Tuesday 27 September 2011

UROC Review

Wrecked. Photo courtesy of irunfar's Twitter.

Love this video showing some of the fog. Plenty more videos on the UROC website.

The mist lifts temporarily and second and third places are just ahead along the undulating road. As a dickhead in a Jeep tries to purposefully run us off the road, I turn to let them know what I think. As I do, I see that fifth is also visible now. Maybe two minutes separates four of the five 'podium' places and there's barely a 10k left to run on the road in the inaugural Ultra Race of Champions 100k near Charlottesville, VA. So all that can be done is to speed up and try to change the order.

There were plenty of twists and turns along the whole distance and I think everyone there was suitably impressed with the organization and format of the race. Enough fast guys showed up to really push the pace and the two spot prizes for the first to the highest point (5.5 miles in) and to the 33 mile aid station seemed to make a few start quicker than they should have.

It was also a great social event with established ultra legends making cameos (Scott McCoubrey and Dr David Horton) as well as a good selection of the established fast guys in the US (Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey, Mike Wardian, Dave James, etc) and newer blood showing their stuff (Matt Flaherty and Jon Allen running particularly well). There was even one of the select 10 finishers ever of the Barkley Marathon (Jonathan Basham), probably the hardest race out there - if you don't believe me, then this may change your mind.

Others can tell the story from their perspectives, but here's the only perspective I had out there - mine. irunfar has summarized it well and provided excellent coverage, as did the race website. In particular I have to point out the live and near live video coverage with commentary which was a first for a trail ultra and looked amazing.

The race:

The weather had been humid with torrential rain the previous day, but we started off with overcast and cool conditions. The controversial separate elite start at 7am (15 minutes before the rest of the field) included a 200m loop to go past the crowds then off down the trails. I love it when a race starts downhill since it tends to wake my legs up faster and I cruised along talking to Matt Flaherty who won the North Face 50 miler the previous weekend in Madison, WI.

The course was hard to assess in advance, as shown below in profile with almost 13,000ft of ascent, given the frequent switches between easy trail, technical/rocky/slippery sections and roads. The very few flatter sections should also allow for a real increase in pace, but we really didn't know what to expect.

The first 'King of the Mountain' prize of $200 at 5.5 miles maybe incentivized a couple of guys to go off hard but it just seemed that the pace was very fast immediately. Too fast for a 100k as tough as this, and this proved to be the case for a few guys. I settled into a walk soon into the first climb since it was taking too much effort that early on to run and I'd rather save my energy to fight later in the race. This put me in about 15th at the first checkpoint, but I wasn't far behind and wasn't concerned.

Different runners clearly had different strengths and the continual changes in the running surface and gradient meant a lot of back and forth between runners. In particular there was an early 1,500ft downhill, mainly on road that saw some leaders hammering downhill. I knew that it would hurt a few people later on and tried to restrain myself to merely my 10k pace (it was hard to not go faster, especially seeing others zooming along).

Dave Mackey and Scott Gall were pushing things up front at an impressive speed, but I got myself up to the cusp of the top 10 running with Michael Owen along a flatter section before heading down an easy trail to Sherando Lake aid station (17.6 miles) where we saw the leaders up to a mile ahead of us on the out and back.

Michael Owen and myself must have run around 10 miles together in total but on leaving the lake for the biggest climb of the day he dropped off as the mist covered us, and soon after had to DNF, unfortunately. I was impressed by his sensible pacing and he seemed to be running within himself to save up the effort for later in the day, so was surprised to see him slow.

That climb up to Bald Mountain had some technical sections of sharp, small rocks which could easily turn an ankle. But it was only 1,700ft vertically so was over soon and I caught Eric Grossman (recent Miwok 100k winner) just after the high point.

I'd not felt great all day but was keeping things at a gentle pace to see if things would click eventually. They did around 18 miles but only for a short period before I felt that all-too-familiar fatigue from too much racing this year. However, like the other times (Comrades, Western States and more) it just meant a general lethargy instead of a complete crash. And the way to deal with it is to merely reduce the pace a bit rather than having to stop or slow to a crawl. Others hit really big walls, but I was wading through the fog as if it was as substantial as treacle. Just running but without the higher gears being available.

Luckily the next road section was fairly easy so I could cruise through the fog even when the media crew decided to drive next to me for a mile and film. Had to put in a little more effort for that, although when I saw the footage it did look very slow...especially when immediately followed by shots of Mike Wardian running that same section.

I felt basically the same all the way out to the turnaround at 37.2 miles but at least I was moving up the field. On the relatively fast trail section lasting 4.1 miles each way I was running with Jon Allen and we saw some carnage as Dave Mackey walked towards us on his way to dropping. I don't think he went too fast, just turned up feeling bad but wanted to be part of the show and he certainly led the charge.

Coming back toward us we got to see the leaders and the gaps, although the fog was dense and nullified the views along the ridge. At that point Mike Wardian had three miles on me in first and looked very comfortable. Geoff Roes was next around 1.5 miles ahead, then Matt Flaherty with 1.25 miles advantage. Scott Gall had fallen down to fourth and was 0.75 miles ahead, so I knew he was slowing, but I was surprised to see 'Mr Barkley', JB, in fifth with a half mile lead over Jon and myself, who were now in sixth and seventh. Clearly the stubbornness and fitness required for 59 hours of hell on that course makes for a tough competitor in any ultra.

I passed Jon as we turned to head back and caught Scott Gall walking soon after, who dropped. It was still too early to race but I tried to reel in the positions without pushing too much, too soon. It didn't help that I kept being told that JB and Matt looked tired and were 'just ahead' yet I couldn't even see them, partly due to the fog.

On the way back to Bald Mountain I passed JB as he vomited and moved to fourth. With at least 14 miles left anything could happen, but I thought to myself that it looked like Mike's only way to lose would be to get lost. Maybe I jinxed him since he took a turn back down the mountain along the route we came up instead of the continuing route on a right turn. According to our Garmin comparisons at the finish line, he ran a total of 67 miles while I did 63.9, which did include a short mistake of my own of maybe 0.2 miles. So he added a 'Wardian handicap' and somehow dropped into third when he popped back on to the right route. A real shame, but Mike's a fighter and would give everything to get back to the front. He's not a DNF kind of guy, and when you can seemingly run at your peak every weekend, that's especially impressive.

In the final section of single track, Jon caught me up because it was still too early to go all out when I felt as flat as I did. This is where we did a little detour to a waterfall, but then we had a climb back to the remaining road section of 8.5 miles. As we appeared, literally out of the mist, at the penultimate aid station at the start of the road, I saw Mike heading out of it and was surprised. I did a final refill of my TNF waterpack, intending to start the race proper and run right through the final aid station.

Would 8.5 miles be too much for a final push? I couldn't tell, but it was now or never and there was no danger of a DNF this late on. The fog temporarily dispersed and I could see Mike and Matt ahead just as the Jeep I mentioned earlier tried to hit us. Four guys fighting for positions on the road with Geoff supposedly twenty minutes ahead. Generally I'd love this situation, especially with a few miles that were merely gently rolling at first, but I wasn't expecting any gifts. Mike's a 2:17 marathoner and Matt recently did a 2:22. With the lack of road running I've done since Comrades I think a 2:45 would be a struggle right now so catching them would involve running myself into the ground, plus maybe some luck.

The fog rolled over us again and meant I couldn't even judge whether my work was paying off or not. A couple of 6:30 miles felt like a lot faster and I was reminded of Comrades in 2010. There I'd chased Mike down at the end, but it involved running 6s to the end and was probably my best run ever. Both situations had the lung-busting, all-out sensation but this time I could tell it'd take Mike to have a very bad day for things to swing my way. Plus I didn't really want to beat him if it's only because of a wrong turn, not that that made me hold back.

The final aid station was at the end of the flatter road and headed steeply downhill for 700ft vertically in just over a mile. The visibility was better and now Matt was just ahead, but Mike must have powered through the pea soup to move well into second and was out of sight. Ok, so just a 2:22 marathoner to catch over 4.3 miles of steep down then a longer, steep up.

A good push for the descent got me past Matt but I felt like three more miles was too much. I tried to get round a corner on the uphill before having to walk but couldn't gap Matt enough to get out of sight and he went just past me before he walked. So, it was going to be like this. Both of us run ragged into the ground and with nothing left to push up the final hill. My walking was faster than his, but he didn't need to walk as much as me and by the top he'd gone out of sight. Much of the hill had Dave James and Jason Bryant (both had dropped earlier due to injuries) giving me updates on Jon behind and Matt in front. I was getting more concerned with Jon, but kept a lead of at least a couple of minutes over him.

I'll be honest that this was the situation I'd most wanted to avoid - having to hammer out the final uphill. Too many races this year and too many draining finishes (like spending hours 'sprinting' to the finish of Western States to try to break into the top 10) had left less desire to drive myself to my limits at the close of a race. I don't mean I didn't want to try, just that when there's several hours of red-lining it takes a huge mental effort which can't be done too often or you feel frazzled. And I felt frazzled.

Men's top five. L-R: Jon Allen, Matt Flaherty, me, Mike Wardian and Geoff Roes. Courtesy irunfar's Twitter.

Full results here but the men's top five was Geoff Roes (8:58), then Mike Wardian (9:20), Matt Flaherty (9:22), me (9:23) and Jon Allen (9:26). Was great to see Geoff have a good result, although it looks like he had to suffer through a tough day too and wouldn't have wanted to win the race in the way he did after Mike's error. I didn't catch much of the women's race but the leaders were close each time I saw them.

Summary video of the whole race here:

In hindsight, I do love the course and the dynamic of the varying terrain. But on the day I just wanted it to end and didn't need it to be a couple of miles long. Gill and Francesca put on a great event and I definitely want to return (hopefully fresher) next year. I can see this getting really big over time. A lot has been said about the prize money and how it may have motivated people, but in reality it was too small this year to have much effect (a total purse of $10,000 over five men and five women). I think what really attracted people to the run was the chance to have a tough race against great competitors and to have a genuine championship feel in a trail race, more on a par with professional sports than ultrarunning. I don't think many were disappointed at all.

Next up should be a big, long rest. However, I've got the chance to run in Chile three weeks after UROC so the rest will have to wait. This race pummeled my legs and mind, but that's kind of why we do the sport in the first place.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Running bucket lists

Although I'm obviously focused on the next race coming up (UROC 100k, in this case), I get a bit restless when I haven't got plenty of interesting challenges coming up. I learned after my first Marathon des Sables that it's good to have stuff to look forward to after a large challenge that occupies your mind and training for a long period of time. Otherwise, you (or I, at least) get back post-race and feel on a bit of a downer after such a great high.

Anyway, the reason for this post is I was just offered a spot in the largest ultra in South America (so they say - I haven't checked and am not very familiar with the choices down there), the North Face Ultramaraton de los Andes in Chile. Generally it's a good day when someone sends me an email to offer me a spot in a race, but this one sounds particularly cool for several reasons.

Firstly, Hal Koerner and Sean Meissner both ran it last year and seem to have very high opinions of it. Secondly, it's a very hard course what what I can see. But it's the third fact that has a slightly absurd appeal to me - that it's in a country and continent I've not been to and, importantly, not raced in.

There's something about racing on all seven continents that appeals to me, and to many others, although for the sake of a bucket list I don't feel the need to just waste tens of thousands of dollars on a trip to the Antarctic to do a race that may not even happen (sometimes the weather's too bad and the races end up being laps of the ship they travel on). However, if someone else paid for it...

Europe and North America are places where I've run plenty of marathons and ultras and covered many of the countries on both continents. In Africa I've raced one marathon and several ultras. Asia has been just one marathon (Fukuoka, Japan) and two adventure races (2x Kinabalu Challenge in Malaysian Borneo).

For years I've had Australasia and South America on my running to do list and I've never even traveled to anywhere in South America. I should probably point out that I'm almost as addicted to traveling as to racing so when I get to combine both it's especially fun. And I've made a point of doing so.

So it got me thinking about bucket lists and other arbitrary lists. I know plenty of runners (more likely than your average person to be a type A personality) who obsess about seeming pointless targets and lists and I have some of my own too. Here are a few examples from others I can think of then I'll list my own targets.

1. Running a marathon in every US State (surely after half of the States it just becomes list-focused rather than picking events that are genuinely interesting).

2. Running a marathon in every UK county (ditto).

3. Running a marathon on every continent (I'm happy to leave off Antarctica, but otherwise a good excuse to see the world).

4. Most sub 3:15 marathons in the world.

I think you get the point. There's an element of wanting to 'collect' these achievements and it can add fun and an additional challenge to the races.

My own lists are as follows and may seem unusual but add fun to my races but I'm not referring to targets like 'win this' or 'qualify for that', just additional stuff that helps me to select my races.

1. Sub 2:45 marathon on the six continents excluding Antarctica (currently only NA, Europe and Asia done) - odd time to choose but it's the London marathon Championship start qualification time. Look, it made sense when I started doing it, ok?

2. Run 100 sub 2:45 marathons (related to the last one). Currently I'm on 16, plus one 50k at that pace. I think that's rough half a year of Mike Wardian's schedule, except his target could be 2:30 :)

3. Hit every marathon minute under the Boston qualifying time (currently 3:10:59 but changing to five minutes quicker from 2013). I've hit every minute down to 2:35 so far, plus 2:33 and 2:32 and justify this as training myself to run at a variety of paces very evenly, plus it's generally more fun in a training marathon to have a specific target instead of just jogging off at sub-race pace. However, a pet peeve for me is any course where the final 0.2 miles is out (surprisingly many) as this had led to some ridiculous sprints to hit a time when I thought I was spot on for pacing. Not missed one yet, though.

4. Race in as many countries as possible (currently about 29 but I haven't added a new country since 2009).

5. Run the classic global ultras, which I define for this as the most prominent and historic ultras of each type in my subjective opinion: Marathon des Sables (multi-day, desert), Transalpine Race (multiday, mountains), Western States 100 (100 miler), Comrades (road), London to Brighton (road), Two Oceans (road), Spartathlon (road, extra long) and UTMB (100 miler new boy). Maybe Badwater is part of that list, but if so, I'm happy to tick it off having crewed there. And the only other two left for me are the Spartathlon and UTMB. However, I have a to-do list of countless other races, like anyone else, but these are the big daddies to me.

My lists aren't any 'better' than anyone else's but the thought of running in South America next month just got me thinking about them. Some of those targets are more from when I mainly did road marathons, but I still love those and still aim to keep doing them.

What unusual (weird?) targets do you have? If I like the sound of them I'll probably adopt them for myself too.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Professionalism - Ultra Race Of Champions 100k Pre-Race

So the Ultra Race of Champions ("UROC") 100k is almost here, and with it the biggest push towards professionalism in our sport in North America. Prize money has always been non-existent or small in ultra-running (outside South Africa - I'll mention this more below), except in a few 'pedestrian' races from 18th and 19th century Britain which were popular for gambling crowds. And maybe a couple of other long multi-day events (I believe the Melbourne-Sydney races in Australia often put up a lot of cash). In particular, there's a good history of ultrarunning, which covers the early gambling start, in Professor Tim Noakes' 'Lore of Running'.

We do already have the North Face Endurance Challenge series with a $10,000 first prize in the final and these races are great, particularly the final. Last year's final was almost certainly the most competitive 50 miler ever and this year's will probably be even more so. So I should give credit here to this series, but it doesn't push the elite profile of the race much and it's only the money that makes it any different. UROC is much more focused on raising the profile of the runners, selling the race on the back of who will be there and purposefully opting for a more professional set-up for the runners, with some costs covered to some runners ('appearance fees') just for showing up. This is a move towards the more normal set-up for track and road races.

I know plenty of people have speculated, particularly in blogs, about whether it's good or bad for the sport to have more prize money and to make it possible to make a living from ultrarunning. Even about how possible it is to get enough interest in a sport where a dramatic move can still take hours to play out, often in remote locations.

Well, technology has certainly moved on dramatically in recent years to maybe make it possible for this to be a spectator sport. I never would have thought that following a race through one line updates on Twitter for hours could ever be interesting, yet this seems to have taken off in the past couple of years. With webcams along courses and instant updates online, maybe the time has come. Ultras have undoubtedly grown in prominence and popularity recently and stars like Kilian Journet even get their own adverts in Times Square, plus his well-known Kilian's Quest series of online shows.

Without the money from gambling that the pedestrians benefited from, it'll be interesting to see whether UROC successfully achieves its aim 'to create the Championship Event for the sport of Ultra Distance Running' (quote from the UROC website, and here's the list of elite entrants). Money is only part of the equation given that there's no doubt that UTMB attracts the world's best mountain ultrarunners with no prize purse, just like Western States which has nearly the same profile from a North American perspective.

But given the huge effort involved in training and high cost of attending races far from home, it seems only fair that the runners who provide the entertainment and help to sell sponsor's products don't do it all on their own dime. It's true that many do have sponsorship deals, but these generally just cover the main costs and very few people come away from a race cash-neutral, never mind having earned even as much as if they'd worked at McDonald's for the few days they were away from home.

Personally I hope UROC is a big success and that our sport grows and grows. It's a great way to push your boundaries and find out about yourself, while shorter distances rarely have those epiphanic moments. The more people who run ultras, the better for society. Ok, it means more lotteries in classic races but it also means more races to choose from. Choice in this sense is a good thing and there'll always be races around for 'purist' runners who want to avoid the crowds and fanfare. I wouldn't want to be without these for a second, but the opportunity to race against the best and to have everyone really focusing on that race is something that excites me both as a runner and as a fan of the sport.

One last word has to cover the South African ultras which are on a scale of their own and dwarf any other races out there. Having run the two prominent ultras over there, once at Two Oceans 56k (my blog) and five times at Comrades 89k (my 2009 blog2010 blog and 2011 blog), I can say that the significant prize money at both of these only enhances the races. Helicopters provide live TV coverage, as do lead vehicles (admittedly easier for road races).

Comrades is on national TV for the full 12 hours of the race, plus before and after. Yet the celebrities it makes of the runners and the extremely high quality organization only add to the experience for the thousands that participate and millions who watch. To put it in context, the winners of this race earn at least US$80,000 including sponsorship bonuses, plus more money for being the first to particularly points on the course, being local or a course record. If a local won in a course record, I estimate they'd win over US$140,000 at current exchange rates!

I expect I might prickle a few people's sensibilities with this posting and will have many negatives pointed out to me, but I'd certainly like to hear all the (non-troll) points of view.

Also, irunfar has put up coverage of the men's elite race and will probably do the same for the women.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

TNF UTMB 2011 - Spectating/Crewing for Hal Koerner

I finally got back home yesterday after a long trip to Europe, mainly to see the most famous mountain ultra in the world - the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 103 miles (before any course changes) and over 30,000ft of ascent/descent makes for one of the hardest races around...and also one of the most competitive.

I wanted to check it out in advance of racing it myself since this type of event demands respect. You don't just turn up to this and expect to finish at all, never mind finish well, without doing hard work in the mountains first. And part of that for me was to do my homework and see the whole course and what the runners put themselves through.

Plenty of people have written up their reports which include a lot more detail that I could, since I was only able to get into a handful of checkpoints with the group of TNF employees helping Hal out (official TNF blog posting from Nichol, another of the crew members, is here and Hal's own account is here). A few good blogs include Geoff Roes, Joe Grant, Scott Jurek and Nick Clark even though none of these guys finished, despite being in excellent shape (definitely another reminder the race isn't easy). irunfar also covered it in detail (with Bryon running and unfortunately DNFing too) with plenty of links to all the relevant info.

The race started five hours late at 11:30pm due to a delay by the organizers to miss a storm but it was still raining heavily for the first night. The start was more similar to a city marathon start with everyone packed in tightly and crowds so deep that the best view was on the big TV screens set up near-by. I know people talk about the electric atmosphere but I was a little underwhelmed and it seemed more annoying than as something that added to the experience. But I only say that because the start is fairly narrow so most people are limited to a shuffle through the streets of Chamonix. The heavy rain probably took a bit away from the fun too.

From that point on I was surprised how much the field spread out and even at 21k in at the first checkpoint the lead pack was small (Kilian and Seb Chaigneau were in it). Obviously the steepness of the climbs and ascents meant that the leader's fast pace was too much for some who'd normally be fine sticking with leaders early on. I suspect that some of the elites also ruined their own races by pushing too hard early on to stay in touch with the locals. More so than at most ultras, but I have no idea who did go too fast through the cold night given how many people did have to drop.

By the morning we were at almost halfway in Courmayeur in Italy and the lead pack of four (which stayed the lead pack all through, although Miguel Heras dropped near the end to reduce it to three) came through, then Mike Wolfe close behind. The other top Americans and Brits were further back and many stopped at that point. But Lizzie Hawker was storming through near the fastest men and well ahead of the rest of the women.

Hal came through close to Lizzie but wasn't running very fluently and needed some time to change and freshen up before he got going. Unfortunately his competitive race was basically over at this point and the rest of the time would just be a slog-fest to finish. There was only so much the crew could do and each checkpoint we saw him at from there it was just about trying to warm him up and make him comfortable since his legs had just had enough.

I really thought Hal would drop at some point, especially after seeing him come into La Fouly in Switzerland at almost two thirds of the distance completed. He'd been moving slowly and had to walk most of the section up to there, then could only really walk on any type of terrain after that. But it was inspiring to see him grind out a finish when it clearly wasn't his day. That seems to be what the race is mainly about for almost everyone, but for someone aiming to be at the front, it takes a huge mental shift to just aim to finish, no matter how long it takes (and it took almost 39 hours, compared to Kilian's winning time of 20:36).

The course was changed mid-race to avoid ice/mud-slide or something like that. It wasn't very clear and I'd have to say that the communication of the organizers to runners was generally not up to the standard of an event of this size. You'd have thought they'd have learned from last year, but it seems there's still more improvements they need to make. In general, though it seemed to be well organized to at least the standard of Western States, if not to the same ridiculously high standard as other European mountain races but they have the advantage of being shorter. However, if you want to see the same type of scenery without having to be super-humanly fit then the Mt Blanc marathon at the end of June is a great option and really blew me away when I did it a few years ago.

It was a terrifying, yet inspiring event with great athletes pushing themselves to their limits. The scenery isn't too bad either. I'd then hoped to do the whole UTMB route over three days at a gentler pace but had to turn around on day one due to my legs feeling too sore after Waldo 100k the weekend before. Instead I beasted myself up some of the steepest climbs in and around Chamonix to cover about 65 miles in those three days instead but still with 25,000ft of climb. Just another little reminder to myself about how hard the terrain there is.

Now some pretty photos of mainly France around Mt Blanc:


A guy near the top 10 approaching La Fouly, Switzerland

Overlooking Chamonix

Chamonix and Mt Blanc

Mt Blanc

Halfway up the Aiguille du Midi

Lac Blanc

Aiguille du Midi

Tower at Aiguille du Midi

Bridge at Aiguille du Midi

Crossing from France to Italy on a cable car

1L beer mugs always look great in photos - feels like the hobbits having a pint

Amy in the middle of a roundabout in Courmayeur, Italy. Odd.