Yes a few days late, but finally time to write last weekend's Northants Ultra 35 Mile race report. As with most of my race reports, it may well take an ultra effort to get to the end!
The Northants Ultra was the seventh race of the 2011 Runfurther UK Ultra-running Championship. It was the third running of the event, but the first time I had run it. With the event taking place in Northamptonshire, it was not so far to travel as usual, so my wife Frances and two boys Robert and Chris decided that they would come and cheer me on. They don't often watch me race, having only watched me race seven times over the last three years. What is significant though, is that for the seven previous races they have watched me, I have won them all except a 22nd place at Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. So them coming to cheer me on was a significant factor towards my 'increased positivity' leading up to the race.
Following my wee bit disappointing run at the Highland Fling five weeks earlier, the physical training had gone well and I was really looking forward to having a strong run at the Northants Ultra. Although I am well aware that physical fitness does not change within a few weeks, what can change very quickly is 'mental fitness', or I prefer to use the terms like self belief, or self expectations, or simply self confidence! The difference in five weeks in my self expectations was quite amazing. Although I tried to convince myself that all was fine for the Highland Fling, that I was back on track after my skiing crash, deep down the self belief just wasn't there, and that was clearly evident in how I ran at the Highland Fling.
It is quite easy to state that ultra trail race performance is largely determined by one's self expectations, and one's self belief in that they will respond positively to what they will encounter during an ultra trail race. HOWEVER, it is a different matter in ensuring one has these high self expectations. I guess it gets down to having some evidence to confirm that your high self expectations are realistic and not just a 'want' or a dream! So anyway, part of this evidence for me was due to the good patch of physical training over the previous 4 -5 weeks, but also, and probably more importantly, was the news that I had been selected to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the upcoming IAU World Trail Challenge in Connemara, Ireland. Now if that significant bit of news wasn't going to raise my self expectations, I guess nothing was!!!
So come race day, I am relaxed chatting to a few runners I had met at previous races. I had prepared well, spending quite some time looking at the race route map provided in advance by the race organisers and checking out previous year's race results and race reports. I find carrying out this 'research' on a race that I haven't competed in before is extremely important as it gives me a greater understanding of what I may be able to expect to happen during the race, and therefore ensure that I respond positively to these as they occur. The race record was 4 hours 45 minutes, based on my 'research', I felt a time of 4 hours 17 minutes was possible. I had decided that it would be back to 'Run as fast as you can, while you can!' There would be none of this running beside other runners, and allowing myself to be dictated by their running pace. Looking back now, it just does show how I just didn't have my usual self belief at the Highland Fling!
There are around 120 runners on the start line, which is directly in front of the quite impressive looking Lamport Hall. we are sent on our way, and as to plan I blast off out into the front, which has been described within David Jelley's race report on the Runfurther website as "Stuart Mills had left Lamport like a man who has been told he has 15 minutes to run to the newsagent 5 miles away, to claim his million pound lottery win".
During the race I wear a Garmin GPS watch that records and stores my heart rate and mile spilt times. It does beep each mile, but nowadays I try not to pay attention to it while racing. The benefit I get is when I analyse and reflect upon my race performance in the days after the race. The Garmin trace can be viewed on the Garmin Connect website http://connect.garmin.com/activity/90451001 So after around 4 miles of a mixture of undulating fields and a slightly downhill gravel/rock hard dirt track, I happen to hear a beep from my watch and glance down. It felt as if I was running quite fast, I could sense no other runners near me (I try to make a conscious point not to turn around to see where they are, better to focus on my own pace not others!). I then get a shock when the split time for the mile just run shows 6:55. It definitely felt quicker than that! You can now see why I nowadays don't look at the mile split times during the race. I immediately start to think negative, as a 6:55 mile should definitely not feel that hard! I quickly re-check the split time that stays displayed for around 5 seconds, I see that the split is 5:55 not 6:55, which is really pleasing as the pace didn't feel that quick. Shortly after I reach the first checkpoint and I get another positive boost. I have only been running for 25 minutes and I am already 4 minutes up on my schedule. Yes, today was all going to plan, and even better!
Although feeling quite comfortable with the pace I am running at, I decide that I can ease off a bit and as my heart rate data later shows, for the next four miles the heart rate drops from around 172-173 bpm, down to 168-169 bpm. Checkpoint two soon appears, I take on my second gel of the day, (being extra cautious due to the carbohydrate 'blip' I had at the Highland Fling), and I am still 4 minutes up on schedule.
For the next nine miles the course is really quite spectacular, there is great countryside, there are great views as it's seem to be up quite high up as I run out of Naseby, so combined with the gentle down, blue sky, and bright sunshine, I am really enjoying the moment. Looking at the heart rate data shows that during these nine miles I substantially eased off the pace. It wasn't a conscious effort, but probably just due to being distracted by the scenery and pleasantness of the surroundings.
Checkpoint three at 16 miles is reached after 1 hour 52 minutes and I am now one minute down on schedule. I have a brief chat to the friendly marshals, take on my third gel and get on my way. Thinking I should really up the intensity a bit, so the heart rate goes up from around 155 - 157bpm up to 159-160bpm, I begin to get a feeling that I have perhaps gone off course as I am having to take a rather jagged course around fields rather than a smooth line as shown on the map. Stopping to check the map to see which way to go I am unable to locate my position on the map. So I continue in a direction that I think is correct hoping to find a significant landmark so I can re-position myself back on the map. I get to a country lane. I have a real problem now, do I turn left or right? There should be a footpath or bridleway to run up, but none in sight! I look more closely at the map, I look at my surroundings, nothing to help me. So after what seems forever, but probably less than a minute I decide to head left, I shortly come across a bridleway and re-inspect my map. I then hear a shout from a runner coming up the road who shouts out, "Yes that is the way, follow the bridleway". To say I got a bit of a shock would be an understatement! Where the hell did he come from?
As I head off along the bridle path with this other runner only 50 metres behind, I decide it is a good time to take on some Cliff Bar, and jog until he catches me up. I had to establish which one of the following was the correct case: (i) Has this runner maintained his same pace, that is slower than mine, but without me knowing it I have lost loads of time by going off course and trying to read the map, or (ii) Has this runner started off at a conservative pace and has then picked up his pace and is now running quicker than me, so he caught me due to this rather than me going significantly off course. I was hoping that option (i) would be the answer, if it was option (ii), then my relaxing enjoyable run in the sunshine was going to immediately stop and I was going to have a real battle on my hands! Not that I don't enjoy competitive battles during races, it was just that I had got used to cruising and enjoying the countryside.
So David Jelley catches me up. I haven't actually spoken to him before, but I do recognise him from previous races. Phew, it is option (i), all is under control, no problems, I confirm with myself that I must have lost loads of time going off course. Rather than picking up my pace and trying to drop him, due to the confidence in knowing that I have raced him and beaten him before, I decide why not run with him for a while, have a chat, before getting back to race intensity. So that's what I do, I simply start chatting to him. On occasions during races I have had the occasional sentence or two with other runners, but I usually keep the talking rather brief. Some runners don't mind the conversation, others get rather upset. Fortunately David was very receptive to having a chat. So we start chatting. I comment that he isn't even carrying a map, he explains that this is because he grew up in the area. He is wearing a shirt and shorts with the words Jelleylegs on, so I ask him about this. Jelleylegs is his running business up in Yorkshire, http://www.jelleylegs.co.uk/ where he guides runners around the scenic trails of Yorkshire, sharing his running and phsyio experiences to aid their enjoyment of running.
Well although it is meant to be a race, it seems that we are chatting for quite a while, probably though only around 10 - 15 minutes. We run through Long Bucky together, which is really useful, as it saves me from having to read the notes on the map that guide you through the village. As we head out along the road towards Great Brington, I start to get the feeling that David has had enough of chatting as he is finding the pace that little bit harder than me. He then encourages me to go ahead and sort'of apologises for slowing me down. Although I am more than happy to continue chatting, I decide that perhaps I should get back into race mode. So I say 'seeya later' and speed of up the road.
Checkpoint four at 23 miles shortly arrives after 2 hours 45 minutes, and surprisingly I am still only one minute down on my schedule. As I tend to start reasonably quick in ultra trail races, my planned race schedule progressively slows as the race progresses. So even though it felt like I had slowed quite a bit whilst running alongside David, in fact I don't actually think the pace was much slower, it just felt heaps easier due to the positivity being shared between us.
I get near to the village of Harlestone and as I head back across the fields I have a wee bit of difficulty finding the footpath. I eventually re-find it as I run across a golf course, but then I manage to veer off to the right down the side of a church. Another stop for a close inspection of the map and I identify where I am, no problem, so I continue up a lane then briefly along a busy A road. Then at the exact moment as I rejoin onto the race route, from behind the hedge and over the stile comes David. Well if that isn't a clear message to continue our conversation, I don't know what could be clearer! So I spring back into full chatter, deciding that it is alot easier to let David to the navigating.
We therefore run together across the fields until we reach a short climb before checkpoint five at Teeton and I move ahead. It isn't really a surprise this time at the checkpoint as I am now six minutes down on my schedule. I take on my fifth and final gel for the day, chat to some more friendly marshals and have a brief rest while I wait for David. We head off together, but shortly after there is another climb up to Creaton and I move ahead again. I decide to increase the intensity back to race pace for the remaining six miles. The heart rate goes up from the rather casual 152-156 bpm back up to around 162 bpm. The route then crosses some more fields before rejoining onto the track we ran earlier that morning not far from the 4 mile mark. Although I am back to running a reasonably solid pace, I begin to feel a little guilty with my rather half-hearted approach to the day's race. I reflect and consider that chatting and taking it easy isn't what British International runners should be doing! I decide that the only way to redeem myself is therefore to push it hard to the finish. So time to challenge myself with some hard running for the last 3 miles. The heart rate goes back up to 167-169 bpm and I happen to hear a beep from my watch and see a 6:53 mile split for mile number 35. The pace slows quite a bit up the tough climb back to Lamport Hall, but the effort remains high as I cross the finish line, after covering 36.11 miles in a time of 4:20:37, only three minutes slower than my planned finish time of 4:17.
Around seven minutes later David Jelley finishes, and we re-continue our conversation. The atmosphere at the finish line is superb. There are hot drinks and cake freely available, but what really makes it is the abundance of positive energy. Even though it was a reasonably hot day, over an, at times, undulating course, the majority of runners after the initial few moments upon finishing, all seemed to be really buzzing. The true spirit of ultra trail running was clearly evident!
So to summarise, the Northants Ultra 35 Mile was overall a really positive experience, over a great course, shared with friendly chatty runners, and with extremely good race organisation. Thanks loads to organisers Steve, Guy and their team of helpers for putting on such an excellent event. I sub-titled this post "Factors That Affect Performance" as I feel that the Northants Ultra illustrates that there are many, many factors that can influence one's ultra trail race performance; ranging from misreading a mile split time, getting lost and going off course, being hot and sunny, not remaining within the race focus, having the support from your family, the companionship of running together with other runners, and the self belief that one's preparation has been good. All of these factors can affect race performance, but to put it simply, it is all about remaining positive, both leading up to the race and throughout the entire race.
I think now is a good time to sign off; "Race preparation involves considering those factors that can affect your ultra trail running performance. Recognise them, and prepare yourself to ensure that for you, they all result in a positive effect on your performance." Stuart Mills 2011.
May you all have positive effects within your running.