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.

1 comment:

  1. Stuart, thanks for commenting on my blog. Congrats to your latest race and I like that uphill push philosophy!

    For the Highland Fling, in case you do not know, make sure you apply for an elite start. That will allow you to start at 8 with the young folks. This has been introduced since the Fling is a qualifier/selection/championship race.