Sunday, 22 November 2015

An Update on my 2015 Sabbatical Year - Appreciating the Achievements

Hi, It's been a while since my last blog post, so hopefully this post will be worth 'waiting for', although I doubt there are many out there on the edge of their seats waiting for UltraStu blogpost number 140!

My post title highlights this year as a sabbatical. (In biblical times, a year observed every seventh year under the Mosaic law as a ‘sabbath’ during which the land was allowed to rest). With my ultra trail racing starting in 2008, this year, being seven years later fits the definition.  Although I may have had a rest from ultra trail racing, it hasn't been a total rest.

Reading my post from July reminds me to provide an update on a few aspects raised.  So I will do this first, before, finishing with a sharing of my latest learning.
"I am now even more looking forward to my second and final triathlon for 2015, the Vitruvian Half Ironman that takes place at the end of August.  With some non-physical preparation including "What do I want?  Why do I want it? How much do I want it?", combined with some quick key running sessions, the Ironman triathlete from the early nineties should be back!" July blogpost.
Well, maybe not back to my same performance levels as the nineties, but the Vitruvian Half Ironman was an improved performance from June's Grafman Half Ironman. Although the intention was to carry out some quick key running sessions, due to 'this and that', but mainly due to being just a bit too lazy, my run training consisted of my standard relaxed, rhythmical running.  However, I did get out on the bike a bit over the summer, including five days of road cycling in the French Alps to catch up on the Tour de France.

When I arrived in the UK back in December 1990 I was a road cyclist.  So in 1991 I followed the Tour on my bike for 11 days, then again in 1993 and in 1995.  Now, being 2015, somehow twenty years had disappeared!  Although there had been a gap of 20 years since climbing the classic climbs of the French Alps, seeing the comment "50km without panniers up Alp d Huez, went hard 66 minutes", in my training diary from the 26th July 1995 gave me the target I needed as I prepared for my first return to the iconic climb on the 21st July 2015.

To keep this post short, this year's training diary comment reads "Bike Alp d Huez. 65:57. Whole way up, worked pretty hard".  So a quicker time!  Interesting that I used the term "hard" to describe my intensity, as in recent years with my trail running I don't use this term. Maybe it was due to reading my 1995 diary entry before heading out to France, or maybe I still associate 'going hard' with cycling.  I may return to the importance of terminology and it's impact on performance later in this post.  Check out the awesome photo, with 2012 Beachy Head Marathon winner, Rob Harley 'hanging onto my wheel'!

Now where was I before my Alp d Huez detour.  Yes, the Vituvian Half Ironman went well, with the half marathon run time of 1:25:22 being especially pleasing.  Comparing some stats between the two races I think illustrates the improved performance.  In order to make a comparison I have used two approaches:  My split time rankings out of the top 100 finishes, and my time lost on each discipline to the quickest on the day.

Now I was trying to explain the other day to a running friend how I managed to perform so well at the Half Ironman races, and especially what caused the big improvement in the run split.  I then realised just how important one's self-perception is, and how it massively influences performance!  Thinking back to the Grafman in June I recall during my non-physical preparation that I spent significant time reminding myself that I used to be a road cyclist.  Yes for a few years in the late eighties I was a pretty good road cyclist.  A heaps better cyclist than I ever was as a runner!  So knowing that I had carried out limited physical cycling prior to Grafman, the approach was simple: "Once a cyclist, always a cyclist"!  So the non-physical preparation was all about the bike.  And it worked, I had a pleasing bike ride.  Come to the final run leg back in June, I simply 'gave in' pretty easily to the "you are an ultra trail plodder" messages in my head, and so relatively for me, I plodded the half marathon.

So two months later, without any specific physical quick key run sessions, I focused again on the non-physical training.  I reviewed some of my old triathlon race data, which included winning the Scottish Half Ironman Championships in 1992 with a split time of 74 minutes for the 20km run (so around 77:30 for a half marathon split time.  Yes, pretty impressive at the end of a Half Ironman.  So for the Vitruvian the approach was "Once a triathlete, always a triathlete"!  So this time when I got off the bike and found that first mile or so pretty challenging, rather than trying to fight my way to run quicker, that always tends to make things worse. I simply told myself, relax, don't fight, I am a triathlete, this challenging transition into running will pass and then it will be time to run quick.  And although 1:25 isn't quite the same as 1:17, it is definitely a significant improvement on the 1:32 from two months earlier.

Now some of you reading this may be thinking that I have "totally lost the plot".  A favourite expression of my oldest brother!  However, from my limited racing this year, combined with the work I have carried out with my athletes, I am now more convinced than ever, that race performance is so, so much influenced by one's self perception of themselves as an athlete, and their self-expectation of what they believe they are capable of achieving!  I will try to justify more, by expanding below with a few more examples from this year.

Back in my July post I also highlighted the performances of some of my athletes I coach, with particular reference to Chris who was racing the Montane Lakeland 100.  
"Anyway, I am 'itching' to tell you to look out for one of my athletes in the 100 mile race, as his preparation has gone really well, including his first ultra-trail race win recently,  but I don't think naming him would really aid his preparation, with the additional pressure from being watched by all of the UltraStu blog readers.  So, I will just have to keep to myself my race tip for a podium finish!" July blogpost 
Yes, Chris Brookman was my podium tip for the Montane Lakeland 100 even though five weeks before race day he cracked his rib as a result of a tumble while out on a run.  However, a consequence of Chris not being able to run for a few weeks, was that he was able to increase the amount of non-physical training.  I recall chatting to Chris around a week out from race day and he commented to me that he felt better prepared for the upcoming race than he ever had prior to other races, as long as his ribs that were still sore when running would allow him to run.  Hearing him say this, I knew I had done well as a coach in terms of the passing on of my ideas, my philosophy, my understanding of what  I believe contributes to ultra trail performance.  Now I don't want to "blow my own trumpet" (one of my Mum's favourite expressions), but in order to perform, one has to really understand what factors are limiting their current performance, and most often it is limited by non-physical aspects such as not having the ideal race goals, or not having believable self-expectations.

Now those of you searching the Montane Lakeland 100 result won't find Chris's name near the top as his ribs didn't allow him to race as his ribs were not fully recovered, so he DNFed at checkpoint 3.  Although a cliche, one sign of a champion is the ability to deal with disappointment.  So we targeted Chris's next race, the Centurion Running Autumn 100, and although Chris didn't quite achieve the finish time we had identified as being the 'perfect performance' time. (Maybe I should elaborate on the use of the 'perfect performance' approach as I feel it has so many advantages over other approaches such as Gold/Silver/Bronze or A/B/C goals etc, but not today!).  A finish time of 15:06 for 100 miles over trials is not really 'hanging around'.  And the 'secret to his success'?  Chris carrying out the TOTAL training that is mentioned on a number of occasions within the previous 139 UltraStu blog posts.
Chris Focused But Relaxed During the Centurion Autumn 100 Mile

Now before you think that I am just doing one of those info-adverts for my coaching, this isn't the case as I am actually not taking on any new athletes at the moment, and have even recently turned two athletes away.  No, due to not racing at the moment, you will have noticed that I am therefore blogging very infrequently.  So when I do, I just want to try to have my blogpost to be as beneficial as it can to aid those out there that read it.

So what is this TOTAL training really about?  It is hard to explain, but it all gets down to a concept which is finally beginning to gain attention within the scientific literature, and quoting the words of Tim Noakes "Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion". (Click HERE for full article)  So this is at the core of my TOTAL Training.  It is all about ensuring one's emotion is optimal during the race.  Which is massively affected by one's pre-race goals and self-expectations.  And then during the race, 'executing' the plan that has been thoughtfully prepared through extensive use of visualisations.  What I mean by executing the plan includes certain things like getting the balance right.  It is important that you "want it", but if you "want it" too much, then things can be more difficult!  What is the right level of wanting it?  Even before this, what does wanting it actually mean?  What are you actually wanting from the race?  Some may think that 'the want' simply refers to a finish time or place, but no, the wanting, is a lot deeper than this.  It is more to do with wanting that sense of achievement, that feeling that one has done well, that confirmation that the thoroughness, the thoughtfulness, the commitment, the carefulness, the belief, the desire, the understanding, the questioning, the learning, the execution, the enjoyment, have all been effective to help create the 'perfect performance, or in other words, for everything to simply seem to 'fall into place'.  A bit of a jumble above, but I think this jumble helps to illustrate how achieving that sense of satisfaction, that appreciation of achievement is affected by so many aspects, and hence why it can at times, be so difficult to achieve.

I can sense that I am beginning to go around a bit in circles here, so a good time to stop.  What has just sprung to mind as I am typing this post up, whilst sitting on the floor of a very busy National Speed Cubing (Rubiks Cube) Championships in Stevange.  Currently very quiet as it is the blindfolded competition at the moment.  Yes, they solve the cube blindfolded!  Check out a youtube video of the recent UK Championships to be blown away my the skill level of these competitors!  Go to exactly four minutes into the video to see Chris Mills the cuber and race photographer solving the cube blindfolded!

Yes, what has sprung to mind Is that performance at a high level seems to be pretty well influenced by the same factors, regardless of the sport.  During the Championships lunch break, they had a question and answer session with three World or European Speed Cubing record holders.  They were asked "how did they manage to work through any plateaus in performance they may have encountered before becoming a World or European champion.  The consensus of the response is that it wasn't just down to hard work and practice, but down to the practice having a purpose.  Trying to identify what was limiting their performance, and to not always play it safe, and to experiment with different approaches, in order to continue to improve.  There was no point in just practicing the same approach.  Often one reads, or hears these comments within running.  If you keep doing the same you keep achieving the same.  With this often in the context of physical training.  I think it actually relates better in terms of one's overall approach to both TOTAL training and racing.

Hopefully the above is making some sense.  I think one reason I am in such a thoughtful (confusing) blogging mode at the moment is that I feel I am at a bit of a crossroads as I approach the end of my sabbatical year.  What are by aims, goals, expectations, etc. for 2016.  Yes, I have the Lanzarote Ironman next May.  The event is entered, build-up races also entered, etc.  But what do I want to achieve at Lanzarote?  Why?  How committed am I?  How much time, focus, energy can I commit?  Am I able to commit, do I want to commit?  And this also ties into the question; Who am I in terms of being a sportsperson, a competitor, a coach?  Am I still an ultra trail racer, or a triathlete/Ironman?  Am I still an elite performer, or now am I an age grouper, or maybe just a recreational athlete and I can therefore get the 'competitor buzz' from the athletes I coach.  Yes, very confusing at the moment.

Anyway, I have finally provided the brief (not!) update on issues raised in my last post. Now for my latest news/thoughts.  I have mentioned my half Ironman at the end of August.  My next event was the Groombridge Place High Weald Challenge 50km Ultra Trail that took place at the end of September.  This was a new event that I was race directing.  The route, which was awesome, possibly even more scenic and varied than the other trail race I organise, i.e. the Weald Challenge in May, also takes in the spectacular Ashdown Forest and with the undulations and being mostly off-road provides an excellent challenge.

We had 126 runners taking part, and the day was a huge success, with a really friendly supportive, and enjoyable atmosphere present throughout the day.  One of the runners Stephen Cousins, produced an excellent eight minute video of the race, (click HERE) which really captures the great atmosphere on the day.  Also below are a few photos that my two boys took.  So if you are looking for a 50km trail race next September, look out for when entries open next February.  Entries are currently open for the Weald Challenge Trail Races, either a 50km ultra trail, or a trail half marathon, that takes place on the 29th May 2016.  So check out the website for details and online entry.  Entries sold out for the Weald Challenge in both 2014 and 2015, so if thinking of entering, probably better to enter sooner rather than latter.

Above:  Photos from the Grrombridge Place High Weald Challemge 50km Ultra Trail

Now, as highlighted above, this is my 'sabbatical year'.  However, come the end of October, it was the 14th running of the Beachy Head Marathon, which in 2002 followed on from 21 editions of the successful Seven Sisters marathon.  Having moved to East Sussex in 2002 I had race all 13 editions of the Beachy Head marathon, so even though I was having a break from racing, I had still entered the marathon, simply as that was what I always did!  Standing on the start line with this "that's what I always did" attitude I knew wouldn't help produce a good performance.  So time was spent formulating responses to the three important questions; what, why, how much?

I thought back to previous trail races including recent Beachy Head marathons, which really hadn't gone that well.  I then realised that I needed to have some recent evidence to assist me in establishing believable high expectations.  So at the last minute I decided to race the Jog Shop Jog, which is a good off-road 20 mile race in East Sussex.  Considering it is such a good route it is surprising that I had only raced it once before, back in 2004 when I finished 2nd to James Baker in 2 hours 14 minutes.  The reason I had only raced it once was following 2004, the race date changed from August to mid October.  So always only 13 days before the Beachy Head marathon.  Previously I had believed that racing a 20 miler only 13 days before a marathon was unwise, and would definitely harm one's performance.  And the key thing is, that if you believe this, then it will.  Remember that one's performance is so affected by one's expectations.  Now having a better understanding of what influences endurance trail running performance, racing 13 days out from the Beachy Head marathon not only isn't going to do any harm, but assuming that I run well at the Jog Shop Jog, would actually substantially enhance my marathon performance.

So for the Jog Shop Jog, the focus was to run well.  I had in my memory my time from eleven years earlier, but the race goal wasn't about time, but about emotion.  To run well would be assessed by how I maintain a positive focus throughout the 20 miles.  Keeping on task, whilst at the same time being relaxed and not 'fighting'!  Come race day, I went to the lead after a few minutes and won by around 5 minutes in 2 hours 19 minutes.  I had run well, according to my emotion criteria.  And if one runs well, then this is usually reflected within the finish time.

Back home after the race, I immediately got out my training diary from 2004, just to check that my memory of my 2004 time was correct.  I had only ran 5 minutes slower, eleven years later.  I then looked at my 2004 Beachy Head marathon time.  Being 2:58, I did some quick calculations and concluded that a 3:05 Beachy Head marathon time was totally possible, which would be quite a bit quicker that my last three Beachy Head marathon finish times: 3:09, 3:12, 3:10.

So 13 days later I am on the start line of the Beachy Head marathon for the 14th consecutive year, with the simple plan:  run well again, similar to the Jog Shop Jog, with emphasis on my emotions.  Although I had 13 years of race data, of split times at checkpoint around the course, I realised that I didn't need this information.  All I need is for me to assess whilst running "am I running well", and to rely on my 'gut feeling' from my experience as a trail runner.  Were my emotions 'in the right place'?  Am I focusing whilst at the same time staying relaxed?  Am I flowing, that feeling of running quickly, most importantly not fighting!  And am I enjoying the present moment, during that moment. 

Although I am wearing a GPS watch with heart rate monitor (for later analysis), not once do I look at my watch, and not once do I look behind to see where I am positioned, having been in second place pretty well from the start, before moving into the lead at around 10 miles.  There is no need to have this objective feedback.  All I need is my subjective feedback, my feelings.  If my feelings tell me I aren't running well then I need to address this.  If my feelings tell me that I am running well, I am running at the pace that feels right, then I trust my feelings.  I don't need a split time to convince me that I am running well. Similarly, I don't need to know that someone is close behind me as an incentive to run quicker.  I simply trust that I am running as quickly as I can, whilst monitoring my emotions, and not fighting/battling.

So after taking the lead around 10 miles, I have no idea if someone is 30 seconds behind or 5 minutes behind as I approach the 'bag-piper steps at around 17 miles, just before Cuckmere Haven.  The piper starts playing as I approach and then stops playing after I pass.  I distinctively recall thinking to myself, hopefully I won't hear those bagpipes again, which would mean I had a good lead.  Alas, what seemed like less that a minute (later confirmed by a friend after the race that my lead at that point was exactly one minute) the bagpiper started playing again!  My immediate response was panic!  On know, I thought I was miles clear!  I had already counted today as being win number eight!

I start to fight, in an effort to run faster.  For a few minutes I start to struggle as the thought of winning again, which would be my first Beachy Head marathon win since 2010, was quite appealing.  Fortunately, I snapped out of this destination goal approach and reminded myself of my goals for the race.  To race well.  To maintain positive emotions.  I relaxed, had faith in that I was running well, and if the runner behind was going to overtake me, then so be it.  My race decision was focus on the process at that moment in time, and the finish time and place will be a consequence of this., I know doing this isn't very easy to do..  Having this belief to trust one's 'gut feelings', to trust one's subjective judgement comes from having a high self-expectation of oneself as a 'quality' runner, which comes from experience.  People often talk about how experience aids performance, and to me, the main benefit of experience is helping to develop, to cement one's self belief!

So for the final eight miles, which in terms of terrain are probably the most physically demanding over the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, I continue to run well and finish in a time of 3:08:05, my quickest finish time since 2011, and win by over 5 minutes.  Yes, it was pleasing to win again, but what was more pleasing was in the manner in how I raced.  Starting with a high self-expectation as a result of the Jog Shop Jog performance, and then maintaining this positive approach throughout, and dealing with any doubts questioning my ability.  Whereas above I highlighted for my half Ironman preparation I would convince myself that I was either a cyclist or a triathlete.  For this race, it was very easy to truly believe that I was a quality trail marathoner, and with this belief, it is so much easier for the good performance to eventuate.

Opps, again I seem to be going a bit around in circles.  Hopefully you have persevered with this mega long post and made some sense out of it!  Check out the excellent photos below taken by Sussex Sport Photography.  Notice the relaxation which is evident in most of the photos, especially crossing the finish line!

Beachy Head Marathon Race Start 

Climbing Out of Jevington Around 4 Miles

Approaching Birling Gap Around 22 Miles

Final Climb to Summit of Beach Head Nearing 25 Miles

Crossing the Finish Line

As mentioned above, this was the 14th time I had raced the Beachy Head marathon.  Check out the graph below that illustrates my finish times over the years.  Although this year's finish time of 3:08:05 was my slowest winning time.  It was actually only 30 seconds slower than my winning time of 3:07:35 set eleven years earlier in 2003!  Physiologically I have slowed loads more than 30 seconds.  But I now understand that the physiology only sets the limit to what one is able to achieve,  It is one's emotion along the journey that determines how close one's performance is to their limit.

Fourteen Consecutive Beachy Head Marathon Finish Times

Right just about time to wrap up this post.  Although I have a twitter 'handle' @UltraStu1 I very seldom tweet.  Although last month I did do the tweet below.  Some of you noticed the identity of my new training partner alongside 2012 Beachy Head marathon winner, Rob, although most people missed spotting who he was.  Yes, I had the pleasure of escorting three times Olympic Gold medalist and current double World record holder around the scenic South Downs overlooking Eastbourne.  We had a good chat as we ran at a relaxed pace.  Probably the most interesting things I learnt was that in contrast to the Kenyans, Kenenisa commented that he tended to run on his own or only with his brother Tariku, who is also quite a good runner.  And secondly, when preparing for the marathon, he only on occasions does training runs beyond the marathon distance, with 50km being his longest run.  I'm now waiting to see how he will benefit from his training session in Eastbourne.  He spoke about racing the Dehli Half Marathon which takes place next weekend, but checking out the race website it simply states "Kenenisa Bekele will grace the eighth edition of ADHM as the Event Ambassador".so it isn't clear if he is racing or just being present.  

Last Month's Tweet

Finally, listening to the latest edition of the podcast show TalkUltra, it was enjoyable listening to one of my athletes being interviewed.  Although during the interview Ian Corless couldn't seem to work out whether Sophie was a competitive elite runner or a recreational fun runner, as Sophie spoke about the importance of enjoying the journey.  Yes, I have been working with Sophie for around a year and a half now, and perhaps to further help illustrate that my perhaps 'out of the box' messages above do have some substance, I think that it is probably Sophie's improved understanding of being aware of her emotions and the importance of emotions in relation to performance, which has been most responsible for her recent improvements.  Which include taking her marathon PB time down from 3:08 to 2:52, as well as recording pretty impressive finish places at some high profile races around the World such as: 1st woman at Zugspitze marathon, 2nd woman at Zugspitze 120km Ultra, 12th womaat 168km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, and just the other week, as discussed on TalkUltra, 6th woman overall at 164km Grand Raid reunion, which was actually also 3rd place senior woman, so she got the opportunity to share the podium with ultra trail 'legend' Nuria Picas.   In case any of you are thinking that my coaching may be something that you could possibly benefit from, sorry, but unfortunately I do not have any current coaching spaces available.

Sophie on the Podium Alongside Nuria Picas at Grand Raid Reunion La Diagonale des Fous 164 km 

Whilst listening to the recent podcast show, Ian Corless mentioned that he had nearly sold out of his pretty impressive 2016 Photo Calendar.  Well, I thought my boys take pretty good photos, as you would have seen above, so if any of you missed out on Ian's Ultra Trail Running Photo Calendar, no problems, the Trail Running Sussex 2016 Calendar is now available.  At the moment I only have three in stock,(originally for work, for home, and for my Dad!) but if there is demand, then I can reorder more.  I don't have a fancy web page to display my calendar, but hopefully the screenshot image below illustrates the quality of the photos for each month.  The photos are all taken by Rob or Chris MIlls of the 2014 and 2015 Weald Challenge Trail Races, and the 2015 High Weald Challenge 50km Ultra Trail.

If you would like a copy, simply zap me an e-mail: and we can sort out postage and payment.  The cost is only £10, so a little cheaper than Ian's calendar, although I do not provide free postage.  Postage cost within the UK is an extra £1.50.

Interestingly I started this blog post a few weeks ago, where the subtitle "Appreciating the Achievements" just appeared.  I didn't know where it had come from and hence the delay in completing the post.  But now realising the crossroads I am currently at, the sub title reminds me that it is really important to step back and really appreciate one's achievements.  So although one can always strive to be better, it is important to appreciate what one has achieved.  So to many of you finishing your racing season for 2015.  Just take a few moments to reflect and to allow yourself to enjoy that sense of satisfaction in what you have achieved this year.  And then you can return back into planning for that perfect performance!

Time for a signing off quote, which I think is worth repeating from this post:
"I now understand that the physiology only sets the limit to what one is able to achieve,  It is one's emotion along the journey that determines how close one's performance is to their limit."  Stuart Mills, November, 2015
All the best, and enjoy your accomplishments,


PS.  As part of doing our little bit to help preserve the natural beauty of the South Downs and the High Weald, Trail Running Sussex donates a portion of every race entry fee to the local charity; Sussex Wildlife Trust.  Last month I received an e-mail from them stating that they had a few Brighton Marathon places available.  They may by now be gone.  Sorry, just been a bit busy recently.  But below are the details from the e-mail:

Sussex Wildlife Trust has secured five places for keen runners who want to raise funds to make a real difference for nature in Sussex.
Runners will receive expert training advice, their own running kit and a cheerful support team on the day of the race.
Interested? Then contact Anne Weinhold, for more information, and how to register.