Tuesday, 28 June 2011


I was up on Snowdon summit yesterday evening, the ground bone dry underfoot, wall to wall views and a cooling zephyr from the south. Of course I was prompted to wonder why we couldn't have had such serene weather for the West Highland Way race last weekend but on reflection that's not the point for we're happy to go whatever the weather. Many will remember the near hurricane that chased us along the Lairig Mor in 2008, the clear bright blue of the lochans on the perfect summer's day in 2010, and I'm sure those whose participation goes back beyond mine will recall the flash floods of 2005 and a lot more besides. Dario once remarked to me that we hadn't had a snowy experience for a while "but I'm sure we will again before too long". So the "atmospheric" conditions last weekend were nothing out of the ordinary and didn't detract from, and may even have contributed to, what was generally felt to be a high standard event.

And at the sharp end, so it was. 17 runners came home in under 20 hours and 30 in total in under 22 hours, compared with 12 and 28 respectively last year.  Many of these had competed before and several ran impressive PB's.

Further down the field however, the mid-pack and slower runners were having a tougher time and taking longer, so that the finishing times started to spread out more rapidly. 40th place this year got home in 23:18, whereas to get 40th last year required a 22:40 performance. Similarly for 50th place, 24:40 this year and 23:25 last. I was 2 hours 25 minutes slower than last year but only dropped 8 places, from 52nd to 60th. There were 39 DNF's. I don't think the number of starters in past races is archived anywhere (or if it is I can't find it), but from my previous involvement I think this seems much higher both as an absolute number and as a percentage (over 25%) than we have seen in recent years. There were one or two notable exceptions to this trend, but a glance at the finishing times will show that many of the "regulars" didn't have an outstanding day at the office.

Were there any external reasons for this, or was it just that the lower 75% of the field just wasn't as good as last year? Well, I have a bit of a theory (would you expect anything else?) so here goes:

1. Wet conditions underfoot are not easy. Early on, everyone in the group that I was in was taking avoiding action around puddles on the trails and the old railway track. This disrupts your rhythm, slows you down, and uses more energy. Then on rocky ground (say Conic Hill and a lot of the lochside) you cannot rely on just bouncing on the tops of individual rocks in case you slide off so you become more conservative, with the same results (slow down, more energy used).  You want to look after your feet so unless you're tough you spend time changing socks, re-applying vaseline or whatever, and this all eats up time. So if you're keeping to a schedule you might have chosen for a dry day, you're having to go faster on all the bits where you are not slowed down, with the attendant increased use of energy.

2. Running in falling rain eventually gets debilitating. It's fine, even pleasant, for maybe two or three hours, but after that I'm sure most people would rather it stopped. Regardless of your kit you are pretty well soaked through and if you slow down you start to get cold. This too zaps energy, and prompts more time-consuming changes of clothing  to get the psychological benefit of starting out feeling dry for a short while occasionally.

Last year's race was completely dry. Some commented that it was hot, but there was a cooling headwind for most of the distance and I believe for most runners the dryness more than compensated for the heat, although this is of course a personal thing.

So overall, I think that many runners this year were affected by the wet conditions underfoot throughout and the rain later on. Why not the faster ones? Well, these guys are in general better prepared, better trained, more focussed on their goals, better able to deal with a bit of adversity. They also cover more ground running (so stay warmer), and in this year's race were further up the road when it started to rain, so could maybe smell the finish rather than the prospect of a long wet day ahead.

Just excuses? Well, maybe, but the learning for me is not to expect to cover the ground at the same overall speed if conditions are continuously wet.

On my own run last Saturday, I think the above contributed. I ran slower at times and stopped at checkpoints far more than I intended to, so was left playing catch-up in between times. I didn't believe this had affected me until I ran out of steam quite badly on the last few miles of Rannoch Moor. At Glencoe I was half an hour down on last year in (for me) far less favourable conditions, and feeling roughly the same. From there I didn't find any motivation to push it to the end so settled for finishing in reasonable comfort (and slowly!)

But in the stuff that I've already read  since last weekend, the question that has really interested me is "What was your real plan for this race?"  I said I wanted to "Finish in around 24 hours and in good shape". This sounded fine at the time but on reflection there are so many holes in it that it wasn't a plan at all. By "around 24 hours" did I mean plus or minus 15 minutes, an hour, two hours? Did I really mean under 24 hours? And how good was "good shape"? I knew I didn't want to knock myself out of contention for the Lakeland 100 five weeks later, but last year I ran the WHW just 3 weeks after a fairly arduous 100 miler and got a PB. And how much did I want to achieve the plan? Only if it came easily? If not, how much was I prepared to put in? What was my main concern, getting a time or enjoying the trip? I just hadn't made any of this clear to myself before the start. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed last weekend's event, but it's clear that I didn't have a plan, and for sure that affected the way I ran.

Well, that's enough philosophising for now. I'm also intrigued by the question "Why do you enter this (or any other) race?" but that can wait for another time.


Tim said...

Hi Andy, like you I've pondered as to why so many runners seemed to find it hard this year and like you, I'm inclined to think that the wet start has got to have been a major factor.

I was there in 2005 in the downpour but that occurred towards the end and I don't think it affected me much. Looking back on the WHW races I've run, I've never started out in muddy conditions.
I don't usually change my shoes but I can see how wet feet from the outset (and the stress of trying to avoid wet feet at the start) could significantly hamper one's progress.
As to "Why do you enter this race?", well obviously to keep meeting people like yourself. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Careful, Andy......

All this talk about how many runners came in sub 20:00; how the 40th finisher's time compared to last year; etc etc.

I fear that you are encroaching on JK's patch.

And that a spreadsheet or six is just waiting to be knocked into shape

And JK thought he had finished with commenting on this year's race......


Excellent post; plenty of food for thought. As always.


Mike Mason said...

Enjoyed reading this. I remember the 2005 flood well also. I need to sample another one.....

Thomas said...

Andy, although I was with the faster runners I did lose quite some time for the exact reasons you mention. I changed shoes twice, tried to clean the mud my feet, applied vaseline. Stopped to get stones out of my shoes. Avoided the grass ran around puddles. Avoided the mud (although that did not always work). And was wearing a bulky gore tex jacket. Stones were slippery and had to be avoided. You name it. Putting gloves on and off and on again... Silke recconed that I "wasted" half an hour just by changing shoes, socks, shirts, gloves at the checkpoints. I also noticed a considerable headwind for most of the race. Although last year it was quite bad as well.
Richie ran probably the race of his life. In better conditions he would have been faster!
So I found the conditions tough and unpleasant. I know that some of the front runners were in much better shape than last year (Sharon and Debs for example) and I would assume in better conditions they would have been even faster.
Btw I did not find last year's race "hot" at all. But that's certainly a subjective experience. Certainly I found last years conditions were much better.
Enough said. I am sure you are mentally preparing and saving yourself for the UTMB which is a much more serious task than the WHW.