Monday 11 July 2016

Timed Lap Racing - When it's good, it's very, very good!

I like racing laps.  Long laps, short laps, in-between laps.  Once upon a time, I used to think racing laps was stupid - why race around the same route more than once?  That was before I figured out how to get my head in the game, and use the format to push myself to new levels.  Racing laps, whether on a distance basis, like at Rocky Raccoon, or on a timed basis like Thunder Run, Endure 24, or our own Ellenden Farm Frolic, gives runners the chance to mentally reset and put bad patches into the past while looking forward to a new lap where the problems of the last lap can be sorted out.

In the last 2 months, I've taken part in some very different lap races.  In May, I ran at Trail Attack 24, mostly to scope it out and as a tune-up for the planned A-Race at Endure 24.  In June, I went back to Endure 24 as a solo runner, with grand ambitions of some big PBs.  On July 3rd, I returned to Merrill's Mile to make good last year's early exit, and with an aim to get on the podium.

Trail Attack 24 is about half an hour from home, so it seemed churlish not to have a go.  I entered with no intention of running into the night - I needed a long training run that weekend, so decided to do it there instead of in the hills. It was a bit of a test event, so the route had a few issues that can be ironed out, and I expect the 2nd outing next year will be an enjoyable weekend. I ran 50km at a pretty high effort level, stopping when I turned my ankles a few too many times on the pitted, rock-hard ground.  I was out for a long run and a bit of a laugh, so wasn't about to risk ruining my summer race plans.

Endure 24 is, in theory, a 5 mile loop of mostly trail running.  The reality is a fairly fast course which, in a dry year, is more like a road run than a trail run.  This year was pretty dry, and the newly gravelled sections meant that there was only about half a mile per lap of terrain that was trail-like.  Having raced as a relay runner last year, and knowing just how quick the route had become, I went into the race with Plan A of 120 miles and PBs for 50mi, 100km, and 100mi along the way.  Knowing that I would be at home responsible for a very active and increasingly heavy baby on the Monday, Plan B was to stop before I reached a condition where I was the one more in need of a pushchair.

Race day was relatively warm and very sunny.  The night before hadn't been the smoothest sleep, with a night feed and an early start for the drive down (thanks Caroline and Andy!), so I spent quite a while pre-race trying to get into the right place mentally to be racing.  Half an hour of Garth Brooks classics did the trick, and I got to the starting line in the mood for a good run.

As usual, I started off far too far to the back, and tried not to get in a hurry.  The plan was to run roughly 10:30/mi with 2-3 minutes per lap of aid-station refuelling.  Repeatedly, I had to slow down, trying to find that "go all day" pace.  I finished lap 1 a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, but very comfortably, in 51 minutes.  The fantastic crew of friends and teammates from Evesham Vale RC had me refilled and out of the homemade aid station super-fast, and I was off on lap 2 in no time.  I added a bit more walking to allow for eating and to slow down the pace a bit more, dropping down to 53 minutes for the next 2 laps (plan: 55 minutes).  Then I turned off my GPS and ran off the watch and km markers for the rest of my race - which promptly resulted in my fastest lap of the day before I finally dialled into the splits that I needed to match the terrain with my goal lap times.

Running comfortably throughout day 1 (Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)
By the time I got to 30 miles, I knew I had a good 50mi time on the cards. I was 15 minutes (30s/mi) ahead of my target time, and felt really good.  The BLT wraps and Bourbon biscuits were keeping my energy levels high, and I managed to keep on top of my hydration, so stomach and brain were both in good shape.  I knew I needed to slow down, and kept trying to aim for the 58 minute laps on my plan.  I kept failing, though, with 55-56 instead.  As I approached 50 miles, I started to get excited that I was running so well that I was looking at a 9-hour 50.  When I finished my 10th lap in 8:55 (a 30 minute PB), I knew I really needed to back off, and that a 100km PB was pretty much in the bag.  I was having the run of my life - running felt fantastic and fairly easy, eating wasn't too much of a chore, and I was drinking loads without issue.

With plenty of time in the bag, I spent a little more time in the aid station, first forgetting my head torch and grabbing a banana instead, and then the next lap doing the opposite!  I successfully gave back some of my time over the next 3 laps, dropping to 1:03ish instead of the planned hour.  Once I'd knocked an hour off my 100km PB (11:30 now), though, I started to lose focus.  The 100mi point was quite a distance away, it was now after midnight, I desperately wanted to be asleep, and the general camaraderie of the day was giving way to the earphone-driven deafness of the night.  By the start of the 16th lap, I was struggling to keep my spirits up.  I started walking a bit more, and then noticed some blisters under the callouses on the balls of my feet, probably a result of walking more.  Those blisters aren't treatable in the normal fashion, with tape or blister plasters.  They're caused by friction within the skin, and really are best treated by not having the callouses in the first place.  The more I walked, the worse they would get.  I also really, honestly, didn't want to do much walking.  I had really enjoyed running everything but a few snack-break hills each lap.  So, at 4am, knowing that I could get a 100mi PB, but at a price to my feet that I wasn't really willing to pay, I curled up and went to sleep in the back of the car having done 80 miles in 16 hours - well over an hour faster than I've done that distance before.

I don't mind too much that I stopped early, but there was a part of me that was disappointed that I had stopped before I had to.  When I've DNF'd a distance race, I've always felt like it was the right thing.  Here, I knew I had a sub 22h hundred available, even if I walked almost all of the remaining 20 miles.  In reality, that wasn't enough of an achievement to draw me into a long walk, or even much past the mouth of the "pain cave".  I had 110 miles available in the 24 hours if I worked hard, but that would have led to some serious curtailment of my summer's running - and that certainly wasn't worth the effort.  Over the next couple of days, as the aches and pains from the race worked through, I was pretty sure that stopping was a good idea.  I'd learned that I wasn't interested in simply completing 100 miles or 24 hours - I wanted to run, and to race.  Walking up the hills, or a few relatively short walking breaks are fine, but I've found that to get the satisfaction I was looking for, I needed to be running the vast majority of the time. Until 70 miles, I'd run consistently better than I had in any race in my life - ever.  And I enjoyed it at a level that I've rarely enjoyed any race before.  I had discovered what I was looking for from my next few races, as soon as I figured out what they would be.

Shortly after Endure, Nic suggested that I have another go at Merrill's Mile in Georgia.  She still doesn't get why I like the idea of running laps of a .99mi road loop, but took the view that as long as she didn't have to either run it or sit there watching me run in circles for six hours, I should have a go.  So, I entered a daylight 6 hours instead of the night-time one, prayed for a cool spell, and packed light clothes.

My goal at Merrill's Mile was simple - run 40ish laps, match or beat the course record, and get on the podium.  I entered fairly certain that, barring injury, I had a good shot.

On the drive to the race, I watched the temperature climb up into the 80s.  The high was due to be nearly 100, and I was glad I'd put most of my water in the freezer the night before.  I didn't want to spend a lot of time using the aid station, just grab a bottle and go as I went by my little box of refreshments.

As the 9am start approached, I started chatting with Anthony Shapiro, who was aiming for a sub-24 100mi, and his crew, who were entertaining themselves trying to put up a small sun shelter.  They were a great bunch of guys, and when Anthony's crew saw I was crewless, they offered to refill my spare belt bottles.  Being able to just swap bottles in whenever I needed was a huge help, especially once the heat piled on.

The race plan was pretty straightforward - aim for 8:30ish miles while there was shade, and then slow down as little as possible, depending on how the temperature affected me.  I was hoping to get through 21 laps by noon.  We had shade for the first half of the lap (a slight upward drag), and then full sun on the down leg.  Being able to run nearly 50% of the route in the shade meant I could keep a reasonable temperature while still maintaining a solid pace.  At around 11:30, the shade finally disappeared, and we had full sun reflecting off the tarmac track.  I was still nearly on schedule, but that was about to change with the flick of a switch.

At around 17 laps, Bob Hendricks caught up to me - he'd been hanging out 2-3 minutes behind for about 15 laps, and must have put in a fair effort to close me down in the previous few laps.  It was his first attempt at an ultra, and he was curious to see what his body could do.  We had a chat, and then I led him into the 18th lap.  As we started the lap, I realized we'd finally lost our remaining shade.  Heading up the gentle drag really raised the core temperature.

Without any shade, I had to change almost immediately from pace management to heat management.  During my 19th lap, I took a long walk with plenty of ice water and surrendered 4 minutes to the heat in an effort to make sure I could fuel up for the 2nd half.  Bob carried on, picking up half a mile on me.  Most of the rest of the race I ran at around 9:30-10:00/mi pace with roughly 300m of walking per lap on average. I was going through nearly half a litre of water every 20 minutes - wearing most of it.  I had on a cool tie, which is meant to absorb water and remain cool against the skin; I squeezed warm water out of it regularly.  The heat and sun were actually blistering one runner's back (maybe she should have worn a t-shirt, but that's an indication of just how hot it got).  Bob came back to me in the early 20s, and I lapped him by the time I'd done my marathon.  Once the heat built up, the only way to cool down was to slow down, and the hotter the core got, the longer the walk got.  So, I tried to maintain short walks and slow running up the slope and no walks down the slope to keep from getting too overheated.  The strategy, along with loads of ice water - it's the first time I've had to pour ice water onto my thighs! - seemed to work.  Most laps remained sub-12, while I kept hoping for a break in the sun.

Too hot & sunny for a vest. (Photo: Cotswold Running)
With around an hour to go, a cloud finally offered some shade and I was immediately able to run easily again, knocking 2 minutes off that mile compared to the ones either side, so I knew I could push hard for 1-2 laps at the end if I had to.  Nic and a huge gathering of my side of the family arrived just after 2:30 - with me needing 3 more laps in 30 minutes. I tried to up the pace so I could get in a couple of sub-10 miles, but got a little light-headed and had to hold to around 11:00/mi instead.  My brother, Chris, shouted to me as I approached the finish line with just over 8 minutes to go, that I needed one more lap to take a lap lead over runners from the previous 6 hour races during the event.  I swore to myself, because I really didn't want to have to pull out a fast lap, and accelerated up the track.  I was down to 8-ish pace, and kept running up to the turn for the first time in over 2 hours.  I started to feel a bit light-headed, and ran with an irrational fear that I'd be cranking out all this effort only to get to the line seconds after the time ran out.  On the way down to the finish, I pulled out all the stops (and nearly pulled out my small breakfast and the previous night's dinner), to get down to under 7:30 pace, finishing my 36th lap with 30 seconds to spare.  The 40 lap goal had gone out the window at 11:30, but I managed to tie the men's course record of 36 laps (ladies' is 39 laps).  I had to wait for the night-time 6-hour race to take place to find out my placing, but was pretty confident of a podium finish.  When I went back in the morning, I was very pleased to discover that I'd won by that horrible, hard last lap.  Bob finished 3rd, 2 laps back.

My first ever win - celebrated next to a soon-to-be-packed gazebo.
The joy of the lap race is that mental reset each time you start a new lap.  In May, I was out for a training run more than a race, and really struggled to look at each lap individually, so I really struggled to get into that "in the moment" mindset you need for a good race.  In June, I managed to keep my head right for 14 hours, but started to struggle against the sleep monsters and wasn't really up for the mental challenge of the rest of the event.  In July, getting to reset every 8-12 minutes worked for me, and gave me the opportunity to completely revise my running plan to match my ability to respond to the extreme temperature (the car read 103 when we got back to it, so I'm guessing we weren't much cooler on the track).  When I was getting battered by the heat, all I had to do was break my run into 2 pieces - up the track and down the track - and then repeat that until the clock ran out. The regular mental refresh made it incredibly easy to stay in the moment.

I still love racing on more traditional routes.  But if you haven't tried timed racing on a short lap, you really should - it's a fantastic way to push yourself to new heights.

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