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:
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.