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.


John Kynaston said...

Really interesting post once again Andy.

Only you can work out what went wrong and it sounds as though you have figured lots out.

I must admit I do think tackling L100 5 weeks after whw is a big ask.

I also wondered whether the prospect of the UTMB coming up was also playing on your mind?

Anyway thanks for posting. We are always learning in this game.

BTW I really enjoyed the 2nd half of the UT 100k course. Report to come soon!

Looking forward to our 'decider' !!

Tim said...

Another interesting read Andy. I would say that I don't think you should pre-judge the issue and blame dehydration without more evidence. It sounds like you were drinking plenty and just maybe, you were actually drinking too much? It may be that your insensible losses are lower than average which is why you don't find yourself getting thirsty. It's certainly a difficult juggling act when you're also trying to keep cool. I think it more likely that hypoglycaemia affected your judgement.

If your stomach isn't playing ball and you're burning sugar up eventually your brain suffers and logical thought goes out the window.

Your plan of monitoring your your weight over long training runs is eminently sensible. Most of us just "suck it and see" (literally!). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. At least you'll have a far better idea what sort of ballpark you should be aiming for hydration wise. Maybe a few more crisps next time too? ;-)

Debs M-C said...

I'm still a huge Andy Cole fan. Not a failure, just saving yourself for bigger things.

I generally don't drink a lot during races, but I was guzzling anything I could get my hands on. Couldn't shake the thirst.

Take care and see you soon.

Robert Osfield said...

Tough day out Andy, thanks for sharing the account, it'll be useful to learn from in my own ultra's.

One thing that I did wonder is whether it was the combination of too much food taken when exercising followed later by water.

We when eat a significant amount of food our stomachs can digest for hours before releasing the food into our small intestine where the nutrient get absorbed. Only once past the small intestine does the body then work to absorb water from what's left over.

The release of the food from the stomach to the small intestine isn't continuously but will be done in batches. However, if you drink just water on an empty stomach it's possible for the water to be released quickly into your intestine. There is balance where a small amount of easily digestible food can be consumed with water (or as a drink) and can quickly be released, too much food will shut the release down.

Drinking water on a stomach that is already locked down digesting won't suddenly make it the food water/mixture into the intestine, instead it'll dilute the stomach acids and then the stomach will have to produce more acids to break down the food and just sit there even more full. Eventually it'll pass the food through but not till it's done it's job. You can't really force the issue to easily, sometimes you just have to be patient.

Doing lots of exercise at the same time will cut blood supply to the gut and slow digestion, also adrenalin also shuts down digestion. So slowing down and perhaps resting is important, it's also important to relax and as much as possible shut down the adrenalin production so no getting angry with your situation, or getting psyched up about making up lots of time etc.

Personally I'm trying to become a better fat burner and rely less on eating lots of food during training and ultras. I have changed my diet so I eat less carbs, and practice intermittent fasting as well as training in a fasted state. I have only run one 30mile ultra since this change though so can't yet report anything definitive.

Deb's and Marco are further along this exploration of lowering carb diet so are better placed to say how well it works. Marco has blitzed his Fling and WHWR PB's this year so it can't be harming progress.

If one can eat less during an ultra then the opportunities for getting gastric stress is diminished. The water intake side I think will look after itself, just drink by thirst. If you do get gastric stress then I think the most important thing is to slow down, perhaps to halt and don't anything or drink much till your stomach has cleared through.

Flip said...

Thanks for another excellent blog Andy.
When i ran the whw in 2010 i had a wonderful carefree run. The following week i did a fairly tough fast fell race. I honestly think i could have run anything a few weeks later without a problem.

This year i had a nightmare whw , my worst run ever in fact and i knew i wasn't right for Lakeland but started anyway. Almost straight away i knew i wouldn't last home and decided to pull out on the way to Wasdale. My view is that its the manner of your run rather than the race itself that effect lakeland a month later.

Anonymous said...

I gulped a bit when I read of your having TWO full bowls of pasta. Wasn't that overdoing it a bit, I thought. Then afterwards, when you guzzled lemonade and crisps and felt fine ~ I wondered I you should have been tucking into lemonade and crisps during the run, instead of some of the things you were eating / drinking. Difficult to know what is best! Very pleased to hear there are no major ill effects, though. Your online supporters were worried when we saw you had pulled out. MtM

Darren Firth said...

Really enjoy your blog posts Andy. Really honest post and gives me plenty of 'food for thought' (excuse the pun) as I consider what to do after the Ultimate Trails 100K

Richard said...

Hi Andy,

I think what your post highlights is the constant plight of the runner who struggles with being objective and subjective on his/her performance.

We reward ourself in training by "pushing" through the pain and logic barriers and then when we race we're supposed to be all rational and objective like the captain of a ship - monitoring systems and performance. This contradiction is never fully addressed in racing psychology.

Your narrative about having a "low period" (lasting 10 hours!!) shows how objectivity flies out the window during a race.