Monday, 28 May 2012

Western States Training Runs and Different Styles of Races Internationally

The UK during the summer of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee (60 years since coronation),  plus with some national pride for the Euro 2012 Football Tournament and the little matter of the Olympics

Memorial Day weekend at the end of May has the traditional three days of training runs along the lower parts of the Western States course and there are people out doing that as I write. But I'm over in Europe so had to do my best to get in the right kinds of runs - ideally lots of +/-, long downhills and heat.

Without realizing it, I picked ideal events in Transvulcania, Zegama and the lesser known Northants Ultra 35 miler yesterday in the UK. Transvulcania had heat and huge climbs as well as a steep 8,000ft descent to trash the legs. Zegama was a beast, largely due to the cold and muddy weather but again with lots of up and down. Then weekend three had the flatter Northants Ultra but it was on about as hot a day as we get in the UK with humidity to make it tougher too. It also helped that it started and finished two miles from where I grew up and where my parents still live (much easier than trying to do a long run in the rolling countryside filled with farmland and fields).

I hadn't run a trail race in the UK for a while and it reminded me of some of the things I love and also some that I don't like about races here. In the US and Europe they generally mark trail courses really well, especially in continental Europe - I've never come close to getting lost on any mountain/trail races there. The US marks courses too and generally does a good job, although getting lost is still a distinct possibility if you stop concentrating for a minute. But in the UK you pay less for an entry and often have to part or fully navigate a course. That was the case yesterday and I had to run the whole thing with a set of maps in my hand, stopping often to work out which unmarked and un-sign-posted route to take.

The low key, fun atmosphere is a positive part of most UK races but getting lost and orienteering is not the best aspect of racing and is kind of a different event. Each country has multiple types of off-road races and UK fell running is very similar to European mountain races, except for the lack of course markings - I felt like I was running in Northern England in winter while out on the Zegama course. But I can't help but think that finding your way shouldn't be a big part of a running race, especially when it involves stopping a lot and scratching your head.

The US trails are often so well manicured that I'm amazed how people have the time and energy to maintain them so well. It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved to the States and I like it. Going off piste is fun too, but many areas have fantastic trails systems that mean you at least know whether you're on a trail that goes somewhere or not. Many times yesterday I wished for a trail that at least looked like a trail rather than a right of way that goes along the edge of a farmer's field and splits into several possible directions, none of which is noticeably a trail, i.e. any of the directions looks equally as little used and wrong. I'm sure that'll offend some Brits, but it's just a matter of preference.

However, the navigation aspect does make for a different challenge on a rare occasion and I like variety, being a fan of pretty much every type of running and loving road, trail, mountain, jungle, desert...basically anywhere you can run.

So here's a photographic comparison of some typical trails in the US, UK and continental Europe to show some differences. Obviously not all trails are like these but from my racing in all three places they sum up my experience of something like 50+ different ultras across those areas.

A more-obvious-than-most path in the UK through farm land, right outside my parent's house.

Marin Headlands north of San Francisco in the US, used for numerous races, including Miwok and TNF50. 

Part of the Zegama route showing what the higher parts of continental European races often look like (the easy bits, anyway). This could easily be from a fell race in the UK too.

For completeness, I should probably list my results too:

May 12th, Transvulcania 83k, La Palma, Canaries, Spain - 8h20m - 15th (16th really as I was chicked after racing it hard)

May 20th, Zegama Marathon, Spain - 5h21m - 143rd (really 151st, purely as a training run) running in with Nikki Kimball

May 27th, Northants Ultra 35 miles, UK - 4h18m - 3rd (aimed for a training run but had a group of two fast guys who it was worth sticking with to avoid getting too lost...we only added about half a mile but on my own I'd have got lost much more)

Four weeks left until Western States and I'm getting very excited about going back there and doing the full course after two snow years. It'll feel flat compared to the Skyrunning races, which is exactly how Kilian described it after his first attempt.