Sunday, 6 April 2014

Dress for Success

As a runner who enjoys most types of racing, I often wonder what sits behind the decisions so many of us make when selecting our training and racing attire.  Go to a fell race in pretty much any weather, and you'll find at least half the field wearing the minimum to protect their decency, next to some runners who are set for an expedition to the poles.  Generally, the difference is easily explained by the expected amount of heat generated on the ups and just how much/little will be lost on the downs.

At trail ultras, on the other hand, the motto seems to be "more is more".  It struck me last year, looking through all the snaps of the Cotswold Way Century, that the runners looked pretty hot early on (it was a warm day).  On closer inspection, I noticed most of them were wearing several layers.  The correlation seemed pretty obvious.  So, I've been keeping an eye out to see whether it was a one-off or part of a wider trend.

I hope a lot of these guys are prepping for the MDS! Not a lot of skin, plenty of layering, and the start is in 5 minutes.
My trip to the Eco-Trail de Paris might have been a little skewed, since it often acts as a last kit test for the MdS, but again, on a warm day relative to the season, there were a lot of extra layers on.  Considering the heat impact a standard pack has, or the even larger influence of many of the current design of race vests, I get the feeling a lot of runners are dressing for the pre-race standing about, rather than for running.

How many of these runners know it's one of the warmest days of the year so far?

Looked cold, but I was burning up, with far too much clothing on. Doh!
If I take this picture of my third trail marathon as an example, you can see I'm sweating heavily, and don't have much option left with the top I'm wearing other than to remove it.  It was about 5C out, and my Montane shirt was great pre-race, with a t-shirt on top (hanging soggiily at my waist only 7mi in).  I could have stripped off, put on my t-shirt, and carried on.  The problem, though, was that as soon as I got around the corner, I'd be facing a headwind, shuffling across Chesil Beach, and my temp would drop like a stone.  These hot/cold kind of days make it very difficult, because the trail conditions don't always encourage consistent effort.  Sometimes, you just can't run hard enough to stay warm.

May 2, 2010 - one of the coldest runs of my life.
I'd suggest that over-clothing is usually the result of a previous under-clothing event.  My first trail marathon was in early May. Sunshine, blue skies, beautiful views?  Not in England, my friends.  Rain, more rain, then some driving wind and a bit more rain.  By the end of the race, I was wearing my vest (newbie error), waterproof, and spare windproof gilet.  Oh, and I was freezing.  Turned out to be about 4 degrees on the hills.

So, back to the prevalence of over-dressing at trail ultras.  What possesses us to wear layers we won't need until dark at the start of a long race?  Is it down to fear of being cold?  Perhaps the inability to find further space in the pack for that extra windproof (it works on airplanes, so why not at races)?

Another hot day, but plenty of extra layers here, too.
After Rocky Raccoon, I decided to stop wearing my compression calf-guards.  Having had calf and ankle issues consistently through the past 6 years, I'd become psychologically reliant on the idea that they'd hold me together.  At Rocky, though, I realized that mostly they were keeping my legs warm on a day when I wanted to cool down.

At the ETP, I couldn't see the front-runners, but I definitely didn't see a lot of skin on show around me.  Socks up to the knees, shorts down to the knees, longish short sleeves, long sleeves, long-sleeved compression tops, full tights, windbreakers - anything and everything that could possibly keep the heat from escaping seemed to be on show.

Why did I choose a vest for the ETP?  The temperature was due to be around 20C, and we've not seen a lot of that in northern Europe this year, plus it was going to be sunny, and there's not usually a lot of wind in the trees to help keep one cool.  Was I worried about losing a lot of skin? Not really.  The 24 miles I'd done in a similar vest 8 weeks ago was very comfortable from that angle.  I did have to make some adjustments because of the heavier pack, and would have preferred the protection of a t-shirt, but not enough to put on the long-sleeve top I had in the pack for the cool of the night.  Even when the weather cooled, I was happier to use the opportunity to run faster and generate more heat than I'd have been to keep the slower pace in the warmer top, even with a little less rubbing on my shoulder.

I often think that pace judgement is one of the hardest part of endurance running.  Sometimes, when I look around a bit, I see that dressing for the temperature around your body, and not the one in your mind, is often a key factor in how the race will go.  Soon, we'll all be sporting our skimpy summer gear on our mid-week runs, enjoying the feeling of sun on skin.  Then, come the long run on the weekend, I wonder just how many will adopt the "more is more" method and wonder why it all felt so slow and difficult.  Maybe, if you're worried about getting cold or chaffing, pop a spare shirt in the pack to ease your mind, and let all that skin do what it was designed to do in the first place?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Eco-Trail de Paris 2014: Liberte, Egalite, and lots of trees

Why, when all of the delights of Paris await - delicious food & wine, art, architecture, engineering, history, and driving patterns that turn pavement cafes into theatre - would one possibly choose to take a train to the suburbs only to run back again?  When the route becomes so circuitous as to mimic a dog working its way around a park full of fire hydrants, and the best answer available seems to be, "why not?"

Or, for the longer answer, read on.

Trail running in the UK, with a few exceptions, is dominated by small races where you meet plenty of  friendly faces before eventually ending up alone or with a few new/old friends as you work your way among the footpaths and bridleways that criss-cross the countryside.  These are the sorts of events I tend to frequent (and organize), because they suit me.  I like the long periods of quiet interspersed with a bit of chit-chat when I end up running with someone or playing leap-frog in the latter stages of an ultra.  But, every now and then, opportunities arise to learn something new while still having a good time.  Racing in a big event (>1000 runners), in a big city, in a foreign country is a great way to see how other people do things.  Plus, we hadn't been to Paris in a while and both Nic & I quite like the city.  So, we signed up to give Nic a focus for the spring and to give me a fallback in case Rocky Raccoon went belly-up.

Nic's training got hit by one of the nasty winter bugs, which left me flying the Cotswold Running & Evesham Vale RC flags on my own.  So, while Nic checked out the finish-line HQ, watched me being tracked online courtesy of the GPS transceiver I rented for the day, and tried to forget that she was supposed to be racing, I headed out to St. Quentin des Yvelines on the RER with the intention of racing back.

Racing? For those who have followed my short ultra career, the admission that I planned to do the event as a race, rather than a bimble about in the woods will be a surprise.  I always have plans A, B, and C (and occasionally D & E), but have only once tried to approach an ultra as a race, in Exmoor nearly 2 years ago.  I spent a bit of time retching in the bushes and feeling generally unpleasant.  So, why not try again, but add on 14 or so miles?  The target this time was to average in the region of 12 minute miles (5mph), or roughly 10 hours, depending on how long the course actually was.  I'd managed a similar pace last year at the Highland Fling, and believed I might just be getting back into the kind of shape that would let me do it again this year.  All I had to do was get my nutrition right, avoid overheating, not get lost, avoid falling down too many times, and keep running even when I wanted to jump on the train back.  Simple, right?

My beacon to the finish, waiting for my return in the night-time.

First target of the day was to get to the train to the start.  I checked the map, found where the station was relative to the apartment, and headed out for a nice, sunny walk.  Turns out the map wasn't so accurate, and I couldn't find the RER where I expected it to be.  With 4 minutes left before my train, I asked directions every 200m until I found it (yes, I do actually ask directions when lost and in a hurry).  With a bit of jogging, I made the platform just as the train arrived.  Yes, I could have waited half an hour for the next one, but then I'd have been without contingency should there be any delay.  So, I was very happy to arrive just in time.

The RER pulling in just as I arrived at the station.
 With the transport under control, the rest of the morning was a dawdle.  I had plenty of time for pre-race prep, including a nice little 30 minute nap in the sunshine followed by a little picnic.  Noon start times are great for relaxing into the swing of things.

Mildly awake and ready to run.

Gathering for the safety / eco briefing

The briefing included plenty of useful reminders about using lights in the dark and keeping our rubbish to ourselves.  One of the appeals of this race, to me, is the emphasis on treating the course with the respect it deserves.  Pretty much every road race I run involves stepping through somebody's trash, because there's an expectation that someone else will clear it up.  It gets on my nerves when that kind of behaviour hits the trails, so I was happy to see the ETP rules include DQ for littering and was delighted to receive my mini reusable rubbish bag to attach to my pack.  Of course, with over 1000 runners, it didn't take long to see a few gels lying unused on the ground (about 100m).  Here's a tip for anyone who uses belts/straps with loops for your gels - they don't work very well, and you'll really miss the ones that pop out.  The steady trickle of gel tubes, especially, made me wonder if they had particular power to jump out of bags.

On the run at last!
After a mile or so of easy jogging among the crowds, I was caught by Nick Reed from Manchester.  Guessing rightly that my Cotswold Running vest marked me as an English speaker, he popped up for a chat.  We enjoyed a couple of miles at around 9:30m/mi before I decided the combination of pace and temperature were going to hobble me later on and waved him on his way.  I really wanted that 10hr finish, and wasn't really in the mood to blow it on the super-flat start for the sake of some very enjoyable camaraderie.  From there, even when surrounded by runners, I was pretty much alone on the trails.

Chatting with Nick Reed in the early miles

Pretty lake, flat trail.
 Generally, my experience of trail races includes a lot of talking. Not necessarily constant, and frequently of very little deeply intellectual discourse.  Just a lot of friendly chat and a bit of banter on the hills.  My French isn't what is used to be, but I can just about get by with the general platitudes of racing - encouragement, talking about the weather, etc.  To my surprise, the field was in rather sombre mood; even those not plugged in seemed deep in their own thoughts from the outset.  The silence around me gave me something to think about, and certainly provided a different atmosphere to my normal races.

After 12 miles, a proper hill!
The combination of easy flat terrain and the heat wrought havoc on the field.  At the 25km check point, I was 1034 out of 1500+ runners, in spite of my 10m/mi pace on the flat first section.  At the CP, runners were strewn about in varying degrees of disarray - 110 ended their race there.  Most were simply wandering listlessly among the buffet.  I had a quick look, but it seemed quite fruit-based, and I didn't really fancy the added fibre so early in what would be a long day, so I refilled my water and carried on.  I was astonished to see prunes - full of energy, yes, but it seems like the start of a game of digestive roulette!

After the first half marathon, it starts to get a bit hilly.
The ETP team have done an amazing job of finding a way to get from the suburbs to the centre of Paris with very little road.  There are loads of woodlands around the city, and the various authorities have ensured there are a lot of bridleways and footpaths through the woods to encourage outdoor pursuits.  On a dry, sunny spring day, it means you get plenty of miles surrounded by tall trunks and new foliage.  If you like wide open views, you may find the route a bit claustrophobic.  At times, I was desperate for an open vista, especially while it was light enough to enjoy it!

Smile, you can see the sky!

Is that a hill ahead?

A chance to practice my fell-runner walk.
Within a couple of miles of leaving the CP, runners who'd run too quick, or drunk too much at the CP, or who were just on the wrong side of Lady Luck started to litter the side of the trail.  Slowly walking the flats, loudly calling to the roots of trees, and generally looking miserable, the carnage provided a stark reminder of what can happen when plans go awry.

Approaching the marathon distance - it's a little steep on some of these hills.
The difficulty, on this route, is that if you're suffering at 18 miles, you have another 23 or so hilly miles before you reach the flat run in along the Seine.  For much of the next 10 miles, I kept the effort steady but strong, telling myself to "pass the carnage, don't be the carnage".  The gentle breeze helped to keep me much cooler than I'd been at Rocky Raccoon, even though the temperatures were very similar.  A little extra fitness probably didn't hurt, either.

 Passing the marathon point in roughly 4:45, I'd managed to keep to under 11m/mi, giving some leeway for the hilly half marathon to come.  I arrived at the 47km checkpoint in Meudon having just run out of water (perfectly judged?) and ready for a short break.  I refilled with the help of an enthusiastic volunteer, politely declined the opportunity to dunk my head in a bucket of water, and sat down to re-partition my remaining food into accessible pockets.  The nutrition plan was TORQ bars & gels for the day, one every 35 minutes or so, to hopefully avoid the unhappy gut that running in the heat can bring. A little text back and forth with Nic helped keep me smiling, and then I was on my way.  I knew I'd passed a lot of people between check points, and wanted to avoid seeing too many of them again.

If you look past the stylishly arranged wheel barrows, you can just make out the Eiffel Tower.

Meudon Observatory - it's at the top of a rather steep hill.
 Reminding myself to "pass the carnage", I took it very sedately out of Meudon.  The slow pace was, I'll admit, rather helped by the stupidly steep hill up to the Observatory.  What kind of fool puts hills like that into a route just for a great view??? (Oh, yeah, that would be me. My bad. I'm really sorry, all of you Evesham Ultra runners, for the nice view from Broadway Tower.)

Taunting me, the tower is only 20 miles away by trail.
Leaving the grounds of the Observatory, I continued to feel quite shattered for several miles. Apparently, the bit I thought was flat, given the steep hills that preceded it, was a steady uphill drag for about 3 miles.  I thought I was just running badly.  Turns out, I was running badly up a hill.  Still, at around 32mi, the route headed back down for a while and I managed to get back to running again.  It also started to cool off, which gave me some hope of being able to pick up some speed once we left the hills.  By the time I reached the 58km CP, I'd pulled myself back together and was looking forward to the final 20km.  I quickly refilled my water, grabbed a few crisps, and headed out, hoping to get as much mileage in as I could before it was time for the head-torch.

Sunset on a pretty lake - cooling down and ready to put in some hard miles.
The final 20km just seemed to happen. When I could run, I was still hanging at around 10-11m/mi. When I couldn't run, I walked, mostly on the uphills, but not exclusively.  I was tired, but I was running.  I even tried to take a few pictures of the night skyline from the final CP, but couldn't quite keep the camera steady enough to get anything but blurry lights.  The plan to race for a time that would challenge me to hold it together until the end meant I had actually kept enough in the tank to push hard over the final miles (I won't say fast, because it really wasn't...).

So close I can almost touch it!
 The final few miles along the Seine aren't the most scenic, at least not in the dark, but the Eiffel Tower (carrot?) dangling there for me to chase definitely helped spur me on.  Over that final 8km, I continued to overtake runners who I'm sure were well ahead of me for much of the day.  Having the plan go right made a nice change from the last race, and was a mental boost as I tried to chase down as many runners as I could before the finish.

Finished! 9:51:04
The finish, unlike previous years, was not on the 1st floor of the Eiffel Tower.  In many ways, that was a shame.  But, since it gave me the opportunity to run hard around the final turns and past a cheering Nic, I'd say the new finish at the Palais de Chaillot is pretty fantastic.

All told, it was a good race.  Things went mostly to plan, I felt good considerably more often than not, and I got some useful insights into how other people do things both as runners and organizers.  I didn't really get a lot of "Fraternite" in the first 65km.  There was a lot of introspection around, and I would have liked a little more social interaction, to be honest.  Would I do it again?  Maybe - it's a lot of trees, so I don't think I'd want to approach it as a touring race.  If I did it again, I think it would have to be with the goal of going faster.

A few random thoughts:

As an event, the ETP is definitely an epic feat of organization.  There seemed to be hundreds of volunteers throughout the course.  They were, as race volunteers generally are, fantastic, enthusiastic, and friendly.  I'm sure the traffic they were stopping wasn't as enamored by them as I was, but that's to be expected.  Apparently, it's not the done thing to say "merci" to the marshals as they stop cars from running you down or point you along the route.  Quite a few volunteers and runners were surprised, but it started to rub off on those runners around me and eventually the steady trickle of thanks to the marshals was met with big smiles and shouts of encouragement.  Next time you find yourself in a race thinking that the volunteers seem a bit dour, give them a smile and a thank you and see what happens.  After all, watching a bunch of grumpy, smelly runners stream past isn't as much fun as cheering on inspiring runners who look like death but still manage to give a smile, a wave, or even a word or two in exchange.

Hiring the GPS transceiver was great for friends and family around the world, and meant I got to waste about 20 minutes on Wednesday watching my little icon run around on Google Earth.  That was pretty cool.

I was very happy I was self-sufficient on the food - a key learning point from Rocky Raccoon.  Every race organization has its food strategy.  If I had tried to subsist mostly on the CPs, I would have had a very bad day indeed, since the fare didn't really fit what I'm used to eating.

Main gear (plus plenty of other bits & pieces):

Shoes:  Salomon Fellraiser
Socks: Injinji Trail
Shorts: Brooks (the Sherpa is the closest on the market to the ancient ones I wear)
Vest: Cotswold Running bespoke
Pack: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 5 w/ 2 500ml soft flasks and a 1.3L bladder
Head-torch: LED Lenser H7R
Garmin Forerunner 305
Camera: Nikon Coolpix AW110


Pre-race - ham sandwich & Clif Builders Bar (mint choc chip: yum!)
TORQ bars: 5
TORQ Energy gels: 7
TORQ Energy w/ caffeine gels: 2
Salted crisps: ~8
Water: ~4.5L