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.