Saturday, 24 May 2014

5 Lessons I learnt running the 2 Oceans

A hard earned Bronze
Race Report: 2 Oceans Ultra 56km - 19 April 2014

Despite this being my second 2 Oceans, I learnt more in this race than any other I have ever run. So rather than documenting it as standard tears and fears from start to finish I thought I would list the 5 lessons that I took out of it in the hope that I can implement this in future races.

1. Prepare for your current fitness levels, not for what you wish they were

Last year I ran my first 2 Oceans Ultra which was also only my third marathon. My running mentor, hero and friend El Hoborino (the guy who got me to start this crazy sport and veteran of three 2 Oceans and four Comrades) and I went at a decent pace until Constantia Nek when things failed badly and I limped home to a 5h28. I put that down to a poor first attempt and at the time decided that I would work to break 5 hours this time round. My training was going well in the latter parts of 2013 and when I broke 100 minutes for the Gun Run in October I thought I was on track. Unfortunately I struggled a bit earlier this year when I sprained my ankle and then got hit with 2 bouts of the great stomach bug of Cape Town '14 which meant I hardly ran in February. Despite this break in crucial training weeks, I was still convinced the sub-5 was a possibility and so all my pre-race planning and pacing strategies were built on this goal. I ran a 3h45 qualifying marathon and it was at this point that I should have adjusted my goals. I instead went into the race with the attitude of, let me go for the sub-5 and if I crash and burn, at least I put myself in the position. What I didn't realise however is that I was never really in the position of a sub-5 hour, I didn't possess the resources. It is kind of like a rugby team showing up to a match with only 8 men, they might put themselves in the game, but they will get drilled unless the bring the rest of their team with them. I could have saved my mind and body a lot of agony by realising this before the starting gun.

2. You never buy time, you only borrow it and pay it back with interest

I heard this said by Dr Ross Tucker on one of the route podcasts 2 days before the event. At the time I laughed because prior to that, my whole race strategy was on starting as fast as possible to buy time for Constantia Nek. I promised to start slowly and conservatively and then promptly broke my promise. We started on sub 5min kilometres which was completely unnecessary. I felt like I was pushing myself too hard but I was so focused on the sub-5 that I ignored it. It was at about 22km when I first realised I was being silly and at 28km I told El Hoborino to head on without me (he would go on to finish in 4h52). We crossed the half-way point in 2h24 so I had 'bought' plenty of time. From the bottom of Chappies it was pretty much a struggle most of the way to the end. Just over the top of Chappies is the 35km point which means there is just a half marathon to the end. At that point I needed to do about a 1h45 half marathon to finish in under 5 hours which wasn't completely crazy but once again the deceptively long downhill coming off Chappies killed me and I could see my average pace slowly climbing. The passage from Chapmans Peak Hotel to the bottom of Constantia Nek was painful and I focused on running for 9 minutes, walking for 1. As I continued I got slower and slower and that's when I knew I was paying my time back and the interest rates are very high in this race. I did the second half of the race in 3h09 which meant I added on a full 45 minutes on the second half. To put that in perspective, that is an average of 1m36 longer per kilometre (an interest rate of about 32%...I must have been borrowing from Joshua Doore).

3. The race begins somewhere near the end

Last year when I ran 2 Oceans I had such a fear about Chapman's Peak that it took up all my focus. I got to the top easily and was so psyched that I didn't realise that there was still another half marathon to do. This year my focus was a lot better in this respect in that I knew that I needed to make it to the top of Constantia Nek before even thinking about relaxing. Prior to the race, whenever I drove that hill (which is most days) I memorized various aspects of it in order to eliminate the fear. When things started going badly on Chappies this year I immediately started incorporating walk breaks to preserve my limited energy for the Nek. I started the hill knowing exactly where the markers were for 2km, 1.5km, 1km and 500m to the top. Despite my exhaustion, the hill didn't take as much out of me as last year which helped motivate for me the last stretch to UCT. By this stage, the sub-5 was long gone and I was trying to salvage my race from my earlier stupidity but I was too exhausted to do much. Despite my efforts, others still came cruising past me and I am sure many of them covered the last 14km at least 20 minutes quicker than me earning themselves respectable times. From this I learnt that I can't just be focused on how to get up that hill when I get there, I need to focus on it from the start of the race. I lost so much time on that final quarter because the damage was already done. The benefits of that final kick are incredible and so I fully believe that the entire pacing strategy for the first 3 quarters of the race must revolve around ensuring that there is plenty in the tank to blitz the last leg. It is basically a 42km warm-up and then a 14km race.

4. A long run is the same thing as brunch

In hind sight, not the
best pre-race nutrition
A highlight of my varsity years was when the residence dining hall would hold a brunch. This would happen one Sunday a semester and we would all descend on the hall which is where we would stay for about 4 hours continually dishing up more plates of food. After all, what is brunch but a meal that starts before breakfast and ends after lunch? I thought I had done my research on race nutrition but once again, realised I had no idea what I was doing. Nutrition is a personal bug bear of mine as I tend to (I think) metabolize food very quickly and hence get very hungry on my long runs. I am not a supporter of the low carb high fat diet as I believe that without carbs I will quickly waste away to the point that the strong Cape Town winds might cause a problem if I step outside. In my training I tried to do most of my morning runs of about 1 to 1.5 hours fasted in order to increase my ability to convert fat into energy (disclaimer, I have no idea if I am getting the science of any of this right but this is how I understand it based on what I have read). Partly as an act of rebellion against the LCHF crowd, I embarked on a massive carbo-loading drive the week before the race. This, along with my lack of exercise (I took tapering way too seriously), meant I probably started the race heavier than my body is used to which meant that my muscles would have had to work harder to power me along. I had read that it takes about 90 minutes to deplete my glycogen stores and perhaps longer if my heart rate is low enough to use more fat energy. So my plan was to eat my first Racefood Nougat at about 90 minutes in and then alternate between a Hammer Gel and a Racefood every half an hour. What I think ended up happening though is that as I started too fast I depleted my glycogen stores very quickly but then refused to eat until 90 minutes. I had half a Racefood only at about 1h45 (half marathon mark) and then lost my appetite after that. By the time I got to half way the cravings had taken over as I think my body was all over the place as it needed energy from somewhere. I had some par cooked potatoes at 28km and then half a banana at 34km and by the time I got to Constantia Nek I had no energy and felt I needed a boost. I was craving coke and offered myself a reward of a coke when I got to the top. Every time I have coke in a race it has a bad effect where I tend to spike and drop too quickly resulting often in cramps. I was in a world of pain by the top and quickly grabbed a coke and a Bar-one from the friendly people. My thinking was that this spike would give me the motivation and energy to beast the last lasted about 1km. Filled with sugar I set off down the windy road enjoying myself for the first time since Noordhoek. About 5 minutes in the sugar wore off and both my legs cramped up completely. The energy and motivation were there but what wasn't there, clearly, was electrolytes. I resolved to just make it to the next water table to get some hydration but unfortunately this was a coke and powerade only table. I had some powerade (another mistake as I never drink the stuff) hoping to get some electrolytes in but it did little. That's when I remembered that all this time I had been carrying my Hammer Gels and had refused to eat them because my appetite didn't feel like it. These things are scientifically designed to replace electrolytes and fuel fatigued muscles, so what the blaze was I trying to do fuelling myself with my own concoction of potatoes, coke and Bar-one? I don't usually have gels without water but I had no choice this time so I started sipping slowly on a Vanilla. With every little bit I took in, I felt the muscles in my legs start working again. My energy levels picked up and I started passing people. From 7km to go I managed to run the whole way to the finish which was a huge achievement for me as I hadn't managed to put 7km together in about 3 hours and last year these last 7km were the worst especially the last 2km from when you hit the M3 and get blasted by the 2 sneaky finishing hills. So clearly my mistakes were not eating enough early which resulted in intense blood sugar lows which I think I tried to replace with high carbohydrate fuel sources which got me onto a blood sugar roller coaster. What I should have done is from the start, eat slowly and steadily with little regard for the taste but rather be more focused on the fact that I am getting food in for a 5 hour period...much the same as what students would do when presented with 5 hours of free food.

5. The bad times make the good times better

I have read and watched many interviews with Ryan Sandes where he talks about how in his ultra distance races he goes through some major low patches but what gets him through is knowing that on the other side of those lows, there will be a high. And generally the lower the low patch is, the higher the resulting high is. I don't think I have ever really run long enough to experience this but I felt in this race, for the first time, just a glimpse of what he means. Generally all my other long distance events have followed a similar script of running for as long as I can and when I hit the low, I shuffle, walk, crawl to the finish. In this race my low started quite early and lasted quite long and when I first started struggling I thought my race was over. I watched disappointingly as my average pace slowly increased and my final time calculations moved from 'sub-5' to 'beat last year' to 'bronze medal' to 'finish'. The 49km point gave me a nice surprise. I really enjoyed the last 7km and even managed to sing along to 'American Pie' as I ran through the mass of supporters near Kirstenbosch. I was excited when I came into UCT not because of my time as I was way over my goal time and 5 minutes slower than last year, but because I managed to fight my over that low patch to the point where, if I had to, I could have kept on running. This lesson is one that I am hoping will stay with me for a long time and when I feel exhausted in future races, I just need to remind myself that that feeling will pass and some good times are just around the corner...or around the next 5 corners...well at some point it will get better. Added to this, was finding out at the finish line that El Hoborino had annihilated the sub-5 and came in at 4h52 even dropping the 5 hour bus going up Constantia Nek. Knowing that he could do this made me even more motivated for next year and I will be there alongside him next year earning a Sainsbury medal. Although this year was a bad race for me, next year will be a good one and it will be so much better having learnt these lessons.

A few stats from my race this year

A tale of 2 halfs

First half:    02:24:54
Second half:    03:08:04

Last year vs this year

KM 2014 2013
0 00:00:00 00:00:00
28 02:24:54 02:27:47
42 03:55:42 03:49:06
50 04:56:01 04:47:22
56 05:32:58 05:28:30

A picture of a bad pacing strategy

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