Monday, 21 March 2011

D33 - lessons in ultra-running

Saturday 19th March

The first race of the 2011 Scottish Ultra Marathon Championships, the D33, had sounded an attractive race to me, following a mostly flat route out of Aberdeen's Duthie Park and 16.5 miles along the Deeside Way to Banchory before back to Aberdeen again. A no frills race costing only £12, I love the small-scale, local aspect, and find the out and back race route reassuring and measurable.

The day before the race I was ridiculously excited about running it, my first official ultra. Myself and a friend (with fantastic support team of friends cycling) have run the route before - 42 miles from Aberdeen to Ballater last summer as a foray into ultra distance following a few marathons. Despite being in constant rain, I absolutely loved running it and felt as though I could keep going when we completed with a sprint finish.

So I have read lots about how expertise at ultra's is built up over many races and years, and really saw this confirmed at first hand on Saturday's race- it's encouraging to know if women stick at it they're likely to keep improving with age rather than the opposite. So I was viewing the D33 as an exploratory race to learn how to better prepare for the Highland Fling at the end of April. I certainly learnt a few things about preparation, mental attitude and kit.

Fistly - some positives.

The weather was cracking. Beautiful sunshine with not a cloud in the sky. Having stayed at brother Rich's in Kingswells the night before, fellow runner and friend Gregg and I set out for the race start at Duthie Park in Aberdeen, somewhat late in the day, arriving just 20 mins before the race start. Lesson #1 - give yourself plenty of time to get out there, and check and double kit both before you leave the house and when about to start. I left my gloves at Rich's which was a bother as it was a pretty chilly morning, it always makes me feel comforted to start a race in the cold seasons with gloves on, even though they come off after a few miles.

The first 6 miles are an easy and pretty path heading straight out of the Park, and I set off in a second pack of runners from the start, with Lucy Colquhoun up ahead (and Grant Jeans sprinting right ahead of all - he would later win the D33 for the second time setting a record of 3.29). I was holding 7.30's for a while before thinking I should slow it down - got chatting to a guy who was giving me advice its better to keep it absolutely steady and focus on the way back rather than the way in - he was aiming to arrive in Banchory after 2.05 hrs. I silently aimed to join him.

Just ahead of the quarter way checkpoint at mile 8, a runner commented my backpack was swinging quite a bit. This confirmed to me I'd got the kit wrong - for a start I was carrying a heavy water bottle and food which I could feel on my shoulders the more I thought about it. Having never run the race before, I hadn't realised there would be three water stations along the way so carried quite a lot. I made the impulse decision to drink as much as I could then drop it at the checkpoint and wait until Banchory for more, then again wait until three quarters checkpoint to drink again. This was fine, I dropped the water and some food and felt instantly so much lighter. I also discovered the bacon sandwich Gregg had made me (in our attempt to swap the sugar overload gels and mainstream running fuel for more substantial real food) had come out of its tinfoil and pretty much managed to liquidise itself in the bag. This bothered me way more than it should have done, obsessive cleanliness made me want to clean it out there and then!!

I think for the Highland Fling I will forego the backpack completely, in favour of a lighter, smaller running pouch. In any case I was fine until Banchory for water and food. A few miles away from turnaround, the leaders began passing, first Grant Jeans (lightning), then later Lucy passed, smiling cheerily - one amazing woman!

At Banchory I dealt with the bag, and managed some beautiful homemade quiche from the marshalls, with a few cups of water. A few minutes and I set off again, and not far down the trail passed Gregg on his way in, running strongly, chatting and shouting encouraging things. The next few miles were surprisingly strong, with my energy levels picked up from the fuel stop, running at 7.45/m. I knew I was placing third female at that time as a runner had shouted it at me as he came in to the checkpoint as I was leaving, but 3 or 4 miles I developed a raging thirst, thinking maybe more water had been needed at Banchory, and I was now carrying none. I had another 4 miles to go to the next checkpoint and it was a seriously tough stretch for me, including pretty much the only hill in the race right ahead of the checkpoint. I arrived there feeling slightly dizzy and not at all right, and had to drink for quite some time - electrolytes and water - before I felt I could get going again. I really hadn't accounted for being in the sun for so much of the race. It was only a minute or so at the checkpoint but in that time the fourth placed female Claire Imrie passed me and took third position. I set off thinking I have to stay mentally strong and just run my own race, I was well on track to maintain my target finish time of under 4.40.

It took a few more miles to feel restored following my brush with deydration but running into Petercoulter I felt slightly better, for only a period of another few miles though. After this it just became painful to maintain the same speed, and I was doing 8.45's slowing to 9 min miles. Sensing another girl behind me I picked it up again and was running 8.20's and dug in until 3 miles or so out of Duthie Park, where she passed me, a brilliantly strong pace which I couldn't compete with. As ever the last few miles were a mental battle where I tried to clear my head and not focus on the sun beating down on the path - I focused my mind on reaching a different tree every few hundred metres and staying below 9 min miles.

Running into Duthie Park should have been a fantastic feeling, as I knew I had a hundred or so metres of downhill to the finish line, but I was seriously thirsty again and not particularly compos mentis. I crossed the line in 4.38, a relief to exceed the target. I was apparently babbling to Rich and Kirsty for a while about the bacon sandwich issue, and was starting to realise the extent of my shredded feet. Not sure if this was due to running through water a few times early on, or if its time for new shoes. In any case they are quite some state and will take a bit of recovery.

Gregg finished in 5.16, seriously impressive achievement for having done little training of late! He'd met another runner before Banchory and they'd run and chatted a lot of the way round which summed up the community feel to the race, although he had second thoughts later on about how they'd crossed the finish line holding hands and whooping - fearing he might end up on the internet in this pose! I think there is a lovely sense of collective encouragement in these type of races which you might not get in the larger more mainstream runs in Scotland today - most runners I passed or who passed me said hello or chatted. Lucy of course finished first female with a time of 4.05, Jamie Aarons in second with 4.24 and Claire Imrie with 4.35. The race organisation and marshalling was also faultless and friendly, particularly the post-race Brewdog.

So I'm taking away the determination to control my mental expectations for the Highland Fling - and expect it to be painful and uncomfortable, not an elated adventure as I'd found the 42-mile Ballater run (we didn't do this at race pace so undoubtably the D33 would be tougher). Ultra running isn't supposed to be wholly easy or pleasant (10% exciting/90% slog as David Bedford warned) and I have to remember therein lies the challenge.

I think this week, as the third week of racing, has signalled my highest running mileage to date with 57.5 miles. So this week is definitely rest time, where I'll do a couple of swims, stretching and a lot of healthy eating. Then its back to training for the Fling, and getting familiar with the trails of the Pentlands every weekend.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Balloch to Clydebank Half Marathon

Sunday 12th March...

A scene familiar to this winter awaited in my garden on Saturday morning, a slushy carpet of snow. With it came the possibility of race #2 of the year being cancelled, with an update from trusty reporter in the west Mr Wallace advising it was falling thick and fast over in Glasgow. A frustrating setback following the already frustrating start to the year, however scatterings of snow in Scotland pale into insignificance compared with recent events in Japan, so I complain not.

In any case the organisers took a hardy view, and snowy conditions turned to rain, so I decided to make the dreich potholed drive to Glasgow in prep for the the morning. Thanks to Allan for a perfect pre-race feast, not to mention being the Racing Knowledge :-)

9 am: around 400 runners are pretty much huddled at the start in drenching rain, keen to get going to get warm. The first few hundred metres followed the pothole theme as the road was in bits out of Balloch, but soon cleared as we got to the main road. I warmed into the race quicker than expected despite not following usual pacing advice again (far too much energy to get rid of!) and ran the first few miles at 6.20/m pace. The route was quite a dream after Lasswade last weekend - largely flat road with slight undulations 2/3 in, as well as a welcome stretch of sheltered path. I ran quite flat out for the first 3-4 miles then slowed and attempted to stick at 7 min miles.

This week I had the sense to charge the Garmin prior to race, and tried to strike a balance of not getting obsessed with constantly checking speed on it thus stressing myself, but using it to keep myself on target. Not sure I got it right on this occasion but a work in progress. The speeds showing can sometimes fluctuate quite wildly so there's a danger of over compensation by checking it and constantly altering speed constantly - i.e. if you aren't on track with 7 min miles and speed up you can end up going too fast and tiring yourself before slowing even more than you were previously.

The rain grew heavier at one stage of the race to the point of slight discomfort but improved again as we were nearing the end. As ever the last two miles stretched for what seemed some time..not the time to get chatting as I did with a guy just heading into the final mile, asking me if I was trying for under 1.30. I was, but didn't quite make it (Garmin 1:30:57/results 1:31:05/tenth female). Ah well - that was the best effort I could put out that day - and I finished feeling really good, and a little closer to being back on track.

An impressive field of runners were doing their thing today - including winning male Michael Deason of Glasgow Uni at 1:08, winning female Charlotte Wilson from Garscube Harriers at an amazing 1:24, and Allan at 1:25, fantastic effort.

A fantastically organised, friendly and good value race to try....

...despite a rather anti-climatic finish

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lasswade 10 Mile Race

Lasswade....ah the joy of being back in the competition...and lessons in patience.

The Lasswade Athletics 10 Mile Road Race was intended to be my second of 2011, after Carnethy Five Hills in February, but given the frustrating ligament issue I managed to inflict on myself two days before Carnethy, attempting a fell race would have been insanity, though it was considered. Lucky the race hadn't been a road as I may have attempted it.

So waiting until Lassade in March allowed my attention-seeking and still-swollen ankle some decent recovery time. We arrived in Rosewell on Sunday 6th for the start of the race in what felt like freezing conditions. One of those days where you just feel chilled to the bone (although supposedly it was 3 degrees; temperate compared with the arctic sub-zero running conditions I'd been out in throughout winter).

I have some fond memories of running Lasswade two years ago, particularly the sense of elation that came from running my first 10-mile race, and really improving the distance I could comfortably run in prep for my first marathon. I remember a challenging but expected steep climb up Roslin Glen in mile 2...then some miles of undulation before a literal sprint of energy downhill to find the finish line back in Rosewell.

Unfortunately my happy experience wasn't repeated this year. I remained cold for miles following the start, despite setting out far too fast. A mistake again to start at the front - I've done this before - as from the word go I was continually passed. Looking forward to using the new Garmin, the damn thing gave out at mile 2, right ahead of the Glen. Death by meagre battery-power. This negativity was persisted by a growing lack of confidence in my race speed and fitness. The course was also considerably more undulating than in my rose-tinted memory, and the final downhill I recalled was no longer part of the route. I finished in 1.09, frustrated. A fairly decent time, but one which - in true form of setting myself up with an unobtainable goal of a couple of minutes faster - I wasn't happy with.

Some good races were run by Katie, Gregg, Lisa and Karl, well done all.

Note to self: don't set unrealistic goals for the first race of the season and after injury. Not all races should be about the racing. Some should be a controlled and patient venture back into regaining speed, fitness and confidence.

I don't want to jinx myself,  but I predict this race will remain the one I found the hardest throughout 2011 and ironically, it is the lowest mileage.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

11 Reasons

I stumbled impulsively upon the idea of focusing on 11 races throughout 2011. It sounded good, especially considering there are more than 11 reasons I love running. This blog is my platform to gather and record running experiences throughout the year, and form a structure from what will undoubtably be a tangled web of thoughts and reflections. It is also going to be the discipline which enforces me to actually do the races!

Rationale to Run:
I think its a good value to live by to make the best of yourself. I don't mean aesthetically but by building positive qualities and characteristics, such as mental strength, energy and alertness. I find running can nurture these qualities, and bring life into sharp focus. At its best it can bring a sense of elation and enthusiasm for learning new things, that can infiltrate other areas of life.  Adapting to being able to run distance can become transferable to other aspects of daily life, for instance, simply being able to just get on with it in the face of unforeseen stumbling blocks. And the sense of physical achievement on completing a challenging race can be unrivalled.

I've also never much been one for staying put on a beach, certainly not without getting so attention-deficit that I'm a nightmare to be around. The diversity of runnning events worldwide is amazing. From running through French chateaus guzzling wine to crossing three European borders in one race, to running in the sun, at midnight, in Norway. What a way to see the world.

Despite my feelings on this, my enthusiasm does peak and trough, and the winter of 2010/11 was a testing one. A complexity of obstacles contributed - arctic conditions, torn ligaments and a few abrupt changes elsewhere in life that came from the blue. I haven't felt the same strong motivation for several months to train or race as I did last year. This is not evident on the outside as I still force myself to go through the motions out of bloody-mindedness.
Still, earlier on in the year I decided to run 11 races and whether I enjoy them or not it is an experiment in discipline, determination and self-improvement that is one tiny fraction of the challenges many amazingly admirable runners and ultra runners put themselves forward for.

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...