Thursday, 26 September 2013

London to Brighton Off-Road Ultra Race Report - The Importance of Race Goals


As mentioned in my quick update the other day, racing wise, not really much happened for me during the London to Brighton race, so this could well be a rather brief report.  But knowing me, it's bound to be a wee bit longer than anticipated!

It was around November last year when I decided upon my races for 2013, although due to the huge demand on Montane Lakeland 100 entries I had already entered this event, so my number one focus race for 2013 was already set.  Having not performed to the level I felt I was capable of during the 2012 Montane Lakeland 100 I decided I needed to up my TOTAL training.  Part of the non-physical training for 2013 was increasing the importance of the Lakeland 100.  So rather than planning races for the entire year, I only planned up to the Lakeland 100 with the rationale for this being, no other race matters.  Without having any races following the Lakeland 100 planned (apart from my local Beachy Head Marathon at the end of October), there would then be no distractions.

So following the Lakeland 100, I found myself in a dilemma.  There were 13 weeks until the Beachy Head Marathon, I was in pretty good shape, I had really enjoyed the Lakeland 100 race, but here I was, with no immediate races!  So after a quick search of the race calendar, I decided to enter the London to Brighton 60 mile Off-Road Ultra Race.  With it being 8 weeks after the Lakeland 100, it was perfect, allowing me to be fully recovered.

I had raced the inaugural London to Brighton Off-Road Ultra Race back in 2008, when it was my number one focus race for that year.  This year, it was just a race, not my focus race, however, for every race when I am on the start line, I am usually fully prepared, all set to race hard.  So it was still important to perform to a level which I am happy with, i.e. not simply as a training race.  I know many runners run training races, but for me the two words "training race" don't go together.  A race is a race, it isn't training.  A race is about challenging oneself, about extending oneself, about a special event, performing to ones best on the day.

Anyway, lets move on.  So much for a brief race report!

The route from London to Brighton

The race book arrived in the post around four weeks before race day, and the route is significantly different to the 2008 course.  I therefore had three really enjoyable recce runs, simply cruising along the route at a nice relaxed training pace, making sure come race day I knew exactly where to go.  Although I was making sure of the race route, without realising it I wasn't really carrying out any other form of non-physical training.  It wasn't actually until the very day before the race, the Saturday afternoon shortly before catching the train to London, that my lack of non-physical training became apparent.  Just an aside, there is something quite special about buying a one way train ticket to London, knowing that you will be running back the next day (I live in East Sussex).

So on the Saturday afternoon I had been reading a friend's blog post about his previous week's race and his race goals gained my attention  As I was thinking to myself about the wording of his race goals "... my main aim was to enjoy it. Yes I wanted to go as fast as I could but it was more important to me to be able to finish strongly" which I was questioning in terms of how these goal's could influence and impact on race performance, it suddenly 'jumped out at me' that I had not given any thought at all to my race goals for my race the very next day!  I had simply entered the race pretty well for something to do.  To fill the 13 week gap between the Lakeland 100 and the Beachy Head Marathon.  So I had to quickly decide what my race goal should be.  So I started the process by answering the three questions I always ask myself, usually at the start of my non-physical training.  What do I want?  Why do I want it?  How much do I want it?  Yes, a bit late for the answers to be deeply ingrained into my subconscious, but I thought better late than never!

However, I found that I was really struggling to answer the three questions.  For the Montane Lakeland 100, the race goal I set was clear and proved to be effective.  I simply wanted to cross the finish line knowing that there wasn't one more tiny bit of energy/focus I could have given.  Apart from a few 'blips' during legs 11 and 12, I felt I nearly achieved that goal.  But for this low key race, there wasn't the same 'desire' to put absolutely everything I had into the race to achieve my best possible performance.  So by the time I got to the start line the next morning, I had set myself a rather vague race goal of something like "running strongly, performing to a 'respectable' level".  Whatever that level is?

Race morning, after staying the night at a pleasant, but cheap hostel in Greenwich (St Christopher's Inns), I arrived to a quiet registration within the Territorial Army Sports Hall on Blackheath common.  There had been around 90 entries, but only 55 runners actually turning up on the morning.  Hence the quietness of the morning.  We assembled on the start line just prior to the 6:00am start time, with it already feeling reasonably warm.  I therefore decided not to carry my ultra-lightweight Montane Slipstream GL jacket.  Which although only weighing 70 grammes, I decided there was no need to carry that extra load.  So my UltrAspire Synapse Bottle Waist Pack in addition to the water bottle, contained 14 TORQ gels, some 'safety blanket' chocolate covered coffee beans, for just in case, a mobile phone, and a £10 note, also for just in case!

The race starts, and with the first half mile or so being a gentle downhill I start at a reasonable pace, probably around 6:10 minute mile pace.  Once again I forget to pack my Garmin GPS watch so I don't have the actual race data!  As I cross the road using a 'chicane' traffic island I have an opportunity to see what my lead is after only around three quarters of a mile.  Already I have over a lead of over 150 metres.  Right then, the win is 'already in the bag', but I remind myself that I can't slacken off, I have a goal to run strong and put in a respectable performance.  As I run along the cycle paths, making my way south out of London, I am amazed at how quickly the miles seem to be flying by.  I am reaching the various points of the course that I remember from my recce run so much quicker, so I take on board this positive feedback.

I reach the first checkpoint at around 10.8 miles (based on my recce run) in 75 minutes.  Pretty close to my race schedule!  Yes, although my non-physical training had been lacking, I did still put together a planned race schedule.  Although rather than my usual thorough approach, taking into account the actual underfoot conditions, the amount of elevation gain, the closeness of the contour lines, the duration point of the race, etc to calculate my minute mile rates.  For this race I simply decided to calculate my scheduled checkpoint times, based on running 7 minutes per mile for the first two legs, 8 minute miles for the next tow legs, and then 9 minute miles for the last two legs.  Yes, very amateurish, but as mentioned above, I just didn't do the necessary non-physical preparation for this race!

Leg two similarly seems to fly by, but whereas during the first leg it was easy to stay within a rhythm due to mainly running along cycle paths and roads.  During leg two, now that the route was on trails, I was finding it hard to pick up the pace to the required 7 minute mile pace after each stile, gate, twisty narrow path, etc.  I had to repeatedly remind myself that I shouldn't slacken off!  Even during leg two, so only between one and a half and two and a half hours into the race, I was already getting an argument within my head, suggesting I should slow down.  Something like: "What's the purpose of pushing yourself, you will win this race no matter what speed you run, so why bother.  You only have something to lose, e.g. increased chance of injuring yourself, and nothing to gain!"  And to be honest I was struggling to find a response to combat the slowdown argument!

Then luckily I recalled the conversation I had had with my wife Frances prior to getting dropped of at the train station the day before.  She and our two boys were planning to watch me at around the 37 mile mark.  She asked me what time I was likely to arrive at that point.  I showed her my planned race schedule and stated that I would be there after 4 hours and 41 minutes.  She then questioned me "Is this time realistic, or is it one of those 'pie in the sky' race schedules that you do as part of your weird mind games"?  I confidently replied that the planned time was a legitimate time, and even told her that it could even be quicker, as I would expect to start out running faster than 7 minute miles.  So I now had an argument, a reason, a purpose not to slacken off.  I had to get to the 37 mile mark on time in 4:41.

Although I plan a race schedule, I try not to memorise the actual times in detail.  I prefer to have just a vague recollection of the time, so I therefore don't 'stress out' if I am a few minutes quicker or slower, as I am not totally certain of the exact scheduled time.  At the end of leg 2, I know I am down on the schedule, somewhere in the region of five minutes.  I therefore run leg 3 strongly and enjoy running along the great off road paths, reaching checkpoint three still around five minutes down on schedule.

Leg 4 is another leg of around ten miles, but a bit more undulating than the gentler leg 3.  My meeting point with my family is around seven miles into the leg.  As I start probably around a steady two mile climb which eventually comes out of the woods at the planned meeting point, pretty well the highest point of the route on the edge of Ashdown Forest.  I realise that I am not going to make the 4:41 time.  Immediately the argument appears in my head, well if you are going to be late, it doesn't matter whether you are five minutes late or ten minutes late, you are going to be late.  But now I have no response.  No counter argument.  I search for my race goals, in the hope that they will provide the counter argument "Run strongly.  Put in a respectable performance." Well I have been doing that for four and a half hours now.  Yes, I have been running strongly up to now.  And no matter what time I finish in, nobody will know apart from me whether my performance is respectable.  Then the argument to slow down gets even stronger.  "Look you forgot your GPS heart rate monitor, so nobody will be able to see your mile splits or your heart rate, so nobody will actual see that you have slackened off."  And so as a consequence of this poor goal setting, at the start of the steady climb, after around four and a half hours, my racing stopped!  My pace slowed significantly and I just jogged up the hill.

As I jogged up the hill, I had no buzz, no excitement.  In fact I was pretty disappointed with myself for slackening off the pace.  But yet, I had no reason, no purpose, no desire to get back into race mode.  It was quite a strange feeling.  Yes, I was beginning to feel a bit tired.  Yes, it was beginning to get a bit more difficult to maintain my race focus.  But putting it in perspective in relation to my other races I have run, especially in comparison to my most recent race the Lakeland 100, I was only just scratching the surface of needing to 'dig deep'!

Meeting my family after 37 miles

Seeing my family and a few friends as I emerge out of the woods boosts my enjoyment levels, and then for I think the first time ever in a race, I simply stop running and start chatting to them!  As the day had warmed up, with it now being 10:52 am, so eleven minutes late, I am needing to refill my bottle.  I ask if they have any water (outside assistance is allowed).  They don't have any water on them, but there is some n the car parked in the car park along the road a wee bit.  After I guess a couple of minutes chatting, I take the car keys and head of to the car to get the water.  I soon realise that the car is around 150 metres off route.  Oh well, what's an extra 300 metres, after all I haven't been racing for the last twenty / twenty five minutes.  So I head off route to our car, which seems to put the 'final nail in the coffin' in terms of racing for the remainder of the day!

Even though I am now just running at a gentle training pace, as I reach checkpoint four at the village of Horsted Keynes, I am not actually finding the running that easy.  My mind is finding it difficult to stay on task, to maintain my running.  I feel like I want to walk, and this is at only the 40 mile mark.  I reflect back to the Lakeland 100, on how I pretty well ran strongly the entire 100 miles.  But today, after only 40 miles, I find myself nearly needing to walk.  Amazing what the effect of the excitement, the challenge, the desire, the purpose can have on making running just so much easier.

At each of the checkpoints, although there is water and various other snacks, there isn't any cola.  With my poorly performing mind, I decide that a cola boost is required.  Fortunately the village shop at Horsted Keynes is open, so out comes my emergency £10 and I go into the shop and buy some coca cola.  I ask the women shop assistant where I would find some coca cola.  She points to a two litre bottle.  I ask for a smaller size and am directed to the back of the shop.  I am all set to open the bottle for a drink, and I am stopped as she needs to scan the bar-code.  She notices my race number and this interrupts her from scanning the bottle.  She is now in full conversation asking what the race is all about.  I try to politely speed her up, but then don't really bother as I find myself laughing inside on just how bizarre the experience is.  Here I was meant to be racing hard to Brighton, but instead I am having a chat in a village shop.  Which for me, in which in most races I barely even acknowledge my family as I am totally into race focus mode, the occasion in the shop was an absolute opposite!

I eventually leave the shop, followed by another rather lengthy (for me) chat with the race volunteers at the checkpoint and finally continue on my journey to Brighton.  The final two legs take me nearly three and a half hours.  Amazingly nearly half an hour slower than my casual relaxing recce run of two weeks earlier.  And even though my pace was slow, I find that due to my lack of buzz, combined with the negativity I was feeling in the fact that I had simply 'thrown in the towel' and effectively DNFed the race back at around the four and a half hour mark, getting to Brighton was quite a struggle.

I am therefore quite relieved as I near the waterfront.  I guess with around a mile to go, I decide to just check that this difficulty I am experiencing is all in my mind.  To rule out that somehow I had lost all of my great form from two months earlier.  So I make a big effort to raise the intensity and get back into race mode for the last mile.  Without that much focus, the pace quickens and so I therefore make a 'good impression' to illustrate the most likely perceived 'respectable performance' and cross the finish line in a time of 8:54:58. Although the interpretation from my comments above probably over exaggerate the extent to which I slowed down, my finish time is actually only forty minutes slower than my planned "Strong Run" finish time.

I then spend an enjoyable three or four hours, firstly chatting to the race volunteers and then as the other runners finish, chatting to them, before being picked up by my family for the short journey home.

Well. as I thought, my race report has ended up much longer than I had envisaged.  My main reason for having this blog is for my benefit.  As it provides an excellent opportunity for quality time reflecting on each race, in order to learn and improve for the future.  So please excuse me for going on quite a bit within this post.  However, I felt it was necessary to get the complete picture down of what occurred last weekend, to help ensure that I don't neglect my non-physical training leading up to a race again in the future.  Hopefully from reading about my race experience and my mistakes within my preparation, that some aspects you can translate and apply to your specific situation.

Time to sign off:  "The importance of race goals can not be underestimated.  A well constructed race goal can support you in your hour of need, whilst in the midst of a race, when you need that ammunition to fight back the slowing down arguments within your head.  Yes, a poorly formulated race goal, can play a major role in constructing a poor race performance.  Get the race goal right, and the performance you desire will more likely eventuate".  Stuart Mills, 2013.

May you spend the necessary time to get your race goals right!


PS  I found out last night that a young 20 year old lad from Sunday's race, Matt Rimmington who finished in a time of 14:21:47 has spent the last few nights in hospital due to problems with his kidneys after the race.  Fortunately he is on the mend and is already talking about coming back and going faster next year.  So to Matt if you are reading this, well done for your amazing determination to get to the finish line, no matter what.  Great to hear that your recovery is going well, and especially good to hear that you are still really positive towards ultra trail running.  All the best, and I'll look out for you running strongly at your future races, having learnt from last weekend/s apparently nutrition and hydration mistakes.  Yes, every race is a learning experience, which fortunately only ends up in hospital on the very rare occasion.

PPS Below is a photo taken by my son Rob at the 37 mile mark.  Matt if you would like a high resolution copy of the photo to remind you of your enjoyable? (well maybe not) race experience, simply zap me an e-mail.  (I'll let you off the £4 price that my son was charging for the photos, as part of his fund raising to buy his own ipad).


  1. Great report Stuart and congrats on another win even if it wasn't quite the performance you wanted!

  2. Very interesting report Stuart and a great win.
    A great article, and very interesting to read about the items you carried on your run as I was wondering about the nutritional side of your running!

  3. Another great sign off comment added to my inspirational quotes, thanks Stuart .

  4. Thanks for the comments. I'm pleased that my report was found interesting. Stuart

  5. Great report love the bit about buying a coke in the village shop!! Also thanks for the mention!! I am still not fully better however making a very quick recovery!!

    This might interest you for 2014?