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.


Ali Bryan-Jones said...

Another thought provoking post, Andy, as expected. Peter Duggan ran the Auchtertyre to Fort William section quicker than the first half in 2011, so it isn't only the winners that do it.

The best way I found of learning to run slow was to do fartlek - fitting is some nice slow easy intervals between the fast ones. I reckon this got my body used to feeling like that pace was an easy recovery pace that I could manage when my legs were done in, plus you also get the benefit of the faster pace intervals as well. I think this works better than going for a long slow run since you have to really concentrate on an efficient form during the slow intervals so that you can recover in time for the next fast one.

That way you can spend 23 hours running at a recovery pace on the West Highland Way and in theory should finish feeling fresher than when you started.

Andy Cole said...

Yes you're right Ali, there are one or two people outside of the groups I took stats for who consistently run a very good second half. Peter is one, Bob Allison another, but they are exceptions and still guys who come fairly well up the field. The overall trend is that the slower your overall time, the less well you handle the second half.

Debs M-C said...

Great post, Andy.
And your comment on my blog had me looking up bus timetables :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy, Very interesting stuff as usual.
I had a look at my splits.
In 03, 04, 05, 09, 10 and 11 I was quicker in the second half but not 06 and 08. Each year brings it's own issues in the weeks and months before and then during the race. I'd like to join different bits of a few years races together and then get the ideal one...haha
2009, 65th to Rowerdennan then 5th fastest from Lundavra to FW. I did have a rubbish run early on so was running on 'how I felt' and not to a particular time pace but it got better(much!)as the day went on.
All the best,

Dale Jamieson said...

another great post Andy and it somewhat resonates with what I've said previously; that the WHW is more difficult (for me at least) than the BGR simply because it involves more non-stop running.

Karl said...

Good read that Andy. I generally employ a run walk strategy from the start in all my ultras. I walk every five minutes for the duration of a short feed (anywhere between 30sec - 3 min), this helps give me some rest. The same kind of "rest" you refer to when you mention the Lakeland 100 and UTMB.

Santababy said...

interesting stuff, does that mean we should be doing longer runs though? Kate Jenkins would most certainly say no, what about others?

thebeiruttaxi said...

Hi Andy,

Pace control and nutrition are the two keys to running long (apart from foot welfare and climate).

I rand the fling last year with a slow start (based on it being my longest race to that point) and found it both counter-intuitive and difficult to stay slow when I was rearing to go. I did make good progress through the field and faded less than others but a sore knee and missing nutrition at around mile 38 made the last 12 miles slower than they should have been.

Creating an aerobic base so that 11-12 min/miles are a very low demand on your system (and being able to stick to the 11-12min pace) is a key strategy.

Robert Osfield said...

Going out to fast, or just not fit enough to keep the pace going? That's a key question for ultra running. As a fellow engineer I must admit you approach to analysing this conundrum is rather familiar. I guess Engineers are probably born rather than bred!

From the sound of your appraisal of past performance it looks like a combination of better pacing, nutrition and improve race specific fitness will all help.

Like others I think better pacing isn't just about going out at more sensible pace, but building in regular walking breaks to even parts you feel you can run. Walking is more efficient - uses less calories per mile than running so saves energy - as long as you are warm enough, and lowers the heart rate to give it a rest, and allow more scope for your digestion to kick in and get fuel and water into your blood stream, muscles and organs.

The lower demands during walking breaks also allows the liver to catch up with demands of converting various compounds like proteins and lactate to usable fuel glucose, and to release fat for use.

I also believe that running really slowly is inefficient, we are better off using walking breaks + faster running for the same average speed but less calories, and more mixing up of muscles used. One way to test this theory out is to wear a HR monitor and look at how many calories you use when deploying run/walk vs slow run for a given route.

Anonymous said...

Good one, Andy. Firstly, for the benefit of the yougsters, what's a slide rule? I still use mine ;-)

Secondly, you say that you can't run the last bit simply because you are too tired. Is that tired because of the number of hours you have been on the go, or tired through your exertions? The likes of Richie C and Terry C have long since finished, so their hours on the go are much less, and they won't get this "many hours on the go" fatigue. But presumably for those 15 or 16 hours that they are on the go they will have been exerting themselves much more than the rest of us (running up all those hills which we take at a varying pace walk). This would imply that the tiredness you speak of is as a result of hours on the go, and it would be kind of cumulative. So someone on the go for 34 hours by the time he finishes will be more tired (lack of sleep), so he goes slower, so he takes longer, so he gets more tired..... a self-perpetuating circle.

So maybe the trick is to get it all over in 15 or 16 hours to avoid this tiredness (and grab all the hot water @ the showers....). Easy!


Tim Bateson said...

Andy, Great post as ever. I look forward to reading your updates. I am still quite new to running but I am beginning to think even effort is the key. I think speed walking tough climbs, or technical sections makes. I think letting your heart rate get too high early on, is a big part of what creates fatigue in the latter stages. Like you mention a sub 3 hour marathon runner is likely to have a better race the a seasoned Munro-Bagger. I think someone following a 60 to 80 mile a week marathon plan, has higher level of base fitness than most ultra runners. In fact my current training is geared far more towards marathon running than ultra running.

For my marathons I think a small negative split does help, for me this is more to do with the psychology of chasing people down. This is also true on Ultras, setting off relatively quickly and have people stream past does not help me speed up any! I have not run a 100 miler yet (100km has been my furthest). I have found that saving energy to put in more speed for the last 10 miles of a 50 miler has never panned out for me. That could be linked to hydration, food or trying too hard early on. My next race is the HM55 and I plan to try and enjoy it more than anything else. I went out hard and fast for the HM60 my previous race. I managed to finish relatively well, but it is the worse day I have ever had running. It was a huge positive split and my first death march. So pacing for the HM55 is playing on my mind. I hope to finish the race which is a B race, with the luxury of knowing where I could have push harder if needed.

Hopefully, catch up with you at the HM55.