Sunday, 30 March 2014

Steyning Stinger Marathon Race Report – Disappointment and Priorities

Those of you that had taken a detailed note of my planned 2014 race calendar may have been wondering where my Steyning Stinger race report was, with it now being four weeks since the race!  Well, to be honest I haven’t really felt motivated to write up the report as at the Steyning Stinger I experienced my first DNF in a trail marathon from over 30 trail marathon starts!  Yes, a disappointing start to the year.  And then to make matters worse, following the race I wasn't even able to walk normally for over a week.  So what went wrong?
After having had a pleasing year of running in 2013, I had set myself an ambitious racing calendar for 2014.  With the 103 mile UTMB, probably my number one focus race for the year, not taking place until the end of August, I was very conscious of not getting too carried away with my running at the start of the year.  This was to ensure that I wouldn't  have ‘gone off the boil’ by August, which has typically happened to me in previous years, such as 2013 and 2011.  (My 2012 year didn't really get much beyond a simmer!)
So as I completed my briefer than normal non-physical training for the Stinger, I was aware that my TOTAL training had been less than it really should have been.  As I line up on the start line, with Danny Kendall (10th place 2013 Marathon de Sables, 2nd place 2014 Pilgrims Challenge, and 2nd place 2013 Beachy Head Marathon, just to name a few of his results) next to me I knew that I would have to run well to maintain my unbeaten record at the Steyning Stinger, four starts for four wins!  My fastest time for the event, also the course record was exactly 2 hours 57 minutes, set on a dry fast course way back in 2004.  Well with there having been loads of recent rain, the surface was extremely wet and muddy, so my anticipated finish time was more in the region of 3:05 - 3:10.  Expecting to run a few minutes slower that 2013 (3:03) due to the underfoot conditions.

The race starts and as usual I go straight to the front as I slip and slide for the first 400 metres or so before reaching a sealed driveway where finally I am able to gain some traction.  I have Danny and another runner,Stephen Hodges, both from Cambridge Harriers, directly behind me.  Danny then runs beside me and we run together for I guess the next mile or so.  I am working pretty hard, knowing that I can't really maintain this intensity for 26 miles, but I find I race better if I go out really hard from the start, and then gradually ease off the pace, to a level which feels about right, dependent upon the duration of the race.  Click this link for my GPS / Heart rate data on GarminConnect.  Although I am working really hard during the first mile, I find that it now takes around a mile for my heart rate to fully 'get up to speed'.  The average HR for the first mile is therefore only 164 bpm, before reaching the highest mile average for the race of 170 bpm, for miles two and three.  

It wasn't that many years ago when I was able to maintain an average heart rate of 170 bpm for an entire trail marathon, as indicated in the image below, where in June 2010, less than four years ago I maintained an average of 171 bpm for the South Downs trail marathon.  But recently over the last few years, I find that my average for a trail marathon is now more likely around 161 - 165 bpm! 

Coinciding with this decline in average heart rate for a trail marathon has been my competitiveness in trail marathons, where I am now finding it more difficult to stay at the front!  Fortunately, for ultra trail races of 50 miles and beyond, such a high average heart rate isn't required, and I still find that I can be very competitive in ultra trail races longer than 50 miles.

Opps, I got a bit side-tracked there! Back to the Steyning Stinger race.  So after around two miles I have to let both Danny and Stephen go, and over the next few miles I watch Danny run out of sight, but manage to keep an eye on Stephen, probably within two minutes, but always with the thought that if I run a strong second half of the race, then maybe I might be able to pull him back.  Pulling back Danny?  Not  a chance, he is running amazingly quick, especially considering the wet, muddy conditions.

Maintaining the Physical Intensity at Around 8 Miles

So as I continue racing, semi-happy with my physical intensity, but not so happy with my race focus, I am a little disappointed with my running pace, as I check my time at 10 miles which I remember from last year was pretty well bang on 70 minutes, compared to this year being 74:51.  I try to calculate how much the mud would have slowed me down to this point, and I guess probably around 2 -3 minutes.  So the disappointment is there, knowing that taking into account this year's conditions, I am still running around 2 -3 minutes slower than last year.  

Why was I running slower this year?  I think a large part of it was due to my lack of TOTAL preparation, which consists of the non-physical such as establishing race goals, identifying realistic self-expectations, forming a racing plan, developing self-confidence, etc, but also the physical training, simply 'banging out the miles', as well as mixing up the intensity occasionally on various runs over a variety of distances and terrains.  Although I refer to the training as separate, i.e. physical and non-physical, the two can be interlinked.  Often I will carry out the non-physical aspects whilst actually running, on a rhythm/relaxation run.  But probably more important is that the physical training that is accomplished, and the manner at which it is accomplished, plays a large role in developing the self-confidence, and raising ones race self-expectations.

Interestingly I am processing these thoughts while I am racing through the miles of the Stinger.  Which is definitely not a good sign of my race focus, where I really need to be 'within the present moment', staying on task, staying race focused!  I therefore begin to accept a 'below par' performance, and realise that this poor race performance is just the 'wake-up' call I need, in order to get my TOTAL training back on track for my big year.  I also realise just how much I enjoy being competitive in races, and with the current situation that I am experiencing today being nowhere as enjoyable as usual.  I begin to start to feel more positive about the situation.  Knowing what is needed to be done before my next race, and then the following focus races, and with the increased positivity I begin to start thinking, maybe I can salvage something from today's race.  Yes, lets start considering second place, now where has the second placed runner gone?

I guess it must have been about the 14 mile mark, by the time all of this 'processing' was complete, and just as I was all set to 'rejoin' the race I take a big tumble and hit the slippery ground with a huge jolt!  I pick myself up, get back into running, and ease of the pace a little as the ground was pretty slippery and I didn't really fancy the idea of taking another massive tumble.  Then around five minutes later I am brought instantly to a stop.  My entire back of my right leg, the calf and hamstring is totally locked up, as if a massive spasm!  I try to stretch both muscle groups out, jog a little, stretch again, but without much success.  James Elson  from Centurion Running catches me up and stops to check that I am okay.  I tell him " I am fine, no need to stop.  I will just walk it off"!  After a minute or two of walking it does ease off a bit, but as I try to run again, everything locks up again.  

I realise that trying to continue in the race is not possible and therefore decide to simply get back to the finish taking the shortest route, through a mixture of walking, and slow jogging when possible, to avoid getting to cold.

After taking a short cut of around four miles I am around two miles from the finish when I am overtaken by Danny Kendall.  He is looking pretty strong.  I do some calculations, and work out based on the speed he has just ran past me that he will break my ten year old record by a few minutes.  Oh well, it had to be broken sometime.  (Danny did set a new record time of 2:52:50). But I am pleased that my inability to stay with Danny beyond two miles wasn't all due to my lack of 'form', but also due to the amazing performance he was putting in!

Just before the finish I am overtaken my Stephen who finishes in a time of 3:06:20.  Having informed the marshal at each checkpoint I pass that I have withdrawn from the race, the last thing I want is for my time to be recorded as I pass through the finish line.  I therefore remove my race number and try to pass unnoticed.  Alas, I am spotted by the photographer from Sussex Sport Photography, with the following photo being posted on their blog, with the sub-title "everyone is allowed to have an off day, even the greats".  Yes, definitely an off day!

Walking to the Finish - Holding my Race Number

So there you go.  My first DNF in a trail marathon from over thirty starts!  Not a great start to the year, but I wasn't all 'down in the dumps' as I realised that I needed to get into action for the bigger races that follow, i.e. 2 x 50 milers, 1 x 61 miler and 2 x 100 milers!  So I was hopeful that the 'locking up' I experienced was just a temporary problem due to my heavy fall, and after a few days I would be back into running, and then back into full-on TOTAL training.  But unfortunately not!  One week passes and I still can't even walk normally.  I start getting treatment from my physio and things start to improve slowly, and after three weeks I am finally back into running having managed an easy seven mile run.

By this time there is now only two weeks until my next scheduled race, the Centurion Running South Downs Way 50 miler.  The first time I would have raced the event, but being within my 'home patch', I am very familiar with the entire route, and am well aware that it will be a very quick competitive 50 mile race.  Although I have missed quite a bit of physical training, I am well aware that performance in ultra trail races is more determined by the non-physical training, which I have been continuing along with.  However, the body still has to get you to the finish line, and there is a bit of worry whether my right side will hold up to running 50 miles quickly.  And the number one factor that prevents one from achieving a strong ultra trail running performance is doubt!  Yes, if you are on the start line with any doubt, then as the miles of the race progress, that doubt will progressively increase, to such an extent that towards the later portions of the race, the race focus energy required to 'overcome' this doubt, which by now will have magnified, prevents you from focusing on running fast, so the running pace drops, one will get slower and slower, and the poor performance results!

It was therefore essential that if I did race the SDW50, now in less than two weeks time, that I had to remove this doubt.  Having slowly built my run distance up to eight miles, I was running out of time, so a sixteen/seventeen mile run was called for, in order to test everything out.  Considering that just two weeks earlier I couldn't even walk normally, the progress I had made was pretty amazing.  Although I finish the 16/17 mile training run, with a few quick miles thrown in, with the leg not causing any major issues.  I know that all is still not right.  I re-evaluate my 2014 racing schedule and see that the 61 mile Fellsman race is only three weeks following the SDW50.  Now the Fellsman has been on my 'to do' list for many years, and the prospect of missing this race was not appealing.  I weigh up all of the pluses and minuses of racing the SDW50, and conclude that the risk of re-damaging my right side through racing to soon, and possible sacrificing my racing of the Fellsman, and being part of 'The Race' with over fifty years of history, is too much of a gamble,  So unfortunately, a few days ago I made the decision to not race the SDW50!

Having made this decision to not race the SDW50, I immediately knew that it was the correct decision, and I am already really excited about the Fellsman in just four weeks time.  

Although I am still taking things a bit cautiously running wise, I have an awesome run this morning over the Weald Challenge Trail Half Marathon race route.  I am the race director for the Weald Challenge races (also consisting of a trail marathon and a 50km ultra trail).  They are a new event to the East Sussex trail racing calendar, and take place in exactly eight weeks time, on Sunday 25th May.  The routes are pretty awesome, with a great variety of terrain and views, with the marathon and ultra taking in the Ashdown Forest.  As I was running this morning, I was gathering information regarding the route, and recorded that the half marathon route involves passing through 20 gates, and crossing 24 stiles.  Over the next few weeks, I will run both the marathon and the ultra routes, to record similar data, and publish on the race website.  As you may gather from the large number of gates and stiles, the races won't be that quick, and combined with the undulating terrain, the Weald Challenge race name is definitely appropriate, as the routes are quite challenging!

With this year being the inaugural running of the Weald Challenge, I am really pleased with the level of interest that has been shown, and with there still being eight weeks to race day, there are already over 180 entries.  Check out this link to find out more information about the races.  Hopefully I will see many of you on the start line.  Please say hello, and let me know if you read my UltraStu blog.

Well this Steyning Stinger DNF race report as usual has ended up being a lot longer than I envisaged when I started typing.  Good to see that I haven't lost my ultra typing ability, even though I seem to have lost my 'top end' trail marathon speed!  With the 61 mile Fellsman race expected to take longer than ten hours, this lack of 'top end' speed isn't really an issue.

I sub-titled this race report post "Disappointment and Priorities".  Making the decision not to race SDW50 is all related to priorities.  Not only to race priorities, but also the overall 'bigger' picture, i.e. being able to run, full stop.  Not being able to run for pretty well two weeks following my DNF at the Stinger, really reminded me just how much I simply enjoy running.  Yes, I do love the racing, the competition, the challenge of really extending myself.  But at the 'end of the day' I only plan to race seven times each year.  Yes, it is the running on the other 257 days of the year that gives me the most enjoyment, so risking this by racing to soon again was also a major factor.  Perhaps, one may then ask, why bother racing at all?  Well that is definitely a topic for another blog post.

Time to sign off:  "Everything tends to happen for a reason.  The key is to be open and questioning enough, with a positive outlook, to identify the purpose of what at first may be a disappointing outcome.  Or simply, search for the sunshine behind the cloud"!  Stuart Mills, 2014.

May I hope the start of your running year has been more satisfying.


PS.  Those of you who are observant, may have noticed that in pretty well all of my race photos that are posted on my blog, apart from when it is really muddy underfoot, that I race in road shoes.  Yes, for the last seven or eight years, since getting back more seriously into marathon running and racing, my main training shoe and racing shoe has been Mizuno Wave Rider.  Well around a month or so ago, I received an interesting e-mail from a company that deals with the promotion of Mizuno shoes within the UK.  Whether they were aware that I predominantly train and race in Mizuno shoes or not, I don't know.  But for whatever reason they approached me to ask if I was interested in receiving some Mizuno running shoes, and also to be involved in a six person team for the Mizuno Endure 24 race that takes place at the end of June.  I hadn't specifically heard of the Mizuno Endure 24 race, but I had heard of similar 24 hour non-stop events, that involve completing multiple laps of typically five miles of trail.  Checking my race calendar, the 24 hour team race fitted in perfectly between the Petzel South Downs Way 100, and the Montane Lakeland 50.  I am looking forward to the event, especially the team aspect of it.  Where we all take turns completing the five mile lap, continuously for 24 hours.  It looks like a great event!

So the next time you see me out running.  Not only will I appear really happy, simply due to running again.  But also happy due to running in a new pair of Mizuno Wave Riders, with this year's model being Wave Rider 17, which seems significantly lighter than the previous Wave Rider models, so feels really responsive, especially when I pick up the pace.  Maybe these lighter shoes are just what I need to get that 'top end speed' back!

Racing  in Mizuno Wave Rider 16 Shoes at the Start of the 2013 Montane Lakeland 100

Racing at the 2009 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in Mizuno Wave Riders