Monday, 8 July 2013

West Highland Way Race Lessons Learned

Whilst it was relatively fresh in my mind I thought I’d record my thoughts on my training and preparation for this year’s WHW race. Everyone who attempts this epic race will have their own views and thoughts, no two runners are the same and there is no definitive right way to go about it, although I’m sure there are lots of wrong ways.

I found it very useful to read other peoples thoughts and experiences and pinched what I hoped would be all the best bits to build into my own plan. I’m very definitely not saying my way is the best way, but it was the best way for me to achieve my goal given my running history; experience and job, which was always a sub 24 hour finish. Over 800 people have completed the race, many have written reports and blogs of their experience, why re-invent the wheel when you can use this fabulous repository of knowledge.
The West Highland Way Race pod casts produced by John Kynaston are brilliant, I’ve listened and re-listened to them, so should you!

I built up to running this race after 18 months of preparation, running my first Ultra (D33) in January 2012, followed by the Fling and the Glen Ogle 33, I also mixed in 2 road marathons and the usual scattering of half marathons and 10Ks and ran the D33 and the Fling this year.

The WHW is off road, so from January 2012 I switched the majority of my training and especially my long weekend run to trails. I live 5 minutes from Mabie Forest which has miles of forest road and mountain bike trails, wherever possible I ran on these. Mid-week runs tended to be back on the road and as my fitness improved I found my road speed didn’t diminish. If your training for an off road race you should be training off road.

Don’t over train, it’s easy to get swept up with the social Media communities and chat groups, don’t get me wrong they are brilliant, I love them and participate enthusiastically. But…..just because someone posts in January “Third night of back to back runs, mileage for the week 59 miles, giving 214 miles for the month” doesn’t mean you need to match them. The race is in June not January, work out your plan and stick to it, your plan, not everyone else’s.
Every year there are people who don’t make it to the start line in Milngavie because they battered their body in January and February – Don’t over train.

I aimed to run at least once a month on the actual route itself, I managed this, but I still felt my knowledge of the 2nd half could have been better. I would say this is a must do, you need to know the route.
For me the WHW race was my A race this year, from January to June everything I did fitted into my overall training plan, I ran the D33 and the Fling not as races in their own right but as stepping stones to the Way itself. Physically I ran well in both races and mentally getting pb’s in both very much kept me on track, conversely I’m sure if I’d “bonked” at either race my head would not have been in the right place for the Way race.

I noted that a few people ran the London marathon the week before the Fling and possibly as a consequence didn’t have a good Fling and either subsequently pulled out of the WHW or struggled on the day. Now it’s easy for me to say the above as I didn’t get a VLM place but I suspect if I had I’d have deferred it.
I’m not one of the racing snakes at the front of the field, so I knew it would be a massive challenge and I would need to be completely single minded about my training, both in type, intensity and mileage. From January 1st to June 18th I ran 1044 miles in total against a background of around 1700 miles in total for 2012.

Practise running in the dark, you’ll start in the dark and almost certainly finish in the dark so practise it and I mean proper dark on the trail not street lit pavements. Get a decent head torch and try it out, what seems bright in your bedroom, may not be so effective in the great outdoors.
There is no magic bullet? – I’ve blogged about this separately, but for me it really was about putting in the training miles. It’s not the magic shoes or the latest compression gear or the wonder gel, for me it is simple. You’re going to run a 95 mile race; you need to put in a lot of miles and a lot of time on your feet. You can tough out a marathon on limited training; you could possibly bluff out a shorter ultra-too, there is no place to hide on a 95 mile race. If you’re not prepared to commit to the training don’t sign up for the race in the first place.

If you’re training for a marathon typically your longest run would be 22 miles, 85 % of the final distance. This equates to 80 miles for the WHW, palpably not feasible for all but the elites. The answer?..... for me it was back to back trail runs, typically 18 – 24 miles on a Saturday and 12 – 18 on a Sunday. Mid-week minimum of two runs 10 – 12 miles, sometimes squeezing in a 3rd one.
My mileage plan was cobbled together from George Reid’s D33 training plan, John Kynaston’s WHW plan, a 100 mile Ultra plan I found on the web and fitting and stretching round the Balmaha & Tyndrum training weekends and the Fling itself.

Make sure you arrange your support well in advance and plan your support dependant on your expected finish time. So what do I mean by that?

I was aiming for a 24 hour finish; your support runner can’t run with you until 50 miles (assuming you’re not within 4 hours of the leader), if they’ve been up all night on the Friday, they are going to be just as knackered as you are before they even start running!
My main support runner enjoyed a good night’s sleep on Friday a leisurely drive to Tyndrum and started running from Bridge of Orchy, he still ended up running 35 miles which is no small feat in itself.

Whilst enthusiasm is great, experience wins for me. I was lucky to have both an experienced and enthusiastic support crew. I saw (and have read blogs of) support crew standing around while the runner refilled their own back packs. The support crew has one single purpose, namely to help their runner get to Fort William and to allow the runner to concentrate on the single task of running. Now it could be that their runner hadn’t briefed them before hand, but your support stops should be like an F1 pit stop with the runner as the centre of attention.
On a similar vein, minimise the time you spend at checkpoints/support stops, I’ve read of runners just missing their target time, but when you read their reports they’ve spent ages at each stop when in reality all they needed was a bottle change and a snack. They could have been in and out in 2 minutes but instead farted around for 10.

Even with a sub 24 hour finish, my crew were knackered by the end, if you realistically reckon you’ll be running through the second night I’d have two separate crews.
Make sure your support know what they have to do, we had a get together 2 weeks before the event and ran through every aspect of support. Thinks we covered included

  • Who would be running and which sections
  • Vehicle logistics
  • Who’d have the weigh card
  • What did I expect food wise at each stop
  • Approximate timings (for the first half at least)
  • Food, your support have to eat too
By the time we’d finished I was happy that not only did I know what was happening but that the whole team knew the plan.

Starting in January I carried a notepad and every time I thought of something for the race weekend I wrote it down. If you think you’ll remember it you won’t. If you think you might need something, pack it, better to be there and not used than sitting in the cupboard back home.

Book your accommodation early in Fort William and remember you’ll almost certainly need to book for both the Saturday and Sunday nights.
I took both the Friday before and Monday after as holidays; if or when I do it again I’ll take the Tuesday too.

Try out everything you might use on the race itself. You shouldn’t use anything on the day that you’ve not tried out thoroughly beforehand. This goes for clothing, shoes, kit and food. You can’t replicate a 95 mile run, so use your long training runs to work out what food suits you, you WILL need to eat on the day. You probably won’t feel like eating so you need to force yourself to keep refuelling. The same goes for hydration work out whether you want water or isotonic or both, some people swear by flat coke, whatever you opt for try it out first.

Personally I use a Salomon backpack with one bottle of Isotonic and one of water. Initially I used a camelback but I found it a real pain to refill and I ended up under hydrating because I couldn’t tell how much I’d drank. Lots of runners will swear by camelbacks, either way, work out well in advance what works for you.
Clothing is probably the ultimate personal choice, from marvellous Mimi Anderson who always wears pink to the speedsters who only wear vest and shorts irrespective of weather. I was lucky my race was pretty dry, but I still used 6 different running tops; 3 pairs of shorts, 4 pairs of socks and 2 rain jackets

Very much a personal choice, I used Salomon Speedcross 3’s, I’d done most of my training in my original pair, but had bought and broken in an identical pair as back-up. Between Tyndrum & Bridge of Orchy I felt like I was running on gravel, when I took out the insoles, the underside was in bits. I’d run something around 800 miles in them, the grip was badly worn but they were comfy. With hindsight I should have binned them well before the race it would have saved my sore feet in the last 30 miles, something I’d never experienced before.

Take a variety of shoes both for running and afterwards, my feet were so swollen I was wearing sandals until the Wednesday, very smart with my business suit.

This area is probably where I’ll differ most from some other members of the “West Highland Way Family”. From the moment I applied for the race there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d cross the finish line, the time may have been up for debate but I’d definitely finish.
It’s such a big race and such a big training commitment that for me you have to have an absolute certainty in your own mind you’ll finish, right from the start of the process.


Having prattled and bored you with the Gospel according to Ainslie, what if anything did I get wrong and what would I do differently.  Happily with my OCD preparation this isn’t a long list.
I shouldn’t have started with very high mileage, knackered shoes
I should have run more on the 2nd half of the route so I knew the route better

Provided you've not lost the will to live and have read this far I'll say it again for the record, there is no single right way to train and prepare for this race.

There are lots of things that can go wrong that are unavoidable and unpredictable like injury and sickness. There are however lots of things that you can avoid by proper preparation and forethought which will minimise the possibility of failure and maximise the prospect of success.



1 comment:

  1. Re. your conjectural 85% distance run, I'm pretty sure (from a reliable source or sources I can't currently locate) that 50% distance is considered appropriate for ultras and there are no obvious benefits to going longer.