Friday, 3 February 2012

Review of 2011 - A Year of Many Highs and the Occasional Low!


About time I can hear you saying.  It is now February, 2011 is long gone!  Well yes, a wee bit late, but hopefully better late than never!

So tonight I will briefly(?!) look at last year in terms of both training and racing.  Firstly training.

First statistic: Total Mileage = 2217 miles.  This consisted of 259 runs so an average of 8.6 miles per run, and with a weekly average of 42.6 miles.  Comparing to 2010 it is very similar:
2011 - 259 runs, 106 rest days, total 2217 miles, average of 8.6 miles per run
2010 - 260 runs, 105 rest days, total 2276 miles, average of 8.8 miles per run
2009 - 195 runs, 170 rest days, total 1783 miles, average of 9.1 miles per run
2008 - 199 runs, 167 rest days, total 1806 miles, average of 9.1 miles per run.

This mileage was 59 miles less than 2010, but was my 5th highest running mileage year since I started training in 1978, with the previous highest years being: 4th 2276 (2010), 3rd 2300 (1983), 2nd 2520 (1981) and 1st 2588 (1984).

Since I got back into racing in 2007 my mileage has averaged 1935 miles per year, with the last two years being significantly more than they previous three years as illustrated in the figure below.  The reason for the increase I guess was the acceptance from 2009 that to perform at the next level up in 100 mile trail races I felt I needed more than 35 miles per week.  How much more I don't really know.  But I don't think that that much more is needed, as the most important physiological attribute for ultra trail racing is running economy, and this is mainly influenced by the total miles ever run, not specifically in the previous 16 weeks prior to the race. 

The table below shows how my training changed during the year, with some good months leading up to August, but following UTMB, the training tended to ease off.  The month of June from the numbers definitely looked like the best months training, and thinking back to then, I do recall feeling confident leading into the World Champs.

Yes, one of the key benefits from the physical training is to develop ones self confidence, self belief.  Therefore planning to do more miles during the year was to bring me a wee bit closer to the typical weekly mileage other ultra trail runners of similar standard were reporting to be doing, and would therefore raise my self confidence.  The added physiological benefits would also be a bonus.  One key aspect of my training for 2011 was to ensure that I didn't increase my mileage too much, so I felt tired all the time, lost my desire to run, or developed an injury from doing more than I was used to.  Fortunately during 2011 none of these negative possibilities eventuated.

That didn't mean I didn't get injured though!  No, at the beginning of February, after a really good build-up in New Zealand over new year, followed by a good month's training in January, it all came to a crashing stop for 3 weeks, as I was 'wiped out' on the ski slopes and fractured my shoulder.  I had in total three weeks off training.  Even though I was well aware that I wouldn't lose that much fitness during the time off, it still knocked my confidence and therefore affected my first two races of 2011.

The first race of the year was the Endurancelife Sussex Coastal Trail Series, that took place on my home training patch, around Beachy Head within the South Downs National Park.  I was reasonably satisfied with race, running the entire race on my own to finish first.  However, it was my inability to remain totally race focused throughout, with my focus and subsequent pace dropping off substantially during the last 40 minutes that was a concern.  It wasn't a physiological problem, and I guess this was the start of me really trying to work out and identify the role of 'Race Focus Energy' in relation to ultra trail running performance.

The second race of the year was the 53 mile Montane Highland Fling.  This probably had the strongest field of any ultra trail race in the UK during 2011, with it being a UK Athletics selection race for the 2011 World Ultra Trail Champs.  Throughout my blog I preach the message "Run as fast as you can, while you can".  I usually put this into practise and 'blast' off at the start. Thinking back now I don't really know what led to me lacking the confidence to adopt my usual strategy, probably a combination of the time off training back in February, and the concerning 'losing it' during the latter stages of the Sussex Trail Marathon.  There really was a lack of self belief.  If I couldn't keep focused for 26 miles, how could I expect to keep focus, and therefore keep the pace up for 53 miles? 

So come race day, my strategy was totally different, simply run alongside Jez Bragg for as long as possible.  You can see from the wording of this strategy that immediately it was flawed.  It was rather negative, implying that at some stage I would not be able to keep up.  And remember one of the 'golden rules'; one performs to their self expectations!  The race was going to plan, with three of us, Jez, Andrew James and myself out in the front.  Then at around the 24 mile mark I just 'lose it' in a big way.  Often I think people 'blame' lack of carbohydrate energy for their slowing down, where it is most likely a lack of Race Focus Energy that causes them to slow down.  However, on this occasion I had fed like a total novice, and had neglected my carbohydrate intake, so me 'losing it' was definitely carbohydrate related.  I managed to struggle for three miles to the next feed station, take on some food and get back into a reasonably pace.  But it really knocked my self confidence from the already pre-race low, so my performance for the second half of the race wasn't really as good as what I would usually expect from myself, and I ended up finishing quite some time behind the winner Andrew James, in 6th place.

Fortunately UK Athletics were selecting a team of five male runners for the World Champs.  With Jez not being available due to his racing in the States, that provided the opportunity for me to just 'scrap' into the team.  So a few weeks later, there in black and white on the UK Athletics website was my name Stuart Mills representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland, listed in fifth place!  Yes after watching Dick Taylor win the Commonwealth Games 10,000m at the 1974 Christchurch games, and then reinforced by watching John Walker win the Olympic Gold medal over 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the dream to run for my country was finally realised, all be it having swapped nationality during the intervening years!

Even though I had been selected for the British team, I knew I had to up my performance from the Highland Fling.  Knowing that it was the development of self belief that was needed I decided to try to run every day, rather than the usual one day a week off, and put in one decent long training run of 41 miles, being a Trail-blaze run along the South Downs Way.  But what was really needed was a confidence boosting performance at my one and only race prior to the Worlds, being the 35 mile Northants Ultra, part of the Runfurther National Ultra Trail Series.

Leading up to this race I therefore spent loads and loads of hours preparing.  This consisted of inspecting the Ordnance Survey map in detail, noting all of the contour lines.  Searching on the web for previous race reports/results, and calculating my splits for each of the checkpoints.  Based on my calculations I worked out that I should be able to complete the distance in 4 hours 17 minutes.  Now the race record was jointly held at 4 hours 45 minutes by Andrew James, no 'mug' of a runner.  Remember he was the guy that beat Jez Bragg up at the Highland Fling.  Hence why it took me hours of preparation as I had to double check my calculations.  Yes they were correct, I should be able to take 28 minutes of the course record!

So come race day, the plan was totally clear.  Blast it from the start, and that's what I did, with the GPS data showing that I ran the first 4 miles in 24:09!  I got a significant lead, and then went off course, so was caught by Dave Jelley during the middle stages.  We ran together for a while briefly chatting before I went ahead and then I ran off course again, so some more chat.  Then with around 5 miles to go, I was able to significantly up the intensity again, back into race focus, and finished running strongly in 4 hours 20 minutes.  Yes, not 4:17, but I was pretty happy.  My self belief was back after being able to run strong at the finish, although I did take it a bit easy during the middle stages.  I was well aware that come the World Champs five weeks later, I would require total race focus throughout the entire seven hours of racing!

The World Champs quickly arrived, and again leading up to the race I had spent many, many hours doing non physical preparation.  It had taken me ages to get it clear in my head that I had to adopt my usual strategy, blast off at the start, regardless that I was running with the best runners in the world!  As the race started, it wasn't really too fast a start, so without too much effort I was leading the World Champs.  With a camera right in my face from the cameraman on a quad bike, combined with the noise of another camera crew above and the down draft from the helicopter, I was totally buzzing!  Fortunately the buzz lasted for the next 7 hours, and I was the first British runner to finish in 15th place overall, to achieve probably my best ever running performance!  What a high!  Running satisfaction doesn't come much better than that.  From 'scrapping' into the British team, I was first from the team of five GB male runners to finish, totally illustrating the 'Power of Positivity', with Enjoyment Being the Secret Formula!

Then within seven weeks I go to the totally opposite extreme.  UTMB DNF!  It took me ages to recover from those seven letters.  Eight weeks after UTMB at my local Beachy Head Marathon, although at times I ran well during the race, deep down I had not recovered, I ran without any desire, without any buzz, without any passion / purpose.  I guess I was fortunate to finish second.  Yes positivity is important, but the underlying physiology also plays it's part.  I was still able to run a 'respectable' time, I guess due to the consistent physical training I had carried out from March through to August.

My seventh and final race of the year was another Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series Marathon, this time in Dorset.  In some ways it was a bit like the Northants Ultra, I just had to get it right on the day, so I could go into 2012 with renewed confidence.  Two weeks before the race I was up in Cheshire, having been invited to do a talk by the Delamere Spartans running club.  Whilst there I had a really enjoyable and cruisey 34 mile trail run along the Sandstone Trail.  So at least I had completed one training run longer than 13 miles since my DNF in August.  I also reflected on many of the messages I gave out during my talk, and decide that I needed to put them into practise!

So after finally getting my desire and focus back, I run pretty well for not too far off 4 hours, over a very demanding but enjoyable coastal trail course and am pleased with my performance, and therefore feel back on track for another great year of running in 2012.

In trying to summarise my 2011 year, it is quite difficult.  In terms of my race performances I had two extremes, the amazing high at the Worlds and the 'crushing' low from the DNF at UTMB.  However, I don't base my evaluation of my year of running simply on race performances.  Overall it has been another great year, with I guess the real highlights being meeting loads of great people either at the races, or at the number of talks I did during the year.  Yes, race performances are important, as it is always good to challenge oneself and to try to continue to improve as an ultra runner from year on year.  But it is the fellow runners within the ultra running community, which really provides me with the most enjoyment.  I have met some great people during the year.  So to all of you that I have met, thanks for making ultra running such a great sport and such a friendly community.  I hope to meet you all again in 2012, as well as meeting loads of new runners.

Here's to 2012.  I haven't got time to go into detail now, otherwise it will be March before I get this post published, but there are some changes to what I had originally planned.  Take a look at the following two links to get an indication of where I will spending a few months of this year.

It all looks really exciting!  My next post, whenever that will be, will expand on what I have planned and will outline my goals for 2012.

I wish you all the best as you strive to achieve your goals this year.

Time to sign off:  "The first step is to establish ones goals, the next step is to put a plan in place and then attempt to implement this plan.  Achieving the goal can be and often is rewarding, but I guess the true satisfaction comes from the actual process, the striving towards the goal.  The experiences you have, the challenges you encounter, the people you meet, the enjoyment you share.  Yes, there is more to ultra trail running than simply the running!"  Stuart Mills, 2012.

A rather belated, Happy New Year,



  1. Great review Stu. Inspiring for me to know you can achieve so much on relatively little training volume.

  2. Hi Oliver, Thanks for the positive feedback.

    Yes, too often the message 'out there' seems to be that you have to do loads of miles each week in order to perform well in long ultra trail races, especially the 100 mile events. Therefore when runners enter these events feeling that they haven't done enough mileage, they expect to perform less than they would 'wish' for if they had had the time to do more miles. Then since race performance is affected quite a bit by self expectations, when their performance is less than hoped for, it simply reinforces the message that more miles are definitely needed. Therefore quite hard for this rather simplistic message that "more is needed" to be put to one side and to look at the overall bigger picture. One of my aims of my blog is to encourage runners to consider a different way of viewing their running. I'm pleased the post has given you some inspiration. Stuart

  3. "Enjoyment being the secret formula!" - Well said Stu. Best of luck in 2012. Will be following the updates.