Wednesday 29 February 2012

Looking forward to the Napa Valley Marathon with Elvis

Under four weeks ago I was limping after dropping out of Rocky Raccoon 100, but I'm now very glad I dropped before I did much damage as I was running again within a week and am now feeling fairly good about doing the Napa Valley Marathon this weekend. That's despite trapping a nerve on Sunday which left me virtually immobile. Luckily it got fixed the next day by seeing Mark DeJohn for some Active Release Technique magic. Two days later and I can barely notice it, which is a huge relief.

So this weekend I'll be returning to Napa where I (briefly) broke the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Superhero (as Spidey) in 2:40 before Mike Wardian broke it again the following weekend in 2:34. He tells me he'll be going for a GWR in the same race he used last year but he's not doing Elvis, so the pressure's off to some degree - 2:42:52 is the target, which was set in 2009 at the Seattle Marathon.

It should be fun, as these costumed marathons always are (I learnt last year that ultras in costumes are less fun as the joke wears off and it just gets a little uncomfortable). And I like the opportunity to race back in the Bay Area and see friends down there. This marathon seems to attract a few ultra-runners, probably due to it being close to home for many of them and Nathan Yanko (3rd at Napa last year) and his girlfriend, Devon Crosby-Helms (previous winner) will be running too.

I've missed marathons, so am really looking forward to running my first one since May, 2011. My usual gap is about 2-3 weeks, so it feels more exciting again now. Enjoy your runs this weekend, wherever you are.

Finally, a shout out to Geoff Roes who is currently running the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-miler through insane conditions in Alaska. You can follow him here for the next few days...yes, the race takes that long!

Thursday 23 February 2012

Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid in a 100 Mile Race - Part 2

Copyright: Warner Bros.

After my own mistakes (and a little bad luck) in my last 100-miler, I thought it might be useful to lay out a few of the mistakes that are commonly seen. I'm sure a lot more could be added to these but here are my top 10, all 100-mile specific. The bottom five of the list were posted here, and here's the top five.

5. Running on an injury - it can be incredibly tempting to just 'run it off' if something goes wrong in those last few weeks, especially with the prevalence of lotteries and the time and money expended to get to the start line. But when making that decision to start or continue on an injury, ask yourself which is more important - finishing at all costs or being able to run (or even walk) again within the next few months. Make the judgement as objectively as you can, ideally from a qualified third party if pre-race. Within this mistake category is not looking after your feet and letting them get in bad shape. One little 'secret' I can certainly mention is to use Drymax Socks, as these tend to keep feet in good condition, but if you go through a wet section and have a dryer section coming up (like after a river crossing), it's usually helpful to change socks and shoes.

4. Only running in training - it may seem counter-intuitive but the odds are that you'll be hiking at least part of the race so it's worth practicing this within your training. Power-hiking compared to slow walking will gain much more time than a faster running pace compared to a slower running pace, so a lot of time can be saved if you can hike fast. It'll also allow you to recover and take on calories.

3. Not eating and drinking enough (or the right stuff) - a lot of calories get burned in 100 miles and, generally, the sooner you can start getting calories in you, the better. However, it's not as easy as it sounds and after a while you're almost guaranteed to not want to eat some or all foods. In addition, the amount of liquids and the balance between water and electrolyte drinks will depend on the effort level, temperature, altitude and also the individual. The best advice is to try out as much as you can in long training runs and build-up races to refine what works for you.

2. Not training for the specifics of the course - the conditions and terrain vary hugely from one ultra to another and training will be most beneficial if it includes a lot of mimicking of those factors. Training on the actual course is best, but not often practical and if there's heat/cold/mountains/altitude or anything else in the race which you don't train for then it'll be a lot harder (and thus slower) to deal with.

1. Going out too fast - men have a greater tendency to do this than women, but it's very easy to do since 100-mile pace is gentle compared to any other running. You almost can't go out too slow as it's all about maintaining the pace and not dropping off towards the end, which is when the biggest impact will happen to your overall time.

Good luck in whatever race you're doing!

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid in a 100 Mile Race - Part 1

After my own mistakes (and a little bad luck) in my last 100-miler, I thought it might be useful to lay out a few of the mistakes that are commonly seen. I'm sure a lot more could be added to these but here are my top 10, all 100-mile specific. Firstly the bottom five of the list, then the top five in a few days (here).

10. Not training enough - it's self-explanatory that 100 miles takes commitment and a good build-up, ideally over several years.

9. Training too much - the flip-side is that 100 miles can be so intimidating that too many miles and too many long runs leave you tired on race day. It's easy to hear about insane training regimes and assume that huge mileage is the only route to success - it isn't and a quality training regime can peak at a fairly reasonable mileage. This will depend on the experience and years of training the individual has already built up.

8. Getting too focused on a finish time - with buckles for sub-24 hours or other time targets, it's easy to set a time then go off and try to achieve it despite less than ideal training, bad weather conditions (trust me on that one) or any number of other factors. In general, go with the flow and judge the day as it comes to you instead of rigidly sticking to arbitrary goals. It'll almost certainly result in a more enjoyable day and a better time.

7. Not knowing the course - it's helpful to know the frequency of aid stations and where the harder terrain is. Eight miles of a steep climb will take a lot longer than a flat eight miles, so more food and drink needs to be carried in-between. Some people may find it hard to concentrate on anything but the distance to the next aid station and can get demoralized when the distance they have in their head isn't covered as fast as expected. But in general it's better to have an idea of how far and how long it'll take to get to the next load of food and drink.

6. Trying new stuff on race day - whether it's food, clothing, shoes or something else, it's best to stick with things you've had a chance to practice with. The less new factors you have to deal with, the better. Shoes, in particular, should be ones you've worn in well (try not to have them in hold luggage if you fly to the race and have any essentials on you or your hand luggage, in case the airline loses your bags).

More to follow in a few days...

Sunday 12 February 2012

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning

With the number of ultras now requiring lotteries and Western States getting so hard to get into if you have to rely on the lottery, it got me thinking about how that changes people's goals and race schedules.

For example, the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in the US involves running WS100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 in the same long summer. In the past this has always been a fairly small event but it seems more and more people are thinking about it if they get into WS100. And why not? WS100 and Wasatch have lotteries, but if you're lucky in the former (plus you complete the first three of the quartet) then Wasatch will let you in too.

When the odds of getting into WS100 weren't too bad, the idea of 'one day' doing the Grand Slam seemed feasible for many hardcore ultrarunners. But now the odds are so low for getting a spot at WS100 (and only likely to get worse as the sport's popularity rises) that I think a lot of people are reasoning that the 'one day' has to be the year they get lucky in that lottery. Otherwise they may never get another shot!

A friend of mine, Paul Terranova, is doing it this year and the difficulty of getting the WS100 spot has influenced his decision, even though he's never run a 100-miler before (he's also doing Ironman Hawaii to be the first to add that to the Grand Slam in one year). Last year, another of my friends, James Elson, attempted it even though he was injured in the five months leading to WS100 and could barely walk (he finished WS100, DNFed at Vermont then finished Leadville!). Again, his reasoning was that he might not get another chance so he was going to try it, even when injured.

Hopefully the growth in the number of races and not just in participant numbers will alleviate this to some degree. But it seems that there's a huge premium on being able to do the historic ultras so I suspect more an more people will attempt challenges like the Grand Slam even if not as prepared as they'd ideally like to be. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but certainly reflects the personalities attracted to the sport and the increasing popularity of ultrarunning.

If anyone has stats for this year's Grand Slam compared to previous years, let me know and I'll link to it here.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

How to train for...the Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon in South Africa is one of the oldest and most historic ultras in the world as well as being the largest by far. Typically it gets entrant numbers similar to the big city marathons and capped entrants at 18,000 for the 2012 race. That puts it on a completely different scale to other ultras and only the Two Oceans Marathon (also in South Africa) comes close, although events like the Ultra-Trail du Mt Blanc are getting very large entrant numbers across multiple events.

For me, the thing that makes Comrades so special is the friendly, charged atmosphere that starts at the expo and goes through to the finish line. Comrades is THE endurance event for South Africans and past winners like Bruce Fordyce have become legends in the eyes of the nation as well as globally to some extent. The pre-dawn start line is particularly exciting and if you don’t feel the emotion as the locals sing their national anthem and the traditional song that was popularized by miners, Shosholoza, then you must be dead inside.

My love for the race started when I first heard about it from a South African friend while I ran a winter ultra in the UK. The following year I flew to South Africa and finished in 2007 in 7h09m, getting a silver medal for sub 7h30m, which had been my target. I’ve returned in the following four years for four more silvers, with a best of 6h01m in 2010 (my blog write-ups for those races are here: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011).

I've also written posts on training for Western States 100Flat 100 milers like Rocky Raccoon and the Marathon des Sables. At a later date I'll do a post on how to train for the Davos Swiss Alpine Marathon K78.

Here are the key things to bear in mind in general when training for and racing Comrades:

What's the race like?
  • Alternating directions on the roads either from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, on the coast (the down run) or reversed (the up run)
  • 55.5 miles (89km) for the down run with 7,000 feet of descent and 5,000 feet of ascent or reversed +/- over 54 miles (87km) for the up run as each direction has to start on a wide road and finish in a stadium
  • Strict 12 hour cut-off with intermediate cut-offs
  • Five major named hills (Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s, Fields and Cowies), but a lot of up and down outside them too
  • Temperatures are often close to freezing in Pietermaritzburg at the start of the down then hot (85F or 30C) by the time you get to Durban or more pleasant in the other direction
  • Medals depend on your finish time with gold for positions 1-10 (men and women), a Wally Hayward for sub 6h, silver for sub 7h30m, Billy Rowan for sub 9h, bronze for sub 11h and a Vic Clapham for sub 12h
  • Multi-colored bibs for first-timers, international runners and relating to multiples of 10 finishes (based around green and stripes); the very cool one is yellow for those going for their green number (first attempt at a 10th finish)
  • Once you get your green number, you keep your race number for life and nobody else will use that number, plus you keep that number before then if you don't leave too much of a gap in your runs
  • Seeding pens based on qualifying times and they're especially important as overall times and cut-offs are purely based on gun times
  • Big prize money attracting the best ultrarunners in the world, including Olympic marathoners, such as the men's course record holder for the up and down runs, Leonid Shetsov
How on Earth do you start training for that?
  • It's not that different to a hard road marathon and if you can finish one then it doesn't take much more training, with a similar plan but more focus on long runs
  • Still include speed work, as for a marathon, but the long runs need to be slightly longer although not necessarily more than one run in the build up longer than a marathon (it will depend on your previous experience and whether you've run ultras before) - quality of mileage over quantity
  • Back-to-back long road runs are excellent training but have to be weighed up against the time it takes to recover; two marathons on a weekend are particularly good and much less stress on the body than a 50-miler in one day
  • Include some long, gentle downhills in your training to practice the pounding your legs will take 
  • Strength training on the legs is more important than for marathons due to the length and hills, but make the exercises specific to running, not just about building up big leg muscles
  • Ideally get some heat training in for the final weeks, even if that's just sitting in a sauna, since the heat can take a lot out of you
What mistakes should you avoid doing in training?
  • For Americans and Brits, not understanding kms can be an issue and the markers count down, not up. Make sure you know your conversion for 1 mile = 1.609km. 
  • Bad or inadequate nutrition will slow you dramatically. The tables are every mile or so and have plenty of food, but not necessarily what non-South Africans would expect (no gels, for example). So work out what you can stomach in advance then fuel early and often. If you need gels, carry them or have a crew (called ‘seconds’ locally) who can hand these too you.
  • Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, ideally trying out the Energade drink that currently sponsors the race.
  • The drinks are supplied in small sachets in the race, which you may be able to practice with in advance, but if not, my advice is to nibble the end to create a hole then squeeze out the liquid  into you mouth - I find this so much better than bottles or paper cups, but some find it awkward at first.
  • Not training for hills because it’s a road race will cause you significant issues – the course is significantly harder per mile than a typical road marathon.
  • For most people, practice power-walking as you will walk and the more you can get better at this, the less energy and effort it will take.
What about tactics for the race itself?
  • Like most ultras, people tend to go out too fast, but Comrades has hot spot prizes for runners who get to various points first and still finish which encourages extra speed. So make sure you have a plan and don’t get carried away as everyone around you goes past you in the first miles. 
  • The hills take a lot out of you in either direction and for all but the fastest runners, it’s best to walk early and often on them to conserve energy. The main reason for a poor time is slowing down considerably, not going out too slow.
That's what you'll look like if you get a course record.
  • Make sure you have a good idea of where the hills are from the course profile, although the official one is misleading and an online profile from someone who has run it with a Garmin or similar is a better bet
  • Take the downhill sections easy, especially early on and in the down run, as these can trash your quads and lead to walking. It’s tempting to try to catch up some time but practicing a relaxed downhill stride in advance, with minimal breaking where the legs absorb a lot of the shock, can still allow for good pace on those downhills. Fields Hill on the down run is the longest and still has a half marathon left at the end, so don’t push too hard or you might limp it in.
  • Don't get too focused on a time or medal cut-off until very near the end - you'll run your best race and time by running by feel so that you're not adjusting pace constantly based on what your watch says.
  • The cut-offs are generous and most people can make them if they pace sensibly and train well, but they are strict and if you're one second late, you miss out.
  • Beware the chair, like in any ultra - if you sit down, you'll find it a lot harder to get going again.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Rocky Raccoon 2012 Recap

I'd set high goals for myself this year at Rocky Raccoon 100 as I thought there was only one thing to try to do after last year went so well - really go after the clock. Normally this is the opposite of what I do since I firmly believe that your best time in a race is usually from sensible pacing so that you don't slow down much or at all, as I mentioned in a previous post.

But it's a game of odds regarding maximizing your chances at a good run. So to go after the most ambitious target required more of a risk and that's what I decided was worth trying. I had A, B and C goals - 12:32:04 (World Best), 12:44:33 (Course Record) and 13:16:02 (previous Course Record), all of which were ambitious. And I thought that I'd need to go through the end of lap two at 40 miles in 4:50 (last year 4:54) and lap four at 80 miles in 9:50 (last year 9:58) to have a shot...not easy on the trails on a good day.

Race morning started and there were thunder, lightning and possibly the Mayan calendar's predicted end of the world. It was hard to tell with all the rain. Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and myself started off at the front in the dark first few miles, with Karl having to stick close since his headlamp was weak and he couldn't see the trail well without our lights.

The start line. Photo: Drymax Socks

By the DamNation aid station at 6.2 miles we also had Oswaldo Lopez running with us and it stayed like that for the first lap, with Oswaldo on my shoulder then the other two just behind. Great to meet him more after seeing his great win at Badwater last year first hand. 2:27 for lap one put us on target, but it felt fast, partly due to the mud. Oswaldo and myself had broken away slightly, then I sped up to go through 26.2 miles in 3:10 on my own, three minutes ahead of last year and flying along feeling good.

Oswaldo Lopez. Photo: From Oswaldo's Badwater-style crew.

Hal Koerner charging in the lead on lap three. Photo: Drymax Socks.

Me on lap three. Photo: Drymax Socks.

Karl Meltzer. Photo: Drymax Socks.

Sabrina Moran racing to victory. Photo: Drymax Socks.

Liza Howard before she got injured. Photo: Drymax Socks.

By around 30 miles I caught glimpses of Hal behind and the legs were starting to feel some fatigue. Even with the surface water, the course had been fairly easy to run on in lap one, but by lap two, 680 people had churned it and it was slippery. I could tell I was slowing and Hal caught me just before the end of the loop with us going through 40 miles together in 4:55, just over a minute off last year and too slow for my A goal given I wasn't going fast at that point.

Karl was barely behind us and both he and Hal went past me within the first couple of miles of lap three as I focused on nutrition to help me feel normal again. Even with some walking breaks, I couldn't get back up to the pace I needed and by 50 miles I felt my left hip flexor was very sore. All that sliding over the mud must have strained it more than normal and I soon started limping. By Park Road aid station at 55.6 miles, Hal was 14 minutes ahead and Karl around 5 minutes, but I couldn't run properly and walked parts of the next section to the loop finish.

At 60 miles I had my trusty pacers from last year (who'd done a great job of getting me through aid stations to that point very quickly), Paul and Meredith Terranova. So I ate some food, had a stretch and decided to start out the next loop and hope for an improvement. All (good) time goals had gone from my mind, but if I could only limp then I knew it'd be stupid to do it for over 40 miles and make things much worse. By the 63.1 mile aid station I decided to call it a day, over nine hours into the race. But somehow running through puddles and mud hadn't caused me any feet issues so I know I can trust my Drymax socks - that was something that had concerned me as a potential reason for slowing down.

Hal went on to win in a mightily impressive 13:24, faster than his 13:26 in 2011 and Karl ran 10 minutes quicker than last year, in 14:17. Oswaldo had dropped off a lot but came back for 3rd in 14:30.

Two-time defending champ, Liza Howard, had led for much of the day in the ladies' race but had to drop at mile 80 with a foot and shin injury to leave the way clear for Sabrina Moran to win by a huge margin in 17:06.

Full results and splits here. Congratulations to all the finishers (and starters).

Joe Prusaitis and his team put on a great event with fantastic volunteers and I can't fathom the effort it takes for the runners out there for up to 30 hours of rain and mud (I've still not done more than two thirds of a day on my feet!). I'm happy that I went for the record but learned that maybe less than perfect conditions on the trail should have made me adjust the goal. I think Hal, Karl and Oswaldo would all have run marginally better times if we hadn't started so fast and I'd have probably finished too, but that's hindsight for you. Next year...this is always worth coming back for.