Lessons learnt from whw race

I always try and write down a few lessons after my ultra races so that I don’t make the same mistakes again and again. Hopefully the things I have got right I want to do again. Certainly looking back over these ‘lessons learnt’ posts they have been helpful to me.

This year’s race on the whw was probably the hardest of the four I’ve done. The first year (07) was a massive learning curve. I was struggling with an injury to my shin and really slowed down over the last 25miles with very sore quads but was elated to finish.

The next two years (08 & 09) most things went pretty well and I was able to run strongly finishing under 20hrs in both races.

I set off this year with the aim to try and get under 20hrs again though after a few hours with the day warming up I readjusted my goal to sub 21hrs as I thought that was more realistic.

In the end I finished in 22hrs 15mins 02secs so on first sight I ought to be disappointed but I’m not as I’m really happy with the way I was able to dig deep after being in big trouble at Bridge of Orchy.

It’s often said that you learn more from the ‘harder’ runs than the ones were everything goes well.

So in no particular order some of the things I’ve learnt from this year.

Over the last few months I’ve been experimenting with my pace, whether to start a bit faster or slower. I experimented with going off a bit quicker in the Fling and it didn’t work. Whereas in the Cateran Trail I started very comfortable and felt a lot better.

So I set off with a sub 21hr plan which called for me getting to Auchtertyre in around 10rs 30mins. Last year I was there in 9hrs 48mins so knew I needed to set off comfortable.

I achieved that goal arriving at the 50mile mark in 10hrs 18mins which was in between my silver (sub 21hrs) and gold (pb 19hrs 50mins).

For the next 20miles I really struggled and fell behind my planned pace. From Glencoe Ski Lodge onwards I was able to get going again and for the last three sections I was right back on track with my projected sub 21 pace.

So I basically lost the 1hr 15mins in the section from Auchtertyre to Glencoe Ski Lodge.

Here is a graph of my actual pace compared to my sub 21hr pace and last year’s 2009 race.

You can see that I was ahead the blue sub 21hr line until a few miles past Auchtertyre. The other thing I find encouraging is the dip at the end showing I finished strong.

Splits compared to the field
I find it really interesting to see how I got on compared to the field. The stats confirmed what I thought.

I went from 40th at Rowardennan to 34th at Beinglas Farm to 33rd at Auchtertyre to 42nd at Glencoe Ski Centre to 38th at Kinlochleven & Lundavra before finishing in 34th.

The other interesting stat is to see split positions. The splits include rest times but as they are part of the race that’s fine.

Milngavie to Rowardennan - 40th fastest
Rowardennan to Beinglas Farm - 27th
Beinglas Farm to Auchtertyre - 31st
Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy - 63rd
Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe - 68th
Glencoe to Kinlochleven - 29th
Kinlochleven to Lundavra - 25th
Lundavra to Fort William - 17th

That fits in exactly with how it felt! My slowest sections in the middle and my best the last two.

The big questions I’ve been thinking about since the race are ‘Why did I struggle so much after Auchtertyre?’ and ‘How did I turn it round?’

Why did I struggle?
We all go through highs and lows in ultra races but for me this was one of the lowest low I’ve experienced and I felt it was going to last for the rest of the race. I really thought I would have to walk the 35 miles from Bridge of Orchy. I was working out that if I walked at 3mph it would take me another 11-12hrs.

Looking back on the race I feel there were two main factors ….

# The heat and lack of water
Up until Beinglas Farm where I arrived at about 9.05am I felt okay in regard to heat and drinking enough. I carried water with me and drank when I needed to. I found a couple of streams/pools of water to soak my buff and keep my head cool.

Once I left Beinglas I realised that I had over two hours without seeing my support team. I only took one water bottle and knew that it wouldn’t be enough. So I started to ration how much I drank and was concerned about that.

When I arrived at Derrydaroch I was so glad to see Stan B there with some water. So I refilled my water bottle and hoped that would be enough. I continued to ration how much I drank and as there was no water on the route couldn’t cool my head down.

I needed more water than I had and I think it was a major reason why I struggled.

# Pace
The other factor was the pace I ran at. I was on my own from Beinglas Farm until Norman Neilson caught me just past cow poo corner at about 47miles. We had run together a fair on the Fling and I knew Norman was aiming for a sub 20hrs.

He kindly asked me whether I wanted him to slow down so we could run together. I encouraged him to push on - this was a race after all. But I decided to see if I could stay with him for as long as possible.

I surprised myself by staying with him all the way to Auchtertyre. But looking back it was at a cost. I think I pushed it far too hard and depleted most of my reserves.

So I think these two factors of lack of water and pushing too hard were the main cause of my struggle.

As soon as I left Auchtertyre I knew I was in trouble. Last year I ran most of the way to Tyndrum. Not this year I found it really hard to run.

The section from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy is normally a good runnable section for the most part but I found it really hard to get going. My sub 21hr plan called for 1hr 45mins from Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy and it took me 2hrs 22mins.

As I arrived at Bridge of Orchy all thoughts of time were out the window and it was just a case of getting to the end as best I could. But it turned out better than that. So what made the difference?

‘How did I turn it round?’
I was chatting to one of my work colleagues the other day and we were talking about how our strengths can also be our biggest weakness. For me my planning and organising is one of my strengths but when things aren’t going right then it can easily be a real weakness if I just try and stick with my plan no matter what.

So as I arrived at Bridge of Orchy I knew I had to change something. So I did the following …

# stopped for 18mins - lying down on the grass
# changed my trail shoes for my road shoes
# drank a hot chocolate

My support team of Stevie and David were superb, making sure I had all I wanted and encouraging me.

Also my friend Chris arrived with his family. Chris too was reallyhelpful asking lots of questions and just making sure I was doing the right things.

When I left Bridge of Orchy I was feeling better and felt I had a good section to Glencoe buit looking at the splits I was still struggling. The last big hill coming off Rannoch Moor was really hard.

Chris gave me some ham to eat at Inveroran which helped and the other big factor was having lots of water. Stevie and Dave met me at Inveroran so I refilled my water there and then Stevie ran ahead and waited for me half way along the Rannoch Moor so I could refill my water again.

This meant that I could drink as much as I wanted/needed plus I poured a bit on my head every time thus keeping my head cooler.

Another 10min stop at Glencoe, some ice cream, more ham, a rice pudding and I felt a me man (almost) setting off.

I was really pleased with the way I ran in from there. It took me 5hrs 55mins from Kingshouse (the last 25miles). That compares with about 5hrs 35mins last year when I broke 20hrs. So just 20mins slower than’s last year’s run. I find that really encouraging that I was able to get going again after my sustained low period.

One of the other big lessons I learnt is that I need to have some savoury food in my plan. I’m not a big sweet or chocolate fan yet all my planned food was sugar based. The ham (and then a few chips at Kinlochleven) were great and it made me realise my body was craving some ‘proper’ food.

Also the hot chocolate went down well so that’s something else to think about.

The Mind

I’m more convinced that ever that the mind has such a key part to play in ultra running. The mind gives in way before the body does. I find if I can keep my mind occupied then the body will look after itself!


Plus just a few positive thoughts can make all the difference. When I left Bridge of Orchy on Saturday Chris said to me, ‘John, your best sections are still to come.’ At the time I didn’t think much of it but as the race went on I kept thinking about that comment and it really helped.


Main Focus?

This year the main focus wasn’t the whw race. I decided to do some more races to make sure I completed four ultras in the SUM series. Plus I’d already entered the Hardmoors 55 on my birthday in March.


This meant that the whw wasn’t the main focus as it has been over the last three years. Did that make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. I do think I missed doing the two day training run but there again I finished strongly so maybe a didn’t miss it.


At the end of the season I’ll review how it’s gone and make some decisions for next year.

So a number of lessons stored away for next year.


There are a number of race reports appearing on the forums now. Check out the whwblog list.


I’ve updated the whw pb list. I must stress that this is my unofficial one. Tim’s is the official one on the web site. Anyway in my list I’ve moved down to 57th from 50th last year.


Tonight I’m off to the Calderglen 10k Trail Race - not to run but to support Katrina who is. Role reversal tonight!

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1 Response to Lessons learnt from whw race

  1. Andy Cole says:

    Hi John, really interesting stuff. I think I'll do a similar exercise although I've never bothered before. I'm particularly interested in people's views on hydration. I don't get thirsty so “drinking to thirst” is a bit meaningless. You said you left Beinglas with 2 hours before seeing your support team with only one (I guess 500ml) bottle of water and were concerned. I left there in exactly the same circumstances and was happy only to have one bottle as I normally drink about 250ml an hour. I didn't think about upping the intake because of the heat, because it didn't seem particularly warm at that point. Do you have an idea of the total fluids you consumed in the race?

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