Monday, 20 December 2010

2010 was fun

Now I've run my last race for the year, I thought I'd quickly sum up some of the highlights.

Last weekend I was meant to run the PCTR Rodeo Beach 50k, but about halfway through (when walking up yet another hill), I realised that my legs just weren't trained well enough for the hills and finishing would have just left me a bit crippled during the week. So I stopped at 30k having got some good flat and downhill practice in and having realised that zero hill training outside of races is a bad idea and will be remedied.

So, what were the best bits of 2010 (I'm going to exclude my wedding and stick to races or the list would be too long, too personal and even less interesting for anyone except myself)?

Well, it was basically a successful year. The main target was to break 6h at Comrades, and 6h01m may seem like a failure, but I ran near to a perfect race on the day and am very happy with how I kept shifting to a higher gear to finish strongly. I want to keep a streak going there for as long as possible since I love it, so it's a shame it takes about 40 hours to get to.

My next biggest highlight would be the number of really enjoyable runs I had, with several great events that felt easy and had me smiling the whole way through (not even a hint of a grimace). In particular, Two Oceans, Boston and Miwok spring to mind.

One thing I didn't expect on moving to the Bay Area was to find a gem of a race series in the Pacific Coast Trail Runs. These always have a great atmosphere for beginners to elites, as well as showcasing some spectacular scenery. I've been able to meet the local running community through these runs and I definitely like it.

There are too many other races to mention, but Western States was the other main event for the year. It was both a great experience and slightly overhyped but there's no doubt that the battle at the front of the men's race was something which will go down in history. I'm really looking forward to running it in 2011, possibly even more than 2010, especially now I know what I'm letting myself in for.

I've got a lot of great memories from 2010 on the trails and roads so I hope 2011 can live up to it. Unless I get injured, it should. A few other recommendations for ultrarunners are below, since these produced moments which brought home what a cool sport ultrarunning is:

1. Do some kind of Fat/Mad/Bad Ass race in the New Year. There are loads around and are so relaxed and so a perfect way to start 2011.

2. Finishing up the Eiffel Tower made the Eco Trail de Paris really worth entering. I think there'll be plenty of Serpie vests at the 2011 version.

3. Run one of the South African major ultras at some point in your life. Two Oceans is prettier and has the bonus of a trip to beautiful Cape Town, but Comrades is the daddy. Bigger, harder, older and basically more epic. I'm so glad I got to do both this year, however, it's too far to fit them both in every year so I'll have to wait for another chance to run Two Oceans again. And when I do, I'll be really excited about it. There's something special about a country that venerates ultrarunning above shorter distances.

4. Do a triple marathon or other multi-day race since there's no better way to get an instant 'we're all in it together' atmosphere. In the UK, the VOTwo events are perfect (Jurassic Coast and Atlantic Coast come highly recommended). But the best one has to be the Transalpine 8-dayer (and so I'd love to try the Trans Rockies 6-dayer too) and I'm gutted to have missed it this year. Luckily for Californians, Tahoe has options with PCTR organising some new stuff (including a 2-dayer) as well as the classic Tahoe triple on the roads. Or there's the numerous Marathon des Sables-type events in deserts around the world. But in general, these are some of the best events around and don't need to break the bank (except the desert races).

5. Run in the Marin Headlands. There are so many races there and many are extremely competitive, especially Miwok 100k and TNF Endurance Challenge Championship 50-miler. PCTR has loads of runs there too, and these have the benefit of not requiring lotteries to enter (like Miwok) and not always being in December (like TNFEC). On a clear day, there's probably nowhere I'd rather do a training run and even in the rain, it's hard not to smile even on the umpteenth huge hill.

Merry Christmas and good luck in 2011 with whatever your running goals are.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Honolulu marathon

It may be tropical, but it's still Christmas.

The start line.

Fireworks go off at the gun.

Heading back and seeing all the runners heading out.

Just a quick update now I'm (unfortunately) back from Hawaii and a great few days of relaxation. The Honolulu marathon was fun, although the 5am start was a bit earlier than I'd have liked. But when you consider the heat, even in December, it certainly makes it easier to have the first 90 minutes in the dark. And sunrises in races are always one of the best features possible.

I arrived the day before and once I started looking at the course in a bit more detail, realised it's a huge race, often with over 30,000 entrants, making it one of the ten largest marathons in the world in most years. This year there were around 25,000 runners according to the local paper.

So with that many people and no seeding pens, it was a free-for-all at the start. I managed to get within about 100 feet of the start line and it reminded me of what big city marathons feel like for 99% of the runners - a huge scrum. Most race these days have seeding pens and make you prove your past times to stop people pretending to be a lot faster than they are, but not Honolulu. London, New York and other massive races have seemed much smaller than this did, because I got to start almost on the start line and among people who run off at speed.

So it was a different experience to be forced to walk a bit for the first quarter of a mile and to keep jumping on the kerb to pass people who were jogging slowly. It wasn't really hot, but it was humid, so I was sweating heavily even before the gun went off. However, I didn't mind the humidity or slow start since this was my equivalent to the standard 'long, slow run'. I don't really believe in that type of training run, so my version is a marathon at 85-90% of race pace. Slow enough to feel fairly easy, but fast enough that it has some training benefits specific to marathons and ultras other than just purely logging miles.

I'd originally planned to break the Guinness World Record for the fastest Santa (2h55m) since I set this a couple of years ago straight after running the Marathon des Sables and someone had beaten it the following year, both records set at the London marathon. But the Honolulu marathon organisers weren't willing to provide the minimal evidence requirements, so I binned that idea.

I still felt like the 2h55m time was about right, especially after a hard run the previous week at TNF 50k. So that's the speed I kept to over the first few miles, making sure I took photos whenever anything looked photo-worthy. Just after mile four, the course went past our hotel and I gave Amy a kiss when I spotted her in the crowd (spectating at 5:30am on her holiday :)). Then I jogged off and just enjoyed the sights along Waikiki Beach and the Diamond Head crater.

The elite guys and girls were chasing a $40,000 first prize and were professionals, including the fastest marathoner of the year (Patrick Macau who ran a 2h04m at Rotterdam) who was acting as the rabbit for several fellow Kenyans with PBs well below 2h10m. Behind them, the field was spread out thinly and the masses were well back, further than usual for a road marathon. I'm guessing this is partly due to the conditions and partly because this is an obvious choice for those wanting to take it a bit easier and enjoy their vacation instead of feeling wrecked for the week after the race.

After about ten miles I could only see a handful of people ahead or behind, which I hadn't expected. I hit halfway in 1h26m as the horizon just started to light up, and considered that to be fine given the rising temperatures would make the second half harder, no matter how slowly I ran.

Around 14 miles I saw a group of Kenyans coming back the other way on the return leg. Behind them, I saw very few people until I hit the turnaround at 16-17 miles. By now the sun had just come up and it was undoubtedly pretty. The course isn't as beautiful as I'd hoped due to lots of roads with little view except the mountains in the background. Sections are very scenic, especially around Diamond Head, but the main entertainment for the second half was seeing all the runners coming in the other direction. I usually like this as it gives a better sense of the scale of the race and everybody gets to cheer for everyone else.

The last miles felt fine and I cruised down the finish straight feeling like I could have kept going a lot longer. I finished in 2h53m01s and my legs felt better over the next few days than at any long race since around May, which I take to be an encouraging sign. I almost caused a crash at the finish since I stopped a foot from the end to take a photo of the clock, but didn't realise there was a wheelchair athlete bearing down on me. I had to jump out his way, as can be seen in the last couple of seconds of this video:

You can just see the wheelchair guy who swerved round me - sorry!

I'd say the conditions, especially the humidity, but also the headwind until the turnaround, add about ten minutes to the time, so I feel like I probably ran a 2h45m effort, which is a harder run than I'd planned. The winner ran 2h15m and only two other guys (both Kenyans) broke 2h20m. Somehow I was 32nd overall, while that sort of time in a similar-sized race would normally be lucky to be near the top 500. So that was a pleasant surprise. And in true Hawaii (i.e. IronMan) fashion, the results were split into elites and 5-year age groups. I came 2nd in my age group of 30-34, which just goes to show how age groups make no sense, especially when they apply to the under 40s.

I enjoyed the race, but enjoyed the whole trip more. The race was generally well organised, but the main improvement would be to have some sort of seeding to avoid the walker/joggers from getting trampled on the start line. Not sure I'd do it again, but I will do another race in Hawaii one day. Maybe even the IronMan, if I can ever be motivated to train for two other sports.

The biggest racing memories I'll have from the trip will be the sunrise runs along Waikiki Beach and the fact that I found out I was lucky in both the Way Too Cool and Miwok lotteries, so I get the opportunity to enjoy both of those in 2011.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

North Face Challenge Final 50k - San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge on the drive to the race the night before.

Yesterday was a fun race and certainly lived up to its billing as the most competitive trail 50 miler around (possibly ever?). I only saw it from the perspective of the 50k, which meant I had an extra two hours in bed and got to see all the leaders come in. I'd hoped to really focus on this race and run the main event, but training over the last few months has involved being overtrained and not spending much time at all on trails, so dropping down to the 50k was the only sensible option. Not ideal to miss such an enjoyable and exciting challenge, but there's always next year.

Great races all around with full 50-mile results here: and 50k results here: There was also a marathon and the following day had several shorter races, making for a huge event.

I won't go through the full details of the longer race, but it was wet and muddy with around 10,000-11,000ft of climb over the Marin Headlands and with almost the first two hours in the pre-dawn darkness. Not too cold, but some wind, especially on the higher points. It was won impressively by Miguel Heras of Spain in 6h47m for the men and Anna Frost of New Zealand in 7h45m for the ladies. So many top runners turned up and a whole load of other great racers were entered but had to DNS. irunfar covered the race with plenty of interviews and analysis at

Anyway, I can describe the 50k better, given that's what I ran. It covered most of the same course, starting at 7am, just after sunrise. I've seen most of the course before in recent races (Miwok 100k, Headlands 50 miler and the Stinson Beach 50k...and that's just races I've run, never mind all the others around there which I've had to put on my 'to do' list instead). The number of races is a good indication of how perfect those trails are for runners and the photos below show some views when it's not overcast or muddy (afraid I didn't take my camera for this one).

The trails actually started with a mile on the road so everyone charged off at a fast pace. Then it went straight uphill for the first climb (see the profile below). I led until a couple of minutes into this hill, determined to run this whole race hard, as a substitute for the 50 miler, but I was forced to walk/jog up the hill due to a lack of hill training recently and heavy legs so the leaders were out of sight when I started going downhill on the other side. They all looked like strong climbers so I realised that if I was going to have any chance, I'd have to make up for my weak-feeling legs and poor climbing by hammering the downhills and going hard on the flats too. But at least my legs were well-trained for those types of running, so I considered that there was a chance I could stay in touch with them. Although I aimed to use the tactics that led to the adage that trail races are 'won on the uphills and lost on the downhills', it seemed possible...hopefully.

At the start of the day, I'd thought that breaking four hours would be possible if my legs hadn't lost too much of the climbing training from the build-up to Western States. But with the time I was bound to lose from power-walking so much, I now had no idea what to aim for and could only focus on the man in front.

The climbs through to the Muir Beach checkpoint at 8.2 miles were relatively small so I managed to catch up to second on a particularly muddy descent since he didn't seem to have trail shoes on. Then I came through the aid station just behind first and had a couple of miles of chatting with him on a flatter section. His name was Paul Terranova and he'd flown in from Texas so even the 50k was drawing in competitors from all over.

Then we reached the bottom of the biggest climb, a 1,500ft ascent to Pantoll then to Bootjack aid station at 14.0 miles. I told him to overtake me as I'd be climbing slowly, and he gradually pulled ahead until he went out of sight again. By the time I got to the aid station he was two minutes ahead, so I hoped that I'd at least get within view on the slightly more technical trails down to the Old Inn aid station at 19.1 miles (actually 20.1 miles on the Garmin, which tends to underestimate by about 1-5% on these types of trails). Luckily, I was able to catch him almost immediately, finding myself really enjoying jumping over the rocks and roots through the forest. This is always the best part of trail racing for me, not just because it's the fastest, but because galloping over rocks and roots is pure fun.

I could tell that the rest of the race was likely to be a game of leap-frog with Paul going ahead on the climbs and me catching up on the downhills. And that's how it was for the next few miles. However, he looked so strong on each climb that he wasn't visible almost immediately after he'd pass me. So I had to stick to the aim of racing each downhill like I was in a much shorter race. But with two thirds of the race completed, it seemed to be working and my legs weren't feeling bad from the extra pounding from the higher effort level. Looking back, it's amusing how I went from feeling completely confident in winning when I reached the bottom of a hill to having no hope again when I got passed much quicker than I expected on the next ascent.

One thing I had heard about this race series is that the course markings are not always the best and many fast runners had had their races derailed by getting lost. So far I'd not had a problem but there had been occasional turns where it had been ambiguous, so I had to keep my focus and concentrate at each junction to not miss anything.

After the longest flat section of the race to get back to Muir Beach, I couldn't see Paul behind and knew I'd be going back up the really slippery, muddy hill which had been difficult enough to run down originally. Even if I'd felt able to run uphill, it was like walking on banana skins so I was crawling up. But I don't see how anyone else would go much faster unless they'd opted for really spiky trail shoes.

There were just two big climbs left to the finish, a 900ft one up then down to Tennessee Valley, followed by a 600ft one up to the final checkpoint. Both of these were slow powerwalks with little running, but it was a surprise to not be overtaken on either. I still focused on running the downhills as fast as I could and was happy to be able to maintain around my 5k pace without it feeling bad (however, that's not the case a day later...). From the last aid station I remembered that it was only 2.7 miles to the finish, all of it downhill then a flat last mile. So it looked like this 50k course would be a bit over a mile long on the Garmin, meaning maybe a little more than that due to it's typical error from experience.

The day was still overcast but it wasn't raining at this point and the trail was wider and very easy to run down. I was looking forward to finishing and to having had a successful day, but there was a final twist to come. After over two miles from the final aid station I could see the road which the race had started on, but the route back to it had a sign blocking the way with a large 'X' and stating 'Wrong Way'. So I didn't turn back on towards the road and kept going on the same route as before, looking out for the route to the finish line.

The trail split into two with course markings for every one of the race distances, but with pink arrows showing 'Marathon Loop 1' and 'Marathon Loop 2' as my only options. Neither of these sounded like a finish line but Loop 2 was perhaps the marathon route to the finish and it just hadn't been marked properly (I'd expected more ambiguity so this didn't definitely mean it wasn't the right way). But the trail then started winding uphill and each corner just revealed more trail heading upwards. Eventually I decided that I must have missed the proper turning and started running back. I should have finished ages before this so thought I must have lost first place and wasn't in a good mood. From higher up I saw the Loop 1-2 split and saw Paul choose Loop 2 as well, then I saw a race official sprinting after him so knew that I was around a quarter of a mile behind him and that it was unlikely I'd catch him.

He turned at the 'Wrong Turn' sign, so must have been told to ignore it by the race official and I followed, very glad I'd doubled back on myself. But I was exhausted and frustrated to have probably lost at the the due to bad trail marking. Since the 50k was likely to be the first race of the day to finish, we were the only two to get past this point before a race official made sure everyone else was directed correctly. Would have been a real shame if the 50-mile leaders (who came though not long after) had faced this issue as the major prize money ($10,000 for first) should not be decided by mistakes which aren't the fault of the runners.

Using the magic of the information on my Garmin, I saw that I'd run an extra 2.7 miles due to missing this turn and estimate that Paul probably went a quarter of a mile down the wrong route to add half a mile to his distance. So we hit the road with both of us looking fatigued and he now only had a 50m lead. After putting so much energy in I wasn't going to give up without a fight, but I'd been mentally drained by the thought of losing my lead and having much more running left than expected. I really hoped he didn't have a strong sprint left and I caught him relatively quickly, expecting him to react and try to drop me.

That last half mile was very hard since I went all out but had nothing left in the fuel tank for a sprint. When I turned the last corner and saw the finish line I barely had any adrenaline left to become elated, but I knew I'd just managed to hold on to the lead. 4h48m was way slower than I'd hoped for and the erroneous course marking took the sheen off the day to some extent, but only slightly. However, it didn't change the positions at all, just making the gaps between runners much, much smaller, so no harm was done.

Soon after Paul and I finished, Miguel Heras came through for the 50-mile win and I was surprised since I didn't recognise him (although I had heard the name). I don't think I was the only one, given that anyone who's an unknown quantity (i.e hasn't raced anything major in the US before) tends to be off most people's radar. Both he and fellow Spaniard Kilian Journet (his training buddy and Salomon team-mate, I believe) prove that having a beard and long hair isn't essential for ultra trail success. That's lucky for me since I couldn't grow a decent beard even if I wanted to (and my wife might divorce me if I did, anyway).

It was fun to get to watch the results of the main event unfold and the post-event celebrations were well-organised with a strong sense of occasion and plenty of food and drink. I enjoyed talking to loads of runners, many of whom I'd heard of but not met before. Plus there were several of my new PCTR team-mates in the 50-miler, so it was a great opportunity to meet them too. They all had strong runs too, so were generally happy with how it had unfolded, even if their positions were lower than in an average race due to the ridiculously fast field.

I can't wait until next year to do the main event and there is undoubtedly a great buzz surrounding it. Plus it's good that it's only two weeks to go until I get another opportunity to run around these great trails again, at the PCTR Rodeo Beach 50k. Am looking forward to seeing plenty of friendly faces there and maybe some sunnier skies.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Build up to the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50 miler

Having not written anything for a while, I thought I'd post given all the excitement over this weekend's big 50 mile race north of San Francisco in the Marin Headlands. There are so many races around those hills so it's certainly a good, tough course. It'll be a crazy race with so many really quick guys there from all over the world, even with many big names dropping out. Excellent coverage is at irunfar, profiling the men's and women's races and updating all the time for any drop outs.

I'd really been looking forward to it as it's always more fun to race the best guys than have a weaker field and there aren't many ultras around the world that can guarantee really great, deep fields. To my mind it's only Western States, UTMB and this race for trail runs, although there's a second tier of races with plenty of fast guys.

Unfortunately, I've decided to wimp out and drop down to the 50k. A combination of the overtraining since July (I definitely shouldn't have raced that half marathon 2 weeks after WS), not getting out on the trails except at occasional races plus me still feeling worn down now made me think that I'd end up crawling through the 50 miles. Such a comparison to May when I felt fine doing stuff like the Miwok 100k, while the last few 50ks I've run have left me with sore calves and limping around for a few days, even though I tried to run them steadily and felt like I was holding back a bit.

Hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised in the 50k and have a bit of energy to get round in a reasonable time. But I'm also fully focusing on Comrades, which is only six months away, so I need my road speed to improve. That's meant that I'm doing 2-3 hard speed sessions a week, but I've never really done much speed work and endurance has always been my strength instead, with my 10k and half marathon speeds being barely quicker than my marathon pace (compare a 35:18 10k to 36:10 per 10k in my best marathon).

I've run hard 5ks on the treadmill and a couple of 10k races recently, but I'm still a long way off where I need to be - 16:19 for 5k and a 34:38 10k, both of which left me feeling near a heart attack. I think I've been making the mistake of doing these speed sessions too hard, which is partly due to many of them being on treadmills and me being stubborn. So when I set myself a goal I generally manage to stop myself hitting the controls to slow it down, which turns me into a hyperventilating, noisy runner and I virtually fall off the treadmill. It's not fun, but I kept telling myself no pain, no gain.

Now I see the error in that - I've heard from all sources that you should feel like you can do one more rep at the end of a speed session, so when I can barely stand up at the end, it's just making it impossible to recover quickly enough for the next hard session (even the recovery jog feels hard). I'm going to try to fix it and still have just over six weeks until the Phoenix marathon, which needs to be quick. Then lots of miles, lots of hills and lots of 90% race efforts until Comrades.

The next six months should be great with some fantastic runs coming up. In particular, I'll be doing and/or helping out at most of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs, which now have a huge number of races in their calendar. And I have the honour of joining their inaugral race team, too, which should be fun and be a great chance to get more involved with the local running community.