Tuesday, 22 May 2012

City of Perth Barefoot 10k

Today I ran in the first City of Perth Barefoot 10k, a rather low key and intimate race held on the grass of the North Inch in Perth at lunchtime.  The race route consisted of 25 and a bit laps of the North Inch cricket oval, with the grass having been recently cut, though not specially for the race.

The small field of competitors totalled one runner, so I was hopeful of a podium finish.  As I jogged the half mile past some parked cars en route to the start of the race, I caught a glimpse of the runner, a tired looking individual with badly fitting shorts and a somewhat effeminate running style, and my confidence was boosted by his appearance.

At the cricket oval I removed my shoes and got ready for the start - the race started almost immediately as I decided it was time to go and I only had an hour for lunch.  I settled into a seven-minute mile pace and found myself leading the race.  I was happy enough for the first few laps as the pace felt comfortable, but I was conscious of keeping something in reserve should the race become more competitive.

The first few kilometres passed quite quickly at a steady pace, though the wet weather last week followed by a couple of hot dry days had meant that in amongst the grass were lots of little worm casts which had dried into small mud spikes - just a wee bit uncomfortable on the soles of my feet.  I went through 5 kilometres in 21:10, still in first place and my pace had increased slightly.  I continued to run steadily for the next few kilometres, feeling like I was running comfortably although there was a bit of an ache in my right ankle, which I had twisted ten days previously.

After 5 miles of running my feet were starting to get quite sore - this was now the longest barefoot run I had done - so I increased my pace length to reduce the number of steps I had to take, and the number of times my feet had to hit the ground.  My pace had been steadily increasing throughout the race, and since kilometre number 3 each kilometre had taken 3 to 4 seconds less than the previous one.  It was only in the final kilometre that I felt I was having to try a bit, but I was holding on to first place which gave me an extra incentive to keep running well.  Over the final few kilometres I had to concentrate on keeping a good running form - running barefoot is a bit less forgiving if you start plodding, which I guess is one of the training benefits.

I reached the finish in 41:10, 10 seconds faster than the only 10k I have run in anger (the City of Stirling 10k in September 2006) so a small PB but I felt like I still had plenty of running in my legs whereas 6 years ago I staggered across the line and couldn’t have run another step.  My garmin measured the course at exactly 10 kilometres, which is perhaps not surprising as the course route had been measured using a garmin identical to mine.

I was delighted to have won the race - I don’t think a victory has been more fiercely contested since George Reid won the Kintyre Way Ultra in 2009 - though because of the small field there weren’t many runners to chat to at the finish and I jogged back to work rather than hang around for the prize giving.

It was a great event to have run in and I look forward to the next one - I guess the field will always be small due to the spontaneous nature of the organisation and lack of marketing, so perhaps I’ll be able to retain my title.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A bit about intervals

Last year I wasn't quite sure what running to do in the seven weeks between the Fling and the WHW race - I settled for a 30+ mile run, a few 15-ish mile hill runs and a bunch of easy runs.  So some long slow stuff but nothing fast.  This year we have eight weeks to fill and my plan is a couple of 30+ mile runs (though that might have to change since 7 miles into the first of these today I twisted my ankle coming down Conic Hill after trying to run too quick down one of the rocky sections - I should perhaps of written "don't be a dick" on my hand to help me concentrate as I have a bit of form for twisting my ankle trying to run too fast down rock hills), and one or two interval sessions per week.

This year I've been doing far more interval sessions than previously.  Though calling them interval sessions is a perhaps misleading as there is none of this 5 x 1 miles with a 2 min recovery type stuff - I prefer a continuous run with some fast bits and some slow bits, aka fartlek.  I guess there has been a bit of debate around why an ultrarunner would do intervals since during a race they'll not typically be running at a fast pace.  My feeling is that intervals are one of the best ways to improve running efficiency (especially if they are up and down hills), and also doing fartlek and running the slow bits at ultra pace makes said pace seem somehow easier.

I have two favourite sessions which I thought I would share just in case you are looking for something different to try on a run:

1. Reducing time intervals - for this one, you need find a nice lap of between 1.5 and 3 miles that you are happy to run round a few times.  I've got a nice 1.5 mile loop around the local woods that is half uphill and half downhill, and is all on good trails.  Then, you set off round the loop at an easy pace.  After the first lap, the aim is to do the second lap about 10 to 15 seconds per mile quicker than the first.  Then on the third lap, run 10 to 15 seconds per mile quicker than the second lap, and so on until you have done 5 laps, with the fifth lap being maybe two to three minutes quicker than the first one.  The idea is to get used to running strongly at the end of a run, and to focus on good running form, when you've got tired legs.

2. Zapping - I once heard this called zapping so that's what I call it.  The idea is run fast for a minute, then slow for a minute (or if you prefer fast for 30 seconds, slow for 30 seconds) and repeat until you've been running for about 30 to 40 minutes.  It's a good one to really get your legs moving and again I think is a good one for running form and efficiency (especially if some of it is downhill since running fast downhill you have to concentrate on just touching the ground lightly with your feet, there's no time for plodding).  As for what pace to run the fast ones, what I aim for is to run at the pace that I would run at if I was running for my life (I find watching The Descent and then doing this run in the dark helps to get my mind in the right place for this).  

So the plan is to keep doing intervals over the next 8 weeks, and hopefully my ankle will have recovered well enough soon that I can be running round the local woods late at night imaging I'm being chased by a bunch of carnivorous cavemen.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Hoka Highland Fling 2012

It was the 2012 Hoka Highland Fling last Saturday - a 52 mile running race along the first half of the West Highland Way from the outskirts of Glasgow to Tyndrum.  This was the 3rd time I have ran the race and last year I was delighted to finish in just under 10 hours.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on as I haven’t done as much training as the previous year because of the problems I’ve had with my left foot.  In the four months leading up to the Fling I had only done 4 runs longer than 10 miles, and only one of them was longer than 20 miles.  So I had some big doubts over my stamina, but knew I was running faster than last year over shorter distances as I’ve done more interval and hill training .  A week before the Fling I ran a 13 mile route up a local hill and was about 7 or 8 minutes faster than this time last year so I took the same proportion off my previous Fling time and created a 9 hours 20 minute schedule for myself.  This felt a little ambitious given the lack of long training runs, but I thought I’d give it a go and see what happened - if I struggled later in the race then I would just slow down and enjoy the rest of the run.

Milngavie to Drymen - 12 miles, 1 hour 52 minutes
In December I’d persuaded a work colleague in London to come and run the Highland Fling as his first ultra marathon.  Malcolm was planning on doing an ultra in Northumberland later this year but I managed to convince him that he should come and do the Fling as well, and had promised him a great trail, fantastic scenery, brilliant weather and lots of friendly, supportive runners to share the day with.  We met up just before the start - Malcolm was planning on taking it very easy since this was his first run longer than 26 miles so we ran the first few miles together at a nice easy pace.  I think we were pretty much in last place after half a mile or so, but the pace was good and the first few miles ticked by in no time as we chatted about Malcolm’s first ultra.  I left Malcolm to run his own race as we approached Craigallian Loch - he went on to finish in 12 hours 40 minutes after pacing himself well for the day.

As usual the first few miles of the Fling reminded me of Monty Python’s “Marathon for the Incontinent” sketch - I guess the 8am start gives everyone too much time to hydrate before the start of the race.

For the rest of the way to Drymen I kept it nice and easy and was a few minutes down on my schedule but was not too concerned as it was a great day to be out running and I was not that bothered about times.

Drymen to Rowardennan - 15 miles, 2 hours 33 minutes
I was finding that I could comfortably run up more of the hills than I had done on previous Flings and felt really good on the way up to Conic Hill.  Technical, hilly trail is more my bag than the fast, flat run up to Drymen, and going over Conic Hill I was catching plenty of runners who had started off a bit faster than me.  Most of the interval training I have been doing has been hilly fartlek, with some of the fast intervals being downhill, and I think this helped as coming down Conic Hill I did not feel like I was braking with every step.

At the Balmaha checkpoint Murdo told me that I had won the best drop bag prize - well, really my 6 year old daughter Anna had won it for me.  Anna loves to paint so when my usual pre-race day fish and chips lunch came in a big paper bag it seemed like fate, and Anna was happy to paint her vision of the Highland Fling on it - I told her that the race had trees, mountains, lochs, cows and lots of people running, and she did the rest.  The bag still smelled of fish and chips so it gave me a good appetite when I picked it up at Balmaha.  Knowing how happy Anna would be that the bag had won definitely gave me spring in my step for the next few miles.  I saw Norry at Balmaha, who was going well, and it was good to get a cheer from his support team every few miles on the way up to Rowardennan.

With my drop bag at Balmaha - thanks to Davie Hall for the photo
The path along the loch side was a joy to run along on such a beautiful day.  I ran much of the section with Jude, who was unfortunately having a lot of pain in one of his hips.  I offered him a bit of emu oil but I don’t think it did the trick.  The miles slipped by as we ran along chatting until Jude slowed down a little with the pain in his hip and I ran on, and it was as a shame to see in the results that Jude had had to pull out at Rowardennan.

I was within a couple of minutes of my schedule at Rowardennan, and was feeling in good shape with 27 miles done so was happy with that.

Rowardennan to Beinglas - 14 miles, 2 hours 41 minutes
The 4 miles of forest track after Rowardennan are probably some of the easiest running on the route so it was nice to feel in good shape on them and move quite quickly.  I passed a few familiar faces on this section - I’d seen Colin Knox’s pacing schedule and provided we were both on schedule I should see him on this section, which I did.  He looked to be going well and feeling comfortable and went on to get a good PB.  I’m looking forward to see how Colin gets on in the WHW race in June - he’s certainly preparing for it well.

I really enjoyed the rough section before and after Inversnaid, trying to move as smoothly as possible and letting my legs absorb the lumps and bumps.  This was my fourth time along this bit of path and it definitely gets easier the more you run it.  I had warned my friend Malcolm that the bit round Inversnaid was a little rough, but as I was clambering down some of the rock staircases I thought maybe I’d undersold it a little since it would seem really very rough to someone more used to running on roads - he managed fine with it though.  On the climb a couple of miles before Beinglas I felt really low on energy and struggled up the hill for a few minutes before the calories in the chocolate soya milk I had downed started to come through.  I ran into Beinglas still within a couple of minutes of my schedule.

Running well, fuelled by soya milk, just before Beinglas - thanks to Allan Harley for the photo 
Beinglas to Tyndrum - 12 miles, 2 hours 13 minutes
I felt good for about a mile out of Beinglas, then felt like my energy levels dived and I felt crap for ten minutes, until a can of coke started to work its way into my bloodstream.  My energy had dropped pretty much thirty minutes since the previous time, and this repeated itself for the rest of the day - feel full of beans for twenty minutes, energy levels drop, drink something sweet, feel crap for ten minutes, energy levels pick up again.  It was a little frustrating as my legs felt relatively fresh and not tight at all.  I was able to cut loose on the downhills in the forest near Crianlarich, when in previous races I’ve had to stiffly pick my way down the hills in pain.  Going through Auchtertyre coincided with one of my good spells and I was running 8 minute miles on the tracks and road there, but the last mile into Tyndrum coincided with one of my bad spells which was a shame. Struggling for the last ten minutes took a little of the shine off what had been a great day out.

I finished in 9 hours 18 minutes - pretty much bang on my schedule, but more importantly much quicker than I could ever have imagined when I first ran the Fling three years earlier.  There is definitely more to this game than just training harder - so much of it is learning how to mentally approach these long long runs.

My left foot coped really well with the Fling - my running style has changed to protect my big toe joint, so that I strike with the outside of the front of my foot.  I think I now have a much more efficient running style, and my legs definitely felt less tired, stiff and sore on Saturday than on any other ultra I have run.  The outsides of my feet are bruised and sore though, and my lesser-toes are all losing their nails this week I expect.  Running low on energy towards the end of the race was I guess down to having legs that were fresh enough to be able to burn up energy faster than I could absorb it.

It was good to hang around at the finishing chatting to lots of familiar faces - Murdo had told me to wait around to pick up the prize for the best drop bag competition and I didn’t want to go home without it as my daughter would have been disappointed.  Just as I was leaving, Malcolm came round the corner to finish, and it was nice to share a bit of the buzz he felt finishing his first ultra.

Anna clearly delighted with her prize, a bottle of Murdo McEwan's Champion Ale
So it was a great race and I want to finish by saying a big thanks to John and everyone else involved in putting on the event - surely one of the UK’s best - and I hope anyone who injured themselves on Saturday is making a speedy recovery.