Training Day - Running On Empty
2022 Humanity Direct Amersham 50k / 30 miles: 5 March 2022
“Race your strengths, train your weaknesses”.
Following last month’s Pilgrim Challenge and the degree to which I found the second day much tougher than the first day, it was clear to me that one of my weaknesses was recovery and running while fatigued. With that in mind, I approached the Amersham 50k race last weekend with a very different approach from that which I usually have for ultra races. With three large multi-day races coming up in April, May and June – the 300km Northern Traverse, the 400km Cape Wrath Ultra and the 430km Summer Spine Race – I wanted to use the Amersham 50k as a training run, with a particular focus on “training my weaknesses”.
For a 50k race I would normally have a 3-4 day taper period beforehand to allow the benefits of previous training to come through and make sure that my body is fresh for the race, so that I can deliver the fastest possible performance on the day. This time round though, I came into the race with no taper whatsoever, with 30 miles / 50km running and 5000m of vertical gain over the previous 7 days as well as 4 hours of badminton (2 hours of which were the evening right before the race) and 3 strength and plyo sessions. It was no wonder that when I woke up on the Saturday morning, my initial instinct was to hit the ‘snooze’ button and have a late lie-in. But by 8am I was turning off the motorway and pulling into Dr Challoner’s School in Amersham, the start and finish point of the 50k loop that made up the Humanity Direct 50k race.
I had done the race before in 2019, and it is a favourite of mine as it is where I recorded my fastest ever 50k trail run time, 5h26m. Given how my training has been going these past few months, with a full taper I might have been looking to get a new Personal Best, maybe somewhere around 5h15m. With no taper, and a hard training week behind me, it was tough to know what a ‘good’ time would be. On Day 2 of the Pilgrim Challenge, I was 25% slower than on the first day, but I probably was not as fatigued now as I was then, so maybe 15% slower would be a good estimate, suggesting 6h should be my target. That said, it had been raining pretty much throughout February, so the course would be in a much muddier condition, and I was carrying a heavier pack to simulate what it would be like on a longer multi-day race, so maybe even 6h was an optimistic target. I'd also decided to not wear any knee supports, to see how my newfound knee strength held up, and while I was carrying some mud spikes, I resolved not to use them so that I could practice running on slippery mud with my Hoka Speedgoats (which are notoriously bad in the mud). So I had plenty of excuses for running a slow time!
In any case, after knocking back some coffee and Madeleine sponge cakes (my pre-race breakfast of choice nowadays), I went over to the start line just after 9am and by 9.10am was on my way.
Although the course runs through the Chilterns, it has only 3-4 major hills, all of which are long but gentle enough to be runnable on the downhills, with the rest of the course being undulating but largely flat. The terrain has a fair amount of road in it, but also a lot of farmland and tracks, some of which are dry and stony due to the fast-draining chalk soil of the Chilterns, but others which can get extremely muddy.
The first section comprises a long downhill run from the school down to Amersham village, and already I could see that the ground was very muddy in parts – I was wearing waterproof socks, so could happily splash through even the deepest of mud puddles, but grip was going to be a problem on any muddy patches where there was a sideways slope. After a couple of kilometres, I found that my GPS watch appeared to be malfunctioning and wasn’t showing the course on the map screen even though I had selected the course and pressed ‘go’ back at the start. I spent a few minutes trying to sort it out, before finally taking a leaf out of the IT help desk approach and just turning it off and on again. Eventually I got it to work and was on my way again, although now how to make a mental note to add a couple of extra km to all my distance measurements.
The first 10km or so of the race is flat and on good trails, so I was able to maintain a good pace – I reached the first checkpoint at Great Missenden (12km) pretty much bang on 1h10m – and although my legs were a little bit sluggish at first, I could sense that I had strength in reserve in my quads and hamstrings, the benefit of all the strength and plyo work that I had been doing over the past few months. After Great Missenden, there is a small climb back up the escarpment followed by a long gentle descent into Chesham and the second checkpoint at around the 19km point. It was quite a cool day, and I was carrying far more fluids than I needed, so didn’t particularly feel the need to stop at any of the checkpoints. The route passed through the busy Chesham village high street, past the station and then over the railway bridge before the steepest climb of the day, zig-zagging up through Jacob’s Ladder Woods before then dropping back down to the River Chess at the bottom of the eponymously named Chess Valley.
The following section to CP3 was by far the muddiest of the whole route, and at 14km was also the longest section, so while it was very flat as it followed the Chess Valley Walk, and picturesque as it passed through the villages of Latimer and Chenies, it was not necessarily easy going. I stopped briefly at CP3, only to find that one of my water bottles had leaked and was now empty – not a disaster given that I was carrying plenty of water, but it did mean that my waist pack was now covered in its contents and was drying to form a coating of sticky gunk. It was now 4 hours into the race, and while I had passed a number of slower runners, I had also been overtaken by a number of the elite runners who had started 30 minutes later. I kept on telling myself that this was a practice run, not a race, but it’s always hard to switch off that competitive psychology when you’re actually in the middle of a race. I had certainly slowed down quite a bit on the last section – 2h for 14km – but I consoled myself that it was the muddy ground as much as anything else.
I upped my pace a bit for the next hour but by now was beginning to feel my lower back tighten up, as well the bursitis in my left Achilles beginning to flare up, probably due to overloading them over the course of the previous week and then not warming up properly before the race. After passing through the last checkpoint in Chalfont St Giles, the course follows some exposed open farmland where the wind picked up and it started to rain again. I decided against stopping to put on waterproofs, as it was just light drizzle, but it was cold and I put on gloves, hat and buffs again to try and keep warm, even as I slowed my pace to a half-jog / half-hike. After passing through Amersham village, we re-traced our way back up the hill towards the school, and I summoned up the energy to break into a fast(ish) run for the final kilometre to the finish line, creeping in at 5h59m, just under my 6h target time.
I had some very mixed feelings following the race. On the plus side, it was great to be on the trails again only 4 weeks after my last race, getting some much-needed mileage and ‘hours on feet’ under my belt; it was also good to try out a heavy-ish pack on fatigued legs, recreating the conditions I would likely face on some of the forthcoming races. I definitely learnt that my recovery and ability to run under fatigue is improving, and that was very encouraging. And I also learnt that using a heavy waist pack seems to put quite a bit of a strain on my lower back, probably because of the asymmetry in the way the weight is distributed on the back creates a twisting effect on the belt itself. So I’ve decided for the time being to abandon that approach and instead use a slightly bigger 15l backpack with built-in waist belt (the OMM 15l ultra), which seems to lead towards a more balanced load distribution between hips, chest and shoulders. I’ll be testing that out on my trail runs in Kent in the coming weeks.
On the negative side, I was annoyed with myself for getting tired in the last couple of hours, and for allowing myself to ‘take my foot off the gas’. Given I was fatigued, it was understandable, but I would have felt happier with myself if I’d have kept pushing hard through that tough 32-48km section. Still, I can’t be too unhappy, as I still managed to finish with a sub-6h time despite having had no recovery all week, and I reckon that I could have put in a 5h15 or so performance if I had been fresh and running with just a light pack.
I now have just a few weeks before the 190 mile / 300km Northern Traverse on 2 April and have a fair amount of nervous excitement about it. Non-stop multi-day races have a completely different feel to 50k ultras – a little bit like the difference between a marathon and a 5k Parkrun – and the combination of some big climbs and descents in the Lake District, multiple night sections, boggy and wild terrain in the Yorkshire Dales and the inevitable effects of sleep deprivation towards the end all make for a completely different set of challenges. Training has generally gone well, and this 50k has been an important part of the training plan, but there are still a few weeks left to fine tune all the preparations.
As a side note, this was my 14th Ultra and Number 6 of the races in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate). This brings up 411 miles, so less than 600 miles to go - the next 3 races average over 200 miles each, so a big 3 months ahead !