Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Training for the WHWR, Trail vs Gym

As soon as the entries opened I put in an application to run West Highland Way Race (WHWR) on the 21st June 2014 and current await to see if I have got place.  While I'm currently taking the month of November as rest before physical training begins I am already thinking about how it might be best to go about training for this great event.  95 miles is the furthest I've ever run by 42 miles so quite a step up, this also means my training will also need to take a step up.

A great resource for guidance on how to prepare for the big day is on the http://westhighlandwayrace.org website, one of the videos links on the images page that I watched was John Kynaston interviewing Rosie Bell.  Rosie won the women's race in 2013 and 2013 so is very accomplished ultra runner and is able to do this on just running twice a week, doing lots of cross training to build strength.  Should I be looking at doing lots of cross training in the Gym too?

Since I'm taking it easy this month I am choosing just to go out when it's sunny and simply running for pure pleasure.  My last three runs were just stunning, along familiar routes but with bright mid day sunshine and frost on the trails and trees gave these runs a magical feel.  Pictures do far better at conveying this than words so here's a few from these three runs.

First run, Bracklin Falls Bridge in new Autumn colours

First run, above the scout pool looking north, Ben Ledi to the east, Stuc A'Chroin and Ben Vortlich to the north.

Second run, Heading out through Callander and out to Ben Ledi, first snows of winter evident.

Second run, On the east flank of Ben Ledi looking north towards Loch Lubnaig

Third run, local 6.5 miles loop, including Cohalian wood in the frost, mid day sun barely above horizon

Attempt at close up of the frost.

Contemplating the question of whether to train more in the Gym or not these runs cast no shadow of doubt : I can't fathom wanting to actually spend time inside when deep in my heart I'm a runner.  I run because I love running out on the trails, enjoying the splendours that only nature can share with us.  

I don't train to keep fit, I run because of the freedom of movement, the joy of motion, the awe of nature - getting fit is just a nice little side benefit.  Training for the WHWR will provide an extra purpose to my runs - the better prepared I am the more I'll be able to enjoy the day.  This training will require more mileage out on the trails, but with it more doing what I love.

I am still curious about strength training though... can I fit some in out on the trails? 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra 2013 : Race Report

The Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra was first held last year, a year that I entered but had to pull out due to illness, this year I was fit and healthy and ready to put to bed unfinished business.

Recover, Race, Train, Taper

I ran the River Ayr Way Challenge on the September 14th, the race went well, slicing off 50 minutes from my 2010 time ran in the easier downhill direction.  Recovery went really well, within 6 days I was more than ready to get back running and kicked off training with a relatively quick 6 miler.  I was surprised at just how smoothly I was moving so soon after the RAW so made the decision to do the Trossachs 10k the following weeked.  To prepare for the 10k I did a tempo run in the middle of the next week and then straight into race just two weeks after completing the RAW.  

The Trossachs 10k went well, outside my PB for the route, but considering that I had done just one tempo run in the previous 6 months and so shortly after an ultra I had every reason to be chuffed with my time of 40:54.  Straight after the race I was back into proper training building my mileage up to 40 to 45 miles a week, with a number of 15 mile runs culminating in 21 miler just 8 days before the 3 Peaks Race.  

To help develop my fat burning capacity almost all my training runs had been done fasted, missing breakfast and then running before lunch. My 21 miler was a real test of this strategy as I ran it fasted, without taking any water of food with me, I also ran it 7:55 min/mile pace giving me a PB for the route, and at a pace that would have resulted in a 5 minute marathon PB had I continued on.  I finished this training run feeling strong and maintained good energy levels throughout, no hints of hitting the wall. As much as this was a good training run and strong stimulus to physical adaptations, this long run really cemented my confidence in my fat burning ability.

After a solid month of training I then tapered for a week, only running twice at race pace - 9 min/miles. Taper madness hit though, compounded by a fall on wet slippery steps in the dark, I found myself stiff and various niggles with my calves, hip flexors and back.  After feeling so good in training it was frustrating to have a week where I felt old beyond my years.  

The forecast had been looking quite good through the week, so my family had decide to come along an support the ultra and the various other running, wheel chair and cani-cross races.  The night before the race my wife checked the forecast to find that strong winds and rain were now forecast, the thought of entertaining 3 girls in such conditions was too much so I was left heading down on my own.  I found myself quite daunted by the forecast too, I had been looking forward to race day and found myself dreading it.  Eventually I shock myself out this funk, rationalizing that the weather could be no worse than this years Stuc O'Chroin hill race or Devil O'Highlands race.

Race day, Sunday 27th October

The struggled to get to sleep and only got 2 hours sleep before I got up at 4am.  I stuck to the breakfast that I had eaten before the Devil and RAW, scrambled eggs, tomatoes and this time ate beetroot rather than drank beetroot juice.  To add extra fat for energy and to lower the Glycemic Index (GI) of the breakfast I cooked the eggs with butter, cream and coconut oil.  I believe keeping the GI low is important for a pre ultra breakfast so it doesn't compromise the bodies ability to stay fat burning efficiently right up to when I stand on the start line - to avoid wasting precious glycogen stores that I'll need when racing.

The two hour drive went quickly, starting off in heavy rain in the dark and then watching the day break and with it the rain turning to showers and then eventually blue sky as I passed the Eildons.  The three hills looked imposing isolated in the relative flatlands that surround them.  I say relative flatlands, there really isn't much flat ground as the area has lots of rolling hills and valleys.

I arrived at the Jedburgh Ruby ground car park shortly after 7am.  I left my car with a great view of the Abbey, if it had feelings I'm sure it would have loved me for it!

I registered and rather too leisurely got ready in my car, double checking that I had everything and had put on glide and plaster on all the places that might chaff when running for hours soaked through. During my final preparation I checked my watch to find out that the briefing was under-way so I donned my final bits of kit and headed over to club house to find the briefing finishing.  I really need to get better at pre-race prep.  I tracked down the support vehicles and added my drop bags, then joined the mass movement of runners and supporters from the car park to the race start.

Race start : 8 am

The race started promptly at 8am and for the first time in five races I was actually ready and headed off in initially the middle of the pack of 108 starts.  I kept my pace down at around 10 min/mile pace and found myself swallowed up by lots of enthusiastic runners by the half mile point.  A mile in and I settled into position.

A mile and half along the main road I was expecting the route to go right onto a trail that takes you past a sewage works and then over the river, but instead all but two of the many runners ahead heading straight on, keeping on the path beside the road.  There were bollards lined up beside the path so seemed right, but I couldn't help but feel that we were off the route published on the event website.  I wondered if a route changed had been announced at the briefing and cursed myself for missing it.  It turns out there wasn't a route change, only that junction hadn't been marked or marshalled and that mass of runners just took the 10k+half marathon route.

It was easy to just quell this concern over the route as the view of all the runners stretched ahead on the path beside the road was really impressive, rarely do you get to so many runners clearly in an ultra.  I had finished in 21st during the Devil in a field of a similar size so head set myself a goal of getting into the top twenty, this meant that I'd need to pass almost all the runners ahead as the leaders were now out of sight.

I was in no hurry to chase my target position, my plan was to use my heart rate (HR) monitor to guide my pace and suppress my ego and impatience, this would be my third ultra experiment with this pacing strategy having used it with success during the Devil O'the Highlands and RAW races back in August and September.  Like these previously races I set a target HR of 160, 15 below my Lactate threshold, and planned to ease off any time I exceed this, and push on faster when dropping to far below.   Race day adrenalin usually means that I hit this heart rate pretty early in a race and so it was the same as we headed up the hill and found myself loosing places just to keep the HR down.  Patience, Patience, Patience, but boy sometimes doing the physiologically optimal thing requires restraint!

Once we crested the hill I was able to let me pace increase without pushing HR higher and started catching all the places I had lost and more.  After a short section along the main road without a path we arrived at a marshalled point where we were guide down to muddy path through light woodland - joining the St. Cuthbert's Way.  I queried the route change with the Marshal and what route to take on our return, they were just as unsure as I was though.

Once down on the path I continued steadily catching runners, chatting for a minute then moving on. The path then crosses grasses pastures and like the terrain the sky open out two, the showers and clouds had blown away leaving bright blue skies.  Jacket off and stowed I really enjoyed this section, a warming sun, rainbow shining in bright sky, like minded individually stretched out on the route around me, what more could you want from an ultra?

The route then heads over the river via bouncy suspension bridge which was fun, but required a little care with the wet boards.  The next few miles of trail were along field boundaries and through woodland heading steadily uphill.  The first sustained uphill I found my HR heading up towards 170 despite taking it really easy, and had to back off several times, and for the first time in a few miles found myself no longer catching runners ahead.  As soon as the route would level I'd steadily catch and over take runners.  The route through the woodland was muddy in places but mostly good going under foot.

At around the 5 mile point the the route leaves woodland and for the next three miles heads out over fields and through rough ground between fields.  I knew the route would continue heading uphill but didn't quite expect how undulating it would continue to be.  The now familiar pattern of keeping position on steep up hills and overtaking on flatter and on descents continued.  The ground was mostly pretty solid underfoot save for one section where the path had turned into more like a ditch with the bottom sodden and very muddy.  To avoid getting our feet wet we all danced down this section jumping from side to side, fun but rather wasteful of energy and strength.

At the 8 mile mark the route joins a country lane and heads downhill towards Maxton.  It was really noticeable how much more efficient my gait was and in particular how much elastic recoil helps when running on roads, something that mud totally robs from you.  Continuing to use my HR monitor as a guide I opened up and cruised down this section at 7:30 min/mile pace, over taking dozen or so runners.  I felt a bit of out of place running this section so fast as everyone else hadn't seemed to adapt their pace to the road and downhill, it probably looked like I was running foolishly hard only a 1/4 way in to the race, in reality I was working no harder than any other point so far, just running completely relaxed pace assisted by gravity.

Maxton Checkpoint : 10 miles, 1:32:37, 45th place

Having watched John Kynaston's video of the route arriving at the Maxton check point felt familiar - Thankyou John :-) The Marshals found my drop bag, I left my empty bottle and wrapper and I headed quickly on my way, taking less than 30 seconds.

The route then descends down to the follow the river with a mixture of board walks, steps and grassy fields and muddy trails.  The river was swollen and fast moving.  Not long after Maxton the sky filled in and a heavy rain shower changed the character of the day once again.  Jacket on, hood up I was focused on trail in front of my feet and reeling in the next runners ahead.

On the route to St. Boswells I steadily overtook quite a few runners, my own pace had kept pretty constant throughout the race so it was down to other runners now slowing either due to fatigue or the realization that we were only a third through the race.  The rain blew through as we approached the town gifting us with another rainbow.  Running through the streets of St. Boswells was a nice break, but kinda odd be back in civilization after running through the country side for two hours, it was also great see spectators cheering us on.  I took just four minutes to pass through the town and then we were back on the trail and running beside the river.

The field had started to spread out so often I was running on my own, there was never too big a gap ahead but the trail meanders in and out of the woodland so you rarely get to see more than fifty meters ahead.  I would spend five minutes on my own then up would pop a runner ahead, I catch up quickly, and then run with them for a while if their pace was similar then find myself on my own again.

Having others for company was particular useful at some points as spotting the painted arrows marking the correct route was difficult in places.  Typically was more down to relaxing too much and just following the route ahead and not looking actively enough than the actual arrows being difficult to spot. Florescent arrows on boards would have been useful at the more easy to miss points.

Shortly before the route departed from following the river I was lucky to be with a local runner who knew the best route when the path split avoiding a narrow section very close to the river.  At this point I spotted Donald Sandeman with another runner ahead who had taken the narrow river path, we called to them but I'm not sure they back tracked.  I passed Donald at the 24 mile mark during the RAW, but here passed him at the 14 mile mark.  Was I going faster thanks to my better training?   Was Donald being more cautious sooner?  Either way it was good to see a familiar pair of tartan shorts on route :-)

Not long after we passed a golf course, joined the old railway line with it's leaf covered cobbles that made for a somewhat uncomfortable running surface.  Then I was guided safely across the busy A68 and then finally a clear view of Eildons and only a mile of steady climbing to get to the next check point.  I was out on my own again and slowly catching a group of runners ahead that were talking more walking breaks than myself.  Again my HR monitor was my guide, the steeper parts I'd walk, but as soon as the HR came down I'd get back into a jog. I didn't catch them until the check point just beyond Rhymers Stone.

Rhymer's Stone Check Point : 17 miles, Elapsed 2:43, 26th Place

I stopped for just 15 seconds at the check point, just the time it took for a marshal to find my drop bag and for me to pass on my empties.  I unpacked my drop bag and stowed everything whilst walking up the track beyond the check point.  Passing through check point so efficiently gained me three places as the group of runners that had been ahead sorted themselves out.

The routes ascends along a narrow path before passing through a gate and then out onto the open hillside.  I briskly walked this section eating and soon found myself being aware of heavy breathing not far behind, for the first time I was being pursued rather than being the pursuer.  I wasn't prepared to give up start giving up position so pushed on strongly up the hill, with my HR exceeding my 160 target, a first sign than my ego was overriding my pacing strategy.

Looking up the hill ahead it was great to see a line of competitors snaking up the hill and moving well. I knew I wouldn't catch many on the hills but felt confident that I'd catch most by the next check point back at Maxton.  I arrived at the summit with the lead of the pursers and we made brief introduction before being blasted by the gale force winds at the summit.  It was exhilarating to be leaning into wind and with great views around.  The showers had thankfully passed through so it was clear when passing through over the Eildon summits.

We both headed down from the summit with glee and within a few strides I found myself slipping on the wet grass and tumbled over.  I dusted myself off with a quick check that I hadn't lost anything from my running pack, and immediately got back running.  Thankfully I didn't feel any new aches after the fall, only damage was my confidence in my grip and small hole in my shorts where one of the safety pins holding my number had ripped off.   I didn't loose too much time and by the next climb was back chatting with my summit companion during the brisk walk up the second summit.

At the top of the second summit a father and young son were playing in the extreme winds and found the boy blown right into my path and gently bumped into each other.  He was having a great time and like me found it all hilarious ;-)

The descent from the second summit was very steep by stony rather than grassy so I was able to descend with confidence and speed so passed my summit companion and closed in quickly with two other runners that we passed soon after the bottom of the steep descent.  One of them I recognized but could place them, we shot passed to quickly to chat so it was only a little after I realized it was Craig MacKay that I had run with for an hour during the RAW.  Sorry Craig for not being sociable - were were getting too carried away have fun.

The ascent up the final summit is much more gentle and can be run comfortably so I settled into a easy jog keeping my HR down.  I then found myself passed rapidly by a gaggle of four runners that were attacking like it was a short hill race.  I was startled by this testosterone filled charge and couldn't help but get caught up in the bluster, trying not to loose too much ground on them, my competitive instinct overriding my cautious and deliberate approach to pacing.  A glance down to my HR monitor watch brought some sembalance of sense, my HR was was up and 170 and heading rapidly up towards lactate threshold.

Anaerobic metabolism is very inefficient at using glycogen stores, only producing a tiny fraction of the power output per g out glycogen as aerobic metabolism,t the wasted chemical energy is wrapped up in the lactate that is then passed on via the blood.  This lactate is then cleared through the Cori cycle where the lactate is used muscles, organs as fuel, or convert back to glycogen in the liver - this reuse and conversion process is inefficient though.  It's far better to just avoid going anaerobic and stay efficiently aerobic.

I know all of this, but still I let myself get carried away.  I did however back off substantially after checking my HR, and let the runners fight it out themselves.  We passed the final summit and headed back and downhill, but I had lost 100 meters on the front runner, and 50+ meters on the three others.  I had never experienced quite this explosion of pace in an ultra before so forced myself back into my own running bubble - made sure I was pacing sensibly and eating and drinking regularly.

After the open hill the route then descends through woodland, then a short section through a field and then a park area just before village of Bowden.  I catch two of the runners, one of which was my summit companion, they both report they also rather got carried away on the 3rd summit, the terrain reminding them of their fell racing heritage.  I'm back in my groove and pass them, and pass the 3rd of the gaggle wh was another 50 meters ahead, but stopped at Bowden when meeting up with family.

The forth of the gaggle, who I later find is ultra newbie Ed Crockett, was nowhere to be seen, even down a 200m stretch of straight road that leads out of Bowden.  This stretch of road is very short and the route then heads left down a narrow path between trees and brambles.  A mile further on and the route joins a country lane that takes you into Newtown St. Boswells, on a straight I glimpse a couple of runners several hundred metres ahead but neither is Ed.  In the RAW and Devil I wasn't passed permanently by anyone from the 1/4 way mark onwards, so I was impressed that Ed was running strongly this far into the race but also keen to try and reel him in, to keep my record intack.

Bends in the road and housing around mean I passed through Newton St. Boswell without seeing any other runners.  I reached the end of the Eildons loop completing the 9 mile loop in 1:45.  Once back on the original route back to Maxton I took a short walking break to check texts that I had received but not read as my phone was buried in my pack and wrapped up to avoid it getting wet.  Several good luck messages sent me on my way.  I also took the opportunity to take a couple of pain killers to keep a lid on discomfort that had started to develop in my hip flexors and quads.  Despite a little discomfort I still felt strong and full of running and got back on my way.

I ran on my own all the way to St. Boswells, not seeing a single runner ahead thanks to regular bends in the route then as I left the woodland and entered the village I saw a couple of runners ahead that I rapidly caught and passed.  Once on the main street I saw further runners and again pass them quickly as we head towards the golf course.  Two of them comment on how fresh I am and that I have a spring in my step.  24 miles in and I did indeed have a spring in my step, the combination of getting some decent training in and pacing evenly are effective in ensuring the physical side holds together, but also moving through the field consistently helps give one little mini goals to aim for and a provides a boost in confidence so mentally I was remaining positive and focused on racing.

Shortly after St. Boswells the route passes the golf course where I passed several more runners, including the 2nd female, Victoria Reed, who like many others was running her first Ultra and was moving well.   We passed through the marathon point in around 4:30, pretty good going given the it included climbing the Eildon's.

The route then rejoined the river and I on a long straight saw Ed in the distance for the first time since the 3rd Eildon summit, I quickly caught another runner that was between us but Ed was moving at the same pace as myself so my yard stick stayed a few minutes ahead. After passing quite a few runners in the space of 10 minutes I was then back on my own for the return to the Maxton check point.

Maxton Check Point : 28 miles, 4:46, 13th place

There were lots of friendly faces at the Maxton church check point, with marshals recording times and buzzing around finding my drop bag.  Just prior to arrival I had bundled together all my empties in my previous drop bag so it was a simple exchange and was out of the check point very quickly.  As I left I called out asking for what place I was in and reply of 11th gave a rather pleasant shock, I was totally expecting somewhere in the high teens or twenties not closing in on a top ten placing.  It turns out that I wasn't really in 11th, there must have been an error as in the final results I showed I was 13th through.  Physiologically this was a real boost so I left heading up the hill chuffed and with a spring in my step once again.

Once I was back running and looking ahead I saw two runners only 50 meters ahead, my quick pit stop obviously had helped me catch up as I hadn't seen them at all earlier.  Neither were moving fast so I quickly caught them up and by the time we left Maxton village was now in what I thought was 9th, I couldn't believe my luck, I felt great physically and mentally and was really looking forward to enjoying the final 10 miles back to Jedburgh.

My euphoria was very shortly lived as just after leaving Maxton I had a sudden shot of cramp down my left calf.  My heart sank with the prospect of having to back off the pace and nursing cramp for what could be another couple of hours.  I did what I had to and reduce my intensity and work on keeping my gait relaxed, I made sure I eat my home-made energy bar - chocoloate, coconute oil and cream energy snack that I had laced with the contents of a S-cap and crushed caffine, very salty and intense but hit the spot.

A couple of hundred meters after leaving Maxton suddenly Ed Crockett popped up at my shoulder.  He was moving really easily and with light breathing indicative of athlete working comfortably aerobic - a worthy nemisis ;-)  I hadn't been aware of him approach at all, but it was really nice surprise, got me out of post cramp funk. Ed had stopped for a longer break at Maxton and like myself was chuffed and somewhat surprised to now be in what we though was 9th and 10th place (it was actually 10th and 11th).  We chatted for the next twenty minutes, leaving the road and then heading back along the trail, it was great to have someone else running comfortably and finishing strong.

I had the constant threat of cramp on the back of my mind though as we hit a muddy trench section that headed uphill I decided I needed to back off as my HR was back over 160, and I know from experience that this danger zone once I've started cramping.  I wished Ed good luck and eased off on the pace.  It was frustrating to let him go, I still felt strong with good energy levels, but couldn't risk get a full cramp.  Ed rapidly moved ahead with the light step of capable athlete.

I got myself back into my own bubble, drinking and eating small amounts regularly, keeping the pace down to avoid the HR pushing too near the danger zone.  I was still able to run most of the hills and once we started descending was able to open up and run relatively smoothly.   Ed had disappeared quite quickly and even on the open fields didn't see him so knew that he must have built up a several minutes lead.  One the descent through the woodland before returning to the cross the river I kept moving but found my HR getting down below 150 a couple of times as I took it slow around muddy spots.  This was taking it too easy so for the first time during the race had to actually stop taking it too easy and get a move on, it was also a first sign that tiredness and with it lack of race focus was creeping in.

Just before returning to the river I glimpsed Ed at the bottom of the field I had just begun to descend, so despite taking the woodland section a bit easier than I felt I should have I had regained some ground.  The sun was out again as I crossed the suspension foot bridge and the vantage point I was able to look along the route back towards Jedburgh and spotted Ed and another runner perhaps another minute further ahead.  Once back on the trail I counted how long it took for me to pass the same field boundary as Ed ahead and counted to 54, so roughly a minute.  I lacked the energy to put in burst to catch quickly, and knew that cramp would revisit if I did so I stuck with the patient game of pacing as evenly as I could, I might not be able to speed up but was determined not to slow but was now finding keeping my pace up a bit of struggle.

After less than a mile running beside the river over open fields the route goes through woodland and then back to the main road.  Once the two runners ahead went into woodland I lost sight of them.  When I got the main road I was directed to the minor road that takes you back towards Jedburgh, and along the official route that we all should have taken earlier in the morning.  I had hoped to have reeled in runners ahead but was out on my own not seeing them on any of longer straights along the back road.  The lack of target made it harder to ignore the tiredness that was setting in, the spring in my step had departed, but with 36 miles completed and still able to keep up 10 min/mile pace I guess I couldn't complain.

The route then goes right off the minor road along a short distance then cross back over the river via a foot bridge.  I totally missed the route arrows pointing towards the foot bridge, I was too busy looking ahead as I free wheeled downhill towards an renovated farm.  Without checking my map I totally forgot that we needed to cross back over the river and continued on through the farm getting more and more uneasy that the route wasn't marked.  Thankfully the owner of the house spotted me and came out to help and guided me back the way and towards the foot bridge.  I headed back and quickly found the arrows painted on the road marking the route and was annoyed and frustrated at such a silly mistake - I just has switched off my navigation brain completely.  Reviewing the GPS trace afterwards it turns out that I lost a bit over 2 minutes and with evaporated my chance of catching any runners unless they were having to walk in.

My head was still in the game and was able to put the set back behind me and got down to salving what pace I could from the final mile and half.  I tried pushing too hard and once again my calf cramped and forced me to back off the pace and nurse it along for another hundred meters.  The last mile in felt awfully long as it gently heads up through the town towards the finish.  I try my best to summon a finishing sprint but only manage 9 min/mile shuffle across the line.

Finish Jedburgh : 37.5 miles, 6:28:38, 11th place overall, 5th male vet

Immediately after I finish I get given a goody bag and exchange congratulates with Ed who had finish five minutes ahead in the end after putting in a strong finish and taking Mark Caldwell in the final stages.  A timing marshal came across and asked me my time as my time hadn't registered on the timing system, I had recorded 6:28:38 on my HR monitor so passed this on.  It turned out that in my race pack I received at registration was a timing chip that I should have put on my shoe, alas I never spotted and was never told about it so was completely oblivious.

In the official results was given 6:28:00 which is very generous of them to round down, 11th place overall, 5th male vet.  There were 100 finishers out of 108 starters.  Many of those finishers were doing the first ultra's which is great to see.

Without my silly navigation error I would have a time of 6:26:28.  However, race winner Neil MacNicol, who finished in new coursed record of 5:24:20, reported making a much larger navigation mistake and thought he added an extra fifteen minutes so I guess I can't berate myself too much.  The route change at the start missing out the back lane saved 400m, but took us over small hill which would have slowed us and made up for a little bit of short cut.  I'd guess that we might have saved a minute with the short cut.  For me if we had gone the right way at the start I wouldn't have missed the foot bridge on my return and would have finished quicker than I did.

Final race of the year

Now that Jedburgh is finished my racing for the year is complete so I'm in time of rest, reflection and looking forward to next year.  My results in ultras has taken a real step up in the last three months, previously years I was only just making it into the top 1/3rd of the field, while this year I've moved up comfortably within the top 20% of finishers.  For all but the Jedburgh race my training was compromised by injury, so one has to look elsewhere for probably reasons for the improvements.   The topic of which I'll cover in future posts.

To those that we are indebted

Many thanks to the organizers and all the marshals that made the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultramarathon a great day out for all us lucky runners.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

River Ayr Way Challenge 2013 : Race Report

In 2010 the 41 mile River Ayr Way Challenge (RAW) was my second ultra marathon, and my first one of decent length, and each subsequent year I've wanted to return but have been unable due to injury or being otherwise occupied.  After having a great race at this year's Devil O'the Highlands I was keen for another challenge and returning to this years RAW 6 weeks later was a perfect fit.  To make things more interesting this year the race was being run in reverse, from the coast at Ayr upstream and uphill to Glenbuck Loch 41 miles away and 900 ft higher with lots of little ups and downs in between.

Recovery, Training, Taper

The Devil O' the Highlands Race took a lot out of me, and my subsequent recovery was very slow. I struggled to walk down stairs for whole week afterwards, and the top of my right foot remained painful two weeks afterwards.  After two week off I had four weeks till the RAW, so was keen to get back training to give myself a chance of running a decent race.  However, one week into very gently training my foot was still not settling so I popped along to my local physio who suggested the top of my right foot was just inflamed tendons and should be safe to train on as long as I ramped training up gently. This first week back I felt really unfit, even short gentle runs left me sore with DOMS the next day, it really felt like the Devil had reset my fitness to zero.

The second week I was out in Germany giving a training course, this gave me time in the evenings to head out for run most days.  My foot was still a little uncomfortable during my runs but gave me little concern, and I found my fitness returning and able to cruise along comfortably.  Once back in the UK and with less two weeks to go I ramped up the training putting in a 12 miler and hilly 15 miler with only a day rest in between.  This was a bit too quick a ramp up as I started the 15 miler suffering with DOMs from the 12 miler, in particular my right knee was sore, this wore off, but I definitely got warning shot that I was running a longer session too soon.   Subsequent days afterwards my right knee was tender so aimed to rest it, but then strained it doing some bowling with the family!#!  6 days before race day I'd turned a niggle into a small injury.

The final week before the RAW was taper week so I just ran one 6 mile loop at 9 min/mile pace to test out the knee and practice race pace.  The knee was a little sore but on the mend and the rest of me felt pretty comfortable, and importantly race pace felt like something I could contemplate doing for 41 miles - my good performance at this years Devil O' Highland Race has definitely has given far more confidence in keeping this easy pace up throughout the race.  With walking breaks on hills and stops at checkpoints I'd guess that on race day I should be able to look around 10 min/mile pace.

The last few days before the RAW I started eating breakfast to up the carb intake a little for race day, but otherwise didn't specifically carbo load.  In the last three days of taper week I drank a litre of beetroot juice to help top up the nitrate levels and improve circulation on race day.  I reviewed the route and created two laminated A4 sheets with the maps for the route and got all my kit ready on the Friday afternoon so that I could relax in the evening.

Reviewing my training logs, in particular the HR for a given pace and calories/per mile it was clear that I wasn't quite in the shape I was before the Devil, but should still be capable of time around 6:45 to 7:30.  I had recalibrated my time estimation formula's after doing so well with the Devil so didn't expect big surprises this time.   To quote my blog entry "River Ayr Way Challenge Q&A" that I posted the day before the race:

"The goals I'll set myself are: Gold sub 6:45, Silver sub 7:00, Broze sub 7:30.  I'm not really too fused about time though, if I run well and enjoy the day I'll be chuffed to bits."

Race Day

I got a couple hours sleep waking at 3am, it was too early to get up so I just rested and looked forward to the day.  Once up I made myself a breakfast of scrambled eggs, salad and a glass of beetroot juice - exactly the same low carb breakfast that I had before the Devil.  When something goes right don't change a thing!

My support for the day, Maz Frater, arrived to pick me up and bundled me into the car and off we headed into the sunrise, with blue sky above and sunny forecast promised a good day out, such a contrast to the low clouds, strong winds and lashing rain of the the Devil.

View from bridge near start, looking back towards the Citidel

We arrived at the Citidel in Ayr with plenty of time, registered and got ready.  Maz freaked out when I put on my new Nike toes socks, funny how toe socks can provoke such an entertaining reaction :-)

Race Start

For the race start we were led from the Citidel, over the first bridge and then assembled a car park next to the river.  There was a briefing but as I was near the back of the assembled runners didn't hear too much, then suddenly we were off, catching me off guard - second time in a row that I've been caught dawdling at the start.

Start to Oswald'd Brig : 40 minutes, Distance ~5 miles

Once I got going I started my phone's GPS software to track the run, and pressed start on my Heat Rate (HR) monitor, but no reading - it then dawned on me that I had forgotten to put on my HR strap while faffing about at car.  As Maz was doing support along route I was asked her to track down the strap and give me it on-route. My plan was to pace by HR like I did with success at the Devil O'Highlands race, with the HR monitor I aimed to take it easy looking to average around 9 minute/mile pace for the initial flat section.

Starting at the back I steadily my way through the field and then feel in step with a fellow veteran of the RAW and we chatted all the way through the first check point.  I looked down at my watch and was a bit shocked to see 40 minutes, 5 minutes up on my fast start splits, this alarmed me till I realized that we had walked up the road and over the first bridge to start rather than at the Citadel, cutting roughly a quarter mile off the total distance, so while still a bit fast at around 8 min/mile pace it wasn't too foolhardy.

Oswald's Brig to Tarholm Bridge : 21:33 minutes, Elapsed 1:01:14, Distance 7.21 miles

After the first check-point the route leaves the road and become a forest track and river path most of the way to Annbank.  My companion decided to ease off on the pace so I moved ahead on my own. Shortly before Annbank I met Maz at the second check point and picked up my HR monitor.  On switching it on it immediately read out a HR of 161, oops just an hour in the race and I was already over my target HR.  My aim was to aim for an average HR of 160 for the day, but holding it down to 160 required me to keep a much tighter reign on my pace than I had for the first hour - while it wasn't hot it was clear the bright sunshine was adding extra work to keep myself cool, it seems all my adaptations to the heat of Spain 8 weeks on have departed.

Tarholm Bridge to Annbank : 22:22min,  Elapsed 1:23:37, Distance 9.44 miles

At Annbank I met Maz again, picked up my drop bag with milk shake, banana and liquish and quickly moved through.  On the way to Stair the field was quite spread out so for long stretches I was running on my own. I would slowly reel in runner, catch up then chat for a minute or two then moving ahead.

Annbank to Stair (path junction with road) : 21:43 min, Elapsed 1:45:30, Distance 11.71 miles

On the section to I was now catching runners at a much faster rate, I felt really comfortable and running smoothly but my HR monitor kept challenging me on how hard my body was working vs my perception, I felt it was easy, my HR monitor saying slow down.  I convinced myself that it was just a warm day so my HR would naturally be HR so allowed myself a bit more headroom, allowing my HR to climb up to 160-165 range.  Whether it was a risk or sensible adjustment only time would tell...

Stair to Failford : 40:46 min, Elapsed 2:26:16, Distance 15.45 miles

I passed through the Failford check point just before Maz arrived who was walking up the road ahead of me.  She had a chance to turnaround and snap a picture before I was off.  I'm afraid being a support crew isn't the most sociable of duties.

Passing through check point at
I kept catching runners ahead, sometimes it would take me a long time to reel them in, other's I'd close more quickly as they took walking breaks.  I was taken aback to catch Caroline McKay who was walking.  I stopped and walked with her for a minute to two, long enough to find out that she was injured and pulling out, this was heart breaking to hear as I knew that if had put away a good performance at the RAW there was a good chance of here winning the SUMS series.  I continued on my way and took a couple of minutes to regain my race focus, then I was back to spotting runners ahead and aiming to catch them - as fast as my HR monitor would allow me!

Failford to Haugh Farm : 33:48 mins, Elapsed 3:00:05, Distance 19.08 miles

At the Haugh Farm check point I picked up my second drop bag and left at the same time as Craig MacKay, we fell in step and started chatting.  We had met a few years before at the Lochalsh Dirty 30, then it was both our first Ultra, we continued chatting avidly all the way to Catrine. Despite both of us having run the RAW before we missed the left turning across the foot bridge and ended up on a main road in Catrine, but not any where we recognized.

Haugh Farm to Catrine : 28:33 mins, Elapsed 3:39:39, Distance 21.72 miles

Confused we stopped at looked around, nothing was familiar, we started to run straight over the road but my spider senses shouted out that it was the wrong direction.  I go my map out and while I couldn't spot exactly where we were guessed that we needed to hear left.  We arrived at the next junction still a bit confused before I spotted the main bridge over the river, turns out that we were the wrong side of the river so had to head back left again over the bridge and then finally rejoined the race route.  We passed through Catrine without passing the check-point, but as we had already lots a couple of minutes just headed on along the route.

Missing the check-point turned out to be a bit of problem for poor Maz, who had arrived at the check-point intending to meet me and waited with the marshal insisting I must still be on route.  A couple of hours passed before Maz could convince the Marshal that I must have passed or pulled out and asked to find out if I had passed the next check point.  There didn't seem to be any system in place to get this information relayed so it took a while before Maz felt sure it was appropriate to move on.

Catrine to Sorn : 21:30 mins, Elapsed 3:50:10, Distance 24:04 miles

I ran with Craig through to Sorn ever mindful of the fact that I was often on the upper end of my newly increased HR range, but was having too much fun to heed the warning.  We passed the check point at Sorn Main Bridge but was so busy chatting that I didn't stop and fill up my bottles that were now empty, shortly after passing through I found myself getting thirsty and kicked myself for not being more disciplined about getting more water.  At the far end of Sorn we spotted Donald Sandeman in his tartan shorts and caught up shortly after.

Having missed Maz at Catrine and Sorn I tried to phone but without reception just had to I hope that she'd guess that I was moving well and within my estimated splits and would head up to the next check point. With no means of contact I just had to get on with my race.

A couple of miles out from Sorn Craig began to go quieter, and rather than leading as he often had earlier was now letting me dictate the pace.  Craig was having to dig deep, having run 70 miles the previous weekend at the Glenmore 24 it was a miracle has was running at all.  We passed the marathon point in 4:10, just a bit more than half marathon left to go.  Shortly after Craig reported that he was struggling and needed to back off and left me to head off on my own.

I was moving well and keeping up pace around 9 to 10 minute mile pace and feeling confident, then only a mile short of the next check-point a first warning short hit.  When I crossed a style a short cramp shot down my left calf.  This was as much as mental knock as it was physical.  I have now had to manage cramp quite a few times in races so know what I have to do - back off the pace, keep the HR down.  It was really frustrating as I felt strong, plenty of energy, I could see runners ahead too, if only my cramp would melt away I would catch them.

On one decent just before the checkpoint I glimpsed a runner a minute or so back moving well, I assumed it was Craig having a second wind so was chuffed to he was still moving well.  Later I was to find out it wasn't Craig.

Sorn to North Limmerhaugh (Fisherman's Bridge) 57:56mins, Elapsed 4:48:07, 29.63 miles 

I arrived at North Limmerhaugh and Maz wasn't around and hadn't been seen.  I unpacked my supplies from my drop bag and tried to phone but again no reception.  I couldn't do anything more than continue on.

I over took a runner that was now walking shortly after the checkpoint, other runners were ahead in the distance. Thoughts of catching them were curtailed by twinges of cramp in my calves that came when I pushed on too hard, too hard begin anything faster than 10 min/mile pace, this was frustrating as my energy levels were good and my legs generally felt strong and capable of going faster, but you can't fight cramp.

With 10 miles to go I resigned myself to maintenance mode, I drank consistently to make up with the lack of water in the previous hour, I took S-caps as I had been doing ever couple of hours, I kept eating moderately and I kept my HR and pace down, walking the steeper of the little hillocks along the trail but gingerly running the rest of the trail.  I was averaging just 11 min/miles but it sure was better than walking.

Whilst climbing a bridge across the river I glanced over my shoulder to see that the runner that I had seen behind four miles earlier was still there but now less than a 100m's.  Looking at race results I think it was probably Graeme Dunbar.  Graeme was moving well and inching closer with each mile.  Despite the cramp I was now in race mode, I was now lying in 9th and for sure didn't want to squander a place.

Fisherman's Bridge to A70 crossing: 33:24mins, Elapsed 5:22:05, 32.64 miles

I crossed over the A70 a couple and filled my bottles at the checkpoint and got on as quickly as I could aware that Graeme wasn't far behind.  The route then along the edge of a short bit of woodland then path peters out a bit and becomes a bit intermittent of where to go.  A runner 50m ahead had gone right onto a small ridge line but my gut instinct told me to head on down as I knew we should be running along the river again for this section.  My hunch was right and I rejoined the official trail and called the other runner down who was now backtracking.  He rejoined the path behind me so I gained another place it.

The trail around the river was quite muddy in places and passed a group of mountain bikers who were having fun in it.  They kindly stopped and let me past.  I was wary of every step trying to stay as relaxed and consistent as I could to avoid cramp, rather difficult on uneven and muddy ground.  The route then climbed up away from the river and got drier but with the gentle climb my calves started more fleeting cramps, and finally I had a full cramp in my left calf and was forced to stop stretch and walk it off.  At this month Graeme cruised passed effortlessly.  I could do nothing about it, my heart was in it but will no amount of will power can switch off cramp.

The cramp eased off and and once the route joined on old railway track I was able to get back into a gentle run, the consistent and flat trail allowed me to coax my body up to about 10:30min/mile pace. Graeme had now over a 100m lead and still moving away but I wasn't going to give in.

A70 to Kames car park, Muirkirk, 38:42 mins, Elapsed 6:00:42, Distance 36.4miles

Finally I got reception on my phone and spoke to Maz, she had conflicting reports so had headed up towards the finish.  I took a couple of phone calls on the run to establish where to meet next, and a few minutes later we finally me at up at the Kames car park near Muirkirk. I refilled my bottles and headed on.  Maz took lots of photo over the next minute and cheered us on to catch Graeme and another runner 100 meters ahead whom Graeme had quickly passed.

Shortly after Kames the route rejoins the old railway line then comes to path junction, but I couldn't find any River Ayr Way markers, race markers or any signs, it was just a small path while the railway line still had a path on it.  The runner ahead, from the race results it I'd guess it was Alastair Bloxham, had chosen to stick with the railway line and I followed for 30 metres before getting my map out and decide that the path was probably the correct route so I back tracked.  Once on the path it felt right and further up I passed a farmers gate to the field with railway line to the right, Alastair had now figured out that something was wrong and had descended down to gate.  I suggested that the path was probably correct and he joined it just behind me.

With Alastair not far behind I tried to keep the pace up as much as I felt was possible with cramp never too far away.  The route then briefly joins a road goes uphill to rejoin the railway track and here I decided to walk to avoid cramp.  The gap I had built up disappeared rapidly but I knew that it was better to loose a place than risk bringing on another full cramp.  With Alastair right on my heels we turned off the road onto short undulating path that take you up to the railway track, here we catch up with Graeme who has just been hit by cramp and now reduced to walking.

Once we are back on the railway track the flat and even surface allows me to fine tune my running gait and pace so that I running smoothly and as fast as I can without cramping up.  Twinges of cramp surfaced any time I push it too fast.  I am able to maintain 9:40 min/miles, I don't look over my shoulder and just keep focused on my own running.  It seems like to take forever running along the track towards the hills above the finish, the hills just don't seem to get any closer.

A mile out from the finish and in the middle of farmers field I see Maz standing, playing her Bagpipes. After nearly 40 miles of running it's a great pick me up, heartily amused and silly grin on my face I head on while Maz jumps back in the car to head to the finish.

I cross the A70 and the join the road up to the finish.  It's uphill but I still feel strong and energy left so try to push on for a good finish, but within a minute I get a full cramp in my calf and have to walk it off for a few strides.   The sound of bag pipes resonates through the woodland, I can hear the finish even if I can't yet see it.

The cramp eases off and allows me to run once more.  I make it to the final straight, pass Maz and try to muster a fast finish but again cramp hits so I complete the race with face contorted up in pain.

Finish 7th placed overall, 2nd male vet, Elapsed 39.89 miles, 6:46:58

I hang around at the finish for quarter of an hour to see Alastair, then Graeme finish in 6:53 and 6:54 respectively. Just as we were about to drive away for me to get showered and changed Craig Mackay and Donald Sandeman cross the line together in with a time of 6:59:00.  Craig struggled after dropping behind, was overtaken by Donald but then had a second wind and they finished together.  Donald got a sub 7 hour time for the first time, an excellent achievement as this years direction change meant a net 900ft climb rather than descent.

Showers were graciously provided by the Muirkirk caravan park, so while I made myself human Maz headed to the bar with the ladies winner Kathy Henly, who finished 7 minutes before me, and Caroline McKay who was staying for the SUMS prize giving.  Cleaned up I joined the girls at the bar for a very welcome pot of tea.  It was tempting to stay for the party but the lure of rejoining my family back in Callander was too strong so we headed home.

I'll close by saying a big thanks to the organizers and marshals on the day, it made for a really friendly and enjoyable day out.  Organizing such brilliant weather was just amazing.  Special thanks to Maz too, being driven to and far the event, and being pipped in at the finish make for great memories.

Full race results can be found on my previous post River Ayr Way Challanege 2013 Race Results.

My trusty F-Lite 232's that carried me all the way, might be muddy but still my favourite shoe!