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.