Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Race Report: The Alpine Challenge 60km

Sweeping Alpine Views

For those who have been following along, you would’ve read that after I rolled my ankle at the Blackall 50km, I went and saw a doctor and got told that I didn’t do any serious damage to my ankle. He was kind of right, a couple days after I wrote that race report I went and saw a physio and was told that I did a severe grade II sprain to my anterior talofibular ligament which would put me on the sidelines between 4-6 weeks. The day after I saw the physio I went into work (at The Trail Co) and saw my boss (who is a running coach) and he has had a very similar injury to mine. He told me to drop out of the Alpine Challenge as soon as possible so I didn’t have the mental anguish of ‘do I, don’t I’. Me, being a runner, meant I ignored his completely reasonable advice. So, for the 12 days after Blackall I was on crutches, unable to do any sort of aerobic activity at all. For the next 11 days after that the only aerobic activity I could do was ride a bike, but as this was during my uni exam period I didn’t do much of that either. In my last physio appointment before I left Brisbane (a week before the Alpine Challenge) I was given the all clear to run in the race. I had to strap up my ankle but I had full movement again. The one thing was physio was a bit concerned about though, was my fitness. Which was a valid point. In the 5 weeks leading up to the Alpine Challenge I rode a total of 150km (which, if you’re a cyclist, you’ll realise isn’t much) and I ran a total of 37km. 6 of those km’s were the only ones on a trail, which I did 3 days before the race and I realised how much fitness I had lost. So, there were two major concerns leading into this race. The biggest one was my ankle, while the physio had said it would fine to run on, he also said that it was still weak and very susceptible to being sprained again. The other one was fitness. I would be running at altitude, climbing over 2000 meters and I would be getting a distance record. Would I be able to finish?

The course profile
So much gear!

The start line
This meant when the race stared on Saturday morning, I went out conservatively. The race began in the centre of Falls Creek before heading down to Howmans Gap on winding single track. The first 5km’s were stunning, it was so green and lush and very easy to run along. I had to hold myself back though, I wasn’t prepared to roll my ankle within the first 5 kays! After a very short uphill at Howmans Gap, it was back to running downhill again for the next 3.5km’s along non-technical fire trail. Again, another place I could’ve ran a lot faster down, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. At the bottom of the hill was first time I had to consult my map as there was a t-intersection that wasn’t marked. It was a decision to either go left or right, but as there was another runner who was with me (doing the 36km) we used our collective brain power and made the correct choice to go right.

The Alpine Challenge is tough in a few ways. One way is the altitude, for the most part the course is above 1,200 metres, the climbs are also difficult, but you also must use your brain as the course is sparsely marked, as I found out, I had to use my map and course notes a few times.

My plan leading into the race. 7 hours was ambitious and I wouldn't have been able to get it this year. But with full fitness I believe going under 6 hours is definitely do-able.
What goes down must go up, and after 10km’s of taking it cruisy was the toughest part of the 60km course, an 8km 900 metre (ish) climb to the top of Spion Kopje. This is where one of my last purchases at The Trail Co came in handy, poles. I had never used poles in a race before this one, but I figured that if they’re good enough for the Europeans, they’re good enough for me! And I’ll be honest, they were a god-send. I wasn’t moving up the hill any faster than if I didn’t have them, but I was using way less energy. It meant that once I got to the top I was able to run again, kind of. I really had lost a lot of fitness due to my injury and the best I could manage was a really long interval-style running. Run for 900m, walk for 100m, repeat. I managed to keep this up and pass a couple of 36km runners until the first checkpoint, Warby Corner. From there it was only 9km’s until the next checkpoint at Langfords Gap, which took in sweeping Alpine Views, rolling, wide 4WD tracks and what should’ve been really fun, technical downhill single track, which I had to walk down because of my ankle. During this section the 36km runners turned off and I wouldn’t see anybody else until I got to the checkpoint. When I got into Langfords Gap I was feeling really good, I was a little bit behind schedule, but my nutrition was on-point and I was feeling really strong. I knew that between Langfords Gap and the next checkpoint was going to be exposed (from reading other people’s race reports, I had never been in this area prior to race day) and it was the middle of the day by this point, so I took on as much water as possible. This was also the point I put in my headphones in, being out in an exposed area when you can’t see anybody can be demoralising, so I hoped that my music would get rid of any negative thoughts. For me, the section between Langfords Gap and Pole 333 was my favourite. The views were second to none and the trail was really easy to run along (by this point in time I had reduced my intervals to run 300m, walk 200m, repeat). I honestly don’t think I can impress just how pretty the views were and I really wish I had taken a photo, it was stunning, but hot. It was probably about 30 degrees by this stage, but my heat training that I did for Blackall kept me in a good frame of mind. I was also really grateful for the cool alpine breeze and the couple streams that I came across, where I got on my hands and knees to stick my head into the water to cool myself down. It was also during this section that I came across another 60km runner, the first one I had seen all race! She was moving pretty slowly though and soon enough I was back by myself.

There's still snow up there!

One variety of the numerous types of wildflowers that I saw
Coming into the Checkpoint number 3, Pole 333, I was feeling a bit warm, but on the whole pretty good considering I had already covered 47km’s. At this checkpoint I was told two things to my fatigued brain. Number one was that I was in 5th place overall, but I was the first male through. This, for me, was entirely unexpected. I didn’t come into this race expecting to win. And number two; “follow this trail and take a right past the cars”. The trail leading to the cars was downhill and after being told I was winning (my gender) I flew as fast as I could down it until I saw the cars. I also saw a large wooden pole with a bit of orange tape on, which I though marked the course. So, I went right past the cars until I got to Tawonga Huts. Now I’ll admit, there were a few different trails, leading in different directions from the huts and I should’ve checked my map to see which trail to take, I then would’ve seen that I should not be at Tawonga Huts, turned around and maybe would’ve only lost about 10 minutes. But at this point in time I had been on my feet for 6.5 hours and I definitely wasn’t thinking straight. I just saw a trail that had a rock at the beginning of it, it just so happened that the rock had orange tape wrapped around it. I thought I was going in the correct direction. When I got to kilometre 53 and I hadn’t seen a checkpoint I knew something was wrong. This was the point I finally got out my map and realised that I had seriously fucked up. I was out of mobile phone signal so I couldn’t call someone to come and pick me up, the only way was to go back the way I came. Which I did. I eventually made it back to the cars and realised what the person at the checkpoint had said, “take a right… past the cars”. Oops. By this point in time I was out of food (I still had lots of water thankfully, the wrong trail I took had flowing streams to drink from) and low on self-esteem. But my mind completely gave up when my watch hit 60km and I still hadn’t reached Pretty Valley Pondage, which I was meant to have reached by the 53rd kilometre. After my mind gave up, so too did my body. Everything became a struggle, but I wasn’t willing to stop. At Pretty Valley I had some watermelon (the best watermelon in the world at that point in time) and some lollies, which got me up to the top of Mt McKay and back down to the finish line in a time of 9 hours, 36 minutes and 57 seconds. I got a new distance record, going from 56km (Two Bays) and a new ‘time on feet’ record going from 6 hours 15 minutes to over 9.5 hours. 

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on this race I can say that going the wrong way still stings. It added on over 2 hours to my finishing time and I missed out on standing on top of the podium (after finishing behind 4 very strong women runners) but I can also say that I don’t care. I didn’t enter this race to win it, I entered this race to be in my favourite landscape, the mountains, and to tick a box. Hopefully this time tomorrow I’ll be finding out I’ll be living in England for a university exchange semester next year, and by completing this race and doing the Brisbane Trail Marathon, I now have the experience to compete in some iconic British mountain races, like ‘3 Peaks’. I also feel like this race is the culmination of everything I’ve learned over the past two years. I learned how to hurt in Blackall, I learned how to keep going even after things didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to in Two Bays, I learned how to climb at 4 Peaks last year, I learned how to get my fueling strategy right in the Brisbane Trail Marathon, I learned how to run fast on single track in Rapid Ascent’s trail series last year and I learned how to be humble at the multitude of races where I expected to do well in, but didn’t. And at every single trail race I’ve run and every single person I’ve met due to running, I’ve also learned that nature is amazing and people who run in it are awesome.

Thanks to mum who came up with me to Falls Creek and for volunteering at the race, you’re just as much a part of the trail community as I am. Thanks as well to Paul and the rest of the Running Wild team, along with the rest of the volunteers, it was an amazing event!
Thanks also to the entire Brisbane crew who’ve welcomed me with open arms, but a particular mention to Tim and Laura, my amazing bosses at The Trail Co. I never would’ve imagined working at a store selling gear and coffee for a sport I love, when I didn’t even know trail running existed 24 months earlier. The rest of The Trail Co staff are amazing too! 😉 You should definitely go there (in store or online) for all your trail needs!

So, fingers crossed I get to head over to the U.K on an exchange semester from January through to July next year and I get to experience European trail running. If I get to go, great! My first race next year will be the Manx Mountain Marathon on the Isle of Man, but if I don’t get to go, oh well, I suppose. But everything I do over the next few years will be leading towards my dream race, The Hardrock 100.

Until next time, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The Trail Running Novice.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Being your own coach

The fact that you are reading this article probably means that you’re interested in coaching yourself, rather than have someone coach you. I feel like my first question for you would be, why? A (good) coach has the experience and skills necessary to tailor-make a training plan specific to your goals. He or she will be able to look at your previous experience and then be able to write up and coach you to your goal using key running workouts, rather than the generic stuff I’ll be describing below. It also takes out the hassle of trying to design your own training plan, each time I write up my own it usually takes close to half a day to get things sorted out. So, my advice? Go get yourself a running coach. However, you may be a person who loves having absolute flexibility in what you do each day, you don’t want someone prescribing your exercise for you, or you may like being 100% involved in your own processes and you don’t want someone else interfering. The main reason I coach myself at the moment (apart from being a broke uni student and being unable to afford it ;) is I want to make mistakes now, with myself, before I finish my degree and before taking on a mantle of being a coach for other people. I’ve already made a few mistakes in writing up training programs for myself, so take that as a warning. If you’ve never written a training program up for yourself before, be prepared for a few goals to be missed (going back to my first point, go get yourself an experienced coach!) But if you’ve made it this far and you really want to coach yourself, below is the barebones that every coach uses as their basis for their program, along with a few interesting papers (which are listed at the bottom if you wish to read them yourself) I’ve read relating to running. Before I begin I would like to give a warning, please consult with a health professional to make sure that you don’t do any harm to yourself when starting a new exercise program.

The underpinning of all exercise prescription is the principle known as FITT (or FITD). Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type, which is how the rest of the article will be set out. Also, I’ll be using the phrase ‘aerobic fitness’ frequently for the rest of the article; this refers to getting the energy to run by using oxygen to break down fats and carbs in your muscle cells. This is a complex process which heavily involves the use of your heart and lungs (and a lot of other things). As soon an exercise has been going on for longer than 5 minutes continuously (ultra-running, a 5km road race, Le Tour De France etc.) you’re using aerobic systems to get energy.

It pretty much says it in the name, it refers to how much of an activity you do. In terms of running, we usually talk about how much you do in a week. To gain aerobic fitness, at the very bare minimum, you need to run three times a week. To improve your performance, you need to be running at least 5 times per week. Top athletes will often be doing upwards of 10 sessions per week by doing double days, running in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Double days are beyond the scope of this article but they’re useful in specific circumstances and have been shown to improve aerobic fitness markers1 beyond only running once per day. Be wary of injury if you’re doing this though.

According to Exercise and Sport Science Australia there are 5 different levels of aerobic intensity, based on percentage of max heart rate (to get an estimate of your max heart use the formula 220-your age. For example, I’m 20 therefore my estimated max heart rate is 200.)
·       Recovery: 65-75% max HR
·       Extensive recovery: 75-80% max HR
·       Intensive endurance: 80-85% max HR
·       Threshold training: 85-92% max HR
·       Interval training: 92-100% max HR
Due to intensity being based on HR rather than just how you feel, I recommend wearing a HR monitor for all your training sessions. I unfortunately can’t recommend how to structure your training program to incorporate those different sessions. That’s up to you. Or you can get a coach and he or she will sort it all out for you.

This refers to what ‘type’ of physical activity you do. Another way to describe it is specificity. Obviously for running the best way to get fit for running, is to run, rather than do another aerobic activity like cycling. Running can be in the form of intervals (3x1000m with 4 minutes of rest in between each repetition, for e.g.) or continuous (going for a 2 hour long run). The trick is getting a balance between these two core types of training and this balance depends on what you’re training for. The best way to get this balance right? You guessed, a running coach! But what also becomes interesting is the concept of cross-training. Can you do other types of training to make you a better runner? And current research says yes2,3! But it’s tricky, the other type of training I’m talking about is strength training and one article2 states that no gains can be made if the load between running and strength is incorrect due to a phenomenon known as the ‘interference effect’. Under the guidance of a strength and conditioning coach, recreational runners who followed a program that was designed for them had increases in peak running speed and increases in the strength of knee extensors (quadriceps) compared to a group which did no strength training3. Another paper focused on elite long-distance runners and they found that over a 40 week period, doing 2 strength sessions a week in a pre-season period and then once a week once the racing season had started improved running economy and VO2 max compared to the group of elite runners that didn’t do any strength training4. And here’s another interesting thing I found relating specifically to trail running. ‘Core’ training is all the rage these day. It seems you can’t be a trail-runner without doing some sort of core training. Well, it turns out it’s actually beneficial for performance. In a study which involved ultra-runners who were part of the Italian national team found that athletes which did a combination of core training, strength training and explosive/plyometric training on alternate days decreased their cost of running5. I.e. They increased their efficiency, compared to the ultra-runners who didn’t do any core/strength training. I suppose the take-home message is: do strength but in a certain way that doesn’t increase your injury risk or waste your time. Again, it’s beyond the scope of this article to explain different strength exercises to you, I mean Runner’s World online has about 1000 different articles as to what strength training you should do. But if you get a good coach, then he or she should be able to recommend to you what types of strength you should do and how to fit it into your training schedule.

This refers to how long you need to be exercising for. In order to improve aerobic fitness, at a minimum, each session you do needs to be at least 20 minutes. Of course, if you plan on running an ultra, you’ll be doing a few runs which last waayy longer than 20 minutes but it all depends on your goal. A coach will be able to guide you in the right direction.

Pheww, done! I hope I’ve impressed upon you how many factors are involved in writing up a training program. It’s fucking hard, man! I’ve messed up with myself more than a few times, but each time I do, I learn and I try not to make the same mistake again. I also hope I’ve shown why having a good coach which understands exercise prescription is an invaluable tool. It’s a lot of work writing up a training program which suits your needs and goals, and also a reason why my Exercise and Sport Science degree lasts 4 years. There is a lot to know to be an expert in this field. And I think I’ll end with the most invaluable article I’ve found, a reason to be lazy. I don’t know about you, but I hate stretching. I always thought it was a waste of time, and it turns out, it is (for long-distance runners)6! A systematic review of current literature (the highest form of scientific evidence there is) has found that static stretching immediately prior to a run decreases running efficiency. The review has also found that the majority of elite long distance runners are less flexible than their recreational counterparts, which aids the elites with hip stability. Also, there has yet to be a study which proves that stretching helps to decrease muscle soreness or indeed chronic injury levels. The authors of the review concluded that they couldn’t find any significant advantage of stretching for endurance runners. So there 😛

The TRN (and a 1st year Exercise and Sport Science student)

1: Yeo, W. K., Paton, C. D., Garnham, A. P., Burke, L. M., Carey, A. L., & Hawley, J. A. (2008). Skeletal muscle adaptation and performance responses to once a day versus twice every second day endurance training regimens. Journal of Applied Physiology, 105(5), 1462-1470. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.90882.2008
2: Hickson, R. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 45(2), 255-263. doi:10.1007/BF00421333
3: Taipale, S. R., Mikkola, J. J., Salo, J. T., Hokka, J. L., Vesterinen, J. V., Kraemer, J. W., . . . Häkkinen, J. K. (2014). Mixed Maximal and Explosive Strength Training in Recreational Endurance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(3), 689-699. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a16d73 
4:Beattie, P. K., Carson, C. B., Lyons, C. M., Rossiter, C. A., & Kenny, C. I. (2017). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(1), 9-23. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001464
5: Giovanelli, N., Taboga, P., Rejc, E., & Lazzer, S. (2017). Effects of strength, explosive and plyometric training on energy cost of running in ultra-endurance athletes. Eur. J. Sport Sci., 17(7), 805-813. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1305454
6: Baxter, C., Mc Naughton, L. R., Sparks, A., Norton, L., & Bentley, D. (2017). Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in Sports Medicine, 25(1), 78-90. doi:10.1080/15438627.2016.1258640

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Race Report: Blackall 50

The Blackall 50
I suppose this story begins the Thursday night before the race, after I got home from Oktoberfest in Fortitude Valley, when the message came through that due to the amount of rain the Mapleton area has received over the past couple weeks, the course would be changed to avoid the areas that have been flooded. This meant for me doing the 50km, the big climb up The Bluff got removed and instead a section around a dam was included, which was a lot flatter. When I found out this news I’ll admit I was a little annoyed, I like to think of myself as a pretty good climber and my former race plan prior to this news was to push really hard up the climb and to try my best on the flatter sections. With news that that the total elevation would be less I knew I would struggle to complete my, perhaps unrealistic, goal of winning the race.

I made a new race plan based off the times of last year, which was the same course as this year, and if I ran that goal time that I set myself, based on last year, I would win. Easy right?

Now that I've ran this course, I can safely say that the race plan is way off. 4.20 is easily achievable, however I would do some sections faster and other sections slower.
And with that I showed up to the start-line at 7am on Saturday morning, when it started to rain. Which didn’t stop for the entire day. The conditions were the polar opposite for what I trained for. Instead of hot and dry, it was cool and wet, which I was grateful for. I was really struggling in the heat during the build-up to this race.

Anyways, the gun went off and the next 3ish km’s were on the road. During this time I realised that I had no chance at winning. 1 person lead from the gun, never to be seen again (he ended up winning it in 4 hours 1 minute, the person who got second came through in 4 hours 9 minutes). However, I was still hopeful of a podium as I was in touch with the top 5 by the time we left the road and onto sweet single track for the next 5km’s, in the Mapleton National Park. During this time I lost a few positions as the single track section was fairly flat and I wasn’t willing to push myself so early on in the race. This meant when I went through the first checkpoint 9km in I had dropped back to 11th. I was feeling really good at this point and I knew that a large downhill section was coming up (based off the course profile, I had never been on the course prior to the day), and this was a section I would hopefully make up a bit of time. And for the first part, I did! The trail was a fire access road, that was bit muddy and slippery due to the rain, but not that technical. I was able to pick up around 4 positions until the 14km mark. I had just started the steepest descent (24% according to Strava) and there were a few rocks on the trail, as there had been for a few of the previous downhills. I suppose I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough or I was unlucky but when I put my left foot down I stepped on a rock and rolled it. As soon as I did it, I knew it wasn’t something that would go away after a few km’s. It hurt like hell! And it couldn’t have happened in a worst sport. I was 5km away from the previous checkpoint and 6km away from the next one. I’m grateful to the runners who passed me who offered their help, but they couldn’t do anything but inform the next checkpoint, which Troy did, so thanks Troy! 

The next km and a bit were agony. Every downhill and flat section were painful beyond words. It was brutal, I can’t remember ever being in so much pain during a run. But the climbs were ok, I could almost run up them without the pain being too great. And by the 17th km the pain had reduced enough for me to run on it almost normally. But the next approx. 35km were the hardest I’ve ever done. I’ve been asked why I didn’t drop out at checkpoint 5, 20km’s into the race and after thinking about it a lot, I can narrow it down to 3 main reasons. 
  1. The fact I could run on it at all 2km’s after I rolled it suggested to me that I hadn’t done any serious damage to my ankle. If I had I’m sure my body would’ve let me know. 
  2. There was no way I was going to quit after training since July for this race. I had put to much time and effort into this to drop out less than halfway through. There was no way I was going to have a DNF at the GC marathon, followed by another DNF at Blackall. No way. 
  3. Mental grit/toughness/fortitude, whatever you want to call it. If I want to do 100 mile races in the near future that are going to take over 24 hours to complete, I need to have experience of being in the ‘hurt-locker’. Because after talking to people who have done that distance, it’s going to hurt. I want to know what it’s like to hurt, to keep on going even when my body is telling me to me quit. Prior to this race, I haven’t experienced my body wanting to give up. I do now.
Once I had passed checkpoint 5 I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan of the course. We had to do a loop that was relatively flat, wet, muddy, along a fire road and the only thing to look at was trees. I went through a routine of running when my ankle didn’t hurt too bad, walk when it did. Repeat. One good thing to come out of the rolled ankle was the ability to talk to other racers. As I was walking a fair bit it meant that I wasn’t ‘puffed’ and I could strike up an enjoyable conversation with people that I never met before. People like Gav, who I found out was sweeping the 100km course later that night after completing the 50km. Crazy! (And he even managed a top 10 finish!) 
The Dam Loop
Once the loop was complete, it was time for a moderate climb (that would have been all runnable if not for my ankle) up a different road than the one we came down before going through checkpoint 4 and back along the same single track and down the bitumen road to the finish line, where I crossed in a time of 4.45.27, coming in 13th overall. And very, very happy I finished! I've finished races where I’ve placed better and raced better, but that feeling of accomplishment I got when I crossed the line when my body wanted me to quit, second-to-none. It’s hard to describe in words what I felt, but if people ask me why I run ultra’s. It’s partially due to feeling I got when I crossed that line.

To finish the race you have to ring the bell. I love that Run Queensland has included this!
Before starting this race I had the intention of never doing it again. Mostly because it doesn’t play to my strengths. Ankle notwithstanding, it took me 4 hours 17 minutes to complete the Brisbane Trail Marathon which featured 2000m worth of climbing/descending, when I was taking it easy and doing it as a training race. In comparison it took me 4 hours 13 minutes to hit 42km's during this race (about 1000m of climbing). I like climbing steep stuff and I like running downhill on steep stuff (this race is the first time I’ve rolled an ankle running downhill). Blackall is known as a fast, runnable course. Not my forte as I’m not particularly speedy. However, with my race not going the way I wanted it too, I’ll be back. I’m not sure when, but I’ll be back, and I’ll be doing the 100km.

As always there are a ton of thank-you’s and acknowledgments I wish to make. The first one is to Felix and May. As I don’t own a car I would’ve had difficulty getting out to the race if you didn’t take me out there and back. Thanks so much! And well done once again on completing the 100km in abysmal conditions. Thanks to all the volunteers who helped out over the weekend, without you guys these races wouldn’t happen. And well done to anyone who was out on the course past 1pm, the weather went from being bearable to disgusting. So much respect. There is also a runner named David, who I didn’t meet until late at night after I had finished. He was 60 and he got 3rd in the 50km, against racers who were half his age. You’re an inspiration, when I’m an old dude I want to be as fit, fast and humble as you! And lastly, thanks to the Run Queensland organisers. This was my first event with them and considering the logistical nightmare it must’ve been to change the course two days before the race due to rain, the race was really well organised. It was a great race to be a part of.

After seeing a doctor, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t have done any serious damage to my ankle. Which is good news as I’ll be doing my next ultra in about a month’s time in Victoria’s Alps, a 60km featuring a lot more climbing, I’m really looking forward to it! Until then, it’s all about the rest and recovery!