Thursday, 21 April 2011

Final Preparations for the Highland Fling

Hi again,
Well with a little over a week to go before the 53 mile Highland Fling, I am into the final stages of my race preparation. I decided that I would race the Highland Fling probably around November last year, so since that decision was made I guess I have preparing for this event since then.

If you have read some of my earlier posts you will know that I have a strong belief that performance in ultra trail races is all about self expectations and positivity. So since November I have been doing physical training to get physically fitter, but more important than developing physical fitness, the physical training is required to provide some evidence for myself so I am able to have total belief in my high self expectations. My summer training camp in New Zealand 'worked wonders', and the preparation was going great. I then had my 'wee spill' while skiing in Austria, which put things on hold for a while. But things are now back on track, with my performance last month in the Endurancelife Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon providing some 'substance' that preparation has gone well.

I find that the physical training is the easy part of the preparation. What requires the focused effort, and has the largest effect on my performance, is the non-physical training, often referred to as mental training, however I think a term like self-belief training, or self-expectation training is more appropriate. For me. it is all about having belief in what I am capable of when it comes to the race. In order to have this belief, I must know what the race will involve in terms of the demands the event will put on me totally, not just physically, but on my mind and body as one! It is therefore important that I have some understanding of the event, the terrain, the distance, the environmental conditions, the opposition, the running pace, etc.

Having run the race once before, back in 2009, I am able to remember many of the above features/aspects of the event. This doesn't mean that it is essential that one has to have run the event in order to carry out effective self-expectation training. No, one can gain an understanding from other ultra trail events, learning how you as a whole respond to lengthy time running over trails. One can also gather information from race course maps, elevation profiles, previous year's results, race reports, etc.

The way that the body and mind works together in determining running pace, it is essential that one has a pretty good estimate of the total duration of the event. An estimate of the total demands from the event. As these estimates, these deep down thoughts on what the race will entail, largely dictates the pace one can run.  (Just consider how it is that somehow you know reasonably accurately what pace to run at when running different distance length races.  The mind and body are programmed with the likely race duration, race demands, and the ideal pace somehow is automatically selected?)  Hopefully you are beginning to see why it is so important to spend time preparing one's self expectations, which MUST be in a POSITIVE manner. If in the preparation there is negativity, for example  the prospect of the upcoming race is a bit 'daunting', or there is some uncertainty about the ability to 'handle' the race demands, then this negativity, this doubt will result in a lower performance. Not necessarily because one feels that they are not as physically fit as they wanted, or as fit in comparison to previous years. But due to the BELIEVE that the less than ideal preparation will hinder performance, so it does!

So as I put the finishing touches on to my self-expectation training, what have I been doing to ensure there is positivity? Well, although I stated above that it wasn't necessary to have run the event before, having done so, does help. So I have spent lengthy periods of time 'looking back', reflecting upon the Highland Fling 2009, and using this to learn from, to reinforce what the demands of the event are likely to be, and therefore to ensure that I have prepared totally this year to meet these demands.

Back in April 2009 I was quite a novice ultra trail runner. I started ultra trail running in 2008, and everything was great.  In 2008 I raced three, and won three. All convincing wins including wins by 1 hour 40mins and 2 hours 40mins! So with these positive ultra running experiences, on the start line at Milngavie I was over-flowing in positivity. Remembering back now, I can still feel the immense excitement I had, the opportunity to race against all of the top guys. Having spent some time preparing for the 2009 race, I was aware of Jez Bragg and his pretty impressive winning performance at the Celtic Plate 100km race in Ireland earlier in the year.  Where he amazingly ran equal 10km time splits throughout the entire 100 kilometres, with his fastest 10km split being the last!  Knowing how I had run my ultra races in 2008 I knew that I tended to slow as the race progressed.  So in deciding my approach to the 2009 race, I therefore didn't see much point in running next to Jez during the first half of the race, to then watch him run away from me as I slowed down and he maintained the same pace.  So the plan back in 2009 was to, and yes as you know from previous blog posts, was to start the race "Running as fast as I could, while I could!"  I will let Jez describe what happened next, pasted from his blog race report:

"The start of the race was rather bizarre as one of the runners, Stuart Mills, went tearing off into the distance as if it was a 10km pace. Afterwards he confessed that his tactics were to try and disrupt things amongst the front runners, although no one in the chasing group I was in seemed that bothered, and like me they thought the pace would not be sustainable. As it turned out, Stuart went astray very early in the race and was never able to recover sufficiently to compete like he is capable of. This was a great shame because a runner of his ability was a potentially a great asset to the race."
As Jez describes, I took off at a pretty quick pace, unfortunately not having run any of the course before, I took one wrong turning after about 1.5 miles, by which time I was well out of sight from the following runners.  The West Highland Way is well marked with finger posts with a white symbol.  Due to my preparation not being complete, I hadn't paid too much attention to what the actual symbol was.  So when I began to think that maybe I had gone off course, as it just didn't feel right, seeing white symbols at the side of the path I was on reassured me that I was still on the race route.  I later discover, that I was following a totally different path and not the West Highland Way.  The image below shows where I went off course, although the red GPS trace doesn't actually show the repeated running back and forth over the same ground as I try to work out where I am, and which is the correct way to go.

I lose a total of 28 minutes.  After around 40 minutes of running I am standing at a sign stating Milngavie 1.5 miles.  I still have 51.5 miles to go to get to Tyndrum, and I have given the field a 28 minute head start!  As much as I have stated above that when preparing for an ultra race, you need to consider ALL of the demands of the race, I had not prepared for this situation.  As you can imagine, I therefore did not deal with it very well.  I was so angry with myself.  I was absolutely wild!  I tried to calm myself down as I started my lonely journey to Tyndrum.  It was over half an hour of running along the proper route before I actually overtook the first runner.  Looking at the GPS data from my Garmin watch, it showed that I didn't totally calm down, as evidenced by running a 6:11 mile for one of the miles along the flat disused railway path!  To cut a long story short, I let negativity develop during the race, and yes with negativity performance drops.  So as the race progressed, my pace slowed.  Not my usual slight decrease in pace, but drastically slowing!  I ended up finishing in 10th place overall.  I guess, still a credible performance, but was some way short in terms of matching my self-expectations.

So as I prepare for the Highland Fling 2011, I have spent many hours reflecting on what happened back in 2009.  Not reflecting on the negativity of getting lost, but trying to recall what the race route was like.  In addition trying to remember how I felt at different stages throughout the race.  The at times very quick pace up to Drymen, (but being 23 minutes behind!), the incredibly slow pace after Beinglas, which I largely attribute to being in a negative state of mind.  This negativity arising not only due to the anger at myself, and not being prepared for going off course, but also due to getting dehydrated.  Refer to my post titled "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two" to read about "Sources of Negative States Being Initiated from the Mind and/or Body in Ultra Trail Running, or in other words - Limitations to Ultra Trail Running Performance".  During 2009, it was pretty hot, with bright sunshine throughout.  Although I had a friend give me a water bottle at around the 10 mile mark, apart from that I relied on the water at the checkpoints.  Back in 2009, as it was quite a hot day, this low frequency of water, was just not sufficient.  So one of the many lessons I have learnt from 2009 is the need to carry water during the Highland Fling race.

With it being just over one week to go to the 2011 race, I am equally as excited now as I was two years ago.  Since April 2009 I have raced nine ultra trail races with mixed success.  In each of these ultras I have learnt a little bit more, about ultra running, about myself.  So I feel I am better prepared now than I was back then.  How will I perform?  Well, this is all dependent upon remaining positive throughout the entire 53 miles, which all comes down to the thoroughness of my TOTAL preparation. 
Before I start repeating myself, or going around in circles, I think it is an appropriate time to sign off: 
"Ultra trail running performance is dependent upon the preparation that has taken place prior to the event.  The preparation must be TOTAL and not just the physical, as the preparation must ensure one remains in a positive state throughout the entire event."   Stuart Mills, 2011
All the best with you final preparations for those of you running the Highland Fling.  I look forward to meeting some of you at the event.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Trailblaze - South Downs Way - The Enjoyment and Satisfaction from Running


Two weeks ago I mentioned how I ran 25 kilometres with Andy McMenemy as part of his Challenge66.  Well he is still progressing his way through his target of 66 ultra runs, although his blog reports that he is really struggling with injuries, so he is now having to walk the 50kms each day.  Hopefully his injuries will improve to enable him to continue with this demanding challenge.

When I joined him at Hove Park, although it was an enjoyable and interesting experience, running multiple laps around a one mile tarmacked circuit was probably the least likely choice of a run route that I would choose!  Tonight's post is about nearly the exact opposite; running a point to point route, along one of England's classic long distance trails.

This Friday, Good Friday 22nd April, sees the launch of a new concept known as Trailblaze.  Trailblaze involves signing up on the Trailblaze website (and paying a fee - £70 for a one year membership) and then running along one of the nine trails which have had installed permanent orienteering control boxes that record your run time, using the dibber that Endurancelife (the people behind the project) send you in the post.  Upon completing your run, (no matter how far you get along the trail, as there are typically around ten checkpoints along each trail), you send the dibber back, and then your run times go live up on the website.

When I first heard of the concept, I thought it was an excellent idea.  So I contacted Endurancelife and they sent me a dibber earlier this month to allow me to 'test out' the South Downs Way trail, prior to the official launch this Friday.  Some of you may be thinking, why pay £70 when you can run along the trail any time you want, totally free!  Yes, this is true; however, you could probably say the same about races. Why pay an entry fee to run a race.  It is because, as with running a race, running a Trailblaze adds that something extra to make your run that little bit more enjoyable.  The day after I ran my Trailblaze run along 40 kilometres of the South Downs Way I wrote a brief report which I have pasted below, which I think illustrates the 'added extra' that the Trailblaze concept generates.

Yesterday morning, on a warm summer's day, even though it was only April, just before 7am I dibbed my dibber at the finger post in Eastbourne at the start of the South Downs Way and started running along the Trailblaze trail. My initial intention was to run to the Devils’ Dyke checkpoint at 56km, however, although I was only cruising along at training pace, by the time I had reached checkpoint 4, Southease, at 29km, I was feeling a little tired. With it being only a little over three weeks to the Highland Fling 53 mile race, one of my priority races of the year, I decided that a 40+ mile run today (Running to Devils Dyke then along to Brighton train station) wasn’t really the best preparation, so I decided at that point to just run to the next checkpoint, CP5 at Housedean Farm at 40km, (and then run around 3 miles to Lewes train station, to get me back to Eastbourne).
Although I have run along this portion of the South Downs Way a number of times, the use of a dibber to check in at each of the checkpoints added that ‘little bit extra’ to the run. Finding the control, (which wasn’t at all hard due to having clear details of their location), and dibbing my dibber and hearing the beep as my dibber is recorded, to my surprise gave me a sense of increased satisfaction. Just as the Trailblaze slogan reads, “How far can you go?” There was the feeling of “right, now lets get to the next checkpoint”. Not in a race sense though, where at times you may be working so hard that you can miss the amazing scenery around you, but in an accomplishing/achieving sense. Although you are aware that your run times are being recorded, the quickness of the times isn’t the priority. That is for later, to compare with friends and others. No, the joy of the Trailblaze run is, being in the present moment, experiencing the amazing surroundings as you run along one of England’s scenic and challenging long distance walk ways. But with the added bonus, as I found, experiencing an increased sense of achievement, not just when I completed my run, but also as I discovered, an added boost of satisfaction as I dibbed the dibber at each checkpoint as I finished each section of the trail. As I mentioned above, my pace wasn’t very quick, however, I am already looking forward to seeing my times listed on the website, and already I can feel the need to run the Trailblaze trail again, to both go that bit further, (well there are actually quite a few more bits before reaching Winchester!), and to perhaps run that little bit faster.
So in comparison to running multiple laps around Hove Park for Challenge66, the Trailbaze run was definitely more me!  One of the benefits of Trailblaze is that I wouldn’t typically run along lengthy sections of the South Downs Way as part of my training, but with the added incentives of the checkpoints, I am probably now more likely to. With the South Downs Way being such an amazing trail, increasing the frequency of my runs along this challenging and scenic path I'm sure is going to add to the enjoyment I get from my running.  But an added bonus of having a Trailblaze annual membership, is that when I am away around the country, and if I am near a Trailblaze trail, then I am probably more likely to do a lengthy run along some of the other Long Distance Footpaths.  Whereas before, I typically had the sense of needing to run the full trail, (still the overall aim).  With there being checkpoints along the route, running less than the full trail distance is now recorded on the website, which I think will encourage me to run part of the trail even if I don't have the time to run the whole way.

Here is a shot of me dibbing my dibber at the start of the South Downs Way. (Actually a 'posed' photo taken on a different day, as I ran the Trailblaze run on my own and at 7am in the morning there was no one about to take a photo!)  My Trailblaze times will be live on the Trailblaze website for the South Downs Way Trail following the official launch this Friday.

Time to sign off with a thought; "Running is much more than the racing, the performance.  Solitary runs, being within the moment, running peacefully and freely over the trails, amongst the surrounding landscape, is a different dimension, that equally provides great levels of enjoyment, satisfaction."  Stuart Mills, 2011.

May your running be enjoyable and satisfying,


PS  Unfortunately I didn't get to hear Bruce Fordyce talk last week although I have just discovered that he was interviewed on Marathon Talk recently, so I will have to download the interview to my ipod.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Bruce Fordyce, the "Comrades King", Giving a Talk at Reading


I have just received information on a talk that is taking place in Reading next Wednesday night by Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner of the Comrades Marathon.    If you click the link below it will take you to a website with more details, and how to book a ticket at £6.50.

Not sure if I am able to make it across to Reading, hopefully so, as a talk from him about his life as an Ultra Runner is sure to be very interesting, and inspiring.


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Challenge66 - Quite a Challenge!


Just a short post tonight as I follow up on the Challenge66 Charity Run that I mentioned last month.  It involves Andy McMenemy running 66 Ultra Marathons in 66 Days, one from each of the 66 official Cities in the United Kingdom.

Well yesterday I joined Andy for his 18th Ultra in Hove Park, within the City of Brighton and Hove.  The 50km ultra started at 9am, coinciding with the Hove Park 5km Park Run.  This was my first experience of  Park Run, and what I saw looked great.  There was a friendly, supportive atmosphere, where runners of all ages and abilities were able to run 5km within Hove Park, on a smooth tarmacked path, at whatever pace they chose.  A chance to race, but for most just a chance to participate with around 300 other runners.

So Andy, myself, Martin (a runner from Bracknell training for the Edinburgh marathon) and a young lad from the ABS The Soldiers Charity started the 50km Ultra amongst the 5km runners.  The course consisted of a small loop of around 1.2km and then 2 laps of around 1.9km.  With this being Andy's 18th Ultra we started of at a conservative pace letting the 5km runners speed off, although throughout the first 5km we were constantly amongst other runners, including being lapped, and we finished in 280th equal place out of the 301 finishers.  The image below shows the small loop and the large laps of Hove Park.  The green arrow indicates the start.  The 5km Park Run ran in an anti-clockwise direction.

Immediately upon finishing the 5km, we simply turned around and ran back in the opposite direction, first the big lap twice and then the small loop to get back to the start, thereby covering 10km.  The young lad after completing the 5km swapped over with another youngster from The Soldiers Charity who jogged with us for a lap.  This process of changing direction and alternating small loops and large laps was to be repeated a total of 5 times, to register the 50 kilometres!  Our time for the first 5km was 32:50, with the next 5km taking 35:35, so the first 10km was completed in 1 hour 8minutes and 25 seconds.

As the three of us continued to run around Hove Park we simply chatted about various things, previous races we had run, our views on recovery, ice baths, types of shoes, briefly our day jobs, just to mention a few topics.  The pace was quite slow, and alternated between slightly less than 3 metres per second (around 9mins 30secss per miles) and slightly less than 2 metres per second (around 14 mins per mile) when we walked.  The images below are some traces from a mega expensive GPS unit I was wearing (see comments re GPS unit below).  Firstly the first 5kms, then a section of the first 5km zoomed in onto a transition from jogging to walking, then the 5km section from 20 - 25km, and finally the entire 25 kilometres I ran.

The path around Hove Park was quite undulating, especially if this was your 18th Ultra in 18 days and you were suffering from a torn Achilles tendon.  As was the case with Andy, although I must state that you wouldn't have known it, Andy only mentioned his injury once, at the start of the run, and then he never mentioned again.  Never having met Andy before yesterday, first hearing about the injury there was just that slight bit of apprehension that maybe Andy may be your typical runner, who loves talking about running injuries.  I wasn't sure how many hours of injury stories I could handle!!!  But no, I had no need to worry, Andy was a great guy, and was great company during the run.  Although Andy didn't repeatedly mention his injury, one could tell that he wasn't totally comfortable with his running, so frequently as the gradient changed to go uphill we would adjust to a brisk walk.

Working at the University of Brighton, our Sports Science Department had recently purchased some mega expensive GPS units  which are designed for team sports, that not only track the distance and speed covered by GPS, also contain accelerometers to measure each foot's impact with the ground.  So running the same circuit repeatedly I thought it would be interesting to test the units out.  I haven't had a close look at the acceleration data (Up within the above images), although one of the images above shows a zoomed in section as we transition from jogging to walking.  There is a significant decrease in vertical acceleration.  However, overall I was not impressed with the units.  We ran the same course repeatedly, however, the GPS trace shows quite different paths.  Rather poor tracking, heaps worse that my Garmin 305, which is about one fifteenth of the price!

As I started the run yesterday morning, I  hadn't decided how far I would run with Andy.  I wanted to support him and Challenge66 by running with him, but 50 km on road, consisting of 30 laps wasn't really my ideal run!  So during a short break for a toilet stop, Martin and I chatted about the durations of our runs.  He was intending to stop at 25 kms, so I thought rather than us dropping out separately, and possibly repeatedly affecting Andy's focus, I decided that I would stop also at the same time, at halfway.  So shortly after, we told Andy of our plans, which he was happy with.  He was very grateful for the company and support, no matter how short the distance we ran.

So after 3 hours 10 minutes and 39 seconds we completed our fifth 5 km course, thereby totalling 25km, and for Martin and myself we had completed our run for the day, Andy was just halfway!  Andy had a five minute lunch stop planned at 25km, so it was an opportunity for a few photos, and some final words of encouragement, before Andy got his ipod out from his kit bag and headed off for the remaining 25km with now music or podcasts to help past the time.  The photo below has Andy on the left of the photo, me in the middle, Martin from Bracknell on the right of the photo.  Taken after 25kilometres as Martin and I stop!

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my mornings run.  Experiencing a Park Run for the first time was an added bonus.  The Park Run is a great concept, focusing running for inclusion, encouraging all abilities to get involved.  It reminder me of the Hagley Park Summer 5km Runs that I participated in back in Christchurch, New Zealand, way back during the summer of 1992/93!  Running with Andy was an interesting experience.  His adventure is titled Challenge66, and it is indeed a challenge, on two different levels.  Firstly there is the physical challenge.  Not in terms of cardiovascular fitness, but simply in terms of mechanical damage to the lower limbs.  Already Andy has a damaged Achilles tendon, and there are still 46 ultras to go!  But I think more demanding is that the actual routes, most of the runs consist of.  This being multiple laps within a park.  Therefore there isn't the usual enjoyment one gets when running, of getting somewhere, running through varying landscapes, over a variety of terrains.  I think for me, I 'm not sure how I would 'handle' the multiple laps.  I think the joy of running would rapidly disappear within a few days.  How Andy manages to keep going, lap after lap, day after day, is an amazing achievement and I wish him, and his support team, all the best for the remainder of their amazing journey.  If Andy is running near you over the coming weeks, I'm sure he would be grateful for some support.  His un schedule is listed on the Challenge66 website.

I will sign off with a quote posted on the Challenge66 website:  "Only those who will risk going too far ... can possibly find out how far one can go."  T.S. Elliot.

All the best to you all with your various challenges,