Wednesday, 20 April 2016

3 Ultras, 3 Weekends

Pre-Boston Red Sox game with Clif Bar

Saturday before the marathon includes mile races looped around the finish line. This was the pro women.

It’s Saturday night in Boston, right before Marathon Monday, and I’m sat at a sushi restaurant with Brian Beckstead and Kyle Petrieri. Brian’s at his fourth Boston and has told me he’s running the Boston double, starting early on marathon day to run the course in reverse then run the race as normal. He’s done this every time he’s run Boston. He also co-founded my shoe sponsor, Altra, so he really walks the walk of a passionate ultra runner.

Despite running ultras the previous two weekends and wanting to run a hard, fast marathon, I can’t think of a good reason not to run the double with him. It’s my fifth Boston and it sounds like an interesting opportunity that will make this year stand out from the other Bostons I’ve run.

Fast forward 36 hours and my alarm goes off at 5am on Monday then I remember what I’ve agreed to do and I’m tempted to roll over and get some more sleep, a typical race morning feeling. Yet when I meet up at 5:30am with the five other runners who decided this was a great plan I feel more of a buzz than ever before about seeing the entire Boston course twice.

Those other intrepid (ultra) runners are Nicole Kalogeropoulos (Rocky Raccoon 100 record holder and three-time champ), New Yorkers Stephen England and Keila Merino plus Utah’s Alison Memmott. So we take the obligatory selfie at the Boston finish line in the dark then start running. It takes until the first turn (less than half a mile) before we’re off course, but we soon get back on it and follow the rows of barricades as a guide for the course route.

5:30am at the Boston Marathon finish before starting the double

As the sun rises I find myself running with Nicole, a little ahead of the others. The first few miles are mainly uphill, running Heartbreak Hill in reverse (which makes it harder and longer). Two minor missed turns later and we’re enjoying ourselves but have added on some extra distance and are somehow behind the other guys. Then we catch back up around the half way mark and start seeing more and more people out for the race. At first it’s a few cops then it’s volunteers setting up the aid stations every mile or so. Already tipsy students cheer us at a couple of places, some confused into thinking we’re in the official race at that point, despite no other runners being around, a slow pace and running the wrong direction.

As we approach the final miles a cavalcade of police motorbikes goes by, each representing a different police force in the local area, totaling maybe 20 in formation. Then we see a few military men and women running in full combat fatigues and boots with race numbers. They’re spread out over several miles and it seems there’s some kind of early military start. In the final uphill miles to the start (it’s a big uphill in that direction, meaning a big downhill the other way that gets lost in the adrenaline and huge crowds of runners trying to overtake each other) we see the other early start races. First the wheelchair racers fly by on a downhill, maybe going at 20-30 miles/hour. Next the hand bikes at almost the same speed on a lesser descent. Disabled runners, some with prosthetic limbs and guides, come next and the crowds cheer them on enthusiatically, as we do. These other races are something I see little of in a straight forward run at Boston.

Then the final early start is for the elite women, which we witness about half a mile from the start line, running closely in a pack of around 40. Already this is the most memorable marathon I’ve ever run and I’ve technically not even begun yet. Nicole tells me that she might just come next year to run this reverse Boston and not even bother with the standard marathon too. I know just what she means…although I don’t think I could fly over and not fit in the official event too.

Finally we arrive at the official start from the wrong direction and security guards wave a metal detecting wand over us before letting us pass with an orange wrist band. Security is much tighter since the 2013 bombings, as you’d fully expect. We pose for another group photo and split up into our respective corrals, some starting in later waves. Now I’m back to my usual Boston morning experience, except my legs are a little tired after around four hours of running. Within seconds I see the bunch of ultra runners in corral one, mainly from the Bay Area. It includes Jorge Maravilla with the goal of (soon) running a sub-2:19 marathon to qualify for the Olympics for El Salvador (how amazing would that be!?), Alex Varner, Scott Dunlap and a whole host of SF Running Company guys.

Arrival at the hot start of the Boston Marathon, around 27.5 miles into the run

A few minutes later and the US national anthem is sung, then we’re off. Things are a fair bit faster than the casual run to the start but I’m pleasantly surprised to feel good cruising around a 6:15/mile pace. As always the race has fantastic support and amazing volunteers. If you’ve never run Boston then it’s well worth working towards qualifying for it, even if you’re a die-hard trail runner. After all, all the people mentioned above are mainly trail runners, as am I.

Overall it was an extremely memorable and unique experience which I’ll definitely replicate again in the future. I paced things fairly evenly, losing a little time in the Newton Hills between miles 16 and 21 for a 2:49:42 marathon (here's the Strava data). I was mindful about Scott Jurek’s words at a Clif Bar event the day before about the importance of enjoying the race experience at Boston and taking it all in. So I kept things more relaxed, high fived the crowd a lot and just plain had fun.

Surprisingly I felt fine afterwards and less sore and wobbly than after American River 50 two weeks earlier or even Gorge Waterfalls 50k nine days earlier. My intention before these races was to use them to boost my endurance and really kick start the three month build up to Western States. It looks like it worked perfectly as I’m stronger now plus I’ve had a great time at three classic races so far in April. Two shorter races remain ahead - the Bend Half Marathon this Sunday then Bloomsday 12k the following Sunday. No need to double these distances up and a healthy dose of speed is just what my legs need.

Gorge Waterfalls 50k in Oregon, one of the most beautiful ultras in the world. Photo: Ryan Kaiser.

Congratulations to all the runners over these past three races and I can only imagine the variety of life changing experiences people have had at each. One last thing to mention is that American River was the culmination of the second season of ‘Becoming Ultra’ so I know that two runners in particular had profound days. Krystalore Stegner was coached by Liza Howard in the project to complete her first ultra as well as scoring a Boston qualifier in a build up marathon. Then my client was Janet Patkowa and she went from very little running and a half marathon or two under her belt to back-to-back long run weekends and an epic 12 hours out on the trails to complete her first ultra. Thanks so much to the two girls who put in all the hard work and shared their story publicly, as well as to Liza and the master-mind behind the project, Athlete On Fire’s Scott Jones. The podcasts are available from the whole season, plus a short video will come out soon covering the project. Season Three starts soon and we’ll be searching for candidates in the very near future.
Krystalore finishing American River 50 and showing why she won the Spirit Award for the race.

Janet and Krystalore at the start of their first ultra, pre-dawn

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Rocky Raccoon 100 2016 - The Best Way To Spend Super Bowl Weekend

Photo: Jason Bryant

At mile 20 I felt like running was the easiest thing ever and maybe the course record would go down. Five miles later I realized this wouldn’t happen since my legs were already sore, even though my heart rate and effort were low. And so it goes with 100 milers - big highs and crappy lows.

Rocky Raccoon is known for being a flat and fast trail 100 miler, but the normal course still has 5,500ft of vertical gain and lots of roots to trip up unwary or tired legs. This year there was construction work on the dam and that altered the course to include more jeep roads, more climbing (somewhere around 1,500ft per 20-mile loop or 7,500ft in total) and a little more distance (around 0.3 miles/loop or 1.5 miles in total). So there are definitely faster trail 100s out there, but none that have attracted the same level of talent as this Huntsville, Texas, race (Eric Clifton, Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek…just on the men’s side).

I’ve had good and bad years at RR100, which were predictable in hindsight. A DNF for my first ever 100 miler (right after an injury and almost zero running for two months), a course record (I was in great marathon shape), another DNF (too focused on going for the record even with really muddy, stormy conditions), then three more runs in the mid-to-high 13hr range with two of them as wins and a second place.

This one ranks on the predictably imperfect end of the scale. I entered it 12 days pre-race on a whim, after fully planning on focusing on a marathon instead. In the five months pre-race I had one long hike and a handful of long runs, all but one under three hours. However, I was in good shape and had some quality speed work in the past couple of months. So that resulted in 20 miles feeling very easy then the lack of endurance rearing its painful head soon after. After two loops I felt like I’d run four and was hanging on for dear life. Luckily I’ve leant a few things from previous 100s about how to manage things when the original plan is derailed, so I settled into grinding mode and acknowledged that every bad patch (of which there were many more than there should have been) would only last a few miles.

Photo: Jason Bryant

So lesson learnt, only enter short races at the last moment and respect the 100 mile distance. However, the upside of a tough run is it’s that much sweeter afterwards to know that there were many opportunities to quit and I didn’t take them. Some of the most satisfying races of my life have been the harder days where it didn’t go perfectly. In contrast, the course record year at RR100 in 2011 was anti-climactic since it felt ridiculously easy (hence why I don’t slow down). I’ll keep striving to have another perfect day like that but realize that so many factors have to come together that it’s more about managing inevitable problems mid-race than expecting none to occur.

In terms of results, I held on for the win in 13:45:03, followed by Paul Terranova who repeated his USATF 100 mile Championship title win after being first American at RR100 last year too. Even more impressively, Sabrina Little ran in third all day (or with Paul for 25 miles) and finished in 14:55, the second fastest time ever at RR100 on a day that the course added a little time to her run. Mind you, the weather was absolutely perfect for fast times, never hot or humid.

In addition, two legends of ultra running ground out great finishes - Gordy Ainsleigh qualified for Western States 100 at the last chance he had (he automatically has an entry due to being the founder, but still needs a qualifying race); plus 71-year old Gunhild Swanson of the famous 2015 ‘seconds to spare’ WS100 finish was strong for a 28:22 finish.

Gunhild gets her buckle from RD Chris McWatters. Photo: Lynnor Matheney

Gordy after his successful finish. Photo: Lynnor Matheney

Congrats to everyone who ran and the loops and out-and-back sections mean that I saw all of them many times through the day to mutually support each other. Full results are here.

Gear (all worked perfectly and will be used in exactly the same way in my next ultra):

Nutrition - Clif Bar gels, Shot Bloks and Organic Energy Food pouches
Hydration/lights - UltrAspire Isometric pocket bottles and Lumen 600 waist light

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Top 10 Female Ultra Performances of All Time

Given there are plenty of annual lists at this time of year for best performances and runners, it got me thinking about the very best ultra performances of all time. Obviously it's impossible to have some perfect formula to compare every aspect of one performance to another, but I used my own experience from road, track and trail racing (as well as coaching elite women) to consider the most impressive female runs ever and have included the equivalent list for men here.

I factor in the level of competition on the day, the level of competition that's attempted the world or course record at any point in history, weather (where applicable, like at Western States where it can vary significantly) and knowledge of the tactics and skill used to get such a great performance. I was lucky enough to see some of these performances in person or at least meet most of the runners mentioned below.

I include only one performance per race, unless the race has more than one format or direction (like Comrades with its Up and Down runs or the clockwise/anti-clockwise directions at Hardrock 100).  Also, how well these records stand the test of time is important, so a very well-challenged record from longer ago is deemed to be especially impressive.

I also work off the assumption that if a runner hasn't been caught doping then their results are legitimate, since unfounded accusations are spiteful. Anyone who is a confirmed doper is not part of this list (that I'm aware of).

No photo available of Tomoe Abe - anyone got one?

1. Tomoe Abe, Japan - 100k World Record at Lake Saroma, Japan (6:33:11, 2000)

She set the fastest 100k time for women by a long margin (nobody else has broken 7hrs and Ann Trason is one of the closest with a 7:00:47 best). I've heard that this record was set with a tailwind, but it's still so far ahead of any of the other road or track marks set by women at any ultra distance that it really stands out. To give an idea of Abe's caliber, she won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1993 World Championships and her personal best time is 2:26:09. In addition, she ran a 2:28:01 in the same year as her 100k record and a 2:27:01 the following year so was very much at her peak at that point. This is equivalent to 5:16 for 50 miles (compared to the 5:40 world record by Ann Trason), or even quicker if she slowed towards the end of the 100k. Also, this record is surprisingly close to the men's record by Don Ritchie of 6:10:20 (number five on the top 10 all time ultra men's list).

Frith van der Merle. Photo:
2. Frith van der Merwe, South Africa - Comrades Down Run Course Record (5:54:43, 1989)

van der Merwe destroyed the Comrades down run record in 1989 and nobody's come very close since, with just two other women breaking 6hrs - Ann Trason with a 5:58:24 in 1997 and Tatyana Zhirkova with 5:58:50 in 2005. van der Merwe's average pace was 6:23/mile, working out as around 5:19:30 through 50 miles with hills. The down run is usually won in a time around 6:10:00 and the record looks safe for the moment.

However, the up run course record of 6:09:24 (Elena Nurgalieva, 2006) isn't quite as comparably fast and doesn't make the top 10 list. It's 15 mins off the down run record while the men's up run record is only four minutes slower than the down run record (see the top 10 all time ultra men's list).

Rory Bosio. Photo: Tim Kemple
3. Rory Bosio, USA - UTMB Course Record (22:37:26, 2013)

The top ranked trail performance is by Rory Bosio, who decimated the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc field two years in a row (2013 and 2014 wins), taking over two hours off the course record and finishing seventh overall in 22:37:26, well ahead of the female competition. On top of that she made it look easy, smiling and playing in the mountains throughout the race. This is arguably the most competitive trail ultra in the world and Rory was so dominant that this could easily have been number one in the list.

Ann Trason. Photo: Running Times
4. Ann Trason, USA - Grand Slam of Ultra Running Record (79:23:21, 1998)

No woman dominated ultra running like Ann Trason. 14 wins at Western States 100, including the former course record, plus wins at Comrades, the 100k World Cup and just about every major ultra you can think of in the 1990s. She also holds American and World Records at numerous distances, most of which still stand today. She generally raced the men since no women could keep up with her and the fact she has several spots in this top 10 reflects that her times are just as competitive today.

However, I judge the top-rated performance of her career as her Grand Slam of Ultra Running record, the combined time for the Western States 100, Vermont Trail 100, Leadville Trail 100 and Wasatch Front 100, all over one summer in a period of 10-11 weeks. The next best female time was nine hours back by Krissy Moehl! Ann was the female winner in each of those races, which wasn't unexpected for such a talented runner, but it speaks to her ability to not just perform well for a single target race but to manage so many other factors within ultra running to stay strong and fast through each of these races. If there was an award for the best female ultra runner of all time, it would be hard to argue against Ann as the clear winner, especially with her breadth of dominance.

Anna Frost. Photo:
5. Anna Frost, New Zealand - Transvulcania Course Record (8:10:41, 2014)

Anna's had numerous spectacular performances and is undoubtedly one of the best female mountain runners of all time. Her course record at the hyper competitive Transvulcania ultra on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is something that stands out. When Anna's on top form she's like a steam train uphill and most of the very fastest mountain women of the modern era have tackled this course and not come close to this time. Only Anna herself (8:11:31 in 2012) and Skyrunning star, Emelie Forsberg (8:13:22 in 2013), have come close to this performance.

Ellie Greenwood. Photo: irunfar
6. Ellie Greenwood, Great Britain/Canada - Western States 100 Course Record (16:47:19, 2012)

When someone breaks the record by a large margin at the oldest 100-mile trail race in the world and the former record was the result of 14 wins by Ann Trason, you know it's a special performance. Yes, the weather was very mild and that made it quicker, but it was 50 mins faster than Ann's best. It may take another colder year and a group of the quickest women ever in the world to break this record. Several of the other women in this list have tried, many on more than one occasion, but Ann and Ellie are the only women to break 18hrs.

Nicole Studer. Photo: Jason Bryant
7. Nicole Studer, USA - Rocky Raccoon 100 Record and Trail World Best (14:22:18, 2015)

The 100 mile record for trails has been less tested by the quickest women in history, but is still a very solid mark. Nicole took 35 mins off the course record at Rocky Raccoon 100 in a mind-blowing performance and took 20 mins off the existing world trail best from Tunnel Hill 100, a flatter course that's arguably easier. Nicole started fast and held on for an astounding win that doubled as the USATF National Championship and not far off the 100 mile record for any type of terrain, which stands at 13:47:41 by (you guessed it) Ann Trason, dating back to 1991.

8. Ann Trason, USA - Leadville Trail 100 Record (18:06:24, 1994)

Ann's Western States wins were clearly excellent, as were many of her road and track records, but her 1994 winning time at Leadville is far ahead of any other woman at that race. The high altitude course sits between 9,200ft and 12,600ft, with around 15,000ft of vertical gain and the same descent. It includes a lot of fast, flat running but that altitude slows it significantly and many fast women have raced it, with only a handful breaking 20hrs.

Stick with me for a minute here for some back of the cigarette packet calculations...Using my own rough comparison of the Western States 100 and Leadville Trail 100 courses (from running both numerous times) I'd estimate that the male course record times (14:46 for WS100 and 15:42 for LT100) are roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty, giving the nod to Matt Carpenter's LT100 as being marginally more impressive. So I think of them as having a one hour difference for that pace, meaning around 1:10 at Ann's pace, i.e. her 18:06 at LT100 is equivalent to a sub 17hr WS100. So, pretty damned quick, then.

9. Ann Trason, USA - American River 50 Record (6:09:08, 1993)

You could pick any number of Ann's records as being amongst the best runs in the world, but the only other one I choose for the top 10 is her American River 50 record from 1993 - a race that's been competitive since it's inception in 1980. That older course was quicker than the current course and involved about 50% bike path and 50% rolling trail, but this is a record that's been tested over the years, not least by Ann herself within her five wins. The only other woman under 6:30 is Ellie Greenwood, who's career mimics many of the elements and highlights of Ann's.

10. Anna Frost, New Zealand - The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 San Francisco Record (6:56:07, 2011)

Anna's second appearance in the top 10 is at the season-ending TNFEC50 in the Marin Headlands. The large prize purse and reputation of the race means it's always got a deep field and the aggressive running for the men's record by Zach Miller from 2015 was also spectacular, narrowly missing out on inclusion in the men's top 10. It's often muddy and the rolling hills add up to around 10,000ft of vertical gain, so sub-7hrs is extremely fast and involves beating the quickest women in the world on runnable, hilly trails. In comparison, the similarly difficult Lake Sonoma 50, which also attracts a stellar field and has 10,000ft of vert, has a female course record of 7:08:23 by Steph Howe, which narrowly missed a place in this top 10.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Top 10 Male Ultra Performances of All Time

Given there are plenty of annual lists at this time of year for best performances and runners, it got me thinking about the very best ultra performances of all time. Obviously it's impossible to have some perfect formula to compare every aspect of one performance to another, but I used my own experience from road, track and trail racing to consider the most impressive male runs ever and have done the same for female performances here.

I factor in the level of competition on the day, the level of competition that's attempted the world or course record at any point in history, weather (where applicable, like at Western States where it can vary significantly) and knowledge of the tactics and skill used to get such a great performance. I was lucky enough to see some of these performances in person or at least meet most of the runners mentioned below.

I include only one performance per race, unless the race has more than one format or direction (like Comrades with its Up and Down runs or the clockwise/anti-clockwise directions at Hardrock 100). Otherwise, many of the best performances would be at Comrades due to the depth of the field at the world's largest ultra both currently and for almost 100 years in the past and it would dominate the list. Also, how well these records stand the test of time is important, so a very well-challenged record (not all have faced much competition) from longer ago is deemed to be especially impressive.

I also work off the assumption that if a runner hasn't been caught doping then their results are legitimate, since unfounded accusations are spiteful. Anyone who is a confirmed doper is not part of this list (that I'm aware of, despite allegations against some of the runners below).

Numbers 1 and 2 are Leonid Shvetsov. Photo: Comrades Marathon
1. Leonid Shvetsov, Russia - Comrades Up Run Course Record 87kms (5:24:47, 2008)

Shvetsov has a marathon best of 2:09:16 from 1997 and is a two-time Olympic Marathoner for Russia. His Comrades wins in South Africa were back-to-back and I rate his up run record from Durban to Pietermaritzburg as the better of the two, especially since very few runners can win both directions. Despite it being marginally shorter than the down run (54 miles compared to 55.5 miles), it has around 6,000ft of ascent and 4,000ft of descent and is usually much slower than the down run. The women's records are 15 minutes apart compared to just four minutes difference for the men. This race has up to 20,000 runners and just getting in the top 10 in the up run requires a 50-mile split around 5:20 with all that uphill.

2. Leonid Shvetsov, Russia - Comrades Down Run Course Record 89kms (5:20:41, 2007)

The down run at Comrades is quicker with around 4,000ft of ascent and 6,000ft of descent and this course record required an average pace of 5:46/mile or 2:31 marathon pace for more than two marathons...with hills. This record had inched down over the years and Bruce Fordyce deserves a mention here for his nine wins at Comrades and for holding the record at both the up and the down - Shvetsov broke his 5:24:07 record from 1986! The back end of the top 10 at the down run requires running around 2:40-2:45 marathon pace for this distance, with hills, something that's just plain astounding in terms of the depth of the field.

Yiannis Kouros. Photo:
3. Yiannis Kouros, Greece - 24hr World Record at a track in Adelaide, Australia (188.63 miles, 1997)

Kouros is the Lionel Messi of running with a list of world and age group world records that goes on forever. He focuses on roads and track running and dominated even into his 50s. However, many of the areas he got records in are not tested by as deep a field of runners as the other performances in this list and his stand out performance is his 24hr world record, the race format where the top 11 times ever are all by Kouros and barely anyone can even reach 90% of his mark. He also has the record for the Spartathlon race in Greece, which nobody has come close to, but this top 10 list is based on the factors mentioned at the top of the page, and even that record is not as impressive as his 24hr record. If this was a top 100 ranking, Kouros would make up a lot of the places. However, trails weren't to is liking, as shown by his sole Western States 100 run in 1988 where he was 24th overall in 20:12:54.

Matt Carpenter. Photo: Marathon & Beyond Magazine
4. Matt Carpenter, USA - Leadville Trail 100 (15:42:59, 2005)

Of all the trail records, I think this one stands out as the most impressive. Despite minor changes to the course over time, nobody has come close to Carpenter's 2005 time, where he had a level of dedication and scientific focus that I've rarely seen or heard about in any sport. The Colorado course varies between 9,200ft and 12,600ft and that altitude slows most runners considerably, but Carpenter has an ability to run at altitude that may be the best ever seen within racing globally. Over the years a lot of top level ultra runners have tested his record but none have even broken 16hrs. To back up his credentials, his seemingly untouchable Pike's Peak Marathon record is testament to this too, another record that nobody has come close to.

Don Ritchie (right). Photo: RRC
5. Don Ritchie, Great Britain - 100k World Record at a track in London, UK (6:10:20, 1978)

Don holds numerous records, including the British 100 mile record (11:30:51 in 1977), which was the world record when he ran it. He's the only person to break 6 minute/miling in the 100k and his record is older than I am (just).

Kilian Jornet. Photo: Strava
6. Kilian Jornet, Spain - Hardrock 100 Clockwise Course Record (22:41:00, 2014)

Kilian's won nearly everything, set records everywhere and is the only real global megastar in the sport ever. However, many of his most impressive performances are at sub-ultra distances and I suspect he rarely goes to 100% effort in ultras, especially given how frequently he races and how easy he looks even at finish lines. Again, he'd probably have a lot of entries in the top 100 performances, but his astounding Hardrock 100 clockwise record in Colorado's San Juans shattered the previous best and led to another win and anti-clockwise record the following year. Most amazingly is that he didn't seem to go all-out for this record and could probably go a fair bit faster. Nobody is able to touch this performance this race even through the extremely tough lottery has yielded some of the best mountain 100-milers to have a try.

Rob Krar. Photo: Competitor Magazine
7. Rob Krar, USA - Western States 100 (14:48:59, 2015)

Rob is probably the best ultra runner currently competing at a high level not named Kilian and those two have only raced once, with Rob taking the win at the 2013 UROC 100k to Kilian's 4th. When he's in race mode he could probably run through a brick wall without noticing and this level of focus and toughness got him wins at California's Western States 100 in 2014 and 2015. He's the only man to break 15hrs twice and narrowly missed the course record by two minutes, despite temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the record-setting year of 2012 (by Timmy Olson). His tactics were perfectly executed on the day for one of the finest ultra races ever.

Xavier Thévenard. Photo:
8. Xavier Thévenard, France - UTMB Course Record For New Longer Course 170kms (21:09:15, 2015)

Even though the UTMB course around Mt Blanc has been getting slightly longer over the last few years and the level of competition is arguably the highest at any trail ultra globally, Thévenard repeated his previous victory and decimated the field with a tactically perfect race with a 48-minute margin of victory at the finish.

No photo available - anyone got a picture of Magawana?

9. Thompson Magawana, South Africa - Two Oceans Course Record 56kms and 50k World Record (3:03:44, 1988, with the 50k WR set as a split at 2:43:38)

Raced in Cape Town in South Africa, this is another long-standing record and included the 50k world record as well, even more impressive since the 50k mark is at the top of the largest climb in the race before a fast 6k to the finish. This record includes 2:18 marathon pace for an extra third of a marathon, with two significant hills, plus the 50k record is at 2:17 pace, suggesting that Magawama had to hammer that hill to break from his competitors then held on for the win in the easier final kms. The combination of speed and competitiveness in this event makes it the fastest ultra in the world, as well as the second biggest after Comrades.

Alastair J Wood. Photo:
10. Alastair J Wood, Great Britain - London to Brighton Course Record 54 miles (5:11:00, 1972)

The 'other AJW' was a Scot and a 2:13 marathoner who held the European Record for the marathon. London to Brighton was started in 1952 through the inspiration of Comrades champion, Arthur Newton, who moved to the UK from South Africa and wanted to recreate his home country's banner race with a similar distance, hilly, point-to-point course. Several winning times were very close to the 1972 record, including Bruce Fordyce in the third of his three wins in 1983 (5:12:32, which includes the official 50-mile road world record of 4:50:21). However, Wood's win suggests a split of 4:48 for 50 miles, which is around the same split as for Leonid Shvetsov in his Comrades down run record. This race was the first ultra I ever ran and it was also the final running of this classic event (2005), so it holds a special place in my heart and if you've never heard of it, have a read about it's insanely fast history here.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Heart Rate Monitor Tips

This is 100% not me.
Over the years I’ve owned a lot of GPS running watches and most of them had Heart Rate Monitors (“HRMs”). However, I’ve been very careful to make sure that these added to my training and didn’t have a negative impact. So I thought it would be helpful to list some of the ways a HRM can benefit running and things to avoid. 


- Heart Rate (“HR”) gives a neutral, comparable measure of effort that factors in internal (levels of fatigue/recovery, muscle damage etc) and external (weather, terrain, altitude, temperature etc) variations day-to-day. Pace changes a lot depending on all these factors and HR can be used to check that recovery runs are easy enough and harder sessions are tough enough.

- Estimates (ideally accurate calculations from lab testing) of maximum HR can help with using heart rate zones to keep to differing purposes on runs, in line with a structured and intelligent training plan.

- Analysis of data after races can highlight where mistakes were made, showing at what point a given HR for a given distance became unsustainable. Also, if a recent similar race had a higher average HR it can indicate that the effort level could have been greater. Often it takes some trial and error to work out where that red line is for different race distances.

Things to be careful about:

- Some athletes become too focused on the real-time feedback from an external sensor like a HRM (or GPS watch) and lose the ability to judge intensity, which is a key skill for all running, especially in ultras. Even if you find a way to perfectly work out what HR is sustainable and can adapt this exactly to any new race situation (unlikely, given that other factors also have an effect - see the next point), what happens if a HRM breaks or runs out of battery and you have no other way to judge your effort? A HRM is just one internal or external tool to incorporate and not the only one to rely on.

- HR only reflects cardio effort, which factors in many things, but not everything. For example, in a hilly race the effort required to run downhill may be low and the HR correspondingly low, but judgement of how much impact your legs can sustain is also important. What may seem sustainable from a HR perspective may lead to trashed legs later in the race from hammering the downhills.

- Most HRMs rely on a strap around the chest (see photo above), which often chafes, plus many models take several minutes of running and sweating to settle down after spiking the HR early on. This can be very mis-leading and is another reason to be very careful when using HR to adjust your pace, so it’s important to make sure effort can be judged independently of the HRM. One excellent way to get past this particular problem is to use a HRM attached in a different area of the body. In my experience this leads to a more accurate measurement, especially in the early minutes, and no chafing issues - I use a HRM within a cap made by LifeBeam (see below) which I’ve found very effective and the battery lasts for around 15-17 hours in my experience, so it’s suitable for most ultras for most runners. I once tried to use a HRM chest strap in a 100-miler and it took several months for the scars to heal!

My magic LifeBeam hat - HRM in the front.

- HR data during a race can be useful for feedback but override this with how you feel, based on your past experience. Using this data in a way that assumes it’s infallible can lead to poor races. For example, if you estimate that your sustainable HR for a marathon is 150 beats/minute, don’t look at the monitor every few seconds to continuously adjust your pace to keep it at this level. This continuous checking can elevate your stress and effort levels and stop you settling into a rhythm, although it can be more useful on a very hilly route to avoid spiking the HR on the climbs. Instead, check less frequently just to make sure that your internal assessment of effort is roughly (not exactly to the nearest beat/minute) in line with the external data from the HRM. This is equally valid for the frequency of checking pace via a GPS watch.

- Factor in that using a HRM with a GPS watch will reduce the battery life of the watch due to the bluetooth syncing. Up to marathon distance this is rarely an issue, but it can be essential for ultras where watch battery life is often tested to the limit. I’ve run with two watches before - one to sync with the HRM in my hat, but with no GPS data, and one purely for GPS. This much data at the fingertips can be a bit of a overload and I find it most useful for checking infrequently then analyzing later on on a computer to see what I can learn for future races.

Ultimately a HRM is just one tool to aid running and it can help if used in a smart and effective way. However, the factors above show that it can also lead to worse training and racing (and scars) if not used appropriately.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Leadville v3

Face-off: Sharman v Aish. Or we're about to kiss. Photo: Nicole Aish

After both crossings of Hope Pass I ran into Twin Lakes (mile 61.5) with my first pacer and fellow Brit, Ryan Smith. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

This was my third Leadville Trail 100, a race I first experienced as part of the Grand Slam in 2013. It's certainly not an easy race, but it is a runner's race, while I'd describe events like UTMB or Hardrock 100 as more like mountain-hiking races.

With 15,000ft of vertical gain (and the same loss) it has a lot of really flat sections that are quick, despite the fact the altitude varies between a low of 9,200ft at Twin Lakes and 12,600ft at the top of Hope Pass. There's something fun about mixing up easier running sections with steeper parts and this is also true of the appeal of a race like Western States 100 (18,000ft of gain, 22,000ft of loss), another event that really captures my imagination.

I knew that the main competition would come from former 10,000m and 5,000m Kiwi Olympian, Mike Aish, and I wasn't surprised to run the early miles in the dark with him around Turquoise Lake. The first half marathon to Mayqueen is basically flat and easy so we arrived close to course record pace in 1:42, but were 6 minutes behind Argentinian, Gustavo Reyes, who I've met a couple of times before and who tends to start fast.

Mike's tactics were clearly to 'man-mark' me so every time I hiked at any point up the first climb to Sugarloaf Pass, so did he, and we stuck together chatting away. The sunrise was beautiful and it felt like the perfect start to a race. I suspected we'd run together for most of the race, but at the second aid station at mile 24.5 I jumped in a toilet and he kept going so we got separated. He noticeably accelerated since Gustavo was now 12 mins ahead, while I sat back and keep things pretty relaxed in third. This was basically the theme through to the half-way at Winfield, but the difference was that we had the first ascent of Hope Pass just before the 50-mile turn-around, a 3,400ft climb followed by a sharp 2,400ft descent.

Gustavo and Mike slowed after the high point and I almost caught up to them both by the decent into Winfield, despite getting cramps in both calves for the first time ever in a race. Luckily it didn't seem to be too serious but I had to slow down and stretch both sides a couple of times too. My food and hydration were fine but I was concerned that I had a lot of miles left and cramps could end the race.

Heading up Hope Pass outbound. Photo: Leadville Race Series

On the return leg up Hope Pass I had my first pacer/mule, Ryan Smith, and caught Gustavo by about mile 52 then caught Mike just before the pass summit. I later found out he puked at the top and basically couldn't hold down any food for 4-5 hours, so his energy levels were plummeting. In contrast I was feeling really positive and hammered down the more gradual, but longer, side of the pass straight into the vast majority of the field who were on their first climb up Hope. I always love this section because the entire field is so positive and it's enjoyable to interact and pep them up too. In addition, it's a sweet downhill and is pretty fast.

At this stage I knew it was game on and also knew from the experience of racing Mike last year at Leadville that he's never down and out even if he looks completely spent. So I decided to push and see if I could gap him over the next 20-30 miles to such an extent that his phoenix-like come-backs wouldn't be enough. I was running faster (at altitude) on some of the easy sections than at Rocky Raccoon 100, a race that takes around four hours less time to complete. However, when in the lead you don't get updates regularly about how the chase pack is doing and those updates are always out of date, relying on splits to a previous aid station instead of how the chaser is currently doing. Altra team-mate, Josh Arthur, paced me through mile 61.5 to the final aid station and I hope my grunting, huffing and puffing wasn't too off-putting.

By Outward Bound inbound (mile 75.5) I heard I had a 23 minute lead at the last aid station, so it seemed like the effort was paying off. It needed to, since I was leaving very little in the tank for the final 20 miles. The steep climb up Powerline took me to around mile 82 and I was well ahead of my splits from the previous two years, but wanted to cruise it in since my legs were more fatigued than they usually would be at that stage. Luckily my stomach, head, cramping and energy levels all stayed reasonably OK, although by Mayqueen inbound (mile 86.5) I started to feel dizzy. My final pacer was Dana Kracaw, who lives in Leadville and knows the area and the mountains in extreme detail. I told her I probably couldn't talk much but that it would be a welcome distraction if she wanted to talk. So that section consisted of me sounding like I was giving birth while she told jokes and kept things more light-hearted.

At this stage I knew the race was mine to lose since I had a lead of at least an hour and Mike was dropping farther and farther back and still had stomach problems. He later dropped after Mayqueen and I missed the rivalry from the previous year, but was also happy to avoid the physical and mental stress of having him breathing down my neck.

As dusk fell the sunset looked incredible over the nearby 14er mountains, especially due to the small amount of smoke in the air from west coast fires. It got dark just as we hit the outskirts of Leadville with about a mile to go. That last section along 6th Street is deceptively long (around 3/4 mile) but you can see the finish from quite far away and it doesn't seem to get closer, especially since it's mainly uphill the whole way.

I wasn't running at maximum at this point since I wanted to finish and still be in one piece rather than shaving off a few minutes in the final miles but collapsing in a heap after stopping. It was a relief to cross that line, as it is for every single finisher, but also extremely satisfying to have a race that played out as well as I could have hoped, tactically, and to finish in 16:33. It also felt so good to redeem myself after turning up to Western States in June in the best shape of my life then running much slower that last year (and slower than this Leadville finish, given Western is usually about an hour quicker than Leadville for the top men). I felt fairly certain I was fit and ready for Leadville, but you never really know until you get fairly deep into the race. It'll remain one of my favorite memories from my races and it made me hungry for more Leadville action next year, especially since I really want to run it faster.

Relief! Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Here's the Strava data for the race, plus the full set of results and iRunFar's write-up and my post-race interview with Meghan Hicks. Congratulations to all who finished and all who attempted it, especially my co-worker, Liza Howard, who got her second win at Leadville and her first sub 20-hr finish in 19:34. That altitude really screws people up but it adds a challenge that makes the race special. It also helps that every trip to the race gives an excuse to play on the local 14er mountains in advance (but not TOO much).

Thanks for all the support and messages before and after the race, to my kick-ass pacing crew of Dana, Ryan and Josh, and to everyone who organized or volunteered at the race.


Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5 with Altra gaiters
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail socks
Hydration - multiple UltrApire Isomeric Pocket 20oz handhelds
Food - Clif Bar gels (around 15), Shot Bloks (around five packs), Organic Energy Food (around six sachets and an assortment of stuff from the aid stations
Headgear - LifeBeam heart rate monitor Smart Hat
Shades - Julbo Venturi with Zebra lenses

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Hill Running Tips

I've contributed to a couple of hill running articles recently, especially focusing on downhills, so here are the links in one place. Hope you find these useful and constructive.

Trail Runner Magazine - "Speed Downhill Like Ian Sharman" by Alex Kurt

iRunFar - "Controlled Chaos: Learn To Be An Elite Hill Runner" by Joe Uhan

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Western States 100 2015 - Crazy As Ever

Top of the first climb. Photo: Matt Trappe

Every year I've lived in the US I've been lucky enough to run Western States 100 from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It's the most famous US ultra and the one that means the most to people in general. That also applies to me and I want to keep going back to it many more times to get at least 10 finishes.

Why does it mean so much?

I think it's a combination of several factors:

1. The history - it's the original 100-miler that started the entire concept in the '70s.
2. The variation of the terrain - mountains, canyons, a run to the river then gentler trails to Auburn.
3. The competition - it's certainly the most competitive 100 in the US and I'd argue it's more competitive than any other US ultra due to the fact every single competitor treats it as an 'A' race and it's mid-season instead of at the end when many runners are tired. I think this year's event is probably a deeper field than UTMB, despite a smaller number of racers.
4. It's damned hard - the course is very runnable, meaning there's less chance to have any kind of break, even the hiking has to be at a really fast pace and time can't be wasted at aid stations at all. The extreme heat also makes it very interesting and hugely affects the race dynamics.

Pre-race briefing with the introduction of some of the elites. Jesse Haynes next to me, who unfortunately had to drop. Photo: Matt Trappe

It also means a lot to me personally because it's like a big reunion every year. Many friends from around the world and US turn up and I sometimes only see them this one time per year to catch up away from the virtual world.

Thursday before the race - group photo at the top of Emigrant's Pass. Photo: Ian Sharman

Hike/jog with Magda a week before the race on Mt Rose. Photo: Ian Sharman

Race report:

It was very warm at the start, despite the 5am time and 6,200ft altitude. The classic initial climb up to the Escarpment was very pleasant and I was with Brett Rivers and Chris Denucci for much of it, chatting about the fast pace ahead of us. We crested the four miles in 48 mins, around four mins off the leaders, but at least a minute quicker than I've done it in previous years (yet it felt more relaxed). For once I didn't zoom downhill and tried to cruise and keep things easy. For the first time I had a Heart Rate Monitor to keep myself from going too hard (a LifeBeam hat-based HRM which was way more comfy than a strap, hence why I had this option for the first time). However, my HR was surprisingly high for the comfy effort, probably related to the altitude.

Duncan Canyon aid station with Quicksilver RC (my club) at mile 23. Photo: Jeff Clowers

The lead pack was about 15 deep and once I caught the back of it I held back to avoid running their race and instead focus on my own plan. So far, so good - a decent pace and nothing feeling too tough. Then through the mountains I kept things chilled and ended up getting to Robinson Flat at mile 29.7 in 4:42, a few mins slower than 2014 and 13 mins off the lead. I was in 16th just before the aid station then 11th as I left it, partly due to drops from the super speedy Ryan Bak and Alex Varner. I expected those guys to run fast and was disappointed they wouldn't get a chance to see what they could achieve. This was the first chance to see Amy and she crewed expertly to hand over new food, drink and headgear.

Things were certainly heating up, but didn't feel bad yet and I was very positive about the outlook of the race. Then I had the first of several emergency pit-stops by the trail, a sign that I maybe had a minor bug from food the day before or even from earlier in the race. Luckily that didn't get much worse and had a minimal effect on the day.

Then the long downhill section starts, which always feels great at first but tends to coincide with a low patch most years for me around 35-40 miles. I was running around David Laney, who looked comfy too. So we chatted briefly but he was going uphill faster while I moved downhill quicker. Given it was mainly downhill I ended up staying ahead through the steep canyon and up Devil's Thumb - the steepest, sharpest climb of the day.

DBo was sat in a chair in the burning heat at the aid station and his day ended soon afterwards unfortunately. Yet another favorite was out and the brutal course claimed another victim, a recurring theme on a day when only 253 people finished (compared to 277 at the extremely hot 2013 race). I was very tempted to join him in a seat but kept moving.

Somewhere in the first half. Photo: Matt Trappe

The next section through two more canyons was hot and felt a little tougher than usual so by Foresthill at mile 62 I was mainly focused on survival rather than racing hard down to the river. I used ice at every single aid station from mile 23 onwards, putting it in my bandana and filling one of my water bottles completely with ice then topping up with water so I could keep pouring it over my head, neck and body throughout the next few miles. Most aid stations were around an hour apart and the ice always fully melted within 20-30 mins. However, I can only imagine that's harder to deal with for runners farther back in the field since their ice would last for a shorter proportion of the time they're out in the sun.

Matt Laye joined me for pacing and it was a fairly slow pace for the next 16 miles as I felt gradually more and more sorry for myself. My energy was low, legs were tired and things felt generally worse than the last few years at WS. I seriously considered dropping, but reminded myself that so many people want to run this race and I have the chance to keep going with no valid reason to stop other than I felt bad. I wasn't injured, I wasn't even walking, plus I was in the top 10 (8th at this point) and REALLY wanted to continue that streak for another year to make it six in a row. In fact that was the main motivation I clung on to.

Just after picking up my pacer, Matt Laye, at Foresthill. Photo: Stephen Ingalls

In long ultras it's vitally important to know why you want to finish and to have extremely good reasons why you'll push rather than fade, why you'll still care about the race when you feel like death. In general, a couple of good reasons for me to keep trying are that moving faster means the suffering ends sooner and that if I give less than my best I'll have to live with it for months or even years. It's a character test - are you as tough as you'd like to believe?

The river was heavenly since I was falling apart mentally and was extremely hot. It took me five minutes to cross from one side to the other since I lay there with just my face above the water multiple times to cool down. For the first time all day I was a little cold...but after about two minutes of hiking up the other side I was hot again. One year I'd like to stay there for ages and just hang out before moving on.

The river crossing. Could have stayed there hours. Photo: Matt Trappe
This is how most of the river crossing went. Photo: iRunFar

Matt was feeling the heat too and I was mainly silent, but he also wasn't talking much through the fast, flatter single-track from miles 80-90. We passed Francois d'Haene with his pacer, Frosty, just before Hall Koerner's Oregon-manned aid station at Brown's Bar (mile 89.9) and he was walking, looking demoralized and lifeless. I shouted encouragement and told them the next aid was virtually around the corner, but he'd dropped from the lead at halfway to 8th after I passed him and clearly was having a bad day.

Matt mentioned he had some vertigo at this point from getting water in his ears in the river, plus the heat was affecting him. He hadn't done heat training and after running a marathon in those temperatures he was fading. So just before the climb up to Highway 49 (mile 93.5) he slowed and walked it in while I kept chugging along at steady ultra shuffle.

By this stage the proximity of the finish is motivation enough and I was able to rally enough to keep pushing, albeit at a slower pace than previous years. I hadn't planned on needing a headlamp but did include it in my crew bag so Amy passed me that so I'd be able to see the final miles. I turned it on around mile 95 on the run downhill in the trees towards No Hands Bridge, now secure that I'd end up top 10 but not sure if anyone right behind was surging or if someone ahead was fading.

I've never enjoyed the final 20 miles of the race since it takes such a huge effort to avoid slowing, but at least this time I knew it'd feel especially good to finish because I'd come so close to giving up multiple times. I was paranoid that someone would catch me and I'd have to sprint to the end, but luckily I had enough of a gap behind me that I was able to finish the final couple of miles at a more relaxed pace without really digging in - at that point saving a couple of minutes didn't make much difference and there was nobody ahead within the next 10 mins or so who I had any realistic chance of getting close to.

Done and done. Photo: Matt Trappe
Ultra Running Magazine's Erika Lindland was the smiliest person of the day and ran herself into 9th to earn another entry for next year. Photo: apologies, I'm not sure where I got this but it epitomized the event

Unlike previous years where I sprinted around the track, this time I jogged and gave high fives to kids. The finish line couldn't come soon enough but another epic day on the trails was over. It was an hour slower than last year, yet I got 7th in 16:44. At this rate it's technically feasible to do 10 races with 10 different top 10 places - so far I've got 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and mainly the podium left to aim for :)

Before the race I knew it'd be a really memorable day for many reasons. My own race is one small part of the overall story and there are hundreds of people who overcame incredible challenges through the 30 hours of the entire event. Rob Krar's 14:48 was frankly superhuman in that heat and with the pressure of being the defending champ. Gunhild Swanson's finish with six seconds to spare under the cut-off was incredible too, especially since she's 70 years old!

Tim Twietmeyer cheers for Gunhild Swanson as she finishes and the crowd goes wild. Photo: Ian Sharman

However, my favorite memory comes from seeing Magda Boulet win her debut 100-miler, despite going two miles off course in the first half. I've really enjoyed coaching her and getting to know her over the past six months - a real star of the running world, an Olympian and a super fun person to call my friend. Seeing her cross the line was fantastic after dominating her ultra races for the past seven months (six straight wins!). I had five other clients running too, so seeing them afterwards was very rewarding, despite one of them not having a good day and having to drop due to the heat.

High Fiving Magda at the finish. Photo: Nate Dunn

I'm tired now, but with each day that passes I get progressively happier with how the race went. Perfect days in 100-milers are rare and I know I can learn more from the imperfect ones, especially when I aim to make the best of it. My fitness was higher than ever before pre-race so I'm just a little disappointed I couldn't improve on last year's time or position, but I got to run Western States and I also get to do it again. Full results here. Plus my incomplete Strava data before the watch died.

The memories of pain fade and the shiny silver buckle remains. Thanks everyone at the race, the volunteers, organizers, runners and supporters.


Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail
Eyewear - Julbo Venturi
Nutrition - mainly a mix of Clif Bar Organic Energy Food pouches, gels and Shot Bloks
HRM - LifeBeam smart hat
Hydration - UltrAspire Isometric handhelds and Alpha pack
Keeping the ice cool for my crew (Amy) - Hydro Flask 64oz growlers

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Catch-up and looking ahead to Western States

Snow-shoeing up Mt Bachelor - that's what I call fun training!

I haven't blogged for a while partly due to moving house and partly because a lot of other things related to coaching and Skyrunning have been keeping me on my toes. So here's a quick catch-up.

The year started off well and I'm fully past the foot fracture from last year, so that was my main concern through Rocky Raccoon 100 in Jan and the following months. I then switched to getting in plenty of fun, hilly runs in California and Mt Diablo before moving back to Bend, Oregon, in April.

Lake Sonoma 50 was a disappointment for me since it's about the most competitive 50-miler of the year in the US (I'd argue it's harder to win than TNFEC50 in San Francisco since a lot of runners are worn down at the end of the season and don't race near their abilities). It was a few days before I moved to Oregon and I just felt tired and 'out of it' but a lot of other runs in the build up had felt amazing. So I dropped at halfway since 50 grinding, slow miles wouldn't have done me any favors for the rest of the season. The very first climb felt odd with a complete lack of energy, which wasn't a good sign, but it didn't improve. It was still a very fun trip to Sonoma and I really want to come back next year to give it my best effort.

That fatigue followed me through the next couple of weeks and moving was annoyingly stressful, but well worth it now we're all set up in the new house and feel truly at home. After a week of being in Bend I ran the inaugural Bend Half, a hilly road race at which I expected to have a lot of local speedsters to race. Despite the fact I seemed to be stuck in 2nd gear I led a pack of four guys, two in the marathon and one other in the half with me. The marathoners forged ahead a little when I dropped off 6-min/mile pace but it came down to a sprint finish in the half (the races split at mile 10.5), which I narrowly won by two seconds in 1h19m31s. That was a surprise, but not nearly quick enough to go for a marathon PR two weeks later at the Eugene Marathon (the target was to break 2h30m).

Then Eugene was a fun, hard day out and felt much more encouraging. I knew I wouldn't break 2h30m, but I hoped I could get fairly close. The early miles went about to plan and I felt much better than at Sonoma or the Bend Half. I went through 13.1 in 1h18m flat then hung on for the second half to avoid slowing too much (still didn't quite feel at 100%) to run 2h38m39s.

The last few months have really been focused on preparing for Western States and it's just over five weeks til race day. The races mentioned above had an upward trend and things feel on track now to hammer some vertical and turn up to the Big Dance ready and raring to go. I feel back to normal and the speed work on flat terrain should help with cruising at much slower speeds on the trail to Auburn. Getting into the mountains is helping too, plus it's very motivating (see the photo above).

It's always tough to accept some sub-par results, but WS100 is the main event for me and I can't wait to get there. Speaking of which, in two days I'm heading to the Memorial Day Weekend training weekend that covers 70 miles of the race course. That should get the blood pumping!