Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Steyning Stinger Marathon Race Report - A Positive Beginning to my Changed Approach


Tonight's post starts with a bit of detail regarding my new increased mileage training programme, then a bit of background, before what should be a reasonably brief race report on last Sunday's Steyning Stinger Marathon.  But knowing me I'm bound to get side tracked and go on about something!

As mentioned in my recent review of 2012, back at the start of December I decided it was time for a drastic change to my training, with it being a mega increase in my weekly mileage.  During November, I took things really easy training wise, as I was feeling a bit run down.  Not all as a result of running, but also related to other aspects in my life, such as my work at the University.  I won't go into detail here as it's not worth boring you with, but what this period of time did confirm to me was that how one feels and how one performs is affected by all things happening within ones life.  One is affected by the overall surrounding joy / happiness, which improves feeling/performance.  But as I discovered during September - November, the overall stresses, in my situation resulting from the displeasure, discomfort, frustration, etc. resulting from a less than ideal School merger at the University, massively increased my usually peaceful and calm stress levels to a higher 'harmful' level.  Reflecting back now, during November I was actually beginning to lose my passion for running.  My weekly mileages for the five weeks following my 'lack of fire' Beachy Head Marathon performance were, 0, 0, 10, 28, and 31 miles.  As you can see, not the mileage you would expect from a passionate runner, coming up to completing his 35th year of endurance running training!

So at the start of December, a change was needed to get me 'back on track'.  The time spent reflecting on what was needed regarding my new approach to run training, also included reflecting on what was needed regarding a new approach to the merged School I now work in at the University.  Since then, the changes I have put in place have been really positive.  I am excited by, and enjoying my running again, plus I am more 'peaceful' within my University work.

Although the number one focus for 2013 is the Montane Lakeland 100 in July, and the increase in my mileage was initiated in response to last year's Lakeland 100 experience.  For the first time in years, I spent a significant amount of time, devising and then actually writing down a 20 week training plan, rather than simply keeping my thoughts and plans within my head.  So the 20 week training plan would take me up to the 53 mile Highland Fling at the end of April.  The week prior to the start of the 20 week plan, I slightly increased my mileage up to 45 miles from the extremely low levels of training achieved during November.  For the next eight weeks, my training went exactly as planned, and I completed weekly mileages of; 72, 70, 85, 104, 96, 98, 96 and 95 miles.  So eight weeks of good training.  Although there is more to training than simply the mileage run.  For me this year, my training focus is simply about 'conditioning' the legs, so time on my feet is important.  In line with my philosophy on intensity, the majority of my training is at a relaxed, cruisey pace.  However, I am tending to adjust this intensity during runs whenever I encounter hills.  Tending to raise the intensity, so gently 'attacking' the hills, in response to a weakness in my racing that seems to have developed.  I'll come back to this during my race report below.

As you can imagine, the three weeks of building up, then running five weeks at close to 100 miles per week was quite a massive change for me.  But to my surprise, I pretty well felt great every day.  Yes, how one feels is influenced by much more than just physical demands.  I was in a happier place, and hence my training felt more comfortable, making me happier, etc.  Yes, I was on an upward spiral!  Following the eight weeks of training I was fortunate to be able to take a group of students to Austria for a week's skiing and snowboarding.  So I had scheduled this as a week off in order to recover, and so only completed the scheduled three small jogs while away.  The intended plan was to return back to a mileage of 75 - 85 miles the following week, however, I underestimated how tiring a week's skiing (and associated activities) can be, so the first week back I was comfortable in accepting that a reduced mileage was the best option, so only ran 54 miles.  The following week, I increased this to 80 miles, the exact mid-point of the planned previous week's mileage.  So I was back on track with my 20 week training plan.

In preparation for the Highland Fling, I had scheduled two local trail marathons.  The first of these was the Steyning Stinger Marathon.  Firstly, a bit of background to the Stinger.  The Stinger, organised by Steyning Athletic Club, was first held in 2002, whilst I still lived up in Worcestershire.  I first ran it in 2003, winning in a time of 3:07:30, and then again in 2004 in the time of 2:57:00.  I recall when I finished that day that I was pretty pleased with how I had run.  Combined with the very dry underfoot conditions on the day, I had a feeling that it would be many years before this time would be beaten.  Well, my time from 2004 is still the course record, and prior to this year's race I believe that no other runner has got with ten minutes of the time.  So indeed a pretty good course record!  I missed the 2005 event due to a niggling injury, but returned in 2006, managing another win in the time of 2:59:13.  I was getting over another niggling injury in 2007, so missed it again.  Note, these niggling injuries were prior to seeing Luke at Sportswise, so prior to being treated like a pin cushion!  Since then I don't recall missing any races due to niggling injuries.  I then got into ultra trail running in 2008, so the Stinger no longer seemed to fit into my racing calendar.  So last weekend was my first return to the race in seven years.

My family are aware of my increased training, which is also apparent with my slightly skinnier appearance, having lost nearly one stone (6 kg) since the start of December.  Chris, my younger son, leading up to the race therefore asked me if due to my increased training I was going to set a personal best time for the race.  His prompting was really well timed, as I hadn't really given it much attention in terms of what I was expecting to achieve come race day.  The race was written down on my 20 week training plan, and I was simply sticking to the plan.

So, Chris, got me thinking, what should I expect, what do I want, come race day?  Are the two different?  Are they related?  Is there a causal relationship between the two?  Remembering back to 2004, and how I ran, I didn't think that a sub 2hr 57min was possible, especially since I hadn't eased off training during the week, completing a four hour run on the Wednesday, followed by a two hour run of the Thursday.  Then there was that doubt, that negativity that always tries to 'put oneself down'.  "Remember your last race, the Beachy Head Marathon, where you could only manage a 3:10, a whole thirteen minutes slower that your personal best for the Beachy Head of the same time, i.e. 2:57."  I can't remember if I have previously mentioned an excellent book I read last year whilst in New Zealand.  It is titled "I'm Here to Win" written by Ironman Triathlete Chris Macca McCormack.  I was mentioning it to one of my ex-students the other day, British Ironwoman Yvette Grice, who I bumped into as she was visiting our labs for a physiological assessment.  Considering it is by far the best triathlon book I have ever read, I was surprised Yvette hadn't read it.  Within the triathlon world, there is often talk about how you can "buy speed", through buying the latest wetsuit or the lightest, super fast wheels.  Well in terms of "buying improved performance", not just in triathlon, but also very relevant in ultra trail running, you won't find better value for your pounds than this book.  It rates right up there with the other gems I have referred to, Charlie Speeding's book, Ryan Hall's book, and even without my New Zealand bias, Lorraine Moller's book,which unfortunately is probably quite hard to get hold of.

So back to what led me to get side tracked to Macca's book.  It was this discussion that often takes place within, where part of you is trying to tell you that you shouldn't expect to perform well, that you haven't done the necessary training, or that simply you are just not good enough to expect a good performance.  Chris McCormack also discusses this in his book.  "The mind games that take place before the starting gun ever fires is really the critical point of a race.  It's when all your insecurities bubble to the surface.  It's when you have that good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other.  One is saying, "You can do it mate!"  The other is whispering, "Why are you here? You can't win!" The angel you decide to listen to will determine whether you are competitive or an also-ran. ...  Each race is a new war against the evil angel.  Mastering your own self doubts is the battle."  Please excuse me if I have previously highlighted this quote before.  Typing it out, made me feel like I had.  But since it has such an important message, it is probably worthwhile repeating it again!

So back to my pre-race thoughts. Yes, the negative thoughts I were experiencing were trying to convince me that my 'fast days' were over.  Expect at best a 3:10 time for the Stinger and be happy with this, and hope that nobody quicker that this turns up!  In order to avoid the "bad angel", rather than focusing on the result, I decided to focus on what I wanted to achieve DURING the race, not at the finish of the race.  The motive for doing the Stinger was to extend myself, to run hard, to run fast, to test myself, to see if the eleven weeks of extensive training has made any impact to my running.  So with this as the focus, I replied to my son Chris a few days later, that I expected to finish with a time in between my quickest and slowest times, i.e. somewhere in between 2:57 and 3:07.  However, the time to me, or the actually finishing place wasn't important.  What was more important was how I actually ran, how I felt, during the marathon.

I am on the start line on a rather chilly morning, but most important it was dry and no sign of rain.  As it eventuated the ground conditions were hard and fast, apart from one very small 30 metre stretch of bog, so my road shoes would have been fine, but being not sure of how much mud there could be I had opted to wear my Inov-8 Roclite295s. Prior to heading out to the start there was also the indecision over how many layers to wear.  You will see form the start photo below (courtesy of Sussex Sport Photography) that some runners were wearing hats, gloves, tights and multiple layers on the top.  I was fortunate that I had a good selection of quality Montane kit to choose from.  In the end I decide upon two layers, the long sleeve Bionic shirt, that contains Merino wool so performs really well, and the short sleeve Sonic T-shirt.

Race start - I am race number 107, Jonny Muir is in blue, race number 162

Although there is a massed start at 8:30am, runners are allowed to start earlier at timed intervals, so there is probably only around half of the 220 runners gathered.  With the intention to work myself hard I start at a solid pace, and the Garmin GPS data (visible on this link to GarminConnect) shows that I completed the first mile in 6:06.  Shortly after the first mile, a runner joins me from behind and we run together for a short period of time, before we reach a small incline.  As what would be come indicative of the day, the other runner, who I later discover is Jonny Muir, gradually pulls away from me.  As I am working at an intensity I feel is sufficiently demanding , not too tough or too easy, I don't try too hard at trying to stay with him, focusing on my goal for the day, extending myself, running strong. 

Running strong at around the three mile mark

Still running strong during the first five miles of the race

The route elevation showing the four big climbs - "Stings"!

For the next five miles Jonny gradually extends his lead, to probably around 30 - 40 seconds at the top of the first tough climb, referred to as one of the four 'Stings' which gives the race it's name.  At this point, six miles into the race, I am happy with how I am running, pleased with my intensity and focus.  However, there is a little bit of discontent being in second place, so I was keeping an eye on Jonny, making sure he doesn't get too far ahead.  The next two miles are mainly downhill, and without too much effort, I significantly close the gap, after running 5:53, 5:55 miles.  The next two miles from 8 - 10 miles, again Jonny's lead increases, for his lead to subsequently decrease again over the next three miles of gentle downhill, which I cover in 6:12, 6:12 and 5:56.  I pass the 13 mile mark, (each mile is clearly marked, which is quite unique for a trail marathon) in 1 hour 28 minutes, although I have noticed that the mile split on my GPS watch is gradually getting out of synch with the mile markers, so by the time I pass the 13 mile mark, my GPS is showing a little over 13.1 miles.  Regardless of whether I have completed 13 or 13.1 miles, the time confirms that I am running well, and a time close to 3 hours, possibly under 3 hours could be possible.  This feedback, combined with the fact that Jonny is now only around 10 - 15 seconds ahead of me, reinforces the positive buzz, and enjoyment I am experiencing.  Which feels so different to my most recent marathon, the Beachy Head Marathon back in October, where it felt for the majority of the race that I was just 'going through the motions' without the passion or excitement!

Overtaking some early starters at around 11 miles

I briefly stop at the drink station to take on board my second gel of the day.  Based on some advice I received from Barry Murray, from Optimum Nutrition 4 Sport, who I mentioned in my previous post.  I have now changed gels to the CNP Pro Energy Max Gel Cola gel.  This gel apparently is the 'business', with one of it's advantages in that it contains Guarana, which has similar properties to caffeine, but without the potential high and low 'spikes'.  I quickly get back into my stride, keeping an eye on Jonny ahead.  Unfortunately, I am focussing too much on Jonny, and not realise that I have run off course, even though I have raced the Stinger three times before.  Yes, a good lesson.  Focus on what you are doing, and your immediate surrounds, not on someone 75 metres ahead!

Going off course near Cissbury Ring

As I pass through a gate and enter a field,(see above, my trace in red, Jonny's in blue, correct route in yellow) I have a feeling that I am off course, as the path is heading further downhill, where it should stay up higher as we skirt around the ancient fort of Cissbury Ring.  I see Jonny running back towards me and we meet up again for the first time since the second mile.  He asks me, "Are we on the course?"  I reply that I'm pretty sure that we should be on the other side of the hedge to our left.  Luckily, a gap in the hedge appears, so we are able to enter the higher field and after regaining the height we had lost, we rejoin the well marked route.  I must state here that the route overall was extremely well marked, so I am rather disappointed with myself for going off course, as I was obviously not paying close enough attention to the markers near me!

We run reasonably close together for the next mile or so, with me again gradually pulling ahead on the gentle downhill.  As we start the climb of the third 'Sting' after passing the golf course, Jonny pulls away, and this time a bit quicker than before.  This time I begin to get a little worried at the rate in which he pulls ahead.  Although it isn't too far until we reach the top, and with the next mile being downhill, which I cover in my quickest mile of the day in 5:49, as I pass the 18 mile marker the gap has been reduced to again probably only around 15 - 20 seconds.  At this point in the race I recall that I am trying to evaluate my progress to date, and start to anticipate what the possible scenarios for the final eight miles could be.  Overall I am happy with how I am running, although after my pretty slow mile climbing up from the golf course, which took me 8 minutes 30 seconds, I realise that a sub 3 hour time is no longer possible.  Although I had realised this pretty well immediately after we had gone off course, as I estimated that the detour I took probably cost me around 1:00 - 1:30 minutes.

What is more concerning is my poor performance in relation to Jonny when it comes to any inclines.  What I have noticed in races since I have got into Ultra Trail racing is that it isn't my overall running pace that has slowed, but only my uphill pace.  Having raced events such as UTMB and Lakeland 100 which contain really long climbs, I now seem to go onto auto-pilot when I come to a hill, and settle into a controlled pace that I am comfortably able to maintain for a long duration.  This works okay when the climb is of a long duration, but it is not much use, when the hill is only five minutes long.  Hence why I now seem to always lose time on the hills during racing.  I have started to address this in my training recently, with my semi-attacking of any climbs on my training runs. To date, it doesn't seem to have had an impact.  I am sure my poor pacing is really a mental focus issue, not a physical issue such as a lack of leg strength etc. which many runners may attribute it to.  I'll keep you updated on my progress in dealing with this 'weakness' in future races.

Back to the Stinger.  So with seven miles to go, I am 15 - 20 seconds behind, with there being one 'Sting' left involving a climb of around a mile and a half, and then the last two miles is all down hill.  I do some calculations and predict that as long as I am within 30 - 40 seconds of Jonny at the start of the two mile descent to the finish, I should be able to pull back the time and run past him just as we approach the finish line.  I immediately find myself getting excited at the prospect of a sprint finish.  Right then, having processed this all within my head, whilst descending at sub six minute mile pace, I realise that the next few miles are key, to ensure that I don't let him get any further ahead between now and the start of the last climb.  I am therefore preparing myself for an increased effort.  Then to my surprise, as I round a sharp corner, Jonny has disappeared.  He is no longer 75 metres in front of me.  I conclude that he must have turned the sharp left corner, and is following the route markings latter on in the course at around the 22 mile mark after we have completed the loop of Steep Down.  As the route he is on turns and drops out of sight immediately behind a small hill, it is not possible to see him so I am unable to shout out to him. I therefore assume that since he will be seeing direction arrows indicating the race route, that he will continue running in the wrong direction, and it will be a wee while before he sees the 22 mile marker and realise he has gone astray.   I experience a real mixture of feelings, all at the same time. There is the sense of pleasure in knowing that I am now guaranteed of winning the Steyning Stinger Marathon for the fourth time, but also disappointment in that the anticipated sprint battle, and really having to earn the victory is now gone!  I immediately slacken off the pace, take a longer stop at the next drink station as I consume my third and final gel for the day, and simply cruise along the route, trying to deal with these mixed emotions, and trying to get myself back on task, i.e. to really test myself, push myself for the entire 26 miles.

One thing that always amazes me whilst I am racing is how the sub-conscious formulates an argument to try to get you to slow down.  My main goal for the race was about me, testing myself, extending myself, but then when I have the win in the bag, the arguments that are being presented within my head are that the win is what it is all about.  "You have now achieved this, simply cruise to the finish."  So as I am trying to fight against these arguments, I hear a gate shut not too many metres behind me.  To my shock it is Jonny, and what a shock.  For the last five minutes I had already accepted the win, and now it was 'battle on' again!  In a reasonably short period of time he is on my tail, and then there is a slight incline.  As I prepare for him to overtake me, as he has done previously throughout the race on all inclines, whether it was the narrowness of the path, being single track at that particular point, or whether due to him having to recover from his recent increased effort to re-catch me I don't know.  But the fact that he didn't go past me, provides me with sufficient evidence to convince myself that I have got the race under control.  No need to panic, just run with him for the next mile or so.  Then allow him to slowly pull away, if he is still capable of doing so up the fourth sting, but simply keep him with the 30 - 40 seconds that I have previously calculated I can regain on the decent.
At the top of the fourth 'Sting' moments after I take the lead

As expected he slowly pulls away at the start of the last climb, quickly gains probably ten seconds, but then that is it, the gap stays the same until the top.  As the climb flattens out, I slowly pull him in, so I am directly behind him, even before we reach the top of the climb.  Then just before we turn a sharp right and start the final two miles of mainly down hill.  I up the pace, run pace him strongly, and the race is pretty well done.  I am able to really up the pace on the gentle descent at first and then as the hill gets quite steep, I am able to drop down the hill pretty quickly.  The legs feel good, the mind feels good.  Overall, I am pleased with how everything is going to plan.  I continue to work reasonably hard to the finish, and cross it in an official time of 3:03:36.  My Garmin Forerunner 310 watch shows a total distance of 26.48 miles.  Slightly more than the expected 26.2 miles, made up from the progressively slightly over measuring of each mile in relation to the mile markers out on the course, and the slight detour off route that both Jonny and I took, which at most would have been 0.15 - 0.20 of a mile.  Jonny officially finishes 42 seconds behind, which I would think is the second fastest finisher on the course, in the twelve times the event has taken place.

Shortly after finishing

It is then back to the race headquarters at the school for a cooked breakfast, all part of the entry fee.  Yes, the Steyning Stinger is one of those events, that definitely has everything;, great course, well marked, complete with supportive marshals and frequent drink stations, the cooked breakfast, and then to top it off, the race organisers arrange with the photographers for the privilege of having the excellent photos that Sussex Sport Photography take during the race, to be free to download for all competitors.  A really excellent feature to the race, and hence why I have included a number of photos within this race report.

I have a relaxing and enjoyable time chatting to the other competitors as we eat our well earned cooked breakfast.  I get a chance to chat to Jonny.  I can see he is a wee bit disappointed in going off course twice, which possibly could have altered the finish places.  However, he makes no excuses, and accepts that navigation is part of trail running.  (Click this link to read his Steyning Stinger race report.)  Trying to estimate how much time Jonny lost to me by going off course twice, it is hard to be precise, but at a rough guess I would say around 15 seconds the first error, and then around 30 seconds for the second error, so totalling around 45 seconds.  So with my winning margin being 42 seconds, as I had anticipated back at the 18 mile mark, it would have been a very tight sprint finish!  Following the race, I have since discovered that Jonny Muir is a bit of a celebrity, having written three books, with his first book titled Heights of Madness looking really interesting, so much so that I have just ordered it off Amazon for the massive price of £4.39.  I don't know how much of this amount Jonny will receive, maybe one pound.  I guess that's the least I can do as a gesture of thanks to Jonny for helping me run a pleasing race, having to really extend myself, run strong the entire way.  One worrying aspect that I need to address is the feeling that if Jonny wasn't running on Sunday, I may have got into 'lazy' mode and simply settled for the win albeit in a much slower time.  Hopefully I will be better prepared for my next local trail marathon in less than three weeks time, being the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Marathon starting and finishing at Birling Gap, pretty well right on my doorstep.

I was going to provide some more details regarding my monthly break down of training during 2012, but maybe next post, as this post has somehow ended up longer than anticipated.

So as I sign off from my first race report for 2013, I am pleased to conclude that it has been a positive beginning to my changed approach.  Finally some more words from Chris Macca McCormick; "If there's a problem, there's a solution, and positive thinking is the only way to find it.  The trick is to think outside of the narrow, traditional wisdom of the sport and look for answers anywhere without prejudice." Page 212, I'm Here to Win, Chris McCormack, 2011.

Is it time you changed your approach?


PS  Back in January one of my posts titled "Wanting it and Winning" I spent some time remembering my performance in the 1985 National Multisport Championships that took place in Otaki, New Zealand.  Well I managed to find the old video of the race, and have uploaded it to Youtube.  If you want to see what the beginnings of multisport triathlon were like in the mid-eighties in New Zealand, click this link.  I am visible quite a few times during the video.  I am the long haired 22 year old kid!


  1. Great race report :) Loving the fact that after 5 decades you are still out there running with passion and still exploring the sport. Well done on getting the win. A great inspiration. I look forward to seeing you run at the Fling & L100 :)

  2. Discovered your blog through Sussex Sport re-tweeting Jonny Muir's (also excellent) account of the race. Having photographed you many times at these events this is a fascinating insight into your state of mind as you run past me on top of those lonely hills, which explains the serious look of concentration every time I see you!

    Enjoyed watching you and Jonny battle it out at Steying.

  3. Great report, felt like I was in it. Sounds like a great race. Will be really interested to see how your training works out...especially at the L100 this year!!

  4. Hi Forest, Neil, Pablo, Thanks for your comments. Pleased that you found my report interesting. Hopefully my remaining race reports for 2013 will be equally as interesting. Stuart

  5. Hi Stuart,

    Really interesting post! Very inspiring, trail running sounds like a really gratifying sport.
    I don't suppose you would be interested in sharing your blog over at Glipho? We are a new social blogging site focused on building a strong community of creative bloggers- I'm sure our users would love to read about your activities! If you have a moment, take a quick look at and see what you think. You can even import all your old posts over without affecting your existing blog!

    Thanks for your time, and good luck with all your future races!

    All the best,


  6. Great report Stu. I appreciated the detail and the blow by blow through out. All the best. Interested to see how you continue to tackle your hill "weakness."