Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Catch-up and looking ahead to Western States

Snow-shoeing up Mt Bachelor - that's what I call fun training!

I haven't blogged for a while partly due to moving house and partly because a lot of other things related to coaching and Skyrunning have been keeping me on my toes. So here's a quick catch-up.

The year started off well and I'm fully past the foot fracture from last year, so that was my main concern through Rocky Raccoon 100 in Jan and the following months. I then switched to getting in plenty of fun, hilly runs in California and Mt Diablo before moving back to Bend, Oregon, in April.

Lake Sonoma 50 was a disappointment for me since it's about the most competitive 50-miler of the year in the US (I'd argue it's harder to win than TNFEC50 in San Francisco since a lot of runners are worn down at the end of the season and don't race near their abilities). It was a few days before I moved to Oregon and I just felt tired and 'out of it' but a lot of other runs in the build up had felt amazing. So I dropped at halfway since 50 grinding, slow miles wouldn't have done me any favors for the rest of the season. The very first climb felt odd with a complete lack of energy, which wasn't a good sign, but it didn't improve. It was still a very fun trip to Sonoma and I really want to come back next year to give it my best effort.

That fatigue followed me through the next couple of weeks and moving was annoyingly stressful, but well worth it now we're all set up in the new house and feel truly at home. After a week of being in Bend I ran the inaugural Bend Half, a hilly road race at which I expected to have a lot of local speedsters to race. Despite the fact I seemed to be stuck in 2nd gear I led a pack of four guys, two in the marathon and one other in the half with me. The marathoners forged ahead a little when I dropped off 6-min/mile pace but it came down to a sprint finish in the half (the races split at mile 10.5), which I narrowly won by two seconds in 1h19m31s. That was a surprise, but not nearly quick enough to go for a marathon PR two weeks later at the Eugene Marathon (the target was to break 2h30m).

Then Eugene was a fun, hard day out and felt much more encouraging. I knew I wouldn't break 2h30m, but I hoped I could get fairly close. The early miles went about to plan and I felt much better than at Sonoma or the Bend Half. I went through 13.1 in 1h18m flat then hung on for the second half to avoid slowing too much (still didn't quite feel at 100%) to run 2h38m39s.

The last few months have really been focused on preparing for Western States and it's just over five weeks til race day. The races mentioned above had an upward trend and things feel on track now to hammer some vertical and turn up to the Big Dance ready and raring to go. I feel back to normal and the speed work on flat terrain should help with cruising at much slower speeds on the trail to Auburn. Getting into the mountains is helping too, plus it's very motivating (see the photo above).

It's always tough to accept some sub-par results, but WS100 is the main event for me and I can't wait to get there. Speaking of which, in two days I'm heading to the Memorial Day Weekend training weekend that covers 70 miles of the race course. That should get the blood pumping!


Friday, 6 March 2015

Becoming Ultra Project

The Becoming Ultra project is something new I've just started working on with film-maker, Matt Trappe, and Scott Jones from 'Athlete on Fire.' It's a fun idea to document the progress of two runners in the build up to their first ultra at the Audi Power of 4 50k Skyrunning event in Aspen, CO, this July.

Michele Yates (2013 Ultrarunner of the Year) and myself are coaching the runners with live broadcasts every week like the one below. This second episode discusses the differences and similarities between Michele's and my coaching philosophies on a number of areas, including speed work, base training, nutrition and cross training.

Check it out below and through the project website. Welcome aboard!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Rocky Raccoon 100 USATF National Championship 2015

Mid-race. Photo: Scott Dunlap.

I've lived in the US for five years now and only missed one Rocky Raccoon 100 in that time. There's something really fun about having a big winter target while most runners I know are just starting to build back up to get fit for Spring.

Why do I keep going back? Well, it feels like it's one of the classics of ultrarunning and is one of the older 100s (this was the 23rd year) with many outstanding performances over the years and a lot of top level runners have given it a shot. The five 20-mile loops also allow for a lot of social interaction with out-and-back sections and less loneliness and solo running than on point-to-point courses. It always feels like a big social catch-up too, like the way I ran much of lap one with Liza Howard (one of the coaches at Sharman Ultra and a two-time winner - here's her very amusing race report on getting 2nd place) and James Elson (RD of Centurion Running in the UK and a good friend - here's his race report from running a sub 15hr race this year). It's also impeccably organized by Joe and Joyce Prusaitis plus their team.

Undoubtedly RR100 is a fast course, but it still has small rolling hills throughout and has significantly slower terrain than flat road or track running, especially during the night sections. That potential to run a quick time draws in a lot of runners aiming for a PR (myself included) and a lot of first-time 100-milers, but it can also be deceptive and cause runners to forget some of the basics of ultra pacing and instead aim for fast splits no matter what.

I had high hopes of running well and hopefully having a shot at my 2011 course record of 12:44, but knew that I couldn't really gauge that until maybe 30-40 miles into the race. After a shortened build-up after fracturing my foot back in July on Mt Whitney, I'd lost a lot of fitness before restarting walking at the end of October. However, I felt fit and the foot seemed to have healed, allowing me to run approx 300 miles/month for December and January, including some decent speed work by late December.

The Race

Starting in the dark for the first hour of running, the weather wasn't too cold and it remained very pleasant all day, between about 43 F and maybe 60 F, but without last year's humidity. Frankly it was perfect weather for speedsters. However, I was surprised at the end of the first 20-mile loop to find I was 12 mins back from the leader who set a lap record of 2:19 to my 2:31 (the CR split was 2:29) and I was in about 8th, just ahead of the first two women.

It didn't worry me since I was running at a fairly comfy pace and I know the last two laps are the ones that count and that small differences in early laps make little difference overall. That next loop was gradually harder and I could tell I didn't quite have the endurance I'd hoped for. I hadn't run too fast early on, I just hadn't had enough time to build up my endurance. So there's only one sensible thing to do that early in the race - adjust the pace and focus 100% on looking after my body and making things sustainable.

Lap two was marginally slower in 2:34 so I was happy it wasn't too much worse despite making things easier for myself. Things got fairly bad in lap three and my stride was shortened, I felt tight and I had to concentrate hard to stop myself focusing on negative thoughts like how slow the last loop could end up being. I was extremely tempted to drop, cut my losses and continue working on my fitness for the rest of the season. The one thing that stopped me was that I wasn't injured and was moving forward fine, it was just harder and slower than it should have been. That's not a good enough reason.

Lap three dropped to a 2:49, making sub-14 hours less likely if the slow-down continued, although the early leader had dropped by this point and I wasn't far from the podium, now in 4th. I made sure I ate more (especially the new savory Clif Bar Organic Energy Food pouches, which I used at WS100 and Leadville last year too) during that loop and near the end I started to feel a little more normal. Then the wind was knocked out my sails when I saw several runners right behind me at the turn around, including female leader Nicole Studer. They all looked better than I felt, but that's fairly meaningless since some runners look great when they're struggling and others look like the walking dead when they're actually cruising.

Mentally I switched gear after that third loop and starting thinking about how mile 60 was the start of the real race, the important part that separates the runners at the front. I'd not pushed too hard to this point and had spent 20 miles trying to sort out things, so it started to pay off. Paul Terranova caught me a couple of miles into the loop and we ran together with his pacer and chatted. Back in 2011 he'd paced me on loop 4 for a 2:35 loop, so the quirkiness of having him there to 'pace' me again at the same stage felt like a good change and a nice mental boost. Half way through the loop I started feeling genuinely good and gradually pulled away from Paul, catching 3rd and 2nd over the next 10 miles and getting to within two minutes of the leader since about halfway, Marco Bonfiglio from Italy, a winner of numerous 100-milers in Europe and 4th at last year's Spartathlon.

Marco had looked great all day but he was around 12 mins ahead at mile 60 so the two min gap was very encouraging for me. Lap four was an improvement on lap three, in 2:46, but the more important factor was that I was running freely and felt like a new man. The uphills were easy when I'd had to hike some of them on lap three. I had no doubt I'd catch Marco and I did so after about four miles, making sure I passed strongly to get out of sight within a couple of minutes. Now the adrenaline was flowing and I knew it was completely within my control whether I won or not.

As the light faded I sped up, knowing the dark would force slower running with the roots and occasional bumpy terrain. I turned my headlamp on around mile 91 and kept pushing to avoid any chance of getting caught. That's a lot easier to do when you're in the lead and have a bigger incentive to push, plus I felt much stronger than 50 miles earlier. It looked like the tortoise's slow and steady tactics were going to pay off. Those final miles were surprisingly comfortable, although I fell twice more in the dark (total for the day was four full-on trips). So the final loop was 2:50 for a finish of 13:32, 48 mins off the record but still respectable for a winning time.

Nobody else broke 3:15 on that last loop, reaffirming my belief that to really race a competitive 100-miler well, it's mainly about getting to the latter stages in good shape then being able to hammer it to the finish. Just in 2014 there were two perfect examples of this - look at Kilian's last 25 miles at Hardrock 100 or Rob Krar's push from mile 62 at Western States 100. Those guys weren't leading in the first half of those races but dominated at the end.

I feel this was probably the best race of my life, not because of the time or my fitness level, but because I really got the most out of my body and stuck to my tactics throughout, despite being over 30 mins back near halfway. It's certainly the most satisfying and I'm now ecstatic that I didn't give into the demons mid-way through and drop out pathetically. It gives me a lot of confidence that with a few more months of training and getting fitter, I can hit the summer races as hard as possible, especially Western States and Leadville. After all, I only ran a little over 750 miles between the injury and the start line so tripling or quadrupling that (over a longer build-up) would help a lot. Frankly, I'm really excited for what 2015 has in store.

One comment I made post-race was that longer ultras are 20% physical and 80% mental. That doesn't mean you don't need to be fit, just that fitness will only get you so far. Grit is important, but that's not the full meaning of the mental side and it also includes the tactics, pacing and ability to plan for and react to issues mid-race.


Here's the Strava data, including HRM data - this was the first time I've worn a HRM for an 100. Note it shows the course is 96 miles due to the constant tree cover and cloudiness. I wore two watches as an experiment to see which was more accurate, my old Garmin 910XT and my new Garmin Fenix 2. It wasn't even close - the 910 worked throughout and kept a better signal while the Fenix 2 dropped signal in the trees frequently and just stopped recording after 58 miles because it couldn't regain the signal.

This is the beautiful trophy for the win (always something unique from Tejas Trails races), plus the coveted sub 24-hr colored silver buckle:

Full results here and the USATF National Champions are Paul Terranova (3rd man, behind a Brit and an Italian who don't count) and Nicole Studer with her new 100-mile trail best of 14:22, taking 23 mins off Traci Falbo's 14:45 last November. Plus loads of photos and a great write-up from Scott Dunlap here.

Also, here's the post-race interview with who covered the race superbly:

Thanks and congratulations to everyone involved with organizing the race, the volunteers, the runners themselves and everyone for your kind messages post-race, as well as Mark Kenney for crewing me. Also, I always know I can count on the following companies to provide me with what I need at races:

Altra - Lone Peak 2.0s which meant I didn't even feel the tiniest pressure on my healed stress fracture
Julbo - new Venturi shades with ventilation
Drymax - Maximum Protection Trail socks (the only model of sock I've used for the past four years of trail races)
Clif Bar - more gels than I can count, plus Shot Bloks and the new Organic Energy Food pouches
UltrAspire - Isomeric 8oz handhelds
UVU - comfiest T-shirt available

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Kicking off 2015 - Crystal Springs 50k

Finishing the Crystal Springs 50k

It's been a while since I felt fit and fast thanks to my stress fracture last year, but I'm just about getting there again...just in time for Rocky Raccoon 100 at the end of January. I find that a marathon or faster 50k is a great way to test fitness, ideally three to four weeks before a target race. So I ran the Crystal Springs 50k again this year, just like I did last year before Rocky Raccoon. Thanks to a wrong turn on the way back I had 3 mins added to my finish time (I accidentally shaved off 0.3 miles taking the marathon turn-off on my return instead of back-tracking the full orange ultra route - see the difference here and I think that's very fair of the RD). Full results here.

There are so many races and trails in the Bay Area that the number of races to choose from is almost overwhelming. However, the plus side is that every single local trail race I've ever done here is excellent so it's difficult to make a bad choice. Crystal Springs is a flatter, faster 50k with only 4,500ft of elevation gain and it's a typically pretty course for this area too - check out Scott Dunlap's photos from the weekend here. I managed to high five him along the way and he's also preparing for Rocky Raccoon (where he has a very good chance of becoming the USATF National Champion for 100 miles).

I also want to take advantage of the local races before heading back to Bend, OR, in April for a more permanent base. In the five years I've lived in the US I've been in the Bay Area 50% of the time and Oregon the other 50%. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather live.

Bring on 2015, especially with my new kicks from Altra which feel so good. Am looking forward to running 100-milers in them (the Lone Peaks), since that's the real test.

Altra Lone Peak 2.0 shoes
UltrAspire Isometric water bottle
UVU technical T-shirt
Drymax Maximum Protection Trail socks
Julbo Venturi shades
Clif Bar gels and Shot Bloks

Saturday, 27 December 2014


Each year I always aim to explore new parts of the running world as well as enjoying favorite races like they're old friends. I expect the highlights to be the races where things work out perfectly but that's generally not the case.

Although I did have fun at the races I focused on (Rocky Raccoon 100, Western States 100 and Leadville Trail 100), the highlights of the year were very different. The first of these was running the Grand Canyon Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim with Sean Meissner, one of the most beautiful runs I've been on. Much as many ultra runners focus on races, I think the biggest benefit of getting fitter is that it makes epic long runs possible, delving deep into remote locations. That includes a lot of summits of my local hill, Mt Diablo.

The Big Ditch in a more relaxed fashion.

A couple of years ago I ran the 40-mile route around Mt Hood in Oregon with friends and this was equally as fun so that style of run is something I want to do more of when I move back to Oregon next year (a few other items on the to do list include circumnavigating the Three Sisters, climbing Mts Hood, Rainier and Shasta, running portions of the Oregonian section of the Pacific Crest Trail and a couple of other ideas much farther afield).

Back to 2014, the two most enjoyable races were extremely competitive events where I chose to just enjoy the experience rather than push as hard as I could. I've done that plenty of times at smaller, local races but never at major competitions. These races were Lake Sonoma 50  and Comrades in South Africa. Again, part of the fun was having the fitness to be able to run well but holding back to avoid the pain and suffering associated with a maximum effort. In particular, Comrades was most enjoyable for seeing Ellie Greenwood (who I started coaching a few months earlier) win from the best seat in the house - running around the same pace to see her take the lead and run around the stadium while the crowd went wild for her win. Even though I love Comrades and have always given it my all, having some very rewarding hard runs, this one where the glory was all Ellie's was so much better.

Congratulating Ellie at the finish of Comrades before she was whisked off for TV interviews.

Then the other highlights of the year include summiting some of California's and Colorado's 14ers in the US. There's something truly inspiring about reaching high places and I've never been anywhere more beautiful than the Himalayas (back in 2008) so the High Sierra and various parts of the Rockies were perfect playgrounds. Mt Whitney was very busy but still worth seeing since it deserves the attention. I even met a friend at the summit by coincidence (Chikara Omine), despite it being in the middle of a wilderness area and an 11-mile hike to get to the top.

Mt Whitney at 14,500ft - the highest point in the US outside Alaska.

More of Whitney and the High Sierras.
Colorado was a little too fun and I ended up going up a few too many mountains right before Leadville, but wouldn't change that in hindsight. My biggest week of vertical in the entire year was the first week I spent in Colorado at the start of August. The difference between the hordes at Whitney and the sparse hikers on the Rocky Mountain trails was a welcome surprise and in many ways I'd have preferred to keep doing that rather than racing Leadville and wrecking my legs for a few weeks! Below are a few shots with my favorite being the San Juans and Mt Sneffels (I especially liked it for the link via the name to Jules Vernes' Journey to the Center of the Earth).

View of Twin Lakes (on the Leadville course) from Mt Elbert

Mt Sherman

View from Mt Massive...possibly of Mt Elbert (I can't quite tell)

The mountains above Telluride, CO

Mt Sneffels - unbelievably beautiful (and my current desktop background)

The Leadville beer mile with my crew
So the year was more than I could have hoped for or expected because there was so much I didn't think I'd experience. That's the aim for every year if I'm truly honest and it's those unscripted moments that mean the most.

Even the last few months of the year worked out surprisingly well given I picked up a foot fracture on Mt Whitney back in July and spend most of the time off running post-August. The final races of the inaugural US Skyrunner Series kept me sane and it was a pleasure to see the first year go so well and be received by runners very positively. Directing the Series is fun but next year I'll be running many of the events myself, giving the perfect excuse to run in the mountains all across the US. Hope to see many of you out there too.

Runners on the final section of the ascent of Lone Peak at the RUT  in Montana (around 11,000ft)

Jeremy Wolf near the highest point at the Flagstaff Sky Run 55k (around 11,500ft)

Happy New Year and here's to a spectacular 2015! Give yourself goals but allow freedom to experience the unexpected too.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Team Scoring for the US Skyrunner Series - Worked Example Using Western States

Recently I posted an outline of team scoring for the 2015 US Skyrunner Series here, allowing runners to identify with both the elite and mass participation teams through geography (US States or foreign countries). The main aim is to add an extra dimension to ultras and make it more interesting to follow a given race. We'll soon have some very exciting news about live tracking of every runner at every 2015 event, which should include real-time team scoring...not just from aid stations but at any point in the race. That should be much more exciting to follow, plus it gives added depth and detail to following individual runners.

After discussions with a lot of interested parties I decided to create a worked example to show how the team scoring looks in practice. Given I don't have enough data from the 2014 US Skyrunner Series races to hand, I opted for an international race with all the information required already in the public domain - Western States 2014.

In looking through the numbers I made one change to my original proposed structure for scoring - to make the penalty for not having enough runners be 50 points per runners, not 25 points. So this is how the scoring works:

Elite team scoring:

Every runner counts for the State or Country they enter under originally for their residence, even if they move before race day. Otherwise the manual changes take forever when compiling results.

Cross-country scoring with the top two men and one woman from a team counting by adding their gender positions. For example, a team with men in 2nd and 3rd plus the 1st woman would score 6 points (2+3+1). If there are not enough finishers of the correct sexes for a team to complete their three finishers then each missing runner scores 50 points, so the previously mentioned team score without a female finisher would score 55 points (2+3+50). The most an elite team can score is 150 and if a team's runner is lower than 50th place for their gender then they still score 50 points at worst. This is important for scoring throughout a season in a league, otherwise one bad result can add so much to a competitive team that they lose any chance of doing well over the entire Series.

Full team scoring:

Every runner counts for the State or Country they enter under originally  for their residence even if they move before race day, including elites. Otherwise the manual changes take forever when compiling results, especially with hundreds or thousands of entrants.

The average position of the runners in their gender is the number that counts for scoring, with a bonus for the more runners they have. A minimum of 3 finishers is required to score, otherwise a team scores 1 point below the lowest team with 3 finishers.

The State or country with the most runners in a race gets a 5 point deduction from their score, second largest gets 4 points off, third largest gets 3 points off, fourth largest gets 2 points off and the 5th largest gets a single point off their score.

For example, if Colorado has the most runners in a race and the average finisher's position in their gender is 42.567 then we round to one decimal place then deduct the 5 point bonus to give a score of 37.6.

Single race v entire Series:

I aim to include scoring for every distance at every event to give a result for the individual race plus a league table over the season. I guess I'll get comments about how all the scoring favors the States that hold more races since it's easier to get locals to turn up, but the bonus points' system only gives a slight advantage to big numbers. Regarding the elite races, 2015 should see some high-level competition across the entire Series, meaning that the States with the best mountain runners should do better in the elite rankings and they aren't punished too much if they can't get a full scoring team out given it only requires two men and one woman and there's only so many points that can be added as a penalty.

Worked example - WS100 2014

Linked to this article is the full set of results here. But below I also include the top 10 for the elite and mass participation races. California has by far the most entrants (it's almost certainly always the case that the home State or country will have the most runners), but it doesn't win the mass participation team competition. Australia benefits from a perfect storm for the mass participation race in this case since it has exactly 3 finishers, all relatively near the front of the race.

Elite team scoring:

Elite Team PlaceState/CountryAbbreviationFinishersElite score
9New HampshireNH1102

Full elite scores here. It reflects what we would expect at WS, in that the top teams are generally from the States with the biggest populations of elite 100-milers. Note that the competitiveness doesn't go very deeply and that only 29 of 64 States or countries managed to get under the lowest possible score of 150.

Mass participation team scoring:

Mass Team PlaceState/CountryAbbreviationFinishersTotal ScoreAverage ScoreAdj Score for <3 finishers="" td="">Point deduction for high finisher numbersFinal score
2New JerseyNJ39832.732.7032.7
6New YorkNY53507070070

For the mass participation team scoring the top 10 is dramatically different. California is down in 14th after winning the elite race, despite getting the 5 point deduction for having the most finishers. 

Call for comment

Ultimately, this is only worthwhile if it creates more excitement around the US Skyrunner Series races, both for fans and for following friends and relatives. I know that as I worked out the tables above I was rooting for the places I personally have an affiliation to, so I hope others get that same buzz.

Whatever form of team scoring is ultimately decided on is likely to apply to all Skyrunning events globally, not just the US Series, so it will have slight differences from country to country in terms of how magnetism there are (e.g. UK races could be split into England, Wales, Scotland, North Ireland and all other countries...or broken down into smaller areas).

Does this form of point scoring make sense and is there a better way to score? For example, is the 50-point penalty for not having a scoring elite runner fair? I think it's about right so that an elite team can't do really well without 3 scorers but isn't penalized too heavily. Note that Montana fell into this gap since they had the 2nd man and 5th woman, then had no other finishers so had 50 points added for that and still finished 4th in the elite table.