Thursday, 3 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 1

Ten days on from the biggest race of my life, the scrapes and strains are healing up nicely but I've still not come to terms with being able to run 95 miles. The number of miles still seems ridiculous, crazy, impossible, surely 157 of us can't have run that far?

Yet with good preparation and support it's not only possible to do, but possible to do in style. Being able to run 95 miles well is something I planned for but never really expected. This is the story of one awesome day, but go fetch yourself a drink and food supplies, this post is as long as the race itself! So long in fact I'm going to post it in sections. First up, planning, preparation and getting to the church on time!

Race Plan

I really didn't know what to expect from the race as I had never gone further than the 53 miles of the Highland Fling before. What I did know is that I wanted to not only finish but finish in the best possible time I could muster on the day.  What time this might be I really didn't have any good idea, so I set myself a series of goals:
  • Platinum - 20hrs : The is my perfect race performance. Looking at how other runners of similar capability at shorter races there is a small but not impossible chance that this might happen. You can dream though :-)
  • Gold - 21hrs 17minutes:  This figure is based on the 2.19 multiplier of my Highland Fling Time of 9:43 that I set this April.  The 2.19 value is the average ratio of previous Fling and WHWR finishers that blogger and ultra runner John Kynaston worked on this spring.  As this is an average it seems appropriate to give myself a 50:50 chance of hitting this target.
  • Sliver - sub 24hrs : Doing a sub 24hr WHWR is something that 69 runners out of the 181 starters achieved in the 2013 race, so it's a very good performance and one I'd be very happy to achieve on my first attempt at running such a grand distance.
  • Bronze - sub 35hrs : Finishing within the 35hr cut off will mean that I'll achieve my main objective and this is to finish and receive my WHWR finishers Goblet.  In theory I should be able to do a sub 24hr time, but running 95 miles is no small undertaking, many things can and will go wrong when running for so long.   If it does turn out that I'm finishing over 24hrs it's likely that I've really struggled over the last part of the race walking in during a second night and having to be awake and moving forward.  A time over 24hr would signify a greater struggle and determination to finish than will likely to be required if all goes well, so even just finishing I'll be very very chuffed with.
For pacing strategy on the day I was going to use my heart rate monitor as a guide, aiming around 80% of my lactate threshold heart rate, which equates to a zone of 140 to 145 bpm's.  This meant specific splits weren't required so I didn't carry any, I'd just run/walk watching what my heart was doing and responding by slowing or speeding up. I did however, produce a set of splits for my support team as a guide to the earliest time I was likely to come through checkpoints - these I based on a 20 hour finish with even splits.

For those watching the race and the general running community I also created a spreadsheet calculator and race predictor based on a range of pace profiles, from even split through to the average splits where runners start fast and finish slower, publishing this in my pre race post West Highland Way Splits.
From a theoretical standpoint I believe that even splits should be optimal but really didn't know whether it'd be possible to run in a similar way to an even split as no one in the 2013 race that I had analysed had done an even paced first  half/second.

Pacing purely by heart-rate is also a completely internally based process quite unconnected to the specifics of running to particular splits, any similarity between my race day splits and previously published splits would be co-incidence.  The general trends would be important though, if my pace profile was an even split then one would see a strong finish and a quick time, while a pace profile that emerged on the day more like average splits would see a weaker finish and slower time. By matching actual day splits to a range of split profiles it would be possible to estimate how long each leg might take and what my projected finishing time would be.

The next crucial part of my pacing plan was to, as far as possible, not stop at check points, but rather just exchange empties and pick up my drinks and food on the move as I passed my team.  My view was that for every minute stopped at a check point it was another minute that I'd have to run rather than walk to achieve a given finishing time.

The next element of my race plan was to eat and drink regularly before and during the race, consuming roughly a 1:1:4 combination of easily digestible fats, protein and carbohydrates.  I eat only a moderate amount of carbs, roughly 30%, in my daily diet but come race day carbs would be my main food. This should benefit my liver as I believe keeping the liver stocked with glycogen and the blood sugar level topped up helps avoid the body from going into emergency rationing where the hormone Cortisol is released in significant quantities telling the liver to release glycogen to prop up blood sugar.  Cortisol also signals for the muscles to not take up blood sugar, instead reserving blood sugar for the brain, and triggers a catabolic state where muscle protein is broken down and released into the blood stream for the liver to mop and covert to liver glycogen via gluconeogenesis.  I believe this catabolic state is responsible for a large part of the classic 'hitting the wall' and subsequent significant muscle damage.

Pacing to a even intensity (roughly constant heat rate) also plays a role in making sure there are no peaks in intensity where the body shuts down digestion to preserve blood flow to the muscles.  By pacing an even intensity the gut keeps digesting food at a constant rate and keeps release fats, protein and sugar into the blood stream and to the liver (fructose and lactose sugars are shunted directly from small intestine to the liver.)  If this balance can be achieved then the body can remain in homeostatis and will not need to implement emergency fight or flight measures, letting you tick along at a nice steady rate.

A final bit of the jigsaw in my race plan was to not just to "think positive" but to be positive and mindful about how I ran, the environment, how I interacted with others and how I responded to things that happen along the way.  Staying in positive and constructive frame of mind helps maintain a set of hormones floating around in the blood stream that support low stress and healthy bodily function.

Staying in a positive frame of mind also depends upon subconscious assessment of how one is doing and how far from homoeostasis one is pushing the body.  Here there big overlap to the effects of exercise intensity and nutrition/hydration.  One can't stay in a positive frame of mind if the body is collapsing around you, but if your body stays in a healthy place then any dips in mood are easy to rectify.  A positive outlook also helps give the subconscious a signal that the present departures from homoeostasis are safe and only temporary, basically reassuring it there is no need to panic, the body is in safe hands.

The positive approach isn't possible without a team that is equally positive and supportive of your race and race approach.  For this I was lucky to have four friends who are also runners. I initially felt a bit of guilt about stealing them away from their families and hobbies for the day but found that actually they were all excited about the grand day out.

OK. This approach is based on theory that I've cobbled together from various books and online resources and applied to the specifics of ultra running, it's not proven strategy - so the race was partly a big experiment as to whether the theory and approach would work.  You can't, however, race and think about all the details, so distilling it down is crucial.

Simply put: listen to my heart, eat and drink regularly, keep moving forward, be positive.

Taper? Or crazy caper?

My training had gone pretty well, putting in 200 mile months every month from February through to May.  I had never been able to put back to back big mileage months together before as I'd always got some injury that stopped me in my tracks, This year I listened more to my body and backed off any time a niggle looked like it was stepping over into injury territory.  

This conservative approach kept my training consistent, but it also meant that I didn't run a few of harder, longer training runs I had planned. I had intended to do a hilly 30 miler three weeks before the race, but had to drop this as niggle looked on the cusp of turning into an injury.  For the whole of my training the longest I had run in training was 18 miles, the only times I'd ventured further than this was for Loch Katrine marathon in March and the 53 mile Highland Fling in April.  

With no big last run before the race to recovery from I was able to keep training through the first half of June albeit at a maintenance level of 40 mile weeks.  I did my last hilly 15 miler one week before the big day as a dress rehearsal and practice pacing with my heart rate monitor in the zone and at the pace I was planning to run at.  This went well enough but I found my hip flexors oddly tight, and the Nike Wildhorse on my feet were really comfortable except for the toe-box that was tight enough to cause concern about running for 20+ hours in them.

With little time left to find a suitable replacement I ordered a pair of Altra Lone Peak 1.5's, in theory a shoe with plenty of room for my wide feet, but alas on trying them on found them tighter around the mid-foot than Nike Wildhorse and Inov-8 F-Lite that I had used in training.  During a 6 mile run on the Tuesday before the race in the Lone Peaks I had sharp pain on my left ankle that I couldn't pinpoint the cause of.  Was it the shoes?  An awkward foot placement?  Was this a new injury that would affect race day?

On my return from this unfortunate test run I reluctantly ordered pair of Nike Wildhorse a half size up and these arrived on the Thursday.  They fitted well, were very comfortable, and had enough room around the toe box to allay concerns.  It was too late to run in them though, they were going to be my race day shoe but fresh out of the box. It was risk, but I felt it was less of a risk than going with the Altra's or going with a shoe that was a little tight around the toes, or a shoe like my F-Lite that are super comfortable but just don't have the underfoot protection to handle 95 miles on rough stony trails.  Once the decision was made I didn't let it worry me.

Get me to the church on time!

More of a concern was just getting everything else ready.  The logistics of having two crews and a family to meet along route and support me was daunting. I had an easy week of work to avoid trying to fit all the preparation into the last day, but still found myself on Friday afternoon without all the prep completed that I wanted.  

I had struggled to sleep more than a couple of hours each night too all week, and really wanted to sleep on the afternoon as the possibility of two nights without sleep and on my feet was one of the issues I was most concerned about.  Rather than continue with the frantic prep I downed tools at 3 pm and spent a couple of hours trying to get so sleep.  First I tried a meditation CD, I was relaxed but failed to properly meditate or sleep, I then tried an old Mike Oldfield CD (Hergest Ridge) that I had unearthed in my collection and this got me out of thinking about the race but didn't help me sleep either.  After a couple of hours I gave in.  I had been off my feet, had been relaxing.  It'd have to do.

After pasta and salmon for dinner, I got all my kit ready by the door, so when Andrew and Toby, my crew up to Tyndrum, arrived just after 9:30pm I was ready. I got changed into my running kit applying plenty of Smidge and Glide to fight the midges and chaffing respectively.  I was deliberately taking things slow to keep myself calm.  When I got down stairs the car had been parked and everyone was waiting to go so I said my goodbyes to my family and we headed off with plenty time to get to the registration for 11pm.

A good way along the route we were full of banter in the car, life was good, and for some reason I checked my pockets and my pre race bag for my phone.  I couldn't find it in any of the usual places. We called my number but heard nothing in the car.  A hurried call  home to get my wife to locate the phone and we were off back to the house.  Toby was confident we could get back to Callander and then back to Milngavie before registration closed at 12pm but it'd be a close.  The drive upped the adrenalin levels and wasn't quite the calm sedate mood that I was aiming for pre-race, but strangely I was able to not worry about it.  I had messed up but we'd spotted the problem, fixed it and nothing else would get us to Milngavie quicker.

We arrived at the St. Jospeph's church for registration with a few minutes to spare, I jumped out of the car and registered, got my goodies, race tag, my wrist band with my number 30, got weighed and was back out into the cool night air.  Not quite according to the pre-race plan I had in mind, but there safely.

I spent the next half hour going through the race plan with Toby and Andrew and fretting about what food/drink to have at what point to fit in with my drop bag at Inversnaid - I didn't want to eat and drink the same thing on consecutive legs.  To add some confusion I couldn't find one of the cherry juice and yoghurt drinks I had made up and assumed that I must have left it at home.

After the briefing I double checked all my kit.  The forecast was good, the atmosphere in the station car park was great, a little apprehension and excitement but all quite restrained.   I found myself surprisingly calm as we lined up outside the under pass.  I was ready, there were few thoughts of the enormity of the challenge ahead - 42 miles further than I had ever run before, there was nothing to gain from over thinking the length of run and possible outcomes so I didn't.   I was in the best shape of my adult life, I was with like minded runners, I was about to run all day, but I love running the trails in Scotland.  I was exactly were I wanted to be and knew exactly where I was going. 95 miles to Fort William along the beautiful West Highland Way on the longest day of the year. Bring it on!

Calm and Confident? Obviously I didn't t look at how far I had to run!
Part 2 will cover the race itself.

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