Sunday, 13 June 2010

South Downs Marathon - The Importance of Race Preparation

Hi, welcome back.

Last week's post was titled South Downs Marathon - What Do I Want?  Well, what did I get???

The answer is a 'Good Performance', i.e. a performance I am happy with!

The South Downs Marathon is a point to point course along the South Downs Way, starting not too far from Arundel, and finishing at Queen Elizabeth Park near Petersfield.  Hard to say how many runners there were, but the start at Slindon College seemed really busy.  There was a 9:00am start for runners expecting to be slower than 4 hours 30mins, probably around 250 runners.  Then a 9:30am start for the four person relay teams (maybe around 60 teams), and then the 10:00am start for probably another 250 runners.

Last week I wrote about the importance of knowing "what I wanted" from the race before the race started.  Well after quite a bit of preparation leading up to yesterday, all I wanted from the race was the satisfaction in knowing that I had run hard, that I had run to the intensity I know that I am capable of.  After the 'diasppointment' of 'wimping out' during the Marlborough Downs 33 Mile Challenge, it was important that I got back 'on track' and was able to run fast again, at a high intensity.

So the hooter blasted, so straight away as planned it was a quick start to get the heart rate up high.  Within 2 - 3 minutes I was working really hard, puffing and blowing, it felt great!  I seldom look behind when racing so I didn't know if any other runners were near.  It didn't really matter, if need be, I was focused to run hard the entire way to the finish on my own.  Having ran the race twice before in 2007 (a different start venue) and 2008, I had made a note of my 2008 checkpoint times (at the relay changeovers) prior to the race.  If I was able to run at a high intensity, then I expected to run at a very similar time to 2008.

I wear a Garmin305 GPS watch, but during the race I never look at the heart rate display.  I know instinctively if I am running hard or not.  I don't need the watch to tell me.  In fact the watch can give you false information as your heart rate can vary quite a bit depending upon your state of dehydration, how hot or cold it is, current state of over-training, how far you have run, etc.  A high heart rate therefore doesn't always mean that you are running at a high intensity.  So best to avoid this possibly false feedback.

I am pleased that I am running hard.  I feel a runner 'pulling me in', which happens shortly after the one mile mark.  I say "giddaye" as he runs straight past me!  For the next three miles it is a steady climb up to the top of the Downs, this runner who I don't recognise gradually pulls away.  As we near the top, coming out of some woods, he is standing at a track junction not sure which way to go.  I shout to him "straight ahead" as he starts heading off down a side track.  The course was well marked, so not sure why he thought to turn right, anyway we end up running side by side.  The next mile was what I love about racing, it was a very, very gentle downhill.  I was now fully focused for a really hard run, so instead of easing off after the hill, I relax and enjoy running fast.  The next mile was completed in 5 mins 58 secs as we gained 11 metres but lost 17 metres.  Who was breathing harder?  Hard to tell but it sounded like him!  We reach the first water station, and feeling quite hot, I slow down to ensure that I drink plenty from the bottle of water, and tip the remainder over my head.  The other runner takes one sip from his bottle and powers away from me.  So much for him breathing hard I think!

Again I watch him leave me behind, then as we approach checkpoint 1, there is a nice descent.  I stride out, really flowing as the downhill increases my pace.  I fly straight past him reaching CP1 in a little over 48 minutes, this being around 45 seconds quicker than 2008.  This is a pleasant surprise. 

Although I would like to run quicker than two years ago, the aim of the race is simply to run hard.  If I do this, then the quick time will happen.  I think this approach to goal setting is quite important.  Simply having a goal of running a certain time, for me doesn't really work.  I need a strategy, a plan to ensure this time happens.  I spend quite a bit of time prior to the race getting information about the course, the terrain, the profile, the contour lines from the map, images from google earth, information was other people's race reports, but if I have run the course previously, then my own race data and memories.  I then establish my expected times at various locations along the course, usually at each checkpoint or drink station.  For the South Downs Marathon, target or expected times are simply at CP1, 2 and 3.  Once I pass through a checkpoint, I then compare my actual time to my expected time and compare the information I receive, with my perception of how hard I have been running so far.  On some occasions it confirms that I have been 'taking it easy'.  On other occasions, it confirms that my expected split times are too slow, i.e. I have overestimated the difficulty of the course.   Please note that I never conclude that I have gone too hard.  As with my philosophy on ultra racing, I don't believe you can go too hard.  Remember, run as fast as you can while you can!  If I have run that part of the course in a faster than expected time, why consider slowing down?  No, take on board the positive feedback and look to continue being up on your expected time at the next checkpoint!

Back to the race!  Again as we pass through the checkpoint, I get left behind as I slow to drink the majority of water from the drink bottle to wash down the gel I consume.  The course climbs up again, along the top and then descends down to CP2 around 5 miles later.  The lead runner continues to pull away, and even with another really enjoyable fast descent to the checkpoint (5 mins 39 secs on rough trails) he must still be around one minute ahead.  I am now around 1 min 15 secs quicker than 2008, so all is going really well!  Although in second place, I conclude that I am running well, and I am looking forward to the next 13 miles to see what happens with the leading runner.  Will he continue to run away from me, or will he slow down.  In both my two previous wins of the South Downs Marathon (2007, 2008) and my most recent two wins in the Beachy Head Marathon (2008, 2009).  In all four of these occasions I have been in 2nd or 3rd place at halfway, so I am well aware that other runners often slow down!  Remember, you can't control what they do, so I just remain focused on what I can do, and as if watching a movie, I am excited in waiting to see what happens next!

There is a tough climb straight after the checkpoint.  Although I have gradually been overtaking runners from the early starts, climbing up the hill I pass absolutely loads of runners.  I am really puffing and blowing so they hear me coming and move to the side.  I often sense their thoughts as I run past, a mixture of admiration and encouragement as I run past, but also the thought of "Is this guy stupid, doesn't he realise that there is still miles to the finish, surely he can't puff and blow like that to the finish!"  It is this 'puffing and blowing' that gives me the feedback I need to tell me that I am running at a high intensity today.  It is what I want!  After all it is ONLY a marathon.  Just a sprint compared to a decent length Ultra!

At the top of the climb I pick out the green vest and red shorts of the leader amongst the loads of other runners.  All of a sudden he seems a lot closer.  Strange, I think, I haven't increased my intensity.  I then see him stop and start stretching out one of his legs.  As I get nearer he sees me and continues running quickly again.  This happens two or three times as I get closer to him, until eventually I run past him as he is stretching.  For the next few minutes I sense him close behind me, and then it feels like he is gone.  I don't bother looking to see.  As it doesn't really matter how close or far he is, as my plan for the day is for me to run hard the whole way to the finish.

I pass checkpoint 3, in pretty well exactly the same time as 2008 in 2 hours 13 mins for slightly over 20 miles.  So losing all of the 1:15 I had gained up to CP2.  I try to maintain the same high intensity over the last six miles, but it is beginning to be a struggle.  I start counting down the miles, which is the first sign of negativity!  The moment this starts to occur my pace drops instantaneously.  This negativity in the mind seems to 'infect' the body.  All of a sudden everything seems more difficult.  It is something that I really need to work on.  I guess it is pretty good as it doesn't really start to around the 21 - 22 mile mark.  But why look forward to the finish?  It is as if it is an admission that the race is no longer enjoyable!  On occasions I manage to get back into a positive frame of mind, especially as I run through a really picturesque wooded section.   I remind myself that running hard and fast through beautiful scenery is what I enjoy about trail marathons and ultras.  The finish line arrives quite shortly, and for only the fourth time during the race, I look at my watch.  It shows 2:54, my time from 2008.  With 100 metres to go I really pick up the pace to try to finish before 2:55, thereby running the same time as 2008 (if I ignore the seconds!).  I watch as the finish line clock clicks up 2:55, and finish in an official time of 2:55:02, exactly 41 seconds slower than 2008.

So, a good performance, one I am happy with.  Sure, I ran 41 seconds slower than 2008, but remember, the time wasn't the goal.  The goal was to race at a high intensity.  If the time happens, it happens.  If it doesn't, well it doesn't!  I can control my intensity on race day, but in some ways, come race day, I can't control my time! 

Why do I consider it a good performance.  Well it felt hard during the race, and the heart rate trace confirms this.  My overall average heart rate for the entire 2:55 is 171bpm, significantly higher than my average for the Marlborough Downs Challenge of 161 bpm.  Yes, as the race duration increases, the average heart rate has to decrease as it is not possible to maintain the same state of focus for longer durations.  However, a difference of 10 bpm for a race duration of only exactly one hour difference, confirms why I don't rate my Marlborough Downs Challenge as a 'good performance'.  (Click the following link to access the GPS trace on the Garmin Connect website: )

Second place finishes in 3:03, and the chap that led to around the 16 - 17 mile mark finishes in around 3:12, as he later explains that severe leg cramps dramatically slowed him down.

Reflecting on this race, in comparison to the Marlborough Downs Challenge, I attribute the difference in performance as being entirely to my race preparation.  Not the physical preparation, but the mental preparation, ensuring I knew what I wanted from the race prior to race day.  It is important this this 'want' is clearly established at a 'deep' level.  It takes time for it to penetrate to a 'deep' level.  It is not something that can occur 'instantly' or with minimal effort.  This is the Importance of Race Preparation!

To sign off I will repeat a quote from the Part Two Ultra Racing Performance post.  Probably the main difference between ultra running and marathon running is that one is able to enjoy and run at an UNcomfortable pace during marathon running.  Apart from that, pretty well everything is the same.

"Focus on enjoying every moment, staying confident in that your preparation has been sufficient for the realistic goal you have set yourself, and feel assured that the fast, but comfortable pace you have started at, is correct. Listen to your own 'deep and inner beliefs', and ignore the comments, views and actions of others if they are in conflict with your well thought out and planned strategies. "  Stuart Mills (2010)
Enjoy your racing.  Ensure your race preparation is complete!



  1. Congratulations Stuart for winning. And thanks for the open and frank report. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Although I do not entirely agree to your differentation between a Marathon and an Ultra. I feel running a Marathon usually "comfortable" during the first half and probably in the last 3rd of the race it becomes unconfortable.
    That is probably not much different in an Ultra. Take a 100k race. Would you not agree that running the first 50-80k (at 100k pace) can feel quite comfortable. But in the second half of a race it will become incomfortable?
    And does that apply for any race? take a 400m race, a mile a 5k. First half fine, comfortable but the last effort to the finish. Not so comfortable.

    there is a lot in your writing I totally agree with.
    I am looking forward to meeting you at the Fling in 2011!

  2. Congratulations Stuart on another great run.

    I've skimmed through the report before I leave for work but I'll read more carefully later!