Monday 26 October 2015

Heart Rate Monitor Tips

This is 100% not me.
Over the years I’ve owned a lot of GPS running watches and most of them had Heart Rate Monitors (“HRMs”). However, I’ve been very careful to make sure that these added to my training and didn’t have a negative impact. So I thought it would be helpful to list some of the ways a HRM can benefit running and things to avoid. 


- Heart Rate (“HR”) gives a neutral, comparable measure of effort that factors in internal (levels of fatigue/recovery, muscle damage etc) and external (weather, terrain, altitude, temperature etc) variations day-to-day. Pace changes a lot depending on all these factors and HR can be used to check that recovery runs are easy enough and harder sessions are tough enough.

- Estimates (ideally accurate calculations from lab testing) of maximum HR can help with using heart rate zones to keep to differing purposes on runs, in line with a structured and intelligent training plan.

- Analysis of data after races can highlight where mistakes were made, showing at what point a given HR for a given distance became unsustainable. Also, if a recent similar race had a higher average HR it can indicate that the effort level could have been greater. Often it takes some trial and error to work out where that red line is for different race distances.

Things to be careful about:

- Some athletes become too focused on the real-time feedback from an external sensor like a HRM (or GPS watch) and lose the ability to judge intensity, which is a key skill for all running, especially in ultras. Even if you find a way to perfectly work out what HR is sustainable and can adapt this exactly to any new race situation (unlikely, given that other factors also have an effect - see the next point), what happens if a HRM breaks or runs out of battery and you have no other way to judge your effort? A HRM is just one internal or external tool to incorporate and not the only one to rely on.

- HR only reflects cardio effort, which factors in many things, but not everything. For example, in a hilly race the effort required to run downhill may be low and the HR correspondingly low, but judgement of how much impact your legs can sustain is also important. What may seem sustainable from a HR perspective may lead to trashed legs later in the race from hammering the downhills.

- Most HRMs rely on a strap around the chest (see photo above), which often chafes, plus many models take several minutes of running and sweating to settle down after spiking the HR early on. This can be very mis-leading and is another reason to be very careful when using HR to adjust your pace, so it’s important to make sure effort can be judged independently of the HRM. One excellent way to get past this particular problem is to use a HRM attached in a different area of the body. In my experience this leads to a more accurate measurement, especially in the early minutes, and no chafing issues - I use a HRM within a cap made by LifeBeam (see below) which I’ve found very effective and the battery lasts for around 15-17 hours in my experience, so it’s suitable for most ultras for most runners. I once tried to use a HRM chest strap in a 100-miler and it took several months for the scars to heal!

My magic LifeBeam hat - HRM in the front.

- HR data during a race can be useful for feedback but override this with how you feel, based on your past experience. Using this data in a way that assumes it’s infallible can lead to poor races. For example, if you estimate that your sustainable HR for a marathon is 150 beats/minute, don’t look at the monitor every few seconds to continuously adjust your pace to keep it at this level. This continuous checking can elevate your stress and effort levels and stop you settling into a rhythm, although it can be more useful on a very hilly route to avoid spiking the HR on the climbs. Instead, check less frequently just to make sure that your internal assessment of effort is roughly (not exactly to the nearest beat/minute) in line with the external data from the HRM. This is equally valid for the frequency of checking pace via a GPS watch.

- Factor in that using a HRM with a GPS watch will reduce the battery life of the watch due to the bluetooth syncing. Up to marathon distance this is rarely an issue, but it can be essential for ultras where watch battery life is often tested to the limit. I’ve run with two watches before - one to sync with the HRM in my hat, but with no GPS data, and one purely for GPS. This much data at the fingertips can be a bit of a overload and I find it most useful for checking infrequently then analyzing later on on a computer to see what I can learn for future races.

Ultimately a HRM is just one tool to aid running and it can help if used in a smart and effective way. However, the factors above show that it can also lead to worse training and racing (and scars) if not used appropriately.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Leadville v3

Face-off: Sharman v Aish. Or we're about to kiss. Photo: Nicole Aish

After both crossings of Hope Pass I ran into Twin Lakes (mile 61.5) with my first pacer and fellow Brit, Ryan Smith. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

This was my third Leadville Trail 100, a race I first experienced as part of the Grand Slam in 2013. It's certainly not an easy race, but it is a runner's race, while I'd describe events like UTMB or Hardrock 100 as more like mountain-hiking races.

With 15,000ft of vertical gain (and the same loss) it has a lot of really flat sections that are quick, despite the fact the altitude varies between a low of 9,200ft at Twin Lakes and 12,600ft at the top of Hope Pass. There's something fun about mixing up easier running sections with steeper parts and this is also true of the appeal of a race like Western States 100 (18,000ft of gain, 22,000ft of loss), another event that really captures my imagination.

I knew that the main competition would come from former 10,000m and 5,000m Kiwi Olympian, Mike Aish, and I wasn't surprised to run the early miles in the dark with him around Turquoise Lake. The first half marathon to Mayqueen is basically flat and easy so we arrived close to course record pace in 1:42, but were 6 minutes behind Argentinian, Gustavo Reyes, who I've met a couple of times before and who tends to start fast.

Mike's tactics were clearly to 'man-mark' me so every time I hiked at any point up the first climb to Sugarloaf Pass, so did he, and we stuck together chatting away. The sunrise was beautiful and it felt like the perfect start to a race. I suspected we'd run together for most of the race, but at the second aid station at mile 24.5 I jumped in a toilet and he kept going so we got separated. He noticeably accelerated since Gustavo was now 12 mins ahead, while I sat back and keep things pretty relaxed in third. This was basically the theme through to the half-way at Winfield, but the difference was that we had the first ascent of Hope Pass just before the 50-mile turn-around, a 3,400ft climb followed by a sharp 2,400ft descent.

Gustavo and Mike slowed after the high point and I almost caught up to them both by the decent into Winfield, despite getting cramps in both calves for the first time ever in a race. Luckily it didn't seem to be too serious but I had to slow down and stretch both sides a couple of times too. My food and hydration were fine but I was concerned that I had a lot of miles left and cramps could end the race.

Heading up Hope Pass outbound. Photo: Leadville Race Series

On the return leg up Hope Pass I had my first pacer/mule, Ryan Smith, and caught Gustavo by about mile 52 then caught Mike just before the pass summit. I later found out he puked at the top and basically couldn't hold down any food for 4-5 hours, so his energy levels were plummeting. In contrast I was feeling really positive and hammered down the more gradual, but longer, side of the pass straight into the vast majority of the field who were on their first climb up Hope. I always love this section because the entire field is so positive and it's enjoyable to interact and pep them up too. In addition, it's a sweet downhill and is pretty fast.

At this stage I knew it was game on and also knew from the experience of racing Mike last year at Leadville that he's never down and out even if he looks completely spent. So I decided to push and see if I could gap him over the next 20-30 miles to such an extent that his phoenix-like come-backs wouldn't be enough. I was running faster (at altitude) on some of the easy sections than at Rocky Raccoon 100, a race that takes around four hours less time to complete. However, when in the lead you don't get updates regularly about how the chase pack is doing and those updates are always out of date, relying on splits to a previous aid station instead of how the chaser is currently doing. Altra team-mate, Josh Arthur, paced me through mile 61.5 to the final aid station and I hope my grunting, huffing and puffing wasn't too off-putting.

By Outward Bound inbound (mile 75.5) I heard I had a 23 minute lead at the last aid station, so it seemed like the effort was paying off. It needed to, since I was leaving very little in the tank for the final 20 miles. The steep climb up Powerline took me to around mile 82 and I was well ahead of my splits from the previous two years, but wanted to cruise it in since my legs were more fatigued than they usually would be at that stage. Luckily my stomach, head, cramping and energy levels all stayed reasonably OK, although by Mayqueen inbound (mile 86.5) I started to feel dizzy. My final pacer was Dana Kracaw, who lives in Leadville and knows the area and the mountains in extreme detail. I told her I probably couldn't talk much but that it would be a welcome distraction if she wanted to talk. So that section consisted of me sounding like I was giving birth while she told jokes and kept things more light-hearted.

At this stage I knew the race was mine to lose since I had a lead of at least an hour and Mike was dropping farther and farther back and still had stomach problems. He later dropped after Mayqueen and I missed the rivalry from the previous year, but was also happy to avoid the physical and mental stress of having him breathing down my neck.

As dusk fell the sunset looked incredible over the nearby 14er mountains, especially due to the small amount of smoke in the air from west coast fires. It got dark just as we hit the outskirts of Leadville with about a mile to go. That last section along 6th Street is deceptively long (around 3/4 mile) but you can see the finish from quite far away and it doesn't seem to get closer, especially since it's mainly uphill the whole way.

I wasn't running at maximum at this point since I wanted to finish and still be in one piece rather than shaving off a few minutes in the final miles but collapsing in a heap after stopping. It was a relief to cross that line, as it is for every single finisher, but also extremely satisfying to have a race that played out as well as I could have hoped, tactically, and to finish in 16:33. It also felt so good to redeem myself after turning up to Western States in June in the best shape of my life then running much slower that last year (and slower than this Leadville finish, given Western is usually about an hour quicker than Leadville for the top men). I felt fairly certain I was fit and ready for Leadville, but you never really know until you get fairly deep into the race. It'll remain one of my favorite memories from my races and it made me hungry for more Leadville action next year, especially since I really want to run it faster.

Relief! Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Here's the Strava data for the race, plus the full set of results and iRunFar's write-up and my post-race interview with Meghan Hicks. Congratulations to all who finished and all who attempted it, especially my co-worker, Liza Howard, who got her second win at Leadville and her first sub 20-hr finish in 19:34. That altitude really screws people up but it adds a challenge that makes the race special. It also helps that every trip to the race gives an excuse to play on the local 14er mountains in advance (but not TOO much).

Thanks for all the support and messages before and after the race, to my kick-ass pacing crew of Dana, Ryan and Josh, and to everyone who organized or volunteered at the race.


Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5 with Altra gaiters
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail socks
Hydration - multiple UltrApire Isomeric Pocket 20oz handhelds
Food - Clif Bar gels (around 15), Shot Bloks (around five packs), Organic Energy Food (around six sachets and an assortment of stuff from the aid stations
Headgear - LifeBeam heart rate monitor Smart Hat
Shades - Julbo Venturi with Zebra lenses

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Hill Running Tips

I've contributed to a couple of hill running articles recently, especially focusing on downhills, so here are the links in one place. Hope you find these useful and constructive.

Trail Runner Magazine - "Speed Downhill Like Ian Sharman" by Alex Kurt

iRunFar - "Controlled Chaos: Learn To Be An Elite Hill Runner" by Joe Uhan

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Western States 100 2015 - Crazy As Ever

Top of the first climb. Photo: Matt Trappe

Every year I've lived in the US I've been lucky enough to run Western States 100 from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It's the most famous US ultra and the one that means the most to people in general. That also applies to me and I want to keep going back to it many more times to get at least 10 finishes.

Why does it mean so much?

I think it's a combination of several factors:

1. The history - it's the original 100-miler that started the entire concept in the '70s.
2. The variation of the terrain - mountains, canyons, a run to the river then gentler trails to Auburn.
3. The competition - it's certainly the most competitive 100 in the US and I'd argue it's more competitive than any other US ultra due to the fact every single competitor treats it as an 'A' race and it's mid-season instead of at the end when many runners are tired. I think this year's event is probably a deeper field than UTMB, despite a smaller number of racers.
4. It's damned hard - the course is very runnable, meaning there's less chance to have any kind of break, even the hiking has to be at a really fast pace and time can't be wasted at aid stations at all. The extreme heat also makes it very interesting and hugely affects the race dynamics.

Pre-race briefing with the introduction of some of the elites. Jesse Haynes next to me, who unfortunately had to drop. Photo: Matt Trappe

It also means a lot to me personally because it's like a big reunion every year. Many friends from around the world and US turn up and I sometimes only see them this one time per year to catch up away from the virtual world.

Thursday before the race - group photo at the top of Emigrant's Pass. Photo: Ian Sharman

Hike/jog with Magda a week before the race on Mt Rose. Photo: Ian Sharman

Race report:

It was very warm at the start, despite the 5am time and 6,200ft altitude. The classic initial climb up to the Escarpment was very pleasant and I was with Brett Rivers and Chris Denucci for much of it, chatting about the fast pace ahead of us. We crested the four miles in 48 mins, around four mins off the leaders, but at least a minute quicker than I've done it in previous years (yet it felt more relaxed). For once I didn't zoom downhill and tried to cruise and keep things easy. For the first time I had a Heart Rate Monitor to keep myself from going too hard (a LifeBeam hat-based HRM which was way more comfy than a strap, hence why I had this option for the first time). However, my HR was surprisingly high for the comfy effort, probably related to the altitude.

Duncan Canyon aid station with Quicksilver RC (my club) at mile 23. Photo: Jeff Clowers

The lead pack was about 15 deep and once I caught the back of it I held back to avoid running their race and instead focus on my own plan. So far, so good - a decent pace and nothing feeling too tough. Then through the mountains I kept things chilled and ended up getting to Robinson Flat at mile 29.7 in 4:42, a few mins slower than 2014 and 13 mins off the lead. I was in 16th just before the aid station then 11th as I left it, partly due to drops from the super speedy Ryan Bak and Alex Varner. I expected those guys to run fast and was disappointed they wouldn't get a chance to see what they could achieve. This was the first chance to see Amy and she crewed expertly to hand over new food, drink and headgear.

Things were certainly heating up, but didn't feel bad yet and I was very positive about the outlook of the race. Then I had the first of several emergency pit-stops by the trail, a sign that I maybe had a minor bug from food the day before or even from earlier in the race. Luckily that didn't get much worse and had a minimal effect on the day.

Then the long downhill section starts, which always feels great at first but tends to coincide with a low patch most years for me around 35-40 miles. I was running around David Laney, who looked comfy too. So we chatted briefly but he was going uphill faster while I moved downhill quicker. Given it was mainly downhill I ended up staying ahead through the steep canyon and up Devil's Thumb - the steepest, sharpest climb of the day.

DBo was sat in a chair in the burning heat at the aid station and his day ended soon afterwards unfortunately. Yet another favorite was out and the brutal course claimed another victim, a recurring theme on a day when only 253 people finished (compared to 277 at the extremely hot 2013 race). I was very tempted to join him in a seat but kept moving.

Somewhere in the first half. Photo: Matt Trappe

The next section through two more canyons was hot and felt a little tougher than usual so by Foresthill at mile 62 I was mainly focused on survival rather than racing hard down to the river. I used ice at every single aid station from mile 23 onwards, putting it in my bandana and filling one of my water bottles completely with ice then topping up with water so I could keep pouring it over my head, neck and body throughout the next few miles. Most aid stations were around an hour apart and the ice always fully melted within 20-30 mins. However, I can only imagine that's harder to deal with for runners farther back in the field since their ice would last for a shorter proportion of the time they're out in the sun.

Matt Laye joined me for pacing and it was a fairly slow pace for the next 16 miles as I felt gradually more and more sorry for myself. My energy was low, legs were tired and things felt generally worse than the last few years at WS. I seriously considered dropping, but reminded myself that so many people want to run this race and I have the chance to keep going with no valid reason to stop other than I felt bad. I wasn't injured, I wasn't even walking, plus I was in the top 10 (8th at this point) and REALLY wanted to continue that streak for another year to make it six in a row. In fact that was the main motivation I clung on to.

Just after picking up my pacer, Matt Laye, at Foresthill. Photo: Stephen Ingalls

In long ultras it's vitally important to know why you want to finish and to have extremely good reasons why you'll push rather than fade, why you'll still care about the race when you feel like death. In general, a couple of good reasons for me to keep trying are that moving faster means the suffering ends sooner and that if I give less than my best I'll have to live with it for months or even years. It's a character test - are you as tough as you'd like to believe?

The river was heavenly since I was falling apart mentally and was extremely hot. It took me five minutes to cross from one side to the other since I lay there with just my face above the water multiple times to cool down. For the first time all day I was a little cold...but after about two minutes of hiking up the other side I was hot again. One year I'd like to stay there for ages and just hang out before moving on.

The river crossing. Could have stayed there hours. Photo: Matt Trappe
This is how most of the river crossing went. Photo: iRunFar

Matt was feeling the heat too and I was mainly silent, but he also wasn't talking much through the fast, flatter single-track from miles 80-90. We passed Francois d'Haene with his pacer, Frosty, just before Hall Koerner's Oregon-manned aid station at Brown's Bar (mile 89.9) and he was walking, looking demoralized and lifeless. I shouted encouragement and told them the next aid was virtually around the corner, but he'd dropped from the lead at halfway to 8th after I passed him and clearly was having a bad day.

Matt mentioned he had some vertigo at this point from getting water in his ears in the river, plus the heat was affecting him. He hadn't done heat training and after running a marathon in those temperatures he was fading. So just before the climb up to Highway 49 (mile 93.5) he slowed and walked it in while I kept chugging along at steady ultra shuffle.

By this stage the proximity of the finish is motivation enough and I was able to rally enough to keep pushing, albeit at a slower pace than previous years. I hadn't planned on needing a headlamp but did include it in my crew bag so Amy passed me that so I'd be able to see the final miles. I turned it on around mile 95 on the run downhill in the trees towards No Hands Bridge, now secure that I'd end up top 10 but not sure if anyone right behind was surging or if someone ahead was fading.

I've never enjoyed the final 20 miles of the race since it takes such a huge effort to avoid slowing, but at least this time I knew it'd feel especially good to finish because I'd come so close to giving up multiple times. I was paranoid that someone would catch me and I'd have to sprint to the end, but luckily I had enough of a gap behind me that I was able to finish the final couple of miles at a more relaxed pace without really digging in - at that point saving a couple of minutes didn't make much difference and there was nobody ahead within the next 10 mins or so who I had any realistic chance of getting close to.

Done and done. Photo: Matt Trappe
Ultra Running Magazine's Erika Lindland was the smiliest person of the day and ran herself into 9th to earn another entry for next year. Photo: apologies, I'm not sure where I got this but it epitomized the event

Unlike previous years where I sprinted around the track, this time I jogged and gave high fives to kids. The finish line couldn't come soon enough but another epic day on the trails was over. It was an hour slower than last year, yet I got 7th in 16:44. At this rate it's technically feasible to do 10 races with 10 different top 10 places - so far I've got 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and mainly the podium left to aim for :)

Before the race I knew it'd be a really memorable day for many reasons. My own race is one small part of the overall story and there are hundreds of people who overcame incredible challenges through the 30 hours of the entire event. Rob Krar's 14:48 was frankly superhuman in that heat and with the pressure of being the defending champ. Gunhild Swanson's finish with six seconds to spare under the cut-off was incredible too, especially since she's 70 years old!

Tim Twietmeyer cheers for Gunhild Swanson as she finishes and the crowd goes wild. Photo: Ian Sharman

However, my favorite memory comes from seeing Magda Boulet win her debut 100-miler, despite going two miles off course in the first half. I've really enjoyed coaching her and getting to know her over the past six months - a real star of the running world, an Olympian and a super fun person to call my friend. Seeing her cross the line was fantastic after dominating her ultra races for the past seven months (six straight wins!). I had five other clients running too, so seeing them afterwards was very rewarding, despite one of them not having a good day and having to drop due to the heat.

High Fiving Magda at the finish. Photo: Nate Dunn

I'm tired now, but with each day that passes I get progressively happier with how the race went. Perfect days in 100-milers are rare and I know I can learn more from the imperfect ones, especially when I aim to make the best of it. My fitness was higher than ever before pre-race so I'm just a little disappointed I couldn't improve on last year's time or position, but I got to run Western States and I also get to do it again. Full results here. Plus my incomplete Strava data before the watch died.

The memories of pain fade and the shiny silver buckle remains. Thanks everyone at the race, the volunteers, organizers, runners and supporters.


Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail
Eyewear - Julbo Venturi
Nutrition - mainly a mix of Clif Bar Organic Energy Food pouches, gels and Shot Bloks
HRM - LifeBeam smart hat
Hydration - UltrAspire Isometric handhelds and Alpha pack
Keeping the ice cool for my crew (Amy) - Hydro Flask 64oz growlers

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