Friday, 30 March 2012

The Toughest Race in the World?

This is one of my rambles, be prepared, you may need a gin and tonic or whatever to get you to the end.

I'm a bit out of action for the moment, bruised ribs from a fall nearly two weeks ago, not helped by the coughing from a nasty cold, and it's making any exercise a bit painful. So I'm busying myself with some long promised household DIY and then getting to grips with the car I'm trying to build in my shed (every man needs a shed). But in pursuing these tasks ones thoughts wander, and mine have been wandering back over a subject I blogged about nearly three years ago  -  what makes a race "tough"? I think two things prompted the the theme:

1. Ultra Running has gained huge momentum even in the short time I've been involved. Lots of new events are springing up, many of them claiming to be "the toughest" race in the UK, the World, whatever. So if the claim has even a scrap of legitimacy, what are the criteria that make a race "tough"? The figures you generally see when a race is advertised are the length and the total height gain - are these the real qualifiers?

2. A chance remark in an online forum I read and occasionally contribute to. A runner who had entered the Hardmoors 55 but hadn't run it before asked how it compared with the Lakeland 50, which he completed last year. He was concerned that the cut-offs in the Hardmoors looked a bit tight. After thinking a bit  I fashioned a reply along the lines of   "Different sort of race. The Hardmoors has lots of runnable ground and no major climbs, but it's longer, the weather can be bleak in March, and the indoor checkpoints are much further apart. I would expect an average runner to take an hour or so less for the Hardmoors." Although I haven't done the Lakeland 50 (planned for this year), I have covered the ground in training and as the second half of the Lakeland 100, and my impression is that the individual big climbs and the proportion of more technical ground underfoot make it a tougher event. The guy who asked the question duly completed the Hardmoors and reported that he enjoyed it but that he had found it tougher than the Lakeland 50. Was that just a subjective difference of opinion, or is there something more interesting here?

Well, within a few miles these races are the same length, so how do their height gains compare? The Hardmoors claims 2700m of ascent and the Lakeland 3000m...........hmm, not so much different in the overall scheme of things. I wondered just how much bigger the hills were on the Lakeland 50, so I put the two profiles on the same scale, and they came out like this:

Now I'm not claiming 100% accuracy for these profiles, it's beyond my limited ability to take information from very different sources and present it with total consistency, but they should be good enough to give an impression of the hills involved. What they show here is that although the climbs on the Hardmoors are smaller, they are not insignificant and there are more of them.

This got me thinking about another comparison. The Hardmoors 55 and the Highland Fling are on paper almost identical courses, the Fling being 53 miles and 2600m of ascent, and the Hardmoors 54 miles and 2700m. You could even argue that the Fling balances its very small disadvantage by by more technical ground in the section just north of Inversnaid. Yet having run the Hardmoors three times and the Fling five, I can't get my Hardmoors time better than well over an hour slower than my Fling times. But check out the comparative profiles of these two:

What is happening here is that although the Fling does have a few real climbs, a lot of the total height gain comes from a large number of much smaller ups and downs. I'm starting to think that this "undulating" height gain has a lesser impact on us, both physically and mentally, than "significant" (we'll come back to that word!) climbs. For another example, the Round Rotherham 50 miler has a total height gain of 800m, which would be a major climb in anyone's book, but because it is spread out evenly all around the route you would be pushed to remember a single uphill, and the overall impression is of a fast, flat course.

This got me interested in looking  at the way the hills present themselves in other popular events. First, compare the West Highland Way (95 miles, 4500m of ascent) and the Lakeland 100 (104 miles, 6300m):

No prizes for guessing why the WHW record is well under 16 hours while that for the Lakeland is a whisker off 22. Not only does the Lakeland have more climbing overall, but it has a lot more more distinct "ups". But the climbs on the Lakeland 100 are put firmly in their place when you compare it with the Bob Graham Round  (around 70 miles, total ascent 8000m), as you can see below:

Although shorter by 30 miles, the BG with its continually tricky,  often trackless ground and real navigational challenges is clearly a tougher proposition. Or is it? Maybe it depends on the time pressures, we'll come to that later.

I have heard people claim that because of these climbs, and the ground underfoot being more technical, the Lakeland 100 is as tough as the UTMB (104 miles, total ascent 9000m). Well, actually no, have a look:

Maybe this is why the Lakeland has an allowed time of 40 hours and the UTMB one of 46.  The UTMB with its huge publicity is often quoted as "the world's toughest ultra" which I'm sure cuts no ice with the Americans who have the Hardrock with the same distance and height gain, all done at a significantly higher average altitude. Just to complete the European scene, here is the UTMB compared with the first half of the Tor des Geants (overall 200 miles, total ascent 24000m), which suggests that even in Europe the UTMB may not claim the overall difficulty crown.

Well, these comparisons might be interesting but where is all this leading?  Before I start jumping to conclusions, there's another point that came out of the original forum comment. The guy asking the question felt that in the Hardmoors 55 "the cut-offs look tight". Now I've never really thought about this because the Hardmoors 55 is comfortably within my capability. The overall time allowance is 15 hours and I would always expect to complete in under 12. But the total time allowed for the Lakeland 50 is 24 hours, so if you're a runner for whom these events are a challenge to complete,   you obviously have to get more of a move on in the Hardmoors than the Lakeland.  And running even a little faster than you are really comfortable with takes its toll. Jon Steele made a similar point recently, saying something along the lines of " In the Hardmoors 110, the climbs after Osmotherly feel so much easier than in the 55, because you're going slower." I can go along with this, because I find the Highland Fling course much easier when it is run as the first half of the West Highland Way, taking me an hour or more longer than when I run the Fling as a race in itself.  

So if the allowed times are more generous, this lets more runners pick their own pace and not be driven by the cutoffs, so the event will seem less tough for many. Now in spite of the comparisons I've made above, the West Highland Way is still a demanding event; you need a good degree of both training and commitment to run 95 miles with 4500m of ascent. But if your aim is to finish, rather than achieve a specific time target, then the 35 hour allowance definitely helps, both physically and psychologically. You can get quite a lot of things wrong and still make the finish (I have some personal experience of this!). Last year 80% of the starters finished, and of the finishers only 17% took more than 31.5 hours (ie taking more than 90% of the total time allowed).  But in the same year the Lakeland 100 and the UTMB had statistics similar to each other but very different from the WHW; only 50% of the starters finished, and over 40% of the finishers took more than 90% of the time allowed.

So, time to tease out a few conclusions on "what makes a race tough?"

Last time I blogged on this, I said it was really only about about length, height gain, and ground underfoot. I've changed my mind.

Length  - yes, it's a bigger undertaking to run 100 miles than to run 50.
Height Gain - yes, it's harder to run uphill than on the flat, and even harder if the hills are significant.  For me I think this means when a continuous uphill goes up a steeper than runnable slope for 100m or more of vertical gain  -  these are the ones you remember.
Ground Underfoot  - yes, it's harder going over the scree and boulders of a typical Lakes or Snowdonia footpath than a leafy forest track, and even harder through the knee-deep heather and bog you meet on some bits of the Bob Graham.

But all these things are only harder if you try to keep up the same speed. They are not harder if you decide to go SLOWER. It's taken a while but I'm finally coming around to believe the adage that I was given by several experienced runners when I started this game  - " it's not the distance that gets you, it's the pace". So, if (and this is quite a big if) you've done the right preparation - you've trained, you know how to manage nutrition, hydration, lack of sleep and so on - there is no reason why a long, hilly event should be any tougher than a shorter, flatter one, if you are able and allowed to take it at a pace which is comfortable. Remember, we're not talking about the racers at the front of the field here, nor even about someone striving for a personal best time in an event they know they can complete comfortably, this is about how tough the guys who just want to get round in reasonable shape find the experience.

A couple of years ago I did a 100mile LDWA event in Scotland which had, apart from a 20 mile section in the middle, gentle climbs and easy ground underfoot. I was in no hurry and finished in just over 30 hours. 3 weeks later I was able to run a PB in the West Highland Way. No pressure and an easy (for me) pace got me an easy trip. But the cut-off times in both the Lakeland 100 and the UTMB are very challenging for me, so I find the events tough. 46 hours for the UTMB, particularly with the faster pace required to make the cut-offs up to half way is hard, but it's nothing to do with the length or the terrain. Last summer I walked around the UTMB course in just over 70 hours and it felt like a holiday.  I believe I'm close enough to get around the UTMB one day but it's a stretching target. But as for the major mountain rounds, I think they're beyond me now. I enjoy travelling the Lakeland fells enormously and could get round the Bob Graham in say 30 hours but I think sub 24 just isn't on (but I guess that's why we now have the Joss Naylor Challenge for more "mature" Lakeland addicts).

So back to where we came in. What makes a race tough? The answer is simple  -  the Race Director.

Wittingly or not, it is he who decides the reputation for toughness that the event is going to get. Want a 50% drop-out figure? Set a tough time target. Want the event to be a satisfying achievement for anyone prepared to put the work in? Give the competitors enough time to get the payback for their commitment.

The organisers set the rules. And of course that is exactly as it should be, when we remember that what we are engaged in is, after all, just a game.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Ups and Downs of the Hardmoors

The North York Moors are a bit too far away for a training venue for me, but I'm getting to know the Hardmoors 55 course reasonably well as this was the third time I've run the event. A rising but easily runnable opening nine miles lead from the start at Helmsley through farmland and woods to the northern scarp edge of the Moors at Sutton Bank, then a 300 ft drop down the side of the White Horse and a corresponding rise back up to the edge again. From here, nearly ten miles of fast, flat going along the edge followed by a long steady descent gets you to the first major checkpoint at Osmotherly, 22 miles in. The next twenty miles are the real meat of the route; five climbs and descents ranging from 400 to 1000ft over the roller coaster edge to Clay Bank, then another long climb to the highest point on the Moors followed by a remote and often bleak but very runnable section via Blowarth Crossing to Kildale, the second major base at 42 miles. There is still a sting in the tail for tiring legs and lungs, another five shorter but steep climbs, including the out-and-back to the well known summit of Roseberry Topping,  then the final long descent through the woods, usually in the dark, to the finish at Guisborough.

Previously we had had two very different years for weather, the first cold and wet, the second sunny and warm. This year promised something in between the two. For me this event is very much a curtain opener for the year, see if 50 miles still feels a long way, finish in good shape but don't worry too much about the time, that sort of thing. Race Director Jon Steele had persuaded Martin Dietrich to take over his job for the day, allowing him to run in his own race, so after a quick briefing from Martin we were off from Helmsley on the dot of nine o'clock, a field of around 130, more than double that of the first running two years ago. I ran for a few miles with Alison, who had introduced herself earlier as one of the few other Brits signed up for the Tor des Geants in September, we agreed to stay in touch. It wasn't cold but a gentle drizzle appeared shortly after the start, the sort of thing where half the field puts a jacket on and the other half doesn't bother; I went with the latter group for now, which worked out OK because it fined up after an hour or two.

On the long flat section after Sutton Bank I was cruising comfortably, consciously keeping the speed down because it's easy to suffer later if you overcook it here, chatting on and off with various other runners. I felt the speed work I had been doing was making it seem easy. It was all going really well, then I had a moment of incompetence and caught my foot on something. One of the guys I was with said afterwards that it was just a slightly higher lump of peat because it had the gouge from my trainer on it. Anyway, we were going along fairly smartly, better than 10 minute miles I guess, and I came down quite heavily - second time in three races, I really must look where I'm putting my feet. No blood this time, but something, I suspect it was my fist trapped between my falling body and the ground, thumped solidly into my ribs. Concern form my companions but I collected myself for a few seconds then said I was OK, they should carry on, I'll walk a bit. The adrenalin usually carries you through for a while, I walked for five or ten minutes then got jogging again, ribs a bit painful to touch but I thought nothing to worry about. I was soon on the descent and arrived at Osmotherly in 3.53, about ten minutes slower than last year.

A quick cup of tea, restock the bag,then I was off up the hill out of the village. I gradually discovered that heavy breathing, coughing, and any real foot pounding were a bit painful, so I would have to get by without any of those. I ran all of the next section with Chris, who I'd chatted to for a while earlier on. A very competent performer (21 hour Bob Graham among other things), he was taking things easy as he had a head cold and didn't want to make it worse. We agreed to walk all the significant ups and jog everything else, and the roller coaster bit seemed to go past quite quickly. A lot more checkpoints than previous years, some marshalled, others self-clips, but all easy to spot and the weather was almost perfect for running on this section. But on the long climb up towards Blowarth I was struggling with Chris's pace a bit so I suggested he push on, which he declined to do initially but then did just after the checkpoint at the crossing.

By now it had clouded in again and started to rain. It didn't look too bad though so I put on a light Pertex top, not a great decision. Soon afterwards I caught a lady runner who was having trouble with her rucksack. The waist buckle had broken so she'd tied the ends together and now couldn't get it untied to get her jacket out. She said she was OK but these moors can be tough on even the smallest misfortunes at times, so we worked at the knot for a few minutes to get her waterproof liberated, then I carried on my way. It was raining pretty steadily now and I was starting to get cold. I also knew I was hurting a bit more so should take some painkillers, but I was now breaking one of my own rules, the one that says when you know something isn't right stop and fix it before it gets out of hand. I'd convinced myself that it wasn't far to Kildale and I would sort things out there, but it was actually still 6 or 7 miles further on. Still, I carried on and caught one or two other runners, one of whom was Jon himself going through a bit of a bad patch - not surprising really, he's running an ultra every week for a year and had had practically no sleep in the run-up to this one because of the organisation required. He perked up later though and went on to beat me by more than 20 minutes.

Eventually I got to Kildale, rather cold and wet, but surprisingly back exactly on last year's schedule  - I'd covered the ground from Osmotherly ten minutes faster than ever before. I had been a bit concerned that my total lack of any hill training so far this year was going to bite me, but I think the speed work and Chris's pacing over the hillier bit got me through. Nevertheless, I needed a bit of TLC so I stayed for a couple of cups of tea,  put on a clean dry top and proper waterproof, took a couple of paracetamols and sorted out supplies. I stayed there about 15 minutes, far too long for a stop in a fifty mile race but I felt it was necessary at the time.

I just about made my target of Roseberry Topping before the lights went out and gratefully accepted the jelly babies on offer from marshal Pat on the top. Then it was just on with the torch and off across the last bit of moor, up the last hill and down through the woods to the finish. In the three runnings of this event it has had three finishes  -  the cricket club, the rugby club, and now this year at the Sea Cadets hall. I think the Sea Cadets is two or three hundred yards further down the road than last year's Rugby Club finish, the significance of which was not apparent to me until I got to the bright lights and the finish line to discover that my time was 11 hours, 23 minutes and  1 second  - just 1 minute and 49 seconds longer than last year! All things considered though, I can't complain.

I didn't feel great at the finish, but stayed around for an hour for some tea and chat and to luxuriate in a dry shirt. I stayed for the prizegiving. The winner came in with a time of just under eight and a half hours - these guys are amazing. I got the Vet 60 award, introduced by Jon as "the first old b...d to get home". Can't ask for more. I drove back to the hotel for a long shower, and just before crawling into bed reflected that Pat was by now just about finishing his stint on top of Roseberry Topping and packing up his tent to walk down. These guys are the real heroes of any event.

Two days later my legs are fine, I think must be in reasonable shape for the year. Only problem is I still can't cough or laugh without wincing!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Back to the hills

I hadn't been back to the Lakes or any other hills for that matter since the Tour de Helvellyn back in December.  Every time I looked at the forecast it was gales. I've been picked up by the wind a couple of times in the past and it's an experience I don't want to repeat so I stayed away. But with the Hardmoors coming up and a fair bit of Bob Graham reconnoitering to be done and John K waxing lyrical about the Lakeland 100 course I thought it was about time I got my act together and got up there. Nothing too taxing for starters, I would go for a walk, boots and all, so I opted for what I could make of Leg 2 of the BG Round.

There's a lot of renovation going on at Tebay services so I forewent the full English for a sausage butty in the car which saved a bit of time and put me in the car park at Threlkeld just after nine. Out I got into the bright blue but still rather windy day and sidled off down to the river to begin the climb up Clough Head. I should have known better for a first day out of course because this is the second biggest climb on the whole Round, luring you in with a gentle ramble up to the Old Coach Road then hitting you with over 1500 ft of full frontal grass to the top. I took well over the hour (the BG schedule says 50 minutes) but once on top, out of the shade and into the sunshine, it seemed worth it and I breezed along the mostly frozen ground feeling all was well with the world.

I had to stop on the pull up to Great Dodd to attend to incipient blisters (just when did I last wear these boots?), but apart from that the sun and wind accompanied me to Sticks pass in fine style. There was another lone walker a Dodd or so ahead, but otherwise I saw no-one for five or six miles. Maybe I'm selfish or just antisocial but I'm happy with it like this.

After the pass more people and more clouds showed up so it was clear I'd had the best of the day. But I carried on over Raise, then Whiteside lived up to its name with the path becoming completely snow covered from here on, easy to follow the footprints now up Lower Man to reach the usual cluster of humanity at the strange but efficient cruciform shelter on Helvellyn summit. But as promised the wind was getting stronger as the day wore on, odd moments of having to stop and crouch, looking for convenient rocks to hang on to if it all got out of hand. I had the usual minor difficulties finding the tops of Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon in the clag, but then they were done and I was down into the daylight again at Grisedale Tarn.

I'd enjoyed the day but the wind was dampening my enthusiasm for going higher again, so I ignored Fairfield and Seat Sandal and scuttled off down Tongue Beck to Grasmere, tea, and the bus back to Threlkeld. A good enough return to the fells, but we won't dwell on how long I took. We all have to start again somewhere.