Lessons learnt from the whw race 2011

I always find it helpful to reflect on what I’ve learnt after an ultra race and I have a feeling I’ve learnt a lot from this one!

Firstly though I’d like to thank everyone who has left a comment or spoken to me. The whw family is very special and I love the fact that everyone is keen to encourage everyone else.

For the first time ever I had over 1,000 hits in a single day on Monday as people read my race report. It just goes to show how popular this race is and whether you are a runner, marshall, supporter or ‘lurker’ we can’t get enough.

There are a number of race reports being posted now and I’m sure I’m not alone in loving reading each and every one. I wish everyone would write down their story as everyone’s race has its own ups and downs and we can all learn from each other.

Anyway on to the subject of this post.

I set off at 1am on Saturday 18th June with a sub 21hr plan. I felt that was a challenging yet reasonable target given my training, experience and commitment. In the back of my mind was the thought that if everything went really well then sub20hr might be possible.

But also in my back of my mind was the thought that things weren’t quite right and I wasn’t convinced that I was going to be able to keep the pace going right through 95miles. I knew the schedule to run sub21hrs didn’t leave much room for any struggles.

I finished in 27hrs 36mins 00secs … a good 7hrs longer than I’d hoped or planned. I can also honestly say that I didn’t really enjoy the race at all.

The first 6-7hrs were okay but once I was past Inversnaid and started to slip behind my sub21 plan it just got harder and harder.

Obviously I’m proud of the fact that I ground it out and finished and have my 5th goblet but this is my hobby and I want to enjoy it!

I know Ultras aren’t meant to be easy and I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of pushing myself and achieving goals I’ve set myself. Pain is part of the process but this felt very different. For 20hrs I was just keeping it going running (shuffling) when I could and walking the rest.

I’ve been asked a few times what went wrong. Was it the shoes? food? pace? mental attitude? age? weather? training?

To be honest I’m really not sure. Maybe it was just one of those days. Maybe it was a combination of the above.

So here are some thoughts about what I’ve learnt …..

# Unrealistic expectations?
In each of my first three whw races I improved. 2007 - 22hrs 45mins 10secs to 2008 - 19hrs 59mins 33secs to 2009 - 19hrs 51mins 59secs.

In 2010 I decided to do things differently to see if that would help me to go faster. It didn’t and I finished in 22hrs 15mins 10secs.

I decided this year that I would give it one more go at breaking 20hrs again. I went back to what worked in 2009 and basically repeated the training.

I made the whw race my main focus and trained accordingly. I have hardly missed a single planned session. I’ve done all my long runs in very similar times to 2009 and if anything felt fitter and faster than 2009.

But mentally I knew things weren’t quite the same. In 2009 I was so positive and on top of every run and expected to break 20hrs. I knew I could do it and did.

This year I’ve spent the year trying to convince myself I could do it. But deep down I knew it wasn’t quite there.

I find it hard to put down in words and maybe it’s only a slight difference in attitude but it has been different.

Maybe I should have been more honest with myself and set off with a more realistic sub 22hr or sub 23hr plan but it was hard to do that when I felt capable of running faster.

So I set off with a sub 21hr plan and decided to see how long I could keep it going. To Inversnaid was the answer! After that as I slipped further and further off the pace, as more and more people went past me it became a mental challenge to keep going.

It was very similar to the Fling and silmilar to last year’s whw race. Maybe I need to accept my days of running sub 20hrs are gone and I need to readjust my expectations.

# Shoes
One of my givens is not to try anything in a race that I’ve not tried and tested in long training runs.

After the Fling I realised that my inov-8 Rociltes were so badly worn on the heels that they were useless.

So I bought a new pair of shoes knowing I had 7 weeks to run them in and be happy with them. I decided to try a different shoe - Saucony Peregrine. They had a more durable sole and were quite light.

I really enjoyed running in them and ran over 130 miles including the whole of the whw in three runs.

Then 6 days before the race I discovered a one inch hole on the outside of each shoe. I took them back to the shop who kindly gave me a full refund.

But now I had to run in a new pair. I’d lost confidence in the Saucony so decided to go for a pair of Salomon’s. They felt a bit heavier but with a nice wide fitting felt comfortable.

I only had one 6mile run in them before the race. Not ideal. It’s hard to know how much of a factor they were. I did end up with some blisters but I’ll come on to that.

I changed them at Bridge of Orchy for my road shoes but more out of wanting to just try something different.

So I’m not blaming the shoes as that would be too easy! But I think it didn’t help my mental attitude knowing that they were untested.

Peter Duggan has told me in no uncertain terms that I should have more than one pair of shoes on the go at one time. That makes perfect sense and I will be putting that into practice.

# Blisters
In my first whw race I really suffered with blisters. The following year I noticed that Hugh Kerr plastered his feet with Sudocrem before a run and said it really helped.

So since then I do the same … but only around my toes. I’ve hardly suffered from blisters since and have become a bit blaise about it.

I did my normal practice of sudocrem around the toes, a thin pair of cotton ankle socks next to my skin and a thicker pair of socks on top.

I didn’t do anything about my feet until Bridge of Orchy when I changed shoes and put on a dry pair of socks.

Looking back this was a big mistake. I’ve read others reports and chatted to friends who said they changed socks and shoes regularly making sure they kept their feet as dry as possible.

I didn’t do that and suffered as a result. I just didn’t take into account how wet the track was and what damage it was doing to my feet.

But I don’t think new shoes or blisters were the reason for my struggles. Certainly it made the last 35miles a lot harder but my problems started well before that.

# Food
This year I’ve worked a lot harder on my food with my friend Cara. I didn’t have any stomach problems and ate all I planned to.

I took in enough calories that should have keep me going. The idea of splitting the race into thirds with different food for each third worked well and meant I was always looking forward to something new.

Cara commented afterwards that we never had a plan for 27hrs of running!

I also took a succeed tablet every 1.5hrs and drank enough water. My pee was a light enough to indicate I wasn’t dehydrated.

# Support
Once again I realised how important a good support team is.

Katrina and Laura met me at Balmaha. They were willing to go to Rowardennan but I was happy with drop bags at Rowardennan, Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm. It meant that they could head home at 4.30am and get some rest before Katrina headed back up again in the afternoon.

Stevie and David met me at Auchtertyre. This meant that they were fresh for the second half of the race. In the end David had to leave at Glencoe and Katrina took over.

All four were brilliant and helped me get to the end. Stevie ran with me from Glencoe to Kinlochleven and Katrina walked with me from Kinlochleven to Fort William.

Stevie, once he’d pitched the tent, got a lift to Lundavra and ran back to meet us so all three of us walked the last 9miles or so together.

I honestly don’t think I would have made it without them. Or if I did I would have been another hour or two!

# Summary
So I’m still uncertain as to what went wrong and why I struggled as much as I did.

Last year I went through a tough patch between Auchtertryre and Bridge of Orchy but was able to get going again from Glencoe onwards. This year even that second wind just didn’t come.

So what now? For the first time I’ve not mentally signed up for next year. I’ll come back to this question in a further post.

It’s now Thursday and my feet and legs feel a lot better. I’m sure I could run but I’ve decided to have at least 10days off maybe even a full two weeks!

My friend Chris pointed out that while I might be able to run my whole body needs a rest and I’ll be susceptible to any virus going round.

Thanks again for your support. If anyone has any theories as to why it didn’t work out feel free to comment!

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10 Responses to Lessons learnt from the whw race 2011

  1. allybea says:

    Firstly, congratulations on achieving your 5th goblet. I read your race account and was in tears in places. I know how hard it is to keep going when your body and brain aren't co operating.

    Secondly, I have some observations from a layman's viewpoint. You know I don't do stats and have no memory of your previous race accounts so apologies in advance if I'm wrong.

    From past experience sometimes I think it is just bad luck that something doesn't happen on the day. Everything can be right - training/fitness/food/support but if your head isn't quite there then it's tough from the start. You are one of the most positive people I know. For you to say you had doubts is significant.

    Unrealistic expectations? Maybe. Your first 3 races were outstanding. Remember you had a different job and lifestyle then. Your approach to the race was different. And yes, you're older. Sorry hun!

    The problem with your shoes is also significant. But Debs put on a brand new pair at Rowardennan!! Perhaps more of a mental problem than an actual physical one.

    The legends who have been running this race for years are now not so concerned with their times. It's all about the particiaption for them. You're still competitive (and you've debated that before!!) so still set yourself high targets.

    Take the pressure off yourself and find your love of ultra running again. Don't even think about next year's race yet.

    Sorry for the long winded comment! Hope to catch up with you guys properly soon.

    Love to Katrina.

    Ali xxx

  2. John,

    I'm still learning at this game but would start by saying that you've proved to be an inspiration to me so I think you should keep going and continue to be so giving to this community.

    The only comment I would have is I sincerely doubt that it was due to unrealistic expectations. In my opinion, that simply doesn't compute to such a drastic drop in performance - relative to your previous.

    It must be so frustrating because I would say you had almost everything in place to play a blinder. Maybe it was just one of those days? See how the rest of your year goes.

  3. Ali says:

    John, it's interesting to read your thoughts on your race and the lead in to it. The thing that jumps out for me is that probably two or three months before the race you had realised that you probably wouldn't run as well as you did in 2008 and 2009, but kept on the same training intensity and volume as you had in those years. I wonder whether they way you felt in the latter stages of the Fling was a bit of a warning that you were doing too much training? It would have been a brave decision to have stepped down your training in May, but I think maybe a more restful May and June would have seen you do something more like the times you're used to in the race.

    When I did my first ultra (40 miles) it felt like it took weeks and weeks to recover from it, whereas now I've done a few more I I feel like it takes less time to recover. Maybe, though, it hasn't - it's just that I'm used to how it feels while I'm still recovering and cope with it better. Perhaps as you get more and more experience of running and training for ultras, the risk that you don't give yourself enough recovery time between races, and also long training runs, increases.

    I'm not convinced there is much if any benefit in doing training runs of more than 30 miles, but that's perhaps a debate for another day. When I was starting to feel really tired going through Glencoe on Saturday, I was glad that I had done only one 30 mile run between the Fling and the WHW race, rather than thinking if only I'd done more I would feel better at that stage - I think if anything I'd have felt worse.

    Enjoy your 10 days off - it's well deserved. Ali

  4. GaryB says:

    Well as you know John I'm the complete novice when it comes to this ultra marathon game but my first thought was a change is as good as a rest and what i mean by that is maybe it's time to give your body a rest from the long miles for a good length of time (months not weeks) reset your goals for some shorter races (age PBs for 5k, 10k and half marathon?)then as the year comes to an end look to next year with a fresh mind and body.

    It's just my thoughts John and I'm sure there are followers out there with a lot of others thoughts for you but i just got the feeling that maybe your bodies trying to tell you it's ready for some speed instead of distance as your speeder sessions and races are as fast if not faster than what your were doing 3 or 4 yrs.

  5. Peter Duggan says:

    Some interesting thoughts about shoes, feet and the universe, John…

    For sure, I told you in no uncertain terms that someone who's running as much as you should have more than a pair apiece of road and trail shoes, and stand by that. But I also told you I'd not be desperately concerned about setting off in a fresh pair of any of my usual Mizunos or Asics if I had to, and here we have reports of Debs racing to glory in an unworn pair of somethings. Now, while I finally chose to start in an almost unused pair of Mizuno Wave Ascends (my first of this particular model) and ran the whole race in the same (yes, wet!) shoes and socks with barely a mark on my feet to show for it, I also took two newish pairs of Asics Gel Fujis (one barely worn and the other with the Fling and some further decent hill/trail mileage in them) and one of last year's Gel Enduros as backup. So I'd guess you're right not to pin the whole thing on new shoes or blisters, but will still benefit from rotating multiple pairs even when (as I did this year and last) you exercise the choice to do the whole distance in one on the day.

    Also noted your point about not already being 'mentally signed up for next year', applaud you for deferring the question (which doesn't mean I'm saying 'don't'!) and will be interested to see what happens either way. But must add that I see many folk (myself included according to the conventional wisdom of one per year) doing what I'd consider too many ultra races and really long runs (it's one of the reasons I've not been attracted to SUMS although I'm not knocking SUMS here!), and think Gary's advice sound in this respect. So don't worry just now about WHWR 2012 because (strange as the concept may seem when you've become so involved with anything) the world should keep turning whether you're running it or not and competing every year has never been a prerequisite for entry.


  6. Caroline says:

    Hi John, Well done on grinding it out to the finish and getting your 5th goblet! Hope you feel all recovered soon.

  7. Earl Freeman says:

    John, Well done , I've been on some of these death marches and its no fun. My thought after reading your race report, are you loading (eating within 15 minutes) with carbs and protein right after your training runs. This happened to me, I was waiting till supper or not eating for an hour or so and was tired in my runs and wasn't making any gains. I read an article about this being a problem not eating right after your training runs and started taking my food with me so I could eat right after the run. It made a huge difference, I was beginning to look forward to my training runs and was running faster and more relaxed.

    Earl Freeman

  8. Thomas says:

    Your race plan was very conservative. Why should your performance drop significantly from one year to the next?
    So what was the reason for your struggle?
    I do not know but I have the impression that you were committing self-experimentation with nutrition.
    “The idea of splitting the race into thirds with different food…”
    That was certainly a huge risk.

    Maybe that worked for you, I do not know, but apart from that I have been on training runs and races which looked like any other race but I just had no energy. A virus maybe. Who knows.

    But please do not get the idea that you have lost your capability of running sub 20 because you are too old. Look at Jan Albert. I am 47 now, one year older than last year and 55 minutes faster. I do notice that I get older, no question. I get easier injured, have less speed, am not as sharp as the young guys. But endurance you do not lose that easily.

  9. Robert says:

    I know the frustration of doing everything right in preparation but then one the day it just falls apart. I also know that knawing question “Why?”

    Having read your blog for the last six months it did seem outwardly that things were going great for you, all those miles, no injury niggles, no days where you flunked. Sure the Fling was a bit slower, but it was hot that day.

    For me your training looked stella. You sure didn't sound you were overtaining. Nutrition on the day sounded just fine. Your initial place looked totally appropriate for the way your training had gone.

    Two areas jump out at me as potential problems.

    First the shoes, not only buying new shoes in the week before a race, but going for brand and model of shoe you had never worn before. If you wanted to add a risk into your prep this was it. Even if the shoes worked out perfectly on the day it's still something that will have added a little unknown to the day - and a little anxiety with it.

    Personally I would have stuck with either the Perigines or Roclite's as you know they both work for you. I think the Roclite's would have been choice as the advice you got about them not being road shoes is bunk - they are just fine on road. The lack of cushioning/protection from the tail you felt in them will have been down to have worn your previous pair out - the EVA breaks down. My previous pair of Roclite's started to breakdown about 800 miles, my new ones the ground feel is less but protection better, all down to the EVA midsole being newer. Most running shoes suffer with this so it's not a Rocltie problems - they simply wear out.

    One thing that the Roclite's and Perigines have in common is they have a relatively low heel drop so they don't hinder a forefoot/midfoot strike. The trail shoes you got aren't known for low heel drop, and your road shoes are also likely to have a higher heel drop. Higher heeled shoes encourage a heel strike and are typically uncomfortable to keep a mid foot or forefoot strike. Given that the heel is where you got your blister perhaps you were landing on your feel more. Not only might have your foot strike changed but the rest of your gait would subtly change with it - if you've trained with one gait and got efficient with, then change it even subtly you'd be lucky for the new gait to be as efficient.

    The second area that might be a cause of problems - STRESS. Stress hormones directly impact our metabolism - are bodies start preferring to burn carbs over fat so our long distance performance suffers. Long term stress and too much stress on the day affect us in numerous ways, so you training as well as race day will have been affected.

    Your uncertainty of your job situation earlier this year will no doubt have introduced stress. Also focusing so much on just one race will have also put more pressure to perform well. Then to top it off you go and change to completely new type of shoe!

    I suggest both the shoes and stress as factor as I believe both have effected my race day performances in the last two years. For me next events I'm going to work on relaxing more in the run up, concentrate on the fun and adventure and less on times. If you are fit and having fun well there might just be a chance that the PB's will come without even having to try, at least that's what I'm planning to delude myself with 😉

  10. Just remember what they say in Born to Run John.
    When you are 19 it takes 8 years to reach your peak at 27 but to get back to the same fitness you were at 19 takes 38 years and you will be 65.
    I certainly think that you will PB the WHW again
    Don't worry too much about this years race. I see from posts that you have made since this one that you are looking at getting back to enjoying running again. I think that this is very wise.
    Perhaps last year took more out of you than you think. I certainly think it has knocked your confidence. Get that back John and you will easily have the fitness to run more fantastic runs.
    Take care and see you soon.


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