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