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.


Richard Lendon said...

Thanks - really interesting post. Agree - it's the big steep hills that get you!

Debs M-C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debs M-C said...

Another outstanding blog post, Andy. Great reading!
Debs M-C

Ali Bryan-Jones said...

Brilliant stuff Andy. I'm sure if you padded your blog posts out with a few anecdotes and photos you would have the makings of a good book.

Anonymous said...

Interesting one, Andy. It took me 2gin 'n tonics to get thru' it ;-)

You mention the high %age of folk who finish WHW race in under 30 hours ~ let's call that, in round figures, "within 80% of the time allowed".

How does that compare with the %age of folk who finish UTMB "within 80% of the time allowed"? And the same for Hardmoors 110, WS100, Hardrock etc etc.

The majority of WHW finishers finish within this 80%; but I think it is very different for, e.g., UTMB and Hardrock.

Someone more skilled than me can do the sums (spreadsheet???); but I suspect that on this basis UTMB and Hardrock would both be rated "tougher" than WHW.

Also, off at a tangent here,because of the early evening start time everyone in UTMB has to run through a full night; but this is not the case for WHW.

Murdo tM

John Kynaston said...

Thanks so much for that Andy.

Another thought provoking post.

As you know I'm doing the Lakeland 100 this year and I foudn the comparison of that race with the whw that I know well to be really helpful!

Thanks for putting so much thought into and I hope you recover soon and back exploring the Lakes.

J.Steele's 50 in 52 said...

Really enjoyed that Andy. For me the hardest was the Lakeland 100 purely for the fact my feet were trashed. So that was my feet through a silly mistake not the course. A bgr will be harder then any of the others when I finally get round due to time and climb where if it was 30 miles further at a slower pace then this would be easier. So as you say time is what makes these events when the body is functioning 100 % ok. Let's through badwater and Spartathalon into the equation ;0)). Really impressed with the graphs

Peter Duggan said...

And you know what the record for the Bob Graham is? ;-)

DaveT said...

Fantastic, thought provoking post. If I have a bad run, it was a tough course. If I had a good run, it was an easier course. Simple!?

Unknown said...

A very thoroughly thought out post, Andy.
I did the Heart of Scotland 100 the same year I did the WHWR.
The soles of my feet nearly dropped off on the HoS, because of poor shoe choice for the conditions and terrain (those 20 miles in the middle), yet I ran the WHWR comfortably a few weeks later wearing the same shoes (with carefully applied protection to all the fresh skin on my feet!)

Tim said...

Another brilliant and thoughtful post Andy. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

As usual, really useful, Andy. Compulsory reading for all overland ultra runners!

Mike Mason said...

excellent read Andy. My eyes started squinting at the graphs. The final comment about the Race Director excellent ..I smiled when I though of Dario on this one ear bashing Jon Steele and I for a minor directional error. I have to say I find the long technical accumulated descents most well as any climbs and of course any flats.....

Anonymous said...

How about the Barkley 100 as being the toughest?

Most years nobody at all manages to complete the full distance. The first finisher ever was a Brit, Mark Williams ~ who has also done WHW race several years back.


_andy said...

Thanks for that Andy - excellent, considered thoughts. Great blog.


P.S. A pleasure to meet you near Inversnaid during the Fling last weekend - well done on the MV60 win!