Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Run like the Devil

I don't often produce two posts in such quick succession, but I have something buzzing around and I need to write it down before it escapes. It started with a couple of views on my last post about training for the West Highland way. One was a direct comment on the blog by Robert Osfield, who said  "What factors caused you to walk in the latter stages of the WHW race?", and the other came in a Facebook exchange with Mike Raffan who made the point that many people run out of steam later in a race because they go off too fast, so we should teach ourselves to run more slowly at the start. Now if you follow my blog you'll know that I like to have a few figures to work with, and we're fortunate that we have the splits from all the recent WHW races, a real mine of information if you care to dig into it, so that's where we're going. I'm going to make some approximations to keep the sums simple, but when I was a lad most things were designed using a slide rule (three figure accuracy) so let's not fret too much about that.

I started by trying to get a measure of my normal mediocre performance over the second half of the race. My best time for the Highland Fling (the 53 miles to Tyndrum) is 10 hours 9 minutes, and on the one occasion that I ran the Devil of the Highlands (42 miles from Tyndrum to the end) it took me 7 hours 39 minutes. Easy then, I should be able to do the West Highland Way in something under 18 hours! Well, of course not; we go slower on the first half of the complete race because we're trying to save something in the tank for later, and we go slower on the second half because we can't go any faster. It's not as simple as this though, we'll come back to that later. I've heard a "rule of thumb" that if you double your Highland Fling time it should give you a pointer to your possible performance in the WHW. That would see me home in 20 hours 18 minutes, pretty respectable but, I suspect, very likely also unachievable. Let's look at what actually happened over the past 5 years (I'm not including my first run in 2007 because I was both injured and ill on the day of the race so it took a long and somewhat uncomfortable time, and not really representative of my normal performance).

The WHW "half way" timing point is Auchtertyre, not Tyndrum, so to compare with the actual shorter races I'm going to assume that someone going at my sort of speed in the WHW will take 45 minutes to cover the 3 miles between the two (this allows for a quick cup of tea at Auchtertyre as well!). Using this, my average time to cover the "Fling" distance in the actual WHW race is 12:03 (best 11:41, worst 12:17), that is about a couple of hours slower than my best Fling time. But my average time to cover the "Devil" distance is 13:24 (best 11:37, worst 14:19), which is almost SIX hours slower than my time in the actual Devils race. This drop in pace over the second half is fairly dramatic, and I wondered if I was unique in this.

Again to keep the sums simple, I then went back to using Auchtertyre as the reference point, and looked at how different runners "fade" over the second part of the race from Auchtertyre from the finish. I looked at two races, 2010 (the best conditions I have experienced) and 2012 (the worst). I also took runners from three parts of the field, the first 10 finishers, the last 10 finishers, and finishers 50-59 (the area of the race where I normally finish). The figure I decided to compare was the percentage of their total race time that runners spent on the section from Auchtertyre to the end - ie the last 45 miles, or the last 47% of the race.

This is how the averages looked:
                                                              2010         2012

Average of finishers 1-10                        51%             51%
Average of finishers 50-59                      53%             56%
Average of last 10 finishers                      57%             58%

There is definitely a pattern here, showing that although everyone fades to a certain extent in the second half, the trend is that the slower your overall time, the more you fade. It won't be a surprise to learn that of the groups I looked at, only two runners managed to spend less than half their overall time to the section from Auchtertyre to the end, and that these were Richie Cunningham in 2010 and Terry Conway in 2012  -  the winners. I also learned that I'm not unique, just a typical representative of the "mid-pack" group, with figures of 53% for 2010 and 57% for 2012.

So here's the essential conundrum: do the slower runners fade more because they are not fit enough to run a more even-paced 95 mile race, or because they started off too fast? You may say well that's the same thing, so I'll put it another way: if the slower runners started more slowly, would they get a better overall time?

Now if my target for a 23 hour race is realistic, and I want to run as consistently as the more able competitors, I can apply the statistics above and work out that the best time for me to get to Auchtertyre is after about 11 hours and 45 minutes of running. But this really needs some belief, because in the past 5 years my slowest time to Auchtertyre has been 11:32, and my fastest 10:56.  I did try a much slower start in 2011, when by chance I ran a lot of the early section with Peter Duggan. Pete had a plan to run under 20 hours by averaging 12 minute miles from start to finish, so instead of my normal 10:30's for this part of the trip, I too kept down to 12's. Keith Hughes was also close to us for these miles on that occasion. Keith went on to finish in a personal best well under 23 hours, and while Pete didn't get under 20 he was well under 21, so the slow start was clearly good for them. It didn't work for me, possibly because I wasn't in good enough shape for a respectable time that year anyway, but in any case I undid all the careful work by then pushing on up the Loch too fast to reach Auchtertyre in my normal sort of time, an effort that I surely paid for later.

Let's pause for a minute and go back to Robert's question - "What factors caused you to walk in the latter stages of the race?"  We all know that it's very difficult to remember how we felt at the time, but I'm pretty sure that on each occasion I was simply too tired to run. I tend not to get limb or joint injuries, and I make sure I look after my feet, so I think I just ran out of steam. I've never even been able to run the downhill through the forest at the end. For me this is an experience only associated with the West Highland Way. I've been able to run sections after 24 hours on the move in the Lakeland 100, the UTMB, and other long races. The reason I think goes back to the observation in my previous post, that the WHW course is so runnable. Having to walk up Black Sail Pass or the Col de Bonhomme for an hour or so because it just isn't runnable territory might feel tough, but it's walking - and that is always easier than running so you're getting something of a breather. And the consequential drop down the other side makes no demands on your aerobic system for quite a while. Apart from a few yards on Conic, and the odd little rise along the Loch, you only need to walk in the first 40 miles of the WHW if you choose to. And there might just be something to think about there.
So what have I learned from this little ramble? Well, I still think that the key to running a good WHW is to prepare by doing plenty of running. All things being equal, it's a race where the three hour marathon guy is likely to outperform the seasoned Munro-bagger.The more of that 95 miles you can run, the better.  But I'm also getting more convinced that pace tactics on the day are pretty important, and for many of us that means working out how to get a bit of "breathing space" in the first half of the race. So I agree with those who suggested it, yes, learning how to walk fast or run slowly, with minimum effort, is a skill worth practising. Then maybe, by the time we get to the Devil, we can take him on.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

How to train for the West Highland Way?

No this isn't a "this is what you do" sort of a ramble, much more along the lines of "what can I try next?" because although I've now done this particular event six times, I've come to the conclusion that I really have no idea what the best preparation for it might be.

The West Highland Way was my first "long" ultra, back in 2007. I didn't do it very well that year but I managed to finish, and in subsequent years I improved, albeit in fairly small steps, to my best time to date of 23 hours 34 minutes in 2010. Since then I've had two further finishes but both over the 26 hour mark. Disappointing, but on both those occasions I was thinking mainly of bigger races to come so I just turned up at Milngavie expecting a nice day out in a reasonable time without having to think too hard about it. But although there are for sure bigger, tougher races out there, 95 miles on foot is still something of an undertaking and I think I've paid the penalty for taking it a bit too lightly. So I've decided to give it the respect it deserves again and make it one of only two events that I will make my "targets" for the year. June 2013 will be three years since that PB, but I believe that if I can get it right I still ought to be able to achieve a "same day finish" (ie under 23 hours) before Father Time catches up with me. So that's the target nailed up, a bold enough step to start with, now, how to get there?

I looked back over my diaries to see what I had done over the meat of the WHW training period, ie from January to the start of the race, over the past five years:

I thought I might get some pointers from this, but each year looks very similar. I've never followed any sort of formal training plan, I've tended just to go out on outings that seemed attractive at the time, made sure I did a reasonable number of longer runs, and aimed to get to around a thousand miles in the bank by the start of the race. Last year I did some speed work earlier in the year, don't know whether it helped or not. Last year was also the only year I didn't do a spring road marathon. This was mainly because I got a bit bored with road running, but I suspect the discipline marathon training brings in running a fair amount of miles at a quicker pace than you normally go at in ultras actually sharpens you up for longer distances as well.

The two main conclusions I've been able to draw from looking back are (1) whatever I've done has consistently produced a reasonable time in the Highland Fling, and (2) I don't convert my Highland Fling times into good WHW times as well as many other runners do. I put forward an empirical model in a blog back in March 2011, derived from a lot of actual results from many runners, to predict how a runner might perform in one classic race based on his actual performance in another. Using this my Fling times over the past 3-4 years should put me in the 22.15 - 22.30 area for the WHW, yet my actual times have been nowhere near this, so what is going wrong?

Well, reading between the lines as they say, I suspect it has been a combination of two things. In my earlier runs on the WHW I was very poor at managing hydration, fuel, and electrolyte balance, all things that you can get away with being wrong for 10 hours but not for 24. I've learned the game much better on these now. Then for the past two or three years I have definitely been looking beyond the WHW at the Lakeland 100, the UTMB, the Tor des Geants, and so on. These are all races where above all you need an ability to keep climbing hills, your ability to keep running on the flat bits is of far less importance, so on reflection from around March-April  each year I've probably put too many hours into long days in the hills at a moderate pace (which I really enjoy) and not enough into running on trails. For what makes the WHW stand out from many of the other long classics is that it is very much a runner's race, not just for the guys at the sharp end (they run everything anyway) but for any average performer wanting a reasonable finish time. The ground is mostly easy underfoot, the climbs are modest and gentle, there is nothing to stop you running for most of the way. And yet I have never run a step beyond Kinlochleven, and never achieved much more than a shuffle beyond Glen Coe. I need to learn to run further!

Participation in ultra running has really exploded over the past three or four years, and one result of this is that where in the past you struggled to find any training advice at all, now you are spoilt for choice. So I decided to follow a pre-set plan to get you to a 100 mile race in six months, a bit more discipline in my game plan for once. What is encouraging is that many of the suggested plans have a lot in common, so they must come from some sort of consensus on how to do it. I picked mine because it seems to have the right amount of miles for me and I can probably do it without getting injured. It really differs from what I have done in the past in how the miles are built up, because the main focus is on a long back-to-back each week. This is currently 20 miles on day 1 and 12 on day 2, but it builds gradually up to 30-20 in May. There is a rest day on either side of the back-to-back, then you run three consecutive much shorter sessions mid-week, in which you have the option of upping the speed a bit. Finally, there is a really easy week on every fourth week, again something I've never done consciously before.

To add some interest I've also entered a number of events between now and the WHW race, but I've made sure that these fit in with the overall scheme of things, and I plan to treat them as training outings rather than with the aim of getting a best time. For example the Wuthering Hike at 32 miles comes on a day when the schedule says 25, so I'll just balance this by doing 6 miles the following day instead of the 13 called for. I've also gone back to doing a spring road marathon again this year, at Blackpool in early April, but again I don't propose to go particularly quickly because there is a 15 mile trail run planned for the day before.

So how is it going? Well, early days yet but I think I'm getting into the swing of it. For the back-to-backs I'm currently doing a trail run on Saturday with a bit of undulation (normally around 2000ft total) but making sure that it's all runnable (and all run!), and a road or towpath outing on the Sunday. I may substitute a second trail run on Sundays after the marathon in April. The midweek runs are short enough to be done with a bit of speed (although they do get progressively longer as the weeks go by), and the two rest days seem to ensure that you go into each "block" of runs feeling fresh. The one thing that feels a bit strange is the "easy" week. I've only done one of these so far and it feels a bit like tapering - you feel you should be out there doing something!

Will all this work? Well, who knows, but it's good  to have a bit of a structured project on the go, and if I can make it to the Lochaber Leisure Centre in the last few moments of Saturday 22nd June, it will all have been worthwhile.