Sunday 3 July 2016

Comrades and Western States 2016

The start and finish arch for WS100. Never thought I'd be so involved with the race I'd sponsor it. A very proud moment. Photo: Amy Sharman

Rather than a standard race report for the past couple of events, I thought it'd be more helpful to spell out what I learnt. Ultra running is about constantly improving and avoiding making past mistakes in training and racing, so that process never ends (it's one of the most fascinating aspects of ultras).

I've doubled up on two of my favorite races four times now and they're four weeks apart on totally different terrain. Comrades in South Africa is at the end of May and is the biggest and most competitive ultra in the world, then Western States 100 in California at the end of June and is generally considered to be the premier ultra in the US. Comrades is a hilly road race, WS100 is a hot, rolling trail race with a mid-range of vertical gain and loss.

This year I'd hoped to really go for it at Comrades and break six hours for the 55.5 mile course, but it didn't happen thanks to an injury in the build-up and illness right before the race while on vacation in Paris. So what did I learn from that? Mainly I learnt that just getting to run Comrades at all is still a huge thrill and that without the pressure of running hard it's more relaxed and fun. However, I'm driven by competition and seeing how well I can run so the relaxed race days will mainly have to wait til my 40s (or maybe 50s). I also learnt that with around one hour of sleep a night for the week before the race (due to coughing non-stop through the night), I was able to run fairly normally and not feel too tired. Probably good news if I ever run some multi-day, non-stop race like Tor des Geants. But that's not on the radar for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, continual coughing fits during Comrades didn't annoy me as much as I thought they would since I'd already adjusted my goals and accepted the reality for the day instead of the race I'd dreamed of having. This is a lesson I've learnt before and one that's vital to getting the most of out a given situation in a race.

So Comrades ended up being a hard training run for WS100, which gave it a useful purpose and kept my motivation up. 6h25m (Strava data here), over 24 mins slower than my best, but that's still pretty close and was at a reasonably comfy effort for the most part. Next time...

In the weeks between the races I knew that recovery was the most important and useful factor for performing well at WS100 so I let my body heal with hiking and easy running. In 2015 my heat training was inadequate so that was another area I could work on without harming my recovery. I had some dizzy, energy-sapping slow hike/runs with up to nine layers of clothing, plus another four on just my head. Not the most fun, but it paid off in a huge way on race day.

Heat training - hiking at Lake Tahoe in my winter gear. Photo: Amy Sharman
Pre-WS100 I was invited to take part in the Veteran's Panel, which was a great chance to question my own race day strategy. Here's the video, which includes some excellent info from he panel of Gunhild Swanson, Erika Lindland, Danny Westergaard and myself.

Then on to race day, which was hotter than average (a high of around 100F in Auburn compared to around 90F as a median). This was possibly the first time I was genuinely felt excited on race morning instead of a dread that I have to run a full 100 miles and that part of it will feel horrible, guaranteed.

The biggest story of the race was how aggressive Jim Walmsley ran, despite the blistering heat. It was an impressive run to get so far ahead of the course record splits for a long period, but the beauty of a 100 miler is that there's a lot more to deal with than in a shorter ultra. The three favorites (Walmsley, Sage Canaday and David Laney) all had difficulties and it ended up with many of the slower, experienced 100 milers in the top positions, plus relatively slow times for the top 10 in general. The right tactic was to avoid reacting to the fast pace of the leaders, but it takes discipline to stick to a game plan, especially when it looks like someone else is rapidly pulling away. Luckily, the same mentality that helped at Comrades also helped here - I knew I'd not run enough on trails or enough vertical to be particularly fast, so there was less pressure internally to try to move quickly and more focus on saving the legs for the latter miles so my pace wouldn't fall off a cliff. This was painfully brought home to me by four nasty falls in the high country, a personal record compared to one minor fall maximum in the previous WS100s I've run. Basically I was uncoordinated and below par on anything remotely technical. Not much I could have done to fix that, but it did force me to be more conservative, which I should have done earlier on. Again, playing the conditions and the fitness I actually faced would have been better than going for things regardless and wishing I'd been able to train differently and be more agile. But that's an easy one to fix if the next build up is injury-free.

Duncan Canyon at mile 23. A few cuts and bruises from being uncoordinated. Photo: Greg Lanctot. 

Another lesson here - always look out for the markings even when it's the seventh time you're running a race. I got lost soon after Michigan Bluff since I expected the road to go upwards and forgot it goes downwards first. A few minutes of running by someone's house and I had a group of 3 large dogs running with me. They didn't go away for miles and the detour meant that fellow Brit, Paul Giblin, caught me up. The dogs then distracted us when we were looking for the turn to Volcano Canyon and we missed it by half a mile, then doubled back due to a lack of marking meaning we clearly had gone off course.

The next lesson resulted from this - when shit happens, move on quickly and don't dwell on 'could haves' and 'should haves.' It's annoying, but adapt to the new reality. I felt I did that pretty well and tried to avoid bitching to my crew about it since dwelling on negatives doesn't help my mindset or lead to good performance.

Then the final lesson of the day was that it ain't over til the fat lady sings (or John Medinger announces your name as you cross the finish line, at least). Despite only moving at a moderate pace, I was running a good portion of the race for the last 38 miles and the only people I caught were the leaders for most of the day, both of whom were walking - Sage then Jim. Last year it was 100-mile legend, Francois D'Haene, who I caught as he walked it in after getting food poisoning pre-race. If guys of that caliber can have things go wrong but still gut it out then the only excuses I could use for slowing down or stopping involved something like a bone sticking out my shin or an arm hanging by a thread after being ripped off by a cougar. Neither of these scenarios had occurred to sucking up the final miles was the only reasonable way forward. Final result: 16h55m for 6th. Not what I wanted back at the start of the year, but solid and not easy at all so I'm very satisfied. Strava data until the watch ran out of memory are here.

So that was a longer write-up than I'd intended, but I know I'll read this before WS100 next year and this will help me appreciate the fitness I have and the opportunity to line up for my eighth run at the storied event. Three more top 10s to be the first man to get top 10 in his first 10 attempts. But I really want one of them to be a win (or, ideally, three).

Thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, crew and pacers at both these incredible world ultras. Dave Pearse was my legendary local crew (again) at Comrades; Amy Sharman and Rob Tucker crewed expertly at WS100 and Altra's Brian Beckstead got in some pre-Hardrock miles by crawling along with me for the final 22 miles.

Gear (all worked perfectly and will be used in exactly the same way in my next ultra):

Shoes -
Comrades: Altra One 2.5
WS100: Altra Lone Peak 2.5

Nutrition -
Comrades: Clif Bar gels
WS100: Clif Bar gels, Shot Bloks and Organic Energy Food pouches

Hydration/lights -
Comrades: Water and Energy drink pouches along the course (no handheld bottles)
WS100: UltrAspire Isometric pocket bottles and Lumen 600 waist light

Some more photos that capture the beauty and trials of WS100:

Cruising in the middle of the race. Photo: Paul Nelson.

The joyous American River crossing at mile 78. Photo: Gary Wang.

More river crossing fun. Photo: Gary Wang.

Medical tent at the end, having pieces of grit pulled out my arm. Get all the pain out the way on the same day! Photo: Rob Tucker.