Saturday, 30 June 2012

Endurancelife Classic Quarter 44 Mile Ultra - Mind Games

Hi Again



A little delayed but it is taking me a while to get back into blogging mode after my lengthy time off.  As the Classic Quarter 44 mile ultra approached, my first ultra trail race in over six months, the self doubts regarding my ability to perform back to my usual level prior to my lengthy time off from running was a real issue, which required serious attention during my preparation.  Yes, this race really demonstrated the truthfulness of Chris McCormack's (Australian Triathlete, Double Hawaii Ironman winner and heaps more) words of wisdom from his 2011 book titled I'm Here to Win: "The mind games that take place before the starting gun ever fires is really the critical point of a race."

Back in January I planned by seven races for the year.  Each year I try to support the Runfurther UK Ultra-running championship series, so when I saw that the Classic Quarter 44 mile ultra was part of the series, I immediately sorted out my entry.  Being an Endurancelife race, one is guaranteed that the course would contain awesome scenery, be well organised, and be a real challenge.  Then came February, my fractured foot, and no running at all for exactly eight weeks.  During this time I was in New Zealand with other priorities, so it was pretty well a complete rest for two months.

Now one can read the running magazines and the dated text books on 'Principles of Training' and the principle of reversibility, i.e. how quickly one loses fitness when not training.  Over the last few years I have realised the many limitations of the sports science literature prior to 2000, so I knew this reversibility issue shouldn't really be a concern, as performance is determined by much more than simply physiology.  However, even knowing this doesn't stop the self doubt from occurring.

So ten weeks out from the Classic Quarter race, and therefore 15 weeks prior to the Montane Lakeland 100 (my key race for the year) I slowly jogged a few miles to test out my foot.  Verdict, okayish, but as you would expect, with none or minimal weight bearing for 8 weeks, the foot isn't going to feel right!  But for whatever reason, I had decided that 10 and 15 weeks were the minimum time duration I required to be able to perform to my absolute best in the 44 and 105 mile races respectively, so I had no choice, I had to continue my run training, having another week off, was not an option.  I had been doing that for the previous three weeks!

Fortunately my brother-in-law, the 'famous' Ken Maclaren, from the Triathlon publishing company KinEli Publishing just by chance was slowly getting back into running after a year off due to a dodgy knee.  So my first week back into run training was a maximum of 4 miles at around 11 minutes per mile pace.  Exactly what I needed to ensure I didn't over do it!

As you can imagine jogging very slowly at 11 minutes per mile pace for 40 minutes max doesn't really instil confidence regarding the possibility of blasting off the front at the start of my upcoming two races, my usual strategy that I adopt to illustrate the appropriateness of my "Run as fast as you can, while you can" philosophy!  At around the same time I discover that Pete Roper, three times winner and record holder of the Classic Quarter race has entered, and the self doubt begins to escalate.  Those of you that haven't heard of Pete Roper, wouldn't know that pretty well every trail race he enters he wins, many in some pretty impressive times for off-road marathons.  I had never raced the guy, so although lacking in self confidence, I was sort of excited about the prospect of finally racing him.

So as I gradually build up both the pace and duration of my runs, having convinced myself that ten weeks physical preparation was fine, the real battle was to master the self doubt due to my lengthy time off.  What was my strategy?  Well fortunately being in New Zealand, not working and not training I had the luxury of some spare time.  I joined the local library and read quite a few sporting biographies, including two books about Jack Lovelock, one being a recently published transcript of his training diaries.  Now I guess probably 99% of non-kiwis would have never heard of Jack Lovelock, but if you are from New Zealand then you would be well aware of his running feats, World Record holder for the mile in 1933 in a time of 4:07, pretty well unbeaten for the mile/1500m for the entire race season of 1935, and then winning the 1500m Gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in a World Record time!  Now what was so significant regarding Jack Lovelock was that at the end of the 1935 race season, by choice, he took four months off totally!  From October 1935 through to February 1936 he did not run, not even once!  He did some long hikes/walks and the occasional boxing match, but no running.  So here was the World's best miler in the 1930s, able to regain is form, to set another World record after having 4 months of non-running.  So me having two complete months of, not a problem.  If he could set a World record, then surely I shouldn't have any problem in regaining my previous race fitness.

The one thing unique about my preparation for the Classic Quarter, different to other race preparations was that this time my preparation included focussing on one athlete.  For all other races, I simply focus on myself, and totally ignore the likely opposition.  I always find it is better to focus on what you can control.  But for this race, the prospect of racing Pete Roper who had won the Classic Quarter three times, each in record times of 7:17, 7:14 and then the amazingly quick 6:33  further confirmed that extensive preparation were needed in order to prevail!  But here I am, two weeks into training still not having run further than 6 miles in 45 minutes!  Extensive physical preparation wasn't the answer, so instead of my usual 40-50 miles physical and 40 - 50 miles non physical training per week, the volume of non physical training was increased. Yes, as far as I was concerned I was now a 100 mile a week athlete!

What do I mean by non physical training?  Well this consists of training to win the battle over the self doubts, that I was finding difficult to keep at bay!  Jack Lovelock's story was a good starting point, and then I read more books about other New Zealand athletes such as Anne Audain, John Walker, Peter Snell and Dick Taylor.  All of them had the same message, the essential need to have self-belief, to overcome the doubts that always nag within one's mind.  So as my physical training was slowly progressing, my non physical training was accelerating.  I was storing away within my mind every little bit of positive evidence I could to build up my self-belief that come the start line of firstly the Classic Quarter and then a bit later in the year the Lakeland 100, that the confidence would be present to run my usual race, without any fear of suffering later due to any perceived lack of preparation.  This is the key to performance, all great endurance athletes tell the same story, conquer the self doubt, and you conquer the event, which subsequently conquers the opposition!

In addition to reading sporting biographies I researched the race, everything I could about the course, the village names, the location on the Cornwall coast.  Prior to my preparation I had no idea Lands End is actually the most western point of Britain, not the most southern.  I sourced photos of the course, previous race reports, race finish times etc.  All the hours doing this research, I recognised as training, and allowed me to create more realistic visualisations of the race.  Leading up to the race, pretty well every run on my own, I ran the race in my head.  And as mentioned above, it involved running away from not just all of the anonymous runners, but for this race, running away from Pete Roper at the start of the race.  I researched his race splits in comparison to other runners in his races and found that he typically runs with the lead group to around two-thirds / three-quarters of the race before moving away.  Great I thought, this suits my strategy perfectly.  So the visualisations of leaving him for dead at the start of the race, was a 'done deal'!  Not a problem, without any doubt easily accomplished.  And from that success in self-confidence, the rest of the race visualisations follow a similar successful pattern.

One key feature of these visualisations is that the more material you have to create the visualisations, the more real they are, and therefore the more successful at entering your sub-conscious.  This is the level which you have to work on.  Yes, it is simple to say to yourself, I will run hard, I will grit my teeth, try my best, push myself to the limit.  But all of this is at the conscious level.  It works to a tiny degree, but only minimally.  It is the removal of self-doubt, the creation of self-expectations of what you are capable of, at the sub-conscious level, that massively determines performance.  This takes extensive preparation, and with less than ten weeks of race preparation, hence the need to increase my weekly 'mileage'.  Including Pete Roper within my visualisations stressed the importance to me that thorough training was going to be required to out perform such a quality athlete.  My at times casual approach to training was not going to be sufficient.

In addition to making the visualisation real, the race time/duration component of the race is paramount.  Having a realistic clear race duration is essential in order for your sub-conscious to have a meaningful conversation between your body and mind (although the two components do act as one - conversations still take place).  You must know whether you are going to race for 6 hours or 8 hours.  The race duration severely affects one's race focus energy in relation to one's running pace.  If you are only racing a half marathon, then running at half marathon pace isn't that mentally difficult, it demands standard levels of race focus energy.  However, try running at half marathon pace when racing the first half of a marathon.  Physiologically nothing has changed, however, it is so so much more mentally demanding, it feels heaps harder, the race focus energy to maintain the same pace is massively more, because of the expectations that have been established at the sub-conscious level.  So my visualised race duration for the Classic Quarter, simple, 6:32, i.e. one minute quicker that Pete Roper's course record.

Well finally let's get to race day.  Well it didn't take me long to get back into my rather lengthy blog posts!  I arrive in Cornwall on the Friday evening and discover that Pete Roper is not racing, apparently injured,  One part of me is relieved, phew!  But the other part is angry!  I had spent 10 weeks,  preparing to 'leave him for dead' on the start line.  Luckily I had overnight to try to reset my strategy.  re-alter my visualisations, at this late stage to try to adjust my sub-conscious.  Hopefully this example illustrates that including other athletes within your visualisations / your preparations is not wise.  You can't control them!  Always better to simply focus on yourself, what you can control.

As I head to the Penzance Youth Hostel for last minute preparations, just by chance I happen to bump into two amazing guys. Yes, it just so happens that staying at the youth hostel on the Friday night were Mal Law from NZ and Tom Bland from the UK.  Just by chance whilst in NZ I stumbled across their website about the amazing charity run that these two guys were planning to undertake in June, i.e. running the complete South West Coastal Path of 630 miles in 14 days.  And here I was chatting to them as they were trying to refuel after completing their sixth day of the journey.  They looked pretty exhausted, and it appeared to me that they somehow had lost the most important ingredient required in order to perform, that being retaining the joy of running, i.e. enjoying the present moment whilst running.  Now I have never attempted something as ambitious as these two guys were doing.  It was truly a demanding challenge, so I didn't convey my thoughts regarding the need for enjoyment, as I felt my lack of really knowing what was involved didn't qualify me to comment.  Anyway it was great to chat to them about their experience, albeit after their sixth long hard day, positivity wasn't really flowing.  I'm not sure how they got on,  Details regarding their awesome challenge are on their website unfortunately the daily blogs aren't up to date.  But Mal and Tom if you are reading this a huge well done to both of you.


I get to sleep in the Penzance Youth Hostel dorm with three alarms set for 3:04, 3:06 and 3:08 am. just to prevent any possibility of over sleeping.  I wake up at 2:59am before my alarms so fortunately don't wake anyone else up.  I immediately conclude, yes, today everything will go to plan.  Remember the importance of filing away every bit of positive evidence you can, to confirm that your high self expectations are valid.  A quick drive to Lands End, the finish line, and onto the bus to transport us runners to the start.  I meet the 'ever present' Nick Ham, who I think is half way through completing his third, or maybe his fourth Runfurther Grand Slam, that involves running all 12 races in the series each year. 

We arrive at a wind blown Lizard Point, register in the village hall, before strolling down to the very southern tip of the UK.  I guess there are around 150 other runners all set to race 44 miles into an extremely strong head/cross wind, back to Lands End.  I chat to various runners, totally calm, which really surprises me,  Considering where I was at less than ten weeks ago, with the self-doubt rapidly developing, to be in such a calm state, totally confident that my preparations had gone well was quite an achievement,  Yes as Chris McCormack stated above "The mind games that take place before the starting gun ever fires is really the critical point of a race."  Why was I so confident?  Well mainly due to the fact that I had carried out 100 equivalent miles per week for the last 6 weeks or so.  In terms of my physical training, the 9 weeks of complete running miles were; 30, 25, 65, 22, 44, 67, 38, 79 and 55 miles.  During that time I had run five times longer than 15 miles, with 2 runs over 20 miles, being 22 and 25 miles.  Many ultra runners may consider this level of physical training as a bit on the light side, but to me I was totally happy with my preparation for an undulating 44 mile trail race.

Having sorted out my 'not recommended' preparation overnight of having focussed on one athlete within my visualisation, I had readjusted my strategy to start of quick, but not at a ridiculous pace and if need be to run with the lead group.  The race starts and without starting too fast, before I know it I am out on my own in the lead.  So much for potentially running within a lead group!  Well I don't need a second 'offering' to lead the race, so for the next 10 - 15 minutes I run at a pretty high intensity, never looking behind to see how close the following runners are.  The focus here was to run my own race, focus on what I can do, challenge myself, test out my race fitness, assess just how good my TOTAL training had been.

Probably around one hour into the race, I get a glimpse of second place.  To my surprise he was not much more that 40 - 50 seconds behind.  I think right, this could be a battle, he's just watching me, keeping an eye on me.  I continue along the absolutely awesome coastal path, with a real mixture of terrain including shingle beach, steep climbs, grass cliff tops etc.  At two hours into the race we run around the very picturesque village harbour of Porthleven.  As I complete the loop around the harbour, I am again able to judge my lead, which would have been around 4 minutes.  A bit more substantial but still felt quite close.  I am however quite pleased that the second place getter is still reasonably near as it keeps me focused to run hard, not to ease off.

Around the 22 mile mark - Battling tthe headwind towards Penzance

The miles just seems to fly by due to a combination of the amazing views, as well as the need to really keep 'your wits about you' in order to remain on the coastal path, as it times it wasn't really obvious.  There is a really tough stretch along the flat cycle path directly into the strong headwind as the coastal path heads towards Penzance.  And then a few more miles of road following Penzance before re-joining the undulating off-road coastal path through to checkpoint three at Lamona Cove and then the last water station at Minack Theatre, with just a little over 4 miles to go.  Throughout the race I had been keeping a casual eye on my race time, and occasionally checking my GPS watch displaying the miles covered.  Each time my rough calculations confirm that a sub 6:30 was likely hence beating my visualisation record breaking finish time.  However, upon reaching the last drink station, it becomes clear that although I had noticed that I had eased of the pace, due to the messages in my head arguing, "take it easy, you are literally miles ahead, don't overdo it, remember your key race is only 5 weeks away!"  It was now clear that breaking the record may now not be a certainty. 

My GPS trace near the finish

Whether due to the slight panic of the need to get a move on, I'm not totally sure, but after having successfully navigated myself along the South West Coastal Path for the previous six hours, I now discover that I have somehow run off course and have ended up being inland.  Rather than back tracking I decide to continue along the footpath (without the acorn symbols) which seems to be taking a long about way of returning to the coast.  I make my way up a steady climb along a muddy farm track before reaching the top of the small rise.  I can see the coastline clearly ahead, and Lands Ends is in the distant to my right.  I have a dilemma, do I turn left and return back to the coast line at my first opportunity which will definitely result in losing many minutes, or do I continue straight ahead and re-join the coast after it has curved towards to north, which would probably balance out my going off course, but more likely result in a slight short cut!  The desire of setting the record is tempting.  No one would know the route I travelled, that is except me! 

The purple dashes showing the coastal path.  The blue dashes showing the tempting short cut!

After a few seconds of indecision, pleasingly now, I make the correct decision, and head straight back to the coast, and re-join the coastal path with a sign showing Minack Theatre 1.5 miles.  My GPS watch shows that I have run closer to two miles since leaving the drink station at Minack Theatre.  The error gets me angry and my pace rapidly increases as I try to regain the lost time over the last 2.5 miles.  The large buildings are clearly visible in the distance, and it becomes obvious that breaking the record is no longer possible.  I continue to run hard and finish in a time of 6:35:53, 2 minutes 43 seconds slower than the record.  Although there is some disappointment at missing the record, overall I am really pleased with my performance.  Second place runner is Neil Kirk in 7:31, using the race as good preparation for the 200 mile Dragons Back race at the start of September, only finishing ahead of third place Oli Bloomfield by 31 seconds.  First place women, Isobel Wykes, was closely behind in 7:34, with Lucy Clayton second (8:14) and Nichola Taylor third (8:32). Race results.

I chat to the Endurancelife guys that have put on such a superb event, and then shortly afterwards compare my checkpoint split times with the first relay team of four, who start 30 minutes behind me.  One excellent feature of  Endurancelife races is that immediately upon crossing the finish line you received a small printout of your race splits.  The relay team of four have beaten me, by six minutes.  After gaining a good lead over them during the first two legs up to 22 miles, I lose 1 minute to their third relay runner on leg three, and then lose 19 minutes over the last 11 miles!  Yes, those messages within my head encouraging me to ease off were successful.  Looking at my heart rate trace, between 32 and 40 miles my average heart rate was between 5 - 10 beats per minute lower.  (Click here to go to Garmin Connect to view my GPS and Heart rate data).  Yes a substantial easing off!  I wasn't fatigued, I just was 'weak' within my mind, as Chris McCormack expresses it (see signing off quote in my pre race blog post), I listened to the "bad angel on my shoulder" wanting to slow me down.

Well, already within three blog posts, I'm back to my usual ultra length duration.  With now only four weeks exactly to the Montane Lakeland 100, being back up to my usual performance is required.  Now time to move it on up to the next level of performance.  Yes, 15 weeks preparation now feels ideal.  The perfect duration of build-up for a perfect performance.  Reminder, every bit of positive evidence you can seize, store it away within your mind.

I subtitled this race report "Mind Games", hopefully I have illustrated just how important these mind games are.

Time to sign off with a relevant quote from another great endurance athlete, Chrissie Wellington, from her book titled "A Life Without Limits".

“Remaining positive really is one of the most precious faculties for any athlete.  That, and an ability to stay focused and disciplined.  Develop a mind bank of positive images and thoughts – family, friends, previous successes, favourite places, a big plate of chips.  You need to build it up as you would any collection, but soon you will have a range of thoughts to flick through when next your body and soul are screaming out for relief”.

All the best with your mind games,



  1. Congratulations Stu.

    Good to read you are doing the Lakeland 100.

    Look forward to catching up with you there.


  2. fascinating as ever, Stu and well done.


  3. Congratulations Stu. As Dale says, fascinating stuff.

    Just one observation- not a criticism so take it as you will.
    You spend a lot of time on mental focus and prep for a race only to go a bit wonky on the navigation side of things. High Peak 40 last year was one example. Also I did run with you a bit on a Lakes 100 recce last year, Ambleside-Coniston, and you did mention you went different ways to the specified route on 2 occasions there too.
    If your using a Garmin 305 why not just load a track onto it and follow that, you can forget about nav then and concentrate on your mental focus.

    Once again, well done and good luck at L100

  4. Once again a terrific report and magnificent race. I'm really glad that you bounced back from the injury. I just came across a great quote which I think sums up the total preparation strategy.

    "When facing a razor-sharp sword in mortal combat, the ancient samurai knew the importance of physical skill, but they also knew that skill alone was not enough if their minds were distracted or their emotion in turmoil. These warriors didn't play to win or lose; they played to live or die. If they had a weakness, they could not ignore it or pretend it didn't exist. The ancient wariors knew that like a chain, our lives break at weakest link. Their lives depended on complete and equal training of body, mind and emotion."
    From the book NO ORDINARY MOMENTS by Dan MILLMAN


  5. A really interesting read followed up by a great report of your race. Cracking effort, hope your training continues without interruption and see you at Lakeland! Paul

  6. Thanks for all the above comments. Yes, it will be good to have a chat before the Lakeland 100 John, and Paul, please introduce yourself at Coniston if I am about.

    Thanks for the observation Simon. Although it appears that I do tend to go off course occasionally, I would actually rate my navigation skills as good, although it is always a bit harder trying to stay on course when racing at a quite a high intensity, e.g. High Peak 40 in 2010.

    Yes, I could load a GPS trace into my Garmin, but maybe call me old fashioned, but the idea of this just doesn't feel right. Although I wear a GPS watch while racing I try not to look at it. I try to focus on the present moment, enjoying the scenery and stayng focused on keeping to the route. The idea of focusing on a GPS watch to guide me the way just doesn't appeal. In addition the potential of tripping whilst keeping an eye on the GPS display is also a risk I would rather avoid.

    One of my philosophies is to take total responsibility for one's performance on race day. If I began to rely on my GPS watch to get me around the course, and then the batteries went, or it simply lost the satellites then the negativity that it would likely generate would lose potentialy far more time than going slightly off course. Thanks for the feedback though Simon, much appreciated.

    Great quote Aykut. I am a big fan of Dan Millman and have read a few of his books. I recently came across the book you quote from in a charity shop, and it is on my next to read list. No doubt you have seen his movie Peaceful Warrior. If you haven't, and to all other trail runners out there, I would strongly encourage you to get the DVD. You wont find a better ultra trail pre race TOTAL preparation movie.


  7. Cracking run, Stuart. Good to see you in Cornwall. Another day and the record would have been yours! I hope you are well recovered and best of luck for the Lakeland next week!

    1. Hi Dan, Well done on your 100 UTSW run. Thanks for the 'good luck' for the Lakeland 100. Yes, preparation has gone well so I am really looking forward to a great event, although I doubt I will match your very impressive 19 hours 30 mins! Stuart