Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Final (For Now) UltraStu Blog Post - The West Highland Way and the Lanzarote Ironman - Quite Different Experiences!


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 , 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

Sunday, 22 November 2015

An Update on my 2015 Sabbatical Year - Appreciating the Achievements

Hi, It's been a while since my last blog post, so hopefully this post will be worth 'waiting for', although I doubt there are many out there on the edge of their seats waiting for UltraStu blogpost number 140!

My post title highlights this year as a sabbatical. (In biblical times, a year observed every seventh year under the Mosaic law as a ‘sabbath’ during which the land was allowed to rest). With my ultra trail racing starting in 2008, this year, being seven years later fits the definition.  Although I may have had a rest from ultra trail racing, it hasn't been a total rest.

Reading my post from July reminds me to provide an update on a few aspects raised.  So I will do this first, before, finishing with a sharing of my latest learning.
"I am now even more looking forward to my second and final triathlon for 2015, the Vitruvian Half Ironman that takes place at the end of August.  With some non-physical preparation including "What do I want?  Why do I want it? How much do I want it?", combined with some quick key running sessions, the Ironman triathlete from the early nineties should be back!" July blogpost.
Well, maybe not back to my same performance levels as the nineties, but the Vitruvian Half Ironman was an improved performance from June's Grafman Half Ironman. Although the intention was to carry out some quick key running sessions, due to 'this and that', but mainly due to being just a bit too lazy, my run training consisted of my standard relaxed, rhythmical running.  However, I did get out on the bike a bit over the summer, including five days of road cycling in the French Alps to catch up on the Tour de France.

When I arrived in the UK back in December 1990 I was a road cyclist.  So in 1991 I followed the Tour on my bike for 11 days, then again in 1993 and in 1995.  Now, being 2015, somehow twenty years had disappeared!  Although there had been a gap of 20 years since climbing the classic climbs of the French Alps, seeing the comment "50km without panniers up Alp d Huez, went hard 66 minutes", in my training diary from the 26th July 1995 gave me the target I needed as I prepared for my first return to the iconic climb on the 21st July 2015.

To keep this post short, this year's training diary comment reads "Bike Alp d Huez. 65:57. Whole way up, worked pretty hard".  So a quicker time!  Interesting that I used the term "hard" to describe my intensity, as in recent years with my trail running I don't use this term. Maybe it was due to reading my 1995 diary entry before heading out to France, or maybe I still associate 'going hard' with cycling.  I may return to the importance of terminology and it's impact on performance later in this post.  Check out the awesome photo, with 2012 Beachy Head Marathon winner, Rob Harley 'hanging onto my wheel'!

Now where was I before my Alp d Huez detour.  Yes, the Vituvian Half Ironman went well, with the half marathon run time of 1:25:22 being especially pleasing.  Comparing some stats between the two races I think illustrates the improved performance.  In order to make a comparison I have used two approaches:  My split time rankings out of the top 100 finishes, and my time lost on each discipline to the quickest on the day.

Now I was trying to explain the other day to a running friend how I managed to perform so well at the Half Ironman races, and especially what caused the big improvement in the run split.  I then realised just how important one's self-perception is, and how it massively influences performance!  Thinking back to the Grafman in June I recall during my non-physical preparation that I spent significant time reminding myself that I used to be a road cyclist.  Yes for a few years in the late eighties I was a pretty good road cyclist.  A heaps better cyclist than I ever was as a runner!  So knowing that I had carried out limited physical cycling prior to Grafman, the approach was simple: "Once a cyclist, always a cyclist"!  So the non-physical preparation was all about the bike.  And it worked, I had a pleasing bike ride.  Come to the final run leg back in June, I simply 'gave in' pretty easily to the "you are an ultra trail plodder" messages in my head, and so relatively for me, I plodded the half marathon.

So two months later, without any specific physical quick key run sessions, I focused again on the non-physical training.  I reviewed some of my old triathlon race data, which included winning the Scottish Half Ironman Championships in 1992 with a split time of 74 minutes for the 20km run (so around 77:30 for a half marathon split time.  Yes, pretty impressive at the end of a Half Ironman.  So for the Vitruvian the approach was "Once a triathlete, always a triathlete"!  So this time when I got off the bike and found that first mile or so pretty challenging, rather than trying to fight my way to run quicker, that always tends to make things worse. I simply told myself, relax, don't fight, I am a triathlete, this challenging transition into running will pass and then it will be time to run quick.  And although 1:25 isn't quite the same as 1:17, it is definitely a significant improvement on the 1:32 from two months earlier.

Now some of you reading this may be thinking that I have "totally lost the plot".  A favourite expression of my oldest brother!  However, from my limited racing this year, combined with the work I have carried out with my athletes, I am now more convinced than ever, that race performance is so, so much influenced by one's self perception of themselves as an athlete, and their self-expectation of what they believe they are capable of achieving!  I will try to justify more, by expanding below with a few more examples from this year.

Back in my July post I also highlighted the performances of some of my athletes I coach, with particular reference to Chris who was racing the Montane Lakeland 100.  
"Anyway, I am 'itching' to tell you to look out for one of my athletes in the 100 mile race, as his preparation has gone really well, including his first ultra-trail race win recently,  but I don't think naming him would really aid his preparation, with the additional pressure from being watched by all of the UltraStu blog readers.  So, I will just have to keep to myself my race tip for a podium finish!" July blogpost 
Yes, Chris Brookman was my podium tip for the Montane Lakeland 100 even though five weeks before race day he cracked his rib as a result of a tumble while out on a run.  However, a consequence of Chris not being able to run for a few weeks, was that he was able to increase the amount of non-physical training.  I recall chatting to Chris around a week out from race day and he commented to me that he felt better prepared for the upcoming race than he ever had prior to other races, as long as his ribs that were still sore when running would allow him to run.  Hearing him say this, I knew I had done well as a coach in terms of the passing on of my ideas, my philosophy, my understanding of what  I believe contributes to ultra trail performance.  Now I don't want to "blow my own trumpet" (one of my Mum's favourite expressions), but in order to perform, one has to really understand what factors are limiting their current performance, and most often it is limited by non-physical aspects such as not having the ideal race goals, or not having believable self-expectations.

Now those of you searching the Montane Lakeland 100 result won't find Chris's name near the top as his ribs didn't allow him to race as his ribs were not fully recovered, so he DNFed at checkpoint 3.  Although a cliche, one sign of a champion is the ability to deal with disappointment.  So we targeted Chris's next race, the Centurion Running Autumn 100, and although Chris didn't quite achieve the finish time we had identified as being the 'perfect performance' time. (Maybe I should elaborate on the use of the 'perfect performance' approach as I feel it has so many advantages over other approaches such as Gold/Silver/Bronze or A/B/C goals etc, but not today!).  A finish time of 15:06 for 100 miles over trials is not really 'hanging around'.  And the 'secret to his success'?  Chris carrying out the TOTAL training that is mentioned on a number of occasions within the previous 139 UltraStu blog posts.
Chris Focused But Relaxed During the Centurion Autumn 100 Mile

Now before you think that I am just doing one of those info-adverts for my coaching, this isn't the case as I am actually not taking on any new athletes at the moment, and have even recently turned two athletes away.  No, due to not racing at the moment, you will have noticed that I am therefore blogging very infrequently.  So when I do, I just want to try to have my blogpost to be as beneficial as it can to aid those out there that read it.

So what is this TOTAL training really about?  It is hard to explain, but it all gets down to a concept which is finally beginning to gain attention within the scientific literature, and quoting the words of Tim Noakes "Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion". (Click HERE for full article)  So this is at the core of my TOTAL Training.  It is all about ensuring one's emotion is optimal during the race.  Which is massively affected by one's pre-race goals and self-expectations.  And then during the race, 'executing' the plan that has been thoughtfully prepared through extensive use of visualisations.  What I mean by executing the plan includes certain things like getting the balance right.  It is important that you "want it", but if you "want it" too much, then things can be more difficult!  What is the right level of wanting it?  Even before this, what does wanting it actually mean?  What are you actually wanting from the race?  Some may think that 'the want' simply refers to a finish time or place, but no, the wanting, is a lot deeper than this.  It is more to do with wanting that sense of achievement, that feeling that one has done well, that confirmation that the thoroughness, the thoughtfulness, the commitment, the carefulness, the belief, the desire, the understanding, the questioning, the learning, the execution, the enjoyment, have all been effective to help create the 'perfect performance, or in other words, for everything to simply seem to 'fall into place'.  A bit of a jumble above, but I think this jumble helps to illustrate how achieving that sense of satisfaction, that appreciation of achievement is affected by so many aspects, and hence why it can at times, be so difficult to achieve.

I can sense that I am beginning to go around a bit in circles here, so a good time to stop.  What has just sprung to mind as I am typing this post up, whilst sitting on the floor of a very busy National Speed Cubing (Rubiks Cube) Championships in Stevange.  Currently very quiet as it is the blindfolded competition at the moment.  Yes, they solve the cube blindfolded!  Check out a youtube video of the recent UK Championships to be blown away my the skill level of these competitors!  Go to exactly four minutes into the video to see Chris Mills the cuber and race photographer solving the cube blindfolded!

Yes, what has sprung to mind Is that performance at a high level seems to be pretty well influenced by the same factors, regardless of the sport.  During the Championships lunch break, they had a question and answer session with three World or European Speed Cubing record holders.  They were asked "how did they manage to work through any plateaus in performance they may have encountered before becoming a World or European champion.  The consensus of the response is that it wasn't just down to hard work and practice, but down to the practice having a purpose.  Trying to identify what was limiting their performance, and to not always play it safe, and to experiment with different approaches, in order to continue to improve.  There was no point in just practicing the same approach.  Often one reads, or hears these comments within running.  If you keep doing the same you keep achieving the same.  With this often in the context of physical training.  I think it actually relates better in terms of one's overall approach to both TOTAL training and racing.

Hopefully the above is making some sense.  I think one reason I am in such a thoughtful (confusing) blogging mode at the moment is that I feel I am at a bit of a crossroads as I approach the end of my sabbatical year.  What are by aims, goals, expectations, etc. for 2016.  Yes, I have the Lanzarote Ironman next May.  The event is entered, build-up races also entered, etc.  But what do I want to achieve at Lanzarote?  Why?  How committed am I?  How much time, focus, energy can I commit?  Am I able to commit, do I want to commit?  And this also ties into the question; Who am I in terms of being a sportsperson, a competitor, a coach?  Am I still an ultra trail racer, or a triathlete/Ironman?  Am I still an elite performer, or now am I an age grouper, or maybe just a recreational athlete and I can therefore get the 'competitor buzz' from the athletes I coach.  Yes, very confusing at the moment.

Anyway, I have finally provided the brief (not!) update on issues raised in my last post. Now for my latest news/thoughts.  I have mentioned my half Ironman at the end of August.  My next event was the Groombridge Place High Weald Challenge 50km Ultra Trail that took place at the end of September.  This was a new event that I was race directing.  The route, which was awesome, possibly even more scenic and varied than the other trail race I organise, i.e. the Weald Challenge in May, also takes in the spectacular Ashdown Forest and with the undulations and being mostly off-road provides an excellent challenge.

We had 126 runners taking part, and the day was a huge success, with a really friendly supportive, and enjoyable atmosphere present throughout the day.  One of the runners Stephen Cousins, produced an excellent eight minute video of the race, (click HERE) which really captures the great atmosphere on the day.  Also below are a few photos that my two boys took.  So if you are looking for a 50km trail race next September, look out for when entries open next February.  Entries are currently open for the Weald Challenge Trail Races, either a 50km ultra trail, or a trail half marathon, that takes place on the 29th May 2016.  So check out the website for details and online entry.  Entries sold out for the Weald Challenge in both 2014 and 2015, so if thinking of entering, probably better to enter sooner rather than latter.

Above:  Photos from the Grrombridge Place High Weald Challemge 50km Ultra Trail

Now, as highlighted above, this is my 'sabbatical year'.  However, come the end of October, it was the 14th running of the Beachy Head Marathon, which in 2002 followed on from 21 editions of the successful Seven Sisters marathon.  Having moved to East Sussex in 2002 I had race all 13 editions of the Beachy Head marathon, so even though I was having a break from racing, I had still entered the marathon, simply as that was what I always did!  Standing on the start line with this "that's what I always did" attitude I knew wouldn't help produce a good performance.  So time was spent formulating responses to the three important questions; what, why, how much?

I thought back to previous trail races including recent Beachy Head marathons, which really hadn't gone that well.  I then realised that I needed to have some recent evidence to assist me in establishing believable high expectations.  So at the last minute I decided to race the Jog Shop Jog, which is a good off-road 20 mile race in East Sussex.  Considering it is such a good route it is surprising that I had only raced it once before, back in 2004 when I finished 2nd to James Baker in 2 hours 14 minutes.  The reason I had only raced it once was following 2004, the race date changed from August to mid October.  So always only 13 days before the Beachy Head marathon.  Previously I had believed that racing a 20 miler only 13 days before a marathon was unwise, and would definitely harm one's performance.  And the key thing is, that if you believe this, then it will.  Remember that one's performance is so affected by one's expectations.  Now having a better understanding of what influences endurance trail running performance, racing 13 days out from the Beachy Head marathon not only isn't going to do any harm, but assuming that I run well at the Jog Shop Jog, would actually substantially enhance my marathon performance.

So for the Jog Shop Jog, the focus was to run well.  I had in my memory my time from eleven years earlier, but the race goal wasn't about time, but about emotion.  To run well would be assessed by how I maintain a positive focus throughout the 20 miles.  Keeping on task, whilst at the same time being relaxed and not 'fighting'!  Come race day, I went to the lead after a few minutes and won by around 5 minutes in 2 hours 19 minutes.  I had run well, according to my emotion criteria.  And if one runs well, then this is usually reflected within the finish time.

Back home after the race, I immediately got out my training diary from 2004, just to check that my memory of my 2004 time was correct.  I had only ran 5 minutes slower, eleven years later.  I then looked at my 2004 Beachy Head marathon time.  Being 2:58, I did some quick calculations and concluded that a 3:05 Beachy Head marathon time was totally possible, which would be quite a bit quicker that my last three Beachy Head marathon finish times: 3:09, 3:12, 3:10.

So 13 days later I am on the start line of the Beachy Head marathon for the 14th consecutive year, with the simple plan:  run well again, similar to the Jog Shop Jog, with emphasis on my emotions.  Although I had 13 years of race data, of split times at checkpoint around the course, I realised that I didn't need this information.  All I need is for me to assess whilst running "am I running well", and to rely on my 'gut feeling' from my experience as a trail runner.  Were my emotions 'in the right place'?  Am I focusing whilst at the same time staying relaxed?  Am I flowing, that feeling of running quickly, most importantly not fighting!  And am I enjoying the present moment, during that moment. 

Although I am wearing a GPS watch with heart rate monitor (for later analysis), not once do I look at my watch, and not once do I look behind to see where I am positioned, having been in second place pretty well from the start, before moving into the lead at around 10 miles.  There is no need to have this objective feedback.  All I need is my subjective feedback, my feelings.  If my feelings tell me I aren't running well then I need to address this.  If my feelings tell me that I am running well, I am running at the pace that feels right, then I trust my feelings.  I don't need a split time to convince me that I am running well. Similarly, I don't need to know that someone is close behind me as an incentive to run quicker.  I simply trust that I am running as quickly as I can, whilst monitoring my emotions, and not fighting/battling.

So after taking the lead around 10 miles, I have no idea if someone is 30 seconds behind or 5 minutes behind as I approach the 'bag-piper steps at around 17 miles, just before Cuckmere Haven.  The piper starts playing as I approach and then stops playing after I pass.  I distinctively recall thinking to myself, hopefully I won't hear those bagpipes again, which would mean I had a good lead.  Alas, what seemed like less that a minute (later confirmed by a friend after the race that my lead at that point was exactly one minute) the bagpiper started playing again!  My immediate response was panic!  On know, I thought I was miles clear!  I had already counted today as being win number eight!

I start to fight, in an effort to run faster.  For a few minutes I start to struggle as the thought of winning again, which would be my first Beachy Head marathon win since 2010, was quite appealing.  Fortunately, I snapped out of this destination goal approach and reminded myself of my goals for the race.  To race well.  To maintain positive emotions.  I relaxed, had faith in that I was running well, and if the runner behind was going to overtake me, then so be it.  My race decision was focus on the process at that moment in time, and the finish time and place will be a consequence of this., I know doing this isn't very easy to do..  Having this belief to trust one's 'gut feelings', to trust one's subjective judgement comes from having a high self-expectation of oneself as a 'quality' runner, which comes from experience.  People often talk about how experience aids performance, and to me, the main benefit of experience is helping to develop, to cement one's self belief!

So for the final eight miles, which in terms of terrain are probably the most physically demanding over the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, I continue to run well and finish in a time of 3:08:05, my quickest finish time since 2011, and win by over 5 minutes.  Yes, it was pleasing to win again, but what was more pleasing was in the manner in how I raced.  Starting with a high self-expectation as a result of the Jog Shop Jog performance, and then maintaining this positive approach throughout, and dealing with any doubts questioning my ability.  Whereas above I highlighted for my half Ironman preparation I would convince myself that I was either a cyclist or a triathlete.  For this race, it was very easy to truly believe that I was a quality trail marathoner, and with this belief, it is so much easier for the good performance to eventuate.

Opps, again I seem to be going a bit around in circles.  Hopefully you have persevered with this mega long post and made some sense out of it!  Check out the excellent photos below taken by Sussex Sport Photography.  Notice the relaxation which is evident in most of the photos, especially crossing the finish line!

Beachy Head Marathon Race Start 

Climbing Out of Jevington Around 4 Miles

Approaching Birling Gap Around 22 Miles

Final Climb to Summit of Beach Head Nearing 25 Miles

Crossing the Finish Line

As mentioned above, this was the 14th time I had raced the Beachy Head marathon.  Check out the graph below that illustrates my finish times over the years.  Although this year's finish time of 3:08:05 was my slowest winning time.  It was actually only 30 seconds slower than my winning time of 3:07:35 set eleven years earlier in 2003!  Physiologically I have slowed loads more than 30 seconds.  But I now understand that the physiology only sets the limit to what one is able to achieve,  It is one's emotion along the journey that determines how close one's performance is to their limit.

Fourteen Consecutive Beachy Head Marathon Finish Times

Right just about time to wrap up this post.  Although I have a twitter 'handle' @UltraStu1 I very seldom tweet.  Although last month I did do the tweet below.  Some of you noticed the identity of my new training partner alongside 2012 Beachy Head marathon winner, Rob, although most people missed spotting who he was.  Yes, I had the pleasure of escorting three times Olympic Gold medalist and current double World record holder around the scenic South Downs overlooking Eastbourne.  We had a good chat as we ran at a relaxed pace.  Probably the most interesting things I learnt was that in contrast to the Kenyans, Kenenisa commented that he tended to run on his own or only with his brother Tariku, who is also quite a good runner.  And secondly, when preparing for the marathon, he only on occasions does training runs beyond the marathon distance, with 50km being his longest run.  I'm now waiting to see how he will benefit from his training session in Eastbourne.  He spoke about racing the Dehli Half Marathon which takes place next weekend, but checking out the race website it simply states "Kenenisa Bekele will grace the eighth edition of ADHM as the Event Ambassador".so it isn't clear if he is racing or just being present.  

Last Month's Tweet

Finally, listening to the latest edition of the podcast show TalkUltra, it was enjoyable listening to one of my athletes being interviewed.  Although during the interview Ian Corless couldn't seem to work out whether Sophie was a competitive elite runner or a recreational fun runner, as Sophie spoke about the importance of enjoying the journey.  Yes, I have been working with Sophie for around a year and a half now, and perhaps to further help illustrate that my perhaps 'out of the box' messages above do have some substance, I think that it is probably Sophie's improved understanding of being aware of her emotions and the importance of emotions in relation to performance, which has been most responsible for her recent improvements.  Which include taking her marathon PB time down from 3:08 to 2:52, as well as recording pretty impressive finish places at some high profile races around the World such as: 1st woman at Zugspitze marathon, 2nd woman at Zugspitze 120km Ultra, 12th womaat 168km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, and just the other week, as discussed on TalkUltra, 6th woman overall at 164km Grand Raid reunion, which was actually also 3rd place senior woman, so she got the opportunity to share the podium with ultra trail 'legend' Nuria Picas.   In case any of you are thinking that my coaching may be something that you could possibly benefit from, sorry, but unfortunately I do not have any current coaching spaces available.

Sophie on the Podium Alongside Nuria Picas at Grand Raid Reunion La Diagonale des Fous 164 km 

Whilst listening to the recent podcast show, Ian Corless mentioned that he had nearly sold out of his pretty impressive 2016 Photo Calendar.  Well, I thought my boys take pretty good photos, as you would have seen above, so if any of you missed out on Ian's Ultra Trail Running Photo Calendar, no problems, the Trail Running Sussex 2016 Calendar is now available.  At the moment I only have three in stock,(originally for work, for home, and for my Dad!) but if there is demand, then I can reorder more.  I don't have a fancy web page to display my calendar, but hopefully the screenshot image below illustrates the quality of the photos for each month.  The photos are all taken by Rob or Chris MIlls of the 2014 and 2015 Weald Challenge Trail Races, and the 2015 High Weald Challenge 50km Ultra Trail.

If you would like a copy, simply zap me an e-mail: and we can sort out postage and payment.  The cost is only £10, so a little cheaper than Ian's calendar, although I do not provide free postage.  Postage cost within the UK is an extra £1.50.

Interestingly I started this blog post a few weeks ago, where the subtitle "Appreciating the Achievements" just appeared.  I didn't know where it had come from and hence the delay in completing the post.  But now realising the crossroads I am currently at, the sub title reminds me that it is really important to step back and really appreciate one's achievements.  So although one can always strive to be better, it is important to appreciate what one has achieved.  So to many of you finishing your racing season for 2015.  Just take a few moments to reflect and to allow yourself to enjoy that sense of satisfaction in what you have achieved this year.  And then you can return back into planning for that perfect performance!

Time for a signing off quote, which I think is worth repeating from this post:
"I now understand that the physiology only sets the limit to what one is able to achieve,  It is one's emotion along the journey that determines how close one's performance is to their limit."  Stuart Mills, November, 2015
All the best, and enjoy your accomplishments,


PS.  As part of doing our little bit to help preserve the natural beauty of the South Downs and the High Weald, Trail Running Sussex donates a portion of every race entry fee to the local charity; Sussex Wildlife Trust.  Last month I received an e-mail from them stating that they had a few Brighton Marathon places available.  They may by now be gone.  Sorry, just been a bit busy recently.  But below are the details from the e-mail:

Sussex Wildlife Trust has secured five places for keen runners who want to raise funds to make a real difference for nature in Sussex.
Runners will receive expert training advice, their own running kit and a cheerful support team on the day of the race.
Interested? Then contact Anne Weinhold, for more information, and how to register.