Thursday, 27 March 2014

Loch Katrine Marathon : Race/Training Run Report

The Loch Katrine Marathon is my fourth marathon, but for the first time I was running a marathon as a training run, as part of my build up to doing the West Highland Way Race in June.  My main goal for the race was to provide a training effect of improving the structural resilience of my muscles, ligament, tendons and bones and enhancing my metabolic resilience by training my muscles to burn primarily fats for fuel.

Training vs Racing and Expectations

The training goal meant running a measured race, hard enough to provide a good training stimulus, but not so hard to require weeks of recovery - I wanted to back doing normal training within a week of the race.  As it was primarily for training I didn't do the usual taper,  in fact originally I hadn't planned to taper at all except for a couple of days of taking it easy, but after put in my longest ever training week of 65 miles the previous week my my muscles were feeling rather fatigued and achy so decided upon a five day taper where I did three 4 mile recovery runs and had two rest days where I just did a short walk.  The purpose of this short taper was to freshen myself up and make sure I could run a good marathon, and thus maximize the training effect I could get from it.

A secondary goal was lurking behind the scenes I had already put in quite a few miles in training so far this year, and while I had a few mixed signals about my fitness I had the feeling that I could have a good stab at setting a new personal best without needing to push too hard.  I set my marathon PB of 3:32:26 at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2010, something I tried to beat at the Kielder Marathon in 2011 and 2012 but failed on both occasions, crashing and burning in the last six miles, recording times of 3:54:59 and 3:36:34 respectively.  Loch Katrine is even hillier than the Kielder Marathon course, but  after doing well in the Devil, RAW and Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultras last Autumn I felt that I was no longer the same athlete, my fat burning capacity had improved, my legs are now toughened up and crucially I am now more experienced and better at managing pace.

Using my training logs, calibrated to previous races, I had a range of estimates of what time I might be able to do and at what level of intensity, if I were to match the fitness of my better recent training runs then a time of 3:30 with an average HR of around 161 look possible.  My average HR for previous marathon had been in the 169-171 range, so 161 looked like a reasonable easing back.  My training had been mixed though, my heart rate drift on longer runs had been low, but my resting HR has been elevated and the calories per mile reported by the HR monitor hasn't that great so I wasn't confident in the predictions and really didn't know what to expect.

Race day

The morning of the race dawned clear and frosty.  I had struggled to sleep through the night, only falling to sleep around a hour and half before I had to rise, and the short sleep I did get was restless.  My body just didn't want to shut down, I felt hot and couldn't get comfortable, it was like my blood chemistry was set up to keep me awake.  When the alarm went off a 6:00 am I got up and hobbled down the stairs with my right knee painful and feeling unstable, it had been fine the afternoon before, taper madness?   Not a good sign, but made worse by seeing my that I had the ashen complexion of vampire victim drained of blood?!  I am used to pre-race nerves but this was quite bizarre.

The marathon happening even if my body had just checked out of the morgue so I made myself my now customary scrambled eggs, oat cakes and beetroot juice drink for breakfast.  A cup of tea helped too, by the time I was ready to leave at 7:10am I had some semblance of readiness.   I headed out into the clear frosty morning to catch my lift to the start (thanks Caroline, Paddy and Chris :-)

We arrived nice and early, sat by the fire at the cafe with hot drinks and swapped ultra-marathon/marathon stories, marathon first timer Chris and I registered and headed down to the start to join the other hundred or so runners lining up for the marathon.

Runners assembling
I spotted a number of ultra-marathon regulars at the start by the harbour, wished them good luck and settled in a few rows back from the start.

Race briefing from race director Audrey McIntosh

Race begins, without the racing...

Just before 9:00 am we were on out way.  A few runners tore off and disappeared into the distance there but for the most part the start seemed very restrained and found myself running gently along around the middle of the park.

My pacing plan was loosely based on the online MARCO calculator, starting easy with my Heat Rate (HR) below 150 for the first two miles, aiming for 8:15 pace, and then let the pace and intensity rise a little once my muscles had warmed up and my aerobic system was fully up and running.  As the route is very hilly I planned to use my HR as a guide to what intensity to run up and down hills rather than going by feel, or trying to match those who were around me.  I expected HR drift to steadily take my HR upwards as the race progressed and expected to need to HR of around 160 by the half way point to keep my pace on target, and to progress upwards towards 170 by the end.  My overall pacing I was aiming for an even split, or perhaps slightly negative.  However, with so many hills, and my own fitness still a big unknown I was prepared to deal with whatever came good or bad.

Normally when doing marathon races I find my HR responds to the race day adrenalin and immediately spikes higher than it would in training for a given pace.  However, I found that I was moving comfortable along and my HR was comfortably staying below 150.  I went through the first two miles at 8:15 pace bang on target, far more by fluke than judgement.   The discomfort in my knee that was apparent when walking up/down stairs had largely melted away too.  Signs so far were all positive.

The views looking from south from the loch side road where stunning, Ben Venue looked glorious capped into a fresh snow, shining brightly against the clear blue sky.   I was torn whether to stop and take a photo but resisted the urge - I was supposed to be in race!  I regret now as I would have loved to be able to share just how stunning the view was.

After the first mile the route starts undulating through woodland, no big hills, but enough to start seeing patterns in pacing that various runners were adopting - using my HR monitor as I guide to keep the intensity roughly constant I found myself loosing ground going uphill, but catching up on downhills. After the second mile those around me where now running at pretty similar average speed so the juggling of places settled down and we all got on quietly with running and drinking up the view.

You have to love those hills

The route starts off quite flat for the first mile and progressively becomes more hilly so by the third mile I had was nearly 2 minutes behind a 8 min/mile schedule required for a 3:30 marathon.  Mile four was more downhill on average so I was able to pull back a minute and looked soon to be back on a 8 min/mile average but then we were faced with the 6 miles of lots of pretty big ascents/descents didn't see any progress on my average pace and was still a minute a half behind by mile 10.

I was however, making my steadily through the field, overtaking people both on the ascents and descents.  At the summit of the hill at mile 9 a small home-made sign had been planted with the words "graveyard hill" with lots of cartoon gravestones placed around - clearly one of race organizers has a black sense of humour as we'd be coming back this way to meet the hill at mile 17!

One of the advantages of racing by HR is that it keeps your effort level going up hill very similar to what it is going on the flat or downhill so the hills don't become the lung and leg busters that might be otherwise.  This even level of intensity helps make sure you are burning glycogen most efficiently - avoiding the anaerobic spikes that can occur if you push on too hard, and also keeps your temperature nearer a constant level which helps your body keeper nearer to homoeostasis, together this all means that your central governor doesn't get any shocks so doesn't need to go to any desperate measures to try and rescue you from over-doing it by causing fatigue to slow you down.

View from graveyeard hill looking towards the Stronachlochar  and the turn round point.

At mile ten the route paces along the west side of Loch Katrine and heads to the turn round point just beyond the hamlet of Stronachlochar where the pier for the Loch Katrine ferry boat arrives/leaves at. The three miles to turn round point is underlating by the hills are all far less steep or long so my average pace increased and found myself comfortably putting in sub 7:30 to 8:00 min/miles.  I kept steadily catching up with and passing runners, mile my mile my deficit was reducing and most surprising was that my HR was staying quite low, hovering around 155 bpm, nicely below my the 160 bpm range that I had expected to need by this point.

A couple of miles before the half way point I caught up with fellow ultra marathon Donald Sandeman, in his tartan shorts as usual.  I had met Donald at the RAW and the Jedburgh ultra marathons so spent the the miles to the turn round point chatting about ultra-marathons past and future.  Race leader Andrew Murry breezed passed looking strong already a few miles ahead of us and now heading back home.  A few minutes later Gerry Craig passed in second place looking strong as well.

Half way miracle, 1:45:09

At the half way point I was aware that Donald was breathing a bit harder so without realising it I'm afraid I might have dragged him along a bit too fast for that section.  Once past the turn round point I wished Donald good luck and pushed on.  I checked my watch, 1:45:09 for the half marathon point, I couldn't quite believe it, all those hills, speed fluctuating between 10 min/mile and 6 min/mile and somehow it all averaged out perfectly.

The next few miles heading back towards the hills we were passing the rest of the field who were still heading out to the half way point.  I rather ran out of different ways to call out encouragement.  I was chuffed to be able to spot and call out encouragement to Scottish ultra-marathon legend Fiona Rennie. It seemed like half the field were ultra marathoners!

By mile 16 I was now a minute ahead of schedule, but knew that the next 6 miles were going to be very hilly and would loose all of this buffer and more, so it was a case of keeping steady and relying upon the last four miles of less undulating terrain at the end of the race to get back to my 3:30 target.

HR was still staying below 160 for most of the time, only on the very steep hills was it migrating a bit higher.  Along with less heart rate drift than I was expecting my energy levels were feeling great, no signs of glycogen depletion or low blood sugar despite just drinking just water on route.  The only warning sign that I need to manage was that by mile 16 I was aware that muscle damage in my quads was accumulating - the net effect of running of roads with lots of steep descents.  Perhaps 5 days taper wasn't quite enough?

Once back on the north side of the loch the big hills return, again using the HR monitor helped keep my intensity level down to safe levels, so even graveyard hill didn't present any problems - apart from crawling up it at 12 min/mile pace!

The field had now spread out so while I was still catching runners, I was mostly running on my own.  Running back eastwards meant that the wind was behind us, the sun was beating down and the hills kept coming and found myself sweating enough that my nipples had begun to chaffe and become sore. Rather than risking bloody nipples by the end and wasting previous fluids on sweating I pulled my top off, tied it around my waste and ran for the next 6 miles bare chested.

View from the north side of Loch Katrine, looking south, Highland Cows complete the picture postcard views!
The hills came and went and my buffer disappeared and turned into a couple of minute deficit by mile 21. Thankfully I had now passed the highest point and had some downhill and less undulating miles ahead. Despite mounting discomfort in my quads I was still running strongly and could comfortably power down the hills. At the water point just after mile 22 I caught the first lady, then shortly after passed Chris who had run strongly so far but now was struggling a bit with hamstring that were showing signs of cramping up, he was still moving at a reasonable pace so looked good for finishing in a good time.

Taking the breaks off

With 3 miles to go my quads were painfully but the rest of me was feeling fresh, strong and moving smoothly.  I was now back on schedule for finishing in 3:30, all I now had to do was put away 3 more miles of 8 min/miles and I'd reach my target time and have a nice PB to boot.  After the water stop there was a mile of mostly downhill and I just relaxed and let the pace naturally speed up, looking at my GPS trace now I see that I put that mile away at 6:50 pace, my fastest in the race so far.

At mile 24 I was now a under my 3:30 target, the anxiety about possible cramp or running out of fuel that had plagued the last few miles of previous marathon had evaporated, I was now running fast for the pure joy of running.  For the last few miles I was regularly catching either tail enders of the half marathon or fellow marathoners, I found it easier to pass on words of encouragement to the half marathoners, but with the marathoners felt slightly guilty about finishing so strongly.

Once the final mile marker had passed I just let the breaks off completely and my speed just naturally increased, sub seven minute miles turned into sub six minute miles and the final quarter mile I was in full flight gleefully hitting 5 minute mile pace.  There wasn't any conscious decision to run so fast, there was no mental battle against the pain or exhaustion, for those last few minutes there was none, I just ran that way my body was wanting to run, with me just along to enjoy the ride.

As I tore round the last bend into the finish straight I over took one last runner, just as the photographer was lining up to take a photograph of him.  I had a suddenly jolt of indecision which side of the runner to pass but really didn't have time to choose and passed between the photographer and my fellow marathoner.  I do hope I didn't ruin the picture with me tearing past like a crazed banshee.

As I approached the finish I spotted my wife and our three girls who were all waving enthusiastically from the crowd at the harbour side.  I waved back and crossed the line at near full speed.  I couldn't see a clear finishing line so kept moving swiftly till I arrived at the line of marshals who were handing out medals and suddenly had to jam my breaks on to avoid bowling them over.  Finishing so strongly caused plenty of amusement at the finish and even got a hug and medal from race organize Audrey.

Once I had moved over the side I joined my family, one of the first things I heard was "if you could finish so strongly you clearly didn't try hard enough for the rest of the race!" I couldn't really say well it was supposed to be a training run, average 6:10 pace for the last mile really can't even be explained away as long run with a fast finish... A 25 mile long training run and practising from running away from a very hungry bear would probably be more appropriate.

Marathon PB.  Job done.

Checking with the time keepers I found me time to be 3:26:50 and 14th place overall.  A PB by 5:42 on much hillier terrain, and ten minutes faster than my best Kielder marathoner which has more similar terrain.

My average HR was just 157, well below the 169 average I saw when I last ran the Kielder marathon back in 2012.  The average was also below the 161 average I expected to need to reach my target of 3:30, an indication that my HR drift was well below that assumed by the MARCO calculator and my better than my training logs had hinted at.

My energy levels throughout the race were rock solid.  The only food I consumed on the run was 5 Jelly Babies at the mile 18 water stop, more out of fancying the tasty sweet than concern over energy levels. I drank a small cup of water at each of the water stops at mile 4, 8, 13, 18 and 24.  I never felt thirsty, tired or lacking in energy.  My good energy levels and low heart drift all point to my fat burning capabilities having improved significantly - all great signs for my up coming ultra marathons.

My only real discomfort was that my quads steadily became more painful in the second half of the race. The discomfort thankfully wasn't backed up with any issues with energy levels, dehydration or cramp so didn't effect my form or ability to push on a very fast pace at the end.  The pain in my quads is sign that either I haven't trained with enough fast descents on roads, done enough long runs, or simply that I hadn't recovered enough from a very big mileage week prior to my 5 day taper. Or perhaps a combination of all of these.

Recovery week

For the Monday and Tuesday after the Marathon my quads were very sore so I did a one mile and two mile walks respectively, just to loosen the legs and get the blood flowing.  Wednesday my quads were less sore so I ventured out for a flat four mile recovery run, averaging 10 min/mile pace and HR of 132. Today my quads were still sore but improved over the previous day so I headed out for a undulating local 6.5 mile trail route - my quads were definitely tender on the down-hills.

I will keep doing easy runs until my legs start feeling strong and pain free, fingers crossed it won't last much longer as I need to start building up towards the long hill runs I have planned to train for the Highland Fling at the end of April.

For my previous Fling back in 2012 for my longest training run I completed a 30 mile, 5000ft ascent/descent tour of the three Callander peaks - Ben Guilipen, Ben Ledi and the Callander Crags.  During the race my quads held up really well right to the finish - the only thing that slowed me down was running out of energy - I just relied upon carbs for muscle fuel too much back then.  Today I've addressed the fuel utilization issue pretty well, but given how my quads feel after just 26 miles, let alone the 53 miles required during the Fling, it looks like I'll be in need of doing the three Callander peaks once again to toughen them up.

If I work in a three week taper then I'll need to do the Callander peaks in just ten days time, so really need to recover quickly this week.  I now partly regret being quite so exuberant with my fast last mile, training wise it didn't really make much sense....

But... oh boy it was glorious fun :-)


My thanks to Audrey McIntosh for organizing such a great race.  Thanks also to all the volunteers who helped mark the course out so well and did such a friendly job marshalling the course, water stops, and start/finish.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Ups and Downs of Training for the West Highland Way Race

I am now three and half months into my training for this year's West Highland Way Race, and just over have three months left to prepare myself to run 95 miles on the 21st of June.  Now in to second half of training I'm getting into the real business end of training, the first real test will come this Sunday (23rd of March) when I run my first race of the the year - the Loch Katrine Marathon, my second big test will be five weeks later when I run the 53 mile Highland Fling that covers the first half of West Highland Way.

Base building

The approach to training for the last few months is to tailor the conventional Aerobic Base Building phase that most Marathon training plans include to make it more specific to the needs of ultra-marathoning.  The goals for this phase has been to:

  1. Develop my ability to comfortably run at the slow pace that will be required on race day.
  2. Use fat as the primary fuel for running muscles at the ultra-marathon pace
  3. Steadily build my structural resilience to delay the onset of fatigue 
  4. Build ability to quickly recover from training and racing   

Previous years I've tried to steadily build up an aerobic base but have almost always been blighted by injury after a two or three months of serious training.  To lower this risk, this year I have built my mileage and intensity up very steadily, cutting weekly mileage and intensity the times when I have felt niggles building.  So far this approach has worked, and while I've had plenty of niggles from my feet through to my back so far have only a needed few days of rest, or easier week has been enough for the niggles to mostly melt away. Elements of training that appear to have helped are:

  1. Regular recovery runs (9 to 10min/mile) pace, with around 50% of volume at around this pace.
  2. Longer runs at an easy to recovery pace, 9:30 to 8:30 pace.
  3. Doing several modest length long runs per week, 
  4. No really long runs, longest so far this cycle has been an 18 miler.
  5. Following more stressful runs with recovery run days
  6. One faster run per week, but keeping pace to just marathon pace and distance at 8 miles.
  7. Regular use of foam roller and self massage to keep the muscles loose
  8. Eating well

Following this approach I have been able to steadily up the weekly mileage from ~35 mile per week in December, to ~45 mile per week in January and then averaged 56 mile/week in February.  In February in one week I pushed the mileage up to 62 miles, which was my longest weekly training mileage up to that point.

My plan for March was to aim for a weekly mileage in the mid sixties, but both calves had become a bit tight by the end of February, with a niggle in the left calf so I decided to put in a down week in the first week of March and only ran 42 miles, this seemed be enough to relax and heal my calves and last week put in a 65 miles, with three long runs of 14 miles, 18 miles and 15 miles each with only a recovery day in between.  There wasn't a prior plan to do all these so close together, but the weather was sunny for once and my body just seemed to be recovering really quickly so I just went out and enjoyed myself.

This week my calves, have been a little tight each morning, my quads have felt fatigued and my hip flexors a bit over stressed so I'll be taking the rest of this week bit easier than originally planned.  I do have the Loch Katrine marathon on Sunday so I'm figuring that I'll get better training effect from the marathon if I am rested properly and the niggles have melted away.   I really can't complain though, 65 miles in week is half marathon more than I ever been able to handle in a training week before.

So far in this training cycle my body seems to have coped really well with the mileage, my recovery from runs has been astounding compared to my usual aches and pains for days after a long or faster run, with niggles melting away with just a small easing back of mileage/intensity.  Times when I've thought I've over done it for sure a day or two later I'm back running smoothly.

In contrast to this excellent recovery the efficiency I've been recording via my Heat Rate (HR) monitor has improved on average, but no where near as much as I usually see when I'm well into training.  My resting HR has also been elevated right through from January to now.  I had a cold at the end of February that raised my HR into the mid 50's, and since it's come down each week but now sits around 46-48 each morning.  Just once in the last month has my HR go done to 45 where I'd normally expect it to be when I'm well into a training cycle.

With this much volume of training I had expected my resting HR to be down at 44 or below - where it was when I was at my peak last October just before the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra-marathon.   The only day when my HR was where I expected it to be I had my most efficient day in this training cycle, surpassing what I achieve back in October, but this was just one fleeting day.  A couple of days later I recorded my worst efficiency of this training cycle - my HR elevated my around 10 bpm for a given pace and using 20% more calories per mile according to my HR monitor.  Then two days later my HR was back down, but still not elevated compared to where I would have expected.

Below is a graph of my Effective Efficiency (calories per mile, adjusted for HR drift and hills) from December to mid March.  General trend is downwards, but it's very noisy, far more than I'd expect, and there are so startling spikes.  When I'm at my peak I usually see Effective Efficiency values in the 78 to 80 calories/mile range.  Something I've only achieved on one day so far.

Would the sporadic nature of my resting HR and HR for a given pace suggest that my sympathetic nervous system is all over the place?  Is it a sign of over training?  I'm torn as my recovery rates are really good, but clearly something is quite right.

Thankfully this week my HR has been reasonably stable so far, a half marathon test run I did on Monday was one of my most efficient in this training cycle, with HR drift being very modest.  Fingers crossed things are settling down in time for my biggest challenge this year so far.

Plan for Loch Katrine Marathon

The Loch Katrine marathon will be my fourth marathon, but only my second road marathon.  My marathon PB of 3:32 I did on my first marathon race back in 2010 during a very hot Edinburgh Marathon.  This Sunday's marathon I'll just run as a training run so the actual finishing time is not critical, but... it would be great boost to get close or set a new PB.

My fitness for distance running is now so much better than it was back in 2010 that I should be capable of time in theory of around 3:05 to 3:10 on flat course.  Loch Katrine marathon is very hilly though, I know of estimates of 1800 to 2200 foot ascent/descent so it'll not be far off the challenge presented by the Kielder Marathon than I did in 3:36 back in 2012.   I estimate the hills will probably take 10 minutes off the time I might be able to achieve on flat marathon, so 3:15 to 3:20 might be possible if I had training specifically for the marathon or was planning on racing it.

My plan isn't to race though, my plan is for a tiny 6 day taper, do the marathon without pushing into the red, then have an easy week and be back into full on training at beginning of April in prep for the Fling at the end of April.  To dial down the intensity I have decided to aim for lower average HR than I'd usually see in a marathon - normally I'd see an average HR for 168 to 170 in a marathon, for Loch Katrine I'm currently looking at 161 as my target.  I have a spreadsheet that I plug in the stats for all my runs and have column for estimates of how each run would map to what I could achieve at different races, and the figures currently point to a time around the 3:25 to 3:40 mark being possible at around a HR of 161.

As trail on Monday's half marathon run I used the MARCO to give me an idea of what pacing and HR progression to use during the race for a target time of 3:30 and average HR of 161. During my run I followed the HR guide for each mile segment - progressing from the suggested HR or 145 through to the 161 HR at mile 13.  The MARCO pacing guide for this mile segments suggests progressing from 8:15 pace to 8:01 by mile 13.  The pacing I saw though was 8:30 for the first mile, and 7:30 for the last. So I started too slow and finished way too fast.  The whole second half of my run was too fast, and I ended finishing 4 minutes ahead of the schedule.

The discrepancy with the MARCO calculator probably isn't too surprising - it was a hilly course which will complicate things and all humans are different, and physiologically I was in totally different place - a half marathon training run rather than the first half of marathon race.  However, even we've these factors it would seem that my starting HR needs to be higher to avoid starting so slower, and at least on this training run I saw far less HR drift than the MARCO calculator assumes, keeping to it's HR profile had me running 30 seconds a mile too fast for the last four mile. It felt too fast as well, with my quads feeling fatigued from the previous weeks high mileage and my hip flexors complained in the last few miles, I'm glad that I'm not attempting to run 3:15 right now.

Having a high HR for a slow pace at the start isn't too encouraging, but a lower HR drift is very encouraging so a bit like my up and down resting HR/sporadic efficiency I seem to be getting mixed signals about my fitness/possible over training status.  I'm hoping a five more days of easy paced running will settle things down and allow me to see a clearer picture of my fitness.

Come race day on Sunday we'll find out for sure just how well my body is responding to training.  I haven't done any marathon specific training, I haven't attempted to reach peak aerobic fitness, I've just been building on the key ingredients I'll need come the 21st of June when I line up at 1am to run the West Highland Way.  Even without any specific training for the Loch Katrine Marathon I'm still hoping that I now have the capacity to run a solid marathon and have a stab at an new PB, with the proviso it's the actual training effect that is most important right now so will need to be done without pushing on too hard.