Tuesday, 17 June 2014

South Downs Way 100 Race Report - Processing the Frustration

Hi

As I start typing up this race report from Saturday's race I'm not that sure what I will end up writing.  Often I let things 'settle' for a few days or perhaps a week, to allow time to fully process what happened during the race, in order to learn from and to continue to improve.  However, due to there being some frustration with my performance on Saturday, I find I am wanting to analyse what happened as soon as possible, so I can adjust my preparations so as to 'get things right' for my next race, which is only six weeks away.  So if this race report ends up being a bit 'jumbled', it is because I am analysing the race 'live'! 

Please note that although I publish my race report posts on my UltraStu blog which enables others to read my race reflections, the number one reason for writing the post is to assist me with improving my ultra trail running performance.  So yes, the post maybe rather lengthy, probably a bit repetitive, and even at times boring, but it serves it's purpose for me.  And if others are able to take on board some useful bits of information from my experiences and the mistakes I have made, then this is a bonus!  Be prepared for an ultra analysis!

This year was the first year since taking up ultra trail running in 2008 that I decided to race two ultra races of 100 miles duration, these being the South Downs Way (SDW) 100 and then at the end of August, the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 166km (103 mile).  With the majority of the SDW race travelling through Sussex, passing just a few miles from where I live and finishing at Eastbourne where I work, it seemed an obvious race choice to include as one of the seven races I race would race during 2014.

The SDW race was first organised by Centurion Running in 2012, when it was won by Ryan Brown in a time of 17:04:26.  Last year, Robbie Britton just a few weeks after he ran for Great Britain at the World 24 Hour Championships where he finished in I think 19th place, ran one and a half hours quicker and won in a time of 15:43:53.  So as I started my TOTAL preparations for this year's race I knew that to achieve a finish time of around 15:40 it would require quite a bit of focus.  As with all of my races I carry out extensive research on the event, looking at past results, race route descriptions, and if possible recceing of the course.  With the race being so local to me, I knew the route pretty well, having raced over portions of it during the South Downs, Three Forts, Steyning Stinger and Beachy Head trail marathons , as well as having mountain biked the entire route from Winchester to Eastbourne a few years back.  However training partner and work colleague Rob Harley who was also racing the SDW100, hadn't run much of the route, so during May we scheduled in three recce runs which covered from Winchester to Housedean Farm (Checkpoint 11, as the SDW crosses the A27, not too far from Lewes).

Before the Start With Training Partner Rob

With the terrain and elevations fresh in my mind, together with an assessment of my current physical fitness, I then calculated split times for each of the fifteen legs assuming I have a 'perfect day'.  I have used this 'perfect day' approach for I guess the last year or so.  It is not specifically a race goal, but used more as an expectation that if everything went well, then this finish time is possible.  I prefer this approach rather than calling it a race goal, so it avoids any possible disappointment that may result if one doesn't achieve the target time set, as one wouldn't expect to achieve the perfect result every time they raced.  I have mentioned before why I think it is important that one has a 'ball park' idea of what finish time one can expect to achieve in relation to the sub-conscious, so won't repeat it here, rather than stating that it is important!  In terms of specific race goals, I try to establish non time related, or non place related goals.  With the specific race goal being more of a 'journey' goal rather than a 'destination' goal.

Well following my detailed split time calculations, my 'perfect day' finish time came to 14 hours 50 minutes.  Okay, pretty quick in relation to Robbie Britton's 2013 finish time, but looking at the calculations on paper, the numbers seemed to be pretty realistic.  For those interested in how I calculate these split times, firstly in order to have any reasonable accuracy one needs to have a thorough knowledge of the route, so for the SDW100 I had no problems there.  Then due to my "Run as fast as you can, while you can" pacing approach, I schedule into my calculations significant slowing down.  With the minute mile rates for the SDW100 starting at 7 minute miling for the first two legs, i.e. up to Checkpoint 2 at Queen Elizabeth Park, the first timed checkpoint at 22.6 miles.  Then progressively slowing down to 10 minute 30 seconds per mile for the last two legs from Alfriston at 91.6 miles.  I also factor in the approximate time lost on the climbs, and time stationary at checkpoints, and so add on these extra minutes to each of the checkpoint split times.  Now I know many people adopt the exact opposite approach, and aim to try to maintain a constant running pace throughout, but I am not convinced.  Even after Saturday's result I am still adamant that slowing down is a reality, and not slowing down during an ultra event is actually a sign of a poorly paced race.  Although the amount of slowdown is obviously important.  Excessive slowing down is clearly not what you want, but you do want some, or perhaps better phrased as, you should expect some.  If time allows I will try to expand upon this later on.

So even though I spend a significant amount of time calculating my checkpoint split times, come race day I try not to know these times precisely.  For Saturday's race I knew my schedule times at CP2 QE Park (2:44), at Washington CP7 after 54.0 miles (7:10), at Southease CP12 after 83.2 miles (12:00), which I had to know, as I was going to be cheered on by my family at Southease and my boys Rob and Chris don't appreciate me not keeping to schedule, and lastly the finish time at Eastbourne.  But the scheduled times at the other 11 checkpoints, I didn't know.  I didn't need to know them.  I guess in essence I didn't really need to know any of the split times as come race day I try to run by feel.  But I have found that it is quite difficult to race without any objective feedback on how one is performing, such as split times, hence why I memorise just a few split times for during the race.  Just an aside, although I do wear a Garmin Forerunner 310XT GPS watch with heart rate monitor.  Whilst racing I never look at my heart rate.  I wear the watch for later analysis of the heart rate, mile pace, and elevation data.

So how did the race progress, and why the frustration that I have indicated above?  Well standing on the start line I was in a 'good place'.  I felt that my preparation had gone well, both physically and non-physically (mentally).  Since getting over the injury I picked up during the Steyning Stinger marathon back at the start of March, I had run a total of 783 miles during the 12 weeks leading up to the race.  So with a weekly average of 65.3 miles per week, it was probably one of my biggest weekly mileage periods of training.  But what was more significant was that I didn't feel run down from, relative for me, the high mileage.  I was actually feeling really good during the majority of my training runs  There wasn't really a deliberate intention to increase my weekly mileage.  It more came amount as a result of the lengthy recce runs with Rob, long runs checking out the Weald Challenge Trail Race routes, then marking the route and collecting in the route markings, and finally doing an ultra guided running weekend as part of my Trail Running Sussex website.

I also felt pretty comfortable with my plan to start reasonably quick, to hopefully get ahead on my own, so I could run my own race.  Gaining a lead as a result of running quickly for the first few hours during previous ultra trail races had worked quite well for me.  In a number or races, for example in the Montane Lakeland 100 in 2010 and 2013, both of which I won, I was able to get around a 12 minute lead by around the 3 hour mark and then pretty well hold that time gap for the next 4 - 5 hours (in 2010) or for the next 15 hours (in 2013), before extending the lead.  In the past, running faster than a 'realistic' 100 mile race pace for the first three or so hours hasn't seemed to do any 'damage',  In fact it did the exact opposite, as the joy I would receive from running quickly, whilst still feeling good, is huge and provided a massive positive boost.

I was also really looking forward to the race, from the competitive aspect, the scenery aspect, but also the banter aspect that I was likely to receive form friend Brendan, who being a road cyclist, was going to cycle on his road bike from Winchester to Eastbourne and randomly 'pop up' along the way where the SDW crosses various roads.  Even though I had told him there was no need to, he had come prepared with lights on his bike, and with a thick novel to keep himself entertained while he anticipated lengthy delays in waiting for me at the road junctions!

Standing on the start line at Winchester, although happy with my preparation, there was however some doubt about how competitive I would be.  Although I try to simply focus on what I am able to do, pretty well everyone else you speak to about the race is interested in how you will do in relation to the likely winner of the race.  What position do you think you will get?  Will you win this 100 mile race, like you did at last year's Montane Lakeland 100?  Don't you perform better in 100 mile races than you do in the shorter races, such as marathons, so surely you are expecting to win?  So even though I try not to focus on the opposition, it is quite hard not to!  So who were the opposition?  Last year's winner, Robbie Britton wasn't racing, but on the entry list available to view on the race website, I did recognise a few names of some high performing runners.  So I knew that it wasn't just going to be the case of simply turning up and winning.  Not that it ever is like this!

Then a few days prior to race day, James Elson, the race director posts on the Centurion Running blog his thoughts on the main contenders.  Yes, I am listed as one of the contenders along with five or six other prospective leading men runners, and the likely leading women runners.  Although I was aware of many of the other runner's recent achievements, the recent sub three hour Three Forts Trail Marathon performance listed for Mark Perkins, together with his pretty quick SDW50 time attracted my attention.  Back in 2007 when I had won the Three Forts Marathon (actually 27 miles), I remember that I felt that I had run reasonably well that day to record a finish time of 3:07.  During the last two years, I have found that my trail marathon times have slowed quite dramatically.  So I know that I no longer would be able to run the Three Forts Marathon in 3:07, more likely around ten minutes slower at 3:17.  So I guess this is where some of the doubt about my likely competitiveness initiated from.  It appeared that possibly I was giving away 17 minutes over the marathon distance. 

Now I know there is a big difference between racing a marathon and racing 100 miles.  Usually being aware that another runner could possibly beat me in a marathon wouldn't really bother me.  As the longer the duration of the race, the greater the contribution ones non-physical preparation plays in determining performance.  And I see this aspect as perhaps one of my strengths.  But for an unknown reason, possibly due to my 'below par' performance at the Fellsman back in April, my self belief was lacking a wee bit, and so the doubt was there.  What was my solution to dispel this doubt, this lack of confidence?  Try to maximise the possible interpretation by others that I am a 100 mile specialist, and therefore a difficult competitor to beat.  Which I felt would be enhanced by getting a substantial enough lead over the main contenders at the first timed checkpoint at QE Park after 22.6 miles.  Then hopefully once they receive the anticipated large time gap feedback, they might just accept that they are only racing for second place and so 'forget' about me and pay too much attention to each other.

Perhaps you can begin to sense why I am frustrated with aspects of my performance during Saturday's race.  Planning ones race strategy on other runner's possible actions is probably one of the first DON'Ts of successful trail running.  Everyone knows that one should simply focus on what they are doing, not on what others are doing.  Yes, you know that, I know that, but sometimes even when we know what we should be doing, it doesn't mean we end up doing it!

Race Start at Winchester

So, the race starts and I take off pretty quickly.  It felt easy and I would have thought that it was somewhere around 6:20 minute mile pace.  Quick, but not too fast.  My GPS data, available to view on GarminConnect, actually shows that the first mile was run in 6:04, so a little bit quicker than planned.  As mentioned I was really looking forward to the race, so maybe this excitement lead to running that quickly.  Anyway I felt good, and continued to feel good as I settled into a comfortable pace, quicker than one would expect for a 100 mile race, but that was always my race pacing approach.  Start quick for the first hour, then ease of the pace for the next hour, then ease of a bit more for the next hour.  So by the time one is three hours into the race, I would eventually be running at 'proper' 100 mile race pace.

Unfortunately, with this 'obsession' with getting to the QE Park checkpoint with a massive lead, to hopefully demoralise the following runners, I kept on pushing, probably running at a slightly higher intensity than I would usually maintain during the second and third hours of a 100 mile ultra trail race.  I reassured myself, that all was fine, everything was going to plan, and that I could 'ease off' once I passed through the QE Park checkpoint.  I reached the checkpoint in 2:42:29, so just a little over a minute quicker than my scheduled 2:44 'perfect day' split time, feeling pretty comfortable, but with the beginning of some doubt that perhaps I may have gone that little bit quicker than usual.

Still Running Strong After Around 11 Miles Through Exton

I remember trying to make comparisons to the intensity I raced the first two or three legs at last year's Montane 100.  So again, another big mistake.  Rather than focusing on the present moment, I was being distracted, and not 'staying within the present moment'.  Probably one of the most important non-physical determinants of ultra trail running performance.  Yes, again I know what I should be doing, but again not doing it!  Oh the frustration!

Having 'promised' to myself that I could ease off once passing through the checkpoint, the easing off of the pace was more pronounced than it should have been.  This confirmed to me that yes, I had gone that little bit too quick.  Now I know that I promote the pacing strategy of "Run as fast as you can, while you can!"  So surely then you can't run too fast.  Well I know, that this philosophy of mine can create some confusion.  What I am trying to get across with my approach is that, pretty well no matter what pace you run at, unless ridiculously slower than what you are capable of, then you will slow down during an ultra trail race, as you will gradually fatigue.  So it is best to make the most of feeling strong and fresh at the start of the race, and run quickly.  Obviously, the "As fast as you can" literally doesn't mean "As fast as you can", i.e. for me a 5 minute mile, but it means faster that what you would expect to be able to maintain for the duration of the ultra race.  How much faster?  Now that is the interesting debate.

You can interpret from my planned schedule above, that my how much faster was quite a bit faster.  A 14 hour 50 minute finish time gives an average minute mile pace of 8:54, which includes the time one slows when running up the hills.  My planned starting pace of seven minute miling was without the time lost running up hills, as I include this extra time afterwards.  Once I have added in this extra time my planned average minute mile pace to QE Park at 22.6 miles was 7:15 miles.  So 1:39 per mile quicker than the overall average pace.  Then towards the end of the 100 mile race, I am planning to run 10:30 minute miles, plus around 15 seconds per mile slower due to the hills, so more like 10:45 minute miling, so 1:51 per mile slower than the overall average pace.

Now I am not trying to state that this percentage faster is the ideal ratio quicker that everyone should go at when starting an ultra trail race.  These are just some numbers/ratios that seem to 'work' for me based on my previous twenty five ultra trail races.  Looking at the GPS data from last Saturday, I think the 'problem' wasn't so much due to an error with the above numbers, but more due to the error in my interpretation of the pace I was running at.  Possibly due to being too anxious on creating a big lead.  With the first few miles consisting of mile split times of 6:04, 7:33 containing a 68 metre elevation gain, 7:11 containing a 38 metre elevation gain, and then another 6:04 mile.  It is definitely quicker than the planned flat running pace of 7:00 minute miles!

So what effect does this quicker than planned race start have?  Yes, it will result in increased glycogen usage, and also possibly increase the level of muscle damage.  But in relation to the pace I am able to run at, even running a 6:04 minute mile isn't relatively that quick, as I am still able to run a sub five minute mile, just!  But the damage that it does create is within ones mind!  Now I know that probably the most accepted approach to ultra running in terms of pacing strategy is to "Take it easy to half way" and then the 'racing' can begin.  Well even though I totally disagree with this approach, although I had arrived at the QE Park checkpoint pretty well bang on schedule, I found that the moment I started to question whether I had actually worked at too higher an intensity, the mind started to wander.  I was thinking back to the miles just completed, trying to assess whether I had "gone too hard", (yes the term hard, being a negative term doesn't really help!), and then thinking ahead trying to predict what the possible consequences could be for the next 70 miles.  Again, I know what I should have been doing, simply staying within the present moment, staying within the 'here and now'.  But for whatever reason I wasn't!  And the moment this happened, I had the "bad angel" on one shoulder, as Ironman triathlete Chris McCormack describes it as, screaming at me telling me "You have blown it", "You are going to suffer for your ridiculous fast start", and as much as I know physiologically my quickish start wasn't going to be that damaging, sometimes it is just gets too difficult to continually battle against these "bad angel" arguments!  I therefore accepted, that the only way to perhaps salvage my race was to slow down by pace, which I had always intended to do, but it just so happened that the resulting slowing down was more than planned.

Looking back at my 'perfect day' schedule, the planned arrival time at Cocking CP4, the next timed checkpoint at 35.1 miles, was 4:24, which means that the 12.5 miles between checkpoints would take 1:40, so an average minute mile pace of exactly 8:00 per mile,  So 45 seconds per mile slower than the planned average pace up to QE Park.  In terms of elevation gain and loss, although there are a few climbs during the first 35 miles, there isn't anything really major, apart from a bit of a climb up to the top of Old Winchester Hill, so probably not much difference between the first 22 miles and the next 13 miles.  In fact although not physically possible, there seemed to be more significant downhills during this portion of the race, in relation to any of the climbs, such as the drop down from Beacon Hill immediately after CP1, the drop down from Buster Hill immediately before CP2, and the drop into the Cocking checkpoint (CP4).

Shortly before dropping down into the Cocking checkpoint, I get a big surprise as Mark Perkins appears beside me.  Up to that point, the only information I had received was that at about 7 - 8 miles into the race I had around a five minute lead.  Having gone through the QE Park CP in 2:42 in relation to Robbie Britton's QE Park CP time form 2013 of 3:09, I thought that my lead could possibly be anything as great as up to 15 minutes, if the same rate of gaining a lead up to the 7 - 8 mile mark was maintain throughout to QE Park.  Note; the official results actually show that my lead at the checkpoint was only 9 minutes and 13 seconds!  Which I didn't know on race day, so to be caught at the 35 mile mark was a bit of a shock.  Looking at the split time for arriving at Cocking, based on my data, as the official Cocking CP data isn't available, which was at around 4:32.  I had lost 8 minutes to my perfect day schedule, but more importantly had lost ALL of my 9 minute lead from QE Park.  It had taken me 109 minutes to cover 12.5 mile miles.  So instead of my average running pace slowing down from 7:15 min/mile to 8:00 min/mile, it actually slowed substantially more down to 8:44 min/mile.  Meanwhile Mark Perkins' pace only slowed down from 7:37 min/mile up to QE Park to 8:00 min/mile.  Interestingly the 8:00 min/mile pace he ran at between QE Park and Cocking was identical to my planned 'perfect day' pace.  So as planned, if I had managed to control my slowing down during this portion of the race to 8:00, then the time gap would have been the same, which I have noticed is what typically has happened in a number of my previous ultra trail races.

What caused the excessive slowdown is the big question?  Was it largely due to the negative thoughts, the wandering of the mind, the doubt, concern, worry about having gone too fast?  Or was it simple physiology, I just wasn't physically fit enough to run at the pace I had planned?  Probably a combination of the two.  All I know, and where the frustration comes from for this portion of the race is, that with better mind control, the slowdown wouldn't have been as excessive.  And this is something I can remedy before my next race.  Trying to correct the level of physical fitness is a lot more difficult.  As mentioned above, with increasing age I have found that my physiology has declined, and during the last two years especially, this decline as been more rapid!  Maybe with turning 50 last year, there is also a possible mental expectation component that has magnified the decline, although in my mind I still feel as young and as competitive as I always have! 

Mark's stop at the checkpoint is minimal, and so he departs a minute or so before me, and that is the last I see of him!  Although disappointing to have lost the lead, I am fine with it, and in some ways a bit relieved, as I was aware that I was slowing down more than I should have been, so with my mind wandering, I found that I was trying to predict, with minimal data, when I would get caught.  Not a good sign, having this negative expectation of being caught present within ones thoughts!  So at least now I didn't have this distraction.

I therefore continued along the South Downs Way, yes at an even slower pace.  It still amazes me just how much leading a race can have on how one feels.  Maybe it is just my big ego.  But when leading a race, everything just feels so much easier.  The moment one loses the lead, all of a sudden little things became more of a struggle.  And it isn't just me with these sensations.  How many times have you seen the current leader of a race drop out.  Very seldom.  But the moment they lose their lead, then all of the sudden the discomfort from the injury or illness becomes just too much and they drop out.  Yes, it is all in the mind.  But that doesn't mean that these feelings, emotions, sensations aren't real!

So I make my way towards Eastbourne, briefly chatting to Brendan at a number of different road junctions.  And I guess shortly before descending into Amberley at around the 45 mile mark I encounter my first challenging moment.  Up to that point I had felt okay.  Although at times I felt a bit warm, my hydration using the new Montane Jaws 10 trail running pack with drink bottles on the shoulder straps, and my nutrition using TORQ gels had been effective.  But after over six hours of running, even with the TORQ gels being a lot less 'offensive' than all of the other gels I have used in the past, the thought of consuming more gels wasn't that appealing, which then creates concern regarding whether I am taking on sufficient fuel.  There also at the same time seems to be a lack of excitement, and lack of enjoyment.  I guess partly due to having lost the lead but hopefully I would expect more due to the fact that I was running slower than planned.  I usually establish a race goal of running strong, running confidently, running positively for as much of the race as possible, ideally the entire race.  But on Saturday, obtaining that goal was no longer possible due to the negative thoughts that had 'taken control' shortly after QE Park with the acceptance that I needed to slow down!  So in combination with this reduction in joy, I was finding it difficult to maintain the motivation to keep the intensity at a race pace level.  The "bad angel" was doing it's best to convince me that there was no purpose in trying to run quickly.  It wasn't possible to achieve any of the race goals I had established, so the best option was to simply slow down, look at the scenery, totally forget any time component to do with the race, and therefore maximise your enjoyment!  It always amazes me how the "bad angel" always somehow manages to construct a pretty powerful argument to get you to slow down!

Fortunately climbing the big climb out of Amberley, although not moving that quickly I get back on task.  The increased focus to get up the hill re-engages my racing mode, and things are therefore pretty well okay all the way to the Washington checkpoint at 54.0 miles, which I reach after 7:31.  Now being 23 minutes behind Mark, and in relation to by 'perfect day' schedule, 21 minutes behind schedule.  Taking on board this time information, at first pleases me, as it confirms that even if I was running well, I would still likely be behind Mark as he is running really well.  But then it disappoints me, as I realise I am missing an excellent opportunity to have a great battle in what could have been a closely fought race.

I guess I am stopped at Washington for around 3 - 4 minutes.  I used to always try to minimise the time I spent at checkpoints, but now I am not too sure if this is the best approach in long 100 mile races.  At the checkpoint is an excellent opportunity to really soak up some positive energy from the volunteers and other spectators.  And as long as the time spent there isn't too long, the 2 - 3 minutes of 'down time' can allow your mind to briefly switch off from the required 'race focus', and can rejuvenate you.  However, taking a 'break' at a checkpoint can also be risky, as it can result in when you attempt to get back into race mode, that you don't return to the same race intensity, and from that point in the race onwards, it is as if your 'intensity thermostat' has been reset.  So where as for example in last year's Montane Lakeland 100, where taking 2 - 3 minute checkpoint breaks made a significant positive impact on my overall race performance, I think possibly with the SDW 100 race route not being so physically demanding.  Due to smaller climbs, the lack of night time running (for me), and the much reduced overall race duration.  Then taking slightly longer breaks last Saturday didn't really pay off!  For those situations in more demanding, long races, I would suggest that 3 minutes should be the upper maximum time.  The only problem is that it is so easy for the 2 - 3 minutes to extend to 5 - 6 minutes, and then it may become even more difficult to get back into race mode!


Leaving Washington CP at 54 Miles (Photo courtesy of Javid Bhatti)

Being at the Washington checkpoint for that little bit too long does result in me taking a bit of time to re-engage with the race, but overall I am reasonably happy with the progress I am making towards Eastbourne.  Yes, a lot slower that planned, but at this point although not moving fast I am still racing.  However, on the decent to the Boltophs checkpoint at the 61 mile mark, the amount of discomfort in the legs seems to be the 'final straw' in my ability to hold off the 'slow down arguments'!  Now in every 100 mile race I have run, towards the latter end of the race, I have always experienced discomfort due to extensive muscle damage.  Yes, sometime it is worse that others, but reflecting back now, as I descended down to Bolthophs it was nowhere as challenging as usual, and this 'giving' in without really trying to process the discomfort, is another source of frustration.  Interestingly even though I don't think slowing ones pace down to pretty well a minimal shuffle actually reduces the level of discomfort that much, it at least feels as though one is doing something positive to make things more comfortable.  So that is what I do.  I absolutely take forever to drop down to the river and into the checkpoint. 

The Massive Drop in Heart Rate as I DNF the Race Decending into Boltolphs Checkpoint at 61 Miles

Then to 'top things off' as I leave the checkpoint and glance back across the river, I spot an approaching runner.  Do I then immediately get a move on, get back into race mode?  Unfortunately not.  I walk out of the checkpoint, walk across the busy road, and yes walk up the hill up toward the youth hostel on Trueleigh Hill.  Although the hill is reasonably steep at the bottom section, I know that I shouldn't be walking it, but I do!  I no longer have the incentive to maintain my race focus.  In reality my racing is over for the day! Even though I am still in second place overall as I walk up the climb, it doesn't seem to hold any significance for me. And this is what is possibly the most frustrating aspect for me from last Saturday's race.  This lack of desire to continue to race hard, regardless of my race position.  Yes, a very disappointing realisation!

Racing the Mountain Bikers At Ditchling Beacon At Around 72 Miles


Having a 'Picnic' at Southease Checkpoint at 83 Miles With Cyclist Supporter Brendan and Chris

However, I do continue to run, all be it, at a slower than usual pace, all the way to Eastbourne, apart from walking up the very last climb out of Jevington.  As I had lost the incentive to run as quickly as I could, pretty well the only motivation I was able to create to keep me moving along at running pace was so I didn't miss any of the football that started at 11:00pm and so after 17 hours.  As I left the last checkpoint at Jevington, I knew that I could literally walk all the way to Eastbourne and still not miss any of the football, hence the lengthy walk up the final climb/  I officially finish in fifth place overall, in a time of 16:33:30, which I guess for 228 of the runners from the field of 233 starters on Saturday they would be really pleased with finishing fifth in such a quick time.  But everyone's motives and challenges for running the SDW100 are different, and therefore everyone's levels of achievement and satisfaction are also different.  So for me, the finish time was not satisfying.  I know I am capable of a better performance.  Yes, I know that maybe I have finally reached the pinnacle of my ultra trail racing performances, and so from now on it may be all downhill.  But, I guess it gets down to the fact that I am not quite ready to accept this.  The desire to continue to perform at a high level that has provided me in the past with immense satisfaction is still strong.  Fortunately through this detailed analysis of last Saturday's race I am able to see that I can make some simple changes which can enhance my performance quite a bit.  So I am not quite ready to 'throw in the towel'.

So yes, the SDW100 was frustrating for many reasons, but the best way to deal with these frustrations is to put in action the necessary changes I need to make to my TOTAL preparation.  Specifically my non-physical preparation in order to 'bounce back' from two consecutive 'below par' performances, as physically I feel in pretty good shape.  Look out for the next lengthy instalment of my continuing learning experiences at the end of July, as I look to 'get it right', to do what I know I need to do, over the fantastic trails of the Lake District at the Montane Lakeland 50.

Well I did warn you at the start that this blog post was being typed 'live'!  As a result I am feeling a lot more positive towards my next race, which before commencing these race reflections, there was just a wee bit of doom and gloom!

I will sign off with a quote from one of my favourite books:
"You can either live the safe route that many others have done and continue to do, or you can take that leap of faith: jump off the cliff that can send you into a World that is unpredictable, extremely challenging, and altogether unsupported by those who see risk as a negative.  Do that and you can truly live the life that you were put here to live".  Mark Allen, Six Times Hawaii Ironman Champion.  From the book titled I'm Here to Win, by Chris McCormack, 2011.
Was running the first mile in 6:04 the safe route?  No, probably not, but it was a lot of fun!

All Smiles - Out On My Own at the End of the Starting Lap of the Field at Winchester

Stuart

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Weald Challenge Race Report - The Joy of Trail Running

Hi

Although this post is a race report, it is slightly different as it is not from a runner's view, but this time from the perspective of being Race Director.  Yes, the Weald Challenge Trail Races, started with a simple thought following a training run, and two years later, it took place.  And as the subtitle of my post suggests, based on the feedback received from those that took part, it brought plenty of joy to many runners.


It was Monday 4th June 2012, and it was the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, so the Monday was a holiday.  I was in training for the 2012 Montane Lakeland 100, and as I had lost two months training earlier in the year due to a stress fracture in my foot, I had been 'playing catch-up' since getting back into running at the end of April.  So I was wanting to make the most of the Queen's celebration, and so run that little bit further than I usually would from home.  I got out the Ordnance Survey maps and saw that I could head out along the Wealdway long distance path that passes my front door, which I usually run along.  But if I ran that little bit further, to enter the Ashdown Forest, I could run a small road section along a country lane and then join onto a second long distance path, the Vanguard Way, and follow this pretty well all the way back to my village of East Hoathly, before turning off the Vanguard Way at Graywood, just one mile from home.

So at 6:01 am I started my run, and 3 hours and 18 minutes later I was back home, having completed 22.02 miles.  How do I know this?  Well, because I was going that little bit further than I usually would in a training run, I wore my Garmin GPS watch, which I tend to only wear for races and special training runs.  So the run is stored on Garmin Connect.  I got back from my run and as I was thinking how fantastic the run had been with such a variety of great terrain and scenery, I noticed the distance of 22 miles and thought that it wasn't too far short of a marathon.  Our neighbouring village Chiddingly is two miles away, so there and back would add the extra 4 miles needed to make the run up to the marathon distance.  And at that moment, the Weald Challenge Trail Marathon was created.  Although the name I originally gave to the run was the "Vanguard of the Weald Trail Marathon", acknowledging the names of the two long distance paths.

Shortly after that discovery run, I proposed to training partner Kev that we do the run one Saturday morning, starting and finishing at Chiddingly, in order to measure the exact distance.  So around four weeks later on Saturday 7th July 2012, at 5:04 am, Kev and I commenced the running of the very first Weald Challenge Trail Marathon, starting and finishing at Chiddingly Primary School.  Later that morning, after running 26.35 miles, completed in just under 5 hours, Kev and I had the 'honour' of being joint course record holders!  Click HERE for the inaugural course record Garmin data.

So that was the beginning, and since then, until two weeks ago, I have been on a Race Director's journey; turning an idea into reality!

Although I have been race director for our village 5km road race titled the 'Kings Head Canter 5K' for the last eight or nine years, this is a pretty straight forward race to organise.  I have support from the East Hoathly and Halland Carnival Society, who provide the volunteers for the day, and with it being a road race along quiet country lanes, it requires I think a grand total of four direction arrows at the four road junctions along the route.  Organising an off-road marathon, and also a 50km ultra event and a half marathon as well, was a much more challenging task!  The additional 50km and half marathon distance events simply seemed the 'natural' thing to do, after discovering that these were the distances that resulted if runners either continued further into the Ashdown Forest to directly join the Vanguard Way before starting to head back to Chiddingly, or if they turned earlier at Blackboys where the Wealdway and Vanguard Ways meet.

I won't bore you with the 'million and one' things that were done prior to race day some 22 months later.  But if in the future, I hear anybody perhaps questioning the worth of a race director, I will just ask them if they appreciate just how much is involved in putting on a running race.  From: getting race permits; informing the police, councils, Ashdown Forest; sorting out first aid, volunteers for the day, race entries, race numbers, finisher momentos, prizes, feed stations, portaloo toilets, car parking, registration venue, etc.  You can be guaranteed that just when you thought of everything, something else needed to be done, or you discover that you have upset someone, for example local horse riders extremely upset at the flapping red and white barrier tape hanging from trees that 'spook' their horses, or runners that wish to enter after entries have closed, even though entries had been open for six months!

Now the above paragraph may come across as being a bit negative.  I don't mean it to appear negative, as it was my decision to take on the race.  It was my challenge, and as with running a race, if it wasn't a challenge, the satisfaction upon completion wouldn't be as great.  However, looking back now, if someone had told me that it would take so so many hours of time and mental energy to put on the event, then perhaps I wouldn't have taken on the challenge.  Fortunately, nobody told me about the reality of being a race director for a new event.  But now with the Weald Challenge Trail Races having successfully taken place, I am very pleased that I did complete the journey from thought to fruition.

I don't want this post to sound like 'The Oscars' with loads of thank yous, but I will just thank one or two people, which clearly isn't everyone, as the list would be far too long.  First and foremost I would like to thank my family Frances, Rob, and Chris.  To those of you that ran the race, the majority of the cakes that you enjoyed upon finishing were homemade by Frances, and the two photographers that were taking your photos, which are available to download by clicking HERE, were our two boys Rob and Chris.

Chris the Photographer

Rob the Photographer and the Medal Designer

In addition to these specific tasks, they provided non-stop support and positive encouragement, right from the concept, all the way through to creation.  They, along with running friends such as Kev, Rob, Jim, and physio Luke, were my 'market research'.  I would sound an idea with them, and following their comments, the decision would be made.

 
The Original Medal Design Concept

The Weald Challenge Medal

Hopefully if you finished the race you would have recently received the finisher's medal, designed by Rob.  Which although two weeks late, I am pretty pleased with it.  Also before I forget, a big thanks to the potter Trevor who created by hand all of the Weald Challenge coffee mugs and trophy plates.


A Proud Trophy Winner

In terms of putting on the race, one of the very first things I needed to sort out were the many volunteers required for race day.  Being a member of the recently renamed running club Uckfield Runners, I raised the idea with them regarding jointly putting on the Weald Challenge Trail Races.  They were really keen on the idea, so it was mainly Uckfield Runners who were the friendly encouraging volunteers that were so widely praised within the extremely positive post-race feedback provided on facebook, or via e-mail.  Although in addition to members of Uckfield Runners, there were also four injured runners, or runner's partners who also volunteered and provided great help on the day ensuring the event was a success.  So many thanks to all of the race day volunteers.






Will there be a 2015 Weald Challenge?  Well, I am pleased to say YES.  The intention is to hold the event on the same weekend next year, so please enter Sunday 24th May 2015 into your diary.

Although it was a tremendous amount of work, seeing the amount of enjoyment that so many of the 311 runners that took part on the day experienced, although a cliche, did make it all worthwhile.  Yes, my number one running passion is my own personal racing, and the joy I get from the competition with others, whilst challenging myself to complete the race as quickly as I can.  But having been fortunate to experience so many excellent trail races over recent years, the least I could do was to put that little something back into the trail running community, through organising the Weald Challenge Trail Races.

Time to sign off. 
“The reason we race isn't so much to beat each other,... but to be with each other.” 
Christopher McDougall, 2009, Born to Run.

Hopefully see you at a trail race during the coming year, or at the Weald Challenge next May.

Stuart

PS  Shortly before the Weald Challenge Trail Races took place I was fortunate to receive from Mizuno a pair of their newly released Wave Hayate trail running shoes.
Mizuno Wave Hayate Trail Shoe
  
The timing was perfect, as although I do the majority of my training and racing wearing my Mizuno Wave Rider 17 road shoes.  When the ground is a bit wet and slippery, I prefer to run in trail shoes.  Therefore on the Saturday prior to Weald Challenge race day, following loads of overnight rain, I was able to test out the Hayate Trail Shoe as I finished off marking the race route.  

So following around eight hours of running, all be it very stop-start running, on at times rather muddy terrain, what were my feelings on the shoe?  Well probably one key bit of feedback was just how 'responsive' the shoes felt.  I am a big fan of light shoes, and with an official weight of 252 grammes (Mens size 9) they are pretty light.  Although one can find shoes that are plenty lighter than this, I find that it is the lightness in combination with the feeling under the forefoot, that creates the perception in terms of whether I like the shoe or not.  The Hayate seems to feel about right, with their being sufficient cushioning under the forefoot, so one feels light and responsive to the underlying terrain. without either the soft spongy unresponsive feeling one gets if there is too much cushioning, or alternatively the dis-comfortable feeling in sensing every sharp rock or uneven surface that often results if there is too little forefoot cushioning.  So my initial feeling, is that with the Hayate, for me, Mizuno seem to have got the balance pretty well right. 

Will I therefore be wearing the Mizuno Hayates this Saturday in the Centurion Running South Downs Way 100 mile ultra trail race.  Well unless there is non-stop rain between now and Saturday, which is looking unlikely, the answer is no.  With the South Downs Way tending to be pretty smooth underfoot, and consisting of mainly a chalk based surface, there isn't really the need for a trail shoe.  So as I have done in the majority of the trail races I have recently raced in, unless there are muddy conditions, I will be wearing my Mizuno Wave Rider road shoes.  Which with an official weight of 244 grammes are a tiny bit lighter than the Hayate trail shoe.  But the reason I like the Wave Rider shoe and why I have predominantly trained and raced in these shoes over the last six years, is that to me they are plenty responsive, but also, especially important when racing 100 miles, they feel pretty comfortable. 
Mizuno Wave Rider 17 Road Shoe

Look out for my South Downs Way 100 mile race report here on UltraStu next week.  Where hopefully the many hours of physical training spent marking the Weald Challenge race route, and then collecting in the route markings following the event, will have paid off with a strong race performance.


Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Fellsman - Still Making Mistakes After 34 Years!

Hi, This race report is a bit later than usual, but it required quite a bit of self-reflection!

Saturday the 26th of April is a significant date for me.  No, not because the 61 mile Fellsman took place on Saturday 26th April, but because exactly 34 years earlier, on Saturday the 26th April 1980 I ran my first marathon.  Even 34 years later I still have strong memories of that day, which set me on my path of a lifetime of endurance running.  And as the post title suggests even after 34 years, I still struggle to put into action what I know I should be doing.

My most recent post (not that recent now!) was about road marathon racing, and it was while researching  material for that marathon post, when the significance of exactly 34 years became apparent.  Back in 1980 I was racing my first marathon, and now in 2014, I was racing my first fell race.  Not just any fell race, but the Fellsman race, probably one of the hardest fell races in the country, and one with a huge history, with this year being the 52nd edition.

Yes, I have raced many trail races over the last thirteen years (I didn't really get into trail running until 2001), but a trail race involves running along a set trail, a set route, which is usually published in advance.  A fell race differs in that there is no set route.  For the Fellsman, the 24 checkpoints were published in advance, and I had in fact purchased one of the 50th Anniversary Fellsman maps with the checkpoints printed onto the map.  However, what differs from a trail race is that there is no specified route between the checkpoints.  Runners are able to decide the quickest route to take, which may often not be the shortest route, due to it being a lot slower running over boggy ground, or it may be quicker running a longer route to avoid losing and then needing to regain any lost elevation.

The Fellsman Checkpoints

Whereas in preparation for key trail races, I typically would recce the race route, and this can be achieved pretty well on one running of the race route.  For a fell race it takes many runs between checkpoints to fully recce the route, so able to know the quickest route between checkpoints, i.e. the straight line, or perhaps circling round to the left, or to the right, etc.  Living way down in East Sussex, getting up to the Yorkshire Dales to carry out multiple recces wasn't possible, so I decided to do no recce runs.  My non-physical race preparation therefore had to take into account that I would not know the route come race day.

I have spent quite a few words above explaining my situation re knowing the race route, as this point had a key bearing on my dilemma in planning a clear race strategy, and then come race day, it strongly influenced my race performance.

Preparing for a race, I always start with answering the three questions:  What do I want?  Why do I want it?  How much do I want it? Getting the answers right for these questions is critical in terms of increasing the likelihood of achieving a good performance, and it is actually quite difficult, formulating these answers.  I have found over the years that it is a lot better to have a journey goal, rather than a destination goal.  And in fact this was one of the key points I spoke about to an audience of fifty trail runners at the recent Trail Team Day in London, which I will briefly comment on at the end of this post, that is if I'm not 'blogged out' by the time I get to the end!

Trail Team Day at London

Reflecting back to my Fellsman race goals, they really weren't that clear.  Probably something like "running strong, positively and being totally focused" for the entire race.  With my plan being that if I achieved these goals, then a good performance would result, which I thought would equate to a likely top five/ten finish position, dependent upon who is racing, and a likely finish time of 10:30 - 11:30 hours, dependent upon the ground and weather conditions.  Although I believe that journey goals are more effective than destination goals, I do also believe that it is important that prior to race day, that you have a 'ball park' idea of what your likely finish time will be.  This is so your sub-conscious knows the likely race duration.  As one's perception of effort is influenced by the sub-conscious' knowledge of the race duration, and the larger the uncertainty over the race duration, the greater the 'safety net' set by the sub-conscious, and therefore the greater the perceived exertion for a set pace, in order to get you to run slower!

So standing on the start line my intention was to run within a group and to rely on my fellow runners to ‘guide’ me around the unmarked route.  Which group I would run in I wasn't too sure.  With my three most recent race results consisting of : Did Not Start (DNS), Did Not Finish (DNF) and my lowest ever finishing position in a trail race (5th), I was struggling to find the my self-belief that I was capable of running within the front group.  In addition my "Run as fast as you can, while you can strategy" didn't seem to really suit this race, as my start fast strategy typically results in me slowing down after the initial fast start, which wouldn't be much use in the Fellsman, as I would then be stuck in 'no man's land' once I slowed down, that is assuming the front group runners don't slow down as much as me.

At the top of the first tough climb up to the summit of Ingleborough at an elevation of 2373 feet, even though I was a bit uncertain about the 'wisdom' of running in the front group, I was actually running at the front of the race, in a group of around six runners.  I had found the pace reasonably comfortable, and the thought of deliberating running slower than what felt right, was definitely not an option!

The Checkpoint Clicking Disc

At each checkpoint, one is required to get their round checkpoint disc clicked by the marshal.  Queueing for the clicker led to a split in the front bunch, with last year's winner Adam Perry, last year's third place finisher Kim Collison, and a runner I didn't know quickly running out of sight.  Which in fact was only a lead of around 10 metres, as there was very thick mist, or I think they refer to it as 'clag' way up north.  Anyway I descended with three times winner and course record holder Jez Bragg, and Stuart Walker, a runner that seems to be getting better with each race.

Jez, set the pace going down, and although the pace was reasonably quick, I was aware that it was likely that we would lose a little bit of time to the leading three.  But when we emerged out of the 'clag', the leading three runners were nowhere in sight, and as we approached the first checkpoint, we could see them running off into the distance at around three minutes ahead, which the split times results later confirmed.  At the time I thought it rather strange that they had got so far ahead.  It wasn't until chatting with Jez at the finish when he explained that they must have taken a much steeper, riskier route down, which he thought was likely to be faster, but he had decided to take the safer route down the main path.

Bottom of Ingleborough - Approaching Checkpoint 2

A quick 'click' at checkpoint two and then it was straight into the climb of the second but highest peak of the day, Whernside at 2419 feet elevation.  As we approached the summit, there was a short out and back.  The conditions were pretty extreme, with gale force winds, and poor visibility due to the thick mist, which probably exaggerated the speed at which the leading three ran past our group of three, as they were only visible for a very brief period of time.  But I did think they they were really shifting!

Battling as a Cyclist in the Eighties

As part of my preparation for my Trail Team talk, I had been digging out some old photos of my younger days, when I really use to 'battle', and 'fight' my way to the finish line.  Again if I get some time I will expand on my ideas on how 'battling' in races can be an asset, but it also can detract from performing well.  For a few years I was a competitive road cyclist, and I really enjoyed the tactics involved in road cycling where one just has to stay in contact with the bunch when climbing a hill.  This thought therefore sprung to mind as I 'sat in' directly behind Jez and Stuart on both the Whernside climb and the following Grageth climb.  Really focusing to maintain contact up the hill, as once we got on the flat, or a slight descend, just like my old cycling days, I found that it was that little bit easier to follow.  As the three of us get clicked at checkpoint 5, Gragareth,  a small gap of a few seconds had just opened up to Jez and Stuart.  On the next flat section I found that closing the gap was just taking that little too much race focus, and so after around three hours of running, I decided that I really needed to reduce the intensity a wee bit, as after all it was going to be a 11 hour race.  I then had the anguish of watching my ‘guides’ gradually run off into the distance.

'Sitting In' Behind Jez Bragg and Stuart Walker Climbing Whernside

Although not a complete novice to navigating my way by interpreting a map; it takes me a minute or so to work out exactly where I was on the map at the first track junction I came across, as up to that point my map had stayed in my pocket.  Although my race plan was to be guided between the checkpoints, as there was no-one in sight behind, I had no choice but to run on my own.  At that period of the race I was really race focused, and pretty happy with how I was racing.  So I had no intention at all of easing off the pace to 'wait' to be caught.  Reflecting back now, it was this 'over excitement' that probably led to my first big mistake of the day.  Rather than taking my time to have a thorough check of the ideal route to CP9, Blea Moor, I just had a quick glance at the map, and then mistook a tent located next to some scaffolding by a tunnel air duct as the checkpoint.  I therefore headed off far too much to the right, which also had me descending deep into a rather boggy valley. As I struggled to maintain pace across the wet and soggy ground, I noticed far away higher up to my left, two runners moving a lot quicker than me.  I had suddenly dropped down to eighth place, so I thought at the time! 

After finally reaching checkpoint nine, I decided that I would take substantially more time familarising myself with the map, so I hopefully wouldn't lose any more places getting to the next checkpoint.  I headed off in what I thought was the correct direction, but soon realised that I was making tough work of the route I had chosen, and noticed that the runner behind me was taking a different line, and rapidly gaining time on me.  With the frustration mounting at losing time, not due to my running ability, but due to not having recced the route, I decide that I might as well simply wait for him to catch up, and run with him as it appeared that he knew a more ideal way to go.  So that is what I did, and reflecting back now, making that decision had a big effect.  I was no longer in race mode, but now in training mode.  I distinctly recall thinking at the time that I could just 'cruise' along with this runner, and it would result in me finishing in an okayish position. 

I mentioned about the importance of establishing clear race goals.  Having well thought out, clear race goals that you are strongly committed to I find really helps in keeping me race focused.  It  helps me provide an argument against the messages within my head during the race which are persistently arguing that I should slow down.  So with my rather vague, uncommitted race goals, I quite easily accept that running slower than I am actually capable of is totally fine, and replace the vague journey goal I had prior to the race start, with now a destination goal of finishing in the top ten will be fine.

So we ran together to the next checkpoint, and then up the next climb, which was an out and back section.  Up to that point I had assumed that we were running in 8th equal place, but I soon realised that on my poor route choice to CP9 Blea Moor, I had actually lost four places, not two!  As at this point in the race I was now focusing on a destination goal, this realisation of now being out of my top ten finish place target, was not very well received. Instead of being in the moment, taking in the surrounding environment, which by now was quite pleasant with the rain gone, and with glimpses of blue sky and sunshine, I was 'feeling sorry for myself'', thinking that this Fell racing wasn't 'fair', with those that know the course having an unfair advantage.  I recall feeling totally un-engaged in the race.  Then to 'top it off', on the descent of Great Knoutberry my foot comes out of my shoe, as my shoe remains stuck in the mud.  I finally manage to stop, retrace my steps, get my shoe back on, but then have to make a big effort to catch up to my running 'guide'.  So after the chase, no longer am I cruising, I now find that I am working quite hard, even to simply stay running at his pace once I had re-caught him.

Now those of you that have read my UTMB 2011 DNF race report will probably recognise some common aspects here.  Yes, I am entering a downward spiral of negativity, which back in 2011 led to me pulling out of the race.  On the day during the Fellsman I also began to recognise the similarities, so I tried to break out of the overwhelming negativity.  But how?  I found that now having 'switched' out of race mode, that there was no buzz, there was no excitement, and with there no longer being the goal of running to the best of my ability, which is reliant on maintaining my race focus, I found running at what would usually be a reasonably comfortable pace, quite difficult.  As we leave checkpoint 12, the runner who I have been running with, Ed Williams who ends up finishing in 6th place, gradually leaves me behind.  I simply can't stay with him. And it doesn't take too long for him to be too far ahead that I can no longer follow his path.

I am back to running on my own, and again find that I am struggling to find the best route to take. At one stage I actually fall into a 'puddle' up to my waist!  Well to cut a long story short, the remainder of my 'journey' around the Fellsman tends to consist of feelings of frustration at not knowing the 'best' route to take, disappointment at being further down the field than I was expecting, and a bit of 'shock', that overall I am feeling so 'weak' that I am just unable to maintain the usual running pace that I typically am able to run at.  So as you can imagine with all of these negative feelings, I am not really enjoying myself, which then adds to the downward spiral, which makes things even worse!

In relation to my high performance levels I expect from myself, I end up running slower and slower, and continually lose places.  As runners pass me, they are all very supportive as they see that I am struggling.  A number of them get chatting about how they have raced me in the past, but usually all they see is me 'flying off'' into the distance.  As you can imagine, these types of conversations further confirm that I am having a really 'bad day', which doesn't really cheer me up.  I therefore run/walk even slower, maybe so I can be on my own again.

Shortly before checkpoint 18 at Cray, I decide that due to it just 'not happening today', that I might as well stop racing.  In reality, I guess I had already stopped racing many hours back, the moment I had deliberately slowed down to let the following runner catch me up so he could guide me around.  As there was absolutely nothing physically wrong with me, as all of the 'problems' were in my head.  I couldn't find a valid reason to stop running, and to record yet another DNF so soon after my Steyning Stinger DNF, so I decide that at the next checkpoint I would have a lengthy stop and then simply 'jog' the last 18 or so miles to the finish.

So I stop at CP18 for around 26 minutes, drinking hot coffee, and putting on some extra layers. By this time the temperature was beginning to drop, and with my intention to really take my time getting to the finish, actually because the way I was feeling at the time, I didn't think  I would be able to go any quicker anyway, I didn't want to get too cold, especially on the tops of the two last climbs that I had to get over.

What actually eventuated was that, due to not wanting to get lost again, I somehow managed to stay in contact with another runner (Duncan Steen), even though we weren't actually running that quickly, who was then able to guide me to checkpoint 21, Park Rash.  We arrived at the checkpoint at 7:55pm, so we had missed the 7:30pm cut-off time to get through the checkpoint before the grouping rule was enforced.  Fellow Torq Performance Trail Team runner Jon Hedger who had also missed the grouping cut-off was already waiting at the checkpoint.  But as the grouping rule requires a minimum group size of four, the three of us end up waiting 20 minutes for our fourth group member Andrew Slattery to arrive and then be ready to depart.  Not that I minded the wait, as I had found keeping up with Duncan for the last hour or so, was a real struggle.

Once grouped, the group must stay within visible sight together.  My plans to simply 'jog' to the finish was no longer possible.  It is hard to describe, but for the next two hours all I had in my head were negative feelings and guilt that I was slowing down the other three runners.  I had accepted many hours earlier that I was having a 'bad day', where I had taken the easy option, and disengaged myself from the race, rather than trying to work my way through the difficulties.  So now there was a real belief that I was a hindrance to their performance, which really does make one feel even worse.  Something which was quite a new experience for me in terms of ultra trail running!  And to be honest, something which I don't really want to experience again, this feeling that your poor performance is 'harming' the performance of other runners!

I therefore massively struggle, and not just mentally finding it mega difficult, but also physiologically I found keeping up with the other three runners mega difficult.  We finally reach the last checkpoint, CP24 Yarnbury,  at the start of the sealed road to the finish at Threshfield.  The group was then allowed to ungroup here, and immediately Torq Trail teammate Jon just sprints off immediately out of sight.  You can imagine how that made me feel, realising that for the last two hours my slow running must have been so frustrating for him, slowing him down.  Duncan also quickly disappears as he obviously also had plenty 'left in the tank'.  But at least I gain a tiny bit of 'redemption', in that our fourth group member, Andrew, stays that little bit longer at the checkpoint for refreshments, so at least I wasn't holding him up!

I finally reach the finish, after 13 hours and 56 minutes, but my official time is recorded as 13:36, as the 20 minutes of grouping time is removed from my finish.  I finish in 20th place overall, although in my mind it feels more like a DNF, in that I stopped racing, many hours earlier.  Click here for the results.  The really strange feeling was that even though I 'stopped' racing many hours earlier, the last three hours of running I found really tough, really difficult.  A lot more 'painful' than I usually experience.  You may notice something quite different in the last sentence.  Yes, I have used words to describe my running that I never would usually use.  But for some reason, the Fellsman race was such a 'different' experience for me, that using the negative words seems totally apt!  The graph below displays my heart rate trace from my Garmin GPS data.  The massive decline in heart rate as the race progresses is quite evident!

Fellsman Heart Rate Trace

I actually started writing the above race report around two weeks ago, and as you can probably gather from the above summary, I found the Fellsman experience quite disappointing!  Yes, it was good to catch up with various runners that I have met and chatted with at previous races, but at 'the end of the day' the actual running must be enjoyable and satisfying.  I returned back to East Sussex on the Sunday after the race, which was actually my son's birthday, in time to go out for a birthday meal.   To say I wasn't really a 'bundle of joy' would be quite an understatement.  Which got me really questioning the whole purpose of this Ultra Trail racing.  I had missed the majority of my son's birthday, driven over 600 miles, to achieve what?

When I wrote my over dramatic UTMB DNF race  report, at the time back in 2011 I was quite 'devastated' at DNFing.  Back in 2011, UTMB was my number one focus race of the year.  The feelings this time were quite different.  Although I always aim to perform in all races I do, the Fellsman was not one of my key races for the year.  The disappointment wasn't so much to do with my relatively poor performance, but more to do with a realisation that maybe I had got my life balance wrong.  Was all of the effort, the time, the 'sacrifices' to do with ultra trail racing really worth it?  I'm not really sure why I got so down, so philosophical following the race, but I did!

How long did this questioning, this doubt about the worth of ultra trail racing last?  Well fortunately, the following weekend after the Fellsman I was doing a presentation at the Trail Running Team London 'Selection' Day.  And it was exactly what was needed.  Spending a day with 50 super positive, inspirational runners, all really experiencing the joy of trail running, 'snapped' me out of the questioning, and I was 'back on track', focused again on performing to a level that I feel I am capable of at my next race, the Petzel South Downs Way 100 mile.  However, in terms of the overall life balance, I feel I am a bit more 'aware', but I also feel that it is important that one does have to follow their passion, and yes at times does have to make sacrifices, and yes, also at times perhaps be that little bit selfish.

Anyway, as I tried to finish writing up my Fellsman race report, there was a real feeling that my report seemed to be making excuses for my lower than usual performance.  The fact that I seemed to simply 'give up' just because I was lower down the field than what I expected, what I wanted.  There was a sense that I was 'behaving' a bit like a spoilt brat, always wanting to get their way, and can't accept when one isn't rewarded with pleasure, recognition, things that make them 'happy'!

Maybe, my self expectations of what I am able to achieve in ultra trail racing is just unrealistic?  Maybe, it is quite obvious why I had to slow down so much during the race.  Because I started out running far too fast, trying to keep up with runners that are far better than me, and I simply 'paid' for my foolishness, I simply 'blew up'!  It is nothing to do with my state of mind, nothing to do with a negative downward spiral.  Accept it, I am just not physically fit enough.  Spend more time doing some actual hard physical training, like everyone else does, and forget all of this race focus, positivity bulls**t and train hard, pace myself sensibly, and then maybe I won't slow down so much!

So rather than publish my race report post on my blog, as much as I know that the above paragraph is totally the type of bulls**t that restricts so many runners from really performing, I felt that I needed some evidence, that the reasons I suggest for my below 'par' Fellsman performance, are actually valid, and not simply due to me being physically 'unfit'!

How do I collate this evidence?  Simple, do a trail race, ensuring that my mind is in the 'right place' and then I will perform to the level I expect.  But my next trail race isn't until the middle of June, the SDW100.  And really using that race as an evidence gathering task, I felt would really be a hindrance in maximising my performance on the day.  So a quick search of the trail racing calendar and a new trail marathon, the Stroud Trail Marathon, just two weeks after the Fellsman 'jumps out' at me.

So last weekend I again alter the life balance and drive the 300 miles across to Stroud and back, but this time having really spent significant time getting my race goals sorted, getting my mind in the 'right place'.  Well did I gain the evidence I required?  Yes!  During the 27.5 mile trail race, which included a real mixture of terrain, from canal paths to quite steep and lengthy hills, I felt that I 'stayed within the moment' pretty well the entire journey, and finished a close second place, just 31 seconds behind the winner.  My time of 3:23:23 at first glance doesn't look that quick.  But as in this situation, I feel comfortable in that the overall finish time doesn't truly reflect the quality of my performance.  My Garmin GPS data shows some quick miles, such as 6:04, 6:09, 6:08 for the first three miles, as well as some slower miles, largely as a result of the terrain.

So, following last weekend's race I am a lot happier.  Not really due to finishing second, but more due to the 'confirmation' that my interpretation of my performance at the Fellsman does seem to have some validity, and it is not just me 'making excuses'.

Phew! Time to catch my breath!  Well another rather ultra length blog post.  Hopefully those of you that have persevered have found it worthwhile.  As the post sub title states: "Still Making Mistakes After 34 Years", which seems really apt considering the focus of my talk at the Trail Team Day was simply about the three factors that I considered I had 'changed' during my 34 years of running, since my first marathon back in 1980, right up to now, which does include some excellent trail running performances which I am very proud of.  As expected I am a bit blog post fatigued, so I will simply sign off now with a few slides pasted from my recent Trail Team presentation, and maybe expand upon these a bit within future posts.





Enjoy your journey,

Stuart

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Road Marathon Pacing - The Positive Split Pacing Strategy - My Final Comment

Hi,

Yes, back again, and this time I promise that it will be my last post to do with pacing for road marathons.  I know that this UltraStu blog is meant to be about trail running, however, the underlying principles that I will try to explain for the last time here for road marathons do translate to the trails, but to a lesser extent, as there isn't the same 'obsession' with finish times when running on the trails.

Still Some Confusion Over the Likely Disappointment in Adopting an Even Paced Strategy
Why bother writing one last comment about road marathon pacing you may ask.  Well it is because the standard accepted pacing strategy for road marathons, i.e. an even paced strategy or a negative split strategy, is totally the wrong approach for marathon runners, unless you are one of the World's very best.  And the fact that this coming weekend at the London Marathon, thousands of runners will experience disappointment at not achieving their target marathon finish time, and for many, not because they are not capable, but simply due to them following the totally wrong standard accepted pacing strategy for road marathons, with the false belief that they are capable of achieving an even split marathon!

As I stated in my marathon pacing calculator post last week, the topic of pacing tends to be vigorously discussed, and as expected, my post last week generated some quite animated responses.  But rather than directly respond to the comments that have been made during the last week, (which varied from containing some worthy points, to others being totally misguided or confused), I will simply attempt to clarify the confusion that is still evident.

Typical Road Marathon Goals
Lets start with: What is the purpose of running a marathon?  Well, simple really, the number one priority is to get to the finish line.  Apart from something catastrophic happening, pretty well nearly everybody with modest levels of fitness can finish a marathon.  However, it could take a long time, perhaps up to nine hours if one walked at around 3 miles per hour, i.e. 20 minute mile pace.

Although most runners have their number one aim to finish, I have yet to meet a marathon runner who hasn't started the marathon without a thought, a guess at the time they think they can achieve.  Many runners will then convert this possible time idea into a target marathon finish time.  To start with for novice marathon runners, the target finish time may be to break six hours, therefore involving a mixture of walking and running.  And then the next target is often to break the five hour barrier, which requires significantly higher levels of running.  The targets then get quicker, typically to break 4 hours 30 minutes, then the magical four hour mark.  As the finish time gets quicker, the target finish goal barriers tend to get closer, with the next target finish times tending to be 3:45, 3:30, 3:15 and then the 'holy grail' the even more magical sub three hour barrier.  Other finish times between three and four hours are often targeted such as 'good for age' race places for various marathons, e.g. London Marathon, or BM times, i.e. Boston Marathon qualifier times.  Once the sub three hour barrier is accomplished, the targets tend to get very narrow, e.g. 2:55, 2:50, 2:45 (which is the UK Athletics Male Championship qualifier time, then 2:40, 2:35, and finally, only reserved for the very best of male club runners, the sub two hour thirty minute barrier.

So as you can see from the above paragraph, pretty well every runner starting a marathon will have either some vague idea of a time they think they might be able to achieve, or for most runners, they will have a target marathon finishing time that they would like to achieve.  Hence why it is so important that these runners have some form of pacing strategy to help them achieve their target goal finishing time, and hence why I published last week a marathon pacing calculator that will help them pace the marathon and thus help them achieve their target time.

My Marathon Journey
Before I spend a little bit of time explaining in a little bit more detail just why the marathon pacing calculator will dramatically increase the likelihood of the runner achieving their target finish time, I will briefly provide a background of my marathon journey.  Although this section provides some context regarding the importance of different target finish time barriers, skipping this section won't affect your understanding of the marathon pace calculator and why the positive split pacing strategy is more successful.

I mentioned above that in terms of target marathon times, runners may progressively move down the marathon goal time barriers, from five hours, next four hours, then eventually three hours  For me, at the age of seventeen, I set the target immediately at breaking three hours, and I was successful with 2:56:51 in April 1980.  Yes, 34 years ago!


Breaking the Three Hour Barrier - 2:56:51 - April 1980 - Rotorua, NZ

Having achieved the sub three hour goal, I left marathons aside for a few year before returning in 1984, now as a twenty one year old, with the sub two hour thirty minutes barrier as the target finish time.  I'm not sure what happened to the 2:45, or even the 2:50 and 2:40 target times, but as a youngster I was always in a rush to get things done!  Did I achieve my goal time.  No!  Unfortunately I missed the 'super magical' sub 2:30 by a mere forty seconds.

Failing to Break the Two Hour Thirty Minute Barrier - 2:30:39 - June 1984 - Christchurch, NZ

Yes, those forty seconds were massively meaningful.  It meant the difference between massive joy and massive disappointment.  I was so disappointed at not achieving my goal that I moved not only away from marathon running, but running full stop, for the next eight years or so, and ventured into multisport (i.e. kayaking triathlons), road cycling, triathlon, and then Ironman triathlon.  It was only when preparing for the Ironman that I returned to the road marathon in 1992.

So you can see from above, how in some ways road marathons are quite different to trail marathons or ultras.  On the trails, the finish time isn't really that relevant as no two trails are the same.  But on the road, every marathon should be 26.2 miles, and although road routes will vary a bit in terms of undulations and exposure to wind, on the whole, road marathons tend to be over reasonably flattish courses, so direct comparison of marathon times are possible.  So the consequences of running just forty seconds, yes just forty seconds slower that I hoped for changed my entire endurance athlete experiences.  For the better or for the worse, I don't know.  But I do recall that at the time I was very disappointed.  Bizarre really, considering it was such a quick time, especially for a twenty one year old.  But as I have found, runners tend to be very 'hung up' about their race goals, and often will be very despondent over a time only slightly slower than their target time, even though in reality it is a great achievement.  But that is just the nature of many runners!

Therefore being just a few minutes slower than target finish time, or even just a few seconds slower, isn't what one wants. The majority of runners want to achieve their target finish time for the marathon.  Hopefully most people will agree with this statement!

So back to my marathon journey through the years.  Yes, in 1992, I was a full-on Ironman triathlete.  I had successfully qualified for the Hawaii Ironman at the end of the year, by finishing in 13th place overall at the very first 1992 Lanzarote Ironman, running the marathon portion of the Ironman in three hours and seven minutes.  Wanting to perform to my best at Hawaii, I placed more emphasis on my road running and entered the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association Marathon Championship in August 1992, which were being held in Elgin, near the top of Scotland.  I had been living in Aberdeen, Scotland for nearly a year, and so according to the AAA rules I was therefore eligible for the Championship, which was a pleasant surprise when I was awarded the bronze medal for finishing third in an official time of two hours thirty minutes, and this time sixteen seconds (2:30:16).  Yes, the super magical sub 2:30 barrier was still beyond me.  But now only by seventeen seconds,  Yes a measly seventeen seconds!


 

Again Failing to Break the Two Hour Thirty Minute Barrier - 2:30:16 - August 1992 - Elgin, Scotland

For the next few years I continue with Ironmans, triathlons and then duathlons, and it was in 1995, in preparation for the prestigious Zofingen Powerman Duathlon consisting of 13km run, 150km bike, and 30km run, that I ran the 1995 London Marathon. And yes finally in April 1995, fifteen years to the month since I broke the sub three hour barrier, and eleven years after being so close (40 seconds), I finally manage to go sub two hours 30 minutes with 2:29:34!


Finally Breaking the Two Hour Thirty Minute Barrier - 2:29:34 - April 1995 - London

Yes finally, I had made it.  Only by twenty six seconds, but those twenty six seconds were HUGE!  Yes, I recall at the time that upon finishing I was a bit disappointed with my finish time, as I had been running really well and was expecting to finish up to five minutes quicker.  But looking back now, whether I had run 2:28, 2:27 or even 2:25, these times in essence are all the same, simply sub 2:30.  Yes, these barrier goal times are important, hence why just a few seconds either way can be so meaningful.

Having achieved my long term marathon goal, there wasn't really anything else to achieve marathon wise.  I didn't believe I had what it took to be a sub 2:20 marathoner, so I again drifted away from the marathon.  Then in 2003, now as a forty year old, the prospect of running a quick marathon as a 'veteran' was appealing.  Unfortunately I didn't believe I could run sub 2:30 at the 'old' age of forty, so a 'soft' target time of sub 2:40 was my goal finish time.  And as you would expect, achieving the soft time that I had set was pretty easy, although, I did make tough work of it due to the lowered expectations, so I ended up struggling to a finish time of 2:39:12.


Slowing Down But Breaking the Two Hour Forty Minute Barrier - 2:39:12 - April 2003 - London

Following 2003, I finally 'let go' of the stopwatch and headed to the trails.  To date I have now raced thirty one trail marathons, and without the 'restriction' of the stopwatch, my running has gone from strength to strength.  From those thirty one trail marathons, I have won nineteen of them, finished second on eight occasions, finished in fourth place once, fifth place twice, and finally my most recent trail marathon last month, a disappointing DNF! 


My First Ever Trail Marathon Did Not Finish (DNF) - 00:00:00 - March 2014 - Steyning

Please note that I have made reference to some of my successes I have achieved with regards to marathon running, not to 'blow my own trumpet', a saying that my mother would always criticise people for, but I guess partly in response to a comment left on last week's blog post that suggested that my performances have been "hit and miss" and that I have performed poorly due to poor pacing strategies! "To me your race success has been really hit and miss over the last few years. .... Personally I think a big part of the problem is your pacing strategy" Well I don't think in any of these thirty one marathon races (excluding the DNF due to injury) that I  had a "problem", as I didn't perform poorly.  Sure, in some races I didn't achieve the 'perfect performance', but to try to discredit the positive split pacing strategy, by classifying my performances as poor, I find a bit bizarre.  Especially with the criticism coming from a 3:30 marathoner who has "nailed" all of his recent races!  "How do I know.... well in all of my races in the last 9 months- four races, three ultras and one marathon I nailed them all, in the only two race that I had done before I did big PB's."

So, as my personal marathon journey above illustrates, I have had quite a long association with the marathon.  For the majority of my marathons, there has been joy and satisfaction, but intermingled in relation to road marathons, there has been disappointment, at times deep disappointment, which looking at it now seems rather pointless.  What do a few seconds matter?  Yes, I know to the 'outsider' a few seconds mean nothing, but to the road marathon runner, those few seconds can be very meaningful, and hence why with my marathon pace calculator, I am trying to help potentially thousands of marathon runners this weekend at London to avoid this disappointment of not achieving their target finish time, which may be missed by just a few seconds, and for many simply due to trying to adopt a a flawed even paced strategy!  That is my motivation, and why I am hopefully not wasting my time, trying to clarify the confusion that exists out there!  So please forward the following link to the Marathon Pace Calculator website to people you know running at London on Sunday. http://rsusmf.appspot.com/


The Marathon Pace Calculator
So lets look in detail at my marathon pace calculator.  The calculator was based on the data of the first twenty five thousand finishers at last year's London Marathon.  Yes, 25,000 runners finished before five hours and two minutes, so I did not include the data from runners slower than five hours and two minutes.  The blog post from May last year described the process in detail, but to summarise, I analysed the data of these 25,000 finishers in blocks of one thousand runners, except at the very top end of the field I analysed the data in blocks of one hundred runners.  I looked at the number of runners per thousand or hundred block that ran an even or negative split, and then looked at the average percentage slowdown that occurred for each block of runners.  It is this average slowdown percentage that is used within the marathon pace calculator to calculate the percentage slowdown.  Which is then used to give the most important information required by the marathon runner, being:  What pace should I go out at, should I run at during the first part of the marathon?  And also, what time should I aim to run through half way in?

Now if you follow the standard pacing advise that an even paced marathon strategy is best, then the answers to these two key questions are easy.  Simple, your time at half way is simply half of your target marathon finish time, and the pace to start at, is the same pace you aim to run for every one of all of the twenty six miles, which is simply your target marathon finish time, divided by 26.2 miles.  Straight forward really. No need for a marathon pace calculator.  Simple!

UNFORTUNATELY IT IS NOT THAT SIMPLE.  IF RUNNERS TAKE THIS EVEN SPLIT APPROACH THEN THEY HAVE A NINETY FIVE PERCENT LIKELIHOOD OF NOT ACHIEVING THEIR TARGET MARATHON FINISH TIME. I will repeat, they have a 95% likelihood of NOT achieving their target marathon finish time!!!  It is as simple as that!  That is the data from the first 25,000 runners from last year's London Marathon.

Those of you may recall that last week I stated that they had a 96% likelihood of NOT achieving their target time, why now reduced to 95%.  Well the 96% refers to the entire field of 35,000 runners, having just re-checked my data.  When looking at only the first 25,000 finishers, i.e. quicker than 5:02, it becomes 95%.  Yes, only FIVE PERCENT, yes I will repeat!  Only 5% of these runners managed to run an even paced or negative split run.  That is they managed to run the second half of the marathon at the same pace or quicker that their first half of the marathon.  Now bearing in mind, if the runner has adopted the even paced strategy, they will pass through half way in exactly half of their target marathon finish time.  With 95% of the runners, running the second half of the marathon SLOWER, then this means that 95% of runners MUST THEREFORE NOT HAVE ACHIEVED THEIR TARGET MARATHON FINISH TIME!

Now I don't know how I can make this above point much clearer.  It is not me mis-using the statistics as accused by Thomas in a comment left on the linked blogpost "I used to read Stu's blog a lot but eventually gave up, and it was his (mis?)usage of statistics that finally made me take him off my reading list." The above is the correct interpretation of the data from last year's London Marathon.  If anyone is able to explain to me how I have got the above conclusion (That 95% of runners MUST THEREFORE NOT HAVE ACHIEVED THEIR TARGET MARATHON FINISH TIME) wrong then please leave a comment. below on this post.

Some people may suggest that running a positive split strategy, i.e. running the first half of the marathon quicker than the second half of the marathon will result in the first half being run far too quickly, and the runner will 'blow up'!  Now I don't want to get into a discussion here what 'blowing up' means, but if one simply looks at the data from the 2013 London Marathon, if runners don't adopt a positive split strategy then it is near guaranteed, well 95% certain, that they won't achieve their target finish time, as 95% of them will slow down during the second half of the marathon.  Considering that the even paced strategy is so widely recommended in pretty well all publicity mediums, such as magazines and podcasts, then even with this being the standard pacing message, 95% of runners quicker than five hours are still not managing to run an even paced marathon.

Now you may argue, that if the runner runs the first half of the marathon even quicker, then more runners will slow down during the second half of the marathon.  And yes, that is exactly what should happen.  Slowing down during the second half of the marathon is a reality, as demonstrated by the fact that 95% of the runners do slow down.  It is quite simple really.  Accept that slowing down during the second half of the marathon occurs, so take this slowing down into account when planning your pacing strategy, so one is still able to achieve their target marathon finishing time, even though they have slowed down.  If runners plan their pacing strategy, wishing, hoping, expecting not to slow down, so hoping that they are the one in twenty runners that don't slow down, then yes, they have a one in twenty chance of achieving their target marathon finishing time.  But odds of one in twenty don't sound too appealing to me!


The Under-Trained / Inexperienced / Foolish Argument
A frequent counter argument to the presentation of this very low percentage of runners that are actually able to run a marathon with an even split between their first and second half marathon split times, is that just because this is what occurs it doesn't mean that this is the best or the most efficient strategy.  Comments like the following are often left:

"How many runners are under-trained for the marathon, yet you happily include their stats? How many runners make *obvious* pacing or executional mistakes, yet you include their stats too?"

"Huge numbers of people running a big city marathon are inexperienced, and you can put money on them going off too quickly. Foolish, but predictably foolish."

So lets maybe restrict the data analysis to the first 11,000 runners that ran quicker than four hours.  Yes, there are more runners that do achieve an even paced or negative split, but this percentage is only increased up to eight percent for the quicker runners able to finish under four hours.  So even with the percentage of quicker runners being able to run an even split strategy only increasing up to 8%, there is still a massive 92% likelihood of failing to achieve the target marathon finishing time.  So to conclude; Adopting a pacing strategy that only has an eight percent (8%) likelihood of succeeding doesn't really seem to be the "best or most efficient" strategy.  Rather it seems a pretty poor strategy to adopt!

Okay maybe these sub four hour runners are simply under-trained, inexperienced and foolish.  So simple, lets move to the very top end of the massed start field.  So we are ignoring the elite start, as remember what the elite are able to achieve has absolutely no relevance to the non-elite runners.  (Note: Please refer to the bottom of this post for an explanation into why what elite marathon runners are able to achieve is not relevant to the non-elite runners.)  So if we look in detail at the first one hundred massed start finishers, so those runners that finished quicker than 2:36:53, then surely these runners would obviously demonstrate the even paced / negative split pacing strategy works.  What would you expect from these very best non-elite runners, maybe 80% of them achieving an even paced / negative split pacing strategy?  Or maybe these very best runners, which one surely couldn't argue as being under-trained, inexperienced or foolish, that maybe 90% of them would achieve an even paced / negative split pacing strategy, thus finally providing indisputable evidence that the even paced / negative split pacing strategy is the best, the most efficient pacing strategy.

So what percentage of these very best non-elite, well-trained, experienced and not foolish runners achieve an even paced / negative split pacing strategy?  The ANSWER, JUST ONE RUNNER.  I will repeat, yes JUST ONE RUNNER, therefore just ONE PERCENT of the very best non-elite runners achieved an even paced / negative split pacing strategy!  Does anyone really need any further evidence that running an even paced / negative split pacing strategy is NOT the sensible strategy to adopt.  Now if anyone is able to provide a counter argument to this amazingly clearly obvious data, then please leave a comment below.


How Much Slow Down During the Second Half of the Marathon?
So hopefully everyone should now fully understand and accept that adopting an even paced / negative split pacing strategy is reducing the likelihood of achieving ones target marathon finish time.  The very best non-elite road marathon runners, who are likely to be the best trained, the most experienced non-elite road marathon runners, DON'T DO IT, so why should other lesser trained, lesser experienced runners try to adopt an even paced / negative split pacing strategy?

So the immediate question that arises is then just how much should the marathon runner expect to slow down during the second half of the marathon?  This is where the marathon pacing calculator is so useful.  Yes, this is why I am spending time typing out this blog post, so potentially thousands of runners this coming Sunday are not disappointed, as they will therefore have some guidance on what pace to start out at, and what time they should pass through the half marathon mark.

As mentioned above, the marathon pace calculator uses the average percentage slowdown based on the data from the first 11,000 finishers, i.e. all runners that finish under four hours.  And the percentage slowdown used within the marathon pace formula varies for different finish times, with the very quickest runners, i.e. runners targeting a marathon finish time of sub 2:37 using a 5.06% slowdown, increasing for runners targeting a finish time slower than 3:17 using a 9.92% slowdown.

Now some people argue that adopting a positive split strategy, i.e. slowing down during the second half of the marathon can be "psychological demoralizing, as (the runner) is being passed by runners who are looking stronger and fresher".  However, the marathon pace calculator uses the average percentage slowdown, so if the runner completes the second half marathon with the exact percentage slowdown used within the marathon pacing formula, then they will overtake an equivalent number of runners during the second half of the marathon, equivalent to the number of runners that will overtake them during the second half of the marathon.  Which although slowing down and running the second half of the marathon slower, their actual race position will stay the same if the runner runs at the exact percentage slowdown used within the marathon pace calculator.

By adopting the marathon pace calculator average percentage slowdown pacing strategy, the running pace up to the half way point in the marathon will be quicker than if adopted the flawed even pace strategy.  How much quicker will this pace be?  Well the amount the pace is quicker is dependent upon the target marathon finishing time, as not only does the percentage slowdown vary dependent upon the finish time, but because the slowdown is expressed as a percentage, having a slower target finish time actually results in the runner slowing down more minutes during the second half.  So slower finish time runners will have to run at a quicker pace, to gain more minutes quicker during the first half of the marathon, in comparison to the even paced strategy runner.  Faster finish time runners don't have to gain as many minutes by running quicker during the first half.  The idea of having to run so many minutes faster during the first of the marathon may sound a bit daunting.  But remember if you decide to run the first half of the marathon at the slower, even paced strategy running pace, then sure it will feel easier to half way, but this isn't much good, as you only have a one in twenty chance of achieving your target finishing time!  So lets look at some specific examples.

The Sub Four Hour Marathoner
Running a sub four hour marathon adopting an even paced strategy requires a minute mile pace for every one of the 26 miles to be run at 9:09.  The runner would pass through half way in 1:59:59.

Using the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator which incorporates a 9.92% slowdown during the second half of the marathon.  For the first 13 miles of the marathon, the calculator requires a 8:43 minute mile pace.  The runner would pass through half way in 1:54:19, which would be five minutes and forty seconds quicker, yes 5:40 quicker.  What is the likely impact of running 5:40 quicker to half way?  Well if running 5:40 quicker to half way results in the runner setting a half marathon personal best time, then there is obviously something wrong.  Not that the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator is wrong!  No, the runners target finish time is obviously too quick.  And in this instance, no matter what pacing strategy the runner adopted, it is most probable that they would not achieve their target finish time.  Target marathon finish times must be realistic and based on some evidence / data, rather than just 'guessing' a time.  But generating target marathon finish times is a totally different topic.  What the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator assumes is that the target marathon finish time is realistic.

So for the sub four hour target marathoner, the runner would pass through half way in 1:54:19, which would be five minutes and forty seconds quicker, yes 5:40 quicker.  However, for every mile after the half way point, the even paced strategy runner must maintain the same 9:09 minute mile pace, even though they will start to fatigue, which every marathon runner will tell you occurs!  Whereas the runner that has adopted the positive split strategy, using the pacing plan proposed by the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator, for every mile after half way they are allowed to gradually slow down, as the fatigue gradually builds up.  One doesn't get to the half way point in a marathon and instantly become fatigued!  No, the fatigue builds up gradually.  So to mimic this gradual build-up of fatigue during the second half of the marathon, the required minute mile pace to achieve the target finishing time gradually gets slower.  So for those really challenging last six miles of the marathon, the positive split strategy runner is able to run the last six miles at the pace of: 9:41, 9:48, 9:55, 10:02, 10:09, 10:17.  Yes, they are able to slow down to a minute mile pace of 10:17 and still achieve their target finish time.  Doesn't that sound more realistic than the even paced strategy runner, still trying to run a 9:09 minute mile, the same pace they ran at the start when totally fresh, now nearly four hours later when absolutely exhausted from running 25 previous miles.

Yes, I know that the runner is highly unlikely to run exactly to the minute mile pace times provided by the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator.  Whether they slowdown at the same rate that the calculator forecasts, or at a quicker rate, but they don't start fatiguing until say mile 18, it isn't really important.  What is important is that the runner is able to slow down and still achieve their target finishing time.  What is important is that the runner accepts that slowing down during the second half of the marathon is a reality, and therefore must plan for it!  To 'dream', to 'wish' that they won't slow down, and therefore not plan for any slowing down, even though the very best non-elite marathon runners slow down during the second half, is just total foolishness!


The Sub Three Hour Marathoner
Running a sub three hour marathon adopting an even paced strategy requires a minute mile pace for every one of the 26 miles to be run at 6:52. The runner would pass through half way in 1:29:59.

Using the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator which incorporates a 6.57% slowdown during the second half of the marathon. For the first 13 miles of the marathon requires a 6:39 minute mile pace. The runner would pass through half way in 1:27:07, which would be two minutes and fifty two seconds quicker, yes 2:52 quicker.  Okay it is 2:52 quicker than the even paced strategy at half way, but this isn't massively quicker, which many people seem to misinterpret from the idea of adopting a positive split strategy.  Many people seem to interpret the positive split pacing strategy as 'going out at suicide pace'.  As you can see from this sub three hour marathon target example, getting to the half way point 2:52 quicker, yes, requiring more effort and focus, but I don't think it could be classified as being ridiculously faster!

However, for every mile after the half way point, the even paced strategy runner must maintain the same 6:52 minute mile pace, even though they will start to fatigue, which every marathon runner will tell you occurs! Whereas the runner that has adopted the positive split strategy, using the pacing plan proposed by the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator, for every mile after half way they are allowed to gradually slow down, as the fatigue gradually builds up.  And for those really challenging last six miles of the marathon, the positive split strategy runner is able to run the last six miles at the pace of: 7:08, 7:12, 7:16, 7:20, 7:24, 7:30. Yes, they are able to slow down to a minute mile pace of 7:30 and still achieve their target finish time. Doesn't that sound more realistic than the even paced strategy runner, still trying to run a 6:52 minute mile, the same pace they ran at the start when totally fresh, now nearly three hours later when absolutely exhausted from running 25 previous miles.

Hopefully, the above two examples have helped illustrate how the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator works, and it is provides guidance on a pacing strategy that represents what is a reality, the marathon runner getting fatigued as they progress through the marathon.  Now I haven't ever met a marathon runner that didn't fatigue as they ran the marathon to the best of their ability.  Fatigue occurs, it is a reality, no argument!  So surely as one fatigues then one should expect to start to slow down.  Surely this must now make sense!

As usual my short blog post has ended up near ultra length.  Sorry about going on and on, and no doubt repeating myself above many times.  Hopefully my more detailed and lengthy explanation of how the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator works, has helped to clarify why the positive split pacing strategy is clearly the strategy to adopt to maximise the likelihood of achieving ones target marathon finishing time!

Please spread the word on the ReSUltS marathon pace calculator, and how it takes the guess work out of deciding how much one should expect to slow down during the second half of the marathon.  And to those of you after reading all of the above, that still think that you should NOT expect to slow down during the second half of the marathon, I am sorry but I am unable to help you.

Signing Off
I will sign off with a quote that I have signed off with previously when discussing the foolishness of the negative split pacing strategy.  The quote is from Tom Williams, one of the hosts of the excellent MarathonTalk podcast.  Yes, I am an avid listener of MarathonTalk and have been for the last three or so years.  Pretty well all of their advice on the show is sound quality advice, which assists thousands of runners to achieve their running goals, EXCEPT ONE, their celebration of the negative split.  For some unknown reason, they are just totally off the mark here!

It just so happened that last Sunday, Tom Williams ran the Greater Manchester Marathon and crossed the finish line in an excellent 104th place overall, with an official chip time of 2:53:04.  Did Tom, a massive supporter of the negative split, achieve a negative split in running 2:53:04.  Yes, indeed he did!  Using his chip time, he ran the first half marathon in 1:27:04, and then ran the second half marathon in 1:26:00.  So a negative split of 64 seconds!  Fantastic!  That is, if you believe that the negative split is the sign of a well run marathon.  And with MarathonTalk taking this view, no doubt there will be huge celebrations on MarathonTalk this week!

However, how did Tom manage to achieve this 64 second negative split?  Simple really, by running the first half marathon so slowly, which although he ran the second half marathon 64 seconds quicker, his overall finish time is quite a bit slower, (possibly up to four minutes slower), than the marathon time that one would expect that he should be able to achieve, based upon his recent 10 mile road race time of 60:54.  A ten mile road race finish time of 60:54 should definitely correspond to a quicker marathon time than 2:53:04.  How much quicker is debatable, and one could look at various marathon predictor websites, which produce a range of predicted marathon times from 2:49:03 to 2:51:19.  The precise likely marathon finish time isn't really that important.  The important 'take home' message is that Tom only managed to achieve a negative split by running slower than his true current marathon potential.

Listening to Tom on MarathonTalk, I know that he publicly stated that he wasn't going to race the Manchester Marathon to the best of his ability.  Yes, this is fine.  But hopefully Tom and his co host Martin will not massively celebrate his negative split achievement, as the negative split has only been achieved due to not running as quickly as he could.  And celebrating the negative split pacing strategy, will encourage the thousands of MarathonTalk listeners to adopt the totally wrong pacing strategy, if they wish to maximise their chances of achieving their target marathon finish time.

(Please Note:  I have just listened to the first portion of this week's MarathonTalk episode, and I would just like to congratulate Tom and Martin for not celebrating Tom's negative split.  No doubt with Tom in the past being such a supporter of the negative split, that it must have been so tempting to massively celebrate his negative split achievement.  Maybe Tom has changed his views since 2011, and now 'has his money on' the positive split.  Now accepting that the negative split is only achieved by running the first half of the marathon slower than ones ideal pace.  Anyway I just wanted to thank Martin and Tom for not encouraging their thousands of listeners to adopt a negative split pacing strategy for London Marathon. Stuart - 10th April, 2014)

So finally here is Tom's sign off quote from 2011.  And Tom, if you are reading this, please leave a comment below, letting us know what your 2014 views are on the ideal marathon pacing strategy.

“My money's still on the even / negative split but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong. My quote for the day... I'd rather know I was wrong than think I was right ;)" Tom Williams, 2011.

All the best to everyone running this Sunday's London Marathon.

Stuart


PS  The Elite Marathoner World Record Argument
The following is a small section on why what elite marathon runners are able to achieve is not relevant to the non-elite runners.  Because as always when it comes to justifying the even paced / negative split pacing strategy argument, this is the one argument that is also provided, and as expected was included in comments that were left last week.

From Brett: "The point I was trying to make was to look at all the current records in distance running - if they all are even to slightly negative splits, that has to mean something.  For example, the current marathon world record is around 2:03 and was an even split to nearly the second."

"In the USA, we also had the 100 mile track record broken a couple times in the last few months. The first time it was broken (Jon Olsen), he ran two 50 mile splits within 2 minutes of each other. The latest time the record was broken a few weeks ago (Zach Bitter), he ran a slight negative split of a few minutes in the second 50 mile section. So as best I can tell, this same behavior is seen across ultramarathons and down to half marathons and 10ks as well."

 In case you haven't seen my reply to these World record arguments, I will simply paste the comment I left in response to Brett's World's best approach below.

"When in any other situation does the club level athlete, the 'average' person (although I dislike the word average but I think it makes the point clear) try to mimic what the World's best can do. Whatever activity; e.g. scoring a maximum 147 break in snooker, cycle racing at top-end pace for hours every day for near 22 consecutive days around and over the alps of France, or managing to descend to an ocean depth of 214 metres on one single breath. Yes, regardless of the activity, 'average' people do not expect to be able to replicate these amazing feats. So please explain to me, why is it that when it comes to running road marathons, that it is assumed that the 'average' person, who is not a full-time athlete, who does not have the same opportunities to prepare, the same resources, the same environment, and dare I say, the same genes, that this 'average' person can then achieve the same as the World's best, I just don't understand! Could someone please explain this logic."  Stuart Mills, last week.

The most important thing to remember is that you, me, and pretty well every other reader of this blog post are not the World's elite, so what the World elite do is not relevant.  How the World elite manage to achieve what they do I just don't know, and to be honest, neither do the sports scientists really know.  What they can achieve is at times just unbelievable, e.g. often 'throwing' in a mega super quick 5km split shortly after halfway in a marathon.  But the key thing to take away from what these World elite do, is that they are so different to you and me, that it isn't worth trying to work out how they do it.  Trying to compare myself to them is just total foolishness, although some people do seem to want to do this when it does come to both running an even paced race or even better a negative split.  Yes, it is good for the ego to compare that you achieve the same pacing strategy as the World elite, but the fact that one is only able to achieve an even paced or negative split pacing strategy by running the first half of the race so slowly is just 'ego massaging'.  Many people can run the last mile or quarter mile of a marathon quickly if they run earlier portions of the race slowly.  The aim is to run the entire 26 miles as fast as possible not just the last mile!