Monday, 16 December 2013

Runners or Tourists?

Whenever I have a tough time in an event and come out with some sort of disappointing performance I can guarantee that some of my wise friends will say afterwards, "Ah, but it's because you're trying to do too many races. You hadn't recovered from the last one." To be fair this is a fairly common point of view, and these guys are in good company. In his "Lore of Running" all-time running guru Tim Noakes says that "....recovery from a short ultramarathon may take up to six months and between 9 and 12 months for runners who compete in 160km/24-hour events. Although you may be able to race two marathons a year, runners who wish to race ultramarathons regularly for more than a few years should limit these to one per year, with the possibility of running one other long race three to four months before, or four to five months after, that ultramarathon."  I have many running friends who would say the same - "pick your big race, train for it and give it your best shot, anything else is likely to compromise your performance".

Now all these guys may be right. But I'm choosing not to believe them. Two reasons. First, if you load all your ambition, hope and focus on to just one event, and then for some reason it doesn't work out (say you twist your ankle or catch a cold three days before the race), then you're left with not much satisfaction for all the months of effort you've put in; and second, I just enjoy the events  -  and one day per season seems a rather meagre ration for something you spend quite a lot of your time thinking about and preparing for.

Some runners seem to have no difficulty in successfully completing multiple long events in a season. In 2012 Terry Conway broke the record for the West Highland Way then 5 weeks later broke the record for the Lakeland 100. In the same year Jon Steele ran an ultra a week for 50 weeks, and Nick Ham regularly works through an annual programme that many runners would consider a 5 or 10 year project. There are plenty more examples. But are these guys just exceptional? Maybe those of us who are of more modest abilities just can't cope with more than one or two big races a year. Maybe.

I've been mulling this over and two thoughts keep coming back into my mind. The first one is the recent West Highland Way podcast in which John Kynaston interviews John Vernon.  The starting point and prompt for the interview was that this year JV completed his tenth WHW in as many years. Now this in itself is an impressive enough achievement but it's by no means the only thing John has on his CV.  He does several long races every year; in the same 10 years he also has 10 Fellsman finishes  -  a race generally thought to be about as tough as you can get without running a hundred miles  -  and in 2010 he completed the LDWA 100, the West Highland Way, the Lakeland 100,  the UTMB, and the Hardmoors 110, all within a four month period.  I've known John for a few years and we've shared many events; if I finish I normally finish faster  -  but I don't always finish and he always does!

When asked in the interview what was the secret of his high success rate, he was very clear. I like to do the events he said, but I don't see a need to do them fast, if I get home in something around double the winner's time then that's OK by me. Depends how you want to measure success I suppose, but it's a sound enough proposition.

The other thought took me back to a climbing trip to Chamonix about 15 years ago. My partner and I had ambitious plans and decided to kick off with a training day by going up Mont Blanc du Tacul. This is a straightforward snow climb but it's readily accessible from the valley and gets you quite easily up to over 4200 meters for a bit of altitude acclimatisation. To get there you descend a few hundred meters from the Aiguille de Midi cable car station, walk across the top of the Vallee Blanche, then climb up the face of the Tacul, reversing the whole thing on the way back. We took an early cable car up to the Midi and planned to be up, down and back to town by mid afternoon.

About half way up the Tacul face we caught up with another team, a pair of French girls, and we chatted for a moment or two while we all took a breather. They had set out quite early from the Cosmiques Hut which is quite close to the foot of the face. They were in no hurry, they said, they would probably take most of the day to get to the summit and return to the hut for another night. They were not really mountaineers, they insisted, "We are just tourists!". But they were clearly more than that, moving slowly but competently up the face. We pressed on to the summit, and after a few minutes set off down, meeting "les touristes", still on their way up, all smiles and clearly having a wonderful time. We got back to the Midi as planned, satisfied with our day but nevertheless somewhat knackered.

And so to 2014. Well, I've entered a lot of races. I suppose I have to admit that at the moment I'm unable to run at all  -  my last attempt to cover a flat 5 miles at the dizzy pace of 11 minute miles resulted in a recurrence of the calf strain that has kept me out of the game for the last six weeks or so  -  but I'm assuming that I will get through this frustrating interruption eventually. So, as I say, I've entered a lot of races.

And I'm thinking of becoming a tourist.

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