Just over a fortnight ago I ran the 53 mile Hoka Highland Fling for the third year in a row. The first year I ran it was my BSAG [big scary audacious goal], the longest race I’d ever ran, and I spent most of the first months of 2013 struggling to imagine HOW I was going to get my body to carry me 53 miles. In the end, I completed it in 13 hours and 6 minutes and that first 50+ mile finish revolutionised how I viewed myself in relation to ultra running and what I was capable of.
The second year I ran it as part of my preparations for the 72 mile Great Glen Way Ultra in July, along with the Cateran 55 mile race three weeks later. I ran with friends, enjoyed the day out, and finished slower but stronger in 13 hours 20 minutes.
In 2015, my participation was also part of a larger plan which concludes with the 95 mile West Highland Way Race. I didn’t set out intending to set a personal best; I wanted a comfortable run where I could finish knowing I could continue on if I had to, and if that meant I finished quicker than in previous years then that would be merely a bonus.
So, when I crossed the line after that ‘comfortable’ run in 11 hours and 44 minutes, I found myself quite astonished. What had I done differently which allowed me to slice off 1 hour and 19 minutes off my previous best time? Was it changes in my training? My mental outlook? My race strategy? Over the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about this a lot and there definitely have been some changes which have contributed. Executing a great race is rarely just about the running, so here are my thoughts and reflections on a performance which I consider to be my strongest to date.
I keep an online diary of my runs on Fetcheveryone.com, which allows me to easily compare what I have been doing year-to-year. At first I thought that perhaps one of the reasons I felt so strong throughout the race was actually due to running LESS. This is hard to judge however, and numerically not strictly true. I may have started training a couple of weeks later this year after a relatively easy January, but prior to the Fling in both 2013 and 2014 I had an enforced period of rest which meant I turned up at the race with fresh legs – in 2013 I was resting a knee niggle and in 2014 I’d been on a desert island enjoying my honeymoon!
What I suspect is the case however, is whilst I may be running more or less the same mileage totals, I am running smarter miles. Instead of repeating 2013 and 2014 where I spent my week day lunchtimes bashing out 8 miles a day week after week, my week day sessions are now targeted and purposeful. I’m not running just for the sake of running to build up big miles. Each day is either a hill day, a speed day, a long run day, or a recovery-pace day.
However, I’m inclined to believe that I needed those two years of consistent high effort and mileage week-in, week-out to get my body in the place it is now. It was also the only way I could fit my running around my lifestyle at the time, so in hindsight I would not change a thing. 2013 and 2014 were base building years, 2015 onwards is all about using that base to refine my strengths and build a better, more efficient runner.
I’ve always been a fan of cross training. It feels good to get away from running and do something different, but this year my cross training has been more consistent and more useful. Since January I have been taking a Power Yoga class on a Monday night which has really helped strengthen my core and my stability. This with regular attendance at Body Pump (I can’t lie – I haven’t been every week, more like an average of every fortnight) has really helped get the rest of my body in an improved condition. I really enjoy the Body Pump weights classes as they work muscle groups in the legs which really help when climbing hills, and I’m pushed further than I would go if I was by myself in the gym. Last year I did a weekly circuit training class and no yoga; so I’m confident to assert that my cross training this year has improved my running.
My feet issues have been well-documented here. I tend to describe my foot problems as my kryptonite; it’s the one area which is guaranteed to affect all of my racing in 26.2 miles and over, and the one issue I just can’t seem to crack. Until now…?
Well not quite, but I think I’m getting there. I’ve spoken already this year about how I bought a pair of Hoka One One shoes in America in the hope that they would be the answer to my feet pain, and whilst they haven’t solved it, they have definitely fixed about 75% of it. The pain I have is in the balls of my feet and base of my big toe – basically the joint area. After about 5 hours it starts to really hurt, more on the right than the left, and it usually has me feeling like someone has hit the joint/bone of my big toe with a hammer. The thick soles of the Hokas really help with absorbing impact which in turn seems to have put a lid on how bad the pain gets. It was still definitely there at the Fling, but not to the extent that it affected my race. WIN!
Unfortunately wearing the massive shoes does make me look a bit like Koko the clown and leaves me subject to abuse from my WHW support runner/minimal footwear enthusiast, Mike, but no-one ever said ultra running was easy.
The other massive win at the Fling was my lack of blisters. Inside my Injinji socks my feet were coated in Sudocreme and preventative Savlon blister plasters were applied to my usual hot-spots, and that just seemed to work. I was worried that the Hoka toe box would be too narrow for the latter stages of the race (especially the WHW Race) but I think they are going to be ok. Snug, but ok. This was actually the first time I used Sudocreme on my feet under my socks – prior to this it had always…squicked me out a bit, for want of a better phrase. However so many people swear by it that it was worth a go, and I guess it worked. I put it all over the soles of my feet and between my toes before putting my socks on. It’s still gross though, but you forget about it after a few minutes.
I’m not going to go into great detail about this as what I eat is my own business, and for those who are looking for advice there are plenty people out there willing to offer it. It’s worth mentioning though as at the start of the year I did carefully watch what I was eating and enjoyed using MyFitnessPal to track it and record my progress. In February I was about 10lbs heavier than I had been at the same time in 2014, and I had hoped to get a little closer to that on the scale. I lost about 4lbs in the first fortnight and then didn’t shift another pound. The lack of ‘progress’ niggled at me and before I knew it I was consciously altering my consumption to constantly finish below my calorie ‘goal’ for the day in the hope of losing some more. These apps are really dangerously enabling sometimes. I don’t consider myself to have or have ever had an eating disorder, but before I knew it my thought patterns were being enabled into a new direction for me by this phone application telling me I’d eaten too much or that I hadn’t lost anything in a month. What I couldn’t tell it was that my measurements were going down but my muscle mass was increasing. I tried shouting at it when it flashed me a red message saying I was over my calorie goal for the day, and told it it wasn’t my real Mum and that I’d run 28 miles the day before. But it didn’t care. Use these tools wisely… they are not designed to support ultra endurance athletes!
It really helped that I now feel like I know the first half of the West Highland Way very well. Through multiple Fling finishes, West Highland Way race sweeping and training weekends, there are now no surprises. Knowing what’s ahead really helped me gauge my efforts and mentally tick off parts of the course. This really, really helped me, so it’s definitely worth considering recces for future events if possible.
I mentioned in my report that my Garmin wasn’t working. What actually happened was that my old Forerunner 305 battery is all but dead, so I bought a new Forerunner 220 recently. The battery life on it is only 8 hours, but I thought I could run it off a portable charger like I can with the 305. Turns out I can’t, so, I had intended to turn on both Garmins at the start and wear my 220 on my wrist for the first 20 miles to make sure I wasn’t running too fast, and keep the 305 in a pocket. At Balmaha I would plug in the portable charger to the 305 in my pocket and it would record the rest of the route so I could analyse the splits later. What I hadn’t counted on was the 305 running out of battery after only 9 miles and dying without me noticing. So at Balmaha I had a dead Garmin and a charger taking up space and weight in my pack, and no way to examine my run later.
Anyway, I think that not having the pressure of a ticking race clock on my wrist really helped. Tying in with course knowledge above, knowing that it would take me 1hr 45 from Balmaha to Rowardennan really helped as well as thinking about it in terms of time rather than miles. I don’t know why that worked, but it just did. I will definitely just be wearing the Garmin 220 in ‘wristwatch mode’ for the West Highland Way race.
As previously mentioned in my report, I really didn’t eat very much which is pretty weird for me. I don’t think this necessarily aided my race, but being prepared for it did. Knowing what works for your body under different circumstances (heat, faster running etc) is really valuable information to have. This will really help inform my West Highland Way race strategy, although the two races will be so different they are really impossible to compare.
So what can I conclude from this? To be honest I don’t think it’s anything revolutionary, as looking over my points here I’ve read them in countless other running guides from people who know far more than I do. Figuring all this out for myself is useful though, and underpins the knowledge of others through my own experience which makes me far more inclined to believe it.
So here’s the TL;DR version:
- Target your training and don’t run junk miles for the sake of it
- Cross training is really important, especially weight training
- Getting problem areas (like feet) sorted before race day is essential
- Know your enemy – familiarise yourself with the course as much as possible
Despite this not being new information, figuring all this out for myself through experience has been the most valuable lesson. If someone is reading this looking for answers on how to improve their ultra performances, I hope that their takeaway lesson is that hard work is the only way. Like most things to do with ultra running, you can’t do it, finish it, or achieve it quickly…patience, and a willingness to put the work in, is the only answer.