Friday, 24 September 2010

High Peak 40 - What is Fatigue? - The Integration of the Body and Mind


Well a few days late, but tonight' post largely consists of my race report for last Saturday's High Peak 40 mile race.  As mentioned in my quick update, it was a bit of a learning experience!

The High Peak 40 was race number eleven of the Runfurther UK Ultra Championship Series.  For me the outcome of the series had been decided, I had completed my four races.  Points earned in the High Peak 40 could increase my overall points tally, but not enough to overtake Jon Morgan's score.  So the race was purely for the joy of running, without the necessity to earn points.  Not that it made me less competitive. The intention was still to run as hard and fast as I could.

What was going to be a new experience was racing two ultras on consecutive weekends, having run the Pumlumon Challenge in Wales the previous weekend.  Although the Pumlumon Challenge was only 26 miles, taking over four hours to complete it took a fair bit out of me!  However, I had prepared well for the High Peak 40, in terms of mental focus, ensuring I had developed a positive approach.  So I was anticipating a strong performance.

Having not run the High Peak 40 race before, or had an opportunity to complete a recce run, I carried a race map in my hand as I made my way to the start line, at the front of a full field of 250 entrants.  There was quite a gathering of runners, probably not 250, all appearing quite relaxed, within the very picturesque area of Broad Walk and Pavilion Gardens, within the centre of Buxton.  I had had an enjoyable time prior to lining up at the start chatting to various runners who I had either met at previous races this year, or  had just met that morning, some of whom who had read my blog.  A number of them asked me if I was going to 'blast off' at the start like I usually did.  I can't remember what I replied, although I knew that for today the intention was to start slower!  Not because I don't belief in my philosophy of "Run as fast as you can while you can", but more due to being a little cautious due to the slight chance that the effects of the previous weekend's race may still be evident and reduce my level of performance.  As you can see, my mental preparation hadn't been 100% successful in terms of giving me my usual total self belief that my preparation had been ideal.

After a few words from the race organiser 'about discovering oneself' during the race, (which I thought to myself, no not me today, one does that in a 100 mile race), we were on our way.  As we set off through the very pleasant Pavilion Gardens, immediately Duncan Harris (3rd in the Lakeland 100, and winner of the Fellsman) and myself are running side my side at the front, well only briefly at the front as Brian Cole (UK 100km Road Champion) decides to ignore the paths and the race direction arrows and runs straight across the manicured grass.  Fortunately no one else follows him, otherwise no doubt the grass would have been rather churned up, as although it was not raining, and it didn't look like it would rain, the ground was rather wet.  Duncan and myself quickly overtake Brian and we head on our way out of Buxton towards the first climb of the day.

Although we are heading at a reasonable pace, it just feels too easy.  It doesn't seem right to be running comfortably, after all, my intention is to go as hard and as fast as I can.  So I am pleased to find that I ignore any self doubt about fatigue from last week's race, pick up the pace, and head up the road on my own.  The course climbs steadily before reaching a disused railway line.  Once on the flat of the railway, rather than easing off after working hard up the hill, I decide to push on.  It therefore doesn't take long to reach the first checkpoint at 3.1 miles where we have to get our small plastic card clipped.  As with other races where I have led the field, there is a real buzz as I enter the checkpoint.  I receive loads of positive energy  from the marshalls and the spectators, which I find really gives me a boost.  I quickly head off, running hard, puffing and blowing loads, and really loving it.

Not long after the checkpoint there is a rapid descent down to the Errwood Reservoir.  I try to control my pace to protect my legs from the eccentric damage caused by the steep descent on a sealed road, but decide that this is making it worse.  So I just let gravity do it's work and I am really motoring downhill.  I glance at my Garmin GPS watch to see what mile pace I am running at and see that my GPS watch isn't working.  A few pushes of the buttons and it finally starts recording my distance.  You can see my GPS trace of the race route by clicking this link, although approximately the first 4 miles are missing from the race route!

I try not to look behind when I race as I want to focus on what I am doing, not what others are doing, but today I seem more conscious of wanting to know where the other competitors are.  It's as if deep down, I know that I won't be able to run strong for the entire race due to the previous week's efforts.  As I head up a short but steady climb after leaving check point 2 after 6.5 miles, I really up the intensity in an effort to get over the top of the hill and therefore out of sight, so 'out of mind' from the following runners.  It works, I calculate that I must already be over two minutes ahead.  There is a short, but muddy drop back down to rejoin the road, before the start of the next climb, which this time is quite long up towards Eccles Pike.  Looking at my GPS data, it does show that I similarly worked pretty hard up this climb, with an average heart rate of 166 bpm and only taking 9 minutes and 2 seconds for the mile split, that included a vertical height gain of 109 metres!

The course immediately drops downhill, I pass through checkpoint 3 (9.2 miles) in a flash, simply getting a quick drink of water, having consumed a gel at checkpoint two, and with the planned fuel strategy of a gel approximately every second checkpoint.  I continue running along the road following the frequent bright pink race direction arrows clearly showing which way to go.  Due to the frequency of the race arrows, although I had a race map in my hand, I hadn't been referring to it, as there was no need.  As I run under a railway line at around mile 11, my race map is rolled up in my hand, and even if I did open it out, it was showing the first few miles of the course!

As I exit from under the railway, my focus is ahead looking out for cars and seeing which way the road bends.  In deep focus, in an effort to gain as much time as I can before I decide to adopt the 'sensible' pace for a 40 mile race, I miss the arrow showing that the race route turns an immediate sharp right down a small country lane.  Meanwhile, I continue on along the road, up a long steady hill.  My GPS watch beeps to indicate the mile split.  I am pretty pleased to see it show 7 mins 40 secs for quite a significant climb gaining 63 metres of height.  Again working hard with an average heart rate of 165 bpm.  Becoming more aware that I should be getting back to an off-road trail, I start to unfold my map to see where the turnoff is.  As I crest the hill I am running up I realise my mistake!!!  It is hard to describe that feeling, the moment when I realised I have 'stuffed up'!  I am instantly reminded of the Highland Fling back in 2009 where I went significantly off course near the start of the race by 28 minutes.  On that occasion, I got angry, and ran negatively the rest of the race, hence not running well at all that day!

The two images below show: first, the sharp right I missed after coming out from under the railway; and secondly, the extent of my detour!  One red trace is mine on race day, with the mile numbers being out due to my GPS watch not working at the start.  The other red trace is a GPS trace that I downloaded from the web of the actual race route.

As I realise my mistake, I am very conscious not to repeat the negativity of the Highland Fling race.  I therefore try to relax, and study the map to find the best route to get back onto the race course.  Luckily I simply had to follow a bridleway I was standing right next to, to rejoin the race route.  I try to maintain the same intensity, but all of the excitement, the joy, the energy, the 'ego' of leading the race was now gone.  As if instantly, running hard becomes a bit of a struggle.  As I run uphill to rejoin the course, I am aware that I will miss checkpoint 4 (11.5 miles).  I am in two minds to whether to back track along the course to get my card clipped, or to ignore the checkpoint, and head onwards to checkpoint 5.  As I rejoin the race route I can see no one running ahead. I look back down the hill towards checkpoint 4 and see runners coming up the hill.  I decide to head back towards checkpoint 4 so start descending to meet the on coming runner.  As I get near I recognise that it is a guy whom I had been chatting to prior to the start (Mark Collins). I ask him what position he is in.  He replies either 4th or 5th.  I immediately decide that no one could accuse me of gaining any advantage from by detour from the race route, so I change direction and continue towards checkpoint 5.

As I run along the at times rough four wheel drive track quite high above the valley below, I am a bit concerned that I can not see any runners ahead, even though I have clear visibility for quite a distance.  At checkpoint 5, as I consume another gel, I am greeted with the news that I am in fourth place, nine minutes behind the leaders.  From looking at the map, I knew I would have lost significant time, but to be nine minutes behind was quite a shock!  Checkpoint 5 was at 14.4 miles, and with an official race distance of 40.5 miles, there was exactly a marathon to go.  I positively try to convince myself that nine minutes isn't a problem.  I think that's fine, I have won many trail marathons over the last few years by more than nine minutes, so I'm just giving Duncan and Brian a nine minute head start!  Although deep down I truly know this is highly unlikely due to the high running quality of Duncan and Brian.

The next section of the course is really quite spectacular, as I continue to climb up and then along the top of the ridge, before passing over the summit of Mam Tor and then a steepish descent to checkpoint 6. The sun is frequently breaking through the high cloud, and with a strong tailwind behind, combined with a coolness in the air, it is really enjoyable running with great views in all directions.  At checkpoint 6 (18.6 miles) I am informed that the lead of the two runners, who are running quite near to each other, has dropped to eight minutes.  I am happy with the time gap update. Maybe it is possible to catch the runners ahead.

I run quickly down along the road through the quiet village of Castleton, knowing that this is nearly halfway (19.1 miles), before the last big climb of the day up Cave Dale.  As I run up the steady climb of Cave Dale, into what seems a pretty strong headwind,  I pass quite a few walkers.  I get a few words of encouragement as they turn to see what is creating the loud noise they hear, a result of my excessive puffing and blowing!  Again it doesn't seem long until I reach checkpoint 7 (23.1 miles) at Bushey Heath Farm, to get my next time gap update, and to consume another gel.  Oh no, it is back to 9 minutes!

Although the marshalls are only measuring check-in times to the nearest minute, so I acknowledge to myself that I may in fact have lost only a few seconds, I decide that now is the time for a big effort.  I had looked at the profile of the course, and had driven the next few miles which is along the road the day before.  I was therefore well aware that it was a gentle downhill all the way to the next checkpoint, CP8 at 26.2 miles.  The next two miles are covered in split times of 5:59 and 6:12 for gentle downhills involving a vertical descent of 43 and 35 metres respectively.  During the first mile I absolutely 'motor' past Ian Bishop as though he is standing still, as I move into third place.  We exchange a few words, but the large difference in pace means we are only alongside each other for a matter of seconds!

A quick drink of water at checkpoint 8, and the important time gap update.  Disappointment, after absolutely blasting the last 3.1 miles I have only gained one minute, the gap is back to 8 minutes!  The course then leaves the road onto a really pleasant and scenic track, firstly still gently down hill, and then pretty well flat as it travels along another disused railway and then alongside a meandering river.  Again checkpoint 9 arrives very quickly, I am still 8 minutes behind. As it doesn't seem long since my last gel back at checkpoint 7, I skip having a gel, or any of the variety of food available at the checkpoint and push on along the enjoyable track.

Leaving checkpoint 9, which is at 29.2 miles, I consider that I have been pretty well running at an identical speed as the two leaders, still running quite close to each other, for close on 2 hours.  It reconfirms my belief that no matter what speed you start at, everyone slows down at the same rate.  Hence my plan to gain loads of time at the start, before slowing down.  Only problem today is that instead of being say 5 minutes ahead, and running at an identical pace, with the other runners hopefully getting demoralised that they can't catch me.  It is me getting demoralised being 8 minutes behind due to missing the right turn way back at around mile 11, nearly twenty miles ago!

It is at this point that I seem to acknowledge that I am not going to catch the two ahead.  I think to myself how well I have done to stay positive for the last two hours plus, but it seems with these thoughts, that the race for me today is over.  My intensity drops, as indicated by my average heart rate for the mile split dropping form 157 bpm down to 151 bpm.  Time now starts to take longer, it seems to now take ages until I finally reach the busy A road, which involves patiently waiting for a break in the traffic before crossing.  I think this is the wise thing to do, as trying to out sprint a car at the 30.7 mile point of an ultra race, although I had probably ran an extra 1.7 miles on top of that due to my detour, could be disastrous.

Little did I realise that my acceptance that my race was done shortly prior to the A road and then probably a 30 second wait to cross it would have such a dramatic effect.  As I start to climb up Deep Dale, my drive, my determination, is gone.  It is as if instantly I am tired.  As I continue up the steady climb through a narrow valley, I am getting slower and slower.  Although the ground is at times rough underfoot and quite boggy and muddy on occasions, there is really no excuse for walking, as it is only a gentle climb.  I literally shout to myself to start running again.  I slowly plod up towards checkpoint 10.

I am relieved to finally reach checkpoint 10 (32.2 miles) where the course rejoins the road.  It seems to have taken forever to reach the top of the climb and the time gap of 15 minutes confirms that I have taken forever!!!  Having run pretty well identical pace to the two leaders for 20 miles, within exactly three miles I have lost 7 minutes!  The marshal sees that I am struggling and tries to encourage me by telling me that the guy in second place is in a far worse shape than me.  I presume he is referring to Duncan, who is now trailing two minutes behind the leader whom I presume is Brian.  I get out my magic chocolate covered coffee beans, grab two pieces of flapjack and slowly depart the checkpoint not really looking forward to the next three miles of undulating road that I had driven the day before.  Although the thought, that the coffee beans will zap me back to life within a few minutes gives me some hope!

Whenever there is a gentle, gentle uphill along the road, I am reduced to a walk!  It is unbelievable, my magic coffee beans haven't worked!  I look at my heart race trace, it is way down in the 130s, even in the 120s at times.  It is as if the message from my brain to run is not being transmitted.  It is a little bit similar to the last leg of the Lakeland 100 back in July from the 100 mile mark to the finish at 103.9 miles.  However, back then it was more by choice that I decided to walk, plus I had an excuse, I had been running all night, and coming up to 24 hours non stop.  But today, as I walked along the road, I seemed to have no choice.  It was truly a new experience!  The GPS trace shows a mile split of 11minutes and 25 seconds for an elevation gain of only 46 metres, quite different to my 5:59 not too long ago!

Then, one of the aspects of ultra running which makes racing so enjoyable occurs.  Ian Bishop gets his revenge on me, he catches me as if I am standing still, which isn't really too far from the truth!  Then amazingly, he slows down to run alongside me and he does his utmost to encourage me to start running again.  His words of encouragement include something like "Hey, your blog is inspirational, it gives me inspiration, use some of it on yourself now.  You can do it!"  I kindly thank him for his encouragement as he leaves me behind as I plod along the road.  His words get me thinking.  I think back to some of my 'words of wisdom' that I have written on my blog.   "Ultra performance  is all about remaining positive, not letting any negativity develop".  I think about the negative state I am in at the moment.  I can't quite work out how it happened so quickly.  I decide well lets really put what I write into action.  I really focus on regaining some positive energy.  Instead of thinking how far there is to go, I decide I am going to overtake Ian.  I briefly think that this is rather mean of me, considering that it is due to his encouragement that I am getting myself back into action.  I convince myself that at least trying to beat him is paying him respect, in that he can say he beat me, or nearly beat me, with me putting in a complete effort, not just because I had given up!

So I manage to start moving again, not fast but at least I am running.  Slowly the pace gradually quickens, I am holding my own against Ian, he is probably around 400 - 500 metres ahead.  Then as we leave the road for the last 4 miles along tracks, and paths again, Ian frequently comes and goes out of sight.  Each time I see him again, I seem to be slowly getting closer.  We drop down the steep ditch of Deep Dale, as it is a hands on knees climb up the opposite steep side of Deep Dale, Ian is really close in distance, but still quite a time gap ahead.  We both run quickly through checkpoint 11 (37.2 miles) to stop only long enough to get our cards clipped.  The time gap is probably around one and a half minutes.

I am back in focus, the heart rate is back up to an average for the mile of 153bpm with a maximum value during the last three miles of 161 bpm.  Nowhere near the max value of 176 bpm recorded during the first three miles of the race, but significantly higher than the 120/130s just a few miles back.  I am working really hard as I get closer to Ian.  We are now within the houses of Buxton, there is one last short steep climb up past the hospital.  I really put one last effort in to catch him.  He must be only 50 metres away from me at this point.  However, as we reach the top of the small climb we run across the flat grass field, he is back out to 100 metres.  As he has done for the last two or three miles, Ian is constantly looking back to check my progress.  He isn't giving up his third place without a fight.  He accelerates away from me, as I resign myself to fourth place.  About a minute of two later I cross the line with a time of 5:49:52, exactly one minute behind Ian!

Well, I had a feeling that this might be a rather lengthy race report, as I experienced quite a few emotions during the race.  Before I try to summarise and explain what happened, firstly I need to clarify who won.  Well, the winner wasn't the current UK 100 km champion Brian Cole, but Duncan Harris.  Duncan won easily in a time of 5:20:15, running strongly to the end.  The marshal at checkpoint 10 was semi-correct.  Brian was struggling a wee bit, with the official results showing him finishing second in 5:30:55.  First women finisher was Cat Lawson (2nd place woman in the Lakeland 100) in 6:56:48.  Closely followed by Karen Nash (currently 3rd placed women in the Runfurther series) in 6:59:15.  With Siobhan Evans third in 7:05:47.

So what caused me to slow down to a walk, which resulted in  me losing 21 minutes over the last nine miles!  What really is fatigue?  Chatting to my physiologist colleague Rob, a one-off ultra runner, but frequent marathon runner.  He put it simply down to a lack of carbohydrate.  The higher the intensity, the greater the carbohydrate usage.  I have previously mentioned how during the Lakeland 100 race I didn't really consume that much fuel as the intensity was so low.  Well during the High Peak 40, my intensity was definitely quite high.  Checking out my heart rate data by clicking the Splits tab on the Garmin page linked above, shows I was working hard.  I took on four High5 gels, some chocolate covered coffee beans and a bit of flapjack during the race, which isn't really a lot, so Rob could be correct. 

Well I don't think it is that simple as to why I got reduced to a walk!  I think it is a combination of factors.  Firstly, it has been a long racing season, with my first race of the year, the Hardmoors 55, being way back in March.  Since then prior to the High Peaks 40, I had raced three other ultras including the Lakeland 100, and one marathon.  So I had been quite demanding on myself in terms of all of this racing.  Secondly, the Pumlumon Challenge, my most recent ultra was only the previous weekend, so without doubt I had not fully recovered by the time I was on the High Peak 40 start line.  However, my preparation for the High Peak 40 had been extensive.  Although not total belief, I had pretty well convinced myself that these previous races would not be detrimental to my performance on the day.

During the early stages of the race, I was running well.  I was working hard, really attacking the climbs and things were looking good!.  I was probably having to focus a little harder than usual, but with it being only 40 miles, I didn't see this as a problem.  Now going off course didn't help.  But probably one of the most satisfying things that came out of the High Peak 40 race was the positive manner in which I dealt with this error!  I definitely had learnt from the Highland Fling, so in reality running  an extra 1.7 miles wasn't the cause of the problem.

I attribute my extreme fatigue between 31 and 37 miles due to a combination of my mind and body as one, telling me enough was enough, at the same time as I accepted that I wasn't going to catch the leaders, so my race for today was over!  Speaking to other runners they often express how the last mile over whatever ultra race they do, they are pretty well absolutely exhausted, they couldn't run another mile more.  What is surprising in this last mile feeling always occurs no matter what the race distance is, whether 30, 50 or 100 miles.  It is as if the recognition that it is the last mile actually causes the exhaustion to occur.  What I think happened to me was that as I accepted that my race was done for the day, just prior to crossing the busy A road.  This resulted in my body and mind assuming that I was running my last mile of the race.  Then having to stop to cross the road, convinced my body and mind that yes I had finished, it could 'shut up shop' for the day.  Only problem was, that there was still nine miles to go!

Fortunately with some encouragement from Ian Bishop, and after some very thoughtful thinking, and as the race organiser suggested  on the start line "discovering a bit more about myself",  I managed to get back into action, and run quite strongly during the last 3-4 miles.  Or was it as Rob simply concluded, I simply came right over the last few miles as the chocolate covered coffee beans and bits of flapjack 'kicked in'.  I'll let you come to your own conclusion!

Well, the High Peak 40 was overall an enjoyable experience.  Yes, I wasn't really getting much enjoyment during those difficult miles.  But as I have learnt from previous race mishaps in the past, I'm sure that I will gain from the overall experience ot the High Peak 40, for future races to come.

Time to sign off:  "No matter what the situation, whatever the experience, try to look deeper into why it happened, what was the reason, it's purpose, and treat it as a learning process on your journey of discovery".  Stuart Mills, 2010.

All the best with your journeys.


P.S. I have two last but worthwhile things to mention before closing:

Firstly, I am extremely pleased to report that Chris Howarth completed his 1600 km run across Kenya, in his charity project Run Kenya - Hear Our Voice Kenya.  Click HERE or the link at the top right of this page to find out more.

Secondly, I received an e-mail asking me to promote what looks like a very worthwhile charity which involves running.  Especially to those readers out there who live in America, click the following link to find out more about the Fresh Air Fund-Racers charity


  1. Excellent report as always Stuart.

    I know it won't mean much but the fact that you struggle every now and then encourages the rest of us!!

    I go through what you describe in most of my races. Normally it's around 70-80% distance when I know I've done the bulk of the run but it's now quite close enough to give it all I've got left for the last mile or two.

    For those few miles I have to battle with myself to keep moving as best as I can.

    On Saturday's RAW race my friend Debs went past me at about 32miles and I had to dig deep to keep running as much as I could over that last 7-8miles.

    I knew I was losing ground, my body was tiring but like you I was determined to find things to keep me moving in a positive frame of mind.

    I often just count my breathes and tell myself I can't walk until I've counted 100, then when I get there I count again.

    Anyway well done on your race and thanks for sharing your state of mind and what you went through.


  2. Stuart, I loved your report and enjoyed the personal journey detail. It inspires me to realise that we are all the same and experience the same things, even at the same parts of the course! The only difference is that it happens faster and earlier for you because you get there quicker. (From personal experience, your slowdown may well have been a combination of being race tired as well as insufficient fuelling.) Despite all that it was still a superb result, given the extra distance.

    I look forward to 'catching up' with you again (not by running, you'll understand) at a race somewhere, or possibly the Runfurther party?

  3. Hi Stuart. Thats an excellent report and a great insight into what its like at the 'sharp end' of the race. This year was the second time i've run the HP40 and you can console yourself when I say your not the only one that goes the wrong way. Even with the marked route last year a group of us carried on straight past the end of Monsal Dale and the Mill just before it tends to be a favourite to go astray at. Good that you kept your composure for so long after the mishap.

    I was chatting with Ian Bishop before the Long tour of Bradwell and he, like yourself was very keen on expressing the importance of positivity during ultra running and cited his swollen knee as the cause of his descent into negative thinking and his eventual retirement in the UTLD. You really have inspired a lot of people with the blog.

    Got to admit I tried your 'go as fast as you can' approach for this one but my 'while you can' only lasted until about mile 20 then I proceeded to get overtaken by about 40 runners.

    P.S You would have won the series on last years points system, an extra 100 points for UTLD completion although you probably already knew that

  4. Fantastic report Stuart, really very good stuff. You given a great insight into the 'sharp end' (as Simon put it) of your performance.

    I was delighted to finish in 12th on my first ultra - I put it down to "beginner's race luck" i.e. the not knowing (or fear) of quite what to expect seemed to act like a propellant and kept me in focus.

    It was a pleasure to meet you on the day, thanks for the great tips as to how to approach these sorts of races mentally.

  5. Hi Jan

    Well done on your successful performance in your first Ultra. As you may have read within some of my posts, one should not 'fear' ultras, as they must at all times remain POSITIVE!

    All the best with your future Ultras whether in the UK or in New Zealand.


  6. Hi Stuart,

    Great race report and great effort under the cicumstances, it seems to me we tend to gain a greater insight into running and life in genral when things dont quiet go to plan, i find by taking the posatives from the negatives it really does help to define us and make us stronger and more determined. You showed a lot of courage and determination in the last three miles of the high peak 40 and i am glad that our little chat sprung you back into life.

    Keep the blogging up its insightfull and inspirational.

    Regards Ian Bishop