Thursday, 29 January 2015

Lakeland 100 Reccies - a view from the back

After several years of running the Lakeland 50/100 events I had decided to give them a miss this year; partly because an active weekend at that date didn't really fit with other things I have on for the year and partly because I didn't fancy getting involved in the inevitable scramble for places when entries opened on 1st September last year. The races filled up in something like 20 minutes, so it seems some sort of ballot is inevitable in future. That's the way of the ultra world now, contrasting with the first time I did the Lakeland 100 when  I put my entry in around Christmas I think.

It's always a good weekend though so I decided to volunteer to help. I guess I'll end up kit checking or suchlike in July, but volunteers were also asked if they could help out at the official "reccie" weekends. The idea of these is to give prospective entrants a chance to explore the course and meet some of their fellow competitors. The organisers also arrange some  talks on the afternoon before the actual outing on the course, covering topics like training, navigation and so on. It's a format that's been run successfully for some years now, and I thought it might be interesting to get involved so I said I was in. I expected I might be manning a checkpoint or something, but I was asked if I could be a "support runner". The idea is to have a few people who know the course spaced throughout the field on each reccie, to help out if anyone needs a hand or gets into trouble. The brief is to avoid doing any actual guiding as one purpose of the reccies is to get prospective competitors finding their own way around the course, but to try and make sure no-one gets too lost and that everyone who starts out shows up at the finish. This seemed like a good deal, a nice day out in the Lakes with a free bus to the start so I said yes straight away. Being still on something of a road to recovery from last year's injuries and not wanting to go too fast anyway, I volunteered to sweep (run behind the field and make sure that no-one gets left behind)  and I've done this for the first two reccies.

Now sweeping in an actual race (so I'm told), particularly in the latter stages of a long one, can be a bit of a tiring affair. You're likely to spend time with the final one or two competitors, and if they start to struggle you have accompany them probably quite slowly to the next checkpoint. Then if they drop out you have to get something of a shift on to catch up with the new tail end of the field before the process repeats itself. But for the reccies you have none of these problems; they're not particularly long days out so unless there's a disaster everyone's going to finish, no-one gets too distressed and you get a good day out with some nice people.

The first reccie was in November from Coniston to Buttermere. A bit of rain, a bit of mist, typical for the time of year, but it's a long, tortuous journey of two hours or more from Buttermere to Coniston by bus so we didn't get away particularly early and it was inevitable that the slower runners would finish in the dark. After a steady afternoon I put my torch on going up Black Sail Pass. The guy that I was with had actually done the course before, so the descent in the dark down to the bridge over the Liza and the Youth Hostel didn't come as a shock  -  as it clearly had done to runners I have been with on at least two Lakeland 100 events who hadn't reccied the course beforehand and who kept asking rather nervously if I was absolutely sure that it goes down here....

The second reccie last weekend was a short affair, 15 miles from Ambleside over to Coniston  -  the "finishing stretch" for both 50 and 100 events. But this one was timed to ensure that everyone got a chance to run (and navigate) in the dark. The talks were earlier in the day this time and the field set off from Ambleside at around 4.30pm. At the start I asked Terry Gilpin, one of the race directors and the course and reccie guru, what time the last runner finished this particular reccie last year  -  just before midnight was his warning. I said we would try to do better.

It was a pleasant evening, not too cold with a gentle breeze, with the odd spatter of snow or rain, difficult to tell which in the dark. It was interesting to watch the navigation techniques of the various people I was with through the evening. Some favoured the map, others the "roadbook" - a fairly detailed written description. I didn't see anyone following a GPS trace, so one up for the traditionalists, in my bit of the field at least! The last three miles from Tilberthwaite up and over to Coniston were a new experience for me in the dark; in the L100 it's always been into Sunday morning by the time I got to here, and on the one occasion I ran the L50 I (just) made it in the fading daylight of Saturday evening. So some learning for all of us. We all made it safely back to Coniston with the last group finishing in fine order just before 9.30pm, in plenty of time for a pint of Coniston Bluebird in the Black Bull before setting off home.

Next up is Buttermere to Dalemain at the end of March. It's the weekend after the Hardmoors 55 for me, but I somehow think it will still be a good day out.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Anglesey Coast Ultra

This was the third year running that I had entered the Anglesey Coast Ultra. In 2013 it was cancelled due to snow and in 2014 I was cancelled due to having a bad leg, so it was time that the race and I got our act together.

The Endurancelife coastal series comprises a number of events all based on scenic coastal locations around the UK. The only one I had run previously was the Exmoor Coast ultra back in 2013 and I had enjoyed it a lot. Each event in the series follows a common format of four races all starting and finishing at the same point. The "marathon" makes a complete loop of somewhere around 26-28 miles, the half marathon cuts the loop short and the 10k cuts the loop even shorter to give a race of 6-7 miles. The ultra completes the the marathon route then repeats the 10k to give a distance of between 32 and 35 miles. It's a format that is easy to organise and marshal (and of course gives competitors whose race doesn't go quite as planned on the day a softer option if required!). The courses are fully marked so no navigational skills are required. This last feature is not really my thing and the entry fees are quite high, but they do provide races in the winter months that are usually less affected by the weather than mountain events, and the "sign up, turn up and go" ambiance makes them easy to enter.

I was looking forward to the run, but was still a bit apprehensive on four counts. The main one was that it is a long time since I've run an ultra. I completed several last year with a combination of a lot of walking and a bit of jogging, but although the coastal series ultras are not long (this one was billed as 32,7 miles with 3550 ft of ascent) you have to maintain a steady 4 miles an hour to beat the cutoffs, and over any normal UK coast path this needs quite a bit of running. Still, I had to start again somewhere. Secondly, I was carrying 12lb or so additional ballast from a fairly lazy year and an indulgent Christmas holiday period, but again this is no real excuse not to go. Thirdly, after careful progress over nearly nine months now of recuperation I had tweaked a hamstring a week earlier and hadn't dared to run since, though I had walked every day. I hoped it would be OK. Finally, when I checked the weather forecast on Thursday it was far from promising  - high onshore winds, 4 degC maximum and periods of sleet and rain. But then I thought of what the Spine racers had been battling through this week and decided that these sort of conditions would seem like a day on the beach to them so I had better just get my plastic mac out and get on with it.

Anglesey's not too far for me so a 6am start from home saw me down there in good time for formalities at the Holyhead Breakwater Country Park. Getting out of the car, the wind made the cold seem even more so and the half mile walk in the dark from car park to the registration tent wasn't too pleasant. Registration was quick and efficient, leaving about 60 ultra candidates being briefed then hanging around in our duvet jackets in the tent until the last possible moment before we were called over to the start line. Thankfully there was only the briefest of holds here, then we were away at just about 8.30 am.

When you get moving things always feel better. At least it was dry and that's the way it stayed all day. It was cold and there was a steady 15-20 miles an hour wind from the West but apart from that we had a quite beautiful day, winter sunshine and great views, ample reward for those who turned up. I ran in a base layer, thin fleece and windproof jacket and was comfortable; taking hat or gloves off was chilly, but of course there were a dozen or so hardy shorts-wearers who didn't seem to feel the cold at all. We seemed to have just hit a lucky gap between two Westerly fronts.

My plan was simple; go fast enough enough to beat the cutoffs but not much faster; cut the route short if anything starts to hurt; have a nice day and get back before dark (I hadn't taken a torch). After a half mile of road and lane we hit the coast then followed the coast path up and around Holyhead mountain, beautiful territory. I was happily placed at the absolute tail of the field, about two hundred yards behind the last runner in front, but going at a pace I thought was about right. On the first climb of a steepish few hundred feet I gradually caught up to the back markers. As we reached the top of the hill the runner immediately ahead of me stopped and bent over a rock, gasping for breath. I asked if he was OK and he said he was, but it didn't bode too well for the rest of his day. Some nice bouldery tracks led down and over to South Stack and the first checkpoint after just over 4 miles.

From here the course followed the coast path all the way down to Rhoscolyn beach at the 15 mile point, with another checkpoint near Trearddur Bay about halfway along. It was great running, mostly along the edges of low cliffs on springy turf with the occasional wet bit, undulations but no real hills and the sun shining on the sea. I trundled along at somewhere around 12 minute mile pace with everything feeling OK. I eventually passed one or two other runners, then an hour and a half or so after the start the first of the marathon runners came past, their race having started half an hour after ours. From then on I was seeing people all day, catching one or two of the slower ultras, being passed by marathon guys and sometimes re-passing them as they slowed, and the whole thing got pretty sociable. 

After the checkpoint at Rhoscolyn, the course turned inland for a loop, coming back to the coast to revisit the checkpoint at Trearddur Bay, then inland again. These sections away from the coast were sometimes on small tracks and lanes, but often across quite boggy heathland, so even away from the mountains and moors, you rarely return from an ultra without your shoes covered in mud. I often wonder by how much all this peaty acidity and animal deposits shorten the life of shoes; still, five minutes under the tap when you get home normally gets most of it off.

The marathon course finished with another visit to Holyhead Mountain, this time climbing right to the top (at all of 750 ft above sea level!). The safety marshals scattered around the top and descent, mostly MR and Coastguard guys, were cheerful but looking a bit chilly now as the sun was getting lower and the wind gaining strength again, but the runners were rewarded with a wonderful and slightly technical descent of 700ft in a mile directly to the finish near sea level.

I had taken stock of how I felt at the duck-out points at 4 and 9 miles in, but they came a bit soon so I was committed to the marathon distance from then. I'd had a suspicion in the preceding days that 26 miles might be far enough for me on a first outing, but as I approached the sign which said "finish" in one direction and "ultra" in the other I felt that I had taken things conservatively enough to gamble on a further 6 miles or so and another 1300ft of ascent. I set off again along the coast for another lap of North Stack, South Stack and Holyhead Mountain.

I managed to pass one or two more runners on the way around, and even some late marathon participants on the last pull up to the summit, and enjoyed once again the swooping descent to (this time) the finish. I finished in just over seven and a half hours, 45th out of the 65 starters. I was pleased enough with that, at least as good and possibly a bit better than I could have hoped for. But to put it in perspective, I completed the slightly longer and very much tougher Exmoor course in 2013 in six and a half hours for an 18th place. Two days later I'm still a bit stiff but OK for a walk yesterday and a first gentle run today. Nothing really hurts. So, fit enough to run ultras? Not yet I'm afraid, but fit enough to start training? I think so, and that's progress.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Training, the Long and the Short of it.

For a few years now I haven't really thought too hard about training. Got into a sort of pleasant rut if you like. Start off in January running more or less on the flat and gently undulating trails. Build up the miles, some tempos and intervals on the local roads, long run gets gradually longer, 30 miles by end of January, 40 by end of Feb then Hardmoors 55 towards the end of March. Start on the hills, drop the speed stuff after the Highland Fling at the end of April, get 1000 miles in the bag before the West Highland Way at the end of June, then on into the long races of the summer. It worked well enough.

But I had a strange year last year. Nothing really went to plan but I still found some surprising learnings. I didn't do any training at all that I would really call "running" until approaching May, and not many miles much faster than a 10 minute mile pace after that, yet at the end of July I got around the Lakeland 100 course less than an hour slower than in 2011, when I would have considered myself pretty fit and well-trained. Last year I did a lot of walking, much of it up and down hills, but the lack of any "hard working" sessions didn't seem to have a huge effect.

I've also been reading quite a lot over the winter about the "less is more" approach to training effort, both the Maffetone stuff and similar ideas, which suggest you get a lot of benefits by doing the majority of your training at a heart rate much lower than that at which you would expect to get any training effect at all.

And finally, I've started to question my long-held faith in the importance of long training outings. When I stumbled into this game about eight years ago now, all the advice you got (and unlike now it was quite difficult to find much at all) stressed the importance of getting used to "time on your feet". Forget everything else, it was "the long run" that was important. Build up until you can stay out all day, so you get used to feeling what it's like. And when the long run causes problems because it takes too long to recover, simply do two shorter, but still long, runs "back to back".

I've been reading John Kynaston's review of last year and his training plan for this year's Lakeland 100. Last year John had only 13 outings longer than 20 miles (8 training runs and 5 races), and plans only 8 this year before the Lakeland at the end of July. I can't really compare with my own last year, but in my last "normal" year 2013, I went further than 20 miles on 24 occasions  -  almost one every two weeks. I've also been interested by Robert Osfield's review of his 2014 running and some of the conclusions that he draws, including
- "training more often is more important than time on feet", and
- "if training with fewer long runs allows you to run more often, then run shorter".

Now both these guys get much better results than me, maybe because they're simply better runners, but they clearly don't suffer from not doing many long runs so they must have something here. I wonder also how much the long run in training is just a psychological crutch when it comes to races. This is the "no big deal" theory. "No big deal" is the length of run you could turn out and happily do tomorrow without any special preparation, knowing that it isn't going to present any problems or do any harm. I always liked to get my "no big deal" distance up to 25 miles or thereabouts, so I did a lot of them. Setting out on say the Hardmoors 55 with only one 20-25 miler done in preparation would seem to me to require a lot of self confidence  -  but it works for other people so why not?

I'm buying into the idea of doing more, shorter runs. For the past two or three years I have struggled to enjoy more than three or at best four outings a week. Too stiff and tired after the one before; I had put this down to approaching middle age (!) but now I'm prepared to believe that I got the balance of effort/recovery time wrong.

So where am I now?

Putting all the above together, I think that to get the best out of the kind of events that I enjoy my training for this year should consist of:

- Walking up hills. I'm aiming to hit 5000ft a week by March and 10000 by May. I'm getting more and more convinced that a day's hillwalking at a fairly brisk pace once a week is far more beneficial to me than a "long run"
- Getting out every day. The minimum is a 3 mile brisk walk, otherwise I'll go with how I feel
- Only doing a "raised heart rate" session once a week - a bit of 8 minute miling or some uphill running
- Planning the individual weeks on the basis of how I feel
- Keeping any "proper" runs (say 10 minute miles and faster)  to a 15 mile maximum. I've got enough events planned in through the spring to get in practice at longer runs.
- Not fretting about the miles logged. I think for me that hours spent, feet of ascent and getting out every day are more important. I'll log the miles but not plan them.

That's it then. Some new tricks for an old dog. Only time will tell whether this approach is completely misguided or a reasonable fit with my (I hope) realistic targets, which are:

Main Target: The Dragon's Back Race  -  "just" to finish (this is a stretching target!)
All other races (likely to be around 8-10 events from 26 to 55 miles, and maybe a 100 miler...): Enjoy the day, finish in good shape, don't worry too much about the time taken.

Last year I didn't put my programme of events in the side panel as I have for previous years because I just couldn't tell from month to month whether I would make the start line or not (I intended to do 9, pulled out of 7 and eventually completed 8  -  work that one out!). This year (fingers crossed) looks more plannable and the details should shake down in the next week or two, so I'll nail the colours up then.