Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon - Coping with the Challenges


Yes, I am back after managing to regain a positive attitude to computers following my rather disappointing loss of material from my last post. Apologies to Aykut, but your question will have to wait until my next post, as tonight I am focusing on my first race of the year, the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series Sussex Marathon that I competed in last Saturday.

Back in January I outlined my planned races for the year, and expressed how excited I was, and that I was really looking forward to 2011 in terms of ultra trail racing, especially after coming back from my ‘summer training camp’ in New Zealand, full of energy and positivity. Well at 9:37am on Monday 7th February, I took a ‘wee bit’ of a tumble whilst skiing in Austria, which put a wee bit of a dampener on the start of the year.

It was another gorgeous morning, a stunning blue sky, fantastic scenery, great snow. I know the time exactly as I was pleased that after skiing some early runs, we had timed it perfectly to be a few minutes early for the 9:45 am start of the Advanced Ski Group lesson. So as I began a gentle blue run down to the top of the gondola to meet the University students on the Skiing and Snowboarding module, for the start of the ski lesson, I was thinking just how fortunate I was that my Monday morning at work was on the slopes of an Austrian mountain. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to my immediate surroundings, or maybe paying too much attention to getting on my edges and letting the skis carve through the snow. Whatever the reason, my pleasant skiing was to come to an immediate halt! My last recollection is the blur of a skier approaching very fast from my right hand side. I had already commenced a turn to the left, so although I attempted to turn sharper, I vividly recall that sinking feeling that an impact was inevitable, and then there was the waiting for the collision, waiting for the pain!

What happened after that moment, I have no memory of! It is 20 minutes before I became aware of my surroundings, ‘waking up’ (although apparently my eyes were open during the entire 20 minutes) to a ski rescue paramedic bandaging my head, to stop the bleeding. I get a lift on the back of a skidoo, then down the gondola, into an ambulance and off to hospital.

I haven’t totally decided whether I was lucky or unlucky, but I only suffered a fractured upper-arm (humerus). The image below shows the fracture visible within the highlighted area. Then following the initial fracture, the massive bruising develops. Although due to ‘not being at home’ during and immediately following the ski crash, there was no pain, in fact I recall the peacefulness of the moment, being totally unaware of where I was. The eventual soreness became apparent over the following days and weeks, which subsequently resulted in the loss of three weeks run training!

Fortunately I did not consider the loss of three weeks training as being very detrimental to my overall race performance capabilities. Thirty years of run fitness isn’t ‘lost’ within three weeks. Secondly, as you have probably gathered from reading my posts, I strongly believe that performance in endurance running, specifically ultra running, but also in marathon running (but to a slightly lesser extent), is largely determined by self expectations. So as long as I believed my race performance would not be severely affected, then all should be fine.

So last Saturday I am on the start line of the Endurancelife Sussex edition of their 2011 Coastal Trail Series. Their Coastal Trail Series consists of 10 venues, and the Sussex venue was a new venue and consisted of; a 10km, half marathon, or marathon race. The publicised distance for the marathon was 26.7 miles, over the South Downs, covering a similar area to the Beachy Head Marathon that takes place in October each year, but with quite a different course, and which looked to contain more climbing.  Click HERE to see a map of the course.

My only previous experience of an Endurancelife race was back in July 2009 when I raced a 57 mile ultra titled “Classic Cliffs”. The Classic Cliffs Ultra was an extremely demanding course along the Cornwall and Devon Coastal Path. (Click HERE, to read my first ever race report of the event, before I developed into a blogger.) The Classic Cliffs Ultra was quite unique in that it started at midnight. There was a small field of only around 50 runners. Unfortunately the race no longer takes place as it was a really excellent event. Apart from remembering just how challenging the event was, I recall that the race was very well organized, with their being a friendly positive atmosphere throughout. So I was looking forward to experiencing another Endurancelife race, but this time on my 'doorstep', at Birling Gap near Eastbourne, where I typically run past in training probably around once per week.

As most of the coastal trail races typically involve running along narrow single coastal paths, a massed start would often result in the field queuing up shortly after the start. To avoid this problem, Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series races tend to start with a staggered start, where runners have to dib their dibbers in the control boxes before starting. This then spreads out the field and avoids any congestion. This approach seems sensible, and although it can mean that you are beaten by someone who crosses the finish line behind you, as long as you are aware that the finish place is based on dibber time, then not a problem. It actually encourages you to run hard right to the finish and not to take it easy if there is no one around you. Last Saturday from the results it appears that it took 2 minutes 19 seconds for the 86 runners from the main marathon start field to start.

The start of the race due to the dibbed start therefore immediately has a different feel to it, with not the same ‘excitement’ of a massed start. I am around the 7th runner to start so I immediately work hard to catch the leaders who started up to 10 seconds in front of me. The two leaders are busy chatting to each other as I catch them, I briefly say hello, and with the aim of the race being to test myself out, to evaluate whether indeed my performance level has been affected by my missing three weeks of running, slowing down for a chat wasn’t an option. So I take the lead, and although I have just experienced the staggered start, my internal perceptions are not used to this different start format. Running totally on my own within a minute of the start, with no other runners around me, results in my normal evaluation of when this situation as previously occurred. This being; “right you have this race under control”! I therefore relax and without the distraction of what other runners are doing, I am able to focus on working hard, extending myself beyond my usual relaxed and rhythm training, and enjoy the great scenery and the satisfaction of running fast.

The first part of the course runs over the Seven Sisters. These are seven small hills straight after each other. Running over the Sevens Sisters is really enjoyable, as it is like doing repetition work, not that I do that form of training very often nowadays. The steepness and length of the climbs vary, but with them being not too long, one can really attack them. Looking at my heart rate trace following the race (as I seldom look at the heart rate during the actual event), I can see that I was really enjoying myself as I attacked the short steep climbs, reaching a heart rate of 185bpm, which is only 2 beats less than my current maximum of 187! I think what made running over the Seven Sisters so more enjoyable this time was that usually during the Beachy Head Marathon, which I have raced nine times, you are usually pretty tired with it being around the 19 – 22 mile mark, so to be racing over the Seven Sisters totally fresh, really added to the occasion.  Click this link to view the GPS data on Garmin Connect.

After reaching Cuckmere Haven, the course then headed inland over a few more steepish climbs before the first check point and drink station at Litlington. Around thirty runners started 40 minutes ahead of the main marathon field so from around Litlington for the next 20 - 30 minutes or so I overtake all of these runners. Overtaking these runners is enjoyable, it reinforces just how fast I am running in relation to the early start marathon runners, and combined with the encouragement that these runners usually express, there is a boost to my positive energy levels. The course climbs gently out of Alfriston, and skirts along the bottom of The Old Man of Wilmington, before the highlight of the day, a demanding steep and quite lengthy climb to the summit of 214 metres, up above the Old Man. Knowing the area really well, as the course covers my usual training ground, I was well aware that upon reaching the top I would have a long gentle descent back towards Friston Forest. I therefore attacked the climb, although a bit more cautiously than the Seven Sisters due to the increased climb length. My peak heart rate up the steep climb was therefore only 179 bpm.

Shortly after starting the gentle descent I realise that my Garmin GPS watch has stopped, it later shows that I must have knocked the stop button just before Litlington. I restart the watch and try to make the most of the gentle descent. Although the mile split time shows 5:48, typically I would expect to get below 5:40 for a good downhill mile during a marathon (e.g. South Downs Marathon 2008, 2010). So it appears that my overall leg speed is not as quick as usual, which I didn’t really need the GPS to tell me, as during the descent it just didn’t feel as smooth and relaxed as usual.

Following the descent there are a few more climbs firstly through a portion of Friston Forest and then through the village of East Dean before descending back down towards Birling Gap on the south coast. Just before reaching Birling Gap, I join into the half marathon race at around their 2 mile mark, probably around two thirds through the field. With there being 260 half marathon runners, within an instant my internal focus, peacefulness, rhythm, relaxation is shattered. Whereas before when I overtook the early marathon starters it was a positive experience, I found joining into the half marathon race having a negative effect on me. It was as if I was an intruder to their race. As I overtook the half marathon runners, instead of receiving positive energy from the other runners as earlier in the race, I sensed negativity. It may just have been my own self created perception, but it felt as if there was a sense of “What is this guy doing? What is he playing at? Why is he doing a burst now? No problems, he’ll blow up, I catch him later! Perhaps he missed the start? He shouldn’t be late!” It could all just be in my mind and none of them were thinking these negative thoughts, but the consequence was that I went from an overabundance of positivity, with everyone I passed previously being aware that I was the race leader, i.e. the marshals, supporters, or spectators, they all gave out a positive response.  To the opposite, where now I am receiving or perhaps self creating loads of negativity.

I continue to work my way through the half marathon field, trying to focus on running strong, keeping the intensity high. The intensity tends to stay high, but it does seem to take a bit more ‘mental’ effort. Firstly up to the top of Beachy Head, which for the first time ever in a race, running into a strong headwind (All nine Beachy Head Marathons I have raced in have been either a tailwind or still), and then a steep drop down into Whitbread Hollow before check point 3 at the very start of the South Downs Way at Eastbourne.
A long steep climb back up towards Beachy Head allows me to overtake some more runners, but by this part of the race I am getting closer to the front of the half marathon field, so it now takes longer to overtake each runner, because they are running that bit faster the further up the field they are. However, although I know this, the subconscious perception is that I must be slowing down. I guess it is a bit like the way the spaces between the lines on the road get closer as you get nearer to a roundabout, to create the subconscious perception that you are getting faster.

The course then descends downs a picturesque narrow valley, one of my weekly training routes, before a couple of short steep climbs before a gradual climb back up towards Beachy Head for the final time. As we reach the top of the first short climb I am faced with a dilemma. All of the runners are going the wrong way; they are continuing up along the fence line rather than descending down into the next valley. I am around 90% confident that the correct route is straight ahead, but since every runner has taken the incorrect route, I decide to follow them, although knowing that I am going the wrong way! Although it shouldn’t make a difference, this running in the wrong direction, away from where I should be heading seems to create loads of internal self negativity. From that moment until the finish line, the racing ceased, the focus was gone, it just became a training run. My intensity dropped substantially, with an average heart rate of only 144 bpm for one of the mile splits! Instead of overtaking the half marathon runners, I am now running at their pace, and I am actually overtaken my two of them!

The runners upon reaching a fence realize they have gone the wrong way, so we all head back along a different route to rejoin the correct course. This off-course detour later appears to have added approximately 1.3 miles to both the marathon and half marathon routes. We pass through checkpoint 4 at the top of Beachy Head, with only a relaxing descent back down to the start/finish. Although the views from the top of Beachy Head are probably the most spectacular coastline views along the south coast one could find, by this stage I am looking forward to finishing and do not really make the most of the scenery. I finish in a time of 3 hours 33 minutes and 45 seconds, with only 18 half marathon runners in front of me, and being the first marathon runner to finish. Second place marathon finisher is Mike Martin, seven minutes later in 3:40:52. Third place is Andrew Woodrow 3:45:34. Women’s places are 1st Freya Bloor, 3:49:47, 2nd Camila Lewis 4:49:09, and 3rd Fiona Maguire 4:51:35.

So overall an enjoyable race; it was well organized, had great scenery, was very challenging in a number of ways, and had a friendly atmosphere throughout. These variety of challenges, some I responded to well, others, I need to work on, are what I will ‘take away’ and learn the most from competing in the Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon. Challenge (i) The Hills. I responded really well to the undulating nature of the course and the many climbs of varying lengths and gradients. I was able to attack the climbs, and work really hard up them. Although a heart rate of 185bpm is probably a little bit extreme, but hey why not, it heaps of fun! Just an aside, some of you readers out there may be thinking, “Shouldn’t we try to run at a constant intensity? Isn’t even intensity the best approach?” Well, yes, I guess it is time for another one of UltraStu’s philosophies. It has been quite a while since my previous two:

From the post, March 2010 - Hardmoors 55 Ultra Trail Race - Reflections on Pace Judgement
"Run as fast as you can, while you can!"
From the post, May 2010 - What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two
"To run faster in ultra trail races, train slower! Your training pace should enable your running to be relaxed, smooth, flowing, cruisey, and in total rhythm, with positivity and joy. For the vast majority of your runs, do not train hard!"

So tonight’s philosophy:
“During endurance trail running races, to improve overall finish time, increase the intensity substantially when running up hills. Whatever you do, do NOT reduce the intensity when encountering a hill during an endurance race.”

The reason that you should increase your intensity when running / or power walking up hills, is that your aim is to reduce the duration of time at which you are travelling at a slower pace. I’m sure the mathematicians out there will be able to explain it better, but it all gets down to overall time and averages. If you are running slow for a long duration of time, e.g. up a hill, you cannot gain this time back by running fast down the hill, because the duration of time at which you are running fast is a shorter duration. So the key to reducing the overall race time, is to reduce the time at which you are running slow, so substantially increase the intensity when encountering hills. This may be contrary to what most people recommend for ultra trail running. The common misconception is that the hills are a chance to take it easy, a time to walk. Well unfortunately, this approach is totally wrong, and the mathematics totally confirms this, although first I will leave it up to a mathematician runner out there to illustrate before I get my calculator out and try!

Sorry for going off on a bit of a tangent (all that maths is coming back to me)!  Back to the challenges for the Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon.  Challenge (ii) The merging into the half marathon field, for whatever reason resulted in my positivity being reduced. Now, my performance during endurance events is largely dependent upon ensuring that I remain positive throughout. In previous races I have let negativity develop and have subsequently performed lower that what I was capable of, e.g. Highland Fling 2009 getting lost! I think the take home message for me from this race experience is that I need to prepare myself to be ready for whatever I encounter during the race. The race details made it quite clear that we would join in with the half marathon field. I therefore should have included within my preparation consideration of this, and been ready for my peacefulness and internal focus to be distracted. I guess this leads into a future post topic regarding the importance of visualization during preparation/training.

Challenge (iii) The later part of the course on Saturday involved running very close to the finish area and heading off further away, then quite a bit of heading towards then away again from the finish area, before finally reaching the finish. Although I was aware of this feature of the course prior to race day, I obviously hadn’t prepared myself fully, as during this portion of the race I found this aspect of the course led to some negativity. Although on occasions I have gone off course in races, I do tend to have a good sense of direction, and so I was well aware of this constant changing of direction. Again, it gets down to a more thorough preparation required prior to race day, ensuring that I am prepared for all aspects of the course that I will encounter.

Challenge (iv) Following the other runners and knowingly going off-course thereby extending the length of the course also had a negative effect on me which severely hindered my performance. For the last four miles I was no longer racing. The negativity had taken over and I was now doing a training run! I guess the key take home message here is that I must have totally clear before commencing the race, a number of goals to focus on. I must be totally clear on what I hope to achieve from the event. The main purpose from last Saturday’s race was to test myself out, to evaluate my current performance level, following a break in training due to my ski crash. However, in addition, the goal was to run a quick time which I would consider appropriate for the terrain. Thirdly, there was the goal to win the race. So when it became apparent that we would be running extra distance due to running off course, the quick time goal became redundant. I had already achieved the other two goals, so at that moment in time, there didn’t appear to be any rationale to keep on racing, hence losing race focus and the dramatic drop in intensity. A good lesson to be learnt here, in that there must always be a goal to work towards. There always needs to be a purpose to keep on racing hard.

Well, this post has been a bit of a marathon effort. Hopefully you have managed to get through it! Time to sign off with a repeat of my words of wisdom above, with regards to increased intensity on hills.

“During endurance trail running races, to improve overall finish time, increase the intensity substantially when running up hills. Whatever you do, do NOT reduce the intensity when encountering a hill during an endurance race.” Stuart Mills, 2011.

All the best as your prepare for future challenges,


The photo above ia at around the 15 mile mark, shortly after I joined in with the half marathon race.  The Seven Sisters are visible in the background.  Those observant amongst you may notice that I am racing in trail shoes.  Yes, for the very first time I am racing in trail shoes.  They are Inov8 Roclite295s. although mine only weight 275 grams as they are size 7.  The change in approach from running in lightweight road shoes, that I have always raced in, is due to the lightness of these trail shoes, and also because Inov8 gave them to me.  Always a bonus!  But having worn them for the first time in a race, I am beginning to think that maybe I have been 'missing a trick' by previously racing in road shoes.  They felt nice and light, but also provided an amazing security underfoot on each step.  Although the course was 'bone dry' on Saturday, whilst training in them over slippery ground I have particularly noticed the improvement in my traction and subsequently an improvement in by running.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Challenge66 and Cross Training

Hi, welcome back.

Thanks to those of you that have used the new "Email Your Question" button and e-mailed me a question.  I will incorporate my responses to these questions within future blog posts over the coming weeks.  Please keep the questions coming.  Before I respond to the first question, which is to do with 'Cross Training' I would like to draw your attention to an amazing Ultra Running Challenge that starts tomorrow, on the 16th March.

The challenge is titled Challenge66.  The following is taken directly from the website.

Challenge66 will see Andy McMenemy, the son of a former soldier establish a new Guinness World Record for consecutive ultra marathons (50km) with no rest days. During Challenge66 Andy will run 66 Ultra Marathons in 66 Days, one from each of the 66 official Cities in the United Kingdom.

As Andy runs an ultra marathon in the 66 official cities across the United Kingdom over 66 days, he will be raising money for ABF The Soldiers Charity.  If you go to the website you can see how to get involved, by either running with him or volunteering to help with the organisation of a run in one or more of the cities. 

I have just signed up to run 50 kilometres with him on Saturday 2nd April in Brighton.  So if any of you are near Brighton on the 2nd of April, it would be great if you could come along and join us.  The 50km route is going to be a real challenge!  Not your usual ultra trail route along bridleways and footpaths, or over the Downs, but multiple laps (probably around 30!) of Hove Park!!!  I'm not sure how I will respond to this challenge, but it should be quite an experience.

On the website there are links to how you can donate money to this very worthy charity.  If you click on Schedule you can see when Andy is in a city close to where you are.  While on the Schedule page if you then click the 66 logo next to Brighton, you can donate money to the charity, which will help boost the donations specifically from the Brighton City Challenge66 50km run.  Alternatively click the 66 logo next to your preferred city.

How somebody prepares for such a challenge is obviously interesting, as is the motivation behind the Challenge.  Andy McMenemy discusses these aspects as well as other 'bits and pieces' during an interesting discussion with Julia Armstrong in this week's podcast, which is linked to from the Running Free website.

Now onto a follower's question, which comes all the way from Istanbul, Turkey.  Aykut e-mailed me stating how he had just recently improved his road marathon time from 4 hours to 3 hours 27 minutes, and that he felt that my blog had helped him achieve his goal.  (Which is reassuring and nice to know!)

Your "run fast while you can" motto was very intriguing for me. And the other thing is the "always think positive" attitude that you constantly mention.  I decided I'd start with a sub 3:30 pace and try to keep that pace for 30K and then see what happens. Whenever negative thoughts emerged during the race, I'd remind myself about your thinking positive approach and it worked well.  So I can safely say that your blog really helped me.
Hi, I am very sorry but for some strange reason the remainder of Aykut's question and my response has just disappeared!!!  This is the first time this has happened to me, but I guess this is a good lesson in that I should type my posts into say a word document and then frequently save when I choose to, rather that relying on the blog site to save the post.  As although the blog site saves it frequently, I must have somehow deleted the bottom half of the post and then it automatically saved it!!!  So frustrating!!!

During last summer I read a sociological PhD on endurance running.  The author found it quite contradictory how endurance runners who were inspired and motivated by the outdoors would then spend hours indoors on computers writing and reading blogs!  The two activities appeared to him to be quite opposing.  Well after tonight's frustrating experience, I definitely know what I prefer doing, so it may well be a wee while before I respond to the half commenced question above.

All the best with the blogging!


Just to finish off, remember to take a look at the Challenge66 website.


Friday, 4 March 2011

Ask a Question - Maybe I Will Have Some 'Words of Wisdom'!

Hi Again,

Yes, exactly a month since my last post!  Those of you who have followed my blog for a while may have noticed that the frequency of my posts have reduced quite a bit recently.  Having a break from racing, hence no race reports to post is one reason for the decrease, however, I feel like I have covered quite a few topics within my earlier posts and I don't want to start repeating myself.

When I set up this blog last March the intention was to "try to stimulate thought amongst other ultra runners", and "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?" (Post No. 3)

Over the last year I have received a number of positive comments to my posts, as well as a number of encouraging e-mails like the one below;

Hi Stuart,

Just wanted to say how much your blog has helped me with my running. Most of all you have given me the confidence to adopt my own beliefs on what works for me rather than being overwhelmed with what I 'should' be doing.   ..............    Anyhow, just wanted to pass on my thanks and say 'keep up the good work'. Its refreshing to think there are people out there that have the ability to look at the wider picture.
It therefore is apparent that on occasions my posts have stimulated some thought and encouraged consideration of alternative approaches to ultra trail running.  So instead of posting nothing at the risk of repeating myself, I have decided that maybe I should ask you, the reader, what topics would you like me to offer my thoughts on.  If you look to the right you should now see a new ?EMAIL YOUR QUESTION tab.

If you click this tab, it should load my e-mail address into Microsoft Outlook, or whatever programme you use to send e-mails.  Then all you have to do is type in a subject title and ask me a question on a topic you have been thinking about, related to Ultra Trail running.  Then within the following week or two, I can give your question some thought and then post my views regarding the topic.  I just thought this approach could be worth a try, in order to re-increase the frequencies of my posts, so I can continue to stimulate thought amongst you readers out there.

Just before I sign off, a brief story to introduce my signing off quote.  Whilst in New Zealand over Christmas my Dad moved out of our family home which we had lived in since 1964.  As I was helping in packing up, I came across loads of things from the past that brought back loads of pleasant memories, including a number of old running books.  Kiwis Can Fly (1977) was great to read again.  Mainly about great New Zealand athletes John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax, but also other NZ athletes such as Boston Marathon winner from the sixties Dave McKenzie.  One other book really gained my attention; Every Runners Companion by Alison Roe and Gary Elliott (1983).  A few of you may not be aware of Alison Roe's status.  She won both the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon in 1981, setting a world marathon record of 2:25:29 at New York.  I have pasted her photo from the book below as I consider it such an awesome photo.  It was taken during the 26th mile of the New York Marathon, which she covered in 5:08.  I can feel from the photo the busyness of the crowd, the motorcycle escort beside her, but yet she appears so relaxed, focused, at peace within herself.  She is running hard, no signs of strain, simply really enjoying the present moment! 

Back in 1981 Alison Roe was a real inspiration to me as a young runner, especially as I had run my first marathon the year earlier as a seventeen year old.  So when her book came out I immediately bought it.  Although the book consists mainly of training log pages for the runner to fill out, throughout the book are short sections where Alison Roe, but mainly Gary Elliott, her coach, express their 'Words of Wisdom'.  I recall at the time back in 1983 that I wasn't overly impressed with their thoughts.  It all seemed too much 'airie / fairie', too much to do with the mental approach.  At that time I thought running performance was all physically determined!  Reading again now, with me now having 30 years of running wisdom to draw upon, Gary Elliott definitely had it sorted back then, and he was able to pass on his 'wisdom' sufficiently for Alison Roe to be the best in the world during 1981.  What is interesting is that back then I couldn't see it, I wasn't ready to 'think outside of the box'.  I think this just further illustrates that we need to continue to adjust our perceptions of ourselves as we continue to learn and develop over time.

No doubt over the coming months I will expand upon some of Gary Elliot's thoughts, but I will start tonight with probably my favourite quote of his.  It seems to follow on nicely from some of my recent posts regarding self expectations.

"The way we perform is the result of the way we see ourselves.  To alter our performance we need to alter or change ourselves and it is that changing that's difficult."  Gary Elliot (1983).
I look forward to receiving your questions.

Keep on questioning,