Well after a few days of reflecting on last Saturday's Highland Fling I am now able to write my race report. Hopefully you have more than a spare few moments as I have a feeling that tonight's post could be a bit of an ultra effort!
The Montane Highland Fling, consisting of 53 miles along the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum, was the 2011 UK Athletics Ultra Trail Championships, the Scottish Ultra Trail Championships, and the Great Britain Ultra Trail Team Qualifier race for the IAU 2011 World Trail Championships. So as you can imagine there was a really high quality field lining up for the 8am start.
As this was my first 'focus' race of 2011, I had been preparing for the race for many months. I had raced the Fling once before, back in 2009, but unfortunately back then I ran off course within the first few miles, lost loads of time, so finished in a disappointing 10th place. Back in 2009 I had adopted my usual "Run as fast as you can, while you can" tactic. But for this year, even though I now knew the course, during the last few weeks of my race preparations I had decided that for 2011 it would be a different race approach.
This year, the plan was simple. Run with Jez Bragg, (Highland Fling 4 times winner and course record holder, as well as many other amazing race achievements including 2010 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc winner), for as long as I could, and then see what happens. To those of you who are believers of my "Run as fast as you can, while you can" philosophy, I am sorry to disappoint you. But there was a clear logic for my changed approach.
In my preparation for the Highland Fling, I spent much time looking back on my previous races to try to identify what factors influence the speed at which I race at, with specific focus on why I tend to slow down during an Ultra race as the race progresses. Last year in the post titled "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running?" I concluded:
"The true secret of ultra running is ensuring this positivity remains, and is not overcome by a negative 'state of feeling/being'. Although. I talk about the body and mind being inseparable, I do find that the initiation of a negative state can occur from either the mind or the body. It may start from within the body, due to muscle damage, cramp, dehydration, lack of glycogen/glucose. All of these will initiate a negative response. Two things are important here, trying to deal with the physical causes, but then as soon as possible return back to positivity."
Then within the following post "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two" I then listed: 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. However, there is one more aspect that I have since included as being important at determining ultra trail race pace, this being "Race Focus Endurance", which is introduced in the post titled "Plans for 2011 - How to Adjust My Self Expectations?". Race focus endurance, to put it simply, is related to when during an ultra race the mind becomes fatigued. It is as if the mind is no longer able to maintain that 'Within the now focus', where you are creating the impulse to run fast, to run just out and beyond your 'comfort zone'. It is as if the mind has decided that after so many hours of race focus, it has had enough. I think that 'race focus endurance' is largely related to how difficult it is whilst racing to maintain a positive race focus. The greater the sources of negativity, the greater the difficulty in remaining focused and keeping positive.
Probably largely as a result of my interrupted preparations due to my ski crash back in February, my usual total self-belief regarding the thoroughness of my race preparation wasn't present. Although ultra running performance is largely determined by positivity, it is one's physical preparation that influences this positivity. And as my physical preparation had been less than ideal, as much as I tried, I was not confident that I could maintain a positive state throughout all 53 miles of the Highland Fling if I adopted my usual start fast tactic. Having used my "Run as fast as you can, while you can" tactic in the majority of my ultra races, I am well aware that it is not an easy approach to racing. It requires total commitment and will only work if one has total self belief in one's high self expectations.
As the Highland Fling race approached, I knew I did not have this total belief. So the plan for the race, as mentioned above, was to run next to Jez Bragg for as long as possible. Being well aware of Jez's race achievements, running next to him obviously wasn't going to be too slow anyway. So although I wouldn't be running off at the start at my usual super quick pace, it wasn't really likely to be a jog!
So as the field prepares to start at 8:00am, two hours after the women and men over 50s started, and one hour behind the men over 40s start at 7am. (Although I am over 40 years of age, as the race was the UK champs, runners over 40 capable of a sub 9hour time were permitted to join the under 40 men's start at 8am.), I am standing next to Jez. I might as well put in place my simple tactic right from the very start. How long could I stay with him? Although I often talk about positivity, one also has to be realistic. Wanting/wishing to stay with Jez to the finish line, based on his UTMB performance last year, wasn't really realistic. So expecting to be dropped by him at some stage, could be considered as a rather negative approach, but to me I didn't see it as negative, I saw it as simply being real. Looking at my mile splits from the 2009 Fling, I felt that if all went well I could possibly stay with him for around 40 miles, until shortly before the Beinglas Farm checkpoint. Then I would lose a bit of time over the remaining 13 miles and end up with a time of around 7 hours 30 minutes. As simple as that!
So as we start on our journey, a runner immediately gains a 10metre lead, with me and Jez running side by side, and the remainder of the 150 runners from the 8am start running behind us. After a few minutes we pass the lead runner, so it is Jez and I leading the field. I tend not to look behind while running, so I have no idea how many runners there are directly behind us, but it felt as though there were quite a few. Not long into the race there is a short climb, Jez and I rapidly get to the top of the short climb and all of a sudden it feels like there are no longer that many runners directly behind us. After around four miles as we run some sharp turns, I notice that there are now only two runners behind us, so the lead bunch is already down to four. I am quite surprised by this as the pace doesn't seem that quick. The GPS data later shows that it is only around 6:40 per mile.
The first 12 miles to the first checkpoint at Drymen is mainly flat, with many miles along a disused railway line. The miles seem to be flying by pretty quickly, and I am running very comfortably next to Jez, with us both equally setting the pace. At times the path narrows so I would duck in behind Jez. Along this section there were many gates, and Jez ends up opening them all, which to his credit he got on with it, he opened all the gates and never complained about it. I'm not sure whether I would have been as gracious if I was in the some situation with runners 'sitting on' behind me. Whenever the path widened I would regain my place right next to Jez, to acknowledge to both myself and to Jez that the pace is comfortable, and all is going to plan. Although it isn't that warm during this section of the race I am continually taking on water from the bottle that I am carrying this year (having learnt from the 2009 Fling), that fits comfortably into my new Inov8 RaceElite3 waist pack, as it is obvious that the temperature is going to rise later on during the day. I take on a High5 gel after around 40 minutes, and then a second gel after 1 hour 23 minutes at the first checkpoint at Drymen, which all four of us reach running together.
Shortly after checkpoint 1 the first of the proper climbs start. As we run through a forest on a mixture of paths and gravel road, the focus increases. Jez ups the intensity on some single path track. On the wide gravel road that follows, although I am no longer feeling so comfortable, I regain my slot at Jez's side, and then briefly up the intensity that little bit more! One of the guys who was sitting behind disappears. We are now down to three; Jez, me, and Andrew James (last year's winner of the Lakeland 50, although I didn't know who he was at the time). We continue as a threesome over some undulations towards the first big climb, Conic Hill, and I find that it only takes a small increase in intensity for me to go from feeling pretty comfortable, to a level which is a bit too difficult to maintain. As we hit the start of the climb up Conic Hill, Jez ups the intensity substantially. I guess by now he was probably a bit fed up with me running continually beside him, and with Andy James directly behind him and he had decided that it was time to leave us behind. I try to stay with him, but almost instantly it feels too demanding, so I have no choice but to watch Jez and Andy run away from me.
As I reach the summit of Conic Hill I am a wee bit down on Andy, with Jez being a little further in front, as shown in the photo above taken by Nick Ham at the summit of Conic Hill. If you click the photo to enlarge it, you can see both Jez and Andy a little bit ahead of me. I have worked pretty hard up the hill, but instead of relaxing over the crest of the hill I decide to put in one big effort to catch back up to Jez. I hadn't planned to run with him to only the 18 mile mark! As I start the descent I have already gained back some of the lost time. Then, what I consider my specialty, my downhill running over rough terrain, comes into play. It isn't long before I go flying past Andy, and then past Jez. Once I pass Jez, I cease my at times 'suicidal' descending, and the two of us run into the feed station at Balmaha together, with Andy only a few seconds behind.
Although we have been running for a total of 2 hours 17 minutes, it feels like the race has only just began. I realise that I haven't had a gel since Drymen which was nearly an hour ago, although it doesn't feel that long as I am really enjoying the race. Not just the competitiveness of it, but also the very scenic surroundings. I exchange my now empty drink bottle for a full bottle from my feed bag which has been transported to Balmaha and to three other feed stations along the race route. I am conscious of the need for another gel, but having run the course before I am well aware of a short sharp climb very soon after the Balmaha feed station. I have a feeling that there may be another attack from Jez coming! So I decide to delay my gel until after this short climb.
As suspected Jez absolutely 'motors' up this short but very steep climb up to Craigie Fort. We leave Andy behind, and as we descend down the switch backs down the other side my full drink bottle jumps out of my waist pack as I hadn't put the little loop over the top of the drink bottle to prevent this from happening! I decide that stopping to pick up the bottle isn't really an option as I didn't want to let Jez get ahead again, so I leave the bottle behind, and without having any water to wash down the gel I decide to leave the gel until the next feed station at Rowardennan which is less than 7 miles ahead. I had some Cliff Bars and Jaffa Cakes within my waist pack which are no problem consuming without water. Why I didn't munch on these instead of a gel, I just don't know! I guess it may have been partly due to my feeling at that present moment in time of a sort of 'invincibility'! I had managed to rejoin Jez after his Conic Hill attack. I had found his recent attack although tough, manageable. I had handled it better than Andy, as it was now down to just Jez and me. All was going to plan. Waiting until Rowardennan for the gel wouldn't be a problem. I still didn't have any plans of beating Jez, but I was extremely confident that I could run with him for many more miles.
We continue running, now at times at quite a high intensity, especially over the undulations. Whenever the track allowed I would run next to Jez and then when it narrowed run immediately behind. Andy rejoins us shortly after and we are back to a threesome. Then as Jez ups the intensity on another short steep climb, although I am physically working quite hard, something within my mind stops functioning. It is as if instantly I have no drive, no messages are being transmitted. Jez and Andy leave me behind extremely rapidly! I immediately start munching on a Cliff Bar to try to get the focus/the drive back. I look at my watch, we have been running for just over 3 hours. I try to work out how far it is to the next feed station, but the brain isn't really functioning! Up to this point in the race the three of us had been absolutely flying past the runners from the earlier starts, gaining 1 hour in time within 3 hours of running. All of a sudden I am running at the same pace as the surrounding runners. I do all that I can to try to remain positive. I convince myself that my current state of feeling is due to lack of water and lack of carbohydrate. All will be fine once I get to Rowardennan.
After what seems ages, probably only around 20 minutes, I finally reach the feed station. The results later show that I am now 3minutes 30 seconds behind Jez and Andy. My simple plan has not eventuated. I am still in third place but there is exactly a marathon still to cover, and relative to my earlier pace, I have been pretty well 'creeping' for the last two miles. Unfortunately I had accidentally stopped my GPS watch during this part of the race, so I am unable to see just how slow I was actually running. I take on board loads of coke, loads of water, some really tasty flapjack from the University cafe where I work, and continue on my journey to Tyndrum.
Whether it was the immediate effect of the water/coke, or the benefits of the Cliff Bar/flapjack, or most likely my return to positivity and the self-belief that I will be fine following the feed station. Whatever it was, I depart the feed station going significantly quicker than how I entered it. I manage to get back into a decent pace, not as quick as before my 'mishap', but a pace I am a bit happier with. Then I get back into enjoying the present moment, taking in the beautiful surroundings of Loch Lomond and don't even get worried when I get overtaken to drop down into fourth place. I am getting more positive, and as I run further, my pace is slowly getting slightly quicker.
A little later, shortly before the next feed station at Inversnaid, the 34 mile mark, another runner catches me up. Although it feels like I am running a reasonable pace, I am not totally sure of the pace, so I ask him what time did he start. Maybe I am running slower than it feels and a 7am starter is overtaking me. Or maybe it was in desperate hope that I was not losing another place down the field. He looks at me, shocked that I don't recognise him and replies "It's me, Terry!" I had briefly spoken to Terry Conway, back on the start line. Although we have raced some of the same races, he has usually been a wee bit behind me, so our brief chat prior to the start was the first time we had actually met. I thought, wow, he is running really well, but being aware that he had never got close to me in any of our previous races I wasn't so accepting in dropping a place to him. I didn't want to instantly increase my intensity to match his pace, but I slowly upped my pace and kept an eye on him as he slowly moved away from me. As we arrive at the next feed station, I notice that Terry is having problems. He comments that he is suffering from severe cramps. That is the last I see of him, as apparently he has cramp problems for the remainder of the race, but still manages to battle on and finish in eighth place.
The next section after Inversnaid is a really technical section with loads of tree roots, rocks, hands and knee climbing etc. The pace has to slow as the running is constantly interrupted, however I feel as though I am running okay. Although the temperature has increased, this section doesn't feel too hot as there seems quite a bit of shade. The track opens up as there is a some steady climbing as I make my way to the fourth and final checkpoint at Beinglas Farm at the 41 mile mark. Probably around a mile out from the checkpoint Allen Small catches me up. As he passes me he briefly encourages me with the comment "Come on, lets show these youngsters what we are capable of!" The comment was in response to some e-mail communication we had shared earlier in the year, when originally the race rules would not allow any runners over 40 years of age to start with the under 40s at 8am, with the original response from the race organisers being; "The high quality of the field will make it unlikely that any over-40 will finish ahead of the top 'youngsters'". Fortunately the rules were changed and all of us 'oldies' were then able to race against the 'youngsters'. And with there being only 12 miles to go we weren't doing too bad, being in equal fourth place, as we arrive at the check point together after 5 hours 46 minutes.
The last 2 miles prior to the checkpoint had been out in the open, directly beneath a rather hot sun! I was pretty thirsty, I had emptied my third bottle of the day, so as we arrive at the checkpoint I again drank loads of coke and water at the checkpoint, and reloaded my waist pack with a full bottle of water. Meanwhile Allen had only stopped for a few seconds to exchange drink bottles, so by the time I headed out from the checkpoint I had lost probably around a minute down on him. I was now down to 5th place!
Although the last section from Beinglas Farm to Tyndrum is only 12 miles, it is definitely the hardest section of the race. It is all out in the open, it seems to be a non-stop climb for the next 6 - 7 miles, and by this time the sun is at it's hottest, with the time now being around 2:00pm. I continue to pass runners from the earlier starts. People I have met at other ultras, and people I have 'met' on my blog. I say giddaye as I pass Andy Cole, who ends up winning the Over 60s category. Then a short while later I pass John Kynaston, probably the most famous of all UK Ultra Bloggers! The blogger responsible for the start of UltraStu! I don't recognise him as I run pass, which is rather surprising really, since I was staying with him over the weekend, after meeting him at the 2010 Hardmoors 55 race. I sense him thinking, "Last time I give him a bed for the night when he can't even bother to say hello!" Finally after what seems forever, I enter the woods up above Crianlarich. There are a few short sharp steep climbs before I am finally rewarded with a nice descent down to the A road.
I get to the A road and see that there is a brief gap in the traffic. I am all set to sprint across the busy road, and then wisely I remind myself that I am at the 50 mile mark of a very hot and demanding ultra race. Not being totally confident of my sprinting ability at this stage, I decide to wait for a larger gap in the traffic. As I am waiting for what seems ages, a runner joins me and we cross the A road together. Although I know he must be from the 8am start, I still ask him what time he started at. He replies with a rather shocked expression, as if asking "How the hell do you think that I am older than 40!" I later discover that the runner is Matt Williamson, and he is only 32 years old!
Matt starts to run away from me. I decide that maybe if I can up the intensity I can stay with him. Since my 'mishap', now over 4 hours earlier, I had been progressing along steadily at a pace that was on the border of being uncomfortable. So I decide that with only three miles to go, it was time to really test myself and really push it hard to the finish. The intensity increases substantially but the pace only slightly increases. For the next mile Matt slowly pulls away from me. By the time we go under the busy A road he is probably around 40 seconds ahead. I realise that I am not able to stay with him, let alone re-catch the time I have just lost. With only two miles to go I accept that 6th place will be the best I can achieve today. My 7 hours 30 minutes finish is also long gone, with my finish time now likely to be around 7 hours 45 minutes.
Whether it is due to me becoming rather negative towards my day's performance at that moment in time, or due to being rather dehydrated, (as my 600 millimetre bottle that I had picked up at Beinglas had been empty for quite a few miles), or simply due to race focus fatigue, whatever it was, the last two miles to Tyndrum were unbelievably difficult. I really struggled, with the GPS data later showing me running at 11:20 pace! I finally manage to cross the finish line in 6th place overall, in a time of 7:51:36. Matt Williamson, who had only passed me three miles earlier had finished in 7:46:11. I had lost over 5 minutes in 3 miles!!! Allen Smalls finished third in a time of 7:43:31 after managing to overtake Julian Rendall (7:45:33), the chap who had overtaken me shortly after Rowardennan. Probably the greatest surprise of the day was that Jez was beaten into second place (7:15:12) due to an amazingly quick time by Andy James in a record time of 7:12:08. Well done to Andy, Jez and Allen for superb runs. In fact well done to all runners that made it to Tyndrum, over such a demanding course, on such a demanding day!
After quite a few minutes leaning against a fence to stop me from collapsing, I finally recover and start to enjoy the really friendly, bubbly atmosphere at the finish line. Even though for many runners the 53 miles had been quite a struggle, especially for me during two specific times during the race, there is absolutely loads of positive energy amongst the runners. It is a great few hours watching loads of runners finish and chatting to loads of runners, sharing experiences of the day's race, and previous races, and looking forward to future ultra races. Yes the enjoyment from Ultra Trail racing doesn't just result from the actual racing, but also largely as a result of being a part of the tremendous ultra trail running community. The overall Highland Fling experience is just totally outstanding. Races don't come much better than this. A very large thanks to Murdo, Ellen and their large team of helpers that worked so hard to make the day for the runners such an enjoyable occasion. Your efforts are very much appreciated.
So what have I learnt from this race? Well having spent quite some time reflecting on last Saturday's race, probably the key thing I have learnt is that I need to read my What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two post more carefully! Why did I slow down so drastically between 25 - 27 miles and, 51 - 53 miles? Well the first rapid slowdown I think was simply due to a lack of carbohydrate. A real schoolboy error! Although we were running reasonably quick for a 53 mile ultra, it wasn't that fast. However fast enough for me to be rapidly consuming my limited carbohydrate stores. It was therefore essential that I topped them up with gels or other carbohydrates. The fact that between 1 hour 23 minutes (Drymen checkpoint) and a little over 3 hours (when my mind just went 'ping' / nothing happening), a total of nearly 1 hour 40 minutes without taking on board any carbohydrate is just totally ridiculous. I can't believe that I was just so stupid, as if I was a total novice!
Since the race I have tried to think, why, why, why? I can only think that my lack of fuelling was simply down to the fact that I was enjoying myself so much. It was just such a great feeling, everything going to plan, leading the UK Ultra Trail Championships, running beside Jez, especially after my disrupted preparation! I think it was this huge enjoyment that was responsible for me neglecting the very basics of ultra running!
Now the second rapid slowdown over the last two miles, I don't think this was due to lack of carbohydrate. Since Rowardennan I had continued to fuel up on carbohydrate. Whether the dehydration was directly responsible, I'm sure that is what my physiology colleagues would say. But I think it is more likely to be due to the negativity taking over. This negativity taking over I guess can be attributable to a lack of 'race focus endurance'. The moment I realised that 6th place was the best I could achieve, I became negative, and it is this negativity that then lead to the drastic slowing down. Again what I am so disappointed within myself, is that I felt so negative towards finishing 6th. Why, what is so poor about finishing in 6th place? Hadn't I had a great race, against the top runners in the country, over an absolutely fantastically demanding and scenic course. Why should there be any negativity? I need to work on eliminating this negativity. I need to work on improving my race focus endurance.
So from spending loads of time reflecting on the race, I feel that I have learnt loads about myself, and about ultra trail racing. It is only through this thorough race reflection that I can gain the most from the race, and alter my preparation to ensure that my performance is substantially improved in future ultra trail races. So already, although my legs haven't fully recovered, I am really hyped up for my next race, ready to put into practice all that I have learnt from the Highland Fling.
Part of my race reflection involves analysing the GPS data from the race. Clicking the following link will access the file on Garmin Connect http://connect.garmin.com/activity/82627511 The following two images display the mile splits and the heart rate traces for the 53 miles for both 2011 and 2009. Taking away the 28 minutes that I lost in 2009 due to running off course, my 2011 finishing time was an improvement of 14 minutes; 8:33 less 28 minutes, compared to 7:51. It is therefore good to see that even with a schoolboy error I am still improving as an ultra trail runner.
Time to sign off with some thoughts: "The real improvements in ultra trail running performance occur not directly as a result from the physical preparation, but largely as a result from the overall preparation. This overall preparation involves implementing the lessons learnt from the very thorough reflection of previous ultra trail races. In order to effectively prepare, one has to effectively reflect!" Stuart Mills, 2011
All the best with your race reflections,
PS Although I finished 6th overall, I did mange to finish second in the 'oldies' category. The photo below is of the three place-getters in the Over 40s Men, Allen Smalls in the middle, Richie Cunningham (7:58:23) on Allen's left, and me on Allen's right.