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!