Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Hardmoors 55 Ultra Trail Race - Reflections on Pace Judgement

Hi, welcome to post number three.

Firstly I would like like to thank those of you who have given me positive feedback. I will try to 'live up to your expectations'.

My aim of this blog is that through my posts which are based upon my experiences, I will try to stimulate thought amongst other ultra runners. Working within academia (University of Brighton) we always stress amongst the students the need to provide evidence. Well the great thing about my blog is that I can write what I want! No need for evidence, well not of the published type, just my conclusions based on the research I have carried out on myself over the years, as I have trained and competed in many races.

Without sounding like a 'safety warning', I feel it is important that one realises that all runners are different. What works for one runner doesn't mean it will work for other runners. So although I will be sharing my thoughts on various things to do with ultra running, it is not to suggest that others do the same, but more for the readers of my blog to simply question what they do. Is an alternative approach worth a try?

So, now onto the title of this post - The Hardmoors 55 - specifically Pace Judgement, as the Hardmoor 55 checkpoint times are now available on the race website. For those of you not familiar with the race, the Hardmoors 55 was only 54 miles, due to a late course change which was much appreciated, as it avoided crossing a busy A road and running through the streets of Guisborough to reach the finish.

The times for the seven checkpoints give some indication of how one's pace changes throughout the race. I often spend as much time analysing the data I obtain from a race, as it takes to run the actual event. In addition to race split times, for the last two years I have raced with a Garmin 305 GPS watch. I have the watch set to automatically record the time, average and maximum heart rate for each mile of the race. The watch also graphically displays the heart rate and the elevation during the race, as well as showing the route taken on Google Earth. To access my data for the Hardmoors 55 click the following link to the Garmin Connect website:

The website shows that the race distance was 54.57 miles. This is not correct as I briefly got lost around the 11 mile mark, and also forgot to stop the watch at the finish line! I would say the course is around 54.2 miles. The image below displays the key data, with the extra little bit of distance recorded after the finish line removed. (Not sure on how to make it bigger without it going blurry, so any advice would be appreciated. Or how do you insert a file?)

Also displayed below is the elevation profile my heart rate trace throughout the event as this information is useful to help assess my race intensity.

What does all of this data tell us? First impressions, one might conclude that I went off too fast with my average mile pace to checkpoint1 being a quick 7 mins 13 secs per mile, followed by progressively slowing down during the remainder of the race. However first impressions are not always as they seem. Let me tell my interpretation of the data!

Although the elevation profile gives the impression that it was pretty well all up hill to checkpoint1, in fact the climbs were rather gentle. This combined with there being sections of road, the off road being not too slippery underfoot and being sheltered from the wind meant that the first 9 miles were a good opportunity to run quickly. If people continue to read my 'mutterings' they will soon discovery that often I approach things slightly differently to the norm (not only in running!). So here are my first 'words of wisdom' when it comes to ultra running (please take note of the safety warning above) "Run as fast as you can, while you can!"

For the Hardmoors 55 I actually ran more cautiously at the start than many of my previous races. Those who were present at the Highland Fling last year will recall some 'lunatic' sprinting off at the start, only to get lost (but that's another story)! As I wear a GPS watch I am able to access split times both during and after the race. For the London to Brighton 56 mile off road ultra race in October 2008, my first mile was 5 min 58 secs, so with a first mile of 7:20 for Hardmoors 55, this was significantly slower than usual.

Why the change in strategy? Not because I think it is unwise to start an ultra too quickly, but in the case of the Hardmoors 55 I was not wanting to run the whole 55 miles on my own. Not many runners start an ultra at 6 minute mile pace, so if you start that fast you end up running on your own, until they catch you, or until the finish line!

What is the problem with running this quick, say around 6:00 - 7:00 mins per mile? Physiologically the main problem is that you will utilise too much of your precious glycogen stores which will lead to problems later in the race. However, if your body is able to take on board carbohydrate during the race, then you can spare your glycogen, so hopefully it will last to the end. It takes a bit of trial and error (when an error occurs it isn't a great feeling) to establish just how quickly you can go so as not to deplete your glycogen stores. Also requires trial and error on what food your body is able to process to keep your blood glucose topped up.

In terms of race intensity, 6:00 - 7:00 mins per mile is below my maximal lactate steady state (MLSS) also known as lactate turnpoint, so I will not have any accumulation of lactate. So from my experiences I believe the key to ultra running is fuelling. At the start of the race I have plenty of fuel, so why not run fast. I love running fast over the trails, so as I stated above, keeping in mind glycogen utilisation, I run as fast as I can while I can. The "while you can" relates to my experience that no matter what pace you run at, whether 6 - 7 minute miles or 10 minute miles, after 5 hours of running you feel tired. I would rather have completed closer to 45 miles after 5 hours than only 30 miles! So my challenge to the readers of this post is for them to give some thought to how they determine the pace they start their ultra races at. What is the decision based on? How do you know that you are not capable of running faster over the first few hours? Will you feel more tired/exhausted after 5 hours if you run faster at the start? This leads into a really interesting topic, what causes fatigue, but that is for another day!

So back to the Hardmoors 55. My race went really well to checkpoint1. Shortly after the checkpoint I go off course as I cross the A road, hence the drop in the HR trace. Running along the tops heading towards checkpoint2 I start to begin to feel cold. Without really noticing, my pace and HR drops. I consider stopping to put on extra layers but decide to continue until checkpoint2 at Osmotherly as once I turn left and leave the tops, I begin to warm up a wee bit.

Reaching Osmotherly having looked at the course profile and knowing that the course heads back up high I make my best decision of the day. I put on all of my reserve clothing, including a reasonably thick fleece, multiple thermals/helly hansens, rain jacket, gloves and shortly after reaching high ground again a balaclava! I have never raced wearing a balaclava before! I spend approximately 9 minutes inside the village hall getting changed, which during this time no other runners arrive. Having lost loads of time at the checkpoint, then followed by the course getting quite muddy underfoot, my desire for a quick time disappears. I then lose my 'focus' and just 'cruise along' for the next 2 hours or so, wondering what the views would be like on a sunny day.

At the drink station after Wainstones I get a real shock, Simon Deakin, currently in second place runs up to me. We have a brief chat and then head up the next climb running together. It doesn't take me long to get back into race mode. We run together for I guess around 5 minutes and then I gradually manage to run away from him. I then run quite strongly to the checkpoint at Kildale. After only a brief stop at this checkpoint, I start making my way up to the Captain Cook monument. It is during this period of the race that I realise that I have been neglecting my food intake. The increase in intensity to run away from Simon, combined with not taking on sufficient fuel is resulting in the 'woozzy head' feeling. I immediately have to slow my pace and concentrate on taking on fuel. It is during this short stretch to Roseberry Topping that I lose 10 minutes on Simon (60 minutes compared to his 50 minutes). Very shortly after I start my descent of Roseberry Topping I get the second shock of the day as Simon is nearly at the summit of Roseberry Topping. He must at most be only one minute behind.

Fortunately, the fuel I have taken on has done it's trick and I am now feeling fine again. So back into race mode again and I have a great last 6 - 7 miles to Guisborough where it feels like I am running really quick, but not in reality when compared to the first 9 miles. But then I have been running for over 8 hours! The last mile along the disused railway line is very satisfying as it becomes apparent that I will finish first. Although it is not the winning that is the motivation to run ultras, it does add to the overall enjoyable experience. So I am a happy runner as I finish 12 minutes ahead of Simon, who is shortly followed by Richie Cunningham in third place.

I have a shower, go to a pub for some food and return to the cricket club to welcome other runners finish. There is a 'real buzz' around the place as it has been such a hard day in such difficult conditions, and everyone is well satisfied with finishing. To all of you that finished the Harmoors 55 I offer my congratulations, it truly was tough out there, which my report above maybe hasn't really described. To those of you that were unable to finish due to the extreme conditions I really feel for you, as I know how disappointing it is when one is unable to obtain their goal, especially when it is largely due to unforeseen circumstances such as the extreme weather during the day.

Lastly I would like to thank John Steele and all of the marshalls. They really put on such a terrific event in such demanding conditions. Well done to everyone involved.

Well, the above is truly a bit of an epic, apologies for its length. It may well be a while before my next post. Until then, I hope the above has been thought provoking and interesting. I will sign off with one of my mottos:

"Run as fast as you can, while you can!" Stuart Mills (2010)



  1. I'm nowhere near as fast as you over probably any distance Stuart but I have experimented with going slower and faster at the start and have come to similar conclusions. I feel tired and slow down at roughly the same time (number of hours running) regardless of my start speed. I haven't analysed this properly so there may be an element of personal psychology going on here.

    My race strategy has always been to start off at 9-9:30 min/mile pace and keep it up. This year I have decided to start quicker then slow to this pace, and try not to slow any further. It worked in the C2C race in January, was working in the HM55 until I couldn't feed myself any longer and I am hoping it will work in races yet to come.

  2. Great report Stuart and plenty of food for thought. So far I have done well (for me) in ultra's by starting well within myself and keeping a steady pace throughout the race but this year I've started to think about how can I go any quicker. I've wondered whether I should try and start a bit faster and see how it goes.

    Regarding putting a file into your blog .... the way I do it is to upload it to my web site (www.kynaston.co.uk) and then link from there. I'm not aware of being able to do it within blogspot but someone else may well know different.

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  4. Very interesting read Stuart. Thanks for that!

    One of the big mysteries of Ultra Running is pacing and the opinions could not be more devided. Some runners say you cannot start slow enough but it is good to see some good evidence that that is not necessarily true (for everyone).

    I am thinking about trying something out in this years Fling which is more towards a faster start (last year I started deliberately slow).

    Looking forward to more of your mutterings.

  5. Well, Stuart, I'm not going to say you're wrong (for you) when you won the race! But your strategy certainly seems to be completely at variance with the advice offered by (for example) Noakes and I know it wouldn't work for me. So I'm going for even pace/effort (with the emphasis on the latter) and predicting mass self-destruction if everyone else starts off running 'as fast as they can, while they can'! :-)

  6. Hehe, Peter, I was just about to send you a link to this post from Stuart. I know you are very much on the side of the "slow" starters (and it appears you proved your point successfully already in the 2007 WHW Race!).

    Anyway, for the Fling I will try something more towards "Run as fast as you can, while you can! - Stuart Mills (2010)"

    If it does not work out for me I can imagine there will be a lot of "told you so, told you so...". but the important point is that in last years Fling I did in deed start very moderate (and to be honest it worked out quite well for me). This year will be different though.

  7. hi Stuart, was good to meet you at Hardmoors, i'm enjoying reading your posts and thought you might be interested in this account of Cavin Woodwards 100 mile record breaking run of 1975 and his pacing strategy. The splits at the bottom of the page comparing his run with the other record breakers of their time makes very interesting reading.


    All the best, Richie

  8. This probably seems a late comment but I'm slowly working my way through you blogs and advice which i'm finding very interesting.
    I was the last Marshal on Top of High cliff Nab this day and i can honestly say it was the coldest I've ever been! I resorted to jogging up and down the hills while waiting for the last runners (one was a good mate) even though i was recovering from a broken foot! When time came to take my tent down , i had to fold it up as it was frozen. I've always wondered just what the temperature got down to that night.
    All the best

  9. Hi Flip

    Thanks for the comment. I'm pleased to read that you find my blog interesting, but if you are only up to this blog post, you have many many more hours of reading to catch up to August 2013.

    Thanks also for marshalling on the 2010 Hardmoors 55. Yes, it was a VERY COLD day. I still rate it as the coldest conditions I have ever run in! I think the coldness was more due to the very strong wind and being on such an exposed ridge. Still a very enjoyable day though. The coldness just added to the overall challenge.

    All the best with your running, and maybe we will meet in person on the start line of next year's Montane Lakeland 50, as I am also bypassing the 100 next year.