Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Fling with Friends

In a bid to write up a race experience whilst still fresh in my mind, here is my account of the 2013 Hoka Highand Fling. A 53 mile ultra along the southern half of the West Highland Way trail, from Milngavie in Glasgow up to Tyndrum in Stirlingshire, the Highland Fling has grown into one of the UK's largest ultras, with nearly 600 starters this year. Competition was heightened due to the race again being the UK and Scottish Trail Championships, and it was nice to see a preview article last week on US site iRunFar. This was my third Fling, and a brilliant experince in many ways, though it has left a bit of a colourful reminder on my body.

Pre-race prep
It was less than ideal due to same affliction I had pre-West Highland Way Race, an inability to sleep! I had a late night and bad sleep on Thursday, then an even worse night in Glasgow on Friday - when the alarm went off at 4am I felt like I hadn't slept at all. So on Saturday morning stress levels, tiredness and adrenaline were already taking over, making me wonder if I could put in a good race.

The Start
After a struggle of a breakfast I left for Milngavie and the easiest registration ever - "pop this timing chip round your ankle" - and caught up with some folk. 6am swung around soon enough and we were off. I didn't feel great and right from the get go my stomach felt sensitive - I've never really suffered from sickness or stomach problems during races so I put it down to lack of sleep and nerves. So I took it steady, following the rough plan to ease into the race and reach the first checkpoint - Drymen,12 miles - conservatively.

Drymen - Balmaha
First view of Loch Lomond
After running with Bob Steel for a wee while, I ran through Drymen in 1:45. Here the route had been diverted due to forestry work so it was a novelty to head left through the village and up a long gentle incline to meet the forestry track. From here, we had our first glimpse of Loch Lomond, which was sparkling against a deep blue sky - just beautiful. It felt very cool as well, with just a light wind - idyllic running weather. The climb up Conic was another novelty, I hadn't been there since the path improvements had been finished, and the steep decsent was more runnable. I was surprised by the sheer number of guys running past me up the hill, breathing heavily, and made a mental note to check whether I saw them again later down the trail - sure enough I did.

Balmaha -Rowardennan
From the summit of Conic Hill
After the descent came Balmaha at 19.8 miles, which I reached in around 3 hours, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Largely uneventful bar a bit of a faff with the UltrAspire hydration pack - normally easy to refill unless in a total rush -  I passed through in a few minutes, taking a bit of food with me en route and stopping for a quick hello with friend Andy Cole and his mates who were supporting Jonny Muir.

The stretch to Rowardennan is the leg which I've probably run the most in training, and it's pretty runnable. I was relieved to feel my stomach had calmed down and I'd settled into my own race. As well as basking in the fact we didn't have to deal with clouds of evil midges on this stretch as we did during the WHW Race last year. Fionna Cameron popped up behind me in this section and we ran into Rowardennan together. I didn't plan to fuel much here so pretty much headed straight through, and we ran/hiked the rolling hills that come next. Knowing well what to expect, I now welcome this part of the race after struggling the first year I ran it. Think I felt alright here but was keen to keep to a steady pace and run my own race above all, so didn't try and keep up with Fionna as the miles went on. She was looking incredibly strong, and went on to finish in second female position - just 30 seconds off Tracy Dean.

The miles seemed to be melting away and I kept focus on my form. Bob Steel and I were still leap frogging and he kept me good company for a quite a while throughout these mid sections.

Inversnaid - Beinglas
I love the Inversnaid checkpoint for memories of being on the Inversnaid nature reserve when I worked for RSPB, and of friends who've met me there in the past races. My split was around 5:42 for Inversnaid and I'd planned on 6 hours so re-calculated my aim to get to Beinglas shortly after 1pm, to give me a safe amount of time to comfortably reach Tyndrum by 9:45. Once again the marshalls at Inversnaid were amazing, delivering drop bags to us within seconds and taking control of the troublesome refills. I grabbed a few bites and pocketed the rest to eat en route. Next came the tricky lochside section, which I tried to welcome. Then out of the blue came quite a heavy shower - and I experienced something Bob and I had just been talking about re his upcoming Transvulcania race, the suncream in the eyes situation. It stung like hell for a wee while but cleared soon enough. It was fairly muddy and slippy around the big scrambly rocks but the section felt so much more achievable than before - you just can't expect to run it all. Then we bumped into The Aussie Dude Keith Hughes - a fantastic boost. He'd set out with friends at midnight to walk the Fling route, and after all our lunchtime runs together I knew he'd be somewhere between Inversnaid and Beinglas.

I can't remember exactly where it happened but at some point through this mid section I decided to miss the bottom step of a stile and landed too hard on my left foot. After rolling it several times recently in training it was weakened and I felt a pain up the side. However, after being able to shake the ankle rolls off before I hoped this would be the same. But approaching Beinglas it was hurting with every step. Not terrible pain but just a dull, constant ache in the same place.

Beinglas - Tyndrum
I ran into the checkpoint at 7:12 (1:12pm) and wanted to pass through in two minutes. I'd been drinking a lot but was super thirsty so filled the pack up again, downed half a coke and headed out, with a friendly relay runner from Harmeny and a few guys for company. Normally I don't need to pee at all during races (probably not healthy, I know) but by this point for the second time I was frantically searching for a bush and at last found one, which involved climbing another hill back to the trail. My left ankle was still throbbing with each step I took but I instinctively reckoned it would manage a steady jog to the finish. Smaller footsteps and focusing on form helped, as did keeping occupied through chatting to others.

Again, the miles passed quickly and soon enough we were at coo poo corner. As ever the ascents felt punishing and the coo poo even more so, but it's only a couple of miles and we reached the Crianlarich hills in no time. But this time I was glad to see the hills as the foot hurt less when walking, and it was a chance to take on a few calories as the stomach was now grumbling incessantly. The forest was shaded and cool, a welcome reprieve from the open areas of the track.

I was re-calculating my target regularly, reckoning if I could get down the hill and to the A82 crossing to Auchtertyre by 9 hours I'd have a chance of running 9:30 or thereabouts. On hitting the road the foot was much more painful though, tarmac was not my friend. The trail after Auchtertyre was softer and it was here Bob appeared behind me again, running really strong. I lost my patience with hiking the wee hills and decided just to crack on and run the last miles as fast as I could. Soon enough I was met by the reassuring sounds of the piper and the finish signs - it had been re-routed from the usual place and was now situated up to the left. I crossed the line in 9:36 (although was told it was 9:34!), totally delighted to take exactly one hour from my PB, which I ran in 2011.

The porta-showers at the finish were a nice touch and it was amazing to get clean and warm up - though on trying to walk after cooling off I realised the foot was extremely painful and as I feared, a purple bruise was spreading along the side. Instantly worring about Western States in 9 weeks, I saw Adrian then Sean, who was manning the medical tent, who were both so helpful. Sean sat me down with an ice pack and I vetoed the original plan of staying with Matt Moroz & friends in the hobbit hole in favour of getting back to Edinburgh.

First came the prize giving, featuring these fast men & ladies:
Scottish Trail Championships presentation
1st male - Lee Kemp, 7:02 (new course record)
2nd male - Ricky Lightfoot, 7:09 (also breaking course record)
3rd male - Matt Williamson, 7:21

1st female - Tracy Dean, 9:12
2nd female - Fionna Cameron, 9:13
3rd female - Sandra Bowers, 9:17

There were also presentations for the UK and Scottish Trail Championship and I was over the moon to find I was third Scottish female over the line, after Fionna and Sandra. The full results can be viewed here.

Race Day Nutrition
For those interested, following recent metabolic testing and experiments into low carb, my nutrition for the day looked like this:
  • Oats and natural yoghurt for breakfast with strong black coffee with a bottle of water
  • After Drymen - 1 x 9bar
  • Balmaha - 1 x smoothie (yoghurt, milk, nut butter, berries, protein powder) and banana
  • Rowardennan - 1 x Build protein bar
  • Inversnaid - 1 x potato scone with nut butter and 1 x small smoothie
  • Beinglas - 2 x potato scone with nut butter and 1 x small bottle coke, few pieces of fudge (half of all this eaten en route to Tyndrum)
  • Post-race nutrition was terrible due to lack of time to get anything proper before lift back to Edinburgh, but John Duncan's Mum's delicious soup saved me. So soup, roll, few oatcakes and beer were the post-race meal :-)
  • Running the Fling whilst knowing more about how my metabolism works - with all the data/findings from recent metabolic testing in my mind - made a huge difference. I knew I didn't have to re-fuel as much as I've thought I had to in previous races, which gave me a confidence boost throughout.
  • Discplined pacing is so important - something I've known for a while and haven't quite been able to put into practice in racing - and I felt that knowledge click into place in this Fling.
  • Running a race several times before (or training lots on the actual route) is invaluable in helping you to know what to expect; when you can push and when you should run conservatively. When you are 'welcoming' a hill, it doesn't seem as tough to me - almost an enjoyable break.
  • I need to learn to chill before races. Maybe I should start meditating.
  • Don't get ahead of yourself in trying to bypass the steps on stiles.
The foot, one day on
Thankfully the doctor thinks the ankle, despite some impressive bruising, is just soft tissue damage and should heal up in a couple of weeks. I am taking it very easy this week and will see how it goes, hoping to get back to Western States training by the end of next week.

John Duncan and his 80-strong team put on a truly incredible race, with happy, helpful marshalls in all the places we needed them, and a slick new finish area. The Fling is probably the best value for money race I've ever run - and hope to keep running :-)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Quest to become a metabolically efficient fat burning machine!

Not being at all a 'techie', I was slightly apprehensive when lovely researcher Lesley, who manages the Napier Uni climatic training chamber I've been using, suggested that in addition to my heat training programme, I take metabolic efficiency tests, including VO2max, in Feb and May to help monitor training.

Metabolic efficiency is basically used to describe the use of oxygen relative to a physical effort. From a nutrition perspective, being metabolically efficient means being able to burn more fat and conserve limited carbohydrate stores. The skinny on VO2max - which embarrasingly I didn't know too much about, apart from the fact Kilian Jornet has a ridiculously high one - is that it's an important measure in performance capability in middle to long distance running. It is the highest rate at which oxygen is taken up and used during exercise, with the volume expressed relative to body weight.

The results of the first test would aim to inform and aid my training plan, for example by suggesting heart rates to train in for different sessions, therefore improving my aerobic base. The second would aim to demonstrate any improvement in my aerobic capacity (hopefully!). The real aim of improving aerobic base is to improve ability to perform maximally during my races, and help me recover quicker.

So in the session Lesley tested a variety of things to determine my efficiency:

1. Resting Metabolic Rate
She took an initial assessment of baseline info such as body mass, weight, blood pressure and heart rate which would be used to monitor any changes that occur with my training. For this I had to abstain from food for 4hrs beforehand - probably good for the weight measurement! I had to lie for 10 minutes resting in a supine position - again difficult as I'm a massive fidget - after which Lesley recorded data for 10 minutes.

My Results
Resting Heart Rate of 39
Resting Blood Pressure of 105/69
Daily Resting Energy Expenditure of 1988

2. Ramp Aerobic Power Test (VO2max)
The treadmill test - eek! This is descibed to me as 'a multi-stage incremental test to determine peak heart rate and VO2 responses to a range of running speeds, until volitional exhaustion'. All I could think of was the footage of Sir Chris Hoy after the Olympics talking about his training to exhaustion which was usually accompanied by throwing up next to the bike. Not that I am comparing myself to Chris Hoy.

The test would consist of running at a certain pace for 3 minute blocks before moving up to the next speed with no recovery in between, until I could no longer run. So Lesley started me out on the treadmill, hooked up to an oxygen mask and heart rate monitor to record everything, at 11km per hour. This was ok, my steady/recovery gym treadmill pace in interval sessions. She then increased by 1km per hour every 3 minutes with gradient set at 1%. By the end of the 13km per hr block I was working hard. By the end of 14km per hour I was wondering what would happen if I fell off the treadmill and ripped the mask connections out the computer. By 15km per hour I knew that this would be my last 3 minute block, but as Lesley had pointed out before that you have a better test and higher score if you try your best to reach the end of a certain block, I tried hard to do so and just made it. So 15 minutes in all and to the end of the 15km per hour block.

During this my running economy (RE) was also measured. This is a measurement of how efficiently you use oxygen at a given running pace. Improving RE means you are using a smaller amount of oxygen to run at a given speed (i.e. using a lower % of VO2max at any given pace).

My Results
VO2max:  52.1
Peak Heart Rate (bpm): 168
RE at 12km per hr: 201
VO2 at 12km per hr: 40.2
RE at 15km per hr: 208
VO2 at 15km per hr: 52.1
Total time of test: 15:00

Lesley told me a 2008 research study reported a VO2 max of 49.1 in a group of female ultra runners (mixed abilities) so I was pleased to be higher than this but obviously this can be very much improved on.  For info, here are the VO2max scores across a range of other sports:

My best Running Economy (RE) score occurred at 12km per hr, which is my PB marathon pace (3hrs 26 mins). So my aim should really be to increase towards this running pace in all my longer events. Hmm not sure about the Western States though!

Lesley is also hoping to see my heart rate lower throughout training and before June, again indicating I becoming more efficient and not having to work as hard at the various workloads. She has given me some specific heart rates to train in for the next few months to help this.

Living the Low Carb Lifestyle
I think pretty much any and every runner exposed to the media/Internet in recent months will be aware of the craze sweeping the world for paleo and low carb diets and lifestyles and I've been reading and listening to a heap of sources which have focused on the benefits of these dietary approaches for long distance running. So I don't want to bang on about it too much as quite frankly I'm not an expert - but the whole concept of this dietary change is closely related to metabolic efficiency.

The aim for the runner of adopting such a nutritional approach is to train the body to burn more fat when running. Unless trained through diet or perhaps fasted training, typically a runner will burn more carbohydrates than fat unless running VERY slow and the idea is to encourage the body to tap into the huge store of fat and at higher speeds. The experts say that any person, no matter if they have low body fat to begin with, has a store of 30,000 - 40,000 calories in fat, but only 2,000 calories of carbohydrate, which is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, and fat is a much more efficient macronutrient for the body to use in the first place. Saying all that, the body doesn't just ever use one or the other, it uses a combination, but if trained through diet or many years of endurance sports, it can end up using much more fat that carbs at a whole host of speeds.

After immersing myself in all of this for months I agree to some degree with a recent interview comment by Matt Fitzgerald (author of Racing Weight), saying he doesn't know many elite athletes who are religiously following paleo - as their (mostly) squeaky clean diets are already very low in refined carbohydrates, high in wholefoods, fruits and vegetables and most importantly, very controlled in volume.

A recent sushi fest
But saying this, after personally experimenting with eating lower carb and higher 'good' fats - I'm talking olive and cold pressed oils, nut butters, olives, nuts and seeds, yoghurt, coconut etc - I have truly seen a difference in my energy levels in terms of escaping the peak/trough of a high carb diet, which I think can essentially encourage you to eat more than you need. It can take quite a bit of planning ahead (chia muffins are sometimes not on my to do list late on a Friday night after work and before a long back to back at the weekend) but when I've been disciplined about low carb fuelling I have really noticed a difference in energy and performance when out there training for hours.

And in any case there are a LOT of other benefits to this type of eating, not least lowering the body's insulin dependency and long-term risk factors for a number of diseases prevalent in the western world.

When trying to improve in ultra running, indulging in that old sea of yellow carbs is just not worth it.

My Fat Oxidisation and RER Test
So, connected to the above, Lesley also tested how my body currently burns fat by doing an RER test. This is the Respiratory Exchange Ratio response to the incremental tests on the treadmill. RER shows the body's use of carbohydrate or fat as the main fuel source. When resting levels of RER equal 0.7 this indicates fat metabolism is happening and whilst when RER values are greater than 1 this indicates a switch to carbohydrate as the main fuel source.

In my test, my RER reached 1 at 15km per hour, which amazingly showed that for all speeds under 15km per hour (i.e. obviously ALL of my training!) my metabolism is using predominantly fat already, and only switches to using carbs as the main fuel source at 15km per hr. This made me feel slighly foolish for having focused on paleo/low carb for training purposes for so long (despite the fact I feel its a super healthy diet anyway) as my body is already doing what I have been trying to train it to do. Lesley reckoned this would be largely as a result of 4 or 5 years of running, duathlon etc.

So I would seriously recommend getting metabolic testing if you are interested in this type of stuff, I found the whole process completely enlightening. Check out Napier University if so.

Slightly nervous about the May VO2max re-test already - no pressure to improve after all this talk of training plans and improvement!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ultrarunning World Article: Western States Training Diary

Our Scottish weather may be taking some time to catch up, but spring is officially here! And with the change in clocks comes a three month countdown until the biggie. My March training has been all about heat and hills - here is the latest training diary I've written 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...