PART ONE - My Return to Ultra-Trail Racing - The West Highland Way 95 Mile Ultra-Trail
Back at the start of 2015 within my 2014 Review blogpost I discussed the reasons behind my planned two year break from ultra-trail racing, which were mainly due to beginning to find that during 2014 I was less than happy with many of my race performances. I was also finding that I was beginning to be worn down by the massive commitment required in order to still perform at the high level I had become accustomed to.during the previous six years. Being invited back to the 2016 Lanzarote Ironman to be part of their 25th edition celebrations, due to being one of only 116 finishers of the first Lanzarote Ironman, fitted in perfectly. I was therefore able to focus on getting Ironman fit after a twenty year break whilst having my ultra-trail break.
My most recent blog post, yes not that recent being last November, I reported on how my Ironman preparation had been going. Well before I provide an update on how I found returning to the Lanzarote Ironman last month, I will first provide a brief race report on last Saturday's West Highland Way 95 mile ultra.
Yes, it was after really enjoying last October's Beachy Head Marathon, which surprisingly I won for the eighth time in my quickest Beachy Head Marathon time for four years, that I found myself entering the West Highland Way ultra, which would take place exactly four weeks after the Lanzarote Ironman. Perfect I thought. I could complete my small venture back into Ironman/triathlon, and then return to the ultra trails the following month. So at 1:00am last Saturday morning I find myself on the start line of my first ultra-trail race since my disappointing DNF at the 2014 UTMB twenty two months earlier.
With the Lanzarote Ironman being my number one race for the year, all of my non-physical preparation was targeted to Lanzarote, as was the physical training emphasis, with my run training being reduced to simply 'ticking over' as the Ironman is all about the bike, so 80 mile bike rides became a frequent occurrence. Then immediately following the Ironman I was flat out race directing the Weald Challenge Trail Races and before I knew it there were now less than two weeks until the West Highland Way and I hadn't even given any thought to my race goals and what performance I could expect to achieve.
It was during these last two weeks that I realised that I was quite under-prepared for a challenging 95 mile trail route in Scotland. As mentioned above, I had reduced the amount of running I had been doing and replaced it with cycling and the occasional swim. Then four weeks prior to the Lanzarote Ironman I damaged my Achilles tendon which I had to then rest leading up to the Ironman, and as you would expect, the tendon required further rest following the Ironman to allow time for it to fully recover. But it was more the lack of non-physical preparation that was concerning. I just couldn't get to grips with what I was wanting to achieve. I entered the race as I had always wanted to race the entire 95 miles of the West HIghland Way having raced the first 53 miles of the route three times when racing the Highland Fling. The final 42 miles cross quite a different landscape within the Highlands of Scotland so I was looking forward to enjoying for my first time this new part of the route. But performance wise, what did I want? Having seen the race record be massively lowered during recent years, I knew my days of winning quality ultra trail races were over, and that was actually one of the reasons for the ultra-trail break, so when I returned to racing I would no longer have the expectation to win races. So I didn't expect a win, but I found myself expecting that a top ten finish was still highly likely, even with limited ultra-trail preparation.
So the race starts, and although I race by feel and never look at any data, e.g. heart rate or pace data, whilst racing, I had put together possible split times between the seven checkpoints for my support crew consisting of the famous ultra trail blogger John Kynaston and six times West Highland Way finisher. So a great guy to have supporting me. With my race preparation being rather limited my plan was to start quite cautiously and I felt that with a more relaxed start I should arrive at the first checkpoint at Balmaha after 19 miles in around 2 hours 40 minutes. Which when compared to my Balmaha split time of 2:17 in the 2011 Highland Fling race, running over one minute per mile slower, should therefore feel quite comfortable.
A small group of four containing myself quickly move away from the record field of 198 starters, and I am really enjoying myself. I feel comfortable running at what feels like around seven minute mile pace (GPS data later showed that it was a little bit slower, generally being around 7:15 - 7:30 minute mile pace), but best of all the Achilles tendon feels good, as it had in all of my runs over the last week. Then after around ten miles the tendon begins to feel a bit strained. As I wasn't really expecting to finish within the top four I am reasonably fine to ease off the pace and let the other three moved away into the dark. Actually although it was quarter past two in the morning, it wasn't very dark, with plenty of light from a bright moon, but also from an imminent sunrise that didn't seem that far off even at this early hour!
I maintain a good focus as I climb Conic Hill, ensuring that I don't ease off the pace too much, but I decide not to try to stay with the one runner who overtakes me. Unfortunately as I descend off Conic Hill the discomfort from the Achilles tendon intensifies. I therefore take it very cautiously and I find that I am experiencing quite negative emotions. There is frustration as I find myself comparing the current very slow descent with the awesome racing from 2011 when I had absolutely 'blasted' down Conic Hill back in the Highland Fling to regain the 40 seconds or so that I had lost on the climb to Jez Bragg. I therefore arrive at the Balmaha checkpoint to be greeted by John in fifth place in a time of 2:39, so one minute ahead of the possible schedule. But I immediately inform John that the tendon is playing up, so the racing for the day is off!
The Top of Conic Hill from the 2011 Highland Fling - Comparison of Experiences - The First Negative Emotion (If you zoom in you can see Jez in the distance, who I caught before half-way down back in 2011) Yes, time to move on as time moves on!
Reflecting back now perhaps it was a bit hastie to cease racing so soon, however, knowing that the Achilles wasn't great, but probably more due to an acceptance that even running over one minute a mile slower than 2011 it hadn't felt that easy, so it wasn't looking like it was going to be a strong performance race anyway, therefore DNFing the race at this point seemed the easy option. After all, I wasn't really here to race full on was I? There was the first consequence of the limited non-physical preparation. I wasn't too sure what my race goals were. What did I want? How bad did I want it?
I continue along the West Highland Way running for a wee while with famous American ultra-trail runner Hal Koerner. We have a brief chat about our niggles before he slowly moves away from me. (Hal later DNFs due to hamstring/knee issues). It is during this seven mile leg to Rowardennan that I find that even though I have eased off the pace, it doesn't actually feel that easy. I attribute this due to the fact that I am now in training mode, and therefore I do not gain the usual emotional benefit from the excitement, the 'buzz', the joy from racing. Being now in training mode I totally ignore the need to take on any fuel or fluid. As it seems to take forever to reach the checkpoint, my emotions aren't really that positive, in addition three more runners overtake which is never a great feeling being overtaken. I realise that I haven't taken on board any food since Balmaha, but I only have gels handy and I never consume gels in training. I have some solid food that I am carrying in my backpack, but I can't really be bothered to stop to take off the backpack and to get out this solid food, instead deciding to wait until Rowardennan to take on some fuel.
Finally, after taking 1:28 to cover just 7.7 miles I reach the checkpoint in 9th place and have probably around a five minute stop consuming an energy bar and even resorting to taking on some Coca Cola which I usually don't consume to near the very end of an ultra. But already here, being after just a little over four hours I find that I am already mentally quite drained, so a boost of caffeine is hoped to 'zap me up'. I continue on my journey towards Fort William and I find that I am really questioning what am I doing? I am no longer racing, I am feeling tired within my mind, my Achilles is still uncomfortable, I am continually being overtaken by runners who look at me strangely, I guess trying to work out why someone so far up the field is now running so slowly and I also no doubt looking pretty miserable!. And then just to add to the less than enjoyable occasion, the midges are just unbelievable. I had never experienced anything like them before. But at times you find yourself running through a black haze of midges, and with them totally engulfing/landing on you, biting you!
Those of you that have read some of my blog posts will know the importance I place upon emotion, and just how much impact one's emotion can have on race performance. Rather than recognising that my struggling along this section of the route is perhaps due to insufficient fuelling and also lack of drinking. (I never drink or fuel during training runs so without really realising I wasn't doing so here). I conclude that it is just done to the lack of race excitement and therefore I focus on trying to regain some positivity. Slowly I get more positive and I start to enjoy running alongside the shores of Loch Lomond, especially once we get past Inversnaid, where the midges were probably at their worst, although I am still running rather slowly. But as I wasn't racing I didn't really see any need to try to run quicker. Then just as I'm thinking that all is fine, as there had been a good sign in that my Achilles tendon hadn't got any worse since Balmaha, as I start the descent down to the checkpoint at Beinglas Farm at 40 miles, my quads are quite painful. More like what they would feel like at around the 90 mile mark of an ultra-trail race. Normally I would have the excitement of racing, the race focus to maintain race pace, etc. to distract my attention away from the discomfort, but here, not being in race mode, I pay too much attention to the discomfort from the quads. And I surprise myself in that I simply just start to walk! Walking down a rather gentle descent. Quite unbelievable really!
Walking Down to Beinglas Farm Checkpoint
So as I slowly wander into the checkpoint I am trying to come to terms with how I can be such a different runner to what I was before my break from ultra-trail racing. It was less than three years since I had won the prestigious Montane Lakeland 100 for the second time, and less than two years had passed since I finished in fourth place at the Montane Lakeland 50 in a super strong field as it had doubled as the UK Ultra Trail Championships. And now, here I am walking on gentle downhills! I consider dropping out there and then upon arriving at the checkpoint, but apart from the discomfort from the sore quads when descending I didn't really have a valid reason to stop, even though I wasn't really enjoying myself.
John as one would expect is very encouraging but he comments to me later that he found it quite a difficult situation as he different really feel comfortable trying to tell me to simply get my act sorted out, and get back out on the trail. In some ways that was what I needed. To be told to stop feeling sorry for myself, to stop being sad, disappointed at not being anywhere near the front of the field. Anyhow, I decide to have a break and enjoy some coffee and cake in the cafe at Beinglas Farm before eventually after around 50 minutes, continue along the West Highland Way.
Well to cut a long/slow story short. During the next 20 miles I have periods of feeling fine and maintaining a reasonable pace, but then some really low points, where due to the discomfort from my quads I find myself walking loads, on a slightest uphill or the slightest downhill. I just didn't have any drive, any motivation to deal with the discomfort from the quads, which actually after a minute or so of running tended to lessen. But I was really struggling to even push through just this minute or two of discomfort! Yes, a very poor effort! So at the Bridge of Orchy checkpoint, I know that I am gaining pretty well zero enjoyment from my mixture of walking and very slow running and I don't sense that I am able to turn things around, so I simply tell John and the checkpoint volunteers that I am dropping. Sorry John.
Looking back now, I still feel that it was the right decision for me to pull out of the race at the Bridge of Orchy, although this doesn't really lessen the disappointment of missing out on completing such an amazing event. Although my West Highland Way racing experience wasn't that enjoyable, I would still strongly recommend it as a must do event, as the friendly supportive community feel of the event is outstanding, as is the amazing route. Which apparently after the Bridge of Orchy gets even more impressive! A pity I didn't experience it. Oh well, another day!
So why such a poor performance? Now with it being a few days since the race I have spent sometime trying to work this out. As highlighted above, it was largely due to poor preparation. I simply felt that I could simply turn up and achieve a top ten finish, even though my level of run training was less than usual, typically only around 20 - 25 miles per week. But probably more important, was the lack of long runs, so there was a lack of endurance conditioning. Then come race day, the near two year break from racing ultras, meant I had forgotten the importance of keeping on top of one's nutrition and hydration whilst racing. To put it simple, I had raced like a complete novice in this aspect. If it was only these two causes that one could attribute the poor performance too, then I think I would be a lot happier, However, I am also aware that probably the most contributing factor was my poor goal setting. There was a real lack of knowing what did I want from the race?
Now for nearly three years I have been coaching small numbers of athletes and assisting them to perform in ultra-trail races as I pass on my ideas, my experiences, my wisdom. And for some of my athletes their level of improvement has been quite outstanding, which I attribute being significantly due to the work we do together in ensuring that come race day the athlete is totally clear in terms of their race goals. With their race goals being very well constructed, together with a strong belief in what they are capable of achieving, which coincides with their total commitment to achieve what they believe they are capable of achieving. These non-physical aspects are so important as they help in ensuring one's pacing strategy is appropriate, but more important they assist immensely in ensuring that one emotions whilst racing are appropriate. The physical preparation sets the limits to one's race performance, but it is the non-physical preparation, one's actual emotions during the race that determines how close the athlete is in performing close to their physical limit.
So what is the way forward for me with regards to ultra-trail racing? Well, I was hoping that upon my return to ultra-trail racing after my break I would have lost my need to be at the front of the field. Unfortunately I still have too stronger memories of performing at the front or near the front of ultra-trail races. So performing lower down the field isn't that appealing. What about taking the approach of performing at a level to the best I can be. Well I am well aware of just how much commitment is required in order to perform to one's best, and this lack of commitment has always been my weakness. And I am finding that at this present moment in time I haven't got the motivation to commit in order to simply perform at my best, wherever this best will position me within the field. And without this high level of commitment, as I discovered on Saturday, one can't 'bluff' their way to quality performances in ultra-trail races. The quality performances only occurs as a result of that total commitment together with the massive desire and the total belief.
Therefore, I think this is an opportune time to bring to a close, possibly just temporary, but maybe a lot longer, this UltraStu blog. So this post could well be the last blog post for quite a while. I will still keep it visible as I think there is some excellent material within the 140 or so blog posts. But for now my ultra-trail racing days are currently over. I won't stop running. No I love my running too much, especially running on the trails, far too much to stop. But at this moment in time I no longer need the ultra-trail racing. Will I continue with my return to Ironman/triathlon? At the moment I am unsure, but as I continue with the second half of this blog post, recounting my awesome Lanzarote Ironman experience things may become clearer for me. I don't think it is a coincidence that my race performances improved dramatically upon commencing this UltraStu blog, and then declined as the frequency of my blogposts declines. Yes, the quality of one's reflection does have a significant impact on one's future performances.
PART TWO - My Return to Ironman - The 25th Lanzarote Ironman
Yes it was way back in May 1992 that I finished in 13th place at the very first Lanzarote Ironman, to qualify for the World Ironman Championships in Hawaii later that year by gaining the 8th and final qualifying spot within the 25 - 29 age-group.
1992 Lanzarote Ironman - 13th Place - 9:57:32
Now 24 years later, I return to Lanzarote for the 25th edition after a twenty year break from triathlon. Above I mentioned how a 22 month break from ultra-trail running wasn't long enough to come to terms with accepting that I can no longer perform at the levels that I used to perform at. But with it being over twenty years I have no problems in accepting that I wont be as quick as back in 1992. I was therefore able to set myself the goal at performing at a level that I would feel comfortable with. When I started out on my Ironman return at the end of 2014 I didn't know what this level would be, but as race day became closer I was able to establish some clear race time goals. Well not so much goals, but times for each of the three disciplines, that could occur if everything went pretty well perfect.
In order for me to prepare for the three disciplines I took a different approach for each discipline. Having raced two Half Ironman distance races in 2015 which I had described within previous posts, I knew that I could still swim and cycle okay, however, it was during my third Half Ironman distance race whilst in New Zealand over Christmas that I realised that I really needed to up the cycle training. Yes, at the Rotorua Half Ironman which included quite an undulating bike course, I really struggled during the last 30 minutes of the cycle. All was going well up to around 2:25 into the bike leg, when I began to struggle. Looking at the two Half Ironman distance races that I had completed earlier in 2015, the bike ride went well, but they were only around 2:25 in duration. I therefore decided to focus on distance/time on the bike, to try to get my cycling legs back after 20 years. So whenever possible I tried to spend time out on the bike.
With regards to running, I adopted an alternative approach which focussed on running speed. Not that I was wishing to run the Ironman leg that quickly, but I adopted a strategy that if I could increase my top end racing speed, then the perception of pace during the Ironman marathon would seem slow, and as performance is largely affected by emotion, then this feeling that the running pace is slow, relative to my top end race pace, it would result in feeling positive and feel confident that I could maintain the pace that I wish to run until the finish with minimal slowing down.
So I joined the Park Run world. Having been many years since road racing, my first ever 5km Park Run time for me was relatively slow; 18:24. The next Park Run was 17:52, followed by 17:30. I even raced and achieved a reasonably quick 36:08 10km time. So all was falling in place with my road racing speed coming back. Unfortunately during my fourth Park Run, expecting to achieve a 17:15 time, my Achilles tendon suddenly 'went', so I immediately stopped running, but the damage was done. Limited running therefore took place during the final four weeks leading up to the Ironman.
Swim wise, I looked at the Ironman race data, and rationalised that the difference in a quick or slow swim time for me was probably at a maximum just ten minutes. Whereas the time 'lost' with a poor bike ride or run could be substantially more, hence the awim discipline attracted the least attention, just enough training to feel confident that all was reasonable fine and that I would be happy with my expected swim time. One thing that was a tremendous help with my swim performance for 2016 was that I had purchased a new wetsuit and compared to the very restrictive wetsuits of the early nineties, possibly the new wetsuit could take 3 -5 minutes of one's swim time. It was tempting to purchase a new racing bike to 'buy' some more speed, but as my carbon fibre bike from the early nineties had spent 20 years up in the loft, it was still in close to 'mint' condition, and I concluded that the bike went plenty fast enough in 1992, so it would suffice for 2016.
The table below contains my1992 results, my perfect plan data, plus my 2016 results for each of the three disciplines and my overall finish time. Click here for the full results.
To summarise the Lanzarote Ironman race in one word: Awesome. The swim was really exciting with around 1800 triathletes all starting at the same time, and as you can imagine it was pretty rough at times, but I really enjoyed the challenge of the swim, including the battling for some clear space during the first kilometre or so. On the bike I found myself loving every minute, even the slow progress into the mega strong headwinds. The course was absolutely spectacular. Cycling through lava fields, as well as climbing up to around 600 metres above sea level with some amazing views. Then to finish off, although the run consisted of three out and back loops, the support from the crowds helped make the run a joy, even though I was running that little bit slower that expected. But overall a very enjoyable day.
Why so enjoyable? I guess one aspect was that it just felt fantastic again to be racing an Ironman after over 20 years, and also to be performing at a level that I was totally happy with. Prior to the race, I had researched the results and concluded that if I did have the perfect day, then a finish place of around 3rd to 5th within my age-group, which was now the 50 - 54 age-group, could be likely. With their being three Hawaii Ironman qualifying spots for my age-group, there was a slight chance of qualifying automatically for the World Ironman Championships later in the year. Upon crossing the finish line around 25 minutes slower than the pefect plan and upon receiving my results printout I see that I finish 9th place within my age-group and 222nd place overall. Yes, a lot lower than my previous 13th place overall back in 1992, but that didn't really matter.
I felt comfortable with my performance and that was what was important. Yes, it was a little disappointing to run that little bit slower than expected, but I am pleased in that there is still the desire to improve and to go that little bit quicker. Interesting that I use the word improve here. I guess that this is due to the 20 year gap in triathlon racing. I am no longer trying to achieve the same performances from my younger triathlete days, so it is as if I am starting out for the first time. In some ways it is a bit of a shame that currently I don't have the same feelings to my ultra-trail racing. Hopefully as the years pass I will be able to feel this same way and therefore in the future once again I will be able to gain tremendous enjoyment from my ultra-trail racing.
I will finish off with a few photos from Lanzarote, starting with my posing on my pre-race day bike ride comparison photo. Notice the same bike!
So this will be the final UltraStu blog post for quite a while. I have enjoyed immensly the refection and writing of the posts, along with the satisfaction in knowing that many people have found my posts helpful with their running. I have met many people as a consequence of my UltraStu blog, and it has been great meeting you, especially when you have given me some positive feedback. To those of you that haven't agreed with my at times 'out of the box' ideas, thanks for your comments, as they kept me in check, and made me give even more thought to the issues I were discussing within my posts. Although very seldom did I change my stance! (Please note that the Negative Split is still a flawed concept! Sorry, I just had to get in the very last word on this topic!)
As I take a break from UltraStu and ultra-trail racing I hope that my 'words of wisdom' within this blog and also what I pass on to the small number of athletes I coach (sorry, I am not taking on any new athletes now or within the forseeable future), will continue to have a positive impact on people's race performances. If you feel I have made a contribution to your improved performances, please feel welcome to zap me an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org , or let me know on facebook. I find it is really good for my ego, as it gives me great satisfication when seeing others perform really well. Regardless of the level the runner is at, whether simply improving their PB for a race to finish within the top half of the field, or at the other extreme such as being selcted to represent thier country at the World Ultra Trail Championships, as occurred earlier this week to one of my athletes Sophie who you may recall I mentioned in my blog post last November, the pleasure I experience is equally as rewarding.
I feel like I should finish with an awesome signing off quote, but I will simply sign off with a simple THANKS. Yes, thanks to everyone I have met along my ultra-trail racing journey.
All the very best with your running and with all the other important apsects of your life.
PS If you are looking for a friendly, scenic but quite challenging trail race in either this coming September or next May, with a choice of either a trail half marathon or a 50km ultra trail, then check out the High Weald Challenge Trail Races website, which takes place on the 25th September 2016, or the Weald Challenge Trail Races website, which takes place next May. Just thought I would make the most of this last opportunity for a bit of race promotion. It is an excellent event. I should know as I am the race director! I look forward to meeting some of you there at one of the races. Stuart.
Photos from the 2015 High Weald Challenge Trail Races