Sunday 18 June 2017

West Highland Way Race Splits

Follows are a series of split tables and graphs for a range of West Highland Way Race finishing times, these are meant for runners and crews of the race.  If you want to personalize the splits then you can try out editing the spreadsheet I used  (created using Libre Office in Open Document Spreadsheet format.)

I am sure most runners and crew members will be happy to bypass spreadsheets and go straight to the splits, so I've includd below a series of splits for 14hr, 16hr, 18hr, 20hr, 22hr, 24hr, 26hr and 28hr finishing times based on even effort splits (where the runner maintains there effort level throughout the race, starting easy and finishing strong.)  Each of these also contains that splits that the runner would see if they paced the same to Drymen then slowed progressively following the average splits, these average splits are obtained directly by averaging the splits for all the runners in a WHWR race.   

The two sets of splits give an upper and lower band for how you day might evolve - if you have a perfect day, where pacing, nutrition, drinking, navigation etc. all go perfectly and you maintain pace all the way to the end, and if the day unravels a bit progressively through the race and you slow. 

Even effort splits : pacing attuned to the bodies need

The principle that underlies "even effort" being optimal is that the human body works most efficiently when it can easily maintain homeostatis ( By running/walking at an even effort your power output is near constant, so heat generation is near constant, so you aren't sweating buckets one minute and cold the next. Constant power output also avoids digging into your precious muscle and liver glycogen reserves so that your blood sugar levels can be maintain for longer and avoid the peaks and troughs. Avoiding peaks of power production also avoids the need to divert blood from your stomach - a crucial part of getting fluids and fuel digested. Finally the body self regulates it's effort at a subconscious level to get your safely to next checkpoint/to the finish, this process is encapsulated by the idea of the Central Governor Model. 

I believe that even effort approach maintains all your systems in a far more linear way so your Central Governor can be more confident in your ability to maintain your pace to the finish. If your effort level is all over the place - pushing hard uphill, getting sweating, getting low in glycogen, then crashing in temperature and blood sugar levels your Central Governor will have little confidence in your ability to get the job done. In this case feeling of overwhelming fatigue will hit you, you'll be forced to slow drastically to save the day.

Following even effort splits does take discipline early in the race, but it's well worth it as you'll get into a groove that doesn't over stress your body.  Physically and mentally you'll find things easier going, especially later in the race when you are steadily move through the field. 

Back in my first 2014 WHW race I set out in the unkown armed with my Even effort splits, but not 100% confident how things would unfold.  This meant I started right at the back of the field (with 28hr+ finishers for company) but just kept moving steadily all day moving up to 26th and finishing in 20:18, way faster than I ever expected. That discipline early in the race was repaid four fold in how well the day went.

Another indication that Even effort splits are effective is analysing how elite's pace, you'll find that their splits are much closer to even effort than average day splits.  If you look at Elite marathoner runners breaking world records again you see the same pattern - even pacing is the gold standard.

How to choose which Even effort and average day spits to use

My recommendation to runners is to decide what your perfect day finishing time could be, this is your dream time - but keep it realistic, much as I'd love to do 14hrs and set the course record it ain't going to ever happen.  For me my perfect day would be 20hrs, other runners it might be 16hrs, other it might be 28hrs.  So pick one of the following sets of splits which best suit you.  If you want say 21hrs splits which I haven't include then let me know via a comment, or the WHWR facebook page I can generate some more.

In each of the following sets of splits you'll see the split time for each of the respective checkpoints, in blue it's the even effort splits (perfect day), in orange it's the average splits (average day), in red are the cut offs and in green are the times that you can pick up a support runner.

When you look at the graphs you'll see the yellow cutoff line at the top, the line you don't want to ever go ever as you'll be pulled out of the race for your own safety, while the if you are above the green support line you should be able to pick up your support runner. For the elite's you won't be able to pick up a support runner, for mid of pack you'll be comfortably ahead of the cut offs, but will be keen to pick up a support runner when allowed. 

Keeping ahead of cut-offs

For those worried about getting inside the cut-offs, the way the cut-offs for the WHW are done is to assume that you are runner rather than a walker, so if you are already struggling to get to Balmaha by 5hrs then it's likely you are already seriously compromised will be very unlikely to finish the race later.  If you look at the 28hr even splits it has it slipping under the 5hr cut off at Balmaha by 5 minute, but the rest of the cut-offs you'll should make easily as long as your maintain this initial pace.  When technically feasible it'd require excellent race craft to be able to pull it off so I would recommend getting yourself to Balmaha comfortably ahead of the cut off then take it easier along the lochside with the plan to maintain that pace for the rest of the day.  A master of this approach is Andy Cole so have a look at his blog to see how he's tackled the WHWR in the past.

How Runners and Crew can use the splits

For runners you'll likely just want to run with the splits table to keep your honest, if you find yourself ahead of your even effort splits for your perfect day it's probably time to ease off as you are risking blowing up. The longer you push on ahead of the even effort splits the more likely you'll be building up a fatigue debt that will be paid later, so the sooner you cool the pace the more likely you'll save the later stages of the race. If you day unfolds the way we all dream of then you'll be able to stick to these splits steadily moving through the field, and if you find yourself feel great at Glencoe then it's time to let loose and see how fast you can go over the final sections.

For crews both the split tables and graphs will be useful.  I would suggest that crews write your actual times when you arrive at checkpoints under the splits table and mark on the graph a cross where your time first.  There is point for each checkpoint as you move from left of right.  These actual race splits on the graph will create a curve that will reveal how you are doing w.r.t the even effort and average splits, in the later stages of the race this curve should be able extrapolate a times at checkpoints down the course and even possible finishing time.  

Macro vs Micro pacing

It's worth remembering these splits are macro level i.e. on the scale of complete legs, that don't provide micro scale pacing guidance.  Micro scale is on the scale of 10's of meters, i.e. walking hills, jogging flats and running descents.  The splits published here can't address this fine grained pacing. Micro pacing is best done by running by feel, using awareness of breathing or using a Heart Rate monitor. Ideal micro pacing maintains an even effort level on flat, ascents and descents, so this means breathing and HR will remain within a small band.  

Personally I use a HR monitor for this purpose, aiming to keep my HR within a +- 5bpm band.  For this years race I'll be aiming for a 130 to 140bpm range, if I can manage this then my macro pacing will also be taken care of as even effort splits also coincide well with even HR pacing.  What range is ideal for you if best chosen from similiar races, if you haven't run a race as long as the WHWR before then I find that taking 1.5 to 2bpm HR for every hour extra of running in a race, so for the Fling I target 145-155, and WHWR is 130 to 140. 

I'll also be running with the 20hr splits in mind, so if I find myself faster than these splits early in the race I'll know to cool the pace.  My own training hasn't gone great this year so I really don't expect to be able to manage to maintain 20hrs schedule all the way, if things go badly then I'd hope to still be inside the 25hrs splits than average splits would suggest. The most likely result next week for me will be somewhere in the middle of these two.

Best of luck to all runners, crews on the 24th-25th June, it will be grand adventure for us all.  Many thanks to the race organizers and the mange marshals that make this amazing event what it is.

Splits tables

14hrs Even Effort Splits:

16hrs Even Effort Splits:

18hrs Even Effort Splits:

 20hrs Even Effort Splits:

22hrs Even Effort Splits:

24hrs Even Effort Splits:

26hrs Even Effort Splits:

 28hrs Even Effort Splits:

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Winter West Highland Way Interview with Caroline Mckay

To help put something back into the West Highland Way Race I will be doing a series of podcasts contributions to the official West Highland Way Race Podcast that is put together by John Kynaston. My plan is to do interviews with runners, organizers, volunteers as well as experts in various fields, and also provide my own thoughts on training and racing ultras.

As soon as I heard that Caroline Mckay was planning to run a Winter's West Highland Way for a worthy charity, I knew immediately that it would be of interest to wider community and very kindly she agreed to be interviewed.

Running the West Highland Way is tough mid-summer when we have a best weather and longest hours of daylight, a Winter's run along the same route is wholly different type of adventure, challenging weather and long hours of darkness make the task a step up.  I've wondered about whether one day I would have the skills and fitness to tackle it so it's fascinating to talk to Caroline about her plans and her motivation for taking on the challenge - raising money for supporting education in Africa.

I haven't attempted doing my own podcasts before so it's a bit of experiment, both with the technology for reordering the interview and human skill of conducting an interview. We did the interview over Skype so the audio quality is a bit tinny, and there was a recording glitch when my computers screen saver came on. I'm sure what Caroline had to say will more than make up for my shaky first steps into the world of podcasts. 

My thanks to Caroline for her time and to John Kynaston for his intro and editing the final podcast together.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Devil O' the Highlands : Even Effort Splits

I'll be running the 2016 Devil O' Highlands ultra marathon this weekend with the goal of completing not only this race but the "Triple Crown" of completing all three ultra-marathons on the West Highland Way Route in one year.

This post provide "Even Effort Splits" for the DOH race for my own purposes but also extrapolated to faster and slower pace ranges to help elites through to tail enders know what type of splits might be possible.  "Even Effort Splits" are a bit like even paced splits for a marathon but adapted for the particular topography of the race by utilizing actual race splits obtained on the route and is roughly obtained by maintaining a even heart rate throughout the race.

To obtain the splits for the 2016 DOH race I've used Donnie Campbell's 2015 DOH splits, when he came joint first with Casey Morgan, as a base adapting the leg % to even out the effort level.  From the average HR data for each leg that Strava reports you can tell how hard Donnie was pushing, legs like Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe his average HR was 172, vs the average 165 for the whole race, so to even things out I've slowed this leg to the time he would likely have done had he run it at around his average of 165.  Legs with a lower average HR I've sped up a little.  The final splits actually at most shift by 3 minutes slower or faster so Donnie was actually pretty close to run even effort splits to start with.  How little I had to adjust shows off how well judged Donnie's pacing was, and also means that any errors in adapting these splits will be minimal.

To double check the splits I also compared the split % of my 2013 DOH race (my report) when I finished really strongly and was able to maintain my HR in a target range through the race, my race splits come in within a couple of minutes of the computed even effort splits.  I was chuffed to bits with how my 2013 race went and how well pacing by HR range worked out, the fact they tally so well to Donnie's is nice bonus, I don't have Donnie's great racing legs and brain but I've been able to replicate some of his natural talent for judging pace by using HR monitor.

So on to the splits, I've groped them into finish time bands of 1:30hr range, print off the one that contains your target finishing time.

Splits for 5hrs to 11:30hrs finishing times

Personal goals for the Devil 2016

Training has been minimal to say the least in the build up to the this years Devil race, principally down to having to gently re-introduce training whilst trying to give a heal couple of post West Highland Way injuries - metarsalgia in my left foot and weak right knee.  Since the WHWR in June the longest training run I've done is a 8 miler, making do with 3 to 4 milers, adding a few hills or speed intervals to maintain aerobic fitness despite the low weekly mileage.

Ramping up to a hilly 43 miler from just an 8 miler is a bit risky. I know my aerobic fitness is fine - I did a 19 minute 5k race last Saturday, but structural resilience, particularly with my right knee is going to be my biggest challenge.  I'd dearly love to complete the Triple Crown so will walk it in if I have to.

Based on my aerobic fitness I think I'm in the shape to do around a 7hr DOH, but as my lack of mileage and a still carrying a bit of injury I suspect the descents will be down by week point.  I'll take the descents nice and easy right form the start and hope that I can nurse then along to the finish.

I'll pace by HR zone once again, aiming for an average HR of 155, with a range between 150 and 160.  If it does look like my knees will be a big problem then I'll shift this HR range down 5 or 10 bpm to lower the pace and stress on the body.

Best of luck everyone!

Thursday 16 June 2016

West Highland Way Race : Even Effort Splits

At time of writing there is now just a day and half left till the start of 2016 West Highland Way Race.  I will be running this 95 mile, 14.000ft ascent/descent race for the 3rd time.  Looking at my training logs I looks like in a similar shape as I was last year, and believe that I might be able to get near 19hrs if my day goes well.

In this post I'll outline the approach I'll take for pacing and provide splits generated by a spreadsheet I have written than applies Even Effort Splits to a range of finishing times so we can judge whether we are going too fast or slow to meet out finishing target time, or to judge how well we are maintaining pace.  If the day goes well you'll be able to maintain effort and stick closer to the Even Effort Splits, if the day goes less well then you'll steadily fall behind the Even Effort Splits.

Pacing to HR and Splits

A big part of my plan to maximize the chance of me achieving this lofty goal is to get my pacing right, for this purpose I'll use a mix of running to pacing to HR and using splits.

From previous races I know that I should be able to maintain an average HR  of around 135 for 20hrs racing, so a HR range of 130 to 140 would keep me honest.  10bpm roughly equates to running 40 seconds/mile faster or slower, so my pace can vary +20 seconds/mile on the flat.  On the hills I stay within this HR range or make sure the effort stays the same, but as consequence my pace will vary significantly, going much slower uphill, typically walking, and faster downhill, typically running if my legs and feet can handle it.

If you want to see what HR range might be appropriate for you my 130 to 140 range equates to 75% to 81% of my Lactate Threshold HR, or 70 to 76% of my max HR.   So if your Lactate Threshold HR (say HR during a 10k) is 160 then a range of 120 to 130 might be suitable.

The way I'll use the splits to check my progress through the day against the splits to see how it looks the day is playing out and what my projected finishing time might be if I can maintain the effort right to the end.  I really hope the 19hrs will come naturally as pacing in my target HR zone, but if a little out of touch then I may take the risk and up the intensity a little such as my targeting a 135 to 145 HR range, such as change would mean upping my average pace on the flat by 20 seconds faster, over the whole 95 miles we might expect this to mean 30 minutes quicker.

However, upping the intensity range is a gamble, if I push on too hard then I might be faster to next check point but risk burning out more and being unable to maintain the pace.

Upping intensity isn't just a matter of higher HR, your whole system is taxed more, muscles are working at a higher rate and will burn muscle glycogen stores more quickly, you generate more heat so will sweat more, more sweating will mean quicker rates of dehydration.  Blood flow to the stomach is also reduced when working harder so the amount of food and drink you can digest goes down.  Finally working harder is more stressful on the muscles, ligaments an bones so their structural resilience will be tested more.

Listen to the body will be key to figuring how much I might be able to bend the HR zone rules to fit my ego of finishing faster.  Listen to your ego too much and you'll be sure to crash and burn.

Even Effort Splits

Follows are series of splits that can be printed out/copy and pasted in race plans to give runners and crew an ideal of progress.

 Splits for Elite runners:
Even Effort Splits for 14hr (Course Record :-) to 17hr finishing time

Even Effort Splits for Good Club Runners, note the introduction of green times at the lower right part of the table, green numbers means that you are allowed to have a support runner with you at this point.  For Even Effort splits tracking 20 and 20:30hrs the green times appear but then disappear so you'd loose your support runner at the next check point when the time goes back into the black!
Even Effort Splits for 17 to 21 hr finishing time

Even Effort Splits for Sub 24hr crowd, note the green times again, here you can have your support runner with you. It only turns permanently green for 21hrs and slower so it's probably worth just thinking about this time as one where you can consider getting a support runner
Even Effort Splits for 20 to 24hr finishing time

Even Effort Splits for Middle of Field runners
Even Effort Splits for 23 to 27hr finishing time

Even Effort Splits for Back of Field runners.  Here it's important to take note of the time out cut off times, I've used the colour red for points where you'd be timed out.  Essentially if you are using Even Effort Splits and tracking for a 27:30hr finishing time you'll get timed out.
Even Effort Splits for 26 to 30hr finishing time
Timing out a runner who is successfully running Even Effort Splits at Balmaha even though they are capable of finishing in 27:30 seems a bit harsh, but if you look at my previous WHWR 2015 splits analysis article there are no Back of Field runners that come even remotely close to Even Effort Splits, so this point is really more hypothetical than anything else.

Realistically this means that Back of Field Runners can't use Even Effort Splits or pace by HR. Instead they will need to pace to comfortably meet the early cut offs then settle into a lower intensity that keeps them ahead of the next cut offs points but without getting to hurried early on as you will end up slowing down more in the end.

Crew and online folk assessing progress using splits

I will get my crew to keep track of my splits and mark them on the printed out splits as I go through the race so they can access how I'm doing.  What will result is a wiggly line as each leg won't be perfectly paced.  If I have the perfect day then we'll see a straight line down to my target 19hrs, if the wheels fall off then we'll steadily drop of this and likely see a diagonal line shifting to the left and to slower finishing times.

For folks following progress at home via twitter, facebook or the Sports Ident live tracking Website you'll be able to use this splits to access progress as well. Please note that the majority of the field don't manage to stick with Even Effort Splits so it's perfectly normal to see a diagonal progress through the race rather than just tracking down vertically.

For those following online, there is no timings generated for Drymen, Inversnaid and Lundavra so if you can have a long wait sometimes, the splits should give you an idea of how long, but as the splits are for runners who take an easy start/strong finish early on you'll find the above splits slower than those estimated online/via twitter/facebook updates and later in the race the above splits will suggest earlier times.  This discrepancy is due to Sports Ident using average splits rather than Even Effort Splits.

Best of Luck!!!!

This will be my last post till I finish.  Best of luck to all runners, crew and the legions of volunteers that are giving them time freely to make some magic happen for a 200 hardy souls.

West Highland Way Race 2015 Splits Analysis

To help gain an insight what type of splits to use in the West Highland Way Race it can be useful to look at previous years races.  For this article I have taken 2015 race splits published on, and processed them in three different ways:
  1. First half vs second half pace to look how much runners slowed
  2. Comparison between individual runners splits% vs average split%
  3. Comparison between individual runners splits% vs even paced split%
Lots of my own prep to complete for this years race (in two days) so I won't spend long explaining how I did the analysis, instead I'll just dive directly into the results and then wrap up with conclusions.

 1. First half vs second half pace to look how much runners slowed

ratio of Average Pace second half / Average pace
This graph shows the ratio of the pace for the second half (Tyndrum to Fort William) divided by the average pace for the first half (Milngavie to Tyndrum). A value greater than 1 shows a positive split, while a value of exactly 1 is an even split.  There were no negative splits in 2015, we had two in 2014 so it can happen!

The most obvious takeaway from this plot is that there is a broad trend of faster runners running more even splits and slower runners running slower splits.

The second observation is that there can be a lot of difference in first half and second half even for runners that finish around the same time, especially for those in the middle of the race.

The third observation is that the top 8 runners all had slowed less than 20%, with three slowing less than 5%.

Paul Giblin slowed by 9.9%, which is substantially less than he slowed in 2014 where he slowed by over 16%.  This suggests that racing Robbie Britton hard in the first half of the 2014 had penalty on how well he could maintain pace in the second half.  Compared to the rest of the field though even in 2014 he was still finishing far stronger.  In 2015 ran faster without the pressure of any close competition - he was in effect race himself and was behind even as late Kinlochleven but was able to overhaul his 2014 self over the Larigmor with some very impressive running.

Second placed runner Neil MacNicol came very closer an even split only slowing down by 1.7%.  It's worth reading Neil's race report to see how it unfolded.  Neil ran an exceptional race, especially considering it was his first outing over the distance.

By contrast if we look at the tail enders then then are slowing down 40 to 75%.  This level of slow down will be unlikely to be down to planned pacing, I suspect it's more to do with runners encountering problems as the race unfolded rather than just going out too fast.  I'm sure going out too fast will have been a big factor though, you are much more likely to struggle later if you go out too fast.

2. Comparison between individual runners splits% vs average split%

Speed difference between Actual runner splits 
For the second part of the analysis I computed the split % for each leg and compared these to the average split %, this shows how well using average splits for the whole field is able to predict what splits the actually saw in the race.

The clearest takeway from this is that in the middle of field, between 22 and 30 hrs the average spits do a reasonable job for most of the runners, with most being only 10% off, with a decent number below 5% suggest good match.  The way these difference manifest themselves will be different for each runner, a runner who runner a more positive split than another runner might be equally far away from the average so the accuracy relative to the average splits can end up the same.

As we move to the front of the field the average splits provide a much poorer fit for most runners, you have to get out of top 8 before you seen any close to average splits.  A different splits model would be appropriate for front of field.

Also if we look at the tail ended, runners over 30hrs, again the average splits start to be a more proxy for the actual splits runner see.  This will be related to the the significant slow down that these runners experience.

3. Comparison between individual runners splits% vs even paced split%

Individual runners splits vs even effort splits
For the 2015 West Highland Way Race I created a set of even effort splits that where based on 2014, adjusting for parts of the race where I had problems such as tending to blisters or succumbing to injury late in the race.  I ran the 2014 pacing by heart rate and got the effort level throughout race right, finishing strong despite injury.  These adjusted splits are my best attempt at estimating what even effort splits would look like. 

Even effort splits aren't even paced for indivudual sections - some sections like the first to Drymen or the final descent to Fort William are relatively fast even with the same effort level thanks to the easy terrain or downhill, while by contracts Inversnaid to Beinglas or going over the Devil's Staircase are significantly slower pace wise even if you are maintaining the effort level.

If we look the plot we see a very similar trend as we saw for the first graph that looked at average pacing in the first half vs second half.  Clearly even splits works much better for the front of the field than the majority of the field, especially the tail enders.

For the front of the field the top eight are actually closer to the even effort splits than the average splits.

By contrast the rest of the field the even effort splits increasingly show a poor correlation to the actual splits runners saw on the day.

However, there are still runners where even effort level splits were representative even up to 25hrs.  This suggest that good pace judgement isn't just the preserve of the elite, other members in the field can do it too.

Lessons learned from the analysis

It's very clear that the elite runners are able to maintain their pace far better than the majority of the rest of the field.  This is likely a factor of the training they do and their genetic disposition to ultra racing, as well as experience with how to eat, drink and manage themselves through the whole race.  Part of this ability will also be experience in pacing, they know what they are capable of and pace accordingly.

There is also a factor in that not everyone has a perfect day come race day, those at the front of the field will mostly have been having a good day.  Even great runners who have a bad day will end up slowing badly and moving further away from even effort splits.  This applies even more to us mortals further down the field.

Last year I was one such runner, slowing by 14.55%.  I was very close to even splits as planned up to Bridge Of Orchy, but stomach problems that began at Tyndrum eventually got so bad that I had to walk for the majority of the rest of the race.  My training and pacing weren't to blame, I was fit and pacing for a sub 20hr time, but my day went wrong because of other factors.  In my case the other factor was that I picked up a cold days before the race, and then just hours before the start I strained by back so was in pain at every step.  The cold and back injury meant that I ended up taking pain killers/flu tablets during the race to keep on top of things.  I believe it as the co-codamol pain killers that were the mostly likely cause of the stomach problems.

My experience from last year illustrates that there are many things that can cause you to slow down, so under your control, some out of control, but the analysis can't tease apart these individual stories, all it can pull out is general trends.

When planning your own race we can learn from even these broad trends.  If you want to have a perfect day of racing like the front of the field then it makes sense to pace like them, and this means that even effort splits are likely to be good aspirational place to start from.

Even effort splits have runners start the race well within their capacity, starting off at an intensity that they know they can come close to maintaining for the whole race.  Some runners are really good at judging this by feel, others are terrible at it and even when they try to hold themselves back still go out too fast.

Practice approach to pacing with even effort level

For my own racing I made a number of mistakes in pacing in ultra's before settling upon using a HR monitor as a guide for managing my effort level.  The HR monitor is a good proxy for effort level so if you pace yourself within an appropriate HR band then won't be too far even effort pacing without ever having to look at splits.

For myself for this year's West Highland Way race a HR range of 130 to 140 is roughly appropriate, this is 75% to 81% of my Lactate Threshold HR, or 70 to 76% of my max HR.

I have also computed even effort level splits for this year's West Highland Way Race and will publish these in a follow up article.  These splits will take account of a small route change in this year's race so won't match exactly to those I used in 2015 and for this articles analysis.

Monday 13 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2015 : Race report

This is my long over due race report from my 2015 race, alas I've been so busy with work, family life, training and racing that my blog has had to take a back seat.  So sit back and transport yourself back a year and read on...

West Highland Way Race 20th June 2015

My training in the six months before the race went BRILLANTLY, every single capital is fully warranted.  I was chuffed to bits with how well my body coped with running every day.    My peak weak I managed to hit my target of running 96 miles in 7 days, with back to back half marathon+ of most days.  I've never come close to this mileage before and I felt strong, smooth and efficient.  I was fitter than I've ever been as an adult.  I was ready to knock the race out out of ballpark, confident of going sub 19hrs.

However, things started to unravel on the Wednesday evening before the race - I started to loose my voice, going down with the same cold that my wife had suffered with for the previous 10 days, loosing her voice for much of it.  I ate raw garlic, loads of greens and colourful veg, beetroot.  This onslaught of vitamin and mineral rich veg helped halt the cold getting worse, but I still had a bit of inflamed throat on the night and day of the race.

The grand preparation came a little further unstuck just three hours before the start of the race when I over excitedly picked up a heavy container of food+drink for the race to pack it into the support vehicle.  Don't twist and lift up heavy stuff fast ever, let alone right before your biggest race of the year... unfortunately I did and strained my back.  After all the careful planning, fantastic training I had suddenly through a massive spanner in the works with a split second of stupidity.  The back was sore enough to force me to take pain killers even before I left the house. 

Food and drink all laid out, packing all the drinks into one container is what did my back in!

Thankfully my first half support crew Tom and Toby were on the ball and got everything packed in the car and to the start with plenty of time. At the start I just got on with all prep as usual and this went smoothly, great to see lots of familiar faces and such a great atmosphere.  While I was focused and business like in those final minutes I was also in pain, even walking was uncomfortable.

Race start : 1am, Milgavie

Race start went and we all plodded off into the dark woodland trail of Mugdock park.  A little drizzle meant that I kept my jacket on.  My HR was a bit high, but I was moving well enough, save for every step jarring the back.  I arrived at Drymen in 2:08hrs, a few minutes up on my 2014 split, happy enough but a little disappointed to not be faster.  I wasn't going to force the pace this early though, I just stuck to my target HR range of 135 to 140.

Conic hill, atmospheric in the clearing mist/rain

Conic hill came and went, my descent went well despite my sore back, my quads were feeling strong even if other parts of my body weren't a 100%.  I passed John Kynaston in the woodlands just before the car park and he asked how I was getting on, the reply "It's going to be a tough day at the office" pretty well summed up my physical feeling and resolve.

Balmaha: 19miles, 3:37hr elapsed, 4:37am

Save for the sore back and high HR I was moving OK, and happy to moving and the atmosphere through Balmaha couldn't help perk up the spirits, views help too :-)


On route to Rowardennan

The route along to Rowardennan went smoothly, no problems with midgies this year,  A bit of dampness under foot over the past 5 hours had taken it's toll though with a hot spot on a toe developing as I approached Rowardennan
Keep moving
the midges might catch up...

Rowardennan: 27 miles, 5:07hr elapsed, 6:07am

I arrived 9 minutes up on my 2014 time, but rather than push on did the sensible thing and stopped to get my toe checked over.  This meant I lost 5 minutes, but my crew were great, surgical tape wrapped around the blister on my left little toe and then I was on my way.

I pushed on to Inversnaid and felt that I was now in my groove, the pace felt a bit more of effort than it should have been, heart rate typically in the 140 to 145 zone.  This was above my planned 130 to 140hr zone, but I was still chasing my 19hr target and 10 minutes behind schedule so knew if I was going to up the effort level have any chance of getting anywhere near it.

At a style a couple miles before Inversnaid I caught up with Sandra (now Beattie :-) who had been powering up all the hills ahead but now seemed to be taking it easier on the more technical trails.  As I take the first part of the race easier than the majority of the field I didn't expect to see her again, this was be proved wrong by the end of the day!

Inversnaid: 35miles, 6:37hr elapsed, 7:37am

 I was still in pain but moving OK.  I had been taking a combination of flu tablets and a combination of straight pain killers, alternating the different medications to spread it out evenly.  I didn't want to risk over dosing but also needed to take the edge of pain I was in.  This pain management was working well along the lochside, the pain was stable, my mood was positive despite the discomfort.

Eating and drinking was also still working well, everything I took with me I was able to consume. Unlike in 2014 my path along the lochside was mainly a solitary affair.  I was occasionally catching other runners and exchanging a few words but mostly paces never synced so I just got on with the job of moving as efficiently through the technical trails as I could.  I actually quite enjoyed this section despite the back pain.

Beinglas: 41 miles, 8:14hrs elapsed, 9:14am

By the time I arrived at Beinglas my assertiveness on pace had was now 11 minutes ahead of my split in the 2014 race.  I was now 11 minutes off my 19hr splits though, I'd need to keep the effort up.

A mile out of Beinglas I caught up with Stuart Chalmers and Myvanwy Nenton-May.  Myvanway stopped for comfort break so Stuart and I moved on together.  Stuart was going well and moving assertively especially on the ascents.  For the first time I had found another runner working at the same pace so we settled and catching up on all things running and life.    Cow poo ally came and went without fuss, we attacked the ascents above Crainlarich and stormed down the descents.  It felt like we were pushing on a bit hard as passed the mid point of the race but it was fun, more like play than racing a 95 mile ultra.

Auchtertyre: 50 miles, 10:11hrs elapsed, 11:11am

We trotted into the check point and got weight right after each other and then split up as we met up with our crews and restocked.  I was through quicker and left on my own feeling strong and with positive as I was now 16 minutes up on my 2014 time, and while I was still 10 minutes off my splits for 19hr and now likely out of reach, it looked like a time of 19:15 to 19:30 was still on and well worth chasing.

At Auchtertyre I took a single Co-codamol pain killer and a cereal bar that I munched on the way to Tyndrum,  the familiar landmarks before Tyndrum appear quickly and then I was past the Fling start in 10:44, 2 minutes quicker than my first Fling time back in 2012.  Back in 2012 I finished with a death march and couldn't contemplate going a step further.  Fast forward to June 2015 and I was feeling strong and looking forward to the next 42 miles.


At Tyndrum my north and south crew were changing over so it was good to see every one in good spirits together.  I dropped off empties, picked up drinks and food and a ice cream.  The day had transformed itself from a drab start to a warm beautiful day so the ice was welcome.  Unfortunately the ice cream was melting so as I walked up the road out of Tyndrum I gobbled it down before it turned into total mush.

All seemed good with life, but then my stomach just decided to protest strongly.  My stomach hadn't been 100% up to this point but was pretty good considering the abuse my body was going under but there wasn't any hint that I was pushing my luck.  Back in 2014 my stomach didn't cause any problems even when eating ice-creams and bacon rolls.  Summer 2015 was going to be a different story.

Working on the assumption that my my stomach just needed a bit of rest from constant feeding and my blood flow to my stomach was probably compromised by the higher effort that I had been putting I just began sipping water and dropped my target HR zone back to 130 to 140.  My stomach didn't get better but I was still able to run flats and descents so I was I just hoped this would be a short lived hiccup.

Bride Of Orchy: 12:02hr elapsed, 1:02pm  

As I was still 20 minutes up on my 2014 splits and still within 4hrs of race leader, Paul Guiblin, at BoO I couldn't get a support runner over Rannoch Moor.  Initially I tried to keep jogging on where possible but the faster I moved the worse my stomach got.  I finally decided that I had to stop racing and just walk off the problem and hope that once my stomach had calmed down I could get back racing.

It was fun to see everyone at Jelly Baby hill and get my 100k treat but even the a single Jelly Baby was not an easy proposition to get down.  I ate my sweet and a sip of water but it just increase the pain levels, anything hitting my stomach now was just pushing stomach pain levels up.

Across Rannoch Moor the miles passed very slowly, I lost a number of places, including Stuart and Myvanway would trotted by both looking strong.  Despite taking things very easy my stomach got no better.  It was like having a brillo pad stuck in my stomach, any up and down movement was really painful.  At one point I just wanted to find a hillock and crawl into a ball to sleep it off.  I resisted temptation and kept walking on, hoping that things would sort themselves out.  Thoughts of DNF'ing if I couldn't get back drinking played on my mind as I still had 30 miles to go.  I also considered just getting to car and sleeping for several hours.

Things turned around a little as I got into view of Glen Coe Ski center - an almighty gurgle from my stomach and suddenly my very fuzzy head cleared and the pain in my stomach reduced down several notches.  I got back to a very gentle jog down to the check point.  My stomach was still painful on every foot plant but at least I was able to move.

Glencoe ski center:  70 miles, 15:01hrs, 4:01pm

Once I arrived it was good to be with my support crew and my wife and three girls had arrived to give support.  I took a few minutes to try and work out what I should do next, what I could eat and drink.  My crew and family were great and were really positive.  There was no talk of anything but finishing, my DNF demon’s weren't shown any respect or time, it was now about getting things done.

Up to the Rannoch Moor crossed I had been 100% focused on going sub 20hrs, given my training and good Fling race a PB has looked easy.  I now 24 minutes down on my 2014 split, with the prospect of walking the rest of the way.  In preparation I hadn't really given much thought to the possibility of the not racing all the way to the finish.  Mentally I had to find resolve that I hadn't prepared for, just finishing even if walking being a achievement worth suffering for.

I then marched on, now with my support runner, Andy, jogging where I could, albeit it at pitiful pace as my stomach was so painful at any other pace.

Still the views were pretty epic, sure helps when otherwise suffering

At Devil's Staircase Craig took over to run with me with Andy driving around to Kinlochleven.

Trying to find something I might be able to eat...

We made it across to Kinlochleven slowly, but still moving forward.  I regularly kept trying to sip water and nibbling bits of food but anything I consumed soon made my stomach worse.

Kinlochleven: 81miles, 17:57hrs elapsed, 6:57pm

At Kinlochleven I felt a bit jaded but my legs still felt strong and my head was in the game.  However, I was really concerned about not being able to eat or drink anything substantial.  I felt I was living on borrowed time as I had hardly eaten or drank since Tyndrum, so over 6hrs and 28 miles over on perhaps a hundred calories and just sips of water.  I fully expected my body had to crash and burn.

At the Kinlochleven weight in my weight had gone down further but still within limits and I was still lucid so there was no problem with me continuing.  I tried to eat and drink bits but nothing really went down easily.  Out of desperation I also tried a swig of coke but this burnt my stomach like it was molten larva so really wasn't a good move.

Looking at my watch I realised that if I was to finish in the same day I'd need to get moving, stopping to eat/drink hadn't helped so there was no point delaying so I then headed on.  This thought process I didn't pass on to my family and crew I just got on with a march in my own little private world.  Taking to them later they were all taken by surprise by my departure, I just left walking briskly away packing my drinks for the next leg.

Despite hardly drinking or eating my legs somehow were still strong and got up the ascent out of Kinlochleven OK.  Once the trail flattened I started to jog a little and then off all of sudden I started throwing up everything I had tried to consume.  It burnt on the way as much as on the way down.  Dry heaving I tried not to strain by back and stomach muscles, funny how the utlra-marathon brain can function in an almost detached way to the rest of your body, think how on minimizes the damage from the current problem to compromise the rest of the journey.

This grim point was turned around when a support runner for a fellow runner arrived and gave me a small bottle of soda to sip.  I was able to drink this bottle a sip at a time without it causing my stomach to go in knots so it was progress.  It was still too painful to walk fast or jog any faster than 12 min/miles so progress was slow.

Craig was doing a great job of nursing me along.  My pace was abysmal though. I was passed by several sets of runners and crew.  Sandra passed with her support runner with total commitment, none of the polite gate opening back at the Lochside, she was blowing the barn doors off her PB, complete focus and determination.  Inspiring to see other having great races, but well made my miserable pace seem pretty pathetic a faint shadow of the athlete I had expect to be.

Before arriving at Lundavra the rain came on/off and with it my jacket had to go on/off as I tried to avoid overheating and getting cold in quick succession.  The last half hour before Lundavra I finally started to feel a bit vague and fuzzy headed.  My legs were still strong but clearly by blood sugar level was getting low.  I just sipped my soda and clung on to as a lifesaver even after it was empty, I got a few tangtastics down but still anything I ate caused lots of discomfort. 

Lundavra : 88 miles, 20:28hrs, 9:28pm.

My second crew member Andy had run back up the course after leaving the car in Fort William, this way both Craig and Andy could join me for the final 7 miles.  Andy was really concerned how much I had deteriorated since Kinlochleven, my colour had left me, I was withdrawn and talking in less coherently.

Andy forced me to consume one of his gels.  I didn't want to eat it but he wouldn't let me go one till I had.  I totally expected to bring it back up, but I did what I was told and drained it all - there would be no cheating under Andy's watch!

I wasn't really in a place for chat so Andy and Craig walked ahead up the hill, occasionally checking back to make sure I wasn't being left behind or struggling.  With an hour and half left to cover 7 miles It looked like I might still be able to squeeze in before 11pm if we push on.  This was a goal that I clung to, but one tempered with the expectation that I pushed on too hard that my energy levels would crash and leave me walking like a dead man.

The gel had mad my stomach more uncomfortable but I kept it down and bit my bit I think the 100 calories of sugar that it provided perked me up a little.  I didn’t particularly notice it by Andy saw a change for the better.  We got through the woodland walking the ascents and gently jogging the descents.  My stomach was still painful on each step but my legs were solid and happy with the pace.

We finally got to the wide forest track that leads you down into Glen Nevis and on to Fort William.  We worked out that I had a bit over 3 and half miles to go and only 34 minutes left to do them in, it was doable just if I could run the whole of the rest of the way.  This just seemed tantalizingly out of reach, chances of pulling it off remote.  Andy and Craig were really positive, I wanted to try even if if it going deep into the hurt locker.

Each step was painful, even going downhill at 10 min/mile pace hurt on my stomach, but my legs just kept spinning over.  We hit the flat through the woodland and hadn't earned any safety margin from the descent so still had to push on.  My legs kept responding and I was winning the battle with my stomach, sure it was painful but there was less and less distance to put up with it.  Light was failing now as we went through the final tree cover before Braveheart carpark.  I was torn between stopping for head torch and tripping, I was also really aware of burning out of my less energy reserves.

We hit the road, we weren't sure exactly how far to go, we thought around mile? We had less than ten minutes left to get there, there was no letting up now.  I sent Criag ahead to locate Julia and the girls to tell them of my impending arrival and here tore away at 6 min/mile pace.  Turns out he went straight past them!  It was now dark as he headed up the hill past the 30mph sign, I had to run every step up that cruel incline, as it levelled off I picked up the pace, now down 7mile pace, all pain and exhaustion had gone, I was no-longer conscious of what my body was doing or the pain, I was just running. 

At the round about Julia and the girls were all waiting to run in with me. It was such a glorious sight to have them around me and I finally felt awesome.  Getting in before 11pm was still on the cards, and my pace just got faster and faster, not all my family could pace as I hit 6 min/miles, with only my youngest running at my side.   I was charging down the street in full flow.  It must have been quite a sight a family at full pace, jackets flaying in the wind with a possessed runner at the front.

My strava records suggest I fit 5:30min/mile in the last quarter of mile as I tore towards the entrance to the Leisure Centre.  I tapped my card on the timing unit and was done.

Fort William : 95 miles, 21:58:26, 10:58 and dark!

It was a crazy last mile and all to just squeeze under 22hrs.  It was worth it though, what a turn around to finish so strong, charging along a dark Fort William street with my family is such an amazing memory to have.

Once inside the Leisure Centre I was well taken care for.  There was quite a buzz as Sandra had just arrived before me and had ran the race of her life with a huge PB, it was such a happy atmosphere despite the carnage of runners sat in chairs on massage tables.

I tried to eat and drink but soon regretted it and headed to loo to empty the contents of my stomach.  Craig was a star and waited outside the loo as I prayed homage to the porcelain god, he was there concerned that I might end up in more trouble such as fainting etc.  That's what a great crew do - they look after and out for you, even we the going gets unpleasant.

I showered and changed then headed back with my family to our accommodation.  Craig and Andy set off back home.  Passing through Rannoch Moor past midnight they recall seeing all the head torches out there toiling through the darkness.

Prize giving

What I can say other than it's Awesome!  Paul Giblin ran a stunning race to lower the Course Record yet again, but there were so many other amazing performances with people setting PB's or struggling through to finish despite some pretty unpleasant over night rain.  I never been to another race prize giving like the West Highland Way Race one, it's a real celebration of every single runners achievement from first to last.

Lessons Learnt

The Rolling Stones lyric "You don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need" seems to resonate with my 2015 WHWR experience.  I was confident of a 19hr finishing time, I really wanted it, but it wasn't to be.  A sub 22hr time is well off what am capable of on a good day, but in the circumstances it was all about learning about what reserves of mental and physical strength I have within me.

I trained to burn fat efficiently in training, but never planned to have to run the final 42 miles on just a couple hundred of consumed calories and the rest off my fat reserves.  It was fast and it wasn't pretty but my legs never faltered - they were strong and full life right through to the end, the only thing that really slowed me down was the stomach pain.

Looking back what caused my stomach so many problems?  I believe the Cocodomol pain killer that I consumed along with paracetamol and aspirin that were the main culprits rather than the ice cream.  The pain killers I took for back pain, so had I not strained my back I wouldn't have needed them, so likely wouldn't have had the same issues with my stomach.  It all stems back to that stupidly lifting a heavy box the wrong way when packing the car, had I not done that there the house of cards likely wouldn't have fallen at the half way point.

This year I'm lining up for the West Highland Way Race again.  Training hasn't gone quite as smoothly as in 2015 but somehow I've ended up in similar positive place fitness wise.  I should in the shape to go chase 19hrs once again.  This time I'll be doing everything I can to avoid having to take pain killers, so making sure I don't do anything stupid in the final days or hours before the race.

Physiologically, this year, finishing is the foundation stone upon what my race is built rather than an after thought.  Tapering well, running a sensible race, looking after my body and letting the time happen.  I am planning to race to the best of my capability, but the bedrock will always be getting my 3rd West Highland Way Finishers Goblet.


My thanks go to my crew Tom, Toby in the first half and Craig and Andy in the second half, and to family, especially for that last crazy run together into the finish, what a memory to cherish!

Thanks also to the WHWR committee and all the army of voluteerrs that make it all possible.  Without these people how give their weekends for us to do what we love none of these great races would happen. THANKYOU!!!

Thursday 27 August 2015

Catching up from a long way behind

Getting back on the blogging horse...

I haven't posted anything to my blog since the days before the West Highland Way Race back in June.  I've been asked several times where's the West Highland Way Race report and well haven't even started it yet...

It's been a busy time at work with getting a major release of the OpenSceneGraph out the door, and with our three girls off on the School holidays time away from the computer has been dedicated to holidays and days out.  I'm only now starting to nearer normal.

For those who aren't familiar with my work the OpenSceneGraph is an open source graphics software, used in scientific visualization, virtual reality, games, flight simulator, marine simulators, etc.  I'm the lead author and project lead so when it comes to making major releases I do much of the heavy lifting, which boils down to lots of full days testing the software, tracking down and bug fixing, merging submissions and trying to shepherd the heard of cats that are contributors to the software.  There's now been 550 contributors to the software over the years the 16 years I've been working on it which is pretty phenomenal, thankfully not all at once.  Major releases like the one I made a few weeks back only come every couple of years so it was quite an intense period in June, July and August. 

With a lot of work at the computer over the last couple of months I'm afraid my enthusiasm for spending evenings and weekends typing up my exploits in training and racing rather faded.  I'm still keen to share my experiences with running the West Highland Way Race as I feel there is a lot I and others can potentially learn from what I got right and got wrong in this years race.  Last weekend I also ran the Speyside Way Race for the first time, so I have another race to write about too.

This post isn't for covering these races in depth, just really to say that I'm alive and plan more updates over the coming months.

A quick summary of my races:

West Highland Way Race June 20th, 2015.  

Didn't quite go to plan.  Training went fab, was confident of going sub 19hrs, but got a cold two days before race, then 3hrs before race strained my back.  On pain killers right from the start, every step jarred my back all the way to Fort William.  Was 20 minutes up on my 2014 splits by Tyndrum but then was hit by stomach problems after eating an ice-cream at Tyndrum.

Broke through cloud on Conic Hill, errie views in the twilight
Balmaha, calm waters, but plenty of motion and commotion on the tail
Stomach never recovered and was hardly able to eat or drink for the next 42 miles, had to slow drastically but nothing fixed the stomach so had a very slow second half.  Despite problems I was still able to keep moving forward and was able to squeeze under 22hrs, finishing in 21:58.  Far tougher race than my 20:18 time in 20214.  I suspect the cause of the stomach problems was the pain killers I was taking to keep a lid on the back pain.

Training after WHWR

Recovered from the WHWR really quickly, so got back running within 10 days. Then added faster runs too quickly as I was just playing and having fun.  Big mistake as I strained my plantar fascia in my right  foot doing a 5:20 min/mile down a road hill.  This meant I had to drop the mileage and easy slowly back into training.

Then once things started improving I made mistake number 2 - this time a 5:40 min/mile interval on the flat where my right hamstring started to feel tight.   Any faster running since has agrevated it and again required lowering mileage and paces to help recovery/avoid making it worse.

In the two week before the Speyside Way race I was able to get out every day and put some reasonable runs in, topping out at 16 miles the weekend before the race.  Then five days of taper where I ran most of the runs at my target race intensity that roughly mapping to 8 min/mile on the flat so I could try and get a time close to 5hrs at the race.

Speyside Way Race, 22nd August 2015.

My hamstring didn't like 3 1/2hrs drive up to Buckie so it was uncomfortable when trying to sleep at the hotel on the Friday night, and was still a bit tight and tender before the race.  A gentle walk before the race start at the Cragganmore Distillery loosen things off and I felt not too bad.  Race start had us heading off downhill for quarter of mile before we headed off along the old railway line heading towards the coast.
Making our way to the start

The miles ticked by with 7:43 min/mile appearing on the watch with my HR staying comfortably at the bottom of my target HR range of 155 to 160.  I was a minute up on my 5hr splits estimates for the first check point at 12 miles and moving smoothly.  The ascent over Ben Aigen went really quickly and was able to run most of it chatting with fellow runners.  The descent went quickly too but it was clear that my legs were beginning to feel the affects of the quicker than usual ultra pace that I normally manage.  At the bottom of the hill average pace was still 8:10 min/mile pace and on target for 5hrs.
View from Ben Aigen looking down on the Spey and towards the sea

After Ben Aigan there are lots of ups and down along back roads and it started warming up.  I had hopped to start clawing back on the average pace but thanks to all hilly road it stayed stubbornly at 8:10 min/mile pace.  The second check point came and I was still on my splits for 5hrs, but took several cups of water before heading off and by the time I left was a minute down.

From the first check point I had running quite a bit with Roger Greenway and we both passed through the marathon point around 3:34. Roger was stronger on the roads and up hills while I was stronger on the narrow trails and downhills.  We worked hard together through most the woodland that takes you out to Speybay but once we hit the wider trails my legs had started to really complain.  In particular my groin and hip flexors were painful, and my HR for a given pace was also heading upwards, and was now in mid 160's and above.  I either had to keep the pace up and accept the high heart rate and risk crashing and burning or ease off on the pace and keep within my target HR zone.

After Speybay I really started to struggle to get anywhere close to the required 8 min/miles for a 5hrs time.  Roger had moved ahead and was able to keep moving well right to finish, finishing in 5:02.  My own story was rather more sorry - in the woodland right after Speybay I tripped on a tree root and very nearly crashed to the ground.  The stumble shook me up a bit and my smoothness in my running in particular seemed to take a knock.  As the route headed to Portnockie my hip flexors and groin muscles progressive became tighter and more painful, and with it my stride length deteriorated to little more than a shuffle.  First it was a struggle 8:30 pace, then 9:00, then 9:30.  By the time I had passed through Portnockie my pace was the wrong side of 10 min/mile pace, maintaining this pace and not walking for the last two miles was a real struggle.

In the last mile I was passed by two runners, something that doesn't normally happen to me in ultra - normally I'm the one doing the over taking.  There was nothing I could do to respond.  The energy levels were there but no amount of will power could open up my stride.  I hobbled across the line in 5:11:08.

The average pace for the 36.9 mile run was 8:25 min/mile pace which is over half a minute a mile faster than any ultra I've done before.  I'm most chuffed with getting to the 50k mark in 4:14 though, this averages out around 8:10 min/mile pace and is a PB for 50k by around half an hour.

5hrs was out of reach though, had I been in the shape I was in before the West Highland Way Race it would have been possible, but through July and August have only managed 30 miles most week due to various injury niggles.  One 50 mile week just before the race isn't quite enough to get me into peak condition.  Had I not pushed on so hard between the marathon and 50km mark to try and maintain my pace I suspect I wouldn't have crashed and burned in the last four miles, a time nearer 5:05 was probably on the cards if only I had listen to my HR monitor rather than my ego.


This week I've tried to do a couple of recovery runs but ended up cutting yesterday short as it now looks like I have groin strain.  Not sure why these muscles are complaining now as I've never had any problem with them in previous training or ultras.  I felt more trashed after the Speyside than I did after the WHWR, perhaps the sustained pace was the problem... or lack of training at race...

The next race I'm signed up for is the Jedburgh Three Peaks in October, but if my injury calms down quickly I'll sign up for the River Ayr Way too.