Usually I start my race report not really knowing where the report will lead, however, tonight, having already given some time reflecting on Saturday's race I already have a feeling of what I have learnt, and what message I wish to share.
The Hoka Highland Fling covers the first 53 miles of the West Highland Way. This year was the third time I had raced this excellent event, having finished 10th in 2009 after running significantly off route (yes, I know difficult to do as the entire path is clearly signposted!), and finishing 6th in 2011. Apart from the Fling consisting of a fantastic scenic course and the race being extremely well organised, the other main reason that I enjoy the event is that due to the race being the UK Ultra Trail Championships and a UK Athletics selection race for the IAU World Trail Championships, it draws a really strong field, arguably the most competitive ultra trail race of the year within the UK.
In preparation for the race, I had been carrying out TOTAL Training. What I mean by TOTAL Training is preparing both physically and non-physically. This need to prepare non-physically relates to understanding what causes fatigue and what influences performance in ultra trail racing. With it being a lot more than just ones physiology and their physical training.
One of the first things I consider when developing my training schedule is to answer the following three questions in relation to the key race:
What do I want?
Why do I want it?
How much do I want it?
Asking yourself these three questions, and providing yourself with the three answers, which are a result of detailed self analysis and reflection, is essential in order to maximise ones performance. Although I don't want to dwell too much on the distant past, reflecting on past performances is important in terms of learning and developing as an athlete, and as a person. So tonight's race report will include comparisons with 2011.
Back in 2011, although it was selection race for the GB Team, with a team of up to five runners being selected, in response to the three important questions, my aims for the race weren't about finishing in the top five. No back in April 2011, having run well during 2010, with some good race wins; Hardmoors 55, Lakeland 100, South Downs Way Marathon, Beachy Head Marathon, and some high placings to top quality opposition; 3rd Marlborough Challenge (33 miles) to Allen Smalls and Paul Fernandez, 3rd Pumlumon Challenge (26 miles) to Jon Morgan and Ben Abdelnoor, and 4th High Peak (40 mile) to Duncan Harris, Brian Cole, and Ian Bishop, I felt that I was one of the best ultra trail runners within the country. But what was more important was that I didn't just think that possibly I was one of the best, I believed that come race day, if all went well, then I could get close to the best in the UK, who at the time was recent 2010 UTMB winner Jez Bragg. And looking at my 2010 results there was some evidence to support my belief. So it wasn't just wanting, wishing, hoping that I could perform at the very front of the race, there was deep down belief! There was the expectation that, if all went well, it would happen!
I am highlighting here the need to have a race goal, but more importantly a race goal that you believe in, as I feel that getting ones race goal 'right' plays a massive part in determining ones race day performance. The only problem is, that getting it right isn't easy. As with many things, it takes loads of time, loads of practise, loads of training, TOTAL Training.
Just before I move on to this year's race, I will just reflect back once more to the 2011 race, as much can be learnt from comparing the 2011 and 2013 experiences. So leading up to the 2011 Fling, I had the strong belief that I could get close to winning the UK Champs, however, I had just recovered from a fractured shoulder from a skiing accident, so the confidence was lacking. Although the terms belief and confidence are often interchanged, there is a difference between the two. To me, belief, is a deeper emotion, something that takes time to change, to evolve. It is more related to ones inner core, their inner spirit, their 'heart'. Confidence, is closer to the surface, it can fluctuate more readily. Both contribute to performance, but it is the belief, which is the more influential of the two traits / qualities.
Race day 2011, I have the belief that I have what is required to win, but I don't have the confidence. So instead of adopting my usual 'blast out from the gun' tactic, due to the reduced confidence, I simply adopt a strategy of run with the leaders for as long as possible. I am there to do the utmost to win, not to get fifth, not to simply make the GB team, even though being selecting to represent ones country had always been a 'dream' since seeing Dick Taylor win Commonwealth Games Gold in the 10,000 metres on the track way back in 1974! No, 2011 was about racing hard, racing to my beliefs, and letting the finish place, the finish time, look after itself! More specific details on the 2011 Highland Fling race can be found within that year's race report, but now it's time to finally look at what happened last Saturday. (Interestingly having just re-read my 2011 Fling race report, it appears that back then I used the two terms belief and confidence interchangeably, so it does get a bit confusing especially in relation to my defining of the two terms above.)
So leading up to last Saturday's race, my TOTAL Training had been going well. So I thought! I have mentioned in previous posts how I have changed quite a bit in terms of my preparation during 2013, including changes to physical training (a large increase in mileage, and changes in intensity) and to nutrition (a periodised carbohydrate availability programme including long runs within a fasted state, and increased carbohydrate fuelling during races). I also continued with my non-physical training, including answering the three important questions, spending extensive time visualising the race, reviewing the race route, calculating split times for each leg, etc.
My physical training for the year had gone really well. I had ran more miles than I have ever run, I was the lightest I had been since I was sixteen, and overall I felt physically very fit. I had raced twice so far during 2013, winning both trail marathons. Although the winning times weren't super fast, with the Steyning Stinger Marathon, taking into account going off course a wee bit, my time was around four minutes slower than my quickest time. What was really positive though, was the manner in which I was able to run strong throughout the entire duration of the race. I wasn't finding the races so challenging, in terms of struggling to maintain my focus, to maintain my pace to the finish. So my confidence was high. I knew I was fit, I was expecting a strong performance come race day at the 'Fling'.
What about my belief though? Remember, confidence isn't the same as belief. In answering the three important questions, what was interesting was that this year, I didn't answer "I want to win". No, whether it was due to my race performances in 2012 being not so great, or whether is was due to two small digits, i.e. the number 50, I don't know. Most likely a combination of the two. But I no longer had the belief that I could win the 2013 Highland Fling. And therefore to avoid disappointment, I decided that all I simply wanted to achieve was to finish within the top five, which in conjunction with my previous race performances, including being the first GB finisher at the most recent IAU World Trail Championships, should then have been sufficient to get selected in the GB team again for this year's world champs, as indicated within the UK Athletics selection criteria.
Why do I want it? Why do I want to be selected for the GB team? Well as stated above, to represent ones country at a World Championships had been an ambition, something which many people dream of, but never expect to happen. Back in 2011 it happened to me. Not because I expected it to happen, but more of a consequence of my believing that I was good enough to perform at the very front of the 2011 Fling field. But, come 2013, I had already achieved the 'school boy dream'. Also, there was in the back of my mind, what if I did get selected in the GB Team, could I expect to perform to such a high level as I did in 2011, where I finished in 15th place? That 2011 Worlds performance I rate as my best ever running performance, so in reality, I was never going to be able to perform to that level again. My best running days were over! I am now 50 years old. Accept it, no 50 year olds are really still able to compete at the elite level.
So although, I felt that my training had been going well, I hadn't really sorted out these underlying thoughts. My deep down beliefs, what I really wanted to achieve and why. I had spent too much time focusing on the physical, which had gone superbly well, but I had not paid sufficient attention to the non-physical training.
Racing through Milngavie town centre after 150 metres.
From left of photo: Matt Wiliamson (3rd), Paul Tierney partly obscured directly behind me (DNF, hamstring issues), Me (8th), Hugh McInnes? (16th), Ricky Lightfoot (2nd), and Duncan Harris (6th)
As mentioned in my quick update blog post the other day. For the first few miles, the pace wasn't excessively quick. Then when the pace was quickened, which looking at my heart rate trace, looks like it occurred during the fourth mile, rather than maintaining the increased intensity to stay with the lead group, I simply let the three lead runners go. There was no real fight, no competitive instinct to stay in contact with the leaders. I had decided that 5th place was what I wanted, so no need to increase the focus, increase the challenge and stay with them.
The bunch near 11 miles?, just before getting dropped!
From left of photo: Paul Giblin (10th), Paul Fernandez (9th), Hugh McInnes? (16th), obscured behind Marco Consani (7th), Me (8th) and Matt Williamson (3rd)
Now, some may consider that I didn't stay with the initial increase in pace at around the 4 mile mark, and the next increase in pace at around the 11 mile mark, where I later got dropped from the bunch of six or so runners, as because I just wasn't physiologically fit enough! Those that put too much emphasis on the influence of physiology on trail running performance are most likely to perhaps offer this as a possible reason. However, I know otherwise, as I am the actual subject involved, and I was there! But to help illustrate why it wasn't physiology that led to me getting dropped, but other factors, one simply needs to view my heart rate trace, for the Highland Fling race and the Steyning Stinger Trail Marathon a month earlier. Yes, I know heart rate can vary between races due to many factors including air temperature / body temperature, but in the graphs below, which display the heart rate data, from the Garmin GPS data which provides an average heart rate (and maximum HR) for the entire mile, it should be clear that getting dropped wasn't physiologically determined! With an average heart rate of only 160 bpm (max for the mile of 165bpm) for mile four, where the three lead runners moved away, and then only an average of 155 bpm, (but a max of 167bpm), when I lost the bunch and then ran on my own in 10th place. In comparison to the heart rate data for the Steyning Stinger Marathon, one can clearly see that physiologically during the Fling I was working at a substantially lower physiological intensity!
So hopefully the heart rate data illustrates that it was other factors that contributed to me getting dropped, when the change in gradient of the short steep undulations after we left the disused railway required an increase in intensity. I initially responded to the need for an increase in intensity, however, due to my poor non-physical preparation, the physiological intensity required resulted in a much more substantial demand in mental effort, in concentration, what I refer to within my Race Focus Energy (RFE) model as RFE, than what was physiologically demanded, i.e. what the increased heart rate should have created. It wasn't that I didn't try to stay with the bunch at around the 11 mile mark. I did try. But it just felt too hard, and reflecting back now I also feel that it did perhaps seem too easy to readily accept to let them go. Which I attribute now to my TOTAL preparation being lacking, not having resolved the conflict between my wants, i,e, finishing in 5th place, and my underlying belief, i.e. I am now too old to compete at elite level, even though I had thought the TOTAL preparation had been good. What is most strange from Saturday' performance is that in comparison to 2012 when I was at times just 'going through the motions' in terms of my running. This year I have been really excited by the prospect of racing. I have been really enjoying my running. So to not have the total competitive drive on race day was, like I say, strange!
I attribute this unproportional increase in mental effort (RFE) in response to the increased physiological demand is as a result of poor TOTAL Training. Rather than trying to explain the concept here. I suggest that you have a good look around my blog, especially my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model article.
Those of you that know me, those that have raced against me, will know that I am more than a little bit competitive. I love being involved in a battle, and this is one aspect of ultra trail running that I love. I am fortunate in that usually I am able to battle it out near the front of the field, so I get this enjoyment in addition to the tremendous enjoyment of running in amazing scenery, and the satisfaction from the internal challenge as I focus hard to get the very best out of myself. Once I had lost touch with the top ten runners, and then having dropped down to 11th place going up Conic Hill, I then quite happily forgot about the competitive side of ultra trail racing, and ensured I got enjoyment from being within such a spectacular outdoor environment, and also from the personal challenge. My approach was that I would still run hard in an effort to obtain a personal best, but with the key emphasis now being dominated by maximising the enjoyment of the present moment. My rationale was if I focused on the enjoyment, my pace would remain pretty quick, and a personal best (PB) finish time could result. I also decided that if any other runners did catch me up, (none did though), I would immediately get back into competitive mode, up the focus, the concentration and not drop to a lower place.
Running in 11th place, I also had in the back on my mind, that it is likely that a few runners ahead may struggle and slow down, So I was expecting to gain one or two places, so was expecting to finish within the top ten, and with this placing I concluded that this position was 'respectable'. This is what actually happened later along the route, and I moved into 8th place at around the 48 mile mark. After crossing the busy A road, at around the 50 mile mark, I noticed that Paul Fernandez, who had been struggling quite a bit as I had overtaken him about five miles earlier, was now running strongly again, and not too far behind. Within an instant I was back fully into competitive mode. There was no way that I was going to let him overtake me. Back in 2010 in the 33 Marlborough Challenge Paul had finished ahead of me in 2nd place, when I had finished 3rd. I was not going to let him beat me again! So for the last 3 miles, it was back into full race mode. Maximum focus, maximum concentration, and yes maximum 'enjoyment'. But a different form of enjoyment, now from really extending myself, as I gave it everything right though to the finish line.
Working hard right to the finish line
Looking at the Garmin GPS/HR data, available on GarminConnect, there is quite clearly an increase in intensity which results in an increase in pace over the last three miles. However, although I may have felt that I wasn't really going as hard as possible for the majority of the race, since Conic Hill, it is pleasing to see that I hadn't actually eased off that much, as giving it one hundred percent for the last three miles didn't actually increase my running pace that much. I was still unable to go quicker that a 8:06 mile! So looking at the data it is pleasing to see that I did run not too far off my maximum the entire way. But with better TOTAL preparation, with the RPE - RFE needle consequently being rotated downwards, what could have been achieved? See RFE articles for detail.
After the race, the atmosphere was fantastic. Yes, there is more to ultra trail racing than the actual racing / running of the course. The ultra trail community is so friendly and the positive energy that was at the finish line, even though people were pretty exhausted from running 53 miles, was again amazing. A few runners asked me, "Was I disappointed with my finish place and finish time?" I gave it some thought, and replied that I was actually disappointed in that I wasn't disappointed! In the past, running slower than a previous year, would have upset me. Not having that 'never ending competitive fight' would have upset me. But, it was strange, I wasn't upset. I really enjoyed the whole day. Not running faster, not finishing higher up didn't really seem to really matter!
Having just typed the above, I can't actually believe I have typed those words!!! "Not running faster, not finishing higher up didn't really seem to really matter!" I am in definite need of working on my TOTAL Training! Or maybe it is something to do with getting a bit more 'mellow' as one gets older. On paper I may have moved up into the next age category, but in my mind and spirit I'm not yet ready. So as much as 'smashing' the 50+ Highland Fling record by 70 minutes is pleasing, I am not yet ready to change my trail racing focus. So, having already spent significant time reflecting on Saturday's race, I know what I need to work on, in preparation for my next race. Yes, every race is a learning experience. After 35 years of endurance racing, I am still learning, still trying to get the best performance from myself in each and every race.
I would just like to finish this post with a few thank yous.
Firstly to John and Katrina Kynaston who were such fantastic hosts, and making my weekend in Scotland so very enjoyable. John is famous for his Ultra Trail Running Blog at http://www.johnkynaston.com/ If you haven't been to it before check it out, and take a look at his extremely high blog viewing numbers, clearly reflecting the quality of his blog. Whilst staying with John and Katrina, John interviewed me for Episode 39 of the West Highland Way 95 mile Trail Race Podcast. Click HERE to listen to the one hour interview which includes both pre-race, and post race discussions. (Just one note though in relation to the interview. Having just listened to the podast, there is one bit that could be a bit confusing, where I am talking about how in a race getting to a checkpoint too quickly can be seen as a negative. Off course this isn't my view, as the quicker the better. But I was trying to illustrate how this is often interpreted, i.e. the generally accepted view being a negative response. Within the podcast I don't think I made that point clear, so it does sound as though I am contradicting myself, especially in relation to my approach of starting fast in a race as being ideal.)
Secondly, I would like to thank John Duncan and his massive team that put on the Highland Fling. Having run the event three times, every year it just gets better and better. Your time and effort, and attention to detail are massively appreciated.
And lastly I would like to thanks the many readers/ followers out there who wished me well for the Fling race. The support does really aid my performance. If you have read a little bit of my Race Focus Energy (RFE) Fatigue Model, you will understand just how important the surrounding positivity can boost ones RFE tanks prior to the race day.
May you all have enjoyable, satisfying trail running experiences,
PS To those of you I have recently met on the recent TORQ Trail Team days, reading some of the words above, especially the "Not running faster, not finishing higher up didn't really seem to really matter!" are probably quite a surprise, especially after I had spent quite a large portion of my TORQ presentation trying to get you to reflect on your aims, your self perceptions, and to challenge yourself to question whether you should focus on a faster time or a higher finishing place. Well, although I seem not to be putting what I say into action, it has been very, very rewarding to read how many of the TORQ community runners have been reflecting on some of my messages from my TORQ presentations, and have been achieving some great performances. So below are a few comments I have received which I would like to share with you, to help increase the level of positivity with the running community:
First, Ashley, who recently raced the Snowdonia road half marathon. "My first road race, and potentially a good placing. I'm happy with the mental approach though thanks to Stuart Mills " Click this link to read his blog post. But here are a few bits from Ashley's post: "I don't know what it was about the TORQ trail team assessment but it tempted me to run a road race. My first road race. Eeugh! There was something about what Stuart Mills was saying about belief, and mental attitude that I wanted to test, and a half marathon with hills was just the right thing to do it on." .... "Look at the watch, just under 1hr 35 and a 4:29 min/km pace. Tick. I ask whether I might of made the top quarter. "Definitely" says Michaela, "Probably top 40".I can't quite believe that. The finish area is pretty quiet, maybe that is why. I still can't quite process that though." .... "Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed running well, I enjoyed controlling my mind and I enjoyed my finishing position."
Next, Sally, who ran the North Lincolnshire Half. "Your motto worked for me today, I got a massive pb in my half, ran the 2 quickest mile splits in the first 2 miles (despite the headwind!) and gradually slowed, but managed to hang in to get 3rd lady and 32nd overall in North Lincolnshire Half in 1:22:26. It was also a 10k and 10m mile pb along the way."
Also Sotiris, who recently ran the Paris Marathon: "The weekend after (the TORQ trail team day) and having run a fastest of 3:35 in the five previous road marathons I had attempted, I was determined to go below 3:30. That was my target. Being late (to the TORQ day), I ended up sitting at the back of the room and I was absorbing, thinking and analysing the information I was receiving. It made sense to me, I was convinced and I decided to use some of your tips for my race on Sunday." .... "To cut a long story short, before your talk I would have run the marathon probably do 3:29 and be very happy. Having gone through the changes, I ran my fastest marathon at 3:13 and it was a highly enjoyable experience and I managed to maintain my positive approach throughout. I had just delivered a performance that I did not consider possible. I learnt a lot in one day about how your frame of mind determines your performance and unleashes your potential and how physical training is not the main determinant."
"TOTAL Training does work, but as with all training, it can be difficult to get totally right, hence the need for patience and perseverance, but most important, BELIEF is the key!" Stuart Mills, 2013