're extremely lucky if something doesn't hurt a bit along the way. I'm definitely not into the "embrace the pain" thing but I am convinced by the pragmatic attitude of Joss Naylor - "If you ever want to do anything on the fells, then if you're suffering from some ailment, you've just got to shrug it off". It's not failure, it's not unfair, it's part of the deal, if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined.

15. Don't think about the finish. I used to climb big Alpine faces and big rock walls. You would set out on an adventure that was going to take two or three days or more to complete. Occasionally after a while, maybe conditions weren't great, you would get "summit fever", and then the climb lost all interest, you just wanted up and off as fast as you could go, and from then on there was no pleasure, just a gruelling job to be done. Ultras are like that. If you think about the overall enormity of what you have taken on you can be easily beaten by it. Enjoy (or deal with!) the next mile, the next hour, the next checkpoint, the next cup of tea, and it will be OK.

I now go through points 6-15 as a sort of  "checklist" before an event to try and make sure I actually use what I think I've learned. That's it then. Thanks to the huge number of ultra runners who have individually and collectively taught me what I know - because of course you never dream any of this up yourself, it always comes from somewhere!

First "big" race of the year (The West Highland Way) coming up in three weeks. Looking forward to it already.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Highland Fling 2011

So what is there to say about a race you've already done four times before and just completed again in a competent but ultimately disappointing time? Well, quite a lot actually, so if you start here be prepared for a bit of a session.

After my somewhat ambivalent last post I was put back on the straight and narrow by the ever wise Murdo tM. Gentleman that he is, he would never use my words but the message was clear  - "You're not getting any younger, if you want this then stop feeling sorry for yourself and get your act together!" Within two hours of his email my "let's see what the day brings" approach had morphed into a plan and splits for a 10 hour finish. Slow at the start to leave enough in the tank for my normal strengths, the technical stuff north of Inversnaid and the long slow uphills from Bein Glas. It was quite a relief that I'd finally made a decision, so bags packed and off to Scotland.

In spite of the increase in ultra participation over the last year or two this is still a small community, and gathering for the start of any race has a sort of reunion feel about it. At just after five o'clock in Milngavie station yard it's good to meet up with so many friends. Chip collected, drop bags dropped, the now legendary one-line briefing from race director Murdo MacDonald, and we're off. At least everyone else is - looking down to check that my watch has started after the darkness of the underpass, I trip on the concrete flight of steps and go sprawling, catching my kneecap full-on on the angle of a step. Some concern, some jovial comments about this being rather early to pull out, but I think I'm OK.  Get up, hurts a bit to stand, hobble up the steps and on a few paces, can't be too bad, try jogging slowly, limp for about half a mile, then the warm feeling around the knee starts to kick in and I can start to run normally. I feel it on and off through the day but it doesn't really cause any problems. The knee was already strapped for other reasons so nothing to see, don't notice the bruise and slight swelling until I take it off at about ten thirty that night. What an idiot! But I'm not alone, falls will be a feature of many runners' races today.

For we six o'clock starters, running conditions are pretty well perfect from the start to Balmaha, cool, not a cloud in the sky, and a pleasant breeze on the right shoulder. After chatting with a few runners over the first mile or two I catch Graeme Morrison and dog Penny. We've shared many miles over the WHW trail between here and Fort William over the past couple of years; today he's going slower, a bad ski-ing crash on Christmas Day has put him out of action for too much training time but he still goes on to record a good finish. Run a bit with Bob Allison, wish I could learn his pacing secret for the WHW, negative splits every year! I pass a lady who has fallen but is being looked after by several other runners, I learn later that this is Rosie Bell. Then I run the rest of the way to Drymen with Tony Thistlethwaite, another veteran WHW performer. I mention a couple of times that I think the pace might be a bit too fast for me but it feels very comfortable, maybe the result of the more speed work I've done this year, so I happily stay with it. We hit Drymen in 1:53.

I'll pre-empt the finish now by saying that I didn't make my target. On the day I thought it was down to the progressive rise in temperatures after Balmaha, but on reflection I think I could have, and possibly should have, got under the 10 hours. I made two very basic errors and this was the first. One of the predictions in Billy's blog keeps going through my head - "90% of the field will start far too fast and run a sub-optimal race as a result" - not me I thought as I read it, but here I am fastest ever time for me to Drymen and 7 minutes under schedule. I've run the first 12 miles at a pace more than 30 seconds a mile faster than I planned, and will pay for it later.

But without these cares I carry on in great conditions through the gradually disappearing forest and begin the climb up Conic Hill. In the cool clear air and views like you don't see too often I hardly feel the hill, but slow down to walk the steeper bits. I catch up with Sharon and am surprised that she's not half an hour ahead of me by now, but she says she's taking it easy today as her training has been interrupted too since the 100k races a month ago. I tell her she'll catch me down the other side as I'm trying to go easy on my knees a bit. Sure enough, a little way down the descent she goes bounding past but a hundred yards past me she tumbles and I can hear from the shouts that it's not trivial. No blood but her knees are really hurting, I get her to just sit and recuperate a minute or two. We're joined by two or three other runners and she tries to stand up but can't. One or two stay with her while others will alert Balmaha. I'm still slow, and before I've gone five minutes more down the hill I pass George Reid coming up to the rescue. I hope it's not too bad for her.

The slick Balmaha drop bag team are in action, and it seems that no sooner have I shouted my number to Davie than Murdo is handing me my bag. Seeing all the bags arranged for this huge field is quite impressive, brilliant job guys!

After running with lots of people and never having runners out of sight up to here, the scene suddenly changes for some reason, and between Balmaha and Rowardennan I pass two runners but otherwise see no-one. Not strictly true, I seem to keep seeing Marco at almost every turn - he's decided not to risk aggravating a recovering injury and messing up his WHW so is here supporting, but he must be covering more miles than the runners. My miles seem to be going by easily enough though, my knees are protesting a bit on the downhills but nothing too bad, otherwise I feel fine. But it is warming up. We've lost the breeze and I strip down to one light teeshirt. I reach Rowardennan in 4:40, now only 5 minutes ahead of schedule, so allowing for a bit of time spent with Sharon the pace from Drymen has been just about spot on.

I normally like the section from here to Inversnaid, and today I run most of it as usual, but it's starting to feel hot and a bit harder, though I pass another two or three runners and am passed by one. I'm glad when the hotel shows up eventually. I reach Inversnaid bang on target but this means I have already lost the 7 minute cushion I built up by Drymen, and a warning bell or two start to sound. Sitting for a few seconds on one of the wooden benches on the terrace to refill my pack, no longer in the shade of the lochside trees, I realise that the day is now very hot. I have an extra swig of water before setting out for Bein Glas.

I don't mind the next three wiggly miles as everyone goes slower here, and a bit of knowing where to put your feet pays a better dividend than fitness so I can usually pick up some time. Today however, just as I go into one of the most tortuous bits, just after the run across the short meadow, I catch the tail end of a party of about 50 walkers - no hyperbolae,  there really are that many! They are all very friendly and helpful, stepping to the side when they can, even complimentary, but this maybe because I'm probably in the top 10 in the field "on the ground" at this point  - I wonder how they'll feel when the three hundredth runner has gone past......

The staggered start has had some quite interesting effects today, particularly since the faster Vet 40's delayed their start until two hours after ours. Last year, starting an hour behind, Thomas ("Crazy German") caught me well before Rowardennan, so far today I've seen no-one from the later starts. Anyway, in spite of the walkers I must be boulder-hopping quite well because I reach the wooden steps on schedule, and shortly after the first of the seven o'clock starters passes me, though I don't recognise him.

Coming out of the trees, across the little grassy patch before the short climb up to Doune Bothy is the turning point of the race for me. The sun hits me hard and I just start to wilt. All the uphills suddenly feel very hard, and I walk many sections that I usually run. I keep telling myself to knuckle down and get on with it, but as soon as I lose concentration I find I am walking again. About two miles before Bein Glas the first of the eight o'clock starters Andrew James comes past, followed twenty or so yards behind by Jez. Thirty-eight miles in, on undulating rocky ground, these guys are not just travelling very fast but clearly still racing every step of the way. I shout my encouragements but they're not in sight for long.

I get to Bein Glas but the last three miles have hit me hard. I roll in in 7:39, a full nine minutes behind my schedule. Again I'm surprised to see John K just leaving, he should be a long way up the road, but I know he doesn't like the sun much so it must be having an effect on him too. I have to have a rest so I sit for a minute or so, down a milkshake and try to get my head around the last tough stage. Realistically, the ten hours is now blown; I would have to do the last twelve miles eight minutes faster than last year, and I'm clearly not in the shape that I was at this point then. But if if I can just do the section in the same time as last year I'll get the pb, worth working a bit for, so go for it.

I know I can run these hills. I may be slow today but it's still faster than walking. Way in the distance I see two runners, I think one must be John as I didn't see anyone else leave before me. He's with another runner who turns out to be Claire Walton. They're walking the ups and running the flats. I'm running most of it but at a slower pace than their run. I reel them in oh so slowly but they are getting nearer. I'm passed by Stuart Mills and we exchange a word or two but he's going  much faster so he's not with me long. George Reid appears again travelling in the opposite direction and shouts encouragement, much appreciated, I need all the help I can get. On the final rise before Derrydarroch is Murdo tM with flag and camera, never misses this if he's not running, and I almost catch John and Claire, but then they're faster down to the farm and the gap opens up again. I finally get to them just before the road crossing, but then Marco appears again to meet them. It's great to see that Sharon is with him walking OK obviously having survived the earlier fall. They stop a minute but I carry on. Just reaching the old road and I see Silke, supporting Thomas CG,  someone else who I seem to have been seeing on and off all day. She has a cold water spray, I ask to be hit straight in the face, fantastic. I have to walk through the tunnels then up the steep bit, using the pause to drink and stuff in another gel, hoping it will get me home. When the angle eases I determine that I will run all the way to the big gate, and apart from the steepest 30 yards I do, but it hurts.

The "big gate", a significant point for many of us being exactly half the distance from Milngavie to Fort William, is important for me today as well, because I've decided this is the point at which I'll decide what I can do. From here to the finish is six miles. I have an hour left to break 10 hours, 70 minutes for a pb. The last six miles have taken me 80 minutes. It's not going to happen. The realisation takes away the last bit of motivation. From here to the finish I walk the ups and jog the rest. On one of the uphills in the forest Richie cruises past, on his way to a sub 8 hour pb. On the bit of tarmac from Auchtertyre Thomas comes past also looking very good. I jog on, and on the last bit of open ground before the final wood three mountain bikers tear past in the opposite direction. I later learn that Thomas has had a fall in avoiding them and is now lying somewhere by the side of the track. I just don't see him on my way to the finish, how could I have missed him?

Then it's along the river and through the gate to the pipers and the new finish. Katrina K pulling me back to beep the chip and it's all over.10:18:46. Eight minutes slower than last year. The last twenty miles were tough. I wander down to my car by the tourist office, climb in and immediately fall asleep for over an hour. Later, Davie Hall catches me sitting in the sun outside Paddy's Bar rehydrating with non-athletically-approved fluids. Recovered, I wander back to the finish for the prizegiving.

It was a class race. In the previous 5 Highland Flings three individuals in total cracked the eight hour barrier, today the first seven finishers were inside it. My own target of 10 hours was achieved by 54 runners. Jez never quite caught Andrew James, but beat his own existing record to come second and seemed happy enough at the finish.

I said I made two basic errors. The second one? I didn't drink enough and got dehydrated, a condition which everyone will say has a significant effect on performance. My plan and equipment allowed me a half litre of fluid between checkpoints, and I wasn't with it enough to realise that was the problem or to improvise a solution. I don't get thirsty, but I'm sure it wasn't enough. Ian Beattie told me afterwards that he drank nearly three times that. Records were set and many pb's achieved so the conditions weren't a problem, just that some runners adapted to them more sensibly than others. I'll try to learn.

So my basic problem was not going fast enough over last 20 miles of the race, probably caused by a combination of starting too fast and later performance drop-off from dehydration. For my type of strategy, I know I've run a good race when my position in the field improves steadily through the event. Taking positions at the four checkpoints (Drymen, Rowardennan, Bein Glas, Tyndrum), my positions last year (for a pb) were 176,108,70,47.   This year my positions were 143,114,77,67 so it's clear what happened. I should have run with John Malcolm, whose positions of 167,121,78,58 left him just a whisker short of 10 hours.

Still, my run was just about good enough to retain the Vet60 trophy. Nice to get my name on a second time, but still not up with the legendary Rob Reid who achieved all three of his wins while stopping for a dip in the river at Derrydarroch on the way. And there was a prize for the best presented drop bag. These things sum up the Fling, a combination of total class and wonderful idiosyncracy which must surely make it the best single day experience to be had on the UK ultra scene. Thanks to Murdo and Ellen and their army of helpers for making it, as ever, such a brilliant day out.