Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Highland Fling 2015

"It's never the distance that gets you, only the pace...."

The Highland Fling has come a long way since 18 like-minded individuals set out on a run from Milngavie to Tyndrum in 2006. Around a thousand competitors plus regular high class performances at the sharp end nowadays make it one of the UK's most important ultra races. Yet Race Director John Duncan, with over 100 volunteers and 53 miles of trail to deal with, always looks like he's having a party; and it's infectious, this is a happy event.

As a challenge it's very much a game of two halves; as far as Rowardennan, the halfway point at 27 miles, it's good trail, easy to run and mostly flat with only the occasional short hill to interrupt the flow; beyond Rowardennan it changes, most of the runnable ground is uphill, there is a lot of bouldery "technical" work along the edge of Loch Lomond, and the last 12 miles in particular has some energy sapping climbs just when you don't need them. The key to success is pace judgement over the first half  -  go too slowly and you won't have made good enough use of the easy going, but go too fast and the second half won't turn out well for you. In recent years the winning time has been around the 7 hour mark; for those of us of modest abilities this is quite hard to take in  -  back-to-back three and a half hour marathons, climbing Snowdon (or maybe Ben Lomond for the residents) twice along the way, with plenty of gates, stiles, boulders and tree roots thrown in for interest.  A look at the splits show that this is achieved by tagging around 7 minute miles to halfway then 9 minutes to the finish. These are spectacular performances.

The race has always been a bit special for me as the second running in 2007 was my first ever ultra race. I gathered with around 70 other starters in Milngavie station yard for the "briefing" and start by the race's inimitable original RD, Murdo MacDonald, who simply said "Welcome to the Fling everyone. There are no rules, just let us know if you drop out, have a nice day and see you in Tyndrum. Off you go." This ultra-running game must be a pretty laid-back sport, I mused at the time. Since then I've been back six more times, with a PB in 2013 of just under 10 hours, only missing last year because of injury, so I was looking forward to getting back, but with a bit of trepidation. I've generally run quite a few races each year, many just for fun, but the Fling is one that I always had a good go at, gave it my best shot as it were. Since coming back slowly from my time off last year I had re-adjusted my aims; not wanting to cause any further problems I'd steered clear of speed work, just being happy to trundle along and complete events within the available time. For the Fling I really ought to be shooting for somewhere in the 12-13 hour range, I knew I could do that and come out relatively unscathed. But as I said, the race has always been a bit special for me; although I didn't have the basic speed to back it up, I suspected on the day I might have a bit of a flutter. We'd just have to see.

It didn't start out with the sunshine that we've come to expect from the Fling over the years. It rained steadily all Friday night and showed no signs of stopping as I joined the hundreds of other rainsuited competitors at the station at 5.30 Saturday morning. Suitably drugged against an incipient cold, the whole thing felt a bit of a dampener. With so many people milling around this year it was difficult to catch up with people who I knew would be there, but then I saw Graeme Morrison just before the start. I first met Graeme near the finish of the 2009 Fling; he was running with his dog Penny and the three of us crossed the finishing line together  -  "two tired auld men and a dog". I've covered plenty of miles with Graeme along the course over the years. This year he was running with his son Steven (who has a sub 21 hour WHW to his credit) but his main news was that four days after the Fling he was setting off on a continuous round of the Munros (Graeme's 4th round and Penny's 2nd) which he expected to take him around three months  - now there's a real ultra!

There are so many competitors now that the Fling start warrants start pens to phase the getaway, and at the last minute I made a decision and sidled hopefully into the "10-12 hour finish" group, and found myself alongside WHW supremo Ian Beattie and Sandra McDougall. It was Ian's first ultra for a year or two and he was looking fit and raring to go. Our wave started off a couple of minutes after the elite start and we were soon through the town and settled into a steady jog along the trail. I saw Ian on and off through the first few miles and chatted to a few other people, but mostly I was happy to go with the flow of those around me. The rain soon stopped and before long the sun came out to give us for the rest of the day typical Fling weather - sunshine all the way. I looked at the watch occasionally and saw that I was averaging just over nine and a half minute miles  -  too fast, I thought, I wasn't sure that I could complete a road marathon at that pace at the moment  - but it felt OK so I carried on.

Through the first checkpoint Drymen in 1:57, still too fast, then on through the forest just keeping pace with the crowd around me. I overtook quite a few people going up and coming down Conic Hill because that's my sort of thing, then suddenly I was at Balmaha, 20 miles done and it seemed easy, grab drop bag and off. The path "improvements" in recent years over Conic don't do anythng for me, I liked it the old way, but now they seem to have worked on the section up to Rowardennan and it's definitely easier and faster. I don't remember much about this section except there seemed to be more people around than in previous years. I got to the Rowardennan timing mat, manned by Lee and the Subversive Firefighter, in 4:45.  Now 4:35 was my previous fastest time to here so I was going to have to pay some dues later, but it had been fun while it lasted.

It began on the first long uphill which starts a mile or so after Rowardennan. I would normally run all of this but I couldn't, so it was a walk/run combination now. I was passed by Jonny Rowan and chatted for a few minutes; he was adopting the constant heart rate approach championnned by Robert Osfield, although his target steady rate was only about 5bpm off my maximum! Still, it worked well for him and he went on to a 9:56 finish (as it did for Robert himself, who recorded a significant PB finishing in 9:10). It was good to get to the top of the hill and put a bit of speed back on down the other side. But then there is another long runnable uphill and I was reduced to walking long sections and during one of these Sandra came past looking full of go; I never saw her again and she carried on to a 10:37 finish. 

The second half of the leg to Inversnaid suited me better, smaller ups and downs, so I passed a few more people but just before the hotel I was caught by Graeme and Steven. They stopped a bit longer than me at the checkpoint but soon caught up again after. The tricky ground was no problem for them of course so they pulled away from me for the last time, going on to reach Tyndrum in 10:39  -  Graeme said later it was his best time since finishing with me all those years ago. The temperature was going up now and it was becoming a much warmer day, though there was still a nice cooling breeze when you were out of the wooded sections. I always enjoy the bit from Inversnaid to the top of the Loch, there's plenty of interest and it always seems to go quickly, and I gained quite a few places again, but as soon as we started the real pull uphill towards Bein Glas my lack of fitness for the pace really kicked in. I walked slowly up the hill past Dario's post, stopping just a few seconds there on the way. At the top of the hill I got running again along the bit of track over railway sleepers, but just after coming off these I tripped on an unseen stone in the path and came a cropper. Incompetent; a combination of tiredness and lack of concentration I suppose. There were four or five runners just behind who all stopped to see if I was OK, but after a few seconds appraisal I said there was no real problem, I thanked them and told them to go on. I sat still for a few minutes; knees and hands hurting a bit but otherwise OK; I got up and walked steadily for maybe 10 minutes, then got into a gentle run again for the short distance left into Bein Glas checkpoint, where I arrived in 8:06 from the start.

I've normally covered the last 12 miles from here to the finish in around two and a half hours. If I could have done that on Saturday I would have been near to 10:36, which is a nice time for the fling because it means you've averaged exactly 5 miles an hour for the trip. But these last twelve miles are where you really pay if you've got to Rowardennan too fast, and I knew that was on the cards. I didn't do badly on the three miles up to Derrydaroch, only walking the steeper bits of the hills, but from there to the final climb in the Crianlarich forest I felt really tired and walked almost everything. Another moment's inattention led to a sharp bang on the head in the "sheep creep" tunnel which didn't help things much. The track through "cow poo alley" was clean and dry, but even that pleasant surprise couldn't generate any sort of speed from me.

On the climb up from the big gate to the high point in the forest, I was passed by Jim Gaffney who went on to take the Vet 60 prize in a time of 10:34. If I had been aware of the situation at the time I might have put up a bit more of a fight (and probably regretted it later!) but I was certain that the age group would be taken in a faster time by someone much younger, as Jim is about the same age as me. I was also passed by Ian Beattie who was looking really strong; I admitted to him that I was struggling. Even after the top of the big climb, the roller coaster seemed to go on for ever.

Then, as often happens in these events, everything changed. I don't know whether it was passing the WHW post that marks the start of the last little climb, or because I had by then being going slowly enough for long enough to have recouped some energy, I suddenly felt OK and from the top of the last hill I ran at a respectable pace all the way to the finish. Tim Downie seemed to be intimidating the cars on the A82 well enough for there to be no waiting at all at the crossing and then I was onto the flat ground on the other side. I could see Ian's yellow shirt a fair way a head and tried to use him as a target but he was still going well. Nevertheless I still managed to pass quite a few and not be passed before the finish. The section by the river then over the last bit of moor seemed to go faster than normal, then I could hear the piper and was soon on the red carpet and at the finish. 10 hours 53 minutes. 229th place of 648 finishers. Certainly not one of my best, but in my current state of running fitness and given my somewhat reckless pace over the first half, somehow still satisfying.

I was looking forward to catching up with a few firends after the race but then Graeme appeared and offered me a lift straight back to Glasgow, and as my reserved bus place would have involved a wait of four hours I jumped at the chance. Driving back along the route, we could still see runners just leaving Bein Glas, a long evening still ahead of them. I'm always surprised at how long it takes to drive back along the route you've just run, it really reinforces the sense of achievement somehow. By the time I should have been boarding my bus I was back, showered and fulI of gammon and chips (and a beer or two....). The cold came on full that evening so I seemed to have just got away with that one, but apart from that next day I felt fine. A stiff wrist and scraped hands from the fall, but no blisters or muscle soreness; I was in good enough shape, just not quite sufficiently aerobically fit for the pace I set out at. And apart from the struggle for five or six miles near the end it had been a great day out.

I wondered before I went to the Fling this year whether I would go again; whether it had become too big, a bit too impersonal maybe. Not at all; "Johnny Fling" and his team do a great job of running not only a wonderfully well organised event, but keeping the same engaging atmosphere that it's always had. I'll be back.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Waiting for Dragons

Well it's the Highland Fling in 10 days time now and the Keswick Festival Ultra a few weeks later. I'm looking forward to both events and I'm sure they will be enjoyable and rewarding days out, but looming ever closer on the horizon is my major enterprise for the year, the Dragon's Back Race.

June 2015 will see the third running of this already iconic event, the first two being in 1992 and 2012, both in September. It starts at Conwy Castle on the North Wales coast and finishes at Carreg Cennan Castle a few miles short of Swansea in the south, taking in all the major Welsh mountain groups along the way. It is a five day stage race, this year occupying 22nd to 26th June. Overnight stops are in tented accommodation provided by the race organisation and you are allowed a drop bag to follow you to each of these. Dinner and breakfast are provided but you have to supply all your own food for when you are out on the course.

"The course" is probably not the right description though, because the race follows the principles of mountain marathons or the "10 peaks" events, in that there is no set line to follow, only a series of checkpoints to be visited in a set order; you have to choose your own route between the checkpoints while respecting any areas that the race decrees you can't enter ("out of bounds"). So route selection and navigation are very much a part of the deal. On paper, the statistics are not too frightening, 183 miles and 54,000 feet of ascent over the 5 days; a walk in the park compared to say the Tor des Geants with its 200+ miles and 80,000 ft of uphill? Well, no actually. A number of factors conspire to up the ante quite considerably on the Dragon's Back.......

(a) It is not a continuous race, so not all of the hours in the 5 days are available. The cut-off times for each day are not known until the day starts, but I think it's fairly safe to assume that we won't have much more than 15 hours to complete each day, and that means 2,5 to 3mph on average  -  you can't plod your way through this one.

(b) Although the general line of the event will stay close to the previous two runnings, the exact course (in terms of checkpoints and out of bounds areas) are not known until the start of each day when you receive your map for the day. Depending on your individual competence, this means that time can be lost by (i) not choosing the optimum route, on which the course stats are based, and (ii) not being able to navigate even your chosen route as precisely as you would like. You can use a GPS if you want to - it's just that you are not allowed any extra time to put the route into it! I think I'm a reasonably competent navigator, but I'm expecting to cover at least 10-15 miles and maybe 3 thousand feet or so more than the optimum course over the 5 days.

(c) As the Race Director Shane Ohly puts it in the race description, "This is not a trail race". This is the real difference in terms of how hard you have to work to make progress. Think Bob Graham territory rather than Lakeland 100 - tracks might help you find your way but they don't necessarily make the going any easier. I doubt that there are more than a dozen miles along the course where you don't have to concentrate on each footfall - rocks, boulders, grass, bog, tussocks, mud, plenty of all of these I suspect.

The hills of Wales are where I spent many of my formative years but I haven't been back to some areas for half a lifetime, so I've spent an enjoyable 4 or 5 days so far in a bit of re-acquaintance. You can't learn the route of course because you don't know exactly where it will go, but you can get a feel for the territory, the ground underfoot and so on. I didn't bother with the classic "Welsh 3000's" area of Day 1 because I've spent plenty of time there in recent years, but I've enjoyed wandering the Moelwyns and Rhinogs, Cadair, the Tarrens and Plynlimon, and I'm working my way south into the lonely ground around the Elan Valley. Maybe I'll make a day in the Brecons, maybe not, but I'm happy that my trip around the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks last year will stand me in good stead.

I said to someone on the last Lakeland recce recently, "You know, to compete in this race (the Lakeland 100) you have to be a runner, but to complete it the main requirement is to be able to walk up a lot of hills." I think it must be the same only more so for the Dragon's Back, so that's what I'm doing. I had to work pretty hard for a 45 minute 10k last week, but I'm climbing 10,000ft a week and I think that's more important.

So what are my chances?  Well, of the 80 starters in 2012 only 30 made it to the finish, but reading between the lines I think many dropouts were because entrants really didn't understand the nature of what they were getting into, particularly foreign runners who are more used to well marked trails and easier ground underfoot. Hopefully, Shane's fairly rigorous application process for this race will ensure that the 125 hopefuls currently on the start list have a better statistical chance this time around. And we have more daylight this year with the race being in June rather than September.

I entered The DB because a race of this nature on my doorstep was just too good to pass up. It's already a significant commitment because it interrupts my run of consecutive West Highland Way races, currently at 8 and which I had every intention of turning into 10 in a row had the Dragon's Back not come around. I entered the DB for this year becausein 2012 I was already committed to the Tor des Geants, and if I leave it until 2018 (assuming the race continues at its current frequency) I will be a few weeks off 70 which I think will make it significantly harder. I think this year I'll have the skill (yes) and the fitness (just about), but my main concern that is that my knees, used to a day's rest after a battering in the hills in recent times, have somehow got to step up to the mark five days in succession.

So it's an adventure that I'm certain is near my limit, but which is possible. And one way or another, isn't that what we're all after?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Pacing and Racing

It's fascinating, this race strategy business. But if you're not interested in it then now is the time to click out, because I've a feeling this may turn into a lengthy post.

I'm sure many readers of my blog will have also been following John Kynaston's  and be aware of how he has of late been setting his race pace by keeping within a few beats of a predetermined "ideal" heart rate for the particular event. He's been helped in this by Robert Osfield, who takes a very structured approach to training and race strategy, I think to overcome recurrent injury issues that prevented him from achieving his potential in the past. Robert's blog is also well worth following, if you don't already.

Now John and I have been running ultras for a similar length of time (we both started in 2007), and although John is a far more accomplished runner than me, we do compare notes from time to time. John progressed very rapidly after starting in the game, notching up a couple of sub 20 hour West Highland Way races within 3 years. But then he struggled for a year or two; he wasn't able to maintain the high standard he had set himself, and had several races where he had to dig quite deep even to finish. I passed him in the closing stages of one or two of these and it was clear and sad to see that things just weren't working properly for him. So he regrouped, did some thinking and decided that his priority was to get back to finishing races feeling good, that should be his goal rather than any particular time target, and this set him on a course of running much more even paced races in terms of energy use than he had previously.

The approach brought some success so he progressively refined it, culminating in the heart rate target method that he used in the recent Hardmoors 55. John's finishing time at the Hardmoors was 9 hours 35 minutes. Now having myself completed 5 Hardmoors 55's and 7 Highland Flings, I'm in no doubt that the Hardmoors is the tougher course, and that on this performance John ought to be able, should he chose, to run the Fling in around nine and a quarter hours; this would be far better than he has ever done in the race, even in his most successful early years.

So John's training and in particular racing strategy has brought him right back to his best. It's clearly the way for anyone to achieve their best possible performances then?  Well, I'm sure Robert would say yes. On the face of it, the proposition was also reinforced by Marc Laithwaite, RD of the Lakeland 100 and 50 events,  in a talk at the latest Lakeland "Recce Weekend" last Saturday. To minimise energy expenditure, flatline your heart rate was Marc's message, slow right down if you have to on the uphills to keep it constant.

But although gaining in popularity now, this isn't the only game in town.

When John and I ran the very first Hardmoors 55 back in 2010, the winner that day was Stuart Mills. Now Stuart is a top class ultra runner who John and I both know,  and whose view on race pacing is rather different. Stuart defines his approach as "run as fast as you can for as far as you can"; his contention is that everyone slows down over the course of an ultra race (unless you deliberately run significantly below your capabilities this is actually incontravertable  -  everyone does slow down), so why not get as much ground as possible covered before this starts to happen? This sounds a bit foolhardy, but I think Stuart's own description is somewhat misleading. I don't think he means running "as fast as you can" - like for example starting out at 800m pace - but rather running at a pace that you know you can't keep up for the race duration, but that you might be able to keep up for say a half or three quarters of the distance, which is a different thing. Not being afraid, in short, of going into "deficit", a strategy that might have been defined years ago as "go out fast and hang on", and which has always been recognised as an option, certainly not to be discarded out of hand.

After his recent great performance in the Hardmoors, John K invited both Robert and Stuart to comment on his approach, and in particular asked the question whether he could have done even better by "racing" rather than sticking rigidly to his constant heart rate regime. The responses are on John's blog, but even if you haven't read them you can probably guess the trend. But for the neutral interested reader I think the arguments got a bit bogged down in figures and statistics, so I'm hoping as a somewhat simpler soul I may be able to cut through a bit of that.

There are two ways of running a race. In the first, you run at all times at a pace where you know you have sufficient "in hand" to be able to complete the race comfortably. Whether you do this by monitoring heart rate, or pacing via your watch, or even just by "feel", it's the same approach. I'll call this method "pacing" the race. You might feel that as you get towards the closing stages you could "let go" and be prepared to feel a bit more stressed, but in practice this doesn't often happen. However hard we try to deceive it, out brain knows how far we are intending to run that day and it's rather good at giving us a message towards the end that says we going quite fast enough thanks, so this "speeding up" to cash in on any energy we might have saved is unlikely to happen without a big effort.

The other way is to run at all times at a pace you feel comfortable at at that time without any consideration of how it might affect you later. Let's refer to this method as "racing" the race.

Just to reinforce the difference, let's think about a situation I'm sure we've all experienced. We're engaged in a race and have already come some distance, so whatever our strategy we are starting to feel some fatigue. Then something changes, we've no idea what, and we start to feel "good". Now if you're pacing the event, your reaction to this will be "fine, I'm going to carry on at this pace and enjoy this good feeling for as long as it lasts", but if you're racing the event then your reaction will be "I'm feeling good, I can go faster for as long as this feeling lasts".

I am a natural "pacer". I don't do it by heart rate  -  sometimes by watch and sometimes by feel, but my time splits show that I normally do better compared with the rest of the field as the race goes on, usually making up places over the second half. I like doing it this way and that's part of my reward.

But I did consciously "race" an event a couple of years ago. I had been trying to break 10 hours for the Highland Fling for a number of years  -  a fairly pedestrian target by most peoples' standards but we can only work relative to our own abilities! I'd come within 10 minutes or so on more than one occasion but couldn't seem to crack the 10 hours. So in 2013 I played a different game and every time I felt that I could go a bit faster, all the way up the course, I put in the effort and accelerated. By the time I left the final checkpoint at Bein Glas with about 12 miles to go I was feeling very tired. I usually enjoy those final 12 miles, passing people on the long steady uphills and the switchbacks in the forest, but that year all I could do was hang on and dig deep. I felt sure I'd blown it. I did, in the end, get my sub 10 hour finish, but it took me several hours to recover afterwards and at the time I was convinced that the effort wasn't worth it. Stuart was also in the race that year and I said to him afterwards "I've just tried your way and it hurts -I  don't think I'll do it again", to which he replied simply "Ah, but it got you your time though, didn't it".

And here we come to it I think.

The key to how you run your race is what you want to get out of it  -  what exactly are your goals?

John K made absolutely clear in a post just before the Hardmoors 55 what his goals for the race were  -   to beat 10 hours and to finish feeling strong. The pacing plan that he chose enabled him to achieve those goals superbly well, so well in fact that he was prompted to ask afterwards "Could I have done even better?" Well, maybe, but we'll never know, because his plan was designed to achieve his goals and it worked. To achieve a different goal he would have needed a different plan, or to have deviated significantly from the one he had.

Another friend, Dave Troman, was also running the Hardmoors on the same day. He finished in under eight and a half hours for third place overall, and said that he had had to put in some effort at times to keep safely ahead of the fourth placed runner. He also posted a comment on Facebook the following day which read something like "Did anyone get the number of the bus that ran over me last night?" A bit tongue in cheek maybe, but it shows that Dave's goals were different from John's. He wanted his best possible performance on the day and wasn't too bothered if a bit of recovery time was needed afterwards - no proviso about wanting to finish in good shape, though I'm sure the satisfaction of a podium place in a fairly prestigious ultra mitigated the tiredness a bit at the finish. 

I know we appear to be rambling along a bit but we are getting there. But before I can cut to the chase I have to pursue two other lines of thought a bit further first.

First, a bit more about pacing. The heart rate gurus would have it that a way (maybe the only way) to achieve your maximum potential is to keep your heart rate within a few beats of a designed "ideal" for the whole race. Well, I might almost buy that for a road marathon, but for a typical trail ultra with any technical ground I can't see it. No matter how technically proficient and bold a descender you are, you won't keep that heart rate up on the downhills, which means that you are taking a "ride" from your ideal effort, and unless you are prepared to work a bit harder than "ideal" on the uphills and/or flats you will never use the energy that you saved. You will, in a maybe familiar phrase, have left that effort "out on the course".

Further, I am sceptical that you can actually predict the "ideal" heart rate for your goals to any real accuracy. Too low and you may go too slowly to achieve your goal, too high and you either achieve your goal too easily, or it doesn't match your fitness and you blow up before the end anyway. John over-achieved his goal by a long way in the Hardmoors so he could have achieved it using a much lower ideal heart rate.

Now don't get me wrong. I am in 100% agreement that achieving your goals is about managing the deployment of energy through the race. All I'm saying is that there is more to it than simple heart rate monitoring. 

Secondly we have to look at how ultra running has developed and our (ie the participants') attitude towards it.

When I first drifted into the game via the West Highland Way race and its community eight years ago, running a hundred miles was seen as a pretty big deal, an experience that would likely take you many weeks or even months to recover from. You might consider the Highland Fling as a form of preparation 10 weeks or so earlier, but the jury was still very much undecided on whether you should actually  "race" it. The Race Directors of the Fling, the West Highland Way and the Devil o'the Highlands (the three races along the course) actively discouraged participation in all three races in the same year, which gave rise to the somewhat "underground" Triple Crown website for those who were imprudent enough to try.

But ultra running has exploded, and the understanding of how to train and what running long distances actually does to you has improved immeasurably in the last decade. We now understand that with sensible conditioning, running a long event at a pace that you find really comfortable does not wreak devastation on the body - even on a near 67-year-old one like mine.

I also ran the Hardmoors 55 this year. My goal was to jog as much of the runnable ground as I could but finish feeling good. I managed to do this in a time less than an hour off my personal best for the course, achieved on an occasion when I would have considered that I was really trying. I was still able to manage a fairly quick blast around one of may favourite runs (the 9 mile path around Derwentwater) three days after the race, and to enjoy the 33 mile Buttermere to Dalemain recce the following Saturday. Last summer after a severely curtailed training programme I completed the 95 mile West Highland Way in a very modest time (but still more than 5 hours inside the cutoff), and the following weekend enjoyed the 47 mile but extremely hilly and rugged Lakes 10 Peaks event. I'm not relating these to establish any sort of bragging rights (the times alone would preclude that!), only to illustrate what my friend John Vernon has been saying ever since I've known him  -  "it's not the distance that gets you, it's only ever the pace."

Incidentally, this knowledge also allows those of us who often participate in ultras for the experience and joy of the day out rather than the "challenge", to enjoy rather more events than was considered possible just a few years ago.

But it's time to pull it all together. As always, my views, my interpretation of the evidence I see, I'm not trying to convince you I'm right, just participating in a bit of interesting debate.

So here goes:

When you toe the start line of a race, you are bringing two things with you, which are

1. Your current level of fitness. This determines the total amount of energy you are able to devote to the project, should you choose to use it all and should you manage its use correctly.

2. Your goal for the race. This has to be set somewhere along the performance-comfort continuum. At one end, completion in complete comfort however long it takes, and at the other end the maximum performance that you can extract from your current fitness, regardless of how uncomfortable the experience might become during and after the event.

If you achieve maximum performance, you will use all of your energy (simplistic I know, but good enough for this model).  If you achieve anything less, you will have energy to spare. This will either be frittered away by bad management, possibly leaving you short of your goal, or be available to smooth your passage to greater comfort. (note I have not used the word "enjoyment" here - far too subjective and susceptible to post-rationalisation!)

If your goal includes a comfort element, I am with the "pacers". Most forms of pacing to prevent unnecessary burning of energy through excessive speed will get you there, so long as you are able make a reasonable assessment of what performance is in line with your current state of fitness, and set your overall pace to deliver it. I think the heart rate method might even be particularly good here - my earlier criticism of the energy not used on downhills will actually add to conservative pace management. So if you want to get to the end of your race with some energy left over, then pace it. And I suspect that is the game that most of us to a greater or lesser extent want to play - and probably sensibly so.

But I am convinced that if you really want to extract your best possible performance on the day then an even pace, ignoring all the other factors that impact you during the event, won't deliver it. You will always end up with some energy not delivered. I won't go as far as Stuart in believing that you might as well use up resources early on because they may not be there later, but I'm equally sure that at times when you believe that you could be going faster than your "ideal" pace with no real detriment, then you should go with the positive flow. It's a subtle business but our brains can be quite good at assessing what still has to be done and what should be kept in reserve, an assessment that we can make continuously and progressively as the end of the race gets closer. I suspect that having to dig quite deep over the closing stages of a high performance run is inevitable, and of course  it hurts. But I also suspect that the phenomenon of going out really too fast for our state of fitness (followed by the heartbreaking "walking it in" when everything falls apart)  can happen to us in the early years of ultra running but with experience we can spot the signs early enough to prevent it, so we shouldn't fear it.

So, to come back to where we came in. Could John K have performed even better than he did at the Hardmoors a couple of weeks ago?  Well, sorry John, of course you could  -  but probably with a degree or two less comfort!