Monday 29 June 2009

Running with the internationals at the 100km World Championships, Flanders 2009

I’ve never successfully run 100km (62.2 miles) in a day before so was looking forward to the chance to race against some of the best athletes from many countries around the world. However, I have tried to run 100k twice before. The first time was near Cairo and was two weeks after I’d been racing in the Himalayas and had spent the time back home with some kind of chest infection from the cold and altitude. It didn’t go well to say the least – I didn’t realise that my thighs had been destroyed by all the downhills since I hadn’t run since returning. So I started out slowly, felt pain in my thighs from just a few miles in then limped through to the 50k marker in agony and had to drop out. Cleverly I’d then entered the 2008 World Championship 100k in Italy the following week but wasn’t even able to make the start line.

The 2009 100k World Championships was also the European and Belgian Championships and was hosted by a prestigious and regular race in Torhout, Belgium – the ‘Night of Flanders’. I like the idea of starting in the evening then running through the night, plus the event was larger than most 100ks due to a marathon and 10k at the same time.

The only problem is that I’m now trying to combine the large number of races I do with getting much quicker. I’m just about able to get away with lots of marathons and shorter races, but if I’m giving everything in the ultras it takes a bit more out of my body. And I’d only allowed 26 days between racing the 55.5 miles of Comrades and the Night of Flanders. That was maybe just enough except I’d also trained hard in between and so not fully recovered.

So when I left for Belgium on the Eurostar with another ultra runner friend, Cleo, I had my doubts about how my legs felt. I was also slightly under whelmed by the prospect of the race, but was hoping than the atmosphere would pep me up when I got to the expo. She was taking the race more as a training run than a race after recently completing the Namibia Challenge, a multi-day desert race in southern Africa.

On arrival at Torhout we had to ask directions in the small town to find the sports’ hall and couldn’t see any of the hustle and bustle I’d expect from such a small place on such a big day for the town. I couldn’t even see any runners, just locals drinking frothy beer in the sun. It seemed very appealing, especially since my legs didn’t feel up to racing an ultra.

In the end we found the sports’ hall just half a mile away and went inside to find a low key organisation with little in the way of sponsors (I can’t even remember if there were any). One of the reasons it had seemed less important in my mind prior to the race is that the website had little detail about the race. No maps of the start and finish areas or other helpful info. In fact, it didn’t even mention the name of the town the race is held in and I had to find that out through Google. They also didn’t state how much the race cost to enter and pre-entry seemed to involve merely sending them an email to say you want to race.

So I wasn’t 100% certain they had my entry, but when I got to the front of the queue they had a race pack for me and asked for the payment of €26, which isn’t bad value compared to standard marathons.

Cleo and myself had a couple of hours to kill until the 8pm start and used the time to change, warm up and chat to a few people, including a contingent from the 100 Marathon Club, of which I’m a member, even though I was three shy of 100 prior to the race. I saw plenty of skinny people wearing tracksuits with their country’s name on, but there wasn’t any other indication that the race was a Championship. No banners or anything similar. If you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t have guessed.

Then with 30 minutes to go we were outside and in the awkward period waiting for the time to pass to the starting gun. The international athletes were everywhere and I was able to recognise a few, including the American champ, Michael Wardian, and the Swedish winner of the past two Davos K78 races, Jonas Budd. There was no male British team at the Championships because they had decided to skip it, but there were two females. Some countries had much bigger teams, including the US (whose women claimed most of the top positions that day).

The sun was still relatively high at 8pm when we got going and there were decent sized crowds along the start area. It was warm and a bit crowded due to the marathon runners starting at the same time and doing the same course. Except they only had the first two laps of the five-lap 100k.

I went off slowly with the aim of 7h20m in my head which I knew was possible if my legs were fresh. That’s the ‘A’ stream qualification time for getting into the British squad but I would have accepted sub 7h35m for the ‘B’ stream time. Going slower than that seemed like a waste and I wasn’t there for a training run.

As I started passing runners, most were in the marathon and were distinguishable by a four-digit race number compared to three for the ultra. I was also going past a lot of the female 100k runners since none of them would be heading for 7h20m and most would be closer to 8h or 9h. I chatted to athletes from countries with English as a first language, including Americans, Aussies, Brits and Irish. But one of the first people I ran with was Aussie team wannabe and fellow Serpie, Andy Dubois.

Andy was aiming to break 8h and make his national team for the Commonwealth Games 100k in September. He had a good shot at it with several 100-milers under his belt and an iron reserve with his training. But I lost him after the first water station at around 10km since I picked up a cup on the run and spilled most of it over my face while he stopped to get a proper drink. The water stations were a negative point about the race since it’s just not possible to drink as easily from a cup as a small bottle when running. So you either break your rhythm and walk through water stations or accept that a sip is all you can get. Over 100k in warm weather, a sip of drink every 5k or so is not enough. Luckily I had my Camelbak too, but it was annoying.

I ran through each 5k distance marker and noted that I’d started slowly, about a minute off pace for the first 10k. I sped up slightly to make sure I’d gain the time back by half way and generally felt comfortable. Lap one passed without and issues, then I was on to the identical laps for the rest of the race. Only lap one had been different, to add in the extra distance for the marathon to finish lap two at 42.2km instead of 40km.

It was still very light as I went through the 25k marker and I’d started to catch some of the male internationals. Things seemed to be going well, but there’s not much that can be taken from that early stage in the race. If you’re not feeling fine at half way then you definitely will slow down a lot. And the key to good ultra running is even splits with little or no time lost due to slowing down at the end. The race doesn’t even start until the last third or quarter of the distance.

So it wasn’t a good sign that I could feel a little fatigue in my legs at 30k. They just didn’t feel right and I sensed that I may run a much slower second half, maybe dropping 30-60 minutes on the first half. That would be miserable, ruin my time and leave me very sore for a few weeks and unable to train properly. I wouldn’t have minded using every drop of energy to get a good time, but if I was going to be over 7h35m it didn’t seem worth the effort.

However, endurance running is made op of good and bad patches in races so I wanted to see whether I was just going through a harder section and that the fatigue would go away. But by about 38k I felt about the same. I hadn’t slowed and didn’t feel bad, but just could tell that my body wasn’t quite fresh enough to run a good second 50k.

The sun had gone down and it was now almost fully dark with flood lights now on around parts of the flat course. I was 4km away from the end of lap two and had to decide whether it was worth continuing. At first I thought I’d give it another lap up to 61.5k and see how I felt but there didn’t seem much point in getting a DNF (Did Not Finish) at that distance compared to 42k. I was certain that my legs weren’t quite feeling as they should.

So what’s the logical thing to do when you decide to drop out a race? Well, I was being sensible and quitting before I really hit any problems so I didn’t actually feel bad yet. Plus I hadn’t dropped off pace and was exactly hitting the 4m24s per km average which I needed. But since I knew it had just become a training run, I decided to push it hard to the marathon finish to get added training benefit.

Immediately I accelerated to about 3m30s km pace and started flying past other ultra runners. I’m sure I must have confused many of them since a sprint finish for the last 60k is ambitious to say the least. I couldn’t quite keep up that pace but still sailed into Torhout going past everyone for a good cheer from the (now fairly drunk) crowds. I even passed the lead lady, Kami Semick (USA), and wished her good luck. She didn’t really need it and won comfortably as I know she tends to do in most races.

When I got to the finishing funnel the officials tried to wave me back on to lap three but I managed to get across to them that I was stopping. Those French exams at school had some benefit, even in the Flemish-speaking Flanders region. However, the marshals wouldn’t let me cross the line until they’d ripped off my race bib which had the timing chip on the back.

I wasn’t particularly exhausted due to going at my 100k pace for less than half the distance and I still had 90% of the drink left in my Camelbak as well as all six gels which I’d carried the whole way and not used yet. I was disappointed but knew that I’d made the right choice. I hadn’t wanted to do anything other than race for a time, but the tiredness in my legs meant that wasn’t a possibility over a full 100k.

On the walk back to the sport’s hall I saw the runners go by, including many I’d chatted to along the way. I was tempted to wait for Cleo or Andy to run by to cheer them but wasn’t sure how long the wait would be and I was hungry. The finish line had only supplied me with an iced tea drink and no food, so I wanted to get back to the hall to get some more. When I arrived there I was disappointed to find no food or drink whatsoever, but I’d brought some of my own in my bag so was still able to replenish some energy. Then the night was finished off with a shower and a sleeping bag in the hall corner where others would join me later on.

Overall it was a decent race and very flat and fast even if the website didn’t help non-locals much. However, I’d not taken the distance seriously enough and hadn’t tapered properly so was pushing it to put in the performance I know I should have run. I also found it annoying that they only had plastic cups at the water stations. The internationals didn’t have to worry since their coaching teams had bottles of their own drinks to give out to them. Maybe next time I’ll have a little assistance, but not yet. It was fun but the World Championships were a low key affair and not nearly as prestigious as in shorter distances, with a much lower quality of field. If I’d run the time I should have been capable of I’d have been around 25th and there are plenty more 100k runners better than me than a mere 25.