Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Lakeland 100 - "The most important muscle in your body is your brain"

For the last couple of years my blog has been mostly good news  -   places visited, runs run, achievements achieved, interesting things learned an so on. Well, last Saturday I had a bit of a downturn and pulled out of a race that I could and should have completed. It annoyed and frustrated me hugely, but I've had a day or two to think about it and look at some of the facts, and I think I now know what went wrong. Setting it down will be good for me and may be of interest to anyone who has had a similar experience, either last weekend or at other times.

The Lakeland 100 is a tough but by no means impossible event for the average tourist ultra-runner. I had run it twice before. In 2010 I stopped at Ambleside (with 90 out of the 105 miles completed) because I had wasted too much time in the middle stages and simply ran out of time at the pace I was able to go near the end. In 2011 I completed the course a couple of hours or so inside the 40 hour time limit feeling I could have speeded up a bit at the finish if it had been required. I know the route well and last year I finished the Lakeland 50 in just under 10 hours. This year I was generally better trained, having run PB's at the Highland Fling and West Highland Way races and finished a number of other "training" ultras comfortably and in good shape. I went into the Lakeland with a plan for 35 hours which I felt was conservative and which I was confident with, and didn't doubt that even if I needed a bit of wiggle room for unforeseen setbacks, that I would finish OK.

The outline story is that in the event I was very comfortable to Braithwaite (32 miles) but then spent the next 35 or so miles unable to eat or drink anything of note due to constant nausea. I eventually accepted that I had been running on empty for too long near the top of the climb out of Howtown (around 68 miles), so returned to Howtown and retired. I had not been remotely near the cut-off times. I got the bus back to Coniston, slept for a few hours, and felt completely fine the next morning (when the race was still going on), fit enough to have started again. So what was the problem?

Well, one or two friends have suggested that the race was too close to my run in the West Highland Way five weeks ago, but I don't really buy that. If you target one ultra as a life-changing event then you probably don't get really as fit as you need to be for it and it may take a long time to recover, but for those of us who participate fairly regularly (I've run over 40 ultras in the last seven years), then you get fit enough to compete at your chosen level, recover quickly and move on. I've never had the sensation described by some people as "still having the last race in the legs" three or four weeks later. I had no major muscular or joint problems. I was worried about a chronic knee problem going in to the race, but I strapped it up well and on the day it caused no more than a minor annoyance at times. I know how to look after my feet so I don't normally get blisters. I've practiced hydration and fuelling over a lot of events so I think I know what works for me. Conditions were not ideal (a bit warm to start with followed by rain) but certainly not the extremes you get in the Alps. So for a day or two I was puzzled, but I tried to remember my race in detail to see if I could work it out.

Successful world-class coaches such as Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford talk about dramatically improved performance coming from the sum of a large number of small gains, and of course this works for everyone, not just elite athletes.  I think what I learned last weekend is that the reverse is also true; performance can be severely compromised by an accumulation of small errors of judgement. You get one or two things wrong and the process starts; if you then don't use your brain to recognise and correct them , you just get into a downward spiral to eventual failure.

Let's go back to the beginning. 6pm on a sunny Friday evening in Coniston and we were away. The "warm-up" legs over to Wasdale went easily and I reached Seathwaite in 1hr 39mins (plan 1,45), Eskdale in 3,23 (3,30) and Wasdale in 4,56 (5,00). The views were stunning, particularly looking back to Burnmoor Tarn with a stream of headlamps reflecting off the still water, and it felt a pleasure and a privilege to be on the course. I should mention two things here though. Firstly, I don't get thirsty, not running, not even in a normal day. If I go for a walk in the hills a litre will keep me going for 8 hours or so in normal conditions. So the received wisdom of "drinking to thirst" just doesn't work for me, and I've had to work out what I think I should take in. In ultras I normally drink about a litre every three hours in the early, more active parts of a race, going down to a litre every four hours after tiredness slows me down. I don't know how this water intake compares with other runners, I would be interested to know. As it was a warm evening at the start, I upped this a bit for the first leg or two, then cut back to a litre per three hours as it got cooler between Wasdale and Braithwaite. I found the climbs over the passes easy enough, kept jogging the downhills and flats, and had drunk 3,5 litres by the time I got to Braithwaite, which I reached in 9,41 (10,00 plan). 

The second issue I have is that I don't like the taste of water on its own, so I'm always playing around with different flavours. On Friday I was using SIS GO Hydro Tablets which I hadn't used much before but which had a pleasant lemon flavour. But because this is an electrolyte I was not taking Succeed (S-Caps), which I usually use when hydrating with "non-electrolyte" drinks. This may have been mistake No 1, playing with a non-familiar electrolyte. I'm not sure, because latest thinking seems to be that electrolyte supplements are over-rated anyway, but the wisdom of doing this certainly played on my mind a bit later in the race.

However, on checking back, my first clear mistake in this first 30-odd miles is that I ate too much in relation to the water I was drinking. It's easy to eat early on in a race, particularly if you choose to walk all the uphills, so with ginger cake, flapjack, soup (brilliant at both Wasdale and Buttermere!) supplemented by regular gels and shotbloks, I took in about 1500 calories before Braithwaite. Now I think the figure is that you can digest while active is around 200/300 calories per litre of water, which meant I needed nearer to 5-7 litres instead of the 3,5 litres I had drunk. So by Braithwaite, although I didn't know it, I was already either over-full or dehydrated.

Braithwaite is a sort of oasis in the Lakeland 100, the end of the really tough ground, the first place you can get inside for a bit of a break, the first place serving real food. I was pleased with my efforts so far so rewarded myself with two full bowls of pasta and sauce, and a couple of cups of tea. You can see where we're going here (although I couldn't at the time), the food to liquid balance, already bad, just got a lot worse. Walking out of the hall I suddenly didn't feel great, but just put it down to eating too quickly, I felt I just needed to digest the food so decided to walk along the road and up the hill to the Glenderaterra valley. Once past the Latrigg car park I started running all the flats and downhills again, feeling that I was going strongly, although I still felt queasy and the SIS drink was now a real turn off. I drank nothing during the leg but had a cup of tea at the Blencathra checkpoint.

Another error was coming up here. At this point, in my bit of the field it was mid-morning and starting to get hot. I read a report recently about the recent extra-hot Western States race this year where the RD at the briefing said something like "It's going to get hot. Forget about your pre-planned splits and slow down. Drink plenty and you'll survive".  What happens if you go too fast in hot weather and don't drink enough is that your body temperature rises and you feel nauseous. In the 18 miles from Blencathra to Dalemain I drank maybe 750ml of water in tiny sips, plus a cup of tea at Dockray. I had stopped putting the SIS tabs in but could not drink enough water in one go to use the S-Caps (you need a good slug of water when you take one or you tend to get immediately sick). So no electrolytes from here. On the walk up to the Old Coach Road I passed Nick Ham who was struggling. He said he felt he had overdosed electrolyte and might have to pull out (he didn't, he went on to finish in under 34 hours) but that didn't help my current frame of mind in trying to work out what was wrong with me. And instead of slowing down I speeded up. I had this idea sort of pre-programmed into my brain that this is the part of the course where you have to get a move on because it's so runnable, jam for nothing sort of thing. The result was that I did this 18 miles almost an hour faster than I had planned, arriving at Dalemain in 16hrs 52 min (against an 18 hour plan).

I had it in mind that having a good rest at Dalemain would put me right. I lay down for a quarter of an hour or so at the checkpoint, chatting briefly to Jon Steele who was there at the same time and just getting ready to leave. I then managed to drink two cups of Coke and two cups of tea slowly, and had a bowl of beef stew. After about 45 minutes I didn't really feel any better, but it was hot and there was no real shade either inside or outside the checkpoint marquee so I decided to push on. I walked steadily along to Pooley Bridge then up the hill onto Askham Fell, with a continuous stream of good wishes from Lakeland 50 starters coming past me. When the ground levelled out before the Cockpit everyone around me was running, so I started to run too (why, I ask in retrospect!!), and kept up a steady jog all the way to Howtown which I reached at around 1.40pm. I hadn't drunk anything since Dalemain so felt pretty rough when I arrived.  I was even more determined this time to get sorted out so I just lay down on the grass at the back of the checkpoint and sipped my way through another couple of cups of tea. I told the checkpoint staff I was going to be there a while. After an hour or so I still didn't feel any different but I reasoned that walking slowly wasn't going to be any worse than just sitting around doing nothing, so I set off again.

Now that the main rush of the Lakeland 50 had gone through, I was going no slower than the people around me as I made my way up Fusedale, overtaking some people on the way. But by the time I got to the point where the path starts its final right-left push for the top my energy level had pretty well reached rock bottom. Normally I never stop on climbs, but on this one I just had to sit down. I considered the situation. It seemed to me that I wasn't going to get through this bad patch, which had now been going on for something like 10 hours. I was no nearer to being able to drink any real volume of water than I was at Braithwaite more than 35 miles back. I might get over to Mardale but it was unlikely that I could get any further. Decision made, it was over for today. I turned round and went slowly back to Howtown, where I retired from the race at 4.25pm. As I sat around at the checkpoint waiting for the bus back to Coniston, L100 runners were still arriving at Howtown, well over 3 hours after I had first got there; some of these people finished the event through to Coniston.

Getting back to Coniston took a while, I was back at maybe 10pm. Getting off the bus, I went immediately to the food counter in the school to satisfy a craving for lemonade and crisps. After that I felt fine.

So what is the learning from this? Well, from the story so far you can see that I made a number of mistakes which led to dehydration, and I then carried on making mistakes which prevented me from resolving the situation, which I could otherwise have done at many points throughout the day. Even at Howtown, had I sat around for two or three hours instead of one it is very likely that I could have got going again and completed the race. So my biggest takeout from this failure is that dehydration affects your judgement  - once your brain stops working logically then you're in danger of getting out of control. I'm never going to let this happen again. Pulling out of an event is a rare occurrence for me, and it hurts!

Practically, I'll do what I should have done long ago, take weight measurements over plenty of long training runs to get a better idea of how much fluid I do actually lose over a range of conditions, so I know how much I should be drinking (It's a genuine problem, I went out rock climbing near Llanberis yesterday; we were away from the car for over 6 hours, I drank nothing and didn't feel thirsty). I'll pay more attention to the calorie to fluid balance in future. And I'll try and get it programmed into my brain that if things are getting bad, the only practical way out of the situation is to stop and sort it out!

And the Lakeland 100? Well, after success in 2011, I thought I had its measure. Now there's a ghost to be laid. I'll be back next year.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pacing and the Lakeland 100

With the Lakeland 100 coming up in two weeks I thought I'd better re-familiarise myself with bits of the course that I haven't seen for a couple of years, particularly those done in the dark, so yesterday morning I got myself up early to be parking in Coniston at 6.30am ready for a long and probably hot day.

It's surprising how much the countryside changes, or is managed, over a period of two years. The old rocky defiles of the Walna Scar Road have been filled in to make it almost motorway-smooth and the deforestation around Grassguards Farm has changed its appearance completely  - and the new forestry road there has helped dry out the very boggy section to our advantage! Even the minor details change over time. The first time I reccied the route back in 2009, the final turn up to Sail Pass before Braithwaite was so obscure that I missed it and had to go back. Then it grew a cairn, now the cairn has got big enough to fall over and the "turn" is quite clearly the most-used path at the junction  -  the Lakeland 100 is creating its own trails, as the Bob Graham has done over the years. Well, the day was as hot as predicted, so I walked anything that smelled of uphill and jogged the rest at a very modest pace, and eventually arrived at Braithwaite after nine and a half hours on the go. Good enough. A quick ramble from Ambleside to Coniston next week to remember the fell after Tiberthwaite and I'll be good to go. I ran this in the Lakeland 50 last year but just made it to the finish in daylight, and things change in the dark.

So I started putting together some sort of plan for the race. Now the Lakeland 100 is quite a gnarly event, not to be taken lightly, and a certain amount of unpleasantness ensues if you get it wrong. By my own rule of thumb I should be able to get round in about 30 hours (3x Lakeland 50 time), but my ambition this year is for a completion in good shape, in whatever time it takes - I don't want a long recovery period afterwards with the UTMB coming up 5 weeks later. Allow a few hours spare for the wheels to come off occasionally and this means I'm targeting 35 hours. In any case my record in this event isn't great; in 2010 I stopped at Ambleside, by that stage going too slowly to complete in the 40 hours, and in 2011 I finished in 37:39 having had to stop for a longish sleep at Kentmere, so a 35 hour plan seems sensible. 35 hours is an average of 3 miles an hour start to finish, including stops. Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the strategy for completing this race and enjoying most of it (we do this for fun remember) has two key elements:

1. Get to Braithwaite feeling good. By here, you've all the really tough stuff behind you but it's still only one third distance. If you're feeling bad by here, the rest is going to hurt quite a lot.

2. Don't waste energy early on running in places where you should walk. There is a lot of easy ground in the middle and later parts of the course, and having to walk this at three miles an hour or less is a great way to ruin your overall average.

So I put together an initial plan which sees me at Seathwaite in 1.45, Wasdale Head in 5 hours, and Braithwaite in 10 hours, and so on. Out of interest, I then checked this against Nick Smith's time split predictor based on the 2010 race actual finishes  - What I found was a bit of a shock. Plugging a 35 hour target  into Nick's model told me I should be at Seathwaite in 1.21  and Braithwaite in 8.31 -  suicidally fast according to my thinking. But there are two linked factors at play here, both coming from the way that Nick has constructed the model (don't get me wrong, this is not a criticism, it's a great and fascinating tool, you just have to understand the way that it works).

The figures are based on the times that runners actually took in the 2010 event. I looked a bit closer at the sensitivity of the target time, and a very abbreviated spread is shown below:

You can see for example that if you target a 33 hour finish the model tells you to start much more conservatively than for 35 hours. What happened is that the 35 hour result was skewed by two competitors in particular who started out at the model's 30 hour pace then "blew up" and finished very slowly indeed. So if you use this model to have a go at planning your race, check the sensitivities on either side of your target before you go firm on a plan.

But the second and more important point is that the model reflects what runners actually did, and not perhaps what they ought to have done. My stake in the ground here is that I believe that the majority of runners, and especially middle to back of pack performers, start far too fast when competing in long distance events. It may appear that I'm diametrically opposed to Stuart Mills here (we've had some debates about it!) but I don't think I am. A couple of points to think about:

1. I've analysed the results of a lot of races over the past few years, and one very consistent trend that comes out is that over the course of a race, slower performers slow down significantly more than faster ones. The good guys keep running all the runnable bits, they just go slower. The weaker performers are walking everything way before the end. Now assuming that you are unlikely to walk at much faster than a 15 minute mile pace, whereas even a slow jog gets you 12 minute miles on level ground or downhill, being able to run the runnable stuff for as long into the event as possible pays huge dividends. To do this you need to conserve your energy early on, not run uphills at a marginally faster rate than you could walk them.

2. As everyone says, overall performance in ultras, and particularly how you fare when you have a few miles already done, is largely governed by your mental attitude. How do you stay feeling good, and therefore focussed on the task in hand. Some runners (most likely near the front) will get this from feeling competitively successful, beating their peers, having a chance to win and so on. I know people who feel good so long as they are ahead of their plan, beating their splits  - a danger here of course is that if you fall behind your plan the motivation takes a big knock. After well over 50 marathons and ultras in the past few years I know what keeps me going - I like to feel, until the finish is comfortably in sight, that I have "something in hand", I could go faster if I chose but I'm taking it easy. You only get this by starting conservatively. I've done races where it hurt from a quarter of the way in; I don't like it and I try to not let it happen these days - if things start to feel tough I slow down, have a rest, get it sorted now rather than hanging on hoping that things will improve. I've done marathons with both negative and positive splits; we could argue forever over which gets you the fastest time on the day, but I know which ones feel better, the ones where you're accelerating to the finish rather than desperately hanging on. Of course everyone slows down in an ultra, but it's the perceived effort that's the key. When you're 50 miles in, does it still feel fun? Remember, we're not talking here about winning the race or getting your absolute best time, we're talking about finishing the event successfully and in good shape.

So as we set out on the 26th July, I'm expecting to be one of the last to reach Seathwaite. But I'm also hoping to be able to run the newly-surfaced Garburn Road down to Troutbeck a few (!) hours later. If you're interested this is my plan:

But I have a number of ex-military friends who say that the only thing that you can guarantee about a plan is that it never survives the first contact with the enemy.