Sunday, 15 December 2013

Rotorua Half Ironman Race Report - An Enjoyable Morning Learning More About Fatigue and Performance


Yes another blog post from hot and sunny New Zealand.

Yesterday at 6:25 am I sprinted into the Blue Lake at Rotorua and commenced my first triathlon in over 14 years.  Although it had been quite a while since my most recent triathlon, in many ways it seemed like only one or two years had past.  I'll go straight to the results and then expand a little on what I learnt during the race.

The 2013 Rotorua Half Ironman was the 15th edition of the race, and if you visit the website you will notice their 'catch phrase', "Making Triathletes Suffer Since 1999"!  As you can imagine, with my focus being on enjoyment and positivity, their theme of suffering, which I see as a rather negative term, didn't really resonate with me, but apart from that, the race organisation was superb, and the overall event was 'a great morning out'!

Standing next to me on the shores of the Blue Lake, were I guess around 300 - 350 male triathletes, with around 50 - 100 women triathletes and around 50 - 60 relay teams standing a little further back, waiting for their start, five minutes later at 6:30 am.  Opps, I was going to go straight to the result!  So 5 hours 12 minutes and 32 seconds later I crossed the finish line in a sprint finish in 27th place overall.  So what happened during those five or so hours?

As I struggled into a borrowed wetsuit, stretched on an old swim cap, and splashed my swim goggles in the lake.  During the last minute or two waiting for the start I was taken back to March 1993 as I was similarly lined up on the beach, but back then it was at the 1993 New Zealand Ironman.  On that occasion I was searching out fellow triathlete from Christchurch (I lived in Christchurch at the start of 1993 for a few months racing and preparing for the Ironman) George Hilgeholt.  George was that little bit quicker than me in the swim, so he was a good person to follow as drafting is allowed in the swim leg of triathlon.  Here today, apart from my brother in law Ken Maclaren, who is far too much faster swimmer for me to follow,  I don't know anyway else, so it doesn't really matter where I stand on the lake shore.

There is simply a shout of GO and we are off, sprinting into the lake and then straight into flat out swimming.  For the first minute or so I am really going for it, just like the 'olden days' really blasting it hard at the start of the swim to get further up the field than my swimming ability and training should allow me to be, and then simply try to 'hang on' to as many feet as I can for the remainder of the swim leg. Actually that race strategy seems quite familiar to my ultra trail running tactics.  So now I know where I developed the "race as fast as you can, while you can" approach from!  Then after around a minute I have a 'panic attack'.  The mega pace, combined with the tight wetsuit, the coolness of the water, and the frequent collisions with the other swimmers, results in me finding it really difficult to breath.  I simply have to stop swimming and just try to relax and regain my breath.  For a brief moment I thought my race was over.  The negative thoughts were immediately trying to take over "You foolish idiot trying to race a Half Ironman with two swim training sessions"!  The thought of the race turning to disaster was beginning to get hold.  Fortunately I just told myself, relax, relax, relax!  I know I can swim, I swam 1600 metres in the pool just the other day.  Forget racing, just switch to training mode and all will be fine.  So I guess after around 30 seconds tof telling myself to relax, I finally get swimming again, but by now having lost all of the quick feet to draft behind.

The swim route is two 1000 metre laps, so a total distance of 2000 metres rather than the standard half Ironman distance of 1900 metres.  I had swam 1500 metres in 29:40 at the pool on Wednesday, so was expecting a little bit quicker pace come race day, and with the aid of the wetsuit.  I therefore had scheduled 40 minutes for the swim plus transition, so around 37 - 38 minutes would count has a good swim.

As I completed the first lap and headed back out to the faraway buoy, I was tempted to look at my watch to see if I was on schedule for a sub 38 minute swim.  Since my small 'hiccup' at the start of the swim, I had settled into a good rhythm.  A smooth controlled pace without over exerting myself by trying too hard.  I therefore decide that there was nothing to gain by knowing my half-way swim split time.  It felt that I was swimming okay, and as I often say to my run coaching athletes nowadays, simply focus on the moment, during the moment, and let the finish time 'look after itself''.  I did exactly that.  I reminding myself just how great it was to be able to swim in such an amazing fresh and scenic lake.  I reminded myself how great it was that I was able to swim at a good smooth pace, after only two swim sessions.  I simply reminded myself to enjoy the moment!

I exit the water and run up the sand passing over the computer chip mat.  About two seconds later I hear my name being called out over the loud speakers.  I glance at my watch it is just over 35 and a half minutes, excellent, (official split time 35:38) two to two and a half minutes up on schedule.  The positivity is growing, I sense that feeling that today is going to be a good day!

I make my way to my bike, and have what is a pretty slow transition.  It takes me ages to take off the wetsuit, then I put on some socks as I always run with socks on, and then finally I put on a cycle jersey.  Not because it is cool, no it's actually quite warm even at 7:00am in the morning, but the cycle jersey has pockets in the back to carry a spare tube, puncture repair kit, and most important some TORQ energy bars and gels to fuel me during the next 4 - 5 hours.

The bike route immediately starts with a pretty solid climb.  As my swimming has always been the weakest of the three disciplines, my natural triathlon instinct is to absolutely attack the moment I get on the bike, and to regain the lost time and to try to move myself up the field closer to the position I feel that I should be in, not way back in the field after a weak swim.  The provisional results are available on the following web link, however it appears that quite a few people are missing from the results, including my brother-in law Ken.  However, I pasted the top 100 results into excel and did some sorting.  Out of the top 100 recorded finishers in the provisional results, I was 76th quickest.  So as you can see compared to my overall provisional finishing place of 27th, I needed to get a move on, and gain some places back.

I climb the first hill with no idea of what intensity I should be cycling at.  All I know is that I should be blasting past the other triathletes as that was what I always did when I previously raced triathlons!  I get up and over the hill and down a quick decent and start the long flat stretch past the airport.  After a few kilometres on the flat as I continue to pass many other riders, I am slowly overtaken by an old looking guy.  I guess in his early 50's.  He looks pretty fit, his bike looks the part, although to be honest, EVERYONE'S bike looked like it cost many thousands of pounds!  Instantly I revert back to my old triathlon racing days.  If anyone ever past me, no matter what speed they were doing I would latch onto them.  I immediately up the intensity and stick to his pace, maintaining the 10 metre required gap behind him.  I am loving it.  He sets the pace, I sense that I am possibly over extending myself a wee bit, but hey, this is what racing is all about.  Being within the moment, and loving it as we continually overtake loads of riders.  What will happen an hour or two later, no need to worry now.  Sort that out when I need to!  So a simple pacing strategy just keep to his pace!

We head off the main road, onto a closed ride that runs along the north edge of Lake Rotorua.  Just by coincidence, this is the same stretch of road that I have strong memories off, whilst racing my first ever road marathon as a seventeen year old, way back in 1980! (Click here to read my reflections on my first marathon).  The bike route does an out and back along this stretch, so as we (me and my pacer) are heading out, we see the leaders making their way back.  I spot one of my main competitors for the day, Ken, making his way back, and then quite some time later I spot one of my other target competitors, friend and former partner of Ken, former GB International triathlete from the early nineties Ali Hollington.  Although Ali was one of Britain's top Olympic distance women triathletes in the early to mid nineties, she is still competing at a high level as evidenced by her 9:40 finish time at this year's Challenge Roth Ironman.  (Ali had however been taking it easy since the Roth race back in July, so she was not in the same race shape yesterday.)  As Ali passes me going in the other direction, I see the turnaround point just up the road, so I am not that far behind her (although she did start five minutes after me in the women's start!)

As we start making our way back along the north edge of Lake Rotorua, including some pretty good undulations, the rate at which my pacer and I pass the other riders is slowing down.  On many occasions as we pass riders, they tend to pick up the pace and latch onto us, and then as we make our way over the undulating climbs each rider has different strengths and so the order of the pace line tend to swap.  I find that I am getting pretty excited by the way I am riding and therefore decide to leave my pacer behind and go it alone over the next set of undulations.  I shortly catch up to Ali, say a quick hello and go straight past. I wasn't expecting to overtake Ali until some time during the run.  So overtaking her so early on, I guess at around half way through the 90 km (56 mile) bike ride is a really bonus, a real boost to the already positive occasion I am experiencing.

Shortly after a decent of one of the undulations Ali re-overtakes me, and rather than immediately settling in 10 metres behind her my mind starts wandering to the big climb that is shortly coming up.  The climb is on an out and back section on the Whakatane highway.  It just so happens that friends Mitch and Foxy who lent me the bike live at the bottom of the climb.  We had stayed with them the previous weekend and I had run up the pretty step and long climb the previous weekend, so I knew that it was more demanding than the undulations we had just completed.  As if instantly the easiness of the cycling seemed to disappear.  Where as up to this point in the race, although I knew I was working at a pretty demanding intensity, it had felt easy.  My rating of perceived exertion (RPE) had been pretty high, but yet it hadn't required that much focus, what I call Race Focus Energy (RFE).  I guess if you refer to my RFE Fatigue Model, the enjoyment I was getting from racing in a triathlon again was simply rotating the RPE to RFE needle downwards.

But now whether due to no longer being within the moment, or maybe the legs were simply trying to tell me that two days of cycling training just wasn't sufficient, I don't know.  Was it a physical initiated response, or a mental initiated response.  But whatever, most likely an combination of the two, from the moment I started the long climb, the ease of riding, the enjoyment from the riding just didn't match what had taken place during the first 30 miles.  Surprisingly, this swap from cruising to beginning to struggle on the bike also coincided with cycling past Mitch and Foxy's house, where I had a very vocal support team cheering me on, including France my wife, and our two boys, Rob and Chris.  In some ways them seeing that I was performing well up to that point, as I had provided them with estimated split times and time gaps between me and Ali and Ken and I was slightly up on a pretty demanding schedule I had set, somehow meant that I could start slowing down.  I had already probably exceeded their expectations, and reflecting back now, it felt that at that moment in time I started to lower my own very high self-expectations.

Waving to my Support Team at the Start of the Big Hill Climb

The final 25 miles of the bike, to express it in a single word, would be described as a "struggle", or maybe perhaps it was getting closer to the term that the race organisers used to describe their race, I was beginning to"SUFFER".  And as it was getting more demanding, the inner voice was telling me loudly and clearly "I told you that you can't expect to perform on the bike on two training rides.  What a fool for riding so hard during the first 30 miles!"  And for the last portion of the bike leg I had to put up with this message going around in my head.  However, although the RFE - RPE needle was no longer rotated massively down, I was preventing it from rotating upwards, as my response to these negative thoughts were "No problems, it won't be long until the run leg, and then I will be in my element, trail running, and then there will be no holding back.  I will be back to blasting past everyone again"!  And so in this situation, looking ahead to the future and not staying within the present moment was a good strategy to adopt.

Nearing the End of the Cycle Leg

Just prior to the end of the bike leg, we do a little out and back, so we are able to see the runners further up the field head off for the first two kilometres before heading off-road into the Rotorua Redwoods forest.  I spot Ken probably about one and a half kilometres out from transition, and then spot Ali about 400 metres out from transition.  I complete the bike leg and as indicated by my GPS watch (GarminConnect link) that I had started the moment I got riding my bike, it had taken me around 2:53:30, so around six minutes down on my planned bike split time of 2:50 which also had to include around three minutes of lengthy transition time from the end of the bike to the start of the run. But considering the scheduled time I had given myself was a pretty tough time, considering my lack of bike preparation, my immediate response to seeing the bike split was still positive, I was quite pleased with the time, albeit the last 25 miles had been a bit of a struggle! I rack my bike, off with the helmet and cycling jersey, on with the running shoes, and I am on the way for the anticipated quick 13 mile run.

Oh no!  As I start running, the smoothness, the rhythm isn't there.  My back is sore from being down on the aerobars for loads of time during the last three hours.  My shoulders feel sore and tight, either from the awkward position on the aerobars, or from the swimming, and it is now 10:00 am and the sun has come out so it is pretty hot!  The anticipated over-taking of other triathletes isn't happening.  In fact I am overtaken my a team relay runner, who isn't running very fast, rather I am going pretty slowly.  Having learnt from my Beachy Head Marathon battle, I decide that rather than try to 'fight my way' though these negative feelings, I would do the opposite, and try to relax.  I guess a bit like what I did at the start of the swim when I had difficulty breathing a few hours earlier.  So I really focus on relaxing, but whilst trying to maintain my slowish running pace.

The route leaves the road, and as I start running along a tree enclosed, pine needled covered path, I really remind myself just why I do these events.  I tell myself "Look around you.  Look at where you are.  You are running along a fantastic forest path, overlooking the most beautiful natural lake, on a glorious hot sunny blue sky day"  "And you have got a great competitive race on your hands, probably four minutes to catch Ali (and then need to put an additional five minutes on her due to her later start) and probably around fifteen minutes to catch Ken.  Remember 1991, your change to bring the score back to 1 -1"!  So I remind myself that it doesn't really get much better than where I am at this present moment in time.

I come across the first drink station, briefly stop for two cups of cool water, and with the next section of the run including a gentle downhill to join the scenic track along the Green Lake, I really relax and appreciate the amazing scenery and finally pick up the pace.  The GPS trace shows a 6:42 mile.  Not that quick but quicker that the two previous miles of 7:33 and 7:39.  I make my way along the edge of the Green Lake which is an out and back section, so again am able to see the runners ahead making their way back.  I am conscious that I should be running at a higher intensity, but also conscious as I don't want to 'fight' my way through this amazing run course and therefore 'miss out' on the enjoyment of the run.  So I probably am just running that little bit below my usual race focus intensity.  But I am more than happy, as even at this slowish pace I am rapidly overtaking other runners, including overtaking Ali on the outwards Green Lake section.

As I approach the turn point I pass Ken running back the other way.  Ken is no youngster, being aged 52, but he is still in pretty good shape, and combined with his Elite GB International triathlon status, albeit from the 1990 Commonwealth Games and the 1991 World Triathlon Champs, 'taking him down' wasn't going to be easy!  But as he passes, his running style isn't the most fluid, and I acknowledge that at that moment in time he is beginning to look closer to his age!  So the target is there.  The Race Focus is slightly raised, but again I simple decide to stay within the present moment, focus on the now, and let the gap between me and Ken come down as a result of running smoothly, rather than worrying/focusing on the actual time gap.  I remind myself, to focus on the enjoyment of running, and the 'result will look after itself'.

Passing Through the Start / Finish 5km from the Finish

Passing Through the Start / Finish 5km from the Finish
Photo taken by Rob, the shirtless boy in the background of the photo above.

The run route passing through the start / finish area before completing one final five kilometre loop of the Blue Lake.  There is great support as we pass the start / finish area, where the leaders have already finished.  My family and friends cheer me own, and I purposely do not ask for the time gap between me and Ken.  There isn't anything to be gained by knowing the time gap.  If I catch him in time before the finish , then so be it.  But the bonus of knowing that the longer the distance to go, the greater the chances of catching him are, results in me wishing for the race to continue.  Whereas. in most races, many runners will start to 'count down' the miles, in anticipation of the finish, in the hope that the race will soon be over.  Here I was 'wishing' for the opposite, hoping that the run course was longer, and surprisingly with that simple change in attitude, there is a swing downwards of the RPE - RFE needle, and although I am still putting in the same intensity, it just feels a lot easier.  I am therefore able to up my running pace, and apart form the third mile which contained a good downhill section, the last two miles of the half marathon are the quickest, miles of the run both being 7:14 minute miles on undulating twisty trail tracks.  Not super fast, but still not too slow after five hours of continuous racing!

With less than two kilometres to go, I finally spot Ken ahead, and move rapidly past him with a quick giddaye.  I am really enjoying the last section of the run, probably the most scenic around the Blue Lake forest track.  With the increased pace, I pass probably five or so runners during the last kilometre, although some of these are runners still with the final Blue Lake lap to complete.  Just as I am all set to relax and enjoy the final 100 metres cruising across the sand to the finish chute, one of the runners that I have just past starts sprinting past me.  Well , there was no way I was going to let him get past me without a battle.  So I am in full sprint mode for the last 50 metres, but unfortunately he is just to quick for me, and all I achieve by trying to hold him off, is that my finish photo that my son has waited to take, to sell to me for some 'bargain' price, is ruined as I finish directly behind the other guy so totally obscured!

Being Out Sprinted by a Team Relay Runner

I finish in a total time of 5:12:32, a little over 12 minutes slower than my demanding scheduled finish time of five hours, made up of a 40 minute swim (including transition), a 2:50 bike (including transition) and a 1:30 run.  My official run time is 1:35:42 which place me as 10th fastest run time from the first 100 finishers.  So easily my best performing discipline in comparison to the 76th fastest swim split, and the 57th fastest bike split.  Ken finishes around two minutes later, and Ali around twenty minutes later.

Ken Finishing

All Smiles with Ali at the Finish.  Wearing my 1992 Sponsored Triathlete Race Vest!

I sub-titled this blog post "An Enjoyable Morning Learning About Fatigue and Performance".  Firstly just a morning's learning, as I had finished my race before midday.  In relation to an ultra trail race, the race seemed to simply 'fly by'.  The changing of the disciplines, does seem to make the race that little bit less demanding in terms of race focus.  I guess, being only a Half Ironman rather than a Full Ironman, so hence a much shorter duration than say your typical 50 - 100 mile ultra trail races, also results in a much shorter time racing.  What about fatigue and performance?  Well this race experience just further reinforces to me the importance of enjoyment during the actual race, and to try not to 'battle' ones way through a race.  It has reminded me of the significance of focusing on the present moment, and the end result will simply happen.

In terms of expectations, I have for many years been well aware of how ones self expectations affect performance.  But what was probably most intriguing about this race, was the unknown involved in not having raced a triathlon for many years. I simply had very little to gauge what intensity I should be swimming or cycling at.  Especially trying to ascertain what the ideal race pace was on the bike was difficult.  The term 'running' by feel, or 'racing' by feel is often used, but what exactly are you feeling?  Is it your breathing rate, your heart rate, the strain / tension within your legs, or arms or face?  How does one 'feel' the ideal pace, the ideal intensity?  And the following question, what exactly is fatigue?  Well as Tim Noakes described within an interesting article last year; "Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion".  And with it being an emotion, fatigue is therefore highly responsive to ones state of mind, including ones self-expectations, the need/desire to perform, and the level of enjoyment / excitement at the present time.  If one gets these aspects right then ones performance can be so much closer to the overall limit of performance which is set by the physical / physiological mechanisms.

Did I get these important aspects right yesterday during the Rotorua Half Marathon?  Well not exactly.  During portions of the race, I feel really happy with how I performed, but then during other portions of the race, my mind wasn't in the ideal place, and my less than ideal thoughts distracted me from getting closer to my capable physical limit.  When I am asked why am I still racing, why do I still get the enjoyment from racing, the excitement from the competitive environment.  I guess one of the main reasons is that I am still learning.  Even after 35 years of endurance sport, I still have much to learn.  And my brief venture back into the triathlon world has reminded me of the progress I have made in terms of discovering the determinants of performance over these last 15 or so years since I was previously a triathlete.

Do I have any plans for any future triathlons?  Well not for 2014, as I have still have so much to achieve within ultra trail racing.  So big things are planned for 2014, but that is for another blog post.

Time to sign off;  "Enjoyment from racing can result from a pleasing performance, but perhaps the satisfaction gained is possibly largely a result of a greater understanding of what it is within ourselves that enables us to firstly to challenge ourselves, but then to raise up, as one strives to meet these demanding expectations."  Stuart Mills, 2013.

May you feel satisfied with your performances,


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Going Back in Time - Just Some Random Thoughts!


As mentioned in my last post I am spending Christmas in New Zealand.  Well I have actually been in New Zealand now for almost a week, and I am really enjoying catching up with friends and family, as well as the warm weather.  As the post title above indicates, tonight's post will just be a few random thoughts which hopefully will contain some interest to others apart from myself!

I guess the main aspect of tonight's post is the fact that this Saturday I will be racing my first triathlon since August 1999, and my first Half Ironman since July 1995.  Although I did race my fifth and last Ironman in August 1995.  Yes, after watching live the final of the World Triathlon Champs at Hyde Park in London back in September I found that I was excited by triathlon again.  It's pretty hard not to get excited when watching the amazing Brownlee brothers and the rest of the World elite!  Yes, many years ago, for a few years I was a triathlete.  If you have read my five year review part 3 that covered 1988 - 1992 you will be aware that I raced the 1992 Hawaii Ironman, after qualifying at the very first Lanzarote Ironman in May 1992.  (Yes, I know, I never did write five year reviews parts 4 - 7.  Maybe next month)!

So in the weeks prior to coming to New Zealand, when brother-in-law Ken Maclaren (ex British International Triathlete from the early nineties, but now lives in New Zealand) mentioned that he was racing the Rotorua Half Ironman during the time we would be nearby in Cambridge, New Zealand, I was a little bit tempted to take him on, and perhaps avenge my defeat to him, the last time we raced, being at the Welsh Olympic Distance Triathlon Championships in Cardiff, Wales, way back in June 1991.  The only problem was that I literally hadn't swam, mucking around with our boys aside, since my last triathlon in August, 1999.  And in terms of cycling, I had only ridden my road bike twice during 2013.  So yes, I may be run fit to run a marathon or ultra race, but Half Ironman fit???

Being a bit daunted at the prospect, I get on the phone and ring some old cycling / multi-sport mates and see if they are keen to join me and enter as a relay team.  I would swim and run, they would do the 56 mile cycle leg. One, by one (I asked four competitive mates from the nineties) they all said no.  "Get real", they all said, "I haven't raced for years", and the comment from one really keen former cyclist, "I haven't ridden my bike for years"!  The fact that I am still racing competitively nearly 35 years since I raced my first road marathon, doesn't seem strange to me, but to my mates, it seems totally unreal that I am still racing, and even more unreal that I am still getting the same enjoyment, if not more enjoyment nowadays, whilst they only have distant memories to enjoy!

So am I a 'freak'?  Should I have 'grown out' of this competitive urge?  Being a half-century old, shouldn't I be content that I am actually still mobile, and am still able to run?  Chatting with a work colleague a few days after my worst ever placing in not only the Beachy Head Marathon, but in all of my 30 trail marathons (5th place), he suggested that perhaps it was time that I stopped racing marathons, rather than 'disgrace' myself, with ever deteriorating race performances!  It got me thinking, how will I react to getting slower, not being able to perform to the same high level?

Taking up Ultra Trail Racing in 2008 has enabled me to still perform at the highest level, even though my 'top end' speed has declined as I have progressed through the forties.  So even at the age of 50, 51 next month, I feel that I am still on the upward curve in terms of ultra trail race performance.  But maybe the following year, or perhaps the year after that, once I have reached my peak, what will be my goals?  Well racing the Rotorua Half Ironman in less than three days time, has given me a glimpse that I will still be able to set myself goals.  Still able to challenge myself.  And still able to get the anticipated enjoyment, that I expect from this Saturday's race.

Yes, it is 'nice' to finish near the front of the field in races, and yes it is nice to be applauded and to be congratulated by others for what they consider to be fine performances, but 'at the end of the day', the only person you really need to impress is yourself!  Yes, it is all about setting yourself a challenge which extends you, so if you achieve the goal you set, you feel content in knowing you have performed well.  The difficult thing though is how exactly does one know what is a challenging goal.  What constitutes a 'good performance'?  Thinking about this, I don't really know the answer.  It is one of those intuitive 'gut feeling' situations.  Where somehow you know that you have performed well, or not!  But is this 'gut feeling' really correct?  Hard to say, but based on my 35 years of endurance sport, I would say that for the majority of these years, I under expected!  Yes, for the majority of these years, although I had high levels of desire.  I wanted to achieve high, however, in reality I never really expected to achieve high.  Why?  Why were my expectations low?  I don't really know.  I have some ideas, but I think I will leave this topic to another day.

This Saturday then. What are my expectations?  Given that I was hesitant to enter as an individual, preferring to seek out a cyclist team mate, my initial expectations were rather low.  Could I actually get around in a 'respectable' time, whatever counts as respectable, and respectable to who? But I guess the turning point that led to me putting in my entry last Friday night (only 7 days and 7 hours before the start time) was the high expectations expressed by my two sons Rob and Chris.  When I mentioned to them my concern at racing 56 miles on the bike, their response was straight to the point: "Didn't you say that you were a better cyclist than a runner.  If so, then 56 miles shouldn't be a problem.  What are you worried about?"  And they were correct.  I have always considered that I performed to a higher level racing on the bike in New Zealand in comparison to my running road racing performances whilst racing in New Zealand or Britain.  So with their total confidence in my ability to perform, the decision was made.  Although, I did delay entering until I had swam 1600 metres in Cambridge Pool last Friday, just to check that I could still swim!

So what seven day training programme is appropriate for one's first Half Ironman in over 18 years?  As mentioned in many previous blog posts within UltraStu, how one performs in endurance events is largely determined by one's self expectations.  So this week's training has all been about raising my self-expectations. Following my 1600 metre swim last Friday, I entered the race that night.  Saturday's training, well nothing!  Well nothing in terms of physical training, but much time was spent on non-physical training.  Basically I spent Saturday identifying what I would need over the coming days to raise my race day expectations.

Sunday, well, not really what you would expect, but I ran a fantastic 22 mile trail run within the Rotorua Redwoods forest. (GarminConnect link).  Not really triathlon specific training, but a good reminder that when it comes to ultra trail running I am still an elite level performer, as demonstrated by 'banging out' a 22 mile trail run at a steady pace, no problems at all!

Monday, more thinking about my previous triathlon and cycling past, and a gentle 5 mile road run.  Why no cycling?  Well simple really I didn't have a road bike.

Tuesday, I finally manage to sort out a road bike from a friend, and ride around 3 - 4 miles, adjusting the seat height, cycling shoes / cleats, handlebars etc.  Plus a gentle eight mile road run.

So finally today, I start collating the 'evidence' I require in order to convince myself that yes, even after 14 years since my last triathlon, I can still expect to perform to a level, that I will be happy with.  Performing to a level that I consider reflects that I have 'done well'!  So it was another 1600 metres in the pool this morning.  Followed by 27 undulating miles on the bike around mid-day. (GarminConnect link).  Then to finish off, a relaxing five miles of running late afternoon.  Did the triathlon training work?  Well doing all three different disciplines in training today, probably the first time I would have carried this out since probably 1999, did indeed make me feel like a triathlete.  It brought back memories of my triathlon training days up in Aberdeen in 1992.  But more amazing were the vividly strong images I had whilst attacking the hills on the bike, and accelerating out of the corners.  I was instantly taken back to 1988, when I was a cyclist in Dunedin, New Zealand.  I had clear visions of Geoff Keogh and Brian Fowler, the top cyclists in Dunedin and New Zealand respectively, who I raced frequently at the time,

Yes, the feeling of riding a racing bike at pace today, being my longest road ride since December 2006, even though it was only 27 miles, took me back 25 years.  And by the end of the ride, I felt like a cyclist again.  Yes, attacking the hills, working really hard for 27 miles probably wasn't the best physical training to do three days out from race day.  But I feel that performance in endurance events such as running, triathlons, is mainly determined by one's non-physical training.  Yes, the physical training, the physical preparation sets the upper limit of performance.  But it is the non-physical training that determines how close one gets to this physical upper limit. Just to 'cement' this feeling of being a cyclist again, what better way to do it than a photo of racing with Brian Fowler from 1989.

The Joy of Racing the Best - With Brian Fowler 1989

Tomorrow's planned training?  Around 15 - 20 miles of flat spinning on the bike, and yes, as one probably wouldn't expect, 18 holes of golf with my brother Graham.  Yes, when it comes to competition, nothing beats competing against ones' older brother, even though he does have to give me one and a half shots per hole to make it an even contest!  And I guess, this typifies what sport, what competition is all about.  It isn't actually about the winning, or about the result.  But it is about responding to a challenge.  Graham beating me in golf isn't a challenge to him, but if he gives me one and a half shots per hole, then it becomes a challenge, and for him to win, he knows he has to perform well, and that is really all one hopes to achieve when competing in sport.  To have that feeling that whilst you are performing the sporting activity, that you are performing well, you are enjoying yourself.  That you are responding to your self-imposed challenge.

Well I started this blog post with various random thoughts in my head.  Typing them out has enabled me to make some sense out of them, to provide the structure which helps it to make sense.  Hopefully, my random thoughts resonate with some of you out there reading this post.

So as I commence my second half century next month I feel confident that the joy and satisfaction I gain from competing in endurance sport will continue, hopefully for another 35 years.

"Here's to challenging oneself, extending oneself, and best of all enjoying oneself as one rises to their demanding expectations"!  Stuart Mills, 2013

Saturday.  I can't wait!

All the best with your challenges,


PS  Just to further reinforce my perceptions of being a triathlete again.  A photo from the past of training in France with triathlete mate Dave, prior to my most recent Ironman Triathon, the 1995 EmbrunMan, where I finished in 5th place overall in an international field, winning my biggest pay cheque ever, 8000 French Francs (£1000)!!!

Cycling in France 1995 with Dave - Overload Training!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Upcoming UltraStu Presentation - March 2014


Just a quick blog post tonight to let you know about a presentation and run I am doing next March up north in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.  It was back in April at the TORQ weekend, that took place in Shropshire, when I met John Lloyd from Cannonball Events.  Recently he approached me to see if I would be interested in doing a Performance Enhancement Presentation on my trail running ideas, to the trail running community up north.  No doubt as you are probably aware from the length of my blog posts, I do enjoy sharing my ideas, so I agreed to travel up in exchange for some good friendly northern hospitality and of course, a reasonably lengthy trail run with a group of runners.

So on Saturday 8th March commencing in the morning there is a 22 mile run along the Calderdale Way, part of the Calderdale Way Ultra race route.  Then later that day at 6:30pm, as described by John from Cannonball Events, there is "An Evening with Stuart Mills".  Sounds a bit like a BBC Evening with a Famous Singer TV show!  Don't worry, I definitely won't be singing!

The image below is from the fancy flyer that John has produced.

Click the following link: to find out further information.  It should be a great night, as well as an excellent run at a pretty leisurely pace.

Just one more tiny bit of news tonight.  I was recently approached by a Mum whose son is a trail runner who enjoys reading my UltraStu blog and finds the material aids his running.  She asked me if it was possible if I could share my racing, training and coaching experience in person with her son in conjunction with a weekend of trail running taking in the amazingly scenic countryside of East Sussex.  Her plan was to give the Trail Running Weekend as a Christmas present to her son.  I felt really 'honoured' in that running with me would be someone's Christmas present, so I produced a fancy voucher to mark the occasion. 

I then thought maybe there are other people out there who have a keen trail runner friend, partner, son/daughter, or Mum/Dad and just don't know what to give them for Christmas.  So if you like the idea of giving a Trail Running Weekend in East Sussex as a present, then simply zap me an e-mail and we can discuss details.  It wouldn't have to be the same format as the voucher below.  Whatever you feel would be the most ideal Christmas present.

Anyway just a thought.  Just one last point, although the Christmas present is Trail Running with me, it wouldn't actually be during the Christmas period, but some time during 2014.  As I am commencing my summer training camp out in New Zealand next week.  Yes, I am off to New Zealand for Christmas to catch up with family and friends, as well as planning to get a few fantastic hot sunny trail runs in.

Hopefully, I will be publishing a few posts from New Zealand, but just in case I am too busy doing loads of running, have a great Christmas.


PS Just one last mention.  No doubt many of you are probably planning your races for 2014 around now.  If you are looking for an off-road run that takes is a variety of terrain and scenery, including the Ashdown Forest, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, then checkout the Weald Challenge Trail Races, that take place in East Sussex on Sunday 25th May, 2014.  The Weald Challenge Trail Races consist of a 50km Ultra Trail, a Trail Marathon, and a Trail Half Marathon.  Go to the race website for further information and to enter online:

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Beachy Head Marathon Race Report - Struggling for Performance


I was all set to write this race report pretty soon after last weekend's race as I thought I knew what to write, just a bit of expansion on my quick update.  However, for various reasons I didn't write it earlier in the week.  So it is now quite a few days later, and now I don't really know how this race report will end up.  All I know is that it will be quite different to what I would have earlier written.  In some ways, it is times like this where I really get the benefit from writing this blog.  The time spent reflecting on my race really helps me in getting it right for future races.  So although at the moment I have had to leave the sub-title of this post blank, don't worry my mind isn't blank, and as usual it could be another marathon post!

To get me into a flow, I will quickly review a bit of background that led to me being on the Beachy Head Marathon start line last Saturday.  Around this time each year, I usually plan my races for the following year. November 2012, the planning was easy, simple, 2013 was about one race, the Montane Lakeland 100 and all about getting it right on that one day.  So races prior to July were about preparation, and after July, I had nothing planned, apart from the Beachy Head Marathon at the end of October.  Why?  Because that's just what I do.  Having run it every year since moving down to East Sussex back in 2012.

Now, I hear you groaning, "Oh no, not another race goals post!".  Well, as I mentioned above, these blog posts are all about learning.  So following the London to Brighton Off-Road Ultra I had five weeks to prepare for the Beachy Head Marathon, and immediately I sorted out my race goals. (For lessons learnt see Race Report).  I wanted to perform come race day.  Having won the race seven times and finished in second place four times from my eleven starts, I did have good memories of my ego being boosted with the victories.  But to be honest, I think the last time I was really satisfied with my performance at the Beachy Head Marathon was way back in 2007 when I finished in second place in my PB for the course of 2:57.  Since then the race has just been tagged on to the end of my racing season without any specific preparation.  This year was to be different. Preparation causes performance!

Although with there being only five weeks until race day, I felt that I had sufficient time to be fully prepared. I reflected back over the previous six years at the Beachy Head marathon: 2007 2nd 2:57, 2008 1st 3:02, 2009 1st 3:03, 2010 1st 3:02, 2011 2nd 3:02, 2012 2nd 3:10.  Yes, last year was slow.  But actually all years since my PB in 2007 have been slow, in comparison to the four times that I went under 3 hours.  What has changed?  Yes I am a few years older, but I can't change that, so I needed to look elsewhere.  What else has changed?  Well 2008 was the year that I moved up and started racing ultra trails, and coinciding with this, it was the end of me doing any form of speed/rep work.  Prior to 2008  I would frequently do mile and half mile reps as part of my training.  Now I'm not planning to start a debate about whether repetition work is necessary for ultra trail racing.  I still believe it isn't, and on the whole I am quite happy with my performances in the 21 ultra trail races I have completed since 2008.

But in five weeks time I wasn't running an ultra race, it was only 26 miles.  Which based on my focus race of the year which was 105 miles duration, it was a bit like a sprint.  And for the last few years, that has exactly how it has felt.  I have found the intensity really high, and struggled to maintain the high levels of race focus that is required to race a marathon.  Every year since 2007, I have been behind at the 18 mile mark, having not been able to stay with the other runners due to the quick pace.  It has only been due to my high levels of endurance that as the other runners fatigued over the last portion of the race that I had been able to move through the field for a win or to finish second.  So lacking endurance wasn't the issue.  It was my top end speed that was my weakness.  My inability to maintain that high level of race focus.  That inability to simply run at sub 6:20 - 6:30 mile pace along a flat trail for a prolonged length of time!

So I decided that heading back to the repetitions would be the answer.  But this time I decided I would do them on my own, rather than with my usual training partners Rob and Jim.  Maybe the fact that Rob beat in in last year's race led me to do the reps on my own.  With it being pretty well six years since I had last done some reps I wasn't really sure about how it would go.  And the last thing I wanted to do was to give Rob some belief that he could beat me again!  Yes, as much as I was pleased for him that he won last year.  It would have been heaps more pleasing for me if I had beaten him for the win!

I ease my way into my 'secret' rep work, and as one would expect after such a long time 'away, running at pace felt awkward, felt a struggle, basically it felt unnatural! No problems, be patient, the smoothness will return.  Rep session two, not much better, then rep session three, no it still feels unnatural, no rhythm!  I dig out my training diaries from a few years back, just to check that my memory wasn't wrong.  Unfortunately, my memory was correct.  Yes back in 2007 I had no problem banging out mile reps in around 5:05 - 5:10.  Now 2013, well I was struggling to run anywhere close to that pace!  It just wasn't happening, and the more I tried, the harder it felt, without any change in pace!!!  So to put it simply, the rep work didn't really provide me with the preparation I was looking for leading into the race.

As race day arrived, I therefore 'knew' that I wasn't going to run a quick time, but I felt that if all went okay I should be able to match my 2010, 2011 times of 3:02, which should be pretty competitive, as during the last eleven years only three people in total have run quicker that 3:02.  So my goal for the race was to let the finish place and finish time 'look after itself' and to ensure that I run a strong race, which would be gauged by my ability to maintain race focus and to run hard the entire 26 miles.  Not 'drift' through the miles, as I had done in previous years.  However, as a result of my less than ideal rep work, I was expecting the race to be pretty tough, for it to be a bit of a struggle to run fast!  The numbers don't lie!

The race starts and not only is it up the usual steep hill straight away, but this year the head wind is particularly strong.  Finding quite prominent in my mind was the conclusion that due to my rep work data, a quick sub 3 hour time wasn't 'on the cards'.  I instantly therefore decide that the focus should be to simply run tactically to maximise my chances of a win.  So much for the pre-race goal of running strong the entire race!  I therefore tuck in behind Jonny Muir, (the guy I had a good battle with, (see race report) before finishing ahead of him at Steyning Stinger Marathon back in March), to shelter from the wind.  At the top of the first climb, it feels like there is a bunch of around eight or so runners.  Then a moment later someone picks up the pace, which is just too quick for me, and I say goodbye to the head of the race.

Battling Up the First Hill - Sheltering behind Jonny Muir (4th), with Jeff Pyrah (1st) and Danny Kendall (3rd)

Was the pace too quick?  I don't really know.  All I know is that I was pretty well expecting it to be tough, expecting to struggle with a quick pace, so there wasn't any surprise when I didn't stay with the leaders.  Although saying goodbye to the lead after less than five minutes of racing was I must say was pretty weak!  I checked my pre-race goals, to run hard, the entire 26 miles.  So I 'gritted my teeth' and dug deep as I battled my way into the head wind, as slowly more runners overtook me, and even dropping back to eleventh place at around the three mile mark!  What was happening?

Well, during the time as I was on my twelve journey of the Beachy Head marathon route, I just focused on  my goal, no slacking, run hard.  Yes as long as you run hard then you can 'hold your head up high'!  And so that is what I did.  I ran hard the entire way.  Running hard, and accepting other runners overtaking me during the first few miles.  Then continuing to run hard, but now holding my own during the middle miles of the race.  Then during the last eight miles, still running hard, but now expecting to overtake other runners, because I am an ultra trail runner, so running 26 miles is 'nothing to me'.

After Around 18 Miles - Searching for Runners Ahead - Not Very Relaxed!

As I cross the finish line and for the next day or two, although I have achieved a personal worst in terms of both finish time, 3 hours 12 minutes, and finish place, fifth; somehow I am happy with my performance.  My goal was to run strong, which I evaluated, if it was achieved, by how hard I ran.  And yes I did run hard, pretty well the entire way except maybe the first tiny bit sheltering behind other runners going up the first hill.  Yes, I gritted my teeth, I struggled, I dug deep, I did all the 'right' things, what one is 'meant' to do.  So yes I can be pleased with how I ran!

But you may have noticed above that I mention that I was happy with my performance for the next day or two.  What changed?  Well I simply 'stood back a bit' and had a look at how I had raced the race from the outside.  In simple terms I had run the race like a novice, no, probably more like an amateur, or like a 'battling' club runner, the one with the 'right' attitude, who fights really hard, but just 'hasn't got it', so finishes in an okayish position, but never anything special!  Yes, all I wanted whilst racing was for the race to feel hard.  I wanted it to be hard.  I wanted it to be tough.  Yes that was all I wanted, and so I searched for discomfort.  Every bit of negativity I could seek, to give me 'evidence' that I was running well, as I was 'toughing' it out, I grasped at it and took it on board.  But yet in a strange way I was finding it a positive, with it being a struggle.  So struggling more become the goal.

Now, this may be getting a bit confusing.  Well it is confusing for me as well.  I often talk about in a race you want to challenge yourself, extend yourself.  But yes, this extending oneself needs to be directly related to performance.  Your aim is to extend yourself beyond what you have previously achieved or what you feel is a worthy performance.  Or as Kilian Jornet states "surpassing yourself".  It is all about achievement.  Yes, it can be challenging doing this, but it is associated with achievement.  Not associated with defeat!  What I was actually doing last week was looking for defeat, looking for a struggle, looking for difficulty.  Is the difference becoming clear?  Rather than looking for success, looking for overcoming the demands of the race, I was seeking being beaten by them.  I'm trying not to continually repeat myself here, but slowly it is getting clearer for me.

Over the last few years on occasions I have looked back at what I have achieved as an ultra trail runner, and I have often been astounded at my results.  From the 21 ultra races I have finished I have won 12 of them! Now I don't want to sound as if I am 'blowing my own trumpet' as my mum used to always say, but often I have been amazed by my results, as really I am just an average reasonably okayish club level runner, except for one thing.  My ability to enjoy races.  My ability to seek out positivity whilst racing and to soak it all up.  My ability to believe in myself, that somehow, for some unknown reason I am able to perform in ultra trail races.  My ability to achieve, and to accept that I will achieve.  My ability to run excited and to not have fear.  My ability to love extending myself and expecting to accomplish the huge challenges I set myself.  So the moment you take all of those abilities that I possess away from me, I just become the okayish club level runner.  You know the one, the one I mentioned earlier.  The 'battler', the one that 'fights' his or her way through races.  The one who always works hard, tries hard, suffers the most!  Yes, that was me last week.  I was the 'battler'!

Now don't get me wrong.  I am not 'having a go' at these runners.  They try harder than pretty well every other runner, so perhaps they should be congratulated for this.  And no doubt they are congratulated by other runners for their 'dogged' approach to racing.  But what I am trying to get across in a rather jumble way tonight, is that it doesn't have to always be that way.  I recall when I was younger, I was known as being this 'battler'.  The one that always 'tried the hardest', but just didn't quite 'have it'.  And when chatting with mates from old, I often comment or it is commented by them that I just don't push myself as hard as I used to.  And that is totally true.  Somehow, I think it was at around the same time that I had decided to give up on competitive sport, when I stumbled across my first trail marathon in 2001, that I changed from being a 'battler', to an 'enjoyer'. I guess what I experienced was similar to what Scott Jurek comments on page 212 in his Eat and Run book: "How in order to win, one had to realize that winning didn't matter".  It is a bit of a pity that Scott Jurek then didn't expand upon this statement within his book.  I guess he decided not to as it could just get a little bit too confusing!

Really Battling in my Younger Days!

Anyway, back to my experiences.  Yes, somehow, I changed from running hard, to running fast.  From suffering to experiencing.  From persevering to achieving.  From seeking the pain, to seeking the joy.  From focusing on the destination, to focusing on the journey.  Yes, a transformation took place, and before I knew it,without realising what I had done, I was achieving more, through 'trying' less.  The word 'try' is key.  I always used to 'try really hard'.  Both words lack positivity, lack achievement, lack accomplishment, lack success.  When you try, do you expect to succeed?  If it is hard, is it enjoyable? If you are suffering are you achieving?  If you are battling, are you accomplishing?

Now how does this positive approach relate to performance?  Well, if we split performance influencing factors into the physical and the mental aspects for ease of explanation.  I guess it is the underlying physiology that determines the overall limits to performance.  As in order to run fast, it does require the necessary biochemical reactions to take place, the required muscular contractions.  But, yes the huge but!  It is the mind that has the 'last say' in how close one actually comes to reaching this limit.  The 'battler' who seeks discomfort, who tries the hardest, due to the negativity will end up being quite some distance away from their peak performance.  The 'enjoyer' who seeks being 'special', who expects the accomplishment, due to the positivity will end up being within touching distance of that 'magical' performance.

Whether you are a 'battler' or an 'enjoyer' isn't 'set in stone'!  And as I have experienced, one is able to switch between the two.  My initial thoughts following last weekend's race was all about acknowledging that one just has to accept declining performances, as one gets older. For the last few years after the Beachy Head marathon race I have chatted with 1994 Beachy Head Marathon winner John Hudspith.  Although he won the race back in the early nineties in a time of 2:56, the last few years his times have been: 2013 3:46, 2012 3:46, 2011 3:31, 2009 3:26, so gradually getting slower.  Chatting to John last Saturday as I was seeking confirmation that my slow time of 3:12 'wasn't my fault', and that I actually did run well, because I 'battled' and 'struggled' the whole way.  John confirmed that yes, as one gets older (he is aged 53, so three years older than me), then one just has to accept that it is now going to be a struggle and one just has to accept it!  He concluded by saying something like the following; "Nowadays, I don't try any less harder!  But I am just a lot slower."

I was happy.  Confirmed.  My performances are now 'out beyond my control'.  However, with a little bit more reflection, I re-analysed John's words "Nowadays, I don't try any less harder!"  The question I then thought was: Did John back in 1994 perhaps try less, but expected more?  Did he in fact run faster, enjoying it a lot more, without the struggling, without fighting his way around the course.  Was he a 'battler' in 1994, when he was a winner?  John if you are reading this please leave a comment, otherwise, I will just have to wait until next years race to ask you in person.  John, like myself, is a regular runner of the Beachy Head marathon and the Seven Sisters marathon (it's previous name), having now run it a total of twenty times, so no doubt he will be back again next year. Note: to find out more about the history of the race visit this website.

So where am I heading?  With this blog post, not much further.  Writing it has definitely helped me to get last week's bizarre conflict in emotions a little bit clearer.  Hopefully it has made just a little bit of sense to you, the reader.  Where am  I heading in terms of racing?  Well a big year is planned for 2014, and I am now confident in letting other people be the 'battler', and for me to return to being 'special', to having that magical feeling where one achieves through focusing on the positives and avoiding the negatives.  Yes, getting the balance right between wanting it and needing it.  By running strong, but not running hard.  By simply enjoying, not enduring.  Where are you at, and where are you heading?

Time to sign off from this rather 'different' blog post:  "Somehow ..... I changed from being a battler, to an enjoyer", Stuart Mills, 2013.

May we all head in the positive direction,


PS  Below are a few photos to illustrate different times when I haven't been battling in a race.

But first a really interesting photo from the end of 1992.  It was taken during the last run of a really low key duathlon in Christchurch New Zealand.  I was in full training for the New Zealand Ironman taking place a few months later and I decided to enter this low key duathlon (5 km, 30km, 5km) as a bit of speed work.  It just so happened that Bruce Baxter, one of New Zealand's top Olympic distance triathletes also decided to enter the event for training, as well as the other guy ( I can't remember his name) who was also a high performing triathlete in the pink bikini (Yes that was the fashion back in the early 1990s, courtesy of the iconic duathlete Kenny Souza).  Actually, after digging out this old photo yesterday, whilst driving to work this morning I was listening to the podcast Legends of Triathlon, and just by chance they were interviewing Kenny Souza, and they ended up talking about how he set the fashion, wearing bright pink bikinis!  I actually had the pleasure of racing Kenny Souza at the 1995 Zofingen Powerman Duathlon (12km, 150km, 30km).  It was actually snowing on race day, and yes Ken Souza was still wearing the same bikini outfit.  Yes as you would expect in wearing next to nothing in freezing cold snow, he DNFed that day!)  Just before I get back to trail running, if you haven't heard of the Legends of Triathlon podcast show, check it out.  It is awesome.  They have pretty well interviewed every triathlete legend.  So if you have any interest in triathlon it is fantastic!

Racing Elite Triathletes in a 'Low-Key' Duathlon - Notice the Expressions!

So back to this low key duathlon.  Yes so all of a sudden I get really excited about racing these two top guys, and I decide to turn this bit of speed training into a full on 'take these fancy triathletes down' race!  So it is all go during the first run and the bike ride.  These two elite triathletes actually seem to be a bit offended that some nobody like me was trying to take them on.  I had just moved to Christchurch so they had no idea who I was, not that that would of made any difference as they were in a different 'league' at the time.  So to try to get the point across, that they aren't really impressed with me interrupting their speed work session, they decide to make out that they are amateurs unable to keep up with me.  Take a look at their expressions, pretending to be really 'battling' to keep up with me, as if mimicking my battling style.  If I recall they were making groaning noises as well to maximise the 'piss take', so I turned around to see what was happening.  Being a bit upset with their 'humour' I immediately slowed down and really focused on being relaxed, to try to illustrate to them, that I was actually a quality athlete, and not an amateur battler.  Yes whether it is the correct interpretation or not, but one tends to associate 'battling' with being an amateur, with someone that hasn't quite 'got it', and running relaxed but focused tends to be associated with elite performance.  Anyway, I just thought I would include this photo since I found it yesterday along with my really 'grimacing' photo from above, which was actually taken of me finishing the Taupo 10 mile road race in January 1985.  Opps, forgot to mention, both Bruce and the pink bikini guy beat me that day back in 1992!

Now for some photos illustrating the 'enjoyer'!

On the Way to Winning the 2007 Three Forts Marathon

Finishing the 2008 Downland Challenge 30 Miler

Finishing the 2010 South Downs Marathon

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Beachy Head Marathon - Quick Update


Just a quick update to let you know how I got on in today's Beachy Head Marathon. 

It was the twelve consecutive time that I have raced the event, and again it was a great day.  The course is superb, but the event is more than this.  It is really the friendly atmosphere that make it stand out, although it does help with it being my home town race, so I seem to know quite a few of the runners and spectators! The weather was largely bright sunshine and pleasantly warm, although with a strong wind it made it pretty tough heading out to the furthest point at Bo Peep, but then the tail wind over the Seven Sisters and up to the top of Beachy Head was 'magical'.  I guess overtaking four runners during this stretch of the race also added to the enjoyment!

Well I actually ended up with a PW, yes a personal worst time, and a personal worst finishing place!  But what maybe a little surprising, I felt that I ran pretty well, although the time and place don't really reflect this.  I'll expand a bit on this in my race report which hopefully I will finish in the next few days.

I finished in a time of 3:12:23, in fifth place.  There were some pretty speedy runners this year, with Jeff Pyrah winning in a super quick time of 2:55:44, from Paul Barnes second (3:03:07) and Danny Kendall (3:04:07) third.  The first woman was Andrea Green in a quick time of 3:30:33.

As highlighted above I finished quite strongly over the last ten miles, but just couldn't quite match it with loads of runners heading out, as I found myself I think outside of the top ten at one stage!  Now that was a massive shock to the system which fortunately got me to really focus, to persevere and to be patient!  Below are two photos that my son Robert took of me during the race.  Unfortunately he has decided to set up a photo business, and his going rate is £4 a photo.  So it cost me £8 for these two shots.  A bit rough especially with it being my fancy camera that he used!

At Alfriston after around 9 miles
Running hard right to the finish.  Although I needed that quick pace earlier on!
And a few extra scenic shots.
The support from the spectators was great!
Are these your legs?

The first 'Sister' at mile 19!
Not a picture, but a window at a friend's house!  What a view!
The 'Eastbourne Landscape' welcomes you to the finish
Training partner and 2012 Beachy Head Marathon winner Rob Harley nearing the finish
I hope you liked the photos.  Yes, the Beachy Head marathon course doesn't lack for scenery!
Lastly, thanks to everyone that made the day such an enjoyable day.
PS My son took a few other photos of the runners around me at Alfriston and those that finished slightly behind me on the final descent down to the finish.  I have attempted to display these photos below, but not that successfully.  If you are one of the following race numbers, send me an e-mail and I'll e-mail you the photo.  Rather than trying to sort out getting any payment to my son. you can have the photo for free.  But maybe if we are both at the same race in the future perhaps you could buy me a beer!  Just a thought to compensate me for being the only person that had to buy their photo! 
Race numbers:1548, 113, 1064, 2067, 564, 705, 706, 1022, 392, 1392, 249, 2253, 1576, 964, 932, 1696, 1474, 1657, 2054, 1403, 753, 549, 1093, 2117.  Opps, I might find myself getting a wee bit drunk at my next few races!
PPS  Don't forget to visit Sussex Sport Photography to view their excellent official photos from the race.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Few Bits and Pieces


Due to finding myself pretty busy recently, I haven't really had time to put my thoughts together into writing a blog post on the process one can take when structuring a training programme.  The reason I mention this now, is due to the process I have been going through whilst constructing training programmes for a number of the athletes I am coaching.  You may recall a few blog posts back I mentioned that I had started doing on-line coaching.  Well it has been going really well.  I am now coaching ten athletes towards various goals, mostly ultra trail running goals, although a few of the runners have as their target race the London or Brighton road marathon.  So I'm finding it a good challenge, personalising each of their training programmes to accommodate their race goals, as well as addressing those aspects that appear to be currently holding them back.

I have also been pretty busy assisting with the setting up of the Weald Challenge Trail Races.  Yes, the Weald Challenge Trail Races are a new addition to the Sussex trail running calendar, that take place at the end of May 2014.  There are three race distances: The Weald Challenge Ultra Trail 50km, the Weald Challenge Trail Marathon, and the Weald Challenge Trail Half Marathon.

All races start and finish at Chiddingly, East Sussex, and are 85% - 90% off-road, traveling along two long distance footpaths, the Wealdway and the Vanguard Way. The terrain is varied, and quite undulating, with the Ultra Trail and Marathon races taking in the spectacular Ashdown Forest. Visit the race website to enter online, and to find further information on these exciting new trail races. Entries opened only a few days ago, and it looks like the races could be popular with entries coming in already.

I also have some exciting news regarding my racing next year.  Yes, next year I will be racing as part of the newly formed TORQ Performance Trail Running Team.  I am joining British trail runner Tracey Dean, in addition to a few other trail runners on the team, but I don't think they have been officially announced yet.  I understand that there will be an official launch of the team at the start of 2014.  But here is the news item on the TORQ website announcing my 'signing' to the team.  Sounds a bit like a Premier League club making a new signing.  Pity I don't get a huge weekly salary like the overpaid football superstars. Actually a pity I don't get paid anything!  Just the 'glory', friendship and support of being part of the team.

Although it is exciting to look to next year's races, I haven't quite finished my 2013 racing season.  Yes, this Saturday I am racing the Beachy Head Trail Marathon for the 12th consecutive year.  I have mentioned many times on my blog, just how good this race is, hence why I have already raced it eleven times previously.  Last year's race didn't quite result in the performance I was hoping for, so I have increased the level of non-physical training this year, to ensure my mind is in the right place come race day.

Although the extent at which 'getting the mind right' influences ones race performance isn't as great in a trail marathon as it is in say a 100 mile ultra trail race, the mind still plays a huge part in determining trail marathon performance.  I often receive comments to my blog highlighting that I perhaps place too much emphasis on the non-physical, i.e. the mental training.  It was therefore nice to hear Scott Jurek's comments in an excellent brief interview that was conducted by Ben Abdelnoor.  Here is a link to the interview.

Time to sign off with the words from ultra trail legend Scott Jurek:
"In ultras it's really more about the mental component than anything else"  Scott Jurek, 2013,speaking in the Lake District
All the best with your physical and non-physical training, and yes with your racing,


Thursday, 26 September 2013

London to Brighton Off-Road Ultra Race Report - The Importance of Race Goals


As mentioned in my quick update the other day, racing wise, not really much happened for me during the London to Brighton race, so this could well be a rather brief report.  But knowing me, it's bound to be a wee bit longer than anticipated!

It was around November last year when I decided upon my races for 2013, although due to the huge demand on Montane Lakeland 100 entries I had already entered this event, so my number one focus race for 2013 was already set.  Having not performed to the level I felt I was capable of during the 2012 Montane Lakeland 100 I decided I needed to up my TOTAL training.  Part of the non-physical training for 2013 was increasing the importance of the Lakeland 100.  So rather than planning races for the entire year, I only planned up to the Lakeland 100 with the rationale for this being, no other race matters.  Without having any races following the Lakeland 100 planned (apart from my local Beachy Head Marathon at the end of October), there would then be no distractions.

So following the Lakeland 100, I found myself in a dilemma.  There were 13 weeks until the Beachy Head Marathon, I was in pretty good shape, I had really enjoyed the Lakeland 100 race, but here I was, with no immediate races!  So after a quick search of the race calendar, I decided to enter the London to Brighton 60 mile Off-Road Ultra Race.  With it being 8 weeks after the Lakeland 100, it was perfect, allowing me to be fully recovered.

I had raced the inaugural London to Brighton Off-Road Ultra Race back in 2008, when it was my number one focus race for that year.  This year, it was just a race, not my focus race, however, for every race when I am on the start line, I am usually fully prepared, all set to race hard.  So it was still important to perform to a level which I am happy with, i.e. not simply as a training race.  I know many runners run training races, but for me the two words "training race" don't go together.  A race is a race, it isn't training.  A race is about challenging oneself, about extending oneself, about a special event, performing to ones best on the day.

Anyway, lets move on.  So much for a brief race report!

The route from London to Brighton

The race book arrived in the post around four weeks before race day, and the route is significantly different to the 2008 course.  I therefore had three really enjoyable recce runs, simply cruising along the route at a nice relaxed training pace, making sure come race day I knew exactly where to go.  Although I was making sure of the race route, without realising it I wasn't really carrying out any other form of non-physical training.  It wasn't actually until the very day before the race, the Saturday afternoon shortly before catching the train to London, that my lack of non-physical training became apparent.  Just an aside, there is something quite special about buying a one way train ticket to London, knowing that you will be running back the next day (I live in East Sussex).

So on the Saturday afternoon I had been reading a friend's blog post about his previous week's race and his race goals gained my attention  As I was thinking to myself about the wording of his race goals "... my main aim was to enjoy it. Yes I wanted to go as fast as I could but it was more important to me to be able to finish strongly" which I was questioning in terms of how these goal's could influence and impact on race performance, it suddenly 'jumped out at me' that I had not given any thought at all to my race goals for my race the very next day!  I had simply entered the race pretty well for something to do.  To fill the 13 week gap between the Lakeland 100 and the Beachy Head Marathon.  So I had to quickly decide what my race goal should be.  So I started the process by answering the three questions I always ask myself, usually at the start of my non-physical training.  What do I want?  Why do I want it?  How much do I want it?  Yes, a bit late for the answers to be deeply ingrained into my subconscious, but I thought better late than never!

However, I found that I was really struggling to answer the three questions.  For the Montane Lakeland 100, the race goal I set was clear and proved to be effective.  I simply wanted to cross the finish line knowing that there wasn't one more tiny bit of energy/focus I could have given.  Apart from a few 'blips' during legs 11 and 12, I felt I nearly achieved that goal.  But for this low key race, there wasn't the same 'desire' to put absolutely everything I had into the race to achieve my best possible performance.  So by the time I got to the start line the next morning, I had set myself a rather vague race goal of something like "running strongly, performing to a 'respectable' level".  Whatever that level is?

Race morning, after staying the night at a pleasant, but cheap hostel in Greenwich (St Christopher's Inns), I arrived to a quiet registration within the Territorial Army Sports Hall on Blackheath common.  There had been around 90 entries, but only 55 runners actually turning up on the morning.  Hence the quietness of the morning.  We assembled on the start line just prior to the 6:00am start time, with it already feeling reasonably warm.  I therefore decided not to carry my ultra-lightweight Montane Slipstream GL jacket.  Which although only weighing 70 grammes, I decided there was no need to carry that extra load.  So my UltrAspire Synapse Bottle Waist Pack in addition to the water bottle, contained 14 TORQ gels, some 'safety blanket' chocolate covered coffee beans, for just in case, a mobile phone, and a £10 note, also for just in case!

The race starts, and with the first half mile or so being a gentle downhill I start at a reasonable pace, probably around 6:10 minute mile pace.  Once again I forget to pack my Garmin GPS watch so I don't have the actual race data!  As I cross the road using a 'chicane' traffic island I have an opportunity to see what my lead is after only around three quarters of a mile.  Already I have over a lead of over 150 metres.  Right then, the win is 'already in the bag', but I remind myself that I can't slacken off, I have a goal to run strong and put in a respectable performance.  As I run along the cycle paths, making my way south out of London, I am amazed at how quickly the miles seem to be flying by.  I am reaching the various points of the course that I remember from my recce run so much quicker, so I take on board this positive feedback.

I reach the first checkpoint at around 10.8 miles (based on my recce run) in 75 minutes.  Pretty close to my race schedule!  Yes, although my non-physical training had been lacking, I did still put together a planned race schedule.  Although rather than my usual thorough approach, taking into account the actual underfoot conditions, the amount of elevation gain, the closeness of the contour lines, the duration point of the race, etc to calculate my minute mile rates.  For this race I simply decided to calculate my scheduled checkpoint times, based on running 7 minutes per mile for the first two legs, 8 minute miles for the next tow legs, and then 9 minute miles for the last two legs.  Yes, very amateurish, but as mentioned above, I just didn't do the necessary non-physical preparation for this race!

Leg two similarly seems to fly by, but whereas during the first leg it was easy to stay within a rhythm due to mainly running along cycle paths and roads.  During leg two, now that the route was on trails, I was finding it hard to pick up the pace to the required 7 minute mile pace after each stile, gate, twisty narrow path, etc.  I had to repeatedly remind myself that I shouldn't slacken off!  Even during leg two, so only between one and a half and two and a half hours into the race, I was already getting an argument within my head, suggesting I should slow down.  Something like: "What's the purpose of pushing yourself, you will win this race no matter what speed you run, so why bother.  You only have something to lose, e.g. increased chance of injuring yourself, and nothing to gain!"  And to be honest I was struggling to find a response to combat the slowdown argument!

Then luckily I recalled the conversation I had had with my wife Frances prior to getting dropped of at the train station the day before.  She and our two boys were planning to watch me at around the 37 mile mark.  She asked me what time I was likely to arrive at that point.  I showed her my planned race schedule and stated that I would be there after 4 hours and 41 minutes.  She then questioned me "Is this time realistic, or is it one of those 'pie in the sky' race schedules that you do as part of your weird mind games"?  I confidently replied that the planned time was a legitimate time, and even told her that it could even be quicker, as I would expect to start out running faster than 7 minute miles.  So I now had an argument, a reason, a purpose not to slacken off.  I had to get to the 37 mile mark on time in 4:41.

Although I plan a race schedule, I try not to memorise the actual times in detail.  I prefer to have just a vague recollection of the time, so I therefore don't 'stress out' if I am a few minutes quicker or slower, as I am not totally certain of the exact scheduled time.  At the end of leg 2, I know I am down on the schedule, somewhere in the region of five minutes.  I therefore run leg 3 strongly and enjoy running along the great off road paths, reaching checkpoint three still around five minutes down on schedule.

Leg 4 is another leg of around ten miles, but a bit more undulating than the gentler leg 3.  My meeting point with my family is around seven miles into the leg.  As I start probably around a steady two mile climb which eventually comes out of the woods at the planned meeting point, pretty well the highest point of the route on the edge of Ashdown Forest.  I realise that I am not going to make the 4:41 time.  Immediately the argument appears in my head, well if you are going to be late, it doesn't matter whether you are five minutes late or ten minutes late, you are going to be late.  But now I have no response.  No counter argument.  I search for my race goals, in the hope that they will provide the counter argument "Run strongly.  Put in a respectable performance." Well I have been doing that for four and a half hours now.  Yes, I have been running strongly up to now.  And no matter what time I finish in, nobody will know apart from me whether my performance is respectable.  Then the argument to slow down gets even stronger.  "Look you forgot your GPS heart rate monitor, so nobody will be able to see your mile splits or your heart rate, so nobody will actual see that you have slackened off."  And so as a consequence of this poor goal setting, at the start of the steady climb, after around four and a half hours, my racing stopped!  My pace slowed significantly and I just jogged up the hill.

As I jogged up the hill, I had no buzz, no excitement.  In fact I was pretty disappointed with myself for slackening off the pace.  But yet, I had no reason, no purpose, no desire to get back into race mode.  It was quite a strange feeling.  Yes, I was beginning to feel a bit tired.  Yes, it was beginning to get a bit more difficult to maintain my race focus.  But putting it in perspective in relation to my other races I have run, especially in comparison to my most recent race the Lakeland 100, I was only just scratching the surface of needing to 'dig deep'!

Meeting my family after 37 miles

Seeing my family and a few friends as I emerge out of the woods boosts my enjoyment levels, and then for I think the first time ever in a race, I simply stop running and start chatting to them!  As the day had warmed up, with it now being 10:52 am, so eleven minutes late, I am needing to refill my bottle.  I ask if they have any water (outside assistance is allowed).  They don't have any water on them, but there is some n the car parked in the car park along the road a wee bit.  After I guess a couple of minutes chatting, I take the car keys and head of to the car to get the water.  I soon realise that the car is around 150 metres off route.  Oh well, what's an extra 300 metres, after all I haven't been racing for the last twenty / twenty five minutes.  So I head off route to our car, which seems to put the 'final nail in the coffin' in terms of racing for the remainder of the day!

Even though I am now just running at a gentle training pace, as I reach checkpoint four at the village of Horsted Keynes, I am not actually finding the running that easy.  My mind is finding it difficult to stay on task, to maintain my running.  I feel like I want to walk, and this is at only the 40 mile mark.  I reflect back to the Lakeland 100, on how I pretty well ran strongly the entire 100 miles.  But today, after only 40 miles, I find myself nearly needing to walk.  Amazing what the effect of the excitement, the challenge, the desire, the purpose can have on making running just so much easier.

At each of the checkpoints, although there is water and various other snacks, there isn't any cola.  With my poorly performing mind, I decide that a cola boost is required.  Fortunately the village shop at Horsted Keynes is open, so out comes my emergency £10 and I go into the shop and buy some coca cola.  I ask the women shop assistant where I would find some coca cola.  She points to a two litre bottle.  I ask for a smaller size and am directed to the back of the shop.  I am all set to open the bottle for a drink, and I am stopped as she needs to scan the bar-code.  She notices my race number and this interrupts her from scanning the bottle.  She is now in full conversation asking what the race is all about.  I try to politely speed her up, but then don't really bother as I find myself laughing inside on just how bizarre the experience is.  Here I was meant to be racing hard to Brighton, but instead I am having a chat in a village shop.  Which for me, in which in most races I barely even acknowledge my family as I am totally into race focus mode, the occasion in the shop was an absolute opposite!

I eventually leave the shop, followed by another rather lengthy (for me) chat with the race volunteers at the checkpoint and finally continue on my journey to Brighton.  The final two legs take me nearly three and a half hours.  Amazingly nearly half an hour slower than my casual relaxing recce run of two weeks earlier.  And even though my pace was slow, I find that due to my lack of buzz, combined with the negativity I was feeling in the fact that I had simply 'thrown in the towel' and effectively DNFed the race back at around the four and a half hour mark, getting to Brighton was quite a struggle.

I am therefore quite relieved as I near the waterfront.  I guess with around a mile to go, I decide to just check that this difficulty I am experiencing is all in my mind.  To rule out that somehow I had lost all of my great form from two months earlier.  So I make a big effort to raise the intensity and get back into race mode for the last mile.  Without that much focus, the pace quickens and so I therefore make a 'good impression' to illustrate the most likely perceived 'respectable performance' and cross the finish line in a time of 8:54:58. Although the interpretation from my comments above probably over exaggerate the extent to which I slowed down, my finish time is actually only forty minutes slower than my planned "Strong Run" finish time.

I then spend an enjoyable three or four hours, firstly chatting to the race volunteers and then as the other runners finish, chatting to them, before being picked up by my family for the short journey home.

Well. as I thought, my race report has ended up much longer than I had envisaged.  My main reason for having this blog is for my benefit.  As it provides an excellent opportunity for quality time reflecting on each race, in order to learn and improve for the future.  So please excuse me for going on quite a bit within this post.  However, I felt it was necessary to get the complete picture down of what occurred last weekend, to help ensure that I don't neglect my non-physical training leading up to a race again in the future.  Hopefully from reading about my race experience and my mistakes within my preparation, that some aspects you can translate and apply to your specific situation.

Time to sign off:  "The importance of race goals can not be underestimated.  A well constructed race goal can support you in your hour of need, whilst in the midst of a race, when you need that ammunition to fight back the slowing down arguments within your head.  Yes, a poorly formulated race goal, can play a major role in constructing a poor race performance.  Get the race goal right, and the performance you desire will more likely eventuate".  Stuart Mills, 2013.

May you spend the necessary time to get your race goals right!


PS  I found out last night that a young 20 year old lad from Sunday's race, Matt Rimmington who finished in a time of 14:21:47 has spent the last few nights in hospital due to problems with his kidneys after the race.  Fortunately he is on the mend and is already talking about coming back and going faster next year.  So to Matt if you are reading this, well done for your amazing determination to get to the finish line, no matter what.  Great to hear that your recovery is going well, and especially good to hear that you are still really positive towards ultra trail running.  All the best, and I'll look out for you running strongly at your future races, having learnt from last weekend/s apparently nutrition and hydration mistakes.  Yes, every race is a learning experience, which fortunately only ends up in hospital on the very rare occasion.

PPS Below is a photo taken by my son Rob at the 37 mile mark.  Matt if you would like a high resolution copy of the photo to remind you of your enjoyable? (well maybe not) race experience, simply zap me an e-mail.  (I'll let you off the £4 price that my son was charging for the photos, as part of his fund raising to buy his own ipad).